Intimate in detail and epic in scope, James Morrison’s The Great Tasmanian Wars (2004) presents the landscape as an elongated and panoramic vision, a fragmented one, seen through a kaleidocope of collapsing timescales, disjointed narratives, and diverse topographies.
Across 55 small canvas panels, evolution and imagination, reality and fantasy, geology and history, continously interweave and intersect as Dodo birds, thylacines and platypi co-exist with flitting fairies, giant, mutant insects and brooding vampires in a rich pageant of bright, iridescent colours. As Amanda Rowell observes, this dizzying collage of elements extracted from widely divergent places and times disorients the viewer in a landscape of uncertainty and flux: ‘Oddities from further up and further down the evolutionary ladder dislodge us from the present and cast us adrift in a timeless sci-fi soup that is both primordial and futuristic’.
As the artist reveals, the concept for the work and its unfolding, linear format derived from two key sources:
… a battle that had been raging between various factions of historians on different interpretations of Australian history. The media labelled this ‘the history wars’, it mainly centred on differing views of the extent of the hostility in treatment of the Indigenous population during colonisation … The idea of differing histories, parallel realities, the subjective nature of memories. So there are all these histories floating around out there, different threads, trillions of time lines.
Also in Berkeley I found a book called A Concise History of the World. It was published in America and started at 2.5 million B.C with Homo habilis using stone tools in Africa and ended in 1963 with the assassination of President Kennedy. This was all on a long sheet of paper that folded out of the book … A pull-out format of history that also translated into my elongated ‘Wars’.
With its vast compendium of visual references and styles presented simultaneously in a non-hierarchical procession, Morrison’s painting dismantles the notion of the ‘grand narrative’, a singular, fixed, comprehensive and objective account of history, and supplants it with a sprawling, multiple, unstable concoction of possibilities and impossibilities.
- Amanda Rowell, ‘James Morrison: a contemporary epic of natural history’, Art & Australia, vol. 43, no. 1, 2005, p. 86.
- Extract from artist’s talk by James Morrison, Monash University Museum of Art, 13 September 2015.