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Troubled Waters

Suellen Symons

Not unlike immersive hydro therapy, Trouble Waters is an exhibition that both cleanses with its beauty and sharpens thoughts on deeper concerns.
Troubled Waters

Detail of Andrew Belletty's series in River Journey (Troubled Waters); supplied

What do Janet Laurence, Georgia Wallace-Crabbe, Andrew Belletty, Bonita Ely, Nici Cumpston, Tamara Dean, Richard Kingsford and John Akomfrah have in common?

Simply, we are witness to a fascination by these artists, film makers and scientists about man’s impact on nature on a grand scale – caught between an expression of great beauty and troubled tensions.

This exhibition is an immersive and poetic meditation that moves from man’s relationship with the ocean – as expressed in John Akomfrah’s video Vertigo Sea – to tracing the river from its origin to the sea – beautifully expressed in Janet Lawrence’s River Journey.


But it is more than just a story of movement and flow. Starting with the premise that “Water is the planet’s most precious resource yet its health and profusion is increasingly threatened by climate change and pollution”, Troubled Waters’ River Journey has been curated by Felicity Fenner in collaboration with scientist Richard Kingsford.

Their aim was to make an inter-disciplinarian statement with some high profile art and film-makers, and to draw attention to this troubled topic.

Water becomes both a theme and a symbol in the astonishing epic video work Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah, shot on the Isle of Skye, The Faroe Islands and the northern regions of Norway.

This work was a standout at the Venice Biennale of 2015, and was based on two novels: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851) and Heathcote William’s poem Whale Nation (1988).

Having read In the Heart of the Sea - the incredible true story that inspired Moby-Dick - I am familiar with the gripping, grisly tale of whale hunting spliced with a terrible moral dilemma at its heart.

The video immerses us with authority and rich aqueous panoramas all moving at once into each other, and permeating our thoughts, our dreams and nightmares.

Meanwhile, viewers walk into Georgia Wallace-Crabbe installation with its five-channel video immersing them in its troubled nature. Wallace-Crabbe uses Daoism as a metaphoric frame to explore the economic issues that have arisen from the extraction of mineral resources from Australia to China.

The Earth and the Elements is powerful and lasting piece that explores human relationships with the natural environment.

It is beautiful but also menacing, shifting between Yin/Yang and Wu Xing - or the five elements Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. We are enthralled and horrified simultaneously. It creates an ambience of sound and vision that is subliminal.

Each artist or scientist across this exhibition has created sensitive visual and sometimes aural environments. A good example is the work of Andrew Belletty, who has created a sound installation that also employs cinema with “hardcopy” water and salt as part of his two installations.

Detail of Andrew Belletty's series in River Journey (Troubled Waters); supplied

These were extremely popular with viewers during my visits, turning the cavernous gallery space downstairs into a poignant contemplative zone. It’s the trying to work out – that is how he’s done it – that snares you, and upon learning what he has done, that intrigue deepens people’s fascination and they inevitably put their hands in his river bed.

It sits well with Bonita Ely’s work that looks at the impact of man on the Murray-Darling River system, and the pulse of the movement of the river and wetlands such as Lake Eyre, as captured by Richard Kingsford in his work Kati Thanda.

Sensuousness is a word that comes to mind when thinking of the images by Tamara Dean, her love of light and portraits in the landscape are well represented here.

Sensuality is a word that all these artists and scientists have in common. Not delicate but dangerous - marking mankind’s impact on nature.                                                        

Rating: 5 out of 5

Troubled Waters

19 August – 5 November

UNSW Galleries

Oxford Street, Paddington

Curator: Felicity Fenner

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Suellen Symons is a Redfern (Sydney) based artist and photographer. Exhibiting since the 1980s, her work is held in public and private collections.