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A kind of dark beauty: art, melancholia & narrative

Art alum Dawn Roe has an exhibition — Goldfields – at The White Box at the University of Oregon in Portland. In her words, here is the story behind Goldfields, as well as the ideas that permeate and prompt her work.

by Dawn Roe

This work came into being during my time as Artist-in-Residence at the Visual Arts Centre of LaTrobe University in Bendigo, VIC, Australia. I arrived in the region (known as The Goldfields) without a preconceived idea about what I might do while there, so these intersections between the opposing perspectives of indigenous and colonial settler narratives, pastoral landscape representations, folklore and myth, became a kind of starting point for the project.  I was very conscious of the fact that I was an outsider to this space and not personally tied to its history.  But at the same time, I did feel an affinity to the bushlands in the same way most of us have a familiar response to the forest in general, largely due to the myths that permeate these spaces – both folkloric and personal.  So I chose to simply respond to the space while considering these layers, thinking equally about how various interactions within the region impacted the landscape both physically and metaphorically – the gold mining being paramount of course, but also the very rich indigenous narratives that remain overwhelmingly present in the form of rock formations, lookout points and the myths attached to natural fauna, birds and other animals.

There was a palpable intensity that I sensed in many of these spaces.  I know that sounds a bit hokey, but being alone in these vast empty woodlands surrounded and dwarfed by the gum trees that harbored a cacophony of endless bird calls – it was sort of mesmerizing.  Not to mention the abandoned mine shafts that were “capped” with a criss-cross of twigs and branches and had the look of shallow graves.  I couldn’t help myself from identifying with possible past occurrences and was led to think deeply about the very, very long intervals of time that stretch back for centuries in this land.

But ultimately, as much as I became interested in the specificity of the Goldfields while working there, my primary concern is really a bit more general.  It wasn’t so much its history that I sought a connection with, but our history in a more philosophical sense.  In recent years I’ve turned more and more to the natural world as a place to think through metaphysical questions of being. The seemingly dead time of uninhabited forest spaces in particular prevents any kind of urgent response, and forces an engagement at a distractingly slow pace – perfectly situated as a counter to the rapidly cycling perceptual clutter of our minds.  As dry as some of this can sound in written form, I truly am invested in creating imagery that asks us to look closely and carefully at ourselves and at our world.  I feel strongly that the undertones of melancholia, loss and longing and even despair that permeate our culture and our psyches hold the most potential for self-reflexivity – and I certainly enjoy this kind of dark beauty in my own work.

In terms of the current incarnation of this work installed as a triple-screen video installation in The Gray Box Media Space at White Box at UO Portland, there is a deliberate move on my part to reference perceptual inconsistencies between experienced and recorded time.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with just how we make sense of our world as we so rapidly pass through it.  But, beyond the immediate understanding of moving through time in the present – which is itself problematic to define – there is all the stuff that happens underneath and/or alongside our perceptual field as experience is occurring.  I’m equally excited by trying to pick apart just what it is that a photographic representation does or how it works on the viewer, and how that differs from yet relates to the moving image.

The video sequence at White Box contains numerous stalled or stopped moments.  But it is difficult to equate the freeze-frame with the still image directly.  A freeze-frame has a duration that is predetermined, leading the viewer to anticipate its change or disappearance.  When an image is projected or screened it becomes part of a prolonged moment.  The different expectations we attach to the still photograph and the cinematic image certainly influence our response to its contents – the still image stands as a stable relic of the past whereas the moving image simultaneously presses together past and present, continually replacing one for the other.  Ultimately though, it is where these paths cross that narratives of being/self, space/time can really open up. Now, these points can be argued for sure.  I have a hard time reconciling much of this myself, which is why I continue to think through my process and my pictures in an effort to keep trying to get at some combination of still and moving that might begin to express these notions, visually and emotionally – because really, that is where it all starts.

You can view Goldfields at The White Box through March 23.

Dawn Roe is an artist and assistant professor at Rollins College. Her studio practice involves the singular and combined use of still photographs and digital video and is concerned with themes of perception, time and memory. She received her BFA from Marylhurst University.