Marian Drew: Natural Wonders and Human Conceits

© Marian Drew ‘Rose Crowned Fruit Dove on Fancy Work’ [detail] 2009

Art became like a religion for me.

It brought a framework to my everyday life – it was the reason for everything I did.


In ‘Still Life – Australiana’, Marian Drew embraces the formal properties of seventeenth-century European painting in a series of works which contrast the violence of road-kill with the gentrified traditions of still life. Draping lifeless corpses over the best linen, these images are as disquieting as they are seductive.

Perhaps the most immediate difference between these images and the paintings they echo is that the species are not from the northern hemisphere. The hares, geese, and pheasants of the European kitchen have been replaced by the possum, bandicoot, and kookaburra of the Australian outback.

Many of Marian Drew’s images refer in particular to the genre of the vanitas popular in the Netherlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These paintings often featured human skulls or worm-infested fruit as a reminder of the transience of life and a warning against overindulgence. In her modern-day antipodean images, Drew’s animals have not been killed for food but have died in an unequal contest with human ‘progress’. They have been killed by fast-moving cars, attacked by non-native domestic pets, or electrocuted by high-tension power lines. They are casualties of urban growth and increasing human consumption in an ecological battle they are ill equipped to engage.

Her interest in the way nature is perceived and affected by humankind is revealed in her subsequent two series, one of which embellishes and defines the landscape by ‘painting’ it with light; the other in a delicate exploration of nature depicted in needlework decoration on table linen.

Marian Drew’s career has spanned more than thirty years, defined by an experimentation in form and method that has embraced performance, installation, innovative lighting techniques and art-historical research. However, the key to her work lies not in these skills themselves, but in the subtle yet insistent way in which she peels back the layers of habit and self-interest in which our ideologies are wrapped, to question just how human beings can inhabit the landscape and share the natural world in a sustainable and equitable way.

Alasdair Foster

© Marian Drew ‘Possum with Five Birds’ 2003


What made you become a photographer?

I liked drawing and had been studying fine art, but then took a two-year break from art school. When I went back I decided I should do something with a broader range of applications: something that might also get me a job!  I went to Canberra School of Art. It was a new school and they taught photomedia as a fine art, which was unusual at the time. So, I was able to integrate my interests in drawing, sculpture, and installation with photography. I loved that!  But the school was also a place where I found like-minded people – an art community. Before this, I had had no real experience of artists or how art could contribute to society.

How did your career begin after art school?

I was lucky enough to win a scholarship from DAAD [the German Academic Exchange Service] to study in Germany for a year [1984–85]. This was a pivotal experience for me, because I was able to travel all over Europe and see many of the great artworks we had been studying in Australia, and to understand how important they were culturally and to society. Studying in Germany also clarified ideas in my own work and brought a new energetic context to its production. I understood how work changed depending on location and context.

Art became like a religion for me. It brought a framework to my everyday life – it was the reason for everything I did. I just kept working hard at making art and thought that the business would take care of itself. I was wrong! Consequently, my art career remained on a low burn. Looking back, that was perhaps a good thing in the long run.


There are external pressures from gallery directors and curators to produce a certain kind of work. I think you need to develop confidence in what you are doing and why, so as not to be constantly swayed by market opinion, because the commerce of the art world has little to do with the real processes of making art.

© Marian Drew ‘Kookaburra with Jug’ 2006

How did the series ‘Still Life – Australiana’ begin?

In Germany I had had an opportunity to study a lot of still-life paintings. Returning to Australia, I thought this could be a good way to make work about the many wild animals that are killed on our roads.  I had always been fascinated by road kill because it’s one of the few times we get to see the wild animals that live around us. By setting them within still-life art works, I was able to transform the dead animals from something people found unpleasant and easy to dismiss into things of beauty, worthy of greater attention.

Those works have a very painterly feel to them. Was that conscious and how was it achieved?

I had been working with long exposures and ‘painting’ light into my photos since 1982, first at art school, where I projected images onto tree trunks, and later in Germany when I started to paint with torches. I make my photographs by using a film camera and opening the shutter for an extended period while I light the picture bit by bit. I use a selection of hand-held torches to illuminate the subject in front of the camera. I move the light over each part of the subject in my frame; the amount of time I spend on an area determines how bright it appears in the photograph. I think light is a material in itself and objects change depending on the kind of illumination, offering a palette of colours and textures depending on what it is interacting with.

© Marian Drew ‘Moon and Circle’ 2008

I sense that your next series continued your interest in the performative aspects of your earlier series.

‘Illuminated Landscapes’ developed from my interest in redefining the implicit human presence in landscape. Through cameras we tend to represent landscape as separate from us – something ‘out there’ – but the camera is also a tool that extends the idea of the garden; a natural space under the control of human beings. In the West, Landscape only emerged as an concept in the seventeenth century when the aristocracy began to have their estates and gardens designed, ‘perfecting’ natural ‘chaos’ to build narrative and allegorical scenes.

To make the images in ‘Illuminated Landscapes’ I walk into the landscape at night and add light, either by illuminating parts of the bush or by drawing a line, the length of which is determined by how far I can stretch my body. The rest of the image is lit by ambient nocturnal light. It’s like making a drawing. The final image is a record of an event that can only ever appear using the camera. The film collects the light, compressing an event that took many minutes into a single moment.

How do you see the relationship between the performative work and the still-life images: one about movement, the other about stillness?

I guess I see the two bodies as connected in that they are both emphatically a physical engagement with landscape. Gathering road kill involves driving and observation, inspecting carcasses, carrying them home and freezing them until I can make the photograph. The animal carries the landscape within its form. By studying the animal you can see how it engaged with its environment, how and what it might have eaten, whether it burrowed, was nocturnal, how it lived …and also how it died. Both areas of work arise from my desire to engage with the natural environment and to acknowledge its importance in our lives. Movement and stillness are two sides of the same coin. In my case, I use movement to make something that is still.

Which do you prefer as a way of communicating your ideas and feelings?

Still life was a new development for me, and through it I became conscious of the function and value of beauty. I found the beauty of the animals seductive and I wanted to pass this feeling on to the viewer. I also had to move more carefully because I wanted to convey a sense of the metaphysical; to show my respect for these creatures that had once shared our ‘garden’. I also think that the still-life form is more fitting to my mature middle age. The performative work was a way of finding out, while in the still life work I began to share what I had learned.

© Marian Drew ‘Pelican with Turnips’ 2005

What kind of response do you get to your work from the public?

The response to my first exhibition of the road-kill works back in 2003 saw the audience a little unsure of how to take the work. It was new and I think people found it a bit shocking to see dead animals represented in photographs. But that is what the work was all about; getting people to look at animals that died because of careless things that people do. Over time the work has grown in popularity and it is even the subject of study for high-school students in Australia. The work has been shown all around the world. Now, I get a lot of people telling me it’s beautiful and interesting. I think it touches a nerve and is increasingly relevant to our concerns about the environment.

What do you like best about the response?

I was just answering an email from a high school student. She wrote: “Your work is so wonderful! Many thanks, Mabel.” To be full of wonder is the best state to be in and when gratitude follows wonder that’s even better. So, I think Mabel’s comment is about as good as it gets.

© Marian Drew ‘Nature Unpicked’ 2010

Your latest work continues the still-life approach but focuses on hand-crafted representations rather than natural flora and fauna.

Yes. I was thinking about table decoration and what it suggests about our attitudes to nature and our sense of nostalgia. I have also become interested in the difference between real animals and our ‘conceited’ idea of nature. ‘Conceits of the table’, I have discovered, relate to playful deceptions intended to surprise and delight the diner: folding napkins to look like dogs or pheasants; glass fountains of chocolate; porcelain vessels in the shape of birds and animals. It was fun to play with the light-heartedness and humour of these depictions after all those dead animals… Here, a conceit is a kind of simple and convenient answer one might give to a complex problem.

Can you describe that problem?

It’s our relationship to nature and how our cultural heritage shapes our current attitudes. With escalating human populations and our devastating impact on the earth, we urgently have to reassess our ideas about never-ending growth and the belief that Nature simply exists for human consumption. Our ideologies are completely anthropocentric; perpetuating notions of human dominion and our increasing alienation from Nature. For example: forests, animals, rivers, and the sea have no legal right of survival. The only way to maintain the diversity and health of our ecosystem is for humans to change their behaviour and take responsibility for the care of the natural world. 

So, my table conceits rearrange objects that reflect the existing models and the way they were constructed historically. I also think that through humour and optimism, art can play a more positive role in promoting this essential change of attitudes.

What is your view of art photography today?

I think it’s an exciting time for art photography because there are so many hybrid forms. The rule book has been thrown out the window. True, the collectors who buy from dealer galleries still prefer to invest in painting, but then commercial markets can be slow to change. Meanwhile, photography has become an important medium for communication and, as people are becoming increasingly literate visually, art photography is more important and relevant than ever. There are more people to appreciate it, and more reasons to innovate and exhibit.

© Marian Drew ‘Bird as Doily – Domestic Nature’ 2010

Biographical Notes

Marian Drew was born in Bundaberg, Queensland, in 1960. She has a Bachelor of Visual Art from the Australian National University and was subsequently awarded a DAAD Scholarship by the German government to study experimental photography at Kassel University. She taught full-time at Queensland College of Art (QCA, 1986–2016), taking the role of QCA Deputy Director (2001–03) and Director of the Photography Program (2005–16). She is currently Adjunct Associate Professor at QCA, Griffiths University.

Marian Drew has held more than twenty-five solo exhibitions in Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong and USA, and her work has been included in more than one hundred group shows in many parts of the world. She represented Australia in the first Asia Pacific Triennial (1993), Pingyao International Photography Festival, China (2010), Photoquai, Paris (2011), and Dubai Photo (2016). Her work is held in many public and private collections including the John Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Museum of Photographic Art, San Diego; Fonds National D’Art Contemporain (FNAC), Paris; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; and the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGoMA), Brisbane.

photo: Jorge Deustua

This article was first published in Chinese, in the November 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. First published in English at Talking Pictures in October 2020.