Updated: Apr 24
The recent death of two famous father figures, the revered Tibetan Buddhist master and spiritual leader Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche and the fictitious and reviled media baron, Logan Roy from the Emmy award-winning TV series, Succession prompted me to reflect on the Buddhist concept of impermanence and change and on the life and death of my own father, who died in 1973 when I was sixteen years old.
Since the Black Summer bushfires which devastated my region on the south east coast of Australia three years ago, I have been compelled to make art, often with fire itself, to raise awareness about climate change and the ecological perils facing the planet. In 2020 I was invited to participate in OUTPUT - Art After Fire - an international pilot project supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through their Cultural Diplomacy Grants Program which assisted artists in southeast Australia and the American west to create artwork about their bushfire experiences. Most of the work I produced for that project was digital art and nine months ago, in what seemed like a natural progression, I began to experiment with, in this instance, the appropriately named artificial intelligence image generator, Midjourney. Despite the current controversy surrounding AI generated art, I am finding it a powerful tool for realising concepts around climate change and the environment.
I come from a long line of creatives. My great-grandfather and his father before him were both artists employed as head engravers by the London Illustrated News. Prior to the advent of photography, at which time they would have promptly lost their jobs, like so many usurped by artificial intelligence and the plethora of new technologies today, they would engrave their illustrations into wood blocks which were then printed alongside the relevant article in the latest edition of the illustrious news magazine.
My father was a professional photographer and, in a departure from the climate art I’ve been making for the last three years, I decided to use Midjourney to blend some of his photographs, many of which are stored on my laptop as digital images, with my own, creating a poignant link between his artistic output and mine.
In 1961 my family immigrated as ‘Ten Pound Poms’ from Lancashire in the north of England to Australia. We were sponsored by the 'Bring Out A Briton Scheme’ and there is even a photograph of us settling, after a gruelling six weeks at sea, into our temporary Methodist Church-sponsored home in the genteel suburb of Malvern, in the Immigration Museum Collection in Melbourne.
Two of my father's photographs stood out. One of Sydney Harbour Bridge and another of a congregation of dressed-in-their-Sunday-best parishioners outside the Methodist Church in Malvern, both of which were taken not long after we arrived in Australia. I think my sister and I are somewhere in the crowd in the former image but in the latter we are somewhere off-camera, no doubt either side of our mother who would have been clutching our tiny hands in a vice grip to prevent us from being run over by a hulking FB Holden in the blinding Australian light.
When Midjourney blended my father’s photographs with my own photographs of the Australian landscape, mostly captured close to where I live on the Far South Coast of New South Wales, I was blown away with the results and what they said to, or rather screamed at, me. At first sight the subject matter appears benign. It is only on closer inspection that we see something is not quite right - a surreal twilight world, at once so familiar and strange. Malformed bridges appear in the stylised bush or in the hazy distance; indistinct figures, by and large women in mid-century church-going attire, mill zombie-like near a bridge or gaze at the strange structures from afar. 1960-esque cars, having driven their occupants to the metaphorical end of their life journey, stand haphazardly abandoned, not going anywhere now. Buddhists call this state the ‘bardo’, an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth.
I have entitled this body of work The Bridge - a bridge being a common metaphor for crossing over to heaven, hell, purgatory, the next life, the afterlife or nothingness, depending on what we believe to be true in relation to what happens when we die. This work also has great personal significance because, through the extraordinary machinations of and rapid advances in artificial intelligence, I have been able to create a tangible bridge between my father’s work and my own, something neither of us would ever have imagined possible in his lifetime or mine.