un Projects is based on the unceded sovereign land and waters of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation; we pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.
un Projects

First things


Sarah Low, A Wild and Fragile Coast 

Brunswick Street Gallery, Fitzroy VIC

18.04.24 - 05.05.24

On Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, I run out of adjectives and exhaust all expletives. The intensity of the landscape seems to ask for nothing less than a total obliteration of the self; a sacrifice of one’s body plunging into the turbulent waves or swallowed up by volcanic rock, willingly and gratuitously. This desire feels primordial, as if your instincts are flipping out, sending you sprinting across the meadow towards the arms of your beloved. 

Your beloved here is the sea and everything it graces—the craters scooped out from shoreline stone which fill with anemones and spill across one another; the gardens of kelp which are tossed about in the current and washed ashore in tangles; the faces of basalt cliff which glisten with salt and endless clusters of gasping mussels. There is so much here that it becomes hopeless to merely witness; you need to jump in and join the carnival. 

The pull of the ocean makes sense in a lot of ways. It is our ancestral birthplace, our first home. It makes up nearly 71% of the Earth’s surface—which feels strikingly similar to our own constitution—and thus creates an intrinsic unity between body and landscape. The ocean has been likened to the psyche, containing mysteries and hidden forces which are barely insinuated on the visible surface. We feel we may know ourselves through it. 

As our connection to the natural world is clear, our relationship with the ocean is inescapable. Just a glimpse of it is enough to lurch something in you. Setting eyes on Sarah Low’s paintings hanging neatly in the maze of Brunswick Street Gallery, my veins begin to stir and my body aches to dive. 

Sarah Low, A Wild and Fragile Coast, Exhibition installation view. Courtesy of Brunswick Street Gallery.

En plein air paintings of seascapes are not something I encounter often in the Melbourne art scene and now there are a dozen of them before me—thick impasto brushstrokes so tempting and untouchable in their narrow, floating frames. Each piece contains within it a cinematic instance of the Mornington Peninsula, rendered in precise oil colours which assure you that this is an artist who wholly reveres her subject. Your gaze flicks from bashing tides to quiet shorelines. At one moment it is positioned on cold, wet stone; on another, it pans with calves grazed by warm coastal grasses, teetering over salt-flecked cliffs. The shots keep changing because the subject won’t sit still and refuses to be just one, unaltered thing, so Low switches out boards like camera film and hastens to get it down before the winds transfigure it all again.

The rapidity of painting en plein air often means there is a chronology to what’s cast down and when. One can’t tenderly mix each shade of blue and brown and work cautiously across the board, picking and tweaking over weeks. The wildness of the coast calls for a compulsion; one must sink into the hazards of the landscape. For Low, this seems to have resulted in an initial mapping out of the sturdiest elements—the contours of rock formations, the slopes of cliff edges—followed by a flurried rendering of churning sea and shifting sky. What arises is a portrait of disparate elements pieced together like a collage. Delineations between basalt and cloud are cutting; foreground and background often push against one another—each thing is a puzzle piece which slots beside its neighbour with tiny seams of discontinuity. Every element feels unaffected by the other. 

When faced with natural landscapes, it’s usually difficult not to experience moments of pareidolia; untamed expanses trigger our brains to search for familiar patterns. Low’s seascapes somehow circumvent this: in her paintings, there is nothing but what is there. Only the water sloshes about, playing against the fringes of everything else, swelling and splattering and binding the jagged outlines. All liveliness brims from this sea. Everything is secondary to the water. Everything belongs to it. 

Sentinel, 2023, Sarah Low, oil on board, 43x53cm. Courtesy of Brunswick Street Gallery.

With the ocean spotlighted and roving unbridled through the scenes, the somewhat frenzied application of paint describing rock and land leaves occasional gaps in the brushwork. The bright orange bases used to prime Low’s wooden boards peek through where the water hasn’t yet reached. It's as if the tide is still creeping upwards and something else is being allowed to glint momentarily in its absence. The only other instance of this negative space—space which isn’t entirely overflowing with splendour—occurs in Towards Bushranger’s. The piece is tucked away in the corner of the gallery, farthest from the door yet quietly brightest in the impressionistic procession. Seagrasses glow golden in the sunlight, swaying like an adoring audience atop the walls of land overlooking the depths of an oceanic colosseum. At its forefront, Low has scratched a fine handful of vertical strokes—the only intentional scraping-back present in any scene. The effect is, of course, an addition of highlights to the coastal scrub, but it also hints to us why those carnelian gaps smattered across the paintings feel so significant. 

In carving out those hairline spaces and leaving fractures untouched, Low creates the humblest vacancies: crevices which the sea is keeping bare for us. Towards Bushranger’s is the only painting of the twelve which is composed of two separate boards pressed together like a secret diptych. In this painting, another opening presents itself—an opportunity for a furtive entrance before the seam closes back up. I am reminded of Andrea Fraser’s conclusion to her essay Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry?, wherein she finds that ‘the extreme reticence of Sandback’s work is not something [she experiences] as an act of withholding but rather as an act of extraordinary generosity. By removing himself to the extent that he does, he makes a place for me.’1 Despite conceiving of all these pieces, it is only within the absences where Low imposes herself, sidled in the arms of the beloved seascape after running that distance across the meadow. They are also where I can nestle, folded into the embrace of the magnitude, quenching that desire to atomise myself in the sprays of sand and saltwater. 

Towards Bushranger’s, 2023, Sarah Low, oil on board, 42x63cm

Fraser speaks of Sandback’s work as allowing her to inhabit ‘the institution that the work is inside.’2 This poignant reveal follows an aching lamentation over what she calls the ‘tragedy’ of art: the consequences of the ‘contradictions of art’s autonomy as a specialised field’ which leads to a ‘failure to close the gaps between specialised aesthetic experience and pedestrian, everyday world (sic).’3 Fraser refers mournfully to the ‘monumental sacrifice of so-called deskilling’ that invoked the minimalism which often feels so severing and produces ‘an art that may be more aesthetically demanding and remote from everyday life than any other.’4 This is a sentiment which I have empathised with and tackled endlessly as an artist working in a field which seems to tend more and more away from sincerity and instead towards the shiny, untouchability of clout. It feels too frequently as though The Scene is closing in on itself with the self-sacrificing alienation Fraser refers to—a martyrdom of exclusivity. The gaps are closing in and, unlike the ocean, we can’t be sure that the tide will recede back again. 

Standing before Cairns Bay on a spontaneous roadtrip to follow the coastline loosely towards Wilsons Promontory, serendipitously guided by Low’s paintings, I am keeled over with marvel. The sea is pouring in onto a stage of monumental charcoal basalt, muted black and spectacular. A whole narrative of stone presents itself on the beach, smoothed by the caress of the currents and adorned with pale-pink algae, sage starfish, garnet anemone, and milky coffee barnacles. I’m speechless, resorting to gasps and shrieks. Crabs hunch over in the crevices of volcanic rock and I want nothing more than to join them. There’s no minimalism here. It is a place of staggering majesty—a scene which feels prehistoric, both before and completely outside of time. My smartphone photographs don’t come close to doing it justice. I think of how ridiculous it is to try, and how impossible it is not to. With its hold on our human beginnings and parallels of our psyches—its total ineffability and absolute, elemental lull—the ocean represents the foundational quintessence of everything which we strive to express through art. These landscapes have always been the places I fold into when I need to come back to myself, but always refrain from centering my own practice around, out of some hapless, unfounded fear. Because the first thought is no longer the best thought, and nothing is good unless it is pared back and obscured, polished and refined. But I am trying to unlearn these things, so I pull off my shoes and step gleefully across the coast, padding over and around those ancient boulders, looking for a space which might whisper to me—one burning bright with Low’s preliminary licks of orange.

Kaijern Koo is an interdisciplinary artist & writer working on Wurundjeri land in Naarm / Melbourne. Confounded by the innate human instinct to decipher and make sense, her practice gravitates towards the fantastic slipperiness of interpretation and the strange logics which often ensue.

Edited by Emily Kostos.

This text was commissioned through the Emerging Writers’ Program. An annual collaborative project, from KINGS and un Projects, that supports critical arts writing, fiction, poetry, experimental, cross-genre and digital text forms. The Emerging Writers’ Program provides professional publishing opportunities and fosters dialogue between artists and arts writers. Each emerging writer in the program receives critical feedback and editorial assistance from KINGS and un Projects personnel.

Supported by Creative Victoria, City of Melbourne and City of Yarra.