The Art of Trying to Control Flowers

For centuries humans from different cultures have attempted to tame nature, to bring the natural world in line with agricultural imperatives and domestic aesthetics. While Europeans perfected the art of tidy hedges and decorative flower arrangements, the Japanese invented bonsai and ikebana, traditional arts that still flourish in Japan and elsewhere today.

Australia’s early European settlers were quick to clear the land, expelling native vegetation to create grazing grounds for sheep and cattle, country gardens filled with roses reminiscent of ‘home’ and oak trees that made unreasonable demands on precious water supplies. The relationship between white settlement and the landscape was most eloquently explored by cultural historian Paul Carter, who claims that ‘the colonists’ eagerness to remove every vestige of vegetation cannot be explained simply as a mistaken theory of agriculture; it expresses an overwhelming need to clear away doubt – not to make the land speak in accents all its own, but to silence the whispers, the inexplicable earth and sky tremors which always seemed to accompany colonisation. Progress, it seems, stamps the earth flat, turning it into a passive planisphere’.[1]

Treatment of the landscape as a theatrical backdrop to colonial dreams, fears and doubts is one of the most popular themes in the history of non-Indigenous Australian landscape painting. Landscape painting has always assumed a special place in Australian hearts and homes, particularly arcadian views that soften a landscape perceived as challenging and harsh. Colonial artists such as John Glover and Conrad Martens anglicised the land, subduing it for English eyes still adjusting to the light, while Fred McCubbin mythologised in sentimental narratives the hardships of early pioneer life. 

In her multimedia practice, Joan Ross draws on historical Australian landscape painting to stage a political narrative about our relationship to the land. In The Art of Trying to Control Flowers, Ross appropriates a painting by Glover and animates it. A drone emerges to inhabit Ross’s film of which the painting is but one component, a fire burns in the foreground with flames that flicker in the breeze and an ugly late 20th century house with unwelcoming garage gates sits atop a hill in the background. At one point, the colonial lady of the house, who is the film’s protagonist, snaps off a branch of one of Glover’s trademark trees to use in her ikebana arrangement.

Simon Cooper writes of the artist’s recent film collages as highlighting ‘the accumulative and ongoing degradation of the Australian landscape driven by a colonial vision of land as territory. That is, land as a resource to be possessed and exploited … For an Australian, the subject of colonial occupation and exploitation is emotionally charged, highly sensitive and lived everyday … [Ross’s] playful collaging and re-visioning of 19th century European aesthetics is a measured response to the multi-layered, often paradoxical mix of the brutal, the beautiful, the emotional and the industrial response to country that is colonialism’s legacy.’[2]

At a time when our sense of place is infused with anxieties over land rights and immigration controversies, environmental crises at home and imperial wars overseas – anxieties over the land itself – how does this tenth generation of artists since European settlement articulate its vision of our land? Joan Ross was born in Scotland, and although she has lived in New South Wales for many years, she retains the sharp perspective of an outsider. She belongs to a generation of artists who are concerned for the land and the rights of original inhabitants. Hers is the generation of higher education levels and falling birth rates, increasingly international in its background and outlook. Ross appreciates that we live on Aboriginal land in the Asia Pacific region. Her work is a wake-up call – the continuation of deteriorating conditions for Aboriginal people and the Draconian treatment of so-called ‘illegal’ refugees mean that for Australia’s oldest and potentially newest inhabitants, this is a contested rather than contented land. 

Felicity Fenner
PIAF Program Associate: Visual Arts

[1] Paul Carter (1996). The Lie of the Land. London: Faber and Faber, p9.
[2] Simon Cooper (2015). 'Country Life', People Like Us. Sydney: UNSW Galleries.