The first thing one notices about Liss Fenwick’s Grim Purpose, is the imposing size of the photographic prints. From a distance the aerial maps pinned to the wall convey the enormity of the Northern Territory’s large and diverse terrain. However, as one moves closer, with the magnified trick of the camera, one’s vision is enticed into the psycho-social dramas that fester and swarm, battling for survival in Australia’s harsh northern frontier. This is a place where dreams once fulfilled, are abandoned, devoured by a million ants, under the glare of an unforgiving sun.
In David Lynch’s cinematic masterpiece, Blue Velvet (1986) the protagonist finds a severed rotting ear in the grassy periphery of his town. The mood of the psychological thriller is set with a middle-aged suburban dweller watering his carefully pruned garden. While the camera pans over the yard, it begins to zoom closer into the manicured lawn revealing the insects swarming and festering underneath. The camera returns and lingers over the man, now collapsed, a corpse on the lawn still holding on to his limp water hose.
Fenwick’s dark surrealism is deeply autobiographical, a personal confession of her own tragedy on display. Like Jeffrey Beaumont, Lynch’s protagonist, she returns to her home town, and on a journey of self discovery makes work that confronts the guilt and the despair to present the crisis of civilisation at the edge of frontier, magnified and laid bare.
The spirit of adventure and a chance to make reasonable returns have lured many to leave southern cities or to come from abroad, to settle for the remote life of toil, in a harsh and contested landscape.
It is deep inside the territory’s psyche, enticed by fraught government schemes that men and women with only their body and the sweat of their labor are drawn by the lure of striking it rich in the north, exchanging the comforts of a temperate climate for a chance to get out of historical class constraints and get ahead in life. But unlike the earlier frontier stories which mythologised the “pioneering” spirit, nowadays they have been rendered to the dustbin of history, caricatures, with no legitimate claim to veneration.
The on-going colonial project pits all against each other. Its impact on the indigenous inhabitants has been devastating. The deep north, like the dead heart of Australia’s center, is also the setting of tragic events for its non-indigenous inhabitants. Many have gained worldly success, and are surrounded by material goods, but who remain at the deepest level profoundly impoverished, sickened by disillusionment, displaced and without a context nor culture, succumbing to drug addiction or alcoholism or both.
Humpty Doo, a small township, lies in “the Badlands” beyond the Berrimah line, on the way to Jabiru. A domestic existence is forged on large rural blocks, where moss stained Besser brick homes, or demountables called “dongers”, lie camouflaged behind the wild thicket of spear grass and vines.
In my early career as a prosecutor, I was warned not to be seen at the then notorious Humpty Doo Hotel, where bearded “ferals” in stubby shorts with names such as “Animal” or just “Mongrel” or “Dog” drank to a stupor with leather clad outlaw motorcycle club members. Australian hard rock music, blaring from the juke box was the backdrop to the wild brawls which often erupted over a drunken misunderstanding or a drug deal gone wrong. At closing time, skinny bar maids in “boob tubes” hosed the blood and the vomit off the cement floors. Nowadays, the Humpty Doo hotel is a tourist rest stop, on the road to Kakadu.
Growing up as an outsider in this improbable town, Fenwick, felt the acute alienation of a child witnessing the despair behind the façade. She imagined an alternative universe where, as a woman, she could self-actualise from intellectual pursuits. She holds bachelor’s degrees in Art and Science from the University of Queensland. In 2017 she commenced her PhD candidature at RMIT’s School of Art.
Fenwick invokes the literary influence of Frederick Nietzsche and Albert Camus, the existentialist thinkers who have influenced her incisive gaze. Paradoxically this existential detachment whilst providing her with the opportunity for clinical observation, the aesthetic gaze, prevents her from finding the sublimation she craves for a place to belong. This is the tragedy of the outsider. The stranger condemned to wander, observing the illusions of others, whilst those others perceive her to be the illusionairy ghost, the unwelcomed other hovering at the edge of her town.
As an artist and a photographer, as a stranger she presents with detached observation the trauma beneath the persona of a settler’s daughter acutely aware of her own incongruous existence, trying to expose the futility of the northern dream and simultaneously find the heart to forgive.
In Grim Purpose Fenwick has presented an exhibition of photographic works with images that embody fear and alienation, displacement and discomfort, in images that make the skin crawl.
A blue cap, emblazoned with her father's business logo, placed on a termite mount ten years ago by her mother is the scene myrmidons crawling and devouring, parasites in a trance.
A freshly slaughtered bullock’s liver tossed on her mother's ornate black pewter tray, resembling both a flesh wound and an exposed traumatised vulva, achieves exquisite representations of the outback grotesque. The piece of offal will be devoured by the swarming meat ants in no time.
Equipped with a Canon EOS 5DsR complete with Sigma 50mm f/1.4DG HSM Art Lens, Fenwick draws our perverse voyeurism into her microcosm, into the dark side of the paranoid sublime, with allegorical themes, the bull ants and the sugar ants, and termites, her constant companions, swarm in sync with the pewter’s paisley swirls, making our skin crawl and our body shudder with that primal fear that pestilence has aroused since biblical times.
Her training in the use of equipment, aperture, composition and light captures the aesthetic tensions inherent in the sublime. This is serious work. The mind, so arrested by fear and by beauty, stops to gasp for breath. Fenwick’s camera achieves the status of “bio-scope”, presenting society as nature, stripped of all artifices. Her honest rendition of contemporary frontier life is a welcomed contribution, adding to the Northern Territory’s burgeoning contemporaty cultural landscape.