Even in Arcadia
‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, which translates to ‘Even in Arcadia, there I am’ is the title given to one of Nicolas Poussin’s most famous paintings. In the picture three men dressed as Arcadian shepherds and a woman in classical robes stand in an idealised landscape around an unknown stone tomb. The presence of death, as symbolised by the tomb, has led scholars to argue that the ego in the phrase refers to mortality - Even in Arcadia, there I am – even in a setting of pastoral perfection, something sinister lurks.
Karkarook, Matthew Berka’s 42 minute filmic rumination on a recently created suburban nature reserve in Moorabbin, an outer coastal suburb of Melbourne offers us a contemporary parallel to Poussin, minus the shepherds. In the constructed world of Karkarook, as far from reality as Poussin’s vision, we find an ambiguity that alerts us to an enduring contemporary illusion; every new cultural development reveals a type of mourning for an allegedly lost or unspoiled state, while at the same time there is the hope of finding it again - the fiction of a better life.
Consider this: there was a sand quarry that was used for most of the twentieth century to mine sand for roads, constructions, industry, and that for a range of reasons, the sand quarry was no longer needed. The obvious solution to the social and aesthetic problem of the abandoned quarry was to fill it in. Few urban nature reserves preserve land as it was before settlement, so the fact that the transformation of the disused mine into ‘man-made nature’ is actually a pre-fab solution, as newly formed ‘wildernesses’ spring up across contemporary cities in what were once industrial zones, somehow fits perfectly into a larger conceptual framework indicative of a contemporary society fuelled by cycles of collapse and renewal. The fact that this new ‘wilderness’, Karkarook (meaning ‘sand’ in the Boonwurrung language) has emerged out of a contemporary necessity, and may therefore be no more permanent than any other of our impulses, is indicative of the contemporaneity in which we live. The present, that shape of time between the past and the future, allows for the coexistence of both rupture and continuity. So it is perfectly logical that although we may long to be connected to nature in order to balance our non-natural, increasingly technology-focused contemporary condition, our tangible engagement with nature is, for the most part, like the neo-classical figures in the Poussin, polite, controlled and without lasting meaning.
The sublime in nature is therefore replaced by the much gentler, more controllable idyll.
Paradoxically, the idyll, that idealised pristine place of peace and tranquilly, is conceived, or dreamed into being, by the very culture that it is designed as an alternative to. The pastoral tranquillity of nature, the idyllic landscape, exists as a precise counterpoint to the city and holds at its core the contradiction that any contemporary manifestation of the idyll cannot be encountered without an acute awareness of it’s opposite, the anti-idyll. When we stroll around the lake in the urban nature reserve we are acutely aware of the city beyond its perimeter. Yet we marvel at the speed of the regeneration: here there was an exhausted resource and now there are green hills, here there are children riding bikes without fear of traffic. And here within the confines of the bustle of the city time stands still, and fish are waiting to bite at the food scraps on the ends of hooks left dangling from jetties by people who don’t have to think about what is happening in the office. The idyll exists as compensation for reality.
If Karkarook, the place, is ultimately predictable, Karkarook, the film offers something subversive: a detailed examination of a place we were only ever intended to encounter slightly.
In Berka’s film the pleasant-ness of our prescribed encounter with nature is replaced by an altogether unexpected level of inquiry. The eye of the camera lens seems to find endlessly fascinating accidental encounters. As if in a reverie we watch the light fade from the landscape, or contemplate the abject nature of slime growing on the reeds beneath the water. The process of filming becomes an end in itself as slowly we realise that our encounter with Karkarook, and that of the camera’s, are the same. Our encounters occur simultaneously. The intensity of the camera’s investigation paradoxically signals the possibility, or hope for a profound encounter, and equally an absence of direction or purpose. The camera records the same way that the eye sees, mechanically.
Underwater, at first, the camera has nothing to focus on, leaving us is in a void of yellow, then rushing reeds, some rubbish, then absence, then literally rupture as the camera is pulled to the surface and the device is revealed, the camera has been tied to a rope and lowered into the lake. Throughout the film cinematic devices are played with only to be abandoned; the camera pans slowly across vistas as if to uncover something, panoramic views fail to reveal splendour, anticipation is built, yet no event occurs. Experimenting with non-narrative film and video Berka has in the past produced films that are entirely abstract such as the 2013 Long Tape Exposures for Karkarook which was made by immersing videotape into the lake at Karkarook and exposing it to the overhead high-voltage electricity pylon thereby allowing his materials (water, electricity and videotape) to form the work. Equally, minimalism forms an important component of his practice as subject matter, process and form coexist without hierarchy.
there is no implicit narrative in Karkarook, yet the suggestion of story is there. Not only the meta-narrative already discussed that is the construction of the site itself, but through structural devices found within the film. Water is a recurring motif throughout the film, present even in its absence as the shaping force that formed the eroded dry mud banks of the quarry. However it is the closing scene with the children in the rain throwing stones from the slippery embankment that is perhaps the clearest indicator of water’s connection to body. The drips of water running down the children’s faces place us within the site, for water as Susan Stewart points out is our element, we imagine entering back into it as we enter into memory, we immerse ourselves in it, and it is the great metaphor for the passing of time. Water is both form and formlessness. It is the symbol of life and also the harbinger of death.
It is fitting that the only inhabitants of this contemporary manifestation of the Arcadian idyll are children whose engagement appears slightly reckless. The symbolism of youth passing through an artificial landscape of fabricated nature is as achingly sad as it is matter of fact. Berka encountered the children by accident one day while he was filming; their inclusion is of course deliberate, albeit stemming from coincidence. If the making of the film occurs without pre-determination, is unscripted, but rather forms as a material process through the action of filming, looking and refilming, and through this process driven practice the film forms itself, there exists the obvious implication that another, different film may equally have come into existence, if it were desired. The camera takes in and processes Karkarook in much the same manner as the weekend visitor, for the idyll is of course a kind of non-place, somewhere to pass time, nothing more, and nothing less.
 Panofsky, E: ‘Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition’ in Meaning in the Visual Arts, University of Chicago, Chicago. 1983.
 Stewart, S: ‘What Thought is Like’, in The Open Studio, Essays on Art and Aesthetics, Angus and Robertson, London, 1992, p. 105.
1. Matthew Berka, Karkarook, 2014, High Definition video, SOund, 42min.
2. Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, Oil on Canvas, 1637-1638