Since the 1980s Susan Norrie has been interested in the practice of painting, the language used to describe the medium, and the way it is understood by the viewer. It was not surprising when Norrie began working with video during the late 1990s. The sensual textures she achieved with her investigations into painting are aptly transformed into the moving image, a medium capable of affective nuances in light and tonal density. 'Undertow' is one of her most ambitious video installations and the culmination of several years of experimentation. Through projected and screen images, sound and sculptural objects, it portrays the world in a state of both beauty and corruption, shuddering with natural and unnatural events that verge on the catastrophic. The viewer is immersed in images of ominous tempests, delicate spring blossoms, boiling mud pools, swirling clouds of dust and scientific experiments which in the face of these phenomena seem futile and inadequate. The range and scale of imagery have a vertiginous and unsettling effect, immediately powerful but with a lingering afterlife.
In 'Undertow', a large projection of changing images dominates the exhibition space. A tumultuous ocean surges and boils. A forest wreathed in haze recalls the sublime grandeur of paintings by German romantics such as Caspar David Friedrich but the haze is from chemical fires which envelop the trees. In another sequence the earth itself seems to smoke and burn. One of the most resonant images shows the massive dust storm that swept over Melbourne in 1983. Clouds of eroded soil rear up over the city and roll in, blocking out the sun and engulfing such familiar buildings as Flinders Street station. As traffic crawls through the haze and people use flashlights mid afternoon to find their way, the resulting darkened and eerie city feels post-apocalyptic.
Another projection in the exhibition space of scientists clad in protective clothing releasing a fragile balloon to measure ozone-destroying gases in the atmosphere seems to suggest how science has furthered understanding but has also failed to find a balance between modernity’s progress and environmental degradation. Norrie's sense of the futility of individual human endeavour in the face of bureaucracy is suggested in the endlessly repeating loop of a scene from Orson Welles' film version of Franz Kafka's 'The trial'.
And yet on another screen, encountered just before leaving the room, a child carried on a man's shoulders reaches for cherry blossom, a cloud of pink flowers above her head. Utterly fragile and beautiful, it is an image of the promise and enduring beauty of nature renewed each season. Despite the potential horror of some of the imagery, a dark and compelling beauty animates 'Undertow'. Its gothic painterly quality is underscored by an insistent and hypnotic soundtrack by Robert Hindley. Welles' voiceover at the beginning of 'The trial' is prescient: 'It has been said that the logic of this story is the logic of a dream, of a nightmare'.
Six channel digital video, colour, sound, projection boxes
edition of 3
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Purchased with funds provided by Clayton Utz 2003
Not on display
© Susan Norrie
Shown in 1 exhibition
Susan Norrie: Undertow, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 22 Jul 2003–12 Oct 2003
Referenced in 11 publications
Simon Blond, The West Australian Weekend Extra, Dangerous undercurrents', pg. 12-13, 12 Apr 2003, Arts: 12, 13 (illus.).
Natasha Bullock, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Landscape, mapping, nature', pg.290-331, Sydney, 2006, 2 (colour illus.), 293, 324-5 (colour illus.), 432.
Jazmina Cininas, Frieze no.73, 'Susan Norrie' review, pg.103, London, Mar 2003, 103 (colour illus.).
Carmel Dwyer, The Bulletin, 'Earthly treasures', pg. 94-96, Sydney, 29 Oct 2002, 94-96, 94-95 (colour illus.).
Anne Loxley, The Sydney Morning Herald, 'Fragments caught in the undertow of slow-motion alchemy', pg. 12, Sydney, 29 Jul 2003, Metropolitan: 12.
Andrew MacKenzie, Contemporary, 'Susan Norrie: Undertow' review, pg. 83, London, Dec 2002, 83.
Robert Nelson, Age, 'Individual, moody and seductive' review, Melbourne, 26 Oct 2002, (illus.).
Daniel Palmer, Broadsheet, 'Susan Norrie: Undertow' review, pg. 28, 2002.
Wayne Tunnicliffe, Look, 'Strong currents', pg.20-21, Sydney, Aug 2003, 20-21 (colour illus.).
Melbourne Festival Visual Arts Program, 'Susan Norrie: Undertow', pg. 60-73, Melbourne, 2002, cover (colour illus.), 60, 61-70 (colour illus.), 68-73, 72-73 (colour illus.).
Undertow, Sydney, 2003, (colour illus.) (illus.). no pagination