Artists and Place Studies



Sue Michael,  Outskirts of Marree at dawn,  2018, acrylic on arches oil paper, 30 x 60 cm

Sue Michael, Outskirts of Marree at dawn, 2018, acrylic on arches oil paper, 30 x 60 cm

The previous pages under the heading of Place have concerned themselves about the inner thoughts of the artist, whilst the next set of pages are concerned with the artist looking outward into their location of interest. There is a reminder that each of these various approaches to place could be a life’s work in itself, but when all of them are taken into consideration the artist may find a strengthened awareness of their chosen place. This is a most useful foundation for any artwork.

In each place there are singular events, conditions, objects, or activities that happen, that are unique to that location. The above painted sketch shows the vast plains of northern South Australia, where often it is difficult to see evidence of the human hand. Nature’s strong presence, an endless horizon, freezing desert nights, unspeakable heat during the afternoon, hardy shrubs, glacial rocks, ant nests that rise high like cones…these are just some of the multiple singularities that occur in this place. Singularities are points of contrast to other places, or unique, distinctive differences.

Singularities can be compared to other locations, and it is with great interest I view films and documentaries about polar exploration, or daily life on a freezing tundra. They may have shared challenges that shape the people who live there. By viewing snow country I also develop a more nuanced appreciation of hot, arid climates. This idea aligns with the notion that when we step away from that place, only then will we fully see its singular qualities.

Over the years I have made small charts that sorted my observations of place concerning water difficulties, temperature extremes and geographical isolation in South Australian regional homes. I could potentially do the same in other countries and cities as well. I noticed people had white pedestal fans in the lounge, plastic fruit in bowls, floral fabrics for furnishings, both curtains and blinds in their window treatments, and shaded transitional areas between indoors and outdoors…that carried the promise of a large number of potential daily activities. I noted these sort of distinctive findings, that differed from my urban experience, and, over time, I was able to pinpoint the reoccurring singularities of place. My initial open-ended observations helped to grasp the singular qualities by letting the place ‘speak to me” rather than searching for evidence of my own pre-conceived ideas. The sorting of domestic patterns was a thoughtful process; if the garden had only dust to hold hardy shrubs, why not have lavish floral curtains and cushions. I sought the rationales as to WHY there were particular singularities of place, and any confusion on my part could be eased with discussions with local dwellers.

Ray Meandering,  Sue Michael with desert treasures, at the edge of town,  digital photograph, 2018.

Ray Meandering, Sue Michael with desert treasures, at the edge of town, digital photograph, 2018.

The above photo and painting, together, may provide a characterisation of place, that draws the viewer into the singularities of that place. A sense of place can also be a singularity of place, though it can not answer how we are to understand the singularities of place to be discovered in a location. As philosopher Jeff Malpas explains:

Appeal to the idea of the sense of place alone cannnot explain or resolve the question as to the difficulty to which the idea of the singularity of place gives rise - it cannot provide an adequate answer to the question as to how that singularity should be understood, to the question as to that in which place consists, or to the question as to how place, in its singularity, can be known or apprehended. Moreover, if the idea of the sense of place is still seen as having some relevance to the understating of place, - it it is indeed a genuine expression of the singularity of place - then the question as to the nature of place and our knowledge of it, must be seen to be a question that attaches to the sense of place also. Understanding the sense of place requires that we first understand place, and with it, the singularities of place

If art is to tell the viewer what that place is, there must be a great deal of outward looking notations as well, not only inner, subjective priorities.

Suggested reading:

Jeff Malpas, Chpater 6, Place and Singularity, in The Intelligence of Place. Quote from page 73.