Murray Fredericks sets fire to the landscape trope

Ensuring that his interventions in the natural environment are minimal, Murray Fredericks questions the concept of “landscape” and pushes past the limitations of documentary photography. “Landscape is a human construct,” he says. “It doesn’t exist until you put a frame around it, or make a garden, or designate it as being apart from everything else.”

Fredericks’s work looks at human emotional responses to the land we inhabit. For his latest photo-graphs, he specifically enquires into our reactions to fire. “We all have an evolutionary response to fire—a deep feeling of excitement or fear, or a strong memory. There are many layers to it.”

His intense imagery of trees in flames is situated amid Australia’s major inland ephemeral river systems. Under threat, and the highly publicised subject of gross mismanagement and exploitation, these systems, such as the now infamous Murray-Darling, add another layer of interest to Fredericks’s photos.

Murray Fredericks, Blaze #23, Muloorina, 2023, digital pigment print on cotton rag, edition of 7 + 2 A/P, 120 x 150 cm.

While he says these river environments are usually dry, they quickly spring back to life when there is rain, hosting a complex web of unique biodiversity. “They have been massively affected by water theft and corruption and you can see all the evils of colonisation encapsulated in the Murray-Darling in the dispossession of Indigenous people and of small farmers by corporations.”

To photograph the flaming trees, Fredericks used bendable gas lines sourced from a pyrotechnic specialist who works in the film industry. These “slinkys” are wired up the back of the trunks and branches of trees, then the gas is ignited and the mini-inferno is quickly photographed within 30 seconds before the flames are doused. “The trees that we select are dead, but they are important as habitat, so I want to leave them as we found them.

Murray Fredericks
ARC ONE Gallery
28 November—3 February 2024

This article was originally published in the November/December 2023 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Andrew Stephens