Landscapes | Kyla McFarlane


Driving east out of Melbourne, I often breathe a sigh of relief when the long drift of suburbia finally opens out into rolling hills and farmland. Further beyond, the first glimpse of the massive power stations that inhabit Gippsland’s La Trobe Valley always brings with it a small shock. Their steaming towers and the gaping scar of the open-cut mines that fuel them are awe-inspiring, an instance of industrial sublime that keeps the distant city alive. This valley, a pocket of beauty met with bleakness, is a landscape rich in opportunity for Melbourne artist Siri Hayes. 

With an eye to the romantic sublime and another on the burgeoning urban sprawl, Hayes’ photographic landscapes are both poetic and down-at-heel. Drawing on a wide range of influences, her theatrical, expansive compositions explore our relationship to land and locality. Her eyes are also wide open, alert to both the romance of representation and the impact of human inhabitation.

In a week-long residency at Monash University’s Gippsland Centre for Art and Design, Hayes collaborated with students, staff and locals in a series of photographic shoots taken en plein air. Meanings and metaphors pile up in these photographs, which reiterate a myriad of European landscape traditions along with Australia’s own history of representation after colonisation. They provoke smiles of recognition of an art historical roll-call of artists and pictorial conventions – Poussin’s ordered stage, Buvelot’s borrowed paysage intime, the green-grey poetry of late Corot and Nolan’s modernist planes …

These landscapes are not just exercises in allusion, however.  Nor do they simply document the way we live now. For Hayes, landscape is a stage upon which her subjects perform, often in a theatre of the absurd. Plein air explorers 2008 positions Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic wanderer as a nude model for an open-air drawing class, gathered on a hillside covered in pine saplings and the scattered remains of felled trees. As we follow the model’s gaze down into the valley, we see not a mist-covered unknown, but forest and farmland and, finally, in the distance, the cooling towers, belching steam into the sky.

In Moe Madonna 2008, the artist sits perched on a bright green milk crate in dry dirt and tufts, reading to her young son. They are a tiny burst of colour and life in a desolate flatland that stretches before them and beyond, to a horizon line marked by power pylons and eucalypts. There is something of the tender loveliness of Raphael’s Madonna of the goldfinch from the early 16th century in this image, a memory of which inspired Hayes’ staging of the photograph. It is as strange to imagine the presence of the Madonna and child in Gippsland as it is in Tuscany – the former a scene of disappointment and drought, the latter a rocky Florentine vista inhabited by thinly rendered trees.

Hayes’ suite of Gippsland photographs are exhibited alongside earlier projects taken at Merri Creek in Melbourne, and Wilson’s Promontory and Phillip Island on the Victorian Coast. At Merri Creek, Hayes staged a Lyric theatre amidst plastic bags and other assorted bits of rubbish that accumulate in this inner-urban waterway. The weeping willows featured in these photographs are weeds, imports on a site believed to be the place where a treaty between John Batman and the Wurundjeri people was signed in 1835.

On the coast, at Wilson’s Promontory and Phillip Island on Gippsland’s coastal border, Hayes walks us into the wind-blown trees. ‘The Prom’ is a paradise, a national park fondly held in the public imagination as a wilderness. Here, in 2005, a fuel reduction burn that sprang out of control lit up Mount Oberon, leaving scorched earth. Hayes photographs, taken in 2006, reanimate that landscape’s sense of mystery and unbridled energy. In Lure, small instruments are hung on tree branches deep into the picture, beckoning us into the wild.

The contested histories of representation and colonisation ensure that landscapes are never neutral.  At Gippsland, Hayes sought to make an image that recognised the long term presence of its indigenous population in a landscape dominated by industry and use. In Gunnai man land 2008, a local man performs a dance on a dirt road for a fallen eucalyptus tree. The power station lies just beyond a bank of trees behind him. As witness to and recorder of this dance, Hayes photographs a scene that is both lyrical and loaded. Here and elsewhere, she is alert to the tangle of realities that converge on this land, observing our insignificance within its expanse as keenly as our urge to manipulate, inhabit and delight in it.

Kyla McFarlene