This continent may boast the most ancient landscapes on the planet, but there are new sites of creation here as well, sites where spirit and matter are still in flux, where you have no guarantee of emerging as the same person you were when you went in.
In the vibrant, volcanic tablelands between Kuranda and Atherton in far north Queensland, Dreaming stories are tangible creation histories interwoven with the empirical data of geologists, a youthful rainforest born from a volcanic tempest only ten millennia ago. Concealed beneath that verdant canopy, spirit sheds mythic frames like a serpent’s skin and twists alongside vines and strangler figs through the proud, fragile structures of settler narratives. When you walk there, you have the unsettling feeling that the place is seeing more of you than you are seeing of it.
Mamu/Ngajon artist Danie Mellor emerges from this otherworld, like a blackbird carrying shiny shells from his country, seeding images from north to south in The Landspace: [all the debils are here], his latest exhibition at Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne. This collection of snake-eye view photography in infrared reveals hidden dimensions coexisting in that dappled forest light, multiple worlds unseen in the mundane spectrum of human sight, combining modern photography with the archival images and cultural objects of his ancestral peers.
Danie says the infrared spectrum offers scientific evidence of the existence of realities beyond what our eyes can see, potentially validating Aboriginal cosmologies. ‘It is proof – here is an unseen world of presence and knowledge and phenomena.’ Evolutionary biologists say that humans can see more varieties of green than any other colour, as a survival mechanism to identify predators hiding in grasses and undergrowth. It is deliciously unnerving to be stripped of this ancestral defence system as you view Danie’s infrared jungle.
Sometimes when you visit the tiger enclosure at the zoo, you can’t see the predator at first, and when you spot him hidden in the ferns, you realise with a start that he has been watching you all along. Be prepared for Danie’s work to stalk you in the same way, because indeed, ‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here.’ You may be blissfully viewing a landscape scene and suddenly notice eyes, then a shoulder, and then (much too late) that shaking spear. Skulls are sequestered throughout, but this story of tragedy cuts both ways. Watch your back when you first enter – a woven funerary basket is hovering in a clearing behind you like some unthinkable palaeolithic ghost technology, an ancient drone waiting to seize you in its Pleiadean pincers.
Next, The Song Cycle consists of four panels depicting a late wet season waterfall scene. Rock, tree, water, human figures. Ripples. You are disturbing something, intruding as you view it. Danie tells me what I am having trouble naming, describing it perfectly as ‘ruffling something in their world.’ The Indigenous subjects have agency, returning gaze from within the frame, laden with that enquiry which forms the cornerstone of Indigenous protocol: ‘Who are you? Where you going?’ Reflections in the water offer a clue to decoding the visual and cultural language of the entire exhibition, which involves perceiving the gallery space itself as part of the artwork. The old man standing in the water directs you to look downwards, to what lies beneath your feet.
The laws of thermodynamics become confused here, and the arrow of time is shattered as you realise that these compositions were formed with the reflective, black floors of this particular gallery as part of the frame. But you know the photographs were taken in a different time and place, and you struggle to sequence this process while puzzling over a jumble of inverted letters on an aluminium panel, decipherable only when you look at the reflected image on the floor.
In that moment the timeline clicks into place, but it is anything but linear. Through Danie’s lens, you get to stand in two different places and moments at once. Or three or four, depending on how many layers of that red jungle you are capable of navigating without losing yourself. A good anchor-point might be to ponder on how this piece sits in dialogue with Juan Davila’s Utopia.
Several such parallels are drawn with the work of non-Indigenous masters, connecting with and subtly disrupting the narrative of Australian art history. For example, The Landstory, a nine-panel diasec mounted chromogenic print on metallic photographic paper, echoes Sid Nolan’s Riverbend, which had a profound effect on Danie when he first viewed it. ‘There was a depth, a ghostliness that stayed with me,’ he says.
Danie is reworking the modernism injected into landscapes by artists like Nolan and Boyd, reimagining frames and cultural lenses to enhance the relevance and inclusivity of the genre. He describes it not as an act of decolonisation, but as a ‘meeting point between Indigenous stories of place and institutional art history.’ In this work, language itself is his canvas, as he inserts the Aboriginal English ‘debil’ into a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and rebrands ‘landscape’ as ‘Landspace‘.
Danie describes Landspace as a departure from both traditional and modern landscape forms, in that it is ‘not tied down to arts histories and theories, although it is inclusive of them. It is a complete story of social and cultural histories, multiple narratives playing out in a place.’
It is a praxis more than a medium or theory, and as such is difficult to articulate. He insists it is something that you must come to over time, ‘walking country with Elders in a place over and over, eventually perceiving those unseen layers until you begin walking into, not through, the landscape. You still reference the passing of time, but it is not time-based – it is a continuity formed through relations, an intimacy with place.’
That intimacy with place, connection to country, is not something that simply drops onto you from the sky. It takes a lot of work and is a particularly tough struggle within the confines of urban environments and bodily schema that don’t quite match the archival photos of your ancestors. But luckily Danie Mellor has done that work for us in The Landspace: [all the debils are here], enabling all visitors to stand in overlapping times and places, dangerous spaces, journeying beyond fight or flight and emerging unscathed, but certainly changed.