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Arcadia, Sounds of the Sea at the National Portrait Gallery

Aug 31, 2014  ·  2 min read

By Benjamen Judd

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Our pristine beaches and iconic beach culture is something that Australia is famous for (yes, we realise that we are in landlocked Canberra but we know what water is). In the latest exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Arcadia: Sounds of the Sea, this history is explored through the photographs of John Witzig who, along with partners Albe Falzon and David Elfick, launched the iconic Australian surf magazine Tracks.

Arcadia isn’t a history on surfing. It isn’t an insight into the culture surrounding surfing or the mythology that sprung up around it. It’s a sensual collection of imagery that captures the raw connection made between human flesh and the natural world. It’s tactile, and overwhelmingly sensorial.

“If it’s about anything,” explains Sarah Engledow, “Arcadia is about how it feels to be lean, male, strong, untrammelled and irresponsible: to be a slacker with immense discretionary energy. Almost all the people represented are handsome youths. Indeed, the exhibition is a tribute to the physical bravery, beauty and ebullience of many young men – which is unusual in a show that isn’t about war (although it’s true that conscription shadowed many of the individuals pictured, and many whole bodies like theirs ended up punctured and ripped up in Vietnam). Through photographs, film and text, their free-spirited, passive-revolutionary character shines. The ocean may not appear in all of the images; in fact, it’s absent from at least half of them, as well as from most of the film footage; but you can hear it, as it were. The exhibition as a whole – comprising pictures of people, pictures of houses, pictures of banksias, heath and driftwood, pictures of campgrounds – is underpinned by a Romantic conception of the awesome and spiritually restorative force of the sea.”

Arcadia: Sounds of the Sea is on at the National Portrait Gallery until October 19.

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