by Ellis Hutch


She is Always Beautiful
On the Arctic landscapes of Genevieve Swifte
by Helen Maxwel





Ellis Hutch


Have you ever found a dead bird and gently fanned open its wing?

It is spring in the untended garden of my home, a universe of wind and chaotic growth and birds. The wattle birds fill the ti tree with their choking shriek, the trickster galahs rule the tv antenna and the tiny spotted pardalotes dart and flit, nesting in wall and tree trunk. A magpie eyes the cat sleeping on the rusting car and the rosellas feast in the native shrubs. The soundscape beyond my desk is a hum of distant traffic accented with birdcall.

Occasionally a bird crashes into a window. I once held a stunned silvereye on the palm of my hand before it gathered its wits and flashed away.

The birds are visitors – they inhabit another world – they appear and disappear with the changing seasons, always near but never completely here. They offer an imaginary escape into space and time that goes beyond my earthbound experience.

These prosaic moments of daily life are thrown into relief when I open my email to become immersed in the subtle shifting details of Genevieve Swifte’s photography. I first encounter her work in its digital form, as light on a screen drawing me in, to inspect intimate objects and intriguing landscapes. Later, I see the work printed: lush, light-textured surfaces blurring into an indeterminate darkness.

For me these quiet photographs evoke sounds – the beat of invisible wings overhead, a sharp intake of breath, the crisp shifting of cotton as a hand drops into a lap, the rush of air carrying snow over frozen ground. They are intimate fragments, telling partial stories, leaving space for the viewer to make connections.

Slow photography

It is pertinent to remember that the process of photography neither begins nor ends with the click of the camera shutter. Swifte’s work is slow photography; she collects images over years, travels vast distances and looks with intent. Her gaze is investigative and poetic – calling up and creating a play between strands of history, theory and photographic practice as she works across analogue and digital; in the landscape and studio; archive and domestic environment.

Swifte frames her subjects carefully, looks for connections, tensions and aesthetic resonances. A wing extended as if in flight – echoes the sweep of a mountain upwards towards the snow line. The spotted feathers of an owl draw the eye into a close investigation of line, texture and mark, contrasting with the human-made patterning of an embroidered garment. Spots are juxtaposed with holes – the images blur providing softness, areas for the eye to glance over, returning to the focal points. There is something about this blur that pushes back at me – the shallow depth of field blocks a searching eye, hinting at the unseen and unknown.

This slowness is a counterpoint to many assumptions about contemporary photographic practice, there is nothing instant here. Bird wings and bird bodies are drawn from a scientific archive and placed before the camera. Swifte takes a torch and performs the act of raking light over the surface of the body as the long-exposure allows this otherworldly light to reach the film.

She processes the film in the darkroom, and scans the negatives, the material manifest in a digital incarnation. The use of scanning enables Swifte to work the images in the digital space, removing dust, enlarging and generating different combinations and compositions. She edits, reproduces and prints – this process is one of building relationships as well as articulating and exploring boundaries.



The word Trespass has many associations for me. Growing up Catholic, I hear it in my memory as a snaky whisper of school children rushing though the Lord’s Prayer – asking for forgiveness of trespasses and forgiving others for their trespasses. The eye of my memory sees roughly painted signs warning of prosecution and shooting punishments for trespassers over forbidden land.

Trespasses are actions – decisions made to enter unknown territory.

The title of the exhibition Trespass draws attention to the notion of transgression. This can be seen directly in the subjects of the photographs where the boundaries between bodies; between skin, feather, fabric, water, cloud and mountain are explored. There is a play in the combination of images. In the paired works a line down the centre creates a split, but the resonances in pattern, form and texture shift across this boundary. There is also a larger conversation across the exhibition. Clouds, mountains, a scrubby mass of trees at the waters edge provide counterpoints to the closeness of the feathers and fabric. They call me to consider my own body, remember my own experiences of mountains, water, sky.

Birds make very effective trespassers – able to navigate the entire planet – turning up in unexpected places – living in the air – spreading seeds and microbial life forms on their travels. Their trespassing could be seen as an analogy for the artist’s process – constantly questioning – making connections – bringing ideas to light – creating fictions – telling truths.

Ellis Hutch, 2014





She is Always Beautiful
On the Arctic Landscapes of Genevieve Swifte
Helen Maxwel


The world is a compelling place – always a challenge to our imaginations. Genevieve Swifte was already immersed in the challenge when she was accepted for a residency by the Museum in the small island town of Upernavik in Northwest Greenland. The Upernavik Museum is the northernmost museum on the planet and by all standards remote. From Australia the journey takes several days in five planes of diminishing size. When she landed in Upernavik in October 2010, Swifte found herself in a community of about 1200 people and many sled dogs, bound by ice and sea.

She wrote of her first response to this extraordinary environment “Greenland took my breath away and rendered me speechless. Like an Arctic vipassana, once I was settled into my little red house next to the museum I fell absolutely silent”.1

This ‘silence’ was about not having the language to decipher that which was so unfamiliar. She did not remain ‘silent’ as she began to explore the terrain, accrue information, enjoy the warmth and generosity of the people and interpret the icy world around her.

Greenland is the world’s largest island, 80 per cent of the surface covered by a lens-shaped ice sheet which at its thickest in the centre, extends approximately 3.2 kilometres to the rock bed beneath. Towns of varying sizes inevitably hug the very edge of the coast from where people continue to hunt seals and fish for halibut and in some areas when the weather permits, pursue limited growing of vegetable crops. Greenland has been the subject of much research and speculation in relation to the effects of climate change. For some, the rising of temperatures and the melting of icebergs presents the opportunity for increasing self-sufficiency and independence as its rich resources below the sea can be extracted. Others fear that such developments will adversely affect the environment and the culture.

In such extreme environments the weather is always of vital concern. The Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) word for weather is sila.2 It is a potent concept because sila, also meaning “the air” and “intelligence/ consciousness”, links the individual self and the environment through the breath. Sila is the basic principle underlying the natural world and exists in every person. Change in climatic conditions can affect the individual in a deeply personal manner and destabilise the way in which they understand their relationship to their world.3

Within this context, surrounded by a harsh yet beautiful physical environment which is always changing, but increasingly so because of global warming, and a complex traditional culture that is facing erosion, Swifte has responded by producing a series of very personal works, which record her wonder and respect.

The exhibition, She Is Always Beautiful, Drawing and Photography from Northwest Greenland, comprises a series of photographs and photographs with drawing, of the icy terrain around Upernavik and the larger town of Ilulissat. Implicit in the works is the sense that the landscape is changing. In black and white the images are starkly graphic. There is a stillness that belies the constant movement.

The photograph Allorneq, To Step 1, 2010 takes us along a winding wooden walkway that disappears in the distance between two folds of lichen covered rock formations. The walkway leads to the edge of the Ilulissat Ice Fjord, and at the line where the black ground meets the stark white of the ice cover beyond, there is a tiny structure that appears to be a bench on which one may sit to contemplate the vast and beautiful ice that stretches out below, further than the eye can see. Allorneq, To Step, 2, 2010 places us at the edge of a small inlet, the shiny black of the icy sea and the rocks sparsely covered with vegetation. An iceberg floats close to shore. These images incite desire and sensation. The landscape is remote and strange to us – even disquieting, but the experience is intimate and inviting.

The series titled Upernavik combine drawing with photographic images. The drawings are so delicate and detailed in the rendering that the photographic image appears to be a slightly tinted fine transparent film placed over the drawing. The effect is of ambiguity. It is hard to tell whether the photograph overlays the drawing or replaces the drawing. The edge of the photographic image also acts as an aperture through which we see a more distant, vaster landscape that softens and disappears into the expanse of the white paper, allowing our imagination to travel further.

In another series, Sila, that refers to the vitality of the relationship between the weather and the self, Swifte experiments with capturing the changing conditions of her immediate environment often through the window of her little red house next to the museum, from where in warmth and safety she was witness to the external force of nature. Included also in this series are images of icebergs that play with light and form and the slip between what we see and what we think we see. In Sila 08, the iceberg appears to be a massive bank of white marble, implicit in these images is the knowledge that nature is elusive, beautiful but dangerous and not to be taken for granted.

The works which Genevieve Swifte has produced as the result of her residency in Upernavik encapsulate a growing knowledge, both tentative and certain. The images are testaments to an inquisitive excitement and respect, and a measured consideration of the formal subject matter before her.


–Helen Maxwell, 2011





1  Genevieve Swifte, Hunting for Ice, Breath of the Soul, Antarctica and Music Conference, The Australian National University School of Music, 2011.
2  Mark Nuttall, Arctic Homeland, Kinship, Community and Development in Northwest Greenland, University of Toronto Press, 1992, p. 41.
3  Mark Nuttall, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, Scientific Report, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 655.
Arising from residencies at the Upernavik Museum, Northwest Greenland and the Photomedia Workshop,The Australian National University School of Art, this project has been supported by the ACT Government, the Australian Government through the Australia Council, it's arts funding and advisory body and with generous donations made through ABAF's Australia Cultural Fund.