I give you a mountain
I give you a mountain references a watercolour painted in 1786 by British natural history painter Sarah Stone (active 1777-1820). It was commissioned by Sir Ashton Lever to immortalise his soon-to-be auctioned collection of exotic birds, antiquities and ethnographic objects, including those sourced from the Pacific via his friend Captain James Cook. The original picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy, London in 1786, with later copies made of it by anonymous artists (including one in the British Museum dated 1835). A large group of watercolours by Stone of the specimens and objects in the Leverian collection were offered to Sir Joseph Banks (but he is thought not to have purchased them), and several were published in her lifetime.
In the 1780s, the Leverian Museum was situated in a former Royal palace, Leicester House, the adjoining rooms of which are visible in Sarah Stone’s watercolour as a progression of gradually receding chambers revealing themselves through a series of archways. Joan Ross has used this perspectival conceit to good use in her animation, drawing the viewer through a series of rooms similarly bedecked with specimens. At first the space is pulsating with insect and plant life in a sort of prelapsarian paradise. As viewers pass through, they encounter headless birds encased in glass jars and domes, while the original words of 19th century diarists on the subject of indigenous Australian birdlife are spoken. As the video approaches its conclusion via room wallpapered with scenes from early Colonial Sydney and a banal contemporary television ad promising ‘Dog happiness’ in a pill, it ends in a bleak, lunar landscape of graffiti-covered rocks and a mountain. As the geological features begin to disintegrate, two 18th century European men occupying the space also begin to turn to dust, finally leaving nothing but their lopped heads.
The voracious capture and classification of wildlife specimens by scholars, explorers, soldiers and genteel amateurs in the age of the Enlightenment is jarring, with its careless conflation of human/ethnographic and natural material in collections that divorced these objects from their rightful place in nature and culture. The anxieties of empire and thoughtlessness about the living objects they collected, and in preserving were in fact destroying, are palpable in this work and not relegated to the past. Rather, they persist into the present moment of capitalist consumerism and environmental crisis.
single channel digital animation, colour, sound
duration: 00:06:30min, aspect ratio: 16:9
Signature & date
Signed Certificate of authenticity l.l., black ink "Toby Meagher/Joan Ross". Dated u.l. corner, black printed ink "10 December 2019".
Gift of the artist 2019. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program
Not on display
© Joan Ross