When the dust storm hit Melbourne in 1983, the sky turned from blue to orange. It was the end of a school day. I remember being transfixed by the view from the window, astounded that such a portentous omen was going unremarked, seemingly un-noticed by the rest of the class. We were sent home as normal, dismissed into the alien atmosphere, the air faintly metallic, thick and full of foreboding. The winds hit just after I'd left the school grounds. It was all I could do to keep from being blown on to the road, and I arrived home stunned and sandblasted. The weather, it seemed, was determined to wreak vengeance of biblical proportions.
The Old Testament magnitude of that storm is captured in Susan Norrie's video installation Undertow (all works 2002). Specially commissioned for the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art's new gallery, six monochromatic components, or 'elements', are projected at various scales on to various walls, but it is the epic Element 3 that dominates the space. It fills the end wall, enlarged to such a scale that the film grain becomes an integral part of the image. A tidal wave of dust, huge beyond comprehension, obliterates the sky, utterly dwarfing Melbourne's suburbs as it descends, unchallenged and omnipotent, on the city centre. Flinders Street Station - a Melbourne landmark - lurks in a hazy, dust-induced twilight, as rush-hour trucks and cars lumber by with their headlights on prematurely in a bid to navigate the murk. Skyscrapers fade progressively upwards into shrouded obscurity.
Undertow continues Norrie's fascination with catastrophe and disaster. This is easily her most ambitious and most accomplished work. A subdued, hypnotic soundscape throbs through the space like laboured breathing - moody, atmospheric and vaguely dangerous. Its pace matches that of the video works, all of them slowed down to that speed in dreams where the air is thick enough to swim in. This footage of generic, international apocalypse was sourced from the archives of Greenpeace, the Bureau of Meteorology and local television stations, and combined with clips from Russia, Scotland, France, Japan and New Zealand.
Despite its damning content, the imagery in Element 3 is compelling and achingly romantic. Although the work alludes to religious imagery, Norrie stops short of preaching. Waves, ink-black and glossy, roll momentously in an oily ocean. Flames ravage a Germanic landscape, illuminating blackened silhouettes of birch trees; plumes of smoke billow up from the burning earth in an image both beautiful and terrifying. Even the water is on fire.
The remaining Elements are almost superfluous, so overwhelmed are they by the monumental Element 3. For the most part they continue with the environmental theme, projected from custom-built boxes reminiscent of funky weather stations. Black and metallic, they sit atop chrome stilts and give the uncanny impression that they are gathering rather than disseminating information, like giant listening devices or black boxes recording potential disasters.
Two figures in masks and baggy overalls reinforce the sense of conspiracy. Protected from contamination, they inflate weather balloons with gas before unleashing them into the sky in a bid to predict the caprices of nature. A convoy of trucks and jeeps, ponderously slow, rolls steadily out of town, suggesting an evacuation or a military coup. A seabird sodden with oil stars in an all too familiar environmental snuff film. Utterly saturated, it is beyond help and at last receives the lethal injection. Limp, torn and looking for all the world like a discarded rag, it is boxed away in cardboard, joining an ever growing stack of similar coffins.
Element 6, screened on a miniature monitor, is the only component that stands alone against Element 3, possibly because its scale demands an intimate scrutiny, and possibly because the imagery differs from that of the other works. Taken from Orson Welles' film of Kafka's The Trial (1963), it focuses on a woman in standard babushka-issue headscarf and boots, laboriously dragging a trunk through bleak Soviet housing projects and lumpy, muddy ground from which nothing grows. Existentially stubborn, she determinedly refuses assistance from a besuited Joseph K, who seems to epitomize a well-meaning, patronizing modernity.
First published in Issue 73