Monday, August 21, 2023


Exhibition Review: Textiles, mixed media, ephemeral artworks, installations, artist books & photobooks | Brian Rope

PALIMPSEST | Victoria Cooper, Maggie Hollins, Doug Spowart

BAINZ Gallery, Wangaratta Library | 5 – 28 August 2023

The Winton Wetlands are at Winton North in north-eastern Victoria - near to Benalla. I’ve never visited them, but after viewing this exhibition and speaking with two of the artists about it, I have some understanding of what these wetlands now are like.

Three artists from Benalla have collaborated to produce and display a wonderful visual exhibition inspired by the layered human and natural history and contemporary renewal of the wetlands. They have sought to associate the altered landscape with the concept of a palimpsest – one dictionary I checked gives the meaning as “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing” or as “something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form”. The artists are contributing to discussion of different, yet overlapping, stories of the wetlands.

The restoration currently happening at these wetlands has been described as a project of national scientific, environmental and cultural significance. It is the largest wetlands restoration project in the southern hemisphere and has been ranked as a 'wetland of distinction' by the Society of Wetland Scientists.

Victoria Cooper and Doug Spowart have been involved in the arts as practitioners, teachers and commentators for a lengthy time, including having residencies at Bundanon. Maggie Hollins has qualifications in ceramics, leads art workshops and makes music with her fiddle. Unsurprisingly therefore, each and every artwork displayed is of a high standard.

There are unique, handmade textural and sculptural artworks by Hollins that use a diverse variety of materials – including found small branches, knotted bark, dyed cotton thread, solar and rust dyed cotton fabric, metal rings, and found grasses. Some are accompanied by postcard sized images of the same artworks “displayed” on site in the wetlands. Those images were a team effort – Hollins operated the camera, Cooper was location scout and camera assistant, and Spowart did the lighting and Director of Photography duties. 

Hollins montage of works - Photo Spowart

Hollins 'Drifting on a Current' – Photo - a collaboration

Spowart and Cooper commonly work collaboratively with each other and their extensive experience of doing so is clearly on display here in their further collaboration with Hollins. In this show, we see Cooper’s images of Spowart taking other images – and Spowart’s images of Cooper taking other images. They have described the resultant diptychs as Witnessing. In Witnessing winter the smaller of two images shows Cooper photographing a wintry scene along a track, whilst the larger image in the diptych is the photo that she took. Witnessing The Lunette adds a  further witness in that one photographer’s shadow is included in the image of the other photographer photographing the scene.

Cooper+Spowart - 'Witnessing The Lunette' diptych

When visitors stand and look at each diptych they, in turn, become further witnesses.

When we view Hollins piece titled Harmony - small branches, knotted bark and dyed cotton thread, we can also see an image of it at the wetlands being held by the artist with a view of the wetlands behind her. Visitors to the gallery are, therefore, seeing the artwork itself together with a view of how it looked within a wetlands space. This too is “witnessing”. 

Hollins with 'Harmony'  - Photo Spowart

There are also larger standalone photographic prints by Cooper & Spowart conveying stories of witnessing, magnificent 3-metre-wide concertina photobooks by Spowart displayed folded out and attached to the wall, plus artist books and poetry by Cooper.

In a foreword to her artist book A Work in Progress, Cooper says “I have an ongoing exploration of desire paths created by animals and the marks on the land made by …. trees, water and wind”. Over time ….. these agents of change create a palimpsest….”

Winton North Road with Vicky - Photo Spowart

Doug at Ashmead's Swamp - Photo Cooper

Spowart 'Once was' + 'Story Trees' closeup – Photo Spowart


Cooper 'A work in progress' (artist book) from the video by Spowart

Cooper reveals a further strength in her artist’s arsenal through her poem which relates to the Witnessing winter diptych mentioned earlier.

Cooper+Spowart-'Witnessing winter' diptych

The entire exhibition all comes together splendidly, most successfully conveying the messages the artists want visitors to hear. It is a fine illustration of how a number of artists can collaborate and produce a body of diverse work which speaks clearly and loudly to those willing to listen, as well as look at the individual pieces. It is clear that all three collaborators are consummate artists.

If you are in the area, or able to travel to Wangaratta, whilst this exhibition remains in place, it is well worth seeing. You might also visit the Winton Wetlands any time you are in the area.

This review is also available on the author's blog here.