MoMento 16: Geography and Travel

MoMento 16: Geography and Travel

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PhotoForum MoMento 16: Geography and Travel

Conor Clarke, Anton Maurer, Talia Smith, Zhang Chao, Zhang Kechun, essay by Christine McFetridge, designed and edited by Shelley Jacobson.

Published by PhotoForum, December 2014

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If Progress had a Sound

Christine McFetridge

… through metaphor to reconcile

the people and the stones.

—William Carlos Williams, A Sort of Song

In a dimly lit gallery across the hall from the replica Allosaurus skeleton at the Canterbury Museum, the world hangs from the ceiling. With walls lined with glass cases containing crystals and geodes, one can climb down a stepped recess in the centre of the room and look up at the reliable counter-clockwise spin of ocean, island, continent. When I was a child, I’d lie underneath this Earth turning on its axis with a soft hum, carefully following the contours of peak and vale that began with the Antarctic desert; points on the map transformed by the notion I would one day visit them all.

Considering geography and travel in the history of art immediately brings to mind Friedrich’s  Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818); a view of the natural world seen from an elevated position to demand our awe and respect. Similarly, characteristics of landscape photography inspire these sentiments. Robert Adams advocates the value of looking at such pictures because, rather than being ‘pointless nostalgia’, they remind the viewer of ‘what could in some measure be ours again.’ The photographs of Conor Clarke, Anton Maurer, Talia Smith, Zhang Chao and Zhang Kechun emphasise that geography is fundamental to the way we interact with and understand our natural environment.

Though the images featured here convey the present day consequences of decades past, they nod with retrospect to a time of humanity’s reliance on the land without an increasing sense of entitlement. Here the human element exists only as background noise, implicit, seen mostly through previous actions, rhythmic like the ‘ghosts of … breath coming and going on … glass’; construction, discarded objects and old cuts that now heal to scars in the earth.

The built elements in Anton Maurer’s photographs seem distinctly out of place in their respective surroundings. In Devon Park Apartments particularly, the building at the centre of the composition sticks out like a figurative sore thumb. Infrastructure creeps through  Victoria Park Flyover behind three established oak trees. By showing concern for the original people of the land, the effects of colonisation and the continued and projected development of Auckland in Red Letter Days, Maurer’s photographs emphasise our reliance on geography and how essential it is that we’re appreciative of this.

By comparison, Zhang Chao’s depiction of the built landscape seems more familiar because it is the dominant feature of his body of work, Xian Tianxia—Home . The swift growth in population throughout China has necessitated a similarly rapid demolition and expansion of housing and infrastructure. Apartment-complex eyesores crowd Zhang’s unfeeling city. Here industry is employed purposefully, but it is entirely unsympathetic to a country deeply attached and beholden to traditions of long ago, as visible in the juxtaposition of Rockery and Crane and Ding.

Elements of the forgotten, the misplaced and the repurposed are present in the photographs of Talia Smith. Lead us out, lead us out quietly  records areas that have been used at one time or another for development or industry but have since become redundant. They’re places you might walk past without giving a second thought, but Smith, who is fascinated by their histories, gives significance to them.

She shows us that over time land takes on new meaning, manipulated by those who inhabit it. Or, indeed, those who don’t. Nature allowed to assert itself.

Conor Clarke reimages scenes usually associated with being damaging to the environment in terms of the picturesque. Images from In Pursuit of the Object, at the Proper Distance  give rise to a sense of feeling that evokes Steiglitz’s Equivalents. As in Smith’s work, Clarke’s photographs convey how our demands and requirements of our geography as a society change and the resultant built landscape. Industrial structures have the capacity to dominate a landscape, creating a sense of alienation and fostering a desire to return to a simpler way of life.

This desire to return can be seen in Zhang Kechun’s photographic love song The Yellow River . Using River of the North  by Zhang Chengzhi as a point of departure, Zhang records his movements and encounters up and down the Yellow River in China, stressing the negative effects of agriculture, globalisation and increased population on the environment. The images are otherworldly; A House in the Middle of the Sea could easily be a scene from a dream. As the tide washes over stones at the river’s edge, audible above the hammer in The River Seen from a Construction Site , Kechun is hopeful that society will seek a more nourishing relationship with the earth.

There is an important distinction to be made between retrospect and nostalgia here, too. Retrospect suggests clarity of thought; of knowledge gained through the experience of past events. The act of looking back in these photographs is not done so through rose-tinted lenses; it is a rational rather than emotional consideration. The artists included here make objective observations, depicting progress and the championing of our geography, emphasising to us ‘changes that have made the past irretrievable.’ Look carefully and listen. The once soft hum of humanity grows ever louder.



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Conor Clarke

Conor is originally from Clarks Beach, Auckland, and

graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts in 2005.

Her current work is concerned with the post-industrial

picturesque, romanticism, travel and experience. She lives in


Anton Maurer

Anton is an Auckland based photographer. His work has

been exhibited in New Zealand and Germany and recently

published in DPhoto, Excerpt and Incandescent magazines.

He was a finalist in the 2014 National Contemporary Art


Christine McFetridge

Christine is a photographer, writer and curator specifically

interested in photobooks and Australasian photo-media

practice within local and international contexts. She

graduated from the University of Canterbury School of

Fine Arts in Christchurch in 2012 and is currently based in


Talia Smith

Talia is a New Zealand born artist, writer and curator

currently based in Sydney, Australia. She has exhibited

her work widely throughout New Zealand and Australia.

Her photographic and video practice examines the traces

and marks left on the landscape by human interaction,

acknowledging that these sites have histories and stories

that need to be told – no matter how small or humble.

Zhang Chao

Chao completed his MA at the China Central Academy

of Fine Arts, Beijing, in 2014. Work from his Xian Tianxia

series was included in the Yan Huang Art Museum 2014

group exhibition Starting Point. Chao is a Lecturer at the

School of Art and Design, Hubei University of Technology.

Zhang Kechun

Born in Bazhong, Sichuan Province, China, Kechun is

a freelance photographer based in Chengdu, Sichuan

Province. He is the author of The Yellow River (Jiazazhi

Press, 2014). In 2014 he was the recipient of the Recontres

d’Arles Discovery Award and the winner of the Daylight

Photo Awards.