Lake Menindee, Barkandji country - Darling Darling
Lake Menindee, Barkandji country - Darling Darling
Still from 'Darling Darling' by Gabriella Hirst, Lake Menindee, Barkandji country
Stories & Ideas

Mon 25 Jan 2021

When the river runs dry: on 'Darling Darling' by Gabriella Hirst

Art Australia Commission First Nations
Shelley McSpedden, curator

Shelley McSpedden


Curator Shelley McSpedden explores Gabriella Hirst's major new moving image installation Darling Darling.

In this time of extinctions, we are going to be asked again and again to take a stand for life, and this means taking a stand for faith in life’s meaningfulness… we are called into recognition: of the shimmer of life’s pulses and the great patterns within which the power of life expresses itself. We are therefore called into gratitude for the fact that in the midst of terrible destruction, life finds ways to flourish, and that the shimmer of life does indeed include us.

Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Shimmer: When All You Love Is Being Trashed’ [1]

It began with a trickle but soon swelled to a steady flow. In April this year, the waters of the Barka-Darling [2] and Murray rivers met for the first time since 2018 [3]. Soon after, billions of litres of water poured into the Menindee Lakes. The meeting of waters was a momentous event for drought-stricken communities across the Murray-Darling basin, which stretches out through much of south-eastern Australia. It was touted as a turning point for a region plagued by severe water scarcity and mass fish kills [4]. The Barka-Darling district has long been characterised by unpredictable rain fall and cycles of extreme shifts from floods to draught but the severity of recent events is something different, something man-made. Excess upstream diversion of water to service large-scale agriculture has amplified the effects of drought, while climate change has increased its frequency and length, pushing the ecosystem to the verge of collapse [5]. The return of water to the river is a welcome relief but it will be only a short reprieve if systemic issues are not addressed.

Gabriella Hirst’s major new moving image installation Darling Darling meditates on our imbrication with the natural world through a study of overlapping narratives of our custodianship of the Barka-Darling River system and colonial-era landscape paintings. It’s a striking dichotomy of care and neglect. In the darkened gallery, we are greeted by a series of locked-frame scenes of Australia’s ‘forgotten river’, which Hirst captured as she travelled along it in 2019. The composition of these shots of the river, framed by gum trees and open skies, references a range of iconic colonial landscape paintings by the likes of Eugene von Guérard, John Glover, Conrad Martens, Nicholas Chevalier, Ludwig Becker, as well as WC Piguenit. Shot at dawn and dusk, golden light imbues these digital tableaus with a distinctly romantic tenor that evokes our nation’s longrunning affection for our ‘sunburnt country’ [6]. Movement becomes subordinate to time in these long, contemplative shots and we are invited to really look at the landscape before us [7]. Beneath the wash of soft sunlight we find an ecosystem dying and abandoned – the camera lingers on stagnant pools of murky water and parched riverbeds lined with buckling trees and arid plains.

The film is made to resemble a painting, but where a painting would ordinarily hang against a wall, here the screen hangs in the centre of the space. We are drawn to see what lurks behind. A film documenting the meticulous care taken to restore WC Piguenit’s prized 19th Century romantic painting of the Barka-Darling River, The flood in the Darling 1890 (1895), is projected onto the back of the screen. In the highly controlled, brightly lit interior of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) gallery spaces and conservation labs vast material and intellectual resources are expended in the restoration of Piguenit’s work. Microscopes and infra-red photography are deployed to map the painting’s surface, chemicals are precisely measured and stirred to clean it, while delicate sheets of gold leaf are gently cut and brushed into the contours of its gilded frame. This film is a study of the intricate care we can lavish on the material world, as we watch the painting and frame conservators completely absorbed in attending to their charge.

The pairing of the films in Darling Darling does not simply contrast our ability to inflict great damage on the material world with our capacity to nurture and protect it, but also suggests that these behaviours are interconnected. Darling Darling’s soundscape seems to confirm this as the two worlds sonically bleed into one another. The measured tones of the art conservators at work seep into environmental sounds of the outback; the gentle squeal of trolley wheels crossing tiled floors intermingles with magpie warbles, the buzz of a hand drill punctuates the soft rustle of dried leaves. The convergence of ecological and art historical narratives in Darling Darling suggests the absurdity of a cultural logic that appears to value representations of the natural world over nature itself. The care and damage depicted are revealed as manifestations of the same anthropocentric worldview that has long underpinned Western colonial thought and history. In the era of the Anthropocene, defined by the irreversible impact of human activity on Earth’s systems and processes, the legitimacy of our rule over the natural world is under sustained scrutiny. The catastrophic bushfires that tore through much of Australia over the summer of 2019-20, followed closely by the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic have brought our interdependence with the natural world into stark relief. Many of us have emerged from these events feeling fragile and disorientated as we learn to live in a state of uncertainty – the illusion of our mastery over our world and our own lives diminished, if not fully vanquished.

Dust removal from ‘Flood of the Darling, 1890’ by W.C. Piguenit - Gabriella Hirst - Darling Darling

Still from Darling Darling by Gabriella Hirst, 2020 Ian Potter Moving Image Commission, painting conservation department AGNSW, dust removal from ‘Flood of the Darling, 1890’ by W.C. Piguenit

Hirst has established a multidisciplinary practice that traverses wildly different subjects and contexts but consistently returns to the question of what our representations and manipulation of nature reveals about our cultural and political values, structures and histories. In Darling Darling she focuses on the conceits and ideologies underscoring Australia’s revered landscape painting tradition. Hirst conceives of her use of film in Darling Darling ‘in the framework of painting’ [8] and has loaded the work with tightly crafted cues to painterly traditions.

The convergence of film and painting is most explicit in a tiny sculptural detail that sits discretely on the darkened gallery wall – a glimmering SD card, loaded with the Darling Darling films, that has been meticulously gilded by AGNSW senior frames conservator, Barbara Dabrowa.

While the restoration of Piguenit’s famed painting is the subject matter of one film, the other film recalls landscape paintings by some of Australia’s most revered colonial artists. Darling Darling invokes a canon of artists, trained in the European tradition, who set about feverishly charting the contours of the Australian ‘new world’ and capturing its majestic natural beauty. Hirst’s heavy use of painterly conceits directs our attention to the ways that spatial images and conventions come to structure our world. We know that colonial artists transposed a distinctly European vision onto the continent in their efforts to make sense of it [9]. As influential cultural geographer Denis Cosgrave reminds us, landscape is an ‘ideological concept’. To conceive of something as a landscape is to enforce a unity of form that reduces the world to ‘a static, determinate object of scientific inquiry’ [10]. Colonial landscape painting played a key role in establishing and propagating a coherent vision of the ‘young’ Australian nation and many of its founding mythologies. While the grandeur of paintings like Piguenit’s suggested the presence of divine powers within nature, they also served more earthly purposes – propagating the myth of terra nullius and delineating resources to be exploited by settlers. Colonial artists played a crucial role in legitimising occupation and the dispossession of First Nations peoples [11].

Exposed fresh water mussels at one of the deepest points of the Barka-Darling river - Darling Darling

Still from Darling Darling by Gabriella Hirst, 2020 Ian Potter Moving Image Commission, hundreds of exposed fresh water mussels at one of the deepest points of the Barka-Darling river, a curve near Buda station. As explained by Barkandji Elder Badger Bates, these exposed, dead mussels are sign of abnormally low water levels, a symptom of a dying river.

The flood in the Darling 1890, heralded as WC Piguenit’s ‘chef d’oeuvre’, provides a stunning example of how beauty masked the ecological and cultural violence of colonialisation [12]. Piguenit was an esteemed Romanticrealist painter, described as ‘the last important colonial landscape painter in Australia.’ [13] His grand history painting is set in the aftermath of the largest flood recorded since 1864, which submerged the remote township of Bourke and killed half a million sheep [14]. Piguenit had witnessed the events at Bourke firsthand but rather than depict the decimated buildings and railway lines or mass loss of life, he produced a harmonious vision of a glistening flood plain brimming with water. Indebted to the 19th-century German Romantic tradition, he emphasised atmospheric conditions in the scene, filling the sky with coils of mist and clouds dramatically accented by the sun’s rays. The scene is notably devoid of any sign of human occupation.

In 1905, the prominent Sydney journalist and cartoonist D.H. Souter noted a pointed message embedded in the painting, observing that it ‘preaches a perpetual sermon on the possibilities of water conservation, which should strongly impress our State economists’ [15]. Piguenit was a vocal advocate for the establishment of large scale irrigation systems to support development in the region [16]. His majestic painting promoted the untapped natural resources on offer. Pastoralists were quick to divvy up and exploit the land and waterways. By the mid to late 1800s the land was stocked with ever more sheep, despite widespread acknowledgement of the damage that large scale grazing was doing to the local habitat [17]. There began a pattern of unsustainable agriculture and poor water management that continues to plague the area today. While native species and Indigenous peoples adapted to the region’s unpredictable rainfall and extreme environmental cycles, Western systems of agriculture continue to try to control and mitigate them.

Darling Darling suggests that the worldview propagated by Piguenit’s painting is just as damaging as his earmarking of natural resources for exploitation. The flood in the Darling 1890 frames nature in a classically Romantic manner – its sublime beauty and power pictured as something separate from humanity, something that exceeds rationality and our ability to understand it [18]. Darling Darling maps links between the ideological divide between humanity and nature, which has long underpinned Western thought and history, and the mounting loss of habitats and species we are witnessing in the era of the Anthropocene. In doing so, it suggests the need for a shift to a worldview that acknowledges our interdependence with nature and promotes the diversity, complexity, abundance and beauty of life. Esteemed ecological, multi-species ethnographer, Deborah Bird Rose has informed Hirst’s thinking on this. She urges a renewed recognition of the ‘shimmer’ of life – its pulses and connections across multispecies worlds. It is a concept that she learned about from Aboriginal people in the Victorian River region of Australia’s Northern Territory and draws on the Yolngu word bir’yun, which translates as ‘brilliant’ or ‘shimmering’ [19]. The term bir’yun is ‘characteristic of a lively pulsating world, not a mechanistic one’; it foregrounds the ‘multifaceted, multispecies relations and pulses’ that make up our world [20]. Shimmer situates us in reciprocal relationships with all around us, bringing us into ‘the experience of being part of a vibrant and vibrating world.’ [21]

The stubborn dualism of nature and culture at the heart of Western thought has greatly diminished whole worlds of knowledge and practice. As Barkindji elder, artist and activist Uncle Badger Bates laments:

"How can I teach culture when they’re taking our beloved Barka away? There’s nothing to teach if there’s no river. The river is everything. It’s my life, my culture. You take the water away from us; we’ve got nothing [22]."

Growing settler recognition of Indigenous peoples’ relationship to Country, their traditional land and aquaculture management systems, form an important backdrop to Darling Darling. Historian Bruce Pascoe, who has been at the forefront of the revival of this knowledge in mainstream Australian, tells us of the massive fish traps use on the Barka-Darling River at Brewarrina. Settlers were amazed by the efficiency of the traps, the efforts employed to maintain breeding stock and the enormous harvest [23]. The structure withstood regular floods and was designed to allow the passage of breeding stock to pass through so that upstream fisheries could gain a share. It was a sustainable system that ensured resources were shared between communities [24]. Aboriginal people lived in accord with the harsh Australian environment for at least 65,000 years before European occupation, making the terrible mess that settler culture has made of it in a little over 200 years even more deplorable.

Andrea Nottage, painting conservator, working on ‘Flood of the Darling, 1890’ by W.C. Piguenit - Darling Darling

Stills from 'Darling Darling' by Gabriella Hirst, 2020 Ian Potter Moving Image Commission: Andrea Nottage, painting conservator, working on ‘Flood of the Darling, 1890’ by W.C. Piguenit

Painting conservation department AGNSW, pigments for retouching - Darling Darling

Painting conservation department AGNSW, pigments for retouching

AGNSW painting conservation department, varnish solvent preparation - Darling Darling

AGNSW painting conservation department, varnish solvent preparation

Paula Dredge, Painting Conservator AGNSW, working on ‘Flood of the Darling, 1890’ by W.C. Piguenit - Darling Darling

Paula Dredge, Painting Conservator AGNSW, working on ‘The flood in the Darling, 1890’ by W.C. Piguenit

As a white Australian of European descent, Hirst has a strong sense of being implicated in the ongoing legacy of colonisation [25]. Darling Darling directly addresses her cultural inheritance of whiteness, focusing on the Western art canon in relation to the Australian ecology. This is part of the reason she sets up a convergence between painting and film in the work. Hirst explains:

"that link between painting and film is also important in terms of the role of continued history, that of myself as an outsider making a work that is critical of the frameworks of these art histories but still absolutely entangled within these histories and frameworks and perhaps reiterating them by travelling to these regions on some sort of expedition of capture [26]."

Hirst is aware that her critique of the colonial representation risks repeating the damage it inflicted. She sought the guidance of Uncle Badger Bates when filming along the Barka-Darling River. Bates generously shared knowledge of his Country over the course of the work’s development. He advised on where to film, for example directing Hirst to points along the river where mussels lay exposed and dead, evidence of the extreme stress the habitat and wildlife was under as they would never ordinarily be exposed in such a way. Importantly, Bates cautioned on which sites were sacred, which should not be visited by outsiders and those that have bad spirits [27].

It is right that Hirst should attempt to grapple with the ecological crisis in the Barka-Darling from within the confines of her own cultural inheritance. It also seems right that she should have serious misgivings about her own privilege and cultural positioning when making the work. These concerns were exacerbated by the fact that she is now based in London so had to edit a work anchored in site from a great distance. After the massive environmental devastation of the Australian bush fires earlier this year, she also questioned whether her reflection on the aesthetic and ideological agendas of the past was indulgent and myopic, at a time when we urgently need direct action in the face of climate change [28]. Her uncertainty and doubt seem necessary and productive when confronting the obtuse certainty underpinning our colonial past and capitalist present. Darling Darling calls us to adopt a similarly reflective approach. Turning the camera to the cultural organisations that foster, exhibit, promote and care for art and cultural artefacts, Hirst encourages us to question the role of the cultural sector in a time of mass environmental crisis. As artists, cultural workers and organisations the world over reckon with the impact of Covid-19, they are wise to reflect deeply on who they serve, what they do and what they might become [29].

Barka-Darling river, from Tilpa bridge, Barkandji country - Gabriella Hirst Darling Darling

Still from 'Darling Darling' by Gabriella Hirst, 2020 Ian Potter Moving Image Commission, Barka-Darling, from Tilpa bridge, Barkandji country.

This is the glimmer of hope offered in Darling Darling, the potential for transformation. Hirst’s exploitation of the durational qualities of film in her meditations on intersecting ecological and art histories opens them to the possibility for change [30]. The employment of duration in Darling Darling liberates it from the confines of mere actuality. Meditating on Hirst’s scenes of the Barka-Darling River, we conjure memories of what it once was and are assured that it can be different again in the future. While providing important documentation of the ecological crisis along the Barka-Darling, it is also an ode to the capricious nature of time. In this way, Darling Darling can be seen as an attempt to invoke the transformative potential of the flow of time, an effort to gently propel us into an unknown and radically different future.

– Shelley McSpedden, Curator

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  1. Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Shimmer: When All You Love Is Being Trashed’, in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubandt, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, p.61
  2. The name Barka-Darling River is used in recognition that the NSW Geographical Names Board has been asked by the Barkandji community to give the Darling River a dual name that is both the European name ‘Darling’ and the traditional Barkandji name ‘Barka’ (spelt many ways as there is no set spelling for this non-English-word).
  3. Graham Readfearn, ‘Waters of Murray-Darling rivers join for first time in two years’, The Guardian Australia, 13 April 2020, (accessed 16 April 2020)
  4. Estimates of over one million native fish killed in three separate events at Menindee Lakes. See Murray Darling Basin Authority, ‘Fish deaths in the Lower Darling’ (accessed 29/11/2019)
  5. See Anne Davies, ‘”The Darling will die”: Scientists saymass fish kill due to overextraction and drought’, Mon 18 Feb, The Guardian Australia, (accessed 29/11/2019)
  6. Dorothea MacKellar, My Country, 1908
  7. Constituting what Gilles Deleuze’s describes as a ‘time-image’. See Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 271
  8. Gabriella Hirst, email correspondence with the author, 3 January 2020
  9. Bernard Smith, Terry Smith and Christopher Heathcote, Australian Painting, 1788–2000 (4th edition) South Melbourne, Vic., Oxford University Press, 2001
  10. Denis Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (new ed.) London: Croom Helm, 1984; Madison: University ofWisconsin Press, 1998 andW.T.J. Mitchell, ed., Landscape and Power, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
  11. See Gary Lee, ‘Lying about the landscape’, in Lying about the landscape, edited by Geoff Levitus, North Ryde: Craftsman House, 1997, p. 101
  12. Andrew Sayers in New Worlds from Old: 19th Century Australian & American Landscapes, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut p. 185.
  13. Christa E. Johannes and Anthony V. Brown, W.C. Piguenit, 1836–1914 Retrospective. Hobart: TasmanianMuseum and Art Gallery, 1992, p. 9
  14. Tim Bonyhady, ‘The Flood in the Darling’, in The Colonial Earth,Melbourne: TheMiegunyah Press November 2000, p. 286
  15. D.H. Souter, ‘William Charles Piguent: An Australian Painter’, Art and Architecture: The Journal of the Institute of Architects of New South Wales, Sydney (September – October 1905): p. 197, quoted by Dinah Dysart, ‘William Charles Piguenit: 19th Century Environmentalist,’ Art and Australia Australia (vol. 29, No. 4), Winter 1992, p. 486
  16. Tim Bonyhady, ‘The Flood in the Darling’, in The Colonial Earth, Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press November 2000, pp. 283–284
  17. Ibid
  18. On the Romantic sublime see Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), ed. James T. Boulton, New York: Routledge, 2008
  19. See Howard Morphy, ‘From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power among the Yolngu,’ Man, New Series 24, no. 1 (1989): 21–40, referenced by Bird Rose, ‘Shimmer’, p.53
  20. Ibid, p.55
  21. Ibid, p.53
  22. William ‘Badger’ Bates, ‘When they take the water froma Barkandji person, they take our blood’, The Guardian Australia, Wed 26 July 2017, (accessed 26 November 2019)
  23. Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, Broome: Magabala Books, 2014, p. 75
  24. Ibid
  25. McKenzie Wark, ‘The Schadenfreude of History’, commune, 16 January 2020, (accessed 20 January 2020)
  26. Hirst, op. cit., 3 January 2020
  27. Gabriella Hirst, email correspondence with the author, 20 December 2019
  28. Gabriella Hirst, email correspondence with the author, 22 January 2020
  29. See Naomi Riddle’s ‘Letter from the Editor’, Running Dog, 29May 2020, (accessed 30May 2020)
  30. For a discussion on exploitation of durational qualities of film and their radical potential see Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986 and Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Thinking the New: Of Futures yet Unthought,’ in Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory, and Futures, ed. Elizabeth Grosz, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999