Of People and Places / Greg Salzmann


Clare Richardson’s Beyond the Forest describes a place and its people. Its seventeen images develop the semblance of a narrative, albeit one without any distinct plot.

With consummate subtlety, concision and sympathy Richardson’s pictures convey the earthiness of the place. We are led to experience its gently undulating, deforested topography; to sense its cocooned remoteness; and to appreciate the bucolic tenor of its traditional, pre-industrial way of life.

Through judicious sequencing the seventeen disparate images read as stills from a single film. The work’s cinematic quality hinges on the discontinuity of the account, whose flow is regulated by cuts and dissolves. The point of view maintained throughout the piece is one of transparent naturalism. Richardson’s pictures are notable for their directness, for how they immerse us in pictorial space, for their physicality and haptic appeal, and for their implication of movement. Through these associated traits her work is imbued with and mimics the intimate consistency and the naturally rhythmical, routine, even, slow pace of this rural mode of existence.

Despite their ordinariness, certain of these images seem to be laden with uncommon significance. From the opening image we are confronted with strange signs. It is unclear whether what unfolds is a factual account or a fable and we are led to feel that something vexes the pastoral tenor of the place.

The filmic account begins with a classic introductory shot: a laneway of poplars on the outskirts of the village. ‘Witches brooms’ in the branches are signs of what is to follow. The scene cuts to a close up shot of a youth whose tentative posture and gaze intercepts us and seems to arraign the presence of strangers in the village. The youth’s disheveled, spiked hair turns him into a satyr. This shot is followed by that of a medieval building seen through a thicket of gnarly trees – an archetypal image of fabled enchantment and quest. Now we are in the village itself. An absorbing view of sheep grazing and two lone individuals walking along the main street denotes the dreaminess of the place. This is followed by a picture of two youths pitching hay. Several seemingly extraneous pictures, for example, that of an orchard next to whitewashed stone houses with a derelict farm implement leaning against the whitewashed tree trunk, also establish the bucolic atmosphere and languor of the place. These seemingly marginal shots accumulate essence. A candid portrait of a man with a rake on his shoulder and a hat perched atop his larger head speaks tomes. This image cuts to a view of the fields and surrounding terrain. Two haystacks in the foreground have a curiously anthropomorphic identity. The image’s ascription of human attributes to inanimate objects introduces a strange bewitchment to the descriptive tenor of the scene.

In almost all of these pictures the sky is overcast. Accordingly, the general chromatic range of these pictures tends to monochrome or to pastel chords of green, greys, browns, tans, pinks, mauve, purples and creamy whites. All these subtly coordinated chromatic variations and inflections endow these pictures with muted richness and deep accord. Their textural density, filtered light, hazy atmosphere, and painterly qualities produce a sense of fecundity and earthy torpor.

The images span several seasons (summer, fall and winter and possibly spring). While the story concludes in winter, the seasonal identification of many of the other shots is ambiguous and the seasonal sequencing of the entire narrative is incoherent. This chronological indetermination is in keeping with mysterious import of the tale.

There are further signs. The expressions on the faces of the young people are uneasy and somewhat withdrawn. The silhouetted figure of youth with a rake on his shoulder and his back to the camera gazes into the distance towards the distant mountains and, possibly, beyond them. There is a strange expressive identity between the lanky angularity and of this figure and his rake. Their respective profiles and proportions are discordant in relation to the landscape. This picture is tensed between its demarcation of absorptive, tranquil contemplation and its evocation of yearning. Caspar David Friedrich’s spiritualised hypernaturalism and El Lissiztky’s Constructivist anti-naturalism and dynamism converge in this image, especially through the extenuated, skeletal figure of the rake together with its oblique spatial address. Also reminiscent of Russian constructivist photography is the bizarre image of a human effigy suspended from electric wires. The shock of this disturbing image is somewhat mitigated by the following one of sheep grazing, a soothingly white on white study marked, however, by the anomalous presence of two dark sheep. The next image of two sheets drying on an outdoor laundry line signals the end of the tale and summarily conflates its dual factual and allegorical premise. This concluding image recalls graphically that of the hanging effigy and reiterates, through its double indication of purity and absence, the ambivalent, utopic/distopic character of the entire work and its irresolute status as either fable or report. This final image can be taken on face value as a domestic genre scene, a study of wintry desolation, or as an emblem of the fate of this place.

The epigraph to the book informs us the tale is “about a people believed to be the descendants of the children that were led out of Hamelin.” The story is of “an emptying landscape” abandoned by those who have left it in the pursuit of wealth. The story that is told here, resembles the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, insofar as both tales concern the transmogrification of real, fateful historical events into the substance of legend or fable. It is thought that the Pied Piper legend is based upon real events concerning the actual emigration in 1284 of the youth of Hamelin and other towns in central Europe to Eastern Europe, lured away from their birth place by better economic prospects ‘beyond the forest’, namely to the east. The same destiny faces this particular village in Transylvania (‘Beyond the Forest’). In some versions of the Pied Piper tale, of which there are many, some of the residents of Hamelin are said to have turned up in Transylvania.

The legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin underwent many revisions over the centuries. As the original circumstances were never recorded and the legend was transmitted orally, it took on its own life and was continually embellished and grossly modified to reflect subsequent historical circumstances and events. The conflation of fact and fable in the Pied Piper legend and its oral mode of transmission that accounts for the erasure of its origins, resonate with events in our own time which regard the disappearance of traditional life forms and extinction of cultural memory through the profound impact of new modes of communication on the transmission of knowledge and flow of capital today. Such concerns and their connection to feelings of loss and to intrinsically human search for grounds of identification are at issue in this work. The essay’s attractive and sympathetic portrayal of a way of life that fosters and revolves around embodied knowledge is vexed by the awareness of its impending demise. Hanging in the balance here is the future of the forest, a metaphor for a life of imaginative fecundity informed by relationship to nature, by temporal continuity and by modalities of craftsmanship. The essay proleptically portrays the fate of the place. It implies certain epochal events that are beyond the ken and mentality of the village folk, that threaten their way of life and whose global impact is so extensive and profound as to become the stuff of fable and legend.