A few days ago, a friend of mine announced that she thought the greatest threat to the world and the survival of the human species was the internet.
It was not intended as a rhetorical statement and was pronounced with a sense of profound dread, as I imagine the Luddites felt in the early 19th century when they realised that their cause, though just, had been lost and the weaving machines would throw many of them out of work and into poverty.
Incommensurable is an exhibition about and against globalisation, a protest about a world that is out of joint and, as the title implies, one that is incapable of being judged, measured or considered within a comparative framework.
As you enter the exhibition, you are confronted by Ciara O'Brien's sprawling mural-size photograph Lifejacket Graveyard, 2016. O'Brien, a young Canberra-based photographer, spent time on Lesbos in Greece, an island facing the Turkish mainland and which has received the flood of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The photograph is of a pile of detritus – life jackets, water bottles, scraps of clothing and boat furniture – shown as a randomly arranged rubbish heap and completely devoid of human presence. This depopulation and scale create a slightly eerie sensation heightened by the knowledge that some of these life jackets may have been funerary shrouds of those who had not survived the crossing.
The show brings together the work of six exhibitors, all of who employ photography as a key element in their practice. The participants are Nick Danziger, Merilyn Fairskye, Ciara O'Brien, David Stephenson, Martin Walch and Anne Zahalka. If, a couple of decades earlier, I would have been tempted to categorise the work of some of these photographers as "documentary photographers", the usefulness of such categorisation has been eroded, as have the ideas of "bearing witness" or adding to the archive of historical memory. Hence the curator Terence Maloon's subtitle to the exhibition, "Photomedia in the era of globalisation".
The British-born Danziger is best known for his photojournalism and documentary filmmaking. He modelled himself on the comic-strip Belgian reporter Tintin and at the age of 13 left his native London and, without a passport, travelled to Paris, supporting himself by selling his sketches. Now, about 46 years later, he is still travelling and taking photographs, selling them separately or compiled into albums.
His photographs in this exhibition are of the most dispossessed and disadvantaged people living in the poorest countries of the world. Each black-and-white photograph is accompanied by a lengthy narrative panel explaining the circumstances of his subjects and, quite frequently, ending with some pronouncement about the death of the subjects sometime after the photograph was taken. One aim of the series was to document the progress of the eight "Millennium Development Goals" set by the United Nations to eradicate poverty by 2015. The images may be deliberately painful on the eye in their exposure of extreme tragedy, but, when viewed collectively, I noticed within myself a process of de-sensitising and the overwhelming feeling of extreme helplessness.
The Australian photographer Zahalka belongs to the same generation as Danziger and has been responsible for multi-layered photographs, some of which quote earlier traditions in Australian visual culture and have become iconic images in their own right. Frequently she makes clever and ironic images realised as archival pigment prints on a large scale in panoramic format. Of all of the exhibitors, Zahalka is gifted with a sense of humour and her images in this exhibition, including Derrida Lecture (1999), Open Air Cinema (1999) and Star City Casino (after Breughel) (1999), are arresting in their conception, brilliant in their technical realisation and memorable in the splendour of their conceit.
If Zahalka's images operate on a cerebral level, the American-born and trained photographer Stephenson, who is of the same generation as Danziger and Zahalka and who has lived in Tasmania since 1982, seduces the viewer on a more emotive and spiritual level. Possibly best remembered as an environmental photographer and video artist, his main photographs in this exhibition are huge sprawling aerial panoramas of cityscapes shown at night with their multiplicity of pretty coloured lights. Although there are properties of awe and the sublime and you can pick out the familiar topography of Melbourne or Shanghai, there is a certain sameness and unreality of these artificial spectacles viewed from the sky. His collaborative video installation with Martin Walch on the Derwent, titled Watershed (2017), is anchored closer to earth and in a multifaceted manner explores the rocky interrelationship between man and nature.
The most senior photographer in the show, Fairskye from Sydney, like most of the other participants in this exhibition, combines in her practice photography with video installations and occasional performances. She was a frequent exhibitor at the now defunct Still Gallery in Sydney and has a reputation for inventive, experimental photography that generally engages with an urban environment and many of the burning social, political and environmental issues of the day. At the Drill Hall exhibition, many of her images relate to sites that were used for nuclear testing or remembered for accidents with nuclear reactors. The contrast between tranquillity found in nature and the implied violation of this tranquillity through human intervention creates a tension in the images as well as a strange eerie stillness.
Hamlet's lament "the world is out of joint" runs throughout the exhibition and is explored to some extent by each of the artists. Alas, Hamlet's challenge, "O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right" – in other words, to make sense of the world – no longer appears achievable. We have entered an age of incommensurability.