Exhibitions    The Life of Inland Waters, Australian Galleries, Melbourne

01.05.18 to 20.05.18

The Life of Inland Waters


As a small boy, I was inordinately interested in insects, animals and reptiles. At the age of six, I spent so many hours watching lizards on a decayed walnut stump – that my father contacted a child psychologist. I never knew what he reported to my father but whatever it was it cannot have been helped by my saying that I didn't much like being human, and very much desired to become a lizard. As I grew up, I became more and more interested in trying to look at the world through the eyes of  creatures other than myself, and was helped in this by a series of obsessions with certain writers and philosophers. This included Basho who wrote: From the pine tree, learn of the pine; And from the bamboo, learn of the bamboo.


When I arrived in Australia I had a serious Heidegger craze. I was very taken with the way he described how the artist and poet can get in tune – stimmung – with nature. Later, I came across Jakob von Uexküll the early behaviorist who in his book, A Foray into the worlds of animals and humans  introduces the concept of the umwelt. He suggests that in order to understand nature one has to undergo a kind of shape-shifting and somehow enter into the umwelt or ‘life world’ of creatures.  His wonderful description of the life cycle of bush ticks continues to affect me as I will describe later in this essay.


Since I came to live in Australia I have followed this approach with a kind of almost 19th century synthesizing zeal.   I have extended my identification with insects and reptiles  to include trying to enter into the dynamic processes of the whole bloody cosmos. This has been exaggerated by my almost sycophantic tendency to have Pauline conversions and to attempt to follow in the footsteps of giants of science. This I have done by stealing a number of ideas from various heroes such as  Humboldt, Wallace, Goethe and Lovelock, and in the arts, from no lesser personages than Leonardo, Titian, Turner and Joseph Beuys.


So there I was  in 1995, traveling from Valparaíso down the coast to Tierra del fuego following Darwin and the Beagle as well as Alexander von Humboldt  (who did write a book entitled ‘Cosmos’).  Humboldt was possibly the greatest universalizing and synthesizing scientist of all time. Under his influence, I engaged in an ambitious project to make an exhibition which somehow reconstructed the moving apart of Gondwana. I was in danger of  re-enacting what happened to Acteon when he surprised Diana – unwittingly prying into the secrets of natural forces as I documented how the plants and animals on the separated tectonic plates continued to evolve – the Gondwanan proteaceae for instance  became both the waratahs of Tasmania and the ciruelillo of Chile.   It was Humboldt who described the earth as, a natural whole, animated and moved by inward forces.


Later, I followed the tracks of Alfred Wallace as he researched the Wallace line and invented his own theory of natural selection at the same time as Darwin. In the islands to the north of Australia, I had a good stab at getting into the umwelt of parrots and butterflies. Some of these individual species are a living indication of evolution through deep time on the edge of a tectonic plate.   


When I returned I did have to engage in some heavy bouts of self-questioning. Why I asked myself did I seem always seem to be following these protean heroes? And what is worse mimicking the same kind of heroic narratives. While I continued to be drawn to overarching theories I was also aware that I was guilty of extreme perversity at a time when such ways of thinking were seriously out of fashion - often for good reason.   Even phrases like the great chain of being were suspect and had been used in the context of Social Darwinism and other mistaken theories. 


So it was with enormous relief that I stumbled upon a grand narrative which was not so encumbered with suspect associations. I discovered Lovelock and his Gaia hypothesis, itself named after Gaia the old Greek goddess.   In particular I was taken with Lovelock’s idea that inanimate parts of the earth could be said to be living as elements within a larger world-wide system.

Here at last was a meta-theory which after some ups and downs has been mostly accepted by the scientific establishment. Lovelock describes the biosphere as one great super-organism in which the atmosphere, the ocean, the climate and the crust of the earth are regulated at a state miraculously comfortable for life. The sun drives these great cyclic systems – plants, forests photosynthesis, carbon dioxide, climate – mists, rain, transpiration – all integral parts of the great ‘chime and symphony of nature’.


Lovelock talks about the earth as a super-organism. Even James Hutton, the father of geology, noticed in 1785 how the cycling of the nutritious elements in the soil and the movement of water from clouds to rivers to the ocean could be compared to the circulation of the blood.  I also when painting, like to think of the earth as a huge animal. And as an artist my excitement about this animal revolves round three main Gaian characteristics.


Firstly just as the whole earth can be seen as Gaia, the ecosystems of which it is made, can also be understood as smaller self-organizing organisms – like mini Gaias. I realize that when I paint a floodplain, a swamp or a sand dune system that I am painting microcosms - and within each one can be found a number of interconnected systems composed of flows of water, patterns of vegetation and the tracks and tunnels of the life cycles of insects.


Secondly, it seems to me that the most wonderful painters of land and sea have always painted the total dynamic of a given ecosystem or landscape. Historically I’m thinking of Turner, Casper David Friedrich and in contemporary times, the many great indigenous artists of this country who image the earth as a moving living entity – a huge vibrant animal.   For instance, Turner’s Rain steam and speed – the great Western railway …is for me a marvelous distillation of landscape as biosphere. And in an uncanny way it even manages to forecast the spectre of carbon in the form of that dark steam train.   


Thirdly, there is the potential in Gaia to readjust and radically rejig herself in the event of malfunction or collapse. During my last ten years tracing the water systems all over Australia, I have found distressingly strong examples of this kind of malfunction in action.  For instance the climate oscillations caused by global warming may affect two thirds of the world’s harvests.  In Australia crop productivity is likely to be dramatically reduced on such a scale that may combine with other factors to make the continent uninhabitable for humans


This kind of thing seems to me to describe rather graphically what is meant by the earth as a self-organizing entity – an earth which could in a shuddering movement, toss overboard a large chunk of humanity.  As I was painting the Durabodboi River with its extraordinary diversity of species, I was often thinking of another huge water body, the Murrimbidgee, which has over the last years become more of a sewer than a river. 


The Life of Inland Waters is organized into two main themes.  In the innermost space are the works in which I have tried very hard to be an insect – continuing my childhood obsessions.  In 101 Insect Life Stories I have drawn the life worlds of beetles, grubs and wasps as seen in microcosm.  In the other spaces there are a number of paintings in which I have attempted to identify myself with the life-forces of inland waters especially the creeks, rivers and billabongs of the Blue Mud Bay area of North East Arnhem Land.

In these paintings I am trying to show how a tropical river ecosystem can be painted as a kind of microcosm of our earth with all the interconnecting patterns and flows of water enfolding plants insects and fish.


This watery pilgrimage started in 2009.  It was then that I started a five year adventure as I worked along side the great Yolŋu artist, Mulkun Wirrpanda to paint the edible plants of the Blue Mud Bay region.  While she was painting the magnificent series of barks and larrakitj (some 130 in all), I was trundling after her along the banks of the floodplains of Garanarri and Garanalli doing my drawings of the same plants which I then joined together to make the ten metre painting entitled, Distant Glimpses of the great floodplain seen through a veil of trees and hanging vines.   This all became the museum installation Middawar/Harvest: The Art of Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley shown at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra and now touring across Australia. 


In 2009, Mulkun adopted me as her wawa or brother and gave me the name langurrk, a kind of beetle larvae which tunnels through the earth and the yams that grow in it.  Each of her paintings combine figurative and geometric systems (madayin miniy’tji)  to describe that plant and to portray the nature and mythological forces which have made that landscape, and are now physically embedded into it.  As Howard Morphy wrote ‘Geometric elements at particular loci encode relationship between landforms and the mythological event which took place there, without giving priority to any one meaning’[1].


For this exhibition I’ve tried to make versions of my own distillations of the idea of Gaia which I described earlier.  In dungurruk/butjuwutu/mona this has taken the form of several plants and their yams and tubers engraved into a matrix of  King Billy pine. The Dioscoria transversa yam was named after Dioscorides (70 CE), the first herbalist and father of pharmacy. The yams rest within the pine grain, and as I engrave them they seem to be like little earths – underground miniature aquifers of carbohydrate.  Within them there are the tunnels of langurrk, eating the yams from inside out. 


In the painting, The Life of Inland Waters – Durabudboi River, I have drawn a web of fish and aquatic plants and currents of water far inland at the headwaters of the floodplain. The way the plants, sometimes in serried lines or groups or undulating mats, are woven into the currents of water reminded me of flocks of different birds in a stormy sky. Some are moored to the bed of the stream while others such as the carnivorous bladderworts swim about freely waving their bladder-like traps in the current. The serpentine stems of various water lilies flow out and then contract when the water recedes in the dry season.


Over the last few years, I have made etchings, rubbings and relief prints of the engravings made by beetle larvae as they tunnel under the bark of trees in Victoria and Arnhem land.  The tiny grubs which have hatched from eggs laid on the branches of trees spread out to make unique road maps – each one having a calligraphy peculiar to its species. The prints or frottage’s (rubbings) which I have made from this tracery document the cycle of life – from egg to lavae to adult beetle and round again.  I have also shape-shifted into the forms of ship-worms, ghost moths, termites and mason wasps.  Like the sacred scarab beetle of the ancient Egyptians the beetles in this series of prints signify renewal. At the same time they are Gaian microcosms which I quite often collage onto the larger system, the river, the tree, the macrocosm.


I find it intriguing that what scientists might describe as feed-back systems, poets might call cycles of eternal return.  I myself with my penchant for meta-narratives would hope to use the word immortality.  But if in fact all these grandiose theories fail me I can at least hope that I might go on living in the form of a beetle or lizard or tree. Or as Hokusai wrote just before he died – Now as a spirit I shall roam the summer fields.


John Wolseley


[1] Morphy, Ancestral Connections, p.300

The life of inland waters – Durabudboi river by John Wolseley

The life of inland waters – Durabudboi river  2018

watercolour, graphite, woodcut on paper

124 x 445cm

Buwakul climbing a tree beside the flood plain of Garaŋarri by John Wolseley

Buwakul climbing a tree beside the flood plain of Garaŋarri  2018

watercolour, graphite and Japanese tissue

214 x 140cm

Lagoon – Durabudboi river by John Wolseley

Lagoon – Durabudboi river  2018

watercolour on paper

228.5 x 140cm

Yukuwa – Vigna vexilata, in karst bauxite rocks by John Wolseley

Yukuwa – Vigna vexilata, in karst bauxite rocks  2018

watercolour and graphite on paper

73 x 100cm

Räkay and Wäkwak, Durabodboi river by John Wolseley

Räkay and Wäkwak, Durabodboi river  2018

watercolour on paper

94.5 x 139.5cm

Räkay and Wäkwak by John Wolseley

Räkay and Wäkwak  2018

watercolour on paper

94.5 x 139.5cm

Beetles in the salt - Lake Tyrrell by John Wolseley

Beetles in the salt - Lake Tyrrell  2018

watercolour and etching on paper

130 x 220cm

Wawaru – Mimusops elengi by John Wolseley

Wawaru – Mimusops elengi  2018

watercolour and graphite on paper

176 x 76cm

Clerodendrum in the monsoon rain by John Wolseley

Clerodendrum in the monsoon rain  2018

watercolour and graphite on paper

230 x 140cm

Dhuŋguruk, Butjuwutju/Mona and Djitama  - edible tubers of East Arnhem Land by John Wolseley

Dhuŋguruk, Butjuwutju/Mona and Djitama - edible tubers of East Arnhem Land  2018

woodcut from King Billy Pine with watercolour

111 x 255cm

Yirrinaŋiŋ, Muwuka and Buwakul by John Wolseley

Yirrinaŋiŋ, Muwuka and Buwakul  2015

wood cut from three blocks

94 x 118

Back to Top