A Dolphin Free Zone at the Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize

John Neylon reviews the Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize 2016, and finds a compelling examination of the beauty of natural systems and species.

Sometimes ducks do line up across the pond. The decision to co-schedule three high-profile visual art events;  the Fleurieu Art Prize at Samstag Art Museum, the Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize at SA Museum and the the FUSE Glass Prize at JamFactory (now concluded) is evidence that Adelaide can occasionally come to its collective senses. We’re too small and too smart not to see value in cross marketing and strategic partnerships – even a whole new ball game if the current debate around town about funding contemporary art cares to look to the future and not at the past. It’s a story dreams are made of. Country Mouse (Fleurieu Art Prize) comes to the city and meets Kissing Cousins. Audiences in search of high adventure will get their kicks at Samstag ; Beauty tragics try FUSE and the Waterhouse…?

Julia-deVille-waterhouse-prize-adelaide-reviewJulia deVille, Neapolitan Bonbonaparte

Well, like the Fleurieu, it’s been in rehab for a couple of years and been rebooted as a new improved model, now biennial with some nicking and tucking to allow for digital and video media in the open section. Gosh it seems like only 2002 when the project was first launched that the field was evenly balanced between cheeky art that appeared to treat nature as an open cut mine and the ‘real’ artists, the natural history illustrators. Well the following year’s winning entry, a crucified baboon no less, put paid to any idea of peaceful coexistence.

mark-judd-waterhouse-prize-adelaide-reviewMark Judd, A maquette for fish reproduction

Gradually the limners of plant roots and seed pods have retired to quieter corners – reminders, like the stalwart souls gazing at real landscapes in the Fleurieu down the road (and around McLaren Vale) of ancestral origins. The Waterhouse is touted as some kind of art-science fusion, with artists being encouraged to present perspectives on scientific issues facing the planet. Great spin, but the real test of the Waterhouse is whether any work could survive being relocated from the cocoon of a thematic exhibition and survive as art. That’s a tough question, because it assumes that there are still various tick boxes that identify the ‘artness’ of any object – apart from resembling other objects conventionally recognised as such.

John-Graham-Open-waterhouse-prize-adelaide-reviewJohn Graham, Endangered (in the wild)

A case in point is the plethora of still lifes in the Fleurieu’s Food and Art Prize (currently at various wineries around McLaren Vale). After the 20th encounter with apples, tomatoes, grapes or turnips rendered according to a lockstep formula of raking light from the right, cast shadow to the left, reflected light in between and translucency bravura for garnish, it is evident that making a work of art is more that painting by numbers. Mercifully, quite a number of Waterhouse finalists have accepted the challenge of creating visually engaging works rather than settling for pie-chart bashing regarding endangered species and so on. Having said that, there are some individual works that engage convincingly with conservation issues and the like. This group includes Dan Power’s G(RAZED), as described in this review, Katie Keast’s witty extrapolation of a dung beetle metaphor using recycled materials, Push it uphill and Lee Harrop’s ironically inscribed mining core samples, Here lies truth ii.

Dan-Power-Emerging-Artist_G(RAZED)-waterhouse-prize-adelaide-reviewDan Power, G(RAZED)

Apart from such stylish rather than strident commentary, the 2016 Waterhouse is a conservative field, high in respect for sources and attention to technical polish. But as a doorway through which large numbers of general public viewers will pass and appreciate something, such as humanity’s relationship with the other bits of the biosphere or the power of art to invoke a sense of beauty, it delivers. There’s always a winner, and hopefully those scratching their heads over Julia deVille’s not-so-free-range chicks in a spoon (Neapolitan Bonbonaparte) will be curious enough to check out the artist’s very entertaining site to get an informed understanding of her practice. Dan Power won the Emerging award with G(RAZED), a bull’s skull engraved with a complex tracery of native animal illustrations. The conservation message is simple and compelling. Equally to the point, the work has a visual presence and an uncertain, complex identity – gruesome but weirdly beautiful. Now that’s art territory. A bolder artist might have mounted this skull onto a bull bar with an NT number plate underneath. The concept and the visuality is tough enough to take this kind of treatment.

andrew-sullivan-survey-into-cretaceous-waterhouse-prize-adelaide-reviewAndrew Sullivan, A survey into the Cretaceous (art, science, knowledge and wisdom)

Similar ‘what are you looking at’ messages are coming from Andrew Sullivan’s crows, A survey into the Cretaceous (art, science, knowledge and wisdom) picking at a dinosaur skull on a wooden CHEP palette. Mark Judd’s A maquette for fish reproduction, a scale model projection of species rebuilding intuitively conspires with Sullivan’s proposition using surrealist visual devices that would make Max Ernst proud. Perhaps the Waterhouse’s greatest gift to its community is to reveal the extraordinary beauty and complexity of natural systems and species, be they expressed as skeletal structure, camouflage, form or pattern – things that can disappear almost overnight at the scrape of a dozer blade or flush of a storm water drain. The Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize 2016 South Australian Museum Until Sunday, July 31 waterhouse.samuseum.sa.gov.au Images: Courtesy South Australian Museum

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