Looking forward, looking back

It helps to have a historical perspective on things. To know the past is to know that – most of the time – there is nothing new under the sun. Humans have forever endured challenges that would have felt at the time like the end of days. Of course for many, they were.

Understanding what we are capable of can be sobering, but our resilience and capacity to imagine and enact change fills one with hope. As a species, we’ve managed to come out the other side – perhaps it’s our capacity to imagine a future that enables us to carry on.

Occasionally our perspectives on the past are a useful invention. Socrates was said to have complained that ‘The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise’. This oft-cited, but apocryphal statement on the fecklessness of Athenian youth has become a popular meme that weaves contemporary problems into an ancient litany of human misbehaviour. It can be helpful to think that the problems of exasperated modern parents were shared by the good citizens of ancient Greece.

Elizabeth Rooney

Egypt, Old Kingdom, Dynasty 4, reign of Khufu 2551–2528 BCE Beadnet dress. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition. Photograph: Rama. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France

Objects are a precious link that we rightly treasure as bridges to the past, and to each other – it’s why museums exist. There’s something extraordinary about looking at a 4000-year-old dress, reconstructed using the beads with which it was embroidered. This dress, now housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, carries the shape of a woman – perhaps even the form of the high-ranking Egyptian it was buried with at Giza in 2551–2528 BCE, ready for her afterlife. Her future. That essential optimism or hope about the times to come is something we are hardwired to feel. In looking back, we understand our tendency to look forward.

There are two interesting objects in the Art Gallery of NSW’s collection that speak to me of this looking forward/looking back dance. They are both etchings printed from the same etching plate some two decades apart by a singular Sydney artist, Elizabeth Rooney.

Genteel and self-effacing on the surface, Rooney was in fact determined and uncompromising in both her art and social critique. She was particularly critical of unfettered greed and overdevelopment, and the destruction of Sydney’s built and natural heritage. This stance was reflected in her art for more than 40 years.

Elizabeth Rooney

Elizabeth Rooney, Goodbye Macquarie Place 1964. Art Gallery of New South Wales, gift of Akky van Ogtrop and the 5th International Works on Paper Fair 1995. © Estate of Elizabeth Rooney

Goodbye Macquarie Place was first etched in 1964. Drawn on the spot onto an etching plate and printed later in the studio, the work depicts a rare corner of Sydney’s public space that has survived since the early colonial period. In the centre stands a park featuring a sandstone obelisk erected by Governor Macquarie in 1818 and other structures added over more than a century. Flanked by sandstone Victorian government buildings, the square is slowly being encroached by skyscrapers, their frames rising from scaffolding as cranes lift steel beams into the air. The bodies of protesters lie flattened in the streets, their banners trampled under the footsteps of mysterious giants. They, and the title of the work, are an angry protest against a future that denies and desecrates the past.

Standing alone, this print and its message seems straightforward enough, but what Rooney did nearly 20 years later is what makes this work so interesting. Re-working and re-etching the same etching plate, she created a ‘comparison print’ to the first, Macquarie Place revisited, which re-presents the same city intersection, irrevocably transformed by those forces that raised her original ire. The squashed figures have gone, replaced by parked cars, while the park and struggling curb-side trees are dwarfed by soaring office towers. The scene is dense, rhythmic and familiar to a contemporary viewer. While undeniably changed, there is a different energy and aesthetic in the later scene that reminds us of what has been lost over time, but also what has also been gained.

Elizabeth Rooney

Elizabeth Rooney, Macquarie Place revisited 1981. Art Gallery of New South Wales, gift of Akky van Ogtrop and the 5th International Works on Paper Fair 1995. © Estate of Elizabeth Rooney

Revisiting a subject by reworking a single etching plate is such a simple idea, but it was a revolutionary act by an Australian artist, creating an artefact that became both a premonition of the future and a confirmation of the past. Rooney’s stubborn dedication to her cause did not diminish over the decades, and she continued to make spikily satirical etchings on the subject of Sydney’s changing cityscapes into the last decade of her life. She knew there was a future – all she asked was for us to take care.