Review: Bowness Prize 2018, Monash Gallery of Art

Paul Isbel

The Bowness Photography Prize is a contemporary collection of stories in pictures told by Australians at home and abroad, making the visual vocal.
Review: Bowness Prize 2018, Monash Gallery of Art

Darren SYLVESTER, IKEA sunrise  2018 (detail), chromogenic prints, 120 x 160 cm (each),courtesy of the artist, Neon Parc (Melbourne) and Sullivan+Strumpf (Sydney).

A visit to the Monash Gallery of Art to view the works of the 50 finalists in the 2018 William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize is to witness the extremes of the possibilities of the photograph and to sense its intense impacts. As you move from image to image, you move from colour to black and white, from the personal to the political, or the social and the cultural, and, in their diverse techniques, you move along a sliding scale from the experimental to the more traditional.

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These are highly individual works that between them have little in common other than their artistic instrument of choice, the camera.

That doesn’t mean to say that some works don’t converse with others, and in their own way all of them add to the national conversation of identity and inclusion, but their origins lie entirely in the individual artistic agenda of the entrants.

The challenge to the curator is to draw from such different images and styles to create a narrative that runs as a thread, pulling them all together to give the exhibition its own character out of so many parts. So credit to curator Pippa Milne for finding the right place for each to tell their story, to make the visual vocal and to amplify the power of the image.

Not all of the images sit easily with one another, but a surprising number of them do in the way they are arranged, and some call across the rooms to each other through shared interests. Māori-Australian photographer and weaver Kirsten Lyttle, and First Nations photographers Leah King-Smith and Michael Cook make statements about Indigenous identity and history on different walls.

Lyttle turns flat photographs into a three-dimensional woven cloak as a point of pride and prestige, inverting the camera of colonialism into a tribute to Māori tradition in Gundulu/Emu kākahu huruhuru, using pigment ink-jet print and cotton twine. Leah King-Smith uses a camera, a mirror, a scanner and photo-editor to return her mother to ancestral country in a ‘retelling’ of a photo taken by her father in Baby, a pigment ink-jet print from the series Dreaming Mum again. Michael Cook’s pigment ink-jet print Telephone is a sharp satire that imagines alien Australian fauna invading urban England in a scene that references Hitchcock’s The Birds in a reverse of history.

Kirsten LYTTLE, Gundulu/Emu kākahu huruhuru  2018, from the series Digital mana pigment ink-jet print, cotton twine, 118.0 x 143.0 cm, courtesy of the artist, reproduction by J Forsyth.

On a wall of their own, in direct dialogue, are two aerial photographs. On the left is a wispy, almost ethereal pastel of evaporation over Lake Torrens by John Gollings that talks of the fragility of the driest continent, which is the opposite of the highlands of Iceland in Natalya Stone’s Exhiliration on the right, which is resolutely solid, the volcanic rocks like claws in the ice and snow.

The more experimental works play with form and function. In Samuel Szwarcbord’s Exquisite Corpse 1-20, the image-maker is not a camera but screenshots of Grindr profiles in dye sublimation prints on aluminium with acrylics, stretched in folds along a wall of their own. In the chromogenic print Scale, Justine Varga records her domestic days on a strip of film that creates a calendar of colour.

Amanda Williams also investigates the effects of time in the gelatin silver print Cooleman Plain Karst, Kosciuszko National Park (Ghost Cave 1), which is not a fixed image but one that darkens in time and in the course of time in this exhibition. Tom Blachford takes a Modernistic abode in Palm Springs that resembles a lunar module and captures the image by the sole use of moonlight in Futuro 1.

Darren Sylvester received an Honourable Mention for his consumer-constructed synthetic landscape IKEA sunrise, where two colour-saturated chromogenic prints are joined to make a false dawn of a sun that is actually an IKEA ‘Fado’ lamp and a studio-built sea lit by dry ice.

Tamara DEAN, Sacred Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) in summer  2018, from the series In our nature pigment ink-jet print, 120.0 x 160.0 cm, courtesy of the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary (Sydney).

After reducing the 700 entries to a field of 50, judges Dr Michael Brand, Director of the Art Gallery of NSW; Melbourne‐based artist Dr David Rosetzky; and Anouska Phizacklea, MGA Director were unanimous in their choice of Hoda Afshar as the winner of the $30,000 acquisitive prize for her classic black and white Portrait of Behrouz Boochani, Manus Island.

How she managed to be on Manus Island to take the image is a story in itself, but then, given such primitive conditions, how to create the image in its dark, dark depths with a wreath of smoke and a plume of flames casting some light on the subject is testament to Afshar’s command of the camera and sensitivity to the soul of the man who continues to find purpose and dignity in the most degrading of circumstances.

This is an instantly arresting, powerful piece of work that demands inspection and reflection, and perhaps some answers to the questions his blazing gaze directs at the viewer. Even allowing for the excellence of this exhibition and the high quality calibre of the entries, it is hard to imagine anybody disagreeing with this choice as a worthy and nationally significant winner.

And, to complete your visit, as a Bowness bonus you might say, in a room adjacent to the exhibition is another smaller exhibition, which is the first in a series that profiles and explores the work of former prize winners, in this case Valerie Sparks, who won in 2016.

Curated by Anouska Phizacklea, Allusion & Illusion: the fantastical world of Valerie Sparks runs concurrently with the 2018 Bowness Prize. It is a delightful and whimsical landscape that Sparks imagines, formed by a collection of her images in an incongruent but wistful world, a natural Disneyland of fantasy, at once attractive for something that never was and mournful for something that could never be.

Leah KING-SMITH, Baby  2018, from the series Dreaming Mum again, pigment ink-jet print, 105.0 x 100.0 cm, courtesy of the artist.

The Bowness Prize and this inspired additional exhibition combine to create an event in the arts calendar that should be marked as an annual fixture in your year.

4 ½ stars ★★★★☆
William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize 2018
Curator Pippa Milne
29 September – 18 November 2018
Monash Gallery of Art 

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

Paul Isbel is a former ArtsHub contributor and a publicist for the Australasian Arts and Antiques Dealers Association. Most recently he was a course designer for an entry-level vocational training program for the arts sector.