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Public Works: Anna Zahalka
Old 15th May 2011, 12:11 AM   #1
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Default Public Works: Anna Zahalka

IN the late 19th century, swimming in the surf was illegal between sunrise and sunset; only gentle paddling in the water was considered respectable.

However, in 1902, a newspaper editor, William Gocher, decided to mount a campaign to get the ban overturned.

In an attempt to bring the issue to prominence, Gocher, wearing a neck-to-knee costume, swam at midday at Sydney's Manly Beach and was duly escorted from the water by the police. About the same time, there was also a mass surf-in protest at Bondi. Eventually these campaigns were successful and a year later swimming during the day was allowed.

The change led to the rapid growth of surfing, and by the 1920s the beach was considered a national symbol, signifying the easygoing, apparently relaxed lifestyle of Australian society.
This image of Australian beach culture is nowhere more evident than in one of this country's most popular paintings, Charles Meere's Australian Beach Pattern (1938-40). With its stylised neoclassical poses, it projects an idealised image of the bronzed Aussie's physical perfection.

Nearly 50 years later, Meere's celebrated work inspired contemporary photographer Anne Zahalka to create The Bathers, a print of which is in the collection of the Tweed River Art Gallery in northern NSW. It was acquired in 2008 during the gallery's 20th anniversary year.

When I visit Murwillumbah to look at the photograph, the gallery's director, Susi Muddiman, explains that The Bathers is from a 1989 series titled Bondi: Playground of the Pacific and was made during a six-month residency at the Bondi Pavilion. The series explores the stereotypes of our most famous beach and questions the lack of representation of migrants in images and texts about Australia.

Zahalka's interest in migrants reflects her own life. Her Jewish Austrian mother and Catholic Czech father migrated to Australia in 1949 and she was born in 1957 in Sydney. In interviews she has spoken about how her family history has influenced her.

In The Bathers Zahalka has taken a postmodern approach, appropriating and using Meere's historical image to create new meaning.
Using humour and parody, Zahalka has replaced Meere's idealised people with a range of body types and people from different cultural backgrounds, more accurately reflecting the multicultural nature of contemporary Australia. As Zahalka has said: "People have an image of Bondi . . . I set out to add the cultural differences and to look at the stereotypes."

To add to the drama and theatricality, she staged the photograph in the studio. She imported sand, furniture and beach paraphernalia. She used an artificial, painted backdrop where you can see the edges and creases.
"This work is one of my favourite acquisitions to the collection in recent years and I think Anne has created a work of dramatic visual tension," Muddiman says.

"I think her photograph, like Meere's painting, has a kind of postcard holiday feel about it. Perhaps it's something to do with the shapes, the colours and the poses, but there are elements in both these works that lend them a familiarity and a fondness. Just as Meere created an enduring image that reworked the idea of the classic history painting by depicting his figures in heroic and monumental proportions, Anne has given new meaning to Meere's modernised classic by replacing his stereotypical tanned, strong Australians with a cast who more accurately reflect the multicultural make-up of Australia today."And I love the fact she has emphasised the scene by drawing attention to the constructed nature of her tableau.

"Yet underlying Anne's exploration of the Australian character, which I think often borders very cleverly somewhere between documentary and performance, there's a real affection for our way of life and how we see ourselves. It's a little satirical and a little ironic, but there's a lot of warmth in there, too."


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