Installation view of “Limitless Horizon: Vertical Perspective,” Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2017. Courtesy Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. 

Limitless Horizon: Vertical Perspective

Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

In her 2011 essay, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” German artist Hito Steyerl considers the increasing ubiquity of top-down views in our comprehension and visualisation of the world. The means for this pervasive perspective, Steyerl argues, has been fuelled by the advent of familiar technologies like Google Earth and drones—military systems now normalised through everyday applications. Steyerl traces the progression from a horizontal to vertical point of view via the Renaissance, arguing that the European focus on mimetic representation functioned as a soft power tool to establish a position of intellectual dominance in comparison to alternative means of depiction from non-European cultures. Steyerl’s essay functioned as one of a number of inspirations for the curator of “Limitless Horizon: Vertical Perspective,” Ellie Buttrose, and the result is a show that provided a broad, cross-cultural survey of the roles and purposes of perspective within art.

CHARLES and RAY EAMES, Powers of Ten, 1977, still from digitalized 35 mm film with sound: 9 min. Copyright and courtesy Eames office, LLC

JUNEBUM PARK, 1 Parking, 2001-02, still from video with sound: 5 min 25 sec. Courtesy the artist and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. 

Presented at the Gallery of Modern Art, the exhibition began with a linear display of works that functioned as a prelude to the main exhibition space. The first to greet viewers was Powers of Ten (1977), a video by American designers Charles and Ray Eames. Inspired by the 1957 book Cosmic View: The Universe in Forty Jumps by Dutch educator Kees Boeke, the film visualises the concept of scale by zooming outwards from an image of two figures picnicking in Chicago to the edge of the known universe, before rewinding on a voyage back to the meal, this time closing in on one of the figure’s hands until the frame rests on the level of a carbon atom, predicting—even trumping—the scalability of publicly-accessible mapping technologies today. Powers of Ten was presented alongside South Korean artist Junebum Park’s single-channel video 1 Parking (2001-02), a playful view of an urban carpark from a few metres above. Human hands interrupt the scene, appearing to be moving each car as they drive in and out, evoking an all-powerful god’s field of vision.

TSUNEMASA KAWAMATASix-fold Screen: Cherry Blossom at Yasaka-Jinja, Kyoto, c. 18th century, ink, colors and gold on appaer on six-fold wooden framed screen, 158 × 356 cm. Courtesy Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

QUEENIE MCKENZIE, Texas Hills, 1994, natural pigments with archival binder on linen, 203 × 233.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. 

From this point, Buttrose began to toy with and acknowledge the uneasy dynamic between pre-modern Western art’s infatuation with horizontal, linear views, and that of a more expansive comprehension of the world. Early 20th century Australian painter Elioth Gruner’s Morning Mists (c.1920) eradicates the visual anchor of the horizon by way of the work’s eponymous fog: a steamboat floats in the centre of the painting, struggling for orientation. Pushing this impulse further (quite literally), pioneering Australian video artists Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy shove a small video camera through grass and debris in Pushing a camera over a hill (1971–72). The skyline is largely obstructed, and our hearing dominated by the harsh rustling of the microphone against the plant matter. In the adjacent, main gallery space, visitors’ views jostled and jumped between the American pop aesthetics of Ed Ruscha’s Vine Intersects Four Other Streets (2003), Japanese ukiyo-e artist Kawamata Tsunemasa’s 18th century Six-fold Screen: Cherry Blossom at Yasaka-Jinja, Kyoto, and Indigenous Australian artist Queenie McKenzie’s painting Texas Hills (1994). The connections that Buttrose drew between these works detailed the socio-cultural influences that temper each artist’s engagement with perspective, yet also allowed for rewarding dialogues between their approaches.

MAVIS NGALLAMETTA, Ngak-pungarichan (Clearwater), 2013, synthetic polymer paint and natural pigments with synthetic binder on canvas, 200 × 290 cm. Courtesy the artist and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. 

The inclusion of a number of works by Indigenous Australian artists including McKenzie, Mavis Ngallametta, George Tjungurrayi, and Brisbane-based Judy Watson grounded “Limitless Horizon” importantly within its local context and provided a powerful rebuke to dominant colonial depictions of Australia. The application of vertical perspectives for the documentation of environmental degradation offered one of the exhibition’s strongest thematics, linking Ngallametta’s painting Ngak-pungarichan (Clearwater) (2013), which maps the complex and important waterways in the artist’s ancestral country that have been affected by climate change, with video documentation of the damage made to Tasmanian old growth forests in Constantly changing ecosystems narrative (2010) by Sydney-based artist Raquel Ormella. The environmental and colonial coalesce in the exhibition’s standout work: Bougainville-born, Sydney-based Taloi Havini’s Habitat (2017), a three-channel video which comprises multiple perspectives including drone footage of the environmental devastation of Havini’s birthplace, a result of Australian mining operations conducted from 1972 to 1989 without proper permission from the land’s matrilineal owners. Over the top of the images of electric blue mining run-off, Havini imposes mineral maps used presumably to guide excavations. As a conclusion for “Limitless Horizon,” Habitat offered a panoply of views of a subject that demands our inspection, and like the exhibition itself, a fresh perspective. 

TALOI HAVINI, Hako People, 2017, still from three-channel HD video with surround sound: 10 min 40 sec. Courtesy the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane. 

“Limitless Horizon: Vertical Perspective” is on view at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until March 25, 2018. 

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