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Matt Dunne & Tom Goldner – In Conversation

Matt Dunne and Tom Goldner discuss Matt’s recent project The Killing Sink

By & August 22, 2022January 20th, 2023In-Conversation
Exhibition pictures by Annika Kafcaloudis
All other photographs by Matt Dunne

Tom Goldner recently caught up with artist and publisher Matt Dunne to chat about his most recent project, The Killing Sink.

TG: To me, you seem like somebody who wears lots of different hats in life, especially when it comes to your creative endeavours. When making ‘The Killing Sink’ do you identify your role first as an artist, conservationist, documentarian or something completely different?

MD:  Artist first, definitely.

In a lot of ways, the Killing Sink came from the work of others: it’s grounded in real events and court proceedings – which I learned about through well crafted journalism, non-governmental data collection and activist/conservation media. This work, which told the strictly-by-the-facts story of the murder of hundreds of eagles all over the state, helped me see where I could start to fill in the gaps around the truth, through trying to connect past and present, the complexity of the animals, as well as trying to delve into the difficult question of why people do such awful things.
For me, art provides a great method where I can follow rabbit holes and tangents, and (hopefully) be clever about the way these inform the overall work. For example, I have a collection of stamps with Wedge-Tailed Eagles on them and this, to me, speaks to our love of mimicking animal’s strength for emblems and symbols, despite the difficulty we have in letting them into our space. One might also think of football teams, wine brands and war-time medals. I think documentary, as an approach, would find that connection too tenuous and conservation might be too precisely focused on protection and action to be as interested in the never ending web of hows and whys.
However, I will say it’s incredibly fair to note that I draw a lot on conservation and documentary to make art. I want my work to be grounded in real things, and I want it to speak to what I care about. But I also want to use allusions, metaphor, grey area and romance to poke and prod at what’s underneath all the truth and all the action. I have a ton of respect for those other approaches, but I’m a bit too removed and a bit too open-ended for either.

TG: That grey area, or space which exists between the photographs is something I think about a lot. I feel you balanced that very consciously between both in the book and the exhibition.

I think we have so many parallels between our recent projects, you with the wedge-tailed eagles and me with the brumbies. Interestingly, I also incorporated antique 33c brumby stamps in the special edition of my book. How have you found the reaction to the work from people who aren’t necessarily interested in arty photography, do they come to the conclusion you are speaking of matters larger than wedged-tailed eagles? If not, does that feel like the point of the work is slightly misunderstood? 
MD: I think there are plenty of parallels between our work – not least of which is that a lot of the people closest to these animals are not necessarily actively engaging in the sort of art we make.
Honestly, the reaction has been both incredibly positive and really generative. For the exhibition I recently had at Oigall Projects there was so much curiosity and questioning – people wanted to know where something was, what had happened, who was involved. They were looking at the photos as avenues to find out about more of the reality on the ground, and it was great to be able to talk to those things from the long research that I’ve conducted.
I don’t think people necessarily walked away thinking that it was a body of work about our inability to compromise, and the historical threads that are woven in to our day, but that’s ok. Folks have been thinking mainly about Wedge-Tailed Eagles, in a way perhaps they haven’t before, that’s quite powerful.
What’s been generative about looking at the exhibition is thinking how can I install this differently? How can I build the work out to say something more expansive or connected? Where as the book is, in a way, finished, I don’t want to exhibit the work exactly the same way. For one, I won’t have Julian Leigh May’s evocative objects, so I couldn’t do the show as is again, but also I want to use the photographs are a starting point for a variety of exhibiting methods.
For example, I’ve recently proposed installing a collage and display table alongside larger prints for a gallery in London. A large part of using these additional components is to expand what the work is about, incorporating newspapers, ephemera (stamps, wine bottles, football jerseys, silver coins) and archival images from the United Kingdom about the deliberate harming of Eagles there. A recent example of this being the last Golden Eagle in Wales died and was found to have been poisoned and shot. Given our mutual history as a colony there’s an almost impossible to ignore play between The Killing Sink as it stands (focused on Australia) and the expanded edition which (if the gallery says ‘yes’ to) allows me to better tie in those wider and more global concerns.
I’ve attached a photo of a collage that’s 3mx1m that I made and hung up in my garage and I guess I’m at a point now where I don’t feel the work is finished – the photos are done (maybe…) but the life of the work is only starting.
Where do you feel you’re at with Brumbies?
TG: That board looks impressive. It really does resemble a crime scene map. I suppose that is somewhat fitting considering the violence which surrounds the topic. I wonder what your neighbours must think of you!
After I exhibited the brumbies work in 2021, I felt I needed some time away. It was an extremely taxing period on all fronts, least of which emotionally. I think largely because the work was made with so much urgency I became fatigued from having the same conversations and disheartened that people had moved on from the conversation of climate change so quickly. I’ve taken some time away from it and have been tinkering on another project. Now, I’d be open to showing it again, but like you, it wouldn’t be the same as the first exhibition and taking it internationally where people are somewhat removed from the brumby debate very much interests me. 
Touring The Killing Sink internationally makes sense. I can’t help but wonder how people in the United States might interpret the work. These types of stories which are centred around the other-than-human world seem to elicit a universal response which I find fascinating. I can think of some iconic photography books which also use birds as metaphor but then again, the oldest stories, tales and fables recorded do this too. As much as I get the sense the work is grounded in Gippsland / Australia’s post colonial history, I also recognise an archetype-story. Did your research take you in that direction also?
MD: That makes sense – I like the idea that there’s time and places for things to breathe and have space. It would be good for your work to have a different life in a different context for sure.
My research took me in some weird and wonderful places. I would say that COVID and the particularly long lockdowns in Melbourne vastly deepened my research because, without the ability to leave Melbourne and make photos, I had to just look at the issues, the animals and my interests through the internet, phone calls and writing.
The majority of my research was about deliberate killing of Wedge-Tailed Eagles – as precisely as I could. As you alluded to above there’s a real true crime/citizen investigation part to the work and that’s largely because few of these crimes are accurately recorded in the public record, yet all the puzzle pieces exist, just in different places. For example, there may be a newspaper article about some eagles dying near Shepparton, then a YouTube video from a wildlife carer about the same deaths (but more revealing), then a phone call with someone adds the last piece and suddenly the where, when and how are all answered. That example is pretty typical of this part of my research: I set myself the aim of finding out about as many eagle killings between 2010-2021 as I could.
However, the more expansive part of the research was much more haphazard. I’ve said this before but art is a very visceral and emotional thing for me – in a good way – I want art to be affective in the sense it plays on people’s emotions. So the more historical research was not something I spent a lot of time looking at. I spent time in archives, but the stories here are fairly simplistic: there was a bounty on killing eagles and many people photographed themselves triumphantly holding a dead one.
The more broad component of research – Australia’s attitudes towards native animals. Well, not to be glib, but this is so obvious to me – we love to use animals as attractions, signifiers and emblems, but consistently put them 2nd or 3rd to commercial and agricultural concerns. Is there much more to say here? It seems simple, unpleasant and in need to repeating, but not something that’ll be made deeper through investigation, at least to me.
Along the way I learned a lot. I learned about fluctuations in sheep prices, the effects certain poisons have on animals, issues with land clearing, raptor reproduction rates, legal limitations and the difficulties in prosecution. A boat load of additional information – now I’m considering how to use more of this, I think the book focuses on the Eagles and the killing, but doesn’t say as much about these broader connections – and I’d like to allude more to them.
I think to wrap up: I want the Eagles to be Eagles but the narrative to be metaphor. The Eagles matter a great deal to me, I respond to them differently than other animals and I think having thought so hard about them for so long I don’t want them to be symbolic. I’d rather the tools, the stamps, the landscapes be more of what moves people’s mind to broader concerns, but perhaps that’s just impossible to control.

TG: Tell me something about one of the photographs in the series which you haven’t had the chance to talk about before. 

MD: This image has some really rich connections to many of us. So in the picture you’ll see a man holding an Eagle, that man is David Fleay, one of Australia’s most pioneering scientists/naturalists and a director of Healesville Sanctuary. In his life, Fleay contributed immensely to Australian science – on the cutting edge of captive breeding, he was the first person to breed Platypus, Emus, Tawny Frogmoths, Wedge-Tailed Eagles and a bunch of other native animals in captivity, he was the last person to photograph Thylacine (Tasmanian Tigers) and he was fired from Melbourne Zoo because he staunchly believed native animals should be fed what they would eat in the wild.
This photo, taken in 1946, is eerily similar to how many of us first encounter large predators: in zoos, sanctuaries or displays. For better or worse, I think that this is an important thing to consider: where do we meet real animals and how does that shape the way we think about them? An animal comfortable with humans and reared to be sociable and entertaining may not be a good basis for our conception of what animals are like.
Fleay, undoubtedly, has an amazing legacy, but in this photo there’s much to wonder about.

TG: At the exhibition you spoke a little about your interaction with people in the making of the work, particularly of the communities in Gippsland where some of the crimes against wedged-tailed eagles took place. Can you share with me a story or two that impacted you one way or another?

MD: Definitely!
It was really interesting hearing from people who have known those who committed crimes for a long time and what they thought of those people as their crimes came to light. One individual shared with me that they had been long time friends with John Auer, who was one of the main perpetrators of the largest Eagle killing crime, and after finding out about what he did just did not feel they could be friends any more. This person helped me tremendously by showing exactly on a map where properties were raided and where, exactly, carcasses had been found. The properties in question are thousands of hectares large, so that precision meant I could get very close to the spot where the crimes happened, look around and snap some photos.
So I was impacted in two ways from this, firstly realising just how hard it is for people to find out about these killings. If long time friends don’t even have an inkling that folks are murdering eagles, of course it’s going to be even harder for authorities to find out. There’s no easy way to discover who is doing this and where, no give-aways in someone’s disposition of person

TG: Tell me a little about how you came to the sequencing in the book. Was that an ongoing dialogue with the folk at Void or did you hand the material over and trust them in the process?

MD: I handed the material over and let them create what they felt the book could be.
When I was in the early stages of trying to make a book, before I’d been in touch with VOID, all my efforts were very confused. I wanted, very much, to work with someone who could look at what I’d made and develop something with it, as I was finding myself constantly lost in my own head. When I emailed VOID a proposal, I wrote something to the effect of ‘I want to work with a publisher so that we make a book that I could not make’ – I wanted to collaborate to exceed my own abilities and headspace.
So with that spirit it made a ton of sense just to say ‘go for it, make whatever works’. An early draft had an image or two that I just wasn’t proud of, so those were cut, but the book contains lots of images I don’t think I would pick as ‘the highlights’ or the greatest hits, and the sequence is unlike anything I would have made. This has turned out really well, not just because the book is something I’m proud of, but also it means there’s still space for me to develop installations/exhibitions that are almost in dialogue with the book. I like that the venn diagram of what’s in the book and what’s exhibited touch, have a little overlap, but are also very much their own things as well. I find when I go to shows that are just the images from the book slapped on the wall I get a bit bored – it seems like an uninventive way for work to live. I’m really lucky that the way things came together means I can avoid that pitfall very easily.
TG: I love that idea of making a book you wouldn’t have made. So many photographers, possibly myself included, try to control every step of of the process.
Can you tell me about the use of archival imagery alongside new photos? I’d love to hear how you balanced this in the work. There was a particular image of an X-ray of an eagle which I found really provocative. Tell me about that work specifically. 
MD: Sure! I’m really interested in history and the archives of Australia represent this vast treasure trove of ideas, answers, images and thinking. When I have a new idea for a project I visit archives and see, could I build this based on what’s already existing or do I need to find new angles? It’s a form of mood boarding and language finding for me.
With the killing of eagles the question that drove me to make the work was ‘why do people do this?’ – it’s so hard to think of how someone could resolve the decision to kill such a majestic animal, and I wanted to delve into the psychology of it. A great way to do this is to look into the past – what has happened and does that echo today? In terms of The Killing Sink what I found was so many images of people triumphantly holding dead eagles, it was such a jarring depiction of something that most people would now recoil from. This transition: from gleeful family fun to disgust is something that’s really interesting and did help explain. For a long time it was acceptable, encouraged even, and the attitudes that resulted in that don’t vanish overnight, they still linger.
The archive was also a more ethical way for me to get closer to the crimes themselves. I have no interest in knocking on a convicted criminal’s door and trying to interview them, photograph them or represent them. As far as I’m concerned they had their days in court, their days in the news and their chance to speak for themselves and I also I can’t ethically see a way to get close to the criminals or the physical action of killing an eagle. But the archival images provided a portrait of these things. It’s not perfect, there’s so much different between then and now, but they provide a valuable context and speak to death itself.
Balancing archival images with mine is hard. Old photos carry weight, patina, romance, nostalgia, a sense of discovery – they can overwhelm contemporary images very, very easily. So I chose only a few, ones that felt very relevant to the work, without overloading the viewer or burdening my photos with the need to live up to the older ones. I also chose photos, mostly, that felt contemporary in some sense, it might be hard to know if I took it or someone took it 50 years ago. I wanted that confusion, and that was certainly a big part of the exhibition.
The X-Ray images are actually contemporary. A wildlife carer emailed those to me – I have a few others with shotgun pellets visible as well. There’s another raptor specialist who has a HUGE stack of the physical film of x-rays, which are like 8*10 or larger ortho film, or something like that. I’ve been trying for years to get her to let me drive up and scan them, but no luck yet. Perhaps for a festival or something where there’s a more tangible reason she could be convinced. Sometimes it’s surprisingly difficult to convince someone to lend you something, but that’s ok, we’ll keep at it. Next time I’m in her neck of the woods I’m getting on the phone!
TG: I saw recently you were reaching out to some environmental groups asking about potentially accessing situations where feral animals are being euthanised. Is this part of the same story as The Killing Sink, a follow on or something completely different?
MD: That’s new work.
It’s quite nascent at the moment, but I’ve partnered with some conservation organisations and I’m spending time photographing the labour that enables conservation. Like a lot of people, I want there to be more environmental protection and expanded spending in restoration and conservation. However, I’m not always sure I know what advocating for that means on the ground – what do people working in conservation do 9-5, Monday to Friday? It occurred to me that if I wanted to be soap boxing for something I should at least understand what I was soap boxing for.
In Australia, a significant part of conservation is managing feral and introduced species. It’s an interesting area because it takes a huge amount of time and effort, and it’s also a form of killing to enable a form of living. By killing feral species we necessarily enable native animals to regain lost numbers and habitat. But there is an irony there. Similarly, the conservation reserves I’ve been visiting use exclusion fences: so we’re building large cages for native animals on native land to keep feral species out. There’s something quite bizarre about that when you zoom out.
I’m a bit of an odd one. These folks are used to artists coming and using long lenses and photographing native animals in very specific lighting situations. I’m as happy photographing data entry as I am the animals. I’m also incredibly interested in the plant life as I think it’s incredibly difficult for a lay person to know if plants are healthy and native. We have a tendency to read ‘green’ as healthy but that’s just too simple. I’m wondering if I can make a tract of willows seem as much of a disaster as they are in Australia.
Anyway, I want to spend more time with folks actually hunting feral animals. I think it’s visually arresting and conceptually provocative and fits into a lot of these grey areas, nuances and complexities.
I know you didn’t want Brumbies to be a didactic project, but I wonder where you landed on the issue outside of your art – especially as there’s been a resurgence in pro-Brumby chatter due to announcements of culling recently.

TG: Interesting. I love the idea of zooming in, zooming out. I’ve found living semi-rurally that I’ve become more aware of some of these ‘slow emergencies’. The wild onions are always an impactful one for me, you don’t notice them for 11 months of the year and come early spring the country is overflowing in these delicate white flowers and the whole countryside is filled with the smell. They are very pretty but it is causing all sorts of problems for the native flora and fauna.

As much as I didn’t want my project to be didactic I understand the approach to conservation at times has to be. I feel I understand the need to cull because the damage occurring from the horses is real and the flow on effect causes death. As you said, killing to allow for living. On the other hand these horses are beautiful animals, it shouldn’t be an easy thing to kill animals which are only here because we enabled it. It’s an uncomfortable thing to position oneself as part of these systems but I came to feel it provided a more balanced perspective.

It might be a somewhat naive question considering all the grey areas we have talked about during our chat but I’m wondering if you feel hopeful about the future? 

MD: Do I feel hopeful? It’s a bit of a ‘yes, and…’.
There’s lots that gives me hope. We have a new government in Australia that, while imperfect, are making welcome moves on climate change. I doubt we’ll get everything we want, but the direction is the right one. I hope to see a lot more money and co-ordination to conservation. Similarly, the Wildlife Act (the law making killing Eagles illegal) was reviewed last year and some improvements are likely to come, the Department responsible for prosecuting against individuals killing Eagles was unhappy with the convictions and opted to review and update the laws based on this.
There appears to be an increasing sense of urgency about environmentalism in the community more broadly. People are more aware of their carbon footprint and the necessity to do something about it. Interestingly, predictions made by the government in 2008 that homes would increase in size and air conditioning use would rise turned out not quite to be true. People aren’t ready, en masse, to use less, tread lighter and leave it better than they found it, but we’re getting closer.
However, there are real challenges for which we have quite difficult solutions. We need to use vastly less carbon – and it seems we may need to curtail some freedoms to do so. Globally speaking, the rich are driving increased emissions. Quoting here from this article: “Differences between high and low emitters within nations show that globally, the top 1% — located all over the world — actually emit about 70 times as much carbon as the bottom 50”. In our world wealth equals power, and we are not yet pushing heavily against this, or demanding/enforcing rich people use less. Another example of this is private jet use where it’s incredibly easy for a single flight from one celebrity to use more carbon than the average person does all year.
There are a lot of hopeful things, a lot of good people working hard to make sure the future is ok, but there’s an entrenched inertia that is causing all these problems. I’m broadly skeptical that we’ll be able to buy our way out of climate change, and a bit disappointed in my fellow environmentally-friendly citizens who choose to think, feel and talk about the issues, but have never signed a petition, called their local member or written a letter. The squeaky wheel gets the grease guys.
I guess what I’m saying is that I can understand why feelings of despair or anguish exist – those propel me to make art – but at the same time if one lets those overwhelm then we also forfeit our options to influence and speak to the system. For better or worse caring is insufficient, only action moves the needle.
Will we win against the race we have set ourselves? I don’t know. Realistically I think the future will be very challenging, perhaps not as dire as is forecast, but hard. I think you and I will look at some of what we could see, do and buy in later in life and think ‘christ it was easier’. Then I think about how people struggled through the plague, divine right to rule, centuries of war, famine, disease and decay – we are resilient. I don’t want to welcome those things back, but I do think we could live pretty well and be kinder to the planet, it might just force us to do that rather than such a change happening on our terms.

You can follow Matt Dunne at @matt.dunne and Tom Goldner at @tomgoldnerphoto

The Killing Sink is available for purchase here.

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