Gallery takes in Beauty and Peril

WILLIAM YEOMAN delves into an exhibit that focuses on the light and dark sides of nature

To travel is to ascribe meaning to the world. Sometimes we feel attuned to the natural world, sometimes alienated. But is it true that, as Wordsworth wrote, “Little we see in nature that is ours”?

That’s just one of the questions The Botanical: Beauty and Peril at the Art Gallery of WA addresses. The exhibition is the first major collaboration between the gallery and its chair, Janet Holmes a Court, whose own collection is one of the most significant in Australia.

Co-curated by AGWA’s Melissa Harpley and the Janet Holmes a Court Collection’s Laetitia Wilson and Megan Schlipalius, The Botanical: Beauty and Peril is itself a journey, via different kinds of artistic expression in different media, through the many facets of our relationship with nature.

“This exhibition in particular lends itself to a narrative because it really goes from colonial times,” Wilson says.

“It starts with what we call the Botanical Arcadia, so that’s the more scientific botanical illustrations, and goes into forested lands.

“You go through the beauty of nature before you hit land use and exploitation and the destruction of nature.”

Schlipalius is however quick to point out it’s not all doom and gloom. “It’s about the fragility of the beautiful natural world. It’s not a one-sided show; there is the dark and the light,” she says. The exhibition is divided into different sections reflecting themes and subjects such as wildflowers, the idea of Arcadia, forests, logging, fire, occupation, memory, mourning and “Dark Botanical”.

Among the paintings, etchings, drawings, photographs, video projections and mixed-media works are significant pieces by Fred Williams, Richard Woldendorp, May Gibbs, Margaret Forrest, Joseph Banks, Maxie Tjampitjinpa and Perth-based media artist Sohan Ariel Hayes.

Hayes’ Panoramic View of Albany (Kinjarling), The Place of Rain (2019) is a “reimagining of the hand-coloured etching, Panoramic view of King George Sound (1834) by Robert Dale for the purpose of reflecting on how this view has shaped our present”.

There are also 18 batiks, made by Utopia women artists in 1988, drawn from Janet Holmes a Court’s collection of 88. “These batiks (are) illustrating the importance of plants to the indigenous people of Australia, both for food and for bush tucker and bush medicine,” Holmes a Court says.

“So ... each of the works show maybe a range of five or six different plants. Quite a lot of them will also show goannas or witchetty grubs and other flora and fauna (such as) bush tomatoes, yams and Grevillea flowers.”

Fact File

The exhibition is on until November 4. Entry is free.