2017: Issue 8: Review: The Park: Toni Wilkinson: Perth Centre for Photography

Lovekin Raven

Toni Wilkinson. Lovekin Raven. 2017. 103 x 81cm. Giclee Print.

Parks are not, on the whole, a good urban design plan; appearing initially to be a utopian idea – green rolling hills in the urban environment – that are soon revealed to be the first space delinquency and crime appear. Jane Jacobs in The death and life of Great American Cities notes the penchant for urban planners to insert parks as some kind of stopgap, in lieu of multi-functional, multi-use space. This kind of practice results in the playground that becomes, at night, the habitat of other, unintended participants. Yet, as part of this unintended consequence, parks remain one of the few locations where people of all demographics, from homeless and disadvantaged to youthful picnic makers, gather in a largely un-stratified space.

This very double nature, however, permits a different form of engagement from that of the street or mall, which necessitate perpetual movement and move-on notices. The kind of un-stratified and static visibility afforded to all people in parks is rare in Perth due to the lack of common public meeting places – an absence of town squares with a plurality of economic and social functions, etc. Parks necessitate cohabitation, or a dwelling with the other. It is precisely this fecund and paradoxical potency in this space that Wilkinson’s show deals with. It opens to us the undergrowth and loam that build our principle public park.

Toni Wilkinson. Descendents. 2017. 124 x 82cm. Giclee Print.

Kings Park does not fit precisely into the general principles mentioned above. It does have strata – stolen in the name of empire, with all the statuary that entails, that feature prominently in Wilkinson’s show. It is at the heart of our town, high above those skyscrapers and businessmen, a park topped by a monument to fallen soldiers. This park is both at our heart, and peripheral to our true activity. It is the spiritual enclave of our city. No formal gardens like the Tuileries or Kew, no grand Versailles, yet just as planned and arranged, with rolling landscapes of green grass and water. The ubiquitous gum tree is here sacralised in colonnades, great ivory or marble trunks like the feet of an endless pantheon of the sky. King’s Park is a dream that floats above this city, a great earthen kingdom beside the shimmering glass towers in the heart of our town. The function of parks in urban spaces is as the symbolic image of what the city as a body imagines the natural world to be. If gardens are the images we hold of how the world should exist, then Kings Park presents us with a broad and vast area of open space (we are, after all, obsessed with land), reminiscent of a vast, untouched continent filled with the possibility of exploitation – a dream that has fuelled our fraught relationship with the landscape of this country. It is the manifestation of a state and national dream of our spiritual origins – in land conquest and borne in bloody battle.

Yet King’s Park changes form at night, and this is when most of this show takes place. One can go walking from the Perth Centre of Photography and peek at this darkness, so aptly captured by Wilkinson’s camera eye. Robert Cook’s fabulous essay delves into the readings of colonial and national pride, outlining the work’s crux in ‘the moment when candy-land brightness switches to grimace, and where postcard picture ‘we’ want to see, and show off, of ‘our place’, ‘our culture’, is revealed to be based on a lurid mash of racial power and libidinal reality.’ The darkness of this dreamscape is persistent and powerful – covert sex, overt displays of national pride and power, and a certain tannin-infused waste in the gutters. These images are powerful depictions of the troubling aspect of this enormous fantasyland.

Yet as well as this very troubling aspect, this show is also a useful mirror for the park, and infuses it with a heterogeneity of presences (young women wearing headscarves, tattooed and shirtless macho men, a young man playing with his dog, the ubiquitous crows). The works are printed large, but deservedly so (even if they suffer a loss of sharpness and clarity from time to time), a large swathe of land is bound to cast large shadows, and Wilkinson’s enlargements speak in a language that matches the aspect of their subject. They are dramatic and powerful, and push themselves up against the surface of their prints. Cramped in this space, they are windows you could trip and fall through.

There is an article tangentially related to this work I would like to mention here: Matthew Gandy writes, in Queer Ecology: nature, sexuality and heterotopic alliances, of Abney Park, a well known cruising ground of London’s North East, that is also a biodiversity hot-spot. Similarly, there is some element of collusion of the bio-diverse, the inaccessible, and base human desire in King’s Park that often goes unacknowledged. Kings Park legends extend well into the murderous as well as the sexual, and as one of the largest inner-city park in the world, it offers a vast swathe of land to fill with such imaginings – and occurrences. Gandy interestingly posits the potential of an alliance in his article, between the perception and activity of cruising in Abney Park, and its ability to retain endangered species and ecologically vital fungi and trees. While this is only a tentative argument, and one with, as Gandy states, limited ability for application to spatial theory, it does give us a model/metaphor in which to try and stake Wilkinson’s photographs of King’s Park. The photographs, in a way, are weapons against the false sweetening of what can be a dark and dangerous, but also vital place in the city.

This article cannot be read exactly in relation to this body of work, but there is a concept that is useful, to the park and to the work: that of alliances. One senses that Wilkinson’s camera has unwitting collaborators in the people and scenes that play out before it. These images might reveal darkness, but they also help to retrieve Kings Park from being made a wholly acceptable and controllable space. It is a vision of both the liberation and oppression that can be found in the shadows of its trees – the common meeting ground, the patriot’s playground, the sexual possibilities in the park. People seem always to travel to King’s park and take photos of flowers and people in dappled shade, but Wilkinson, to her credit, is able to retrieve photographs from the supremely photogenic – even one of a wildflower – and create images that undo and turn against other images, and reveal the contention within the park. And perhaps the ecology, social and political and environmental, of the park has an ally in Wilkinson’s camera, which burrows like a worm through the soil, leaving it richer.

written by Graham Mathwin,