From the beginning of European settlement in Australia, curious specimens of strange flora and fauna were observed, collected and catalogued. A great interest by European naturalists in this ‘land of contrarieties’, together with the competitive acquisitiveness of imperial museums, saw large shipments of natural specimens sent back to Europe. Descriptions and studies of new-found flora and fauna were published, and scientific literature flourished.
The small convict colony that was Australia lacked naturalists to describe the new world encountered. It was this need to send our native flora and fauna away, this dislocation in understanding over a great distance, that intrigued the artist Joseph McGlennon in his 2011 series, Strange Voyage. In that series, McGlennon drew on Captain Cook’s return to England in 1771, sailing home laden with vast numbers of plant specimens, and animals previously unknown to Europeans. In McGlennon’s contemporary vision, Strange Voyage was a masterful reimagining of the proud and exotic Kangaroo, crudely stuffed and paraded within the unfamiliar and paradoxical European landscape.
Extending this notion of the gathering together of exotic flora and fauna, McGlennon’s Florilegium, 2014 (Latin; to gather flowers), explored the 17th century botanical gardens that emerged across Europe, privately hoarding and cultivating the exotic. At that time there was a growing desire to chorale and record the world’s flora and fauna and a rapidly growing confidence in science. These ideals fused in the artist’s imagination to produce Florilegium, 2014, as a luxurious record of the rare; equal parts scientific and aesthetic. Important beauties to be viewed in the one vista.
Within Eclectus Australis, 2018, we see the artist taking his audience forward; combining elements of our early enchanting clash of the scientific with our centuries old romantic need to gather and order. Here McGlennon extends these two earlier bodies of work, into the clear light of the Australian landscape. McGlennon captures within each photograph, a brilliant moment wherein lies the strangeness and great beauty of an imaginary ‘Land of contrarieties’.
Both the Indigenous and the invading are seen to populate the images in Eclectus Australis. In Eclectus – Brown Goshawk, 2018, the bird of prey clutches our great ecological disaster, the European rabbit, whilst perched over the colonial inland corridor that was the Hawkesbury River. Like Sir Arthur Streeton in his master oil painting, Purple Noon’s Transparent Night 1896, McGlennon places his viewer high and floating above the magnificence of the Hawkesbury landscape. McGlennon uses this Streeton-esque device to highlight the clean, unbridled Australian landscape. As Streeton did in the late 19th century, juxtaposing a new Australia from the carved out confines of an old and tamed Europe.
As in his earlier series Strange Voyage 2011, McGlennon positions within his imagery elements of the introduced, alongside the native. Species invasion in all its forms was swift in Australia. Introduced species adapted and blended with the native landscape, quickly and often with a clash. However, great beauty could also be found. In Eclectus – African Grey Parrot, 2018, and Eclectus – Indian Peacocks, 2018, we see fauna introduced into Australia as ornamental birds in the early 1800’s.
This reimagined land is painstakingly created. In Eclectus –Salmon Crested Cockatoos, 2018, again set in the upper reaches of the Hawkesbury River, we see the wild-at-heart cockatoos, three butterflies, a lizard, and sprays of flowers that were all individually photographed with McGlennon’s Hasselblad camera and collaged into a whole. There are over eighty individual photographs used to compile this imaginary ‘land of contrarieties’.
Be it scientifically recorded or creatively composed, McGlennon has drawn from the deep well that is Australia’s early history of settlement and the introduction of species. Here the artist reimagines the wonder, confusion and delight, that was and still is Australia’s flora and fauna.