LIGHT IN THE SHADOW

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christopher Allen

SO, the Egyp­tian priest ob­served to Herodotus, in your coun­try the wa­ter comes out of the sky; in ours, it comes up out of the river in the an­nual floods. Per­haps this is the rea­son the Egyp­tians imag­ined the sky as a god­dess, Nut, arch­ing over the male earth, Geb, whereas all the other cul­tures of the Mediter­ranean spon­ta­neously think of the earth as a mother (Ge or Gaia in Greek), and the sky as a male fig­ure who in­sem­i­nates her (Ou­ra­nos). And no doubt this en­vi­ron­men­tal anom­aly and the con­comi­tant pe­cu­liar­ity of Egyp­tian mythol­ogy is re­lated to an­other phe­nom­e­non that struck Herodotus, which was the re­ver­sal, in Egypt, of many of the gen­der roles with which he was fa­mil­iar.

But the story also re­minds us there are lands in which rain is al­most non-ex­is­tent, and con­se­quently where clouds too are vir­tu­ally un­known. In paint­ing, clouds are nat­u­rally more com­monly rep­re­sented in the north of Europe than in the south; clouds gen­er­ally play a less prom­i­nent role in Ital­ian Re­nais­sance art or in the clas­si­cal land­scape than in the land­scapes of 17th-cen­tury Hol­land. The flat to­pog­ra­phy of The Nether­lands leads to com­po­si­tions with a low hori­zon and vast, cloud-filled skies; and where the clas­si­cal land­scape is con­cerned with the peren­nial and cycli­cal tem­po­ral­ity of sea­sons and times of day, the Dutch land­scape is nat­u­rally dom­i­nated by the in­escapable and un­pre­dictable vi­cis­si­tudes of the weather.

This was the tra­di­tion in­her­ited by Con­sta­ble, but for him as for the later im­pres­sion­ists, the un­sta­ble mo­bil­ity of clouds was of in­ter­est in it­self, as an im­age of a new and fluid sense of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. At the same time, clouds could have other metaphor­i­cal con­no­ta­tions, par­tic­u­larly as the har­bin­gers of storms, among the most pow­er­ful metaphors in art and lit­er­a­ture. Gior­gione’s La Tem­pesta (c. 1508) is the first great mod­ern im­age of dark and threat­en­ing clouds, and there would be many more in the late 18th and early 19th cen­turies, as the ro­man­tics be­came fas­ci­nated by the power of na­ture un­leashed in storms at sea or in the moun­tains.

Th­ese are among the tra­di­tions and mem­o­ries whose traces can be dis­cerned in the cloud pho­to­graphs of Bill Hen­son — the os­ten­si­ble sub­ject of an ab­sorb­ing ex­hi­bi­tion at the Art Gallery of NSW — but he is also pro­foundly aware of an­other set of sym­bolic mean­ings, in which clouds are as­so­ci­ated with mys­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, oth­er­wordly visi­ta­tion, tran­scen­dence and epiphany. And clouds are akin also to shad­ows and dark­ness, so per­va­sively em­ployed in the ex­treme chiaroscuro of Hen­son’s com­po­si­tions.

In­deed, the small num­ber of pic­tures in a show ti­tled Cloud Land­scapes that are ex­pressly con­cerned with the phys­i­cal phe­nom­e­non should sug­gest we are be­ing in­vited to think more sym­bol­i­cally about the sub­ject of clouds, of what they rep­re­sent and of what they may con­ceal from or re­veal to us.

The im­ages, se­lected from sev­eral decades of the artist’s oeu­vre, cover most of his fa­mil­iar themes, but de­lib­er­ately present them out­side their orig­i­nal se­ries and sug­gest res­o­nances across the imag­i­nary world that Hen­son has built up pro­gres­sively through­out his ca­reer, but is here imag­ined as si­mul­ta­ne­ous, or per­haps as a puz­zle that has fi­nally been as­sem­bled and can be looked at as a whole.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is the re­sult of a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Judy An­n­ear, se­nior cu­ra­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy at the AGNSW, and Hen­son

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