This essay written by Gavin Wilson curator of the Big River Show exhibited at the Wagga Wagga City Art Gallery July 2002.
This exhibition was originally planned to tour in the (mostly regional) galleries along the Murrumbidgee River, in a sense re-enacting Sturt's epic journey; but this didn't take place.

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the  big  river  show
essay by gavin wilson






Mr Macleay and I enjoyed a most beautiful view. Beneath us to the S.E. [is] the rich and lightly timbered valley through which the Morumbidgee flows …

- Charles Sturt, 1 December 1829.

Looking at landscape is seldom a straightforward matter.  When explorers Charles Sturt and George Macleay gazed across the Murrumbidgee River they did so with a certain duality of vision. They were delighted to see a landscape that conformed to their ideal of the picturesque, but their contemplation also incorporated a favourable valuation of the place in terms of its pastoral potential. The fact that the region was already a cultural and economic resource for its indigenous inhabitants – and had been for thousands of years – was a fact that did not form part of this reverie.

 For the explorers and their followers, there was never any doubt about the value of the colonial enterprise. The need to impose order fitted in with their ideology of progress, and the opportunity to transform the wilderness into a ‘productive’ landscape justified their presence. Time would tell a different tale.

Nevertheless, the grandeur and interconnectedness of the myriad riverine systems throughout the Murrumbidgee catchment is irresistible, and its celebration by this exhibition is richly deserved. Roaming along its course, The Big River Show detects the convergence of creative activity with those aspects of the Murrumbidgee’s history and topography that are its unifying elements. While the presence of the river itself may not always be obvious, the works assembled for display are a consideration of the shifting landscape and cultural values perceived over time. The exhibition reflects not only upon the region’s beauty, but also upon aspects of loss, displacement and isolation that mark the Aboriginal, migrant and settler stories – narratives that remain at the core of the Australian experience.

A key focus of the show has been to remain mindful of and receptive to historic and contemporary art practice reflected in the experience of life in and around the Murrumbidgee catchment. A rich array of works including paintings, sculpture, photography and graphics has been selected from the following artists: Denis Allard, Gordon Bennett, John Caldwell, John Carney, Jeff Carter, Margaret Coen, Beryl Feron, Shay Docking, Russell Drysdale, Rosalie Gascoigne, Barry Gazzard, Elioth Gruner, Treahna Hamm, Ludwig Hirshfeld Mack, Roy Kennedy, Elwyn Lynn, Michael Murphy, John Olsen, Michael Ramsden, Michael Taylor, Imants Tillers, Anita Wickey, Arthur Wicks, John Wolseley and Anne Zahalka.

In many ways, the works assembled for The Big River Show reflects the evolving shift to the present perception of the Murrumbidgee as a threatened entity. The key to the survival of the river and its surrounds may lie in the unlocking of the imagination we need to be able to see - and to value for ourselves - the intricate systems that make up the richly interwoven fabric of this great riverine landscape.

Gavin Wilson is presently preparing the inaugural exhibition for Artspace, Mackay
Beneath the Monsoon: Visions North of Capricorn in February 2003.

JULY 2002
Gavin Wilson

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