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Catalogue Essay: Edgeland

Night isn’t what it used to be. Today, as our houses are connected 24/7 with the rest of the world via the fibrous twitching of the internet, as the surveillance cameras track the intruders at our housing estate gates, as the nightclubs tick over into dayclubs and as our commercial properties are ever more protectoggressively lit, the thickness of night’s cloak of darkness has been radically thinned. It’s hardly surprising as, since the advent of gas lighting in the early nineteenth century and the spread of electric lighting half a century later, we have been intent on finding ways to tame the night and the loneliness and the fears and the wolf hunger and the bewildering unknowingness that goes along with it. So though our colonisation of the night is not exactly even the world over – with megopoli brighter than the ‘burbs and the ‘burbs brighter than the bush – the trend is undoubtedly toward the eradication of the darkness that used to both hold us in awe and force us to shape our labour and lifestyles around it. To light, to be lit, is to be liberated from all that - the stuff of primitive, superstitious, lumpen and earth bound humanimality. It is to be enlightened.

Yet, despite our ‘advances’ in this regard we continue to have the night terrors; the darkness has not actually been erased, it has simply migrated within. And part of us, an irrational, non-outcomes dazzled and KPI-focused kernel of our circadian-beings needs, craves it. As Alvarez put it “even with the advent of electricity, the unknowable dark side of the psyche remained as potent as it had always been”[1]. At the same time as we are safely lit, we yearn to be smothered, enveloped, blackened and blanketed by our old idea of night.

Over the last thirty years, Mark Kimber has photographed this zone between the illuminated night and a deeper darkness as his works deal with the emotional, cultural and aesthetic traffic between night and day. It is the ‘between’ that is most significant as his work opens up a pictorial analysis of the dayform/nightform conjuncture as critically expressive of a range of dependent opposites – the imminent, yet simultaneously always impossible and deferred, eradication of the cultural by the natural, the conscious by the unconscious, the tamed by the wild, the centre by the periphery.

Kimber’s current body of work, Edgeland, extends these complex engagements in a personal and culturally specific manner. After all, each of these images was shot around Port Adelaide, a place of great significance for Kimber; it was where he grew up, and where his mother lived until her recent death. It was also, in 1979, the birthplace of his photographic practice. In that year he was in his second year of art school; a friend had enrolled him. His lecturer, Michael Snelling, presented a challenge to the class, instructing them to “go back to where you come from and deal with that”[2]. Kimber returned to Port Adelaide. More specifically, he went back with the purpose of recreating a precise moment, a moment from his childhood. It was a moment that had shaped him, that had haunted him, whether he was aware of it at the time or not...

...he was twelve, or thirteen. Young enough, either way. It was nearly night. A non-school nearly night. He was riding his bike. Then pushing his bike. Moving through an Adelaide nowhere place. Between suburbs. An area of dried or drying creek beds, marshland, the odd mangrove to prove it. Sandhills. The start of a building site. A full moon was rising. And this natural planetary illumination, the sun’s distant reflection, shifted things. It was transformative and prosaic. The transcendent ordinary - an opening, a closure. He noticed it. He noticed himself noticing it. Feeling the tug of his body, the whip of his eyes, the pull and opening and rip of the home he was easing to and against, the moonlight glimmering in over the day-fade, wrapping around his childhood, quietening it, claiming it, concealing it, announcing it and delivering it to the future. It was a flicker. He was a flicker. He kept moving.

Of course, when he went back as an art student everything had changed - it had transformed into the upmarket housing estate of Westlakes. The neo-BMX tracks were gone. The natural water catchments were filled in. The place was routinised, deambiguified. Still, he could see the old space, or more accurately and importantly could feel it - in the pockets of light, the tone of the distance between things. Shooting at night and near night-time, as he tried to match his moment on the way home all those years ago, was the key to getting at this – it opened up a different world. What was stable and utilitarian in the day-time turned (or re-turned) into a state of flux at night; working in this zone made it easier for Kimber to journey back in his mind: “the place wasn’t so rooted in the now”. It could become available for the projection of imagination and fantasy and memory; it could become the catchment for feeling and impulse and intellect. It was this insight that guided and formed all his subsequent work.

And it is on account of it that the works comprising Edgeland – the most recent of Kimber’s returns to the Port – must be considered as far more than mere documentation. Though maybe that’s obvious, as these photos are so clearly brimming with ambiguity and a compelling richness that is activated and energised by the interplay of shifting atmospherics and material stability. Obviously too, we are able to focus, meditate even, on this dynamic because we are free from the distraction of the human figure our eye would otherwise be hopelessly drawn to. In part, this reflects the fact that when Kimber went back to shoot the area this time, most of the people he had grown up with were long gone. It is because of this, and as part of a general concern to create ”blank stages, theatrical, lit for performance, but missing the actors”, that Kimber is “almost always very careful to exclude the people”. This is one of the ways Kimber imbues his work with its signature emotional charge. See, when we look at his scenes we feel the lack of human presence as a real loss. It is a weird, imprecise thing to say but the photos gape somehow. As woolly as this description is, it rings true especially since these works resonate with two of Kimber’s earliest influences, the painters Edward Hopper and Jeffery Smart. Like the work of the late American and the elderly Australian, absence is a strong, positive feeling, a throbbing painfully soulful-sweet vibe that is evoked by the structures humans use to shelter themselves and their objects of labour.

Given the richness of feeling in these works it is unsurprising that Kimber’s process of making is largely intuitive. He requires himself to be open, responsive to what he might find and how it might speak to him. He says “it is a not a science. The presence I am looking for is not always there. I might have gone back three or four times, there is a particular time where there is a conjuncture of light and atmospheric conditions that all converge to make it work”. Accordingly, he will also often go looking for one thing, and stumble across something else entirely. Mostly, though, he will drive around in the late afternoon looking for spaces, often kinda half knowing “where one is on the way home, and then I’ll see two others that I take note of for later”. In this process he is taking mental notes and taking mental photos. After he has seen a suitable location he will sketch out the idea in his notebook before going back to it. This preparation is so that once he arrives with his gear – Hasselblad, tripod, wide-angle lens – he can get the photo made very quickly. It’s a necessity: there is a small window of time before the scene will be enveloped completely by the darkness of the coming night. They are generally taken from ten minutes to an hour after sunset; it’s that period of indeterminate length when the sunlight is lingering long enough to match the intensity of the human-made lighting. He is after the perfect, exquisite balance of night and day, of the human fade-out into the night. Naturally, this necessitates long exposures: the shortest is a couple of minutes and the longest is about thirty minutes. All up, he only has time for three or four exposures since he refuses to use additional lighting, the point of the work being that he is shooting places that are already lit by commerce and industry.

As he deals with the challenges of found lighting and the rapid ebbing of the sun, the works are generative performances; Kimber’s precise activity, his presence, his labour, brings these works into being. He is working with what is to-hand. In this mode, many of his images reference the tradition of the utilisation of found lighting in installation and sculptural art. The neon, the flouro lightings, the signage resemble, say, the practice of Dan Flavin. Similarly, the blockish facades of walls and containers are material sculpture in the mode of Richard Serra and Donald Judd. Interestingly, though, these pragmatic masses are always pitched against potentially immersive areas of sky, and softened floors and roads that resemble the more romantic materiality of, say, a Rothko painting. By extension, Kimber’s skies and horizontal fields can be seen to reference Frankenthaler and Diebenkorn blues and greens and greys, while the gentle, easy edges between planes equally speak of the paintings of the American luminists. As these polarities play off against each other, there’s a drama here, a quiet one. It is that of the conceptual and the tactile pulsing against and across the imaginative depths of our Rorschach minds. It is the world of colour skins and distant billowing volumes and grindingly present Stephen Shore-esque surfaces holding tight before everything turns chiaroscuro.

It is the tension of the refusal and invitation of this implicit narrative arc that makes the work, well, work and maintain its power. Car wash, for instance, has twin rectangular eyes that emanate white light. This light, we understand, fills the head of the building with an intensity that will only increase as the dark gathers. Indeed, each night must surely bring an inescapable blinding migraine that we are only seeing the start of. In other works the contrast is not so heightened, with the smooth lighting of Car park creating an apparently endless, icy vanilla interior that acts like a dispersed light-house, a beacon for wayward land travellers and lost shoppers and skaters. And in others still the lights are starting to be sharpened by the dark rushing to carve out its shine more precisely. In all, however, Kimber is articulating a mutable language of light against dark to create a zone where it seems like time is stretching back and forth. Of course, this dynamic mirrors the fade-out of Kimber’s past, his experience with the Port, and that instant from his childhood moving through the soon-to-be suburban space. The coming erasure of night, and its amplification of the human-made lights that will soon blind us to what lies outside their flare, is the metaphorical twin of the effacing development of the spaces he grew up in. And what he is doing now is holding this soon-to-be-but-not-yet moment open, forever...even as everything has already changed, irrevocably.

As he does so, these images throb and yearn, singing to us in plaintive voice. As viewers we somehow lurk outside of and fall into these spaces. And we enjoy this ambiguous presence/absence that enables us to lose ourselves, at close or distant range, in the half light of Kimber’s chromatic chorus. In softened real-life abstractions they speak of our personal fears, their bubbling up, our loneliness, our distance from the world and the lives that give us order and reference points, and of our will for these fears and this loss to take us someplace new, someplace outside the given. It’s because of this that we are also, most poignantly, facing our own passing in these works, as if the landscape is signalling our mortality, our aging, our forgetting. It stages this passing as one in which we would sink into, merging into the abyss of colour, the pools of blazing and sometimes gently humming light alike. This zone, this window, that is held out to us is brief. It too will pass. And we will return either to the void, or to our day-jobs and families. In this opening, Kimber has found a way to articulate the darkness that exists between the night and the day. It’s an emotional space, one full of rich melancholic gorgeousness, one that will continue to be active for us, one that can never be shut down, no matter how bright the LED on our clock radio shines, no matter how fast our dial-up.

Robert Cook 

Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia


[1] Alvarez, A. (1995). Night: an exploration of night life, night language, sleep and dreams. Vintage: London. p.22

[2] All quotes from telephone interviews between the author and Mark Kimber, July and August 2008.

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