In 2007 Melbourne based artist Martin King was awarded a residency at the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, after winning the gallery’s 2006 Outback Art Prize. This residency which consisted of two weeks spent in a studio in Broken Hill, provided King with the opportunity to immerse himself in the region’s landscape. For an artist whose work for many years has been informed by Australia’s spectacular arid interior, the location of the residency was bound to permeate his practice. However it was not the parched, desert-like terrain which motivated King, rather the nearby Darling River, and the flocks of black cormorants that rely on it. King, who is known as a printmaker and painter has created a work which specifically responds to the plight of the Darling River – in a series of over 100 charcoal drawings and a three and a half minute film titled slowly disappearing darling.
King’s practice has long been concerned with investigating the aesthetic and emotional experience of the natural world. For many years he focused on semi-abstract views of the landscape, describing the repetitive undulations of the earth as seen from an aerial perspective. However after a trip to South Georgia Island in late 2005, he became fascinated with the depiction of birds in flight, inspired by the plethora of avian life that inhabit this rugged, sub-Antarctic landmass off the coast of South America.
In the work resulting from the Broken Hill residency we see the motif of the bird continue. Watching the black cormorants fly over the nearby Darling River, King was motivated to create an animated, moving vision of a bird in flight, translated through the drawn image. The Darling River is in a dire environmental condition. The lack of water that it already suffered due to irrigation has been severely compounded by prolonged drought. This concern underlines the resulting work, a project that involved making over 100 frame by frame illustrations of a bird flying. Each drawing acts like a film still that when animated together form a moving picture of a bird in flight. The haunting imagery is accompanied by a sound-scape of water tricking juxtaposed with harsher scraping noises, that contextualise the journey of this solitary creature.
As within much of King’s art, rhythm and repetition aid in the steady conveyance of meaning. Here the elemental cycles of nature – night/day, rain/drought, the turning of the tides – are alluded to in the pulsing of a bird’s wings. The animation’s repetitive organic image serves as a metaphor for relationships and connection. The central metaphor being that what we take for granted, like the steady flow of a mighty river, may one day through a lack of care and concern simply dry up or cease to function. The inter-connection that the bird has to its surroundings is intrinsic to the work. One can’t exist healthily without the other. In many ways the animation speaks of disruption, and what happens when such essential connections disintegrate. When the cycle is broken. Perhaps here the metaphor for human relationships is at its most potent.
This underpinning metaphor relating to human relationships is enhanced by the fact that birds are often associated with the idea of spirit, or the spiritual part of us. This is reflected in the belief that was widespread in ancient cultures (particularly that of Egypt), that after death the human soul leaves the body in the form of a bird. There are numerous examples in religious iconography of heavenly beings containing the physical attributes of birds, the most well known of these in the Christian image of angels, and the Holy Spirit as a dove. The closeness to ‘heaven’ which birds attain through flight has long implicated them with notions of the sacred. So King’s loosely defined moving bird already reaps compelling symbolic connotations.
It is however, very much an earthly bird whose flapping wings fill up the screen in slowly disappearing darling. Drawn on drafting film with charcoal found in the fireplace of the residential accommodation, King’s loosely defined bird appears as a continually evolving black smudge. He consciously employs the rendered effects of charcoal on paper to emphasise the hand-driven elements of the process, in a marriage of elemental mark-making, with contemporary film technology.
By illustrating the inherent beauty and simple intent enacted by a bird in flight, King communicates a poignant environmental message. He also offers a meditation on the nature of the intrinsic relationships that sustain us, physically and emotionally.
First Published in Art Monthly Australia, Issue No. 208, June 2008, pp 20 – 21.
Below: Animation stills from slowly disappearing darling (2008) by Martin King, charcoal on drafting film. Courtesy the artist and James Makin Gallery, Melbourne.