Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Kitty Hauser

Ole­gas Truchanas,

Tent on the Fran­k­land Range, South­west Tas­ma­nia (c.1968), Queen Vic­to­ria Mu­seum and Art Gallery, Launce­s­ton. Pur­chased 1998. WHEN he took this pho­to­graph, Ole­gas Truchanas had just lost his house and most of his pos­ses­sions in a bush­fire, and he was soon to lose a lake as well.

The tent clings pre­car­i­ously to the rocky in­cline. If you fol­low the rope you can see that it runs a long way down, like the spoke of a spi­der’s web that has had to look a long way for an an­chor. It’s hard to see how any kind of level sleep­ing po­si­tion could be achieved in­side this tent, let alone any com­fort.

It’s a suit­able shel­ter for a man who has come to be seen — with good rea­son — as some­thing of a pa­tron saint to con­ser­va­tion­ists. Saints and mar­tyrs suf­fer, af­ter all: think of Simeon Stylites, whose aus­ter­ity was so ex­treme he lived on top of a pil­lar in the Syr­ian desert. But Trucha- nas was not a saint. The Lithua­nian-born artist loved be­ing in the great Tas­ma­nian out­doors, and he loved his adopted coun­try with the pas­sion of the refugee who has known real suf­fer­ing, not the self-im­posed hard­ship of the soli­tary bush­walker.

Truchanas’s suf­fer­ing oc­curred be­fore he came to Aus­tralia, dur­ing war­time, when he fought for the Lithua­nian re­sis­tance move­ment. Af­ter that, Tas­ma­nia was par­adise. On days off from his job as a clerk at the Hy­dro-Elec­tric Com­mis­sion, Truchanas would em­bark on lengthy solo trips into the un­ex­plored south­west of the is­land, on foot or with a home-made ca­noe. Tak­ing a cam­era with him, he climbed Fed­er­a­tion Peak, and he was the first to kayak the length of the Ser­pen­tine and Gor­don rivers.

Re­turn­ing from these ex­pe­di­tions, he would present il­lus­trated lec­tures, show­ing his fel­low Tas­ma­ni­ans what he had seen.

It was the pro­posed flood­ing of the re­mote Lake Ped­der that rad­i­calised Truchanas and made his slideshows more ur­gent. Al­though he was an em­ployee of the en­ter­prise that threat­ened the lake, Truchanas toured Tas­ma­nia with an au­dio­vi­sual dis­play in an at­tempt to save the place he loved. But the lake was lost, de­spite the cam­paigns of con­ser­va­tion­ists and de­spite the rec­om­men­da­tions of a be­lated federal in­quiry.

Tent on the Fran­k­land Range is a spec­tac­u­lar im­age, as art­ful as a Jeff Wall, its misty vista rem­i­nis­cent of Chi­nese land­scape paint­ing. It could hold its own in any gallery of con­tem­po­rary art.

The same could not be said of all of his pho­to­graphs. Un­like the work of his pro­tege Peter Dom­brovskis (Pub­lic Works, March 8-9), most of Truchanas’s pho­tos were taken quickly, with an or­di­nary 35mm cam­era and a “lousy” lens, which was all he could af­ford. Some of his im­ages of Lake Ped­der are like the fam­ily snaps of a tal­ented am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher — which, in a sense, is what they were. Cer­tainly he vis­ited places that very few had been to, show­ing Tas­ma­ni­ans what they had (and what they stood to lose). But as for the pho­to­graphs them­selves it was the pas­sion be­hind them that distin­guished them, their part in a nar­ra­tive of loss and hope.

Af­ter los­ing his neg­a­tives in the 1967 Ho­bart bush­fire, Truchanas set out to re­place the lost im­ages. In 1972 he re­vis­ited the Splits on the Gor­don River, and he slipped. His body was found three days later. Mytho­log­i­cally speak­ing it was a heroic if sad end, seal­ing his iden­tity as mar­tyr to the con­ser­va­tion­ist cause.

His widow, Melva Truchanas, has do­nated most of her hus­band’s 35mm slides to the Queen Vic­to­ria Mu­seum and Art Gallery. Some of Truchanas’s work, in­clud­ing the Lake Ped­der slideshows, are in­cluded in the ex­hi­bi­tion Into the Wild, which is on un­til May 25.

March 22-23, 2014

Pho­to­graphic print, 150cm x 95cm

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