When I first met with Jon Dixon and Great South Coast Leadership Group representative and local arts advocate extraordinaire Gareth Colliton on the Port Fairy site we were greeted with lightning flashes and thunder claps. It seemed an auspicious welcoming. The night before we unveiled our completed work in March 2016 thunder again crackled through the sky. This time it was louder and the charged air felt alive. Not only alive but continuous with the life force in my own body as well as the creative life force which had guided our whole project. In the speech I prepared for our opening I decided to be courageous and share this sense of the living landscape with the audience. It was an important turning point within my practice which enabled something to gel.
The earth is alive.
And as Professor Tom Griffiths from the ANU Centre of Environmental History points out in his 2018 Australian Museum address, it has only been in the last 300 or so years that we have forgotten this.
CHARGED LANDSCAPE awakens in the evening sky. I have had the pleasure of guiding Grade Two School children on a night time exploration of the space as well as making numerous trips just for fun. On clear summer and autumn nights you can find the Dark Emu in the Sky looking over the Dark Emu imprinted in the ancient stone.
The Great South Coast Leadership Group enabled this amazing project to happen. Check out their site for more about the project and scroll down to the 2016 section of their photo gallery to see more images of the opening night.
If you want to find our more about Indigenous Australian Astronomy the following links are a good place to start:
Sculpt Ed public art commission and collaboration with artist Jon Dixon
Late last year an EOI was put out by the Great South Leadership Group for a public sculpture that would be installaed on the Port Fairy Rail Trail. This was the second iteration of a program that saw Adnate’s Ngatanwarr Mural installed in Warrnambool last year. http://www.warrnamboolstreetart.com/ngatanwarr-welcome-mural
Jon and I were among eight artists who submitted individual responses to the brief. After an interview process the panel were unable to chose between Jon and I, both of us being seen to offer particular unique strengths to the project. It was for this reason that we were invited to collaborate on the project, and invitation that we both readily accepted.
We were both vaguely familiar to each other, having met about 15 years ago when I ran a small studio gallery with fellow artist Beth Garden in the old Fletcher Jones Factory. Since that time Jon’s sculpture career has gone from strength to strength, as has his brilliant Lyons Sculpture Park, in South West Victoria. It’s worth the drive, check it out:
Work began in late January with an insanely tight deadline of March 11. The project was a great experience, we both approached it with the kind of openness, flexibility and creativity that I have come to really enjoy in collaborations.
Jon came across a very cool material called Strotium. Not the scary kind that is found in collapsed nuclear reactors but a benign form that operates as a brilliant “glow-in-the-dark” medium. It doesn’t matter how old you are, we don’t think anyway, there is something so magic and a purely exciting about things that glow in the dark that we thought this was the perfect medium to combine in our resin based “stars”.
Below is the statement that accompanies Charged Landscape. If you happen to visit Port Fairy take a stroll down the rail trail, leaving from Regent Street, and go & find this work for yourself.
This work invites you to activate it. As day becomes night enter the salt marsh trail with your torch in hand, wander forward until you find the eleven ancient rocks embedded with glowing blue stars, once here take your torch and charge the stars until they glow even more brightly still, watch the stars move, hide and unfold as you move your body around this space.
The Charged Landscape
This work has borrowed its landscape in innumerable ways. As collaborating artists our early conversations discussed how the multiple experiences and histories of this single place might be drawn out and articulated. We considered different materials in concert with developing a form that could describe the macro and micro dimensions of this space, stars and fossils emerged as a means to encapsulate this.
The Emu in the Sky
The Aboriginal star constellation the Emu in the Sky quickly became a conceptual and literal image to work within. Unlike most constellations it is comprised of the dark patches where thick clouds of interstellar dust obscure light from the galaxy’s center. This recognition of negative space as well as the sense that some aspects of the world remain hidden from vision provided a poetic lead for this creative process.
The Emu’s head rests next to the Southern Cross, its body stretches across the sky through Scorpio and out past Sagittarius. It is most visible on autumn nights. The Emu in the Sky is common to many First Nations people across Australia from Papunya in the NT to the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi in NSW and Qld to the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park where the Guringai carved the grand Emu into a cliff top. Closer to home in the Grampians the Gariwerd creation story describes the Emu as the ferocious Tchingle. Locally, the Gundjitmarra also hold the Emu with reverence, unable to step backwards he embodies the power to move forward with strength.
For both artists the Emu in the Sky in the sky reminds us of our place within the cosmos, in the much, much larger time and space in which we all so briefly exist. It allows us to acknowledge and celebrate the eon’s long interconnection of indigenous Australian’s and their country and symbolizes the strong bright future that we must work together to create.
Charged Landscape is a transitory space that mirrors the multi-dimensions that exist within it. In this mini stellar nursery we have fashioned a series of stars each of which contains a fossil record of the different histories that intersect across this plane.
Research through the themes of ecology, geology, indigenous history, colonial and contemporary history as well as the railway line itself determined which fossils we would encode.
Although it would take a small book to record all of the information collected through this research, we offer a few starting points which may inspire your own inquiry into the different stories of this landscape:
- This railway line was born of the 1884 Railway Act, colloquially known as the Octopus act for the final tendrils it sent out into each Victorian electorate… By coincidence, a decade before the line’s first sod was turned a diver dynamiting basalt lining the Moyne River found himself accosted by a massive octopus, a terrible devil fish who, once defeated in battle, was measured at eight feet across…
- Encounters with the mythical and terrifying great white shark Big Ben in nearby waters have been reported since at least the 1970s… The ancient megalodon who swam when the sea was above this landscape 10-15 million years ago, however, makes Ben look like a sardine: a single megalodon tooth is bigger than a man’s palm…
- As the coast has ebbed and flowed so too the land has morphed and buckled, the sea’s edge was once 50km further out at the continental shelf’s edge, before that it was joined to Antarctica. More recent history saw the landscape alive with the Newer Volcanics, Charged Landscape’s basalt boulders are taken from the Mt. Ruass lava flow which reached the sea here at Port Fairy.
- Aboriginal people have lived symbiotically with this landscape for tens of thousands of years. Their culture is so continuous here that the Tower Hill explosion of 30,000 years ago is embedded in their oral history. Local stone formed an important part of their technology, stones where used to grind food as well as pigments, used as axe heads and to form channel systems for wild eel farming.
- Colonial women are well hidden in Port Fairy’s history. Shrinking not into history’s shadows, however, is Annie Baxtor who briefly settled in Yambuck with her military husband. This infamous socialite is said to have raced horses against men. She was well known for her fabulous style but was not all pure of heart- she was also known to partake in violent assaults against the Guntjimarra.
- Despite degradation of wetland environments since European settlement they are among Australia’s most valuable environments, salt marshes such as the Belfast Locke are in fact among the highest ecological value in this class. They support a range of unique plant and animal species, including the small burrowing crayfish whose presence is noted by small holes with simple mud chimneys. Along with a pantheon of Australian bird life, the endangered orange bellied parrot and hooded plover also find shelter in this internationally recognized “Important Bird Area”.
We wish to thank the following people who contributed invaluable knowledge, support and resources to this artwork:
Micheal Steel and Bamstone,
Ian Bodycoat & the Port Fairy Rail Trail Committee
Fiona Clarke, Marcus Clarke, Brett Clarke and the “Gundjitmarra Elders Lunch”
John Sherwood and Dereck Walters, Geologists
Jarrad Obst of Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Management Authority
Jordan Lockett, Port Fairy musician & crafter of sea shanties
Marg Banks, local railway historian
Leonie Needham, local historian
Dr. Duane W. Hamacher, Senior Research Fellow in Indigenous Astronomy, Monash Indigenous Centre
We hope you enjoy your encounter with this charged landscape,
Jon Dixon & Becky Nevin Berger, March 2016
Upstream Public Art Commission
This work was installed with the help of Dave Mitchell and Murray Adams in early October last year. It was a real pleasure to make, and a real treat to finally have a reason to engrave images onto acrylic sheet.
Gene Garden from Corangamite CMA helped me to come up with the short list of creatures to illustrate. They include the River Black Fish, the rare Grayling, Southern Pigmey Perch, a Fat Tailed Dunnart & a Tree Fern, a Spotted Quoll (possibly my new favourite animal) & a Beech Myrtle, a Platypus, an Otway-Yarra Spiny Yabby (an exquisite creature), a Sugar Glider, a Small Burrowing Crayfish and a beautiful Royal Spoonbill. Each of these beings depend of the Gellibrand River ecosystem in the Western Otway Ranges, the same river system that provides water for the townships of Warrnambool and Colac.
Now when my kids take too long in the shower I don’t just tell them that they are wasting the water, I tell them that they are wasting the river- it has immediate effects.
I was invited to make a speech at the opening, the following excerpt gives the best insight into the work. (Photo credits from that evening go to David Owen)
I replied to the EOI put out by Heytesbury Landcare in June because I found it’s goal of increasing understanding of where our water comes from fitted with work I had been doing in my own art practice.
In 2012 I began a Visual Art PhD that concentrated on the connection between the individual and the environment.
I spent the first year of my research looking at the landscape around here and around my childhood home in Murray river and Hume Weir country near Albury-Wodonga. I considered ideas about nature, I looked at the ways we have shaped the landscape and how it shapes us.
I spent the second year looking solely at my domestic home, looking at the different habits, interactions and activities that we do to create the dependable routines that produce the stability and security that we generally feel within our homes.
Whilst at first glance it may appear that these two areas of research, the landscape and the domestic home, describe separate spaces, what I actually found was the extent to which these spaces are utterly intertwined, and it was the very simple, very ordinary material of water that gave me the key.
I had drawn a picture of my bathroom basin with water running from its tap and a wave breaking out over the side of the basin- I had drawn the tap water clear and drawn the wave using the colours that we would expect to find out here in the southern ocean. This simple difference gave away underlying distinctions that I had made between my domestic home and the so-called natural world.
Around this time I came across a question posed by Canberra artist Marily Cintra “Do we realise that when we open a tap in Canberra we are diverting the river into our homes.”
I realized that this was a question that many of us here in Warrnambool should consider more carefully, many of us do not even realise that the Gellibrand flows into our homes.
My sculpture, which I have called “The Water Tower” makes reference to the humble domestic shower. Etched into each of the acrylic panels you will find just a handful of the many other species who make their homes in the Gellibrand and its catchment area.
Despite the top paddles looking as though they should move, they do not, in fact there is only one part of the sculpture that does move- the hot & cold taps on either side of the central panel.
When you look at the creatures etched and get that warm little feeling & awe at nature’s beauty this sculpture asks you to consider the primary that way that you already interact with those creatures- and that you please, bare them in mind you use the hot and cold taps in your own home.
I took a fortnight off from my PhD at the end of June to complete some work for a children’s festival here in Warrnambool. It’s Australia’s largest kids festival and runs for eight days, Fun 4 Kids. This project was a great way to test out program design and installation approaches. I designed the space as a children’s craft space that would only use paper based products- no pipe cleaners or lil’ foam balls in sight!! Using this combination of coloured paper and reclaimed cardboard children were able to make an array of creatures including mini beasts and “day tree creatures”. Children were invited to help us populate the tree over and over the course of each day a unique and colourful ecosystem would appear- this was so much fun!
The craft programs were easy to adapt to different abilities and ages. One of the most beautiful things for me to watch was the way these craft activities worked to generate some great interactions between parents and children. It really was satisfying to watch.
The CreaTree is a sculptural tree designed to have a curtain sandwiched between it to create two spaces: the well lit Day Tree space and the Dream Tree Space, a dark space with UV Light. I constructed the tree using 17mm Ply Board and I have described it as “Becky’s version if Ikea”- it all flat packs down so it can fit into the back of our 4WD. The tree blots into a heavy steal base which I had made locally. The rest of the tree slots together using dowel joints- I am pretty proud of this sculpture, I worked my toshie off on it and it is quite beautiful. The black plastic in these photos is awful! I have made a really nice, deep blue curtain ready for the CreaTree’s next incarnation- the CreaTree concept lends itself to adaptable programing and I am looking forward to the next series!
In late December 2013 I was able to make a research trip to Sydney. My aim was to see two spaces that I had viewed from a far for too long- Edge of Trees and Paddington Reservoir Gardens. I also took advantage of my temporary location by visiting a few other art sites.
I visited the amazing collection of contemporary Chinese art at White Rabbit Gallery in Central Sydney http://www.whiterabbitcollection.org/ , I was impressed by the way many of the works really grappled with the social, political and spiritual turbulence spurred by globalisation’s rapid pace. Gonkar Gyasto is the artist who has most stayed with me- his works deals with place and placelessness and identity.
After lunch I made the trek to Brett Whitley’s Studio in Surry Hills, http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/brett-whiteley-studio/ where I spent time with epic self-portrait as a landscape, Alchemy. I had seen this work on an ABC Documentary http://www.abc.net.au/arts/artofaustralia/ and felt that Whiteley’s process of making an immense landscape as self-portrait and autobiographical narrative illustrated my notion of aesthetic subjectivity perfectly. I crawled over this painting for almost an hour.
Walking back into Sydney Central I made my way to the Art Gallery of NSW. Here I was most keen to see the work Illuminate. The product of a community arts collaboration between paper makers and Euraba artists from Northern NSW. I found this work mesmerizing. A corrugated box hut made of paper and illuminated from the inside out by four video projectors which animate each of the four walls with documentary style footage- it became this glowing aesthetic object, what you imagine the intersection between memory and place, our memory and home may be.
On my second day I sought out Fiona Foley’s and Janet Laurence’s Edge of Trees and the Museum of Sydney Forecourt. I first saw this work on a documentary about Laurence on the ABC (God bless aunty) back in 2007 I think. At the time I was really impressed by her approached and just really “got it”. In this work trees originally felled from the area (that had taken seed pre-colonisation) were returned to the site as greyed, noble logs. Laurence and Foley have used a number of materials to convey and capture the memory of this site, Latin and indigenous names are inscribed on the poles and heard echoing through this relic site. This was one of those sites which visiting only enhanced my appreciation of it, I felt it as a really powerful memorial and as a place in which to come to terms with history. Sitting there on a Sunday morning with the noises of buses, cars and pedestrians I imagined what it would feel like in the quiet of 3am, in the dark would the speaker’s aboriginal voice echo in the urban still?
I took a punt and figured out how to use Sydney public transport just enough to get myself to Paddington. I bought myself a coffee, crossed the road and walked down the stairs into the Paddington Reservoir Gardens. A young lady sat taking flute lessons, a family picnicked on a section of grass. I looked around the space, beautiful- what I had expected, an eclectic intersection of ruins and landscape gardening that embodied that contemporary eco-aesthetic. But I was a little underwhelmed too, and that is not a bad thing, I really had to query why I was underwhelmed. My research has led me to look at our relationship to the environment and this has in turn revealed the many ways in which this relationship is constructed. This construction process is not always one in which we can exert our own agency however, it is not uncommon for the constructed spaces in which we find ourselves to be forces themselves in fact shaping our agency.
I had stayed in Western Sydney and caught the train to and from that infamous urban landscape. Making my way into the Sydney CBD that morning it was impossible to ignore the way money concentrates itself as witnessed in the buildings of the area, their commercial occupants and their proximity to the harbor, the memory of that Edge of Trees nestled into this Western, globalized space. Sitting here in Paddington it was hard to detach from the awareness that this beautiful, ethical space was entwined in the circumstances of privilege that keep its nearby property prices so high. Another dimension to my underwhelming was to do with the difference between a space made using aesthetics to create a more neutral common area and a space made using aesthetics as a language to engage its visitors and its socio-historical contexts in order to push into a questioning of that relationship between subject and world.
These are questions and currents that keep pushing through my research and will be developed as I go. In two fast approaching weeks I will take flight for overseas field research in America and Japan. Questioning the processes of aesthetically made spaces will be a core task of this research. Stay tuned…