On John Olsen's 'Edge of the Void'

On John Olsen's 'Edge of the Void'

Behold John Olsen’s ‘Edge of the Void’, a suite of six original highly-collectible etchings. Dated 1975, these works are represented at the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and published in Stuart Purves and Olsen’s ‘My complete graphics’, as well as Ken McGregor and Jeffrey Makin’s ‘Teeming with Life John Olsen’.

With only one impression of each available, secure these rare museum-quality feats before they’re gone.  

 

John Olsen - 'The Christ Bird Arrives'

 

“The lake might be viewed symbolically as an unconscious plughole of Australia, a mental landscape, as is the habit of painting and writing… Perhaps nowhere in Australia does one have the feeling of such complete emptiness - covered by a hand of endless sky with inviting silences, there is, as you stand on the edge of the lake, a feeling that you are standing on the edge of a void.” 

- John Olsen 

In 1974 something extraordinary struck the core of Australia: Lake Eyre flooded. It was the site’s biggest flood in five-hundred years (and only the second since white settlement); the country’s “dead heart” erupted into a corpus of water three times the size of Sydney Harbour. John Olsen, an artist with growing acclaim in Sydney, had to see it.

Over the next several years Olsen became fixated with Lake Eyre. He returned several times, sometimes with naturalist Vincent Serventy or other artists, such as Tim Storrier and Frank Hodgkinson. He witnessed it surge with life then recede back into a salt pan, eye-wateringly vast and empty. For Olsen, this was a site of contradictions, of life and death, fullness and emptiness; it was a void.

 

Arial photographs of Lake Eyre in flood. Olsen said the lake's silouhette reminded him of Salvador Dali's melting watch.

 

 

The Edge of the Void

Olsen’s suite of six etchings, titled ‘Edge of Void’, are some of his richest interrogations into Lake Eyre. They capture it from a bird’s eye view and up-close among its varied inhabitants. They also demonstrate Olsen’s artistic prowess and unique philosophy of life, inspired by Eastern thought. 
 
In ‘Frog Jumping’, ‘The Leap’ and ‘Emus from the Lake’, he lovingly captures Lake Eyre’s most ungainly characters. His frogs, all bulbous eyes and springy limbs, are equal parts strange and joyous; his emus quizzical, their necks craning to gawk at some out-of-sight occurrence. Olsen has traversed the water’s banks, meeting its animal citizens with an anthropologist’s eye.

 

John Olsen - 'The Leap'

 

On one of his first visits to Lake Eyre, Olsen and naturist Vincent Serventy capsized in a storm that sent his paints skyward and sandwiches seaward - “a discovery for future anthropologists”, mused Olsen.

Rather than discourage him, the moment proved integral to his reverence for Lake Eyre. At its sparkling banks, he happily reflects

“Gee, I’m very small-time here”.

 

John Olsen - 'Emus by the Lake'

 


In ‘Life Drawn Towards the Void’ and ‘The Cooper Enters the Void’, we abruptly zoom out. Here Olsen’s bodily identification with the landscape rears. Life, reminiscent of microbiomes, rushes towards the womb-like lake. One is reminded of a fetus in vitro. In the void all life - avian, amphibian, microscopic and vast - is equal.  
 
There’s a lesson about impermanence in the story of Lake Eyre. That sea could spring in the desert is a testament to the power of nature - its surge and drain. Without charity nor malice the lake took and gave life, Olsen but a voyeur at its shores. If voids are the paradox of present absence and edges are where beginnings meet ends, then ‘Edge of the Void’ is the dance of life and death, fullness and emptiness, everything and nothing.

 

John Olsen - 'The Cooper Enters the Void'

 

 

“I penetrated into the basin of the lake for about six miles and found it so far without surface water… it was impossible to tell what to make of sensible objects, or what to believe on the evidence of vision. All was uncertainty and conjecture in this region of magic… the whole scene partook more enchantment than reality… glittering and brilliant beyond conception.”

- Explorer Edward John Eyre, 1840

 

John Olsen - 'Life Drawn Towards the Void'

Previous post Next post