Art of the Underground: Opening adress Lorenzo Iozzi Museum Victoria

Art of the Underground:

Construction of the Northern Sewerage Project and the Main Sewer replacement Project

An exhibition of photographs by Christian Pearson

Exhibition opening July 19th 2012

I was pleased and honored to be invited to open Christian Pearson’s exhibition because of my interest in industrial photography and its significance in recording our history.

There is a thread in the history of modern photography in Australia which links the work of photographers such as Wolfgang Sievers, Mark Strizic, Helmut Newton and David Moore. The quality which characterizes these photographers’ work for me is their ability to see beauty and reality in the least expected place or situation: the ability to spiritualise the everyday.

In the case of Wolfgang Sievers that source of beauty could be found in a piece of machinery in a factory, and Mark Strizic found it in the emptiness of a deserted suburban street. Christian Pearson has gone in pursuit of beauty in the underground, in a tunnel or indeed in a sewer. I wonder how many of us had a mental picture of what was taking place below ground during the course of the project as we went about our daily activities on the streets of Melbourne. Chances are that it did not register because it was invisible. We were unaware that there was another pulse below our feet beating away to keep the city functional. Christian has made it visible for us.

But that’s the way of art isn’t it: an artist sees something of the world which most of us miss; they express that insight by simple means: a pencil, a paintbrush or a photograph, which then becomes a door to a hidden world. Christian’s work has these qualities. Far from being a place of darkness and nothingness, that we imagine it to be, Christian has given us startling images of light and color, of another world. And this is the measure of a good photographic image: that we want to keep looking at it because it enriches our life in ways we could not have imagined.

The artistic process is encapsulated beautifully in a pivotal moment in the project described by Christian, when he saw the first underground trucks laden with diggings. The sensation which gripped him wasn’t one of seeing mere rubble, but rather, he described a sense of reverence for the elements below the surface of the earth. And of being in a place which had not seen the light of day since the beginning of time. 

Thus, these works not only document an event; more importantly, they take us into another realm. This can only be done by pushing the medium into an abstract quality which Christian has achieved so successfully. This photograph on my right for example documents the construction of a tunnel, but its title is ‘Infinity’ which speaks of something more intangible. The title implies that if we look at the photograph, the image can take us all the way back and all the way forward in time. And so too the subject matter in the other photographs is a vehicle for a deeper insight into life: Time Warp, Light-at-the-end, An Alien World, The Daily Commute and Step Into The Future.

The most touching quality of Christian’s photographs is the way they en-noble the workers who went down into the shafts bonded by the ancient geology surrounding them every day. The nature of work itself is also explored which is most evident in the photograph which has been used to highlight the exhibition, Face-to-Face , where the combination of the worker and the giant inanimate machine ceases to be two separate things and becomes one entity. The image captures a moment of pride for the worker, who is not just posing for the camera but caught by the camera in a moment of great achievement.

I think it’s important too, to consider how these works reflect a point in time. How they encapsulate a moment in Melbourne’s history. This was one of the largest projects of its kind in Australia undertaken with a view to improving life in Melbourne, for people and the natural surroundings: Melbourne’s waterways for example were at risk without the intervention of this project.

The project took five years to complete using 4 million hours of manual labor and involved phenomenal engineering feats on a mammoth scale: the digging of 13 km of underground tunnels, 2.4 metres in diameter at depths up to 64 metres into the earth’s crust; parts of the tunneling went beneath the Yarra River requiring the construction of a coffer dam to hold back the river in that section.

Now that the workers have packed up their tools and gone, the photograph is the best record, indeed the only visual record we may have of this moment in history. Future generations will want to understand how this project was achieved in the same way that we are still mystified by how…much smaller engineering projects were accomplished in the 1860s or earlier. How well that history is preserved is dependent on how good the photographs are and as you see around you, we have an outstanding visual record to call on.

We have to commend Melbourne Water for commissioning a body of work like this and for having the foresight to employ someone like Christian to document what was a major engineering project for the city. The outcome, a small part of which we see around the walls, is something of historical and artistic importance. The brief Melbourne Water gave the photographer wasn’t simply to take a few happy snaps of the work: Christian shot 16,000 images in all, many of which push the boundaries away from the obvious [hence some of the images border on abstraction] to deliver something more real and significant. Melbourne has a rich industrial and technological past and this project and the life it embodied could quite easily have passed without trace for future generations if not for that decision by Melbourne Water.  So here is a wonderful example of a company committed to preserving Melbourne’s history.

I began by mentioning some key names in the history of photography in Australia: Mark Strizic, Helmut Newman and Wolfgang Sievers. Names associated with the modern movement in photography in Melbourne.  We can add Christian Pearson to this group. Christian’s work stands on its own and does not need comparison or association but I believe that the tradition started by those photographers has not ended but is carried on by photographers like Christian.

I don’t think words really do justice to Christian’s photographs but what will speak volumes for his work both this evening and in the future are the photographs themselves. We are fortunate that we will witness moments in history which as the catalogue states ‘once the project is commissioned for use won’t be seen again in our lifetime’. The only record of this engineering phenomenon will be Christian’s photographs. It gives me great pleasure then to open this exhibition.

Lorenzo Iozzi

Senior Collection Manager

Humanities Department

Museum Victoria