Exhibition Review: Arcadia – Sound of the Sea

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Geelong Art Gallery
Until 22 February 2015

Review by Robert Nelson

A beautiful exhibition at the Geelong Art Gallery explores the marvellous moment when surfing took on cult status as a symbol of social alternatives. Called Arcadia: Sound of the Sea, the collection of photographs and film put together by the National Portrait Gallery documents an idealistic lifestyle built around tall waves.

The photographs are mostly by John Witzig, who was not only technically skillful but intimately understood the surfing enthusiasm. He was himself a joint founder of the successful surfing magazine Tracks and also created SeaNotes.

The knack in shooting almost any sport involves a lens of long focal length, to bring something afar up close. This optical device sets the keynote for much of the imagery, including portraits, which have the highly publishable quality of being both intimate and remote.

There are many iconic works in the show: a surfing audience assembling at Bells Beach, a group of fellas on a dune with an Afghan hound and a house that was built for $3.00.

In improvised shacks and with the company of contented dogs, the surfing confraternity enjoyed an almost endless business holiday, catching waves and publishing on politics and surf in their own magazines, beginning with the ambitiously titled SurfInternational.

The boys always photographed themselves and seem to have been completely gratified with their own conversation. Women are less conspicuous than pets or combivans: the male surfers are heroes in their own eyes, recognising one another’s charisma with gestures of hilarity, while simultaneously cultivating their own surfing prowess.

Segments of Albert Falzon’s film Morning of the Earth from 1972 gorgeously portray the balletic mastery of the tides. The film also reveals fascinating and surprising details. For example, while the hippy milieu might suggest the full flood of rock music, in fact the instrument that one sees being played is the sweet and melodious baroque recorder.

In the age when marketing had not yet determined global culture, surfing could still be a symbol of counterculture. Today, like skiing, surfing belongs to consumerism, associated with expensive beach houses and ecologically damaging forms of transport, as well as branded accessories. But in the 1970s, the surfer Nat Young could write – and believe – “by simply surfing we are supporting the revolution”.

In an excellent catalogue essay, the historian and curator Sarah Engledow describes this great catchcry as both plausible and preposterous: it faithfully represents a countercultural feeling but on an illusory economic premise.

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