Exhibition review by Christopher Deere: Royal Park – The Last Summer

fortyfivedownstairs gallery

Until 22 March 2014
fortyfivedownstairs gallery. Melbourne

By Christopher Deere

Melbourne’s long hot summer might now be over, if only in purely climatic terms. The paralysing heatwaves and sleepless nights are behind us as we ease into a milder autumn, grateful for whatever little rain that falls. Beyond the anxieties about global warming and the relief at avoiding any truly serious bushfires the blistering season has almost been forgotten.

Someone who is still living with its harsh reality, however, is David Tatnall, a local landscape and conservation photographer who spent many of those searing days making a record of a part of Melbourne that will come to symbolise this sombre moment for the city.

Royal Park – The Last Summer is a series of colour and monochrome photographs made in Tatnall’s trademark traditional style, exposed on 4×5-inch sheet film in a view camera and developed and printed in his darkroom at Northcote. They show the many commonplace corners of the park as they are now, in what could perhaps be the last days of their undisturbed existence before the disruption of the East-West Link road and tunnel project tears them away forever.

Royal Park

That was the motive for Tatnall to begin work on the series. “There was a degree of urgency in that the project needed to be done sooner rather than later,” he says.

Funded by a grant from a philanthropic trust, his work was commissioned by Protectors of Public Lands Victoria to call attention to the value of Royal Park as a unique resource for the people of Melbourne. The road project, with its off-ramps and flyovers and upheaval for nearby residents, threatens to change for all time the idea of the park as available open space and damage, if not destroy, its ability to preserve the trees and wetlands and grasslands that mark it as a place of historical and ecological significance.

Royal Park was declared and gazetted by Governor La Trobe in 1854, making it one of the earliest official Melbourne landmarks for the young colony at Port Phillip. Queen Victoria herself signed the deed, stating that the park was ‘for the pleasure and recreation of the people of Melbourne’. Sitting barely three kilometres from the middle of the city, it is a living legacy of the territory from the time of European settlement.

Royal Park

Tatnall made 112 large-format photographs of the park in preparation for the exhibition – more exposures, of any other kind, than he made throughout all of last year. Beginning in the middle of November (and still ongoing), his work on the series is intended as a testament to the conflict between the broad ideal of public amenity and the blunt force of private interest – in this case, the political and corporate will for the development of the East-West Link in the face of all community concern and economic sense.

“Between six and ten percent of the park will be lost to the road, and that will actually divide the park into sections,” says Tatnall. “In effect the park will be fragmented.”

Tatnall’s task was not made easy by the timing of the request, or by the conditions affecting the subject. “Making photographs in Melbourne’s summer can be difficult because, pretty much from mid-December until mid-January, the light is pretty much straight overhead, right through mid-summer,” he says.

“This particular summer was one of the driest on record, and the hottest on record – we had the hottest week, ever, in Melbourne. That took a big toll on the park, because the park is not artificially watered.”

The hard light of the unforgiving summer is almost a metaphor for the stark reality of the menace that now hangs over the much-loved park.

One of the black-and-white images is very much a sign of things to come: it foregrounds a line of Moreton Bay fig trees on Macarthur Road, sitting within the proposed construction zone, with a long-exposure blur hinting at the endless rush of traffic that already passes through Royal Park. As a symbolic double-exposure of the past and future versions of the park, it is almost haunting in its vision of how easily ghosts can be made from the living.

Tatnall points out that large areas of the original park have already been surrendered to other purposes before now, affecting its public use over time.

“Some of the housing in Gatehouse Street is actually set in parkland. The Royal Children’s Hospital has been built in parkland. The Commonwealth Games Village has been built in parkland. The Royal Melbourne Hospital campus has been built in parkland. The park has decreased in size over the years, slowly, slowly.”

The opponents of East-West Link are upset about the fact that so much land will be torn up to make way for the tunnel. The project operators say that some of the land and flora to be removed will be replaced upon its completion.

As Tatnall sees it, this approach entirely misses the point. “The engineers will say, ‘If five thousand two hundred trees are cut down they can be replanted’; which technically is true: you can replant five thousand trees,” he says. “But some of the trees they’re talking about are actually remnant – these are trees that were here when Europeans arrived. You can’t actually replant a remnant tree. You can take seeds from it; but you’ll end up with something comical, like the Lone Pine at the Shrine. It’s symbolic, but it’s like Disneyland.”

The convenor of PPLV, Julianne Bell, is adamant about the importance of Tatnall’s images. “It’s a eulogy to Royal Park,” she says of the exhibition. “If the project goes ahead, this is the end for Royal Park.”

Of the developers and their political enablers, she adds: “They regard the parkland, Royal Park, as Terra Nullius – that is, open space there for the taking, to serve whatever purposes they like. After they have finished clearing the whole of Royal Park it will be ground zero.”

One of the colour photographs shows a child’s-eye view of soft-orange grassland, a rise bordered by a line of green trees and a background of city buildings, the man-made horizon of the wide native plain. Known to be the site of an Aboriginal gathering ground, the image is a telling symbol of the issue as a whole. The area has been earmarked as the location of some of the structural work for the tunnel.

Bell is scathing in her judgement of this particular aspect of the project. “We feel that with this concrete tollway going right through the very heart of the corroboree site that it really typifies the white man’s contempt for the Wurundjeri,” she says. In its carelessness of any other consideration the tunnel goes so far as to trample all over the spiritual.

Tatnall was always determined to show what he regards as the vital view of the park as it is now, with the unsettledness of the road project sitting on the horizon. “I purposely didn’t look at other photographs of Royal Park,” he says. “I didn’t want to be influenced by what other people saw.”

Even so, he does not suffer any illusions about the worth of his quietly powerful images. He simply hopes that they might serve as a catalyst for realisation in the eyes of the viewer, and then perhaps for change in the wider world. “I think the photographs themselves can’t do a great deal,” he says. “It’s the people who look at the photographs that hopefully can do something about the situation with Royal Park.”

Christopher Deere

fortyfivedownstairs gallery

The Guardian

The Last Summer Project