Early in the Austral winter of 2008, the artist John Reid and I were mired on a steep and muddy track in the Monga National Park of New South Wales. John and I were driving between watersheds in an ancient Eucalypt and tree fern forest, its silence punctuated only by the sounds of birds and the occasional branch dropping into the understory. The timber of this forest in New South Wales includes Antarctic flora dating back to when Australia was part of the supercontinent Gondwana, bits of which would drift apart two hundred million years ago to become Africa, South America, and the Antarctic.
The enormous trees around us, some of them hundreds of years old, had once been coveted by logging companies as a lucrative source of woodchips for construction materials. That they had been preserved in a national park was due, in part, to John’s “artistic discovery”of an elusive hominid creature living in the wild rivers of the region. He had been leading photography students from the Australian National University on field trips deep into the region during the mid-1980s when he inadvertently captured an image of the creature in a cave stream. In 1988 he went public with what he called the Fishman of Southeast Australia, garnering national media attention for what some journalists accepted as a cryptozoological specimen, while others decried the project as an elaborate hoax. Whichever your viewpoint, the photographs undeniably documented a naked and blurred hominid swimming underwater.
Reid, when pressed, would freely admit that audiences were free to accept the creature as a myth alongside the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti – but with a clever piece of rhetorical jujitsu then noted that such skepticism would only serve to protect the Fishman from being collected by an over-zealous researcher and preserved in a tub of formaldahyde. After presenting slide shows (remember those?) to audiences across Australia during the 1990s, enough attention was focused on the forests to help shift public opinion away from logging operations and in favor of preservation.
This month we opened an exhibition of the Fishman archive that we’ve collected at the Center for Art + Environment in the Nevada Museum of Art. In addition to photographs of the Fishman and John’s journal entries, we’re displaying the press coverage, John’s maps, and a fifty-foot-long waterproof cable release that he used to take his own picture while swimming underwater in an attempt to meet the creature. I have yet to walk by the gallery without seeing someone peering at the photos and reading John’s texts. It’s rare that we get to show a project where art has been an active player in preserving part of the planet, and the public, while not sure about the existence of the Fishman, is clearly relishing the fact that the forest is still standing.
William L. Fox is a writer and Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, Nevada.