In November 2016 I spent a weekend in my academic cradle, ANU in Canberra for “Thesis Bootcamp.” This critical moment pushed me to reckon with the beautiful beast of my research project. From 3pm Friday until 6pm Sunday my time was scheduled by this writing workshop. One of the coolest things about studying through ANU has been coming into close contact with some of the most brilliant minds in the country- in this case it was Inger Mewburn aka “The Thesis Whisperer” who ran the tight ship of this boot camp.
During that weekend we had to write as much as possible. It didn’t have to be the best writing, it just had to be about our research: no pressure, no pretence, just get it out. Each 5,000 words got you a little foam lego block. I churned out just over 10,000 words. My foam trophies would later sit as icons of compulsion and promise under my monitor.
All this writing crystallised the realisation that I was incredibly far from having a coherent exegesis. In spite of this, it did begin the transformation of the mass of ideas, partially formed paragraphs, and threads of meaning and concepts congesting my neural pathways since at least 2012 into an external document. Sitting next to neuroscientists and social researchers and their numerical data in the boot camp left me feeling like my visual arts research was a soft blob of fuzzy subjective conjecture. On the other hand, putting my hard fought observations into writing forced me to commit to the positions that had formed through my research. It was the beginning of making things solid, of choosing a narrative structure in spite of the inevitable partial perspective it would be.
Another reason this account starts with this weekend is because of the definition of “exegesis” provided by Inger Mewburn during that time. With a creative practice doctorate the thesis is the completed artwork which is presented for the final examination. The exegesis is the body of writing that accompanies the thesis. The function of the “exegesis” can be best understood by understanding its origins in the work of translating scripture. Translating from one language to another is not a one-to-one transaction, there are shifts and gaps that occur between language systems which displace or alter meaning. An exegesis acts as a critical account and interpretation of this process, it is an accompaniment that attempts to bridge that gap.
Without doubt the biggest cognitive burden of my research process was the exegesis that lived, breathed, and convulsed within my brain.
I do not say this with resentment. I am one of those artists who loves the theoretical (namely written) dimensions of the creative process as much as I thrive within studio.
No doubt it was in part the institutional weight of the PhD candidature and its rigorous conventions that made the unborn exegesis a mental and emotional burden. Upon reflection I can also see how the very fundamental process of translating embodied experience- felt knowledge and observation- into the particular rules of language demanded mental endurance. As a scholarly practice a scaffold needed to be generated between my own critical account of the meaning produced in my research and the ideas, theories, histories, and meanings pre-existing within culture relative to my research concerns. This sounds massive. It was. The mental space it consumed was massive too.
Ultimately the only way to expel the beast was to commit to a process of writing. Simple, right?
It took from January 2017 to February 2018 to pull it off, or out. It was a hideously long year.
There were moments of pure horror and chaos as Christmas, family visits, and school holidays coincided with the business end of writing. In the final stages I sought refuge in a friend’s vacant home for two weekends in a row. It was this uninterrupted focus that finally enabled me to complete the critical account of six years of close examination of my intersection with my environment, my intertwining with the landscape and my home.
That final period of writing was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I’d rather give birth than ever do that again. Yet just like giving birth, I would not exchange that time or the way it sculpted me anew for all the lazy Sundays in the world. The eruptions of euphoria as key ideas, observations, and concepts were finally synthesised were the richest reward.
My sister’s 40th birthday was scheduled for the weekend just after my exegesis was due. After a late night formatting the whole document I had it printed and bound in time for us to hit the road for the eight hour drive to the campground were her 40th would be held- I mean, who wouldn’t make that drive in the wake a week like that!?? (Clearly most people, but I am not most people)
The plan was post the four copies of my document to ANU from the border town of Wodonga, a day or so less in the post to make up time I’d lost in the final week.
Of course our car blew a tyre about an hour an a half from there. I don’t think I’ve ever worried less, I was on such a mental high my husband and I just giggled our way through changing the tyre like a pair of pit-lane pros on the side of the Hume Freeway. I had finally broken the enchantment that bound me to my computer and the massive piles of paper surrounding it for years, you could not bring me down.
I posted it from Benalla instead, sayonara…
By the following afternoon I was at a campground in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains with my extended family. For a brief 10 minutes I paddled my sister’s kayak out to the middle of the Snowy Hydro era lake and savoured my place in the world.
That such a critical component of my research was recognising the way we had turned the landscape inwards through our damming of such waterways to make electricity and provide clean drinking water for our homes was front of mind as I sat on the black waters of that lake.
That really cool, quiet moment in time will feed my soul forever.
Now, I was finally on the other side.
It was time to figure out how to put the river that ran through my research into material form…
I had about six weeks to have a resolved artwork reassembled at the ANU School of Art Gallery in Canberra.
Knowing where to start was tricky.
Following from my installation test at the Warrnambool Art Gallery in early February I knew that I would be somehow weaving my collection of little “warm safe houses” into a matrix of PVC pipe built to fit the mathematical dimensions- read: metaphor for the material/physical conditions of my research site- from my kitchen sink to my ensuit.
Art making is problem solving through materials. And it’s the little, very material things about materials that sit at the nub of this: which specific PVC pipe materials would I need? How many lengths of pipe? How many fittings? What kind of fittings? How would I adhere my boxes to these pipes? How would I manage the construction of this form in the central walkway of my home?
If I was a different kind of person I could have perhaps extrapolated the answers to these questions abstractly by measuring the space, imagining and precisely drawing the ideal “river” form to occupy that space and then methodically working out exactly which PVC bits would be required. This would no doubt be more efficient.
But if I was that kind of person I would be doing a PhD in Engineering not Visual Art. I think with my hands in response to things as they exist in space. The only way to figure this one out was to begin to play.
I went on-line to scope out the types of fittings that were out there. Ideas began to form.
I went to Bunnings to see what I could source immediately. I returned with small 45o & 90o elbows and a few T-joins. Using pipes from my earlier art gallery test I “drew” the linear form of a breaking wave at my ensuite and bedroom entry, a river mouth opening out. This gave me a sense of how things might go.
Following this I prepared a bulk order with an online plumbing supplier. I also dropped back out to Bunnings and bought the makings of the central “spine” (which an ANU Lecturer, upon seeing the whole exhibited work in Canberra later that month, aptly referred to as “That Big Mother-Fucker”) which would house the sound system on which the sample of my dying washing machine would be played.
I played with the remaining bits I had on hand as I waited, and waited, for my on-line order to arrive.
During this wait I completed the final stages of my “warm safe house” series. These boxes combined fabric, painted town planning maps, and photographs taken during my examination of my domestic space. I printed some of these photographs onto transparent sheet and layered them across the acrylic windows on a number of the boxes.
The last step was painting a series of icons onto about 25 of the boxes. The rationale behind incorporating these images was to document the effects of “habitual perception” witnessed throughout my research. I had observed how repeated and predictable encounters with particular facets of the everyday obscure the world’s “phenomenological depth”- i.e. we don’t need to see objects like the milk carton or sites like the shower or the concrete gutter outside our homes for anymore than what they serve in the given moment of our interaction. This is one of the ways that our everyday world’s become ordinary- and yep, this is why there is an exegesis accompanying this work…
I chose milk cartons, washing baskets, shopping bags, the kitchen tap, and the gas meter as the icons of habitual perception that intersect our gaze and adhere it to the surface of life.
As I finished painting the last of these I began to freak out that three weeks on from placing my on-line order it was still yet to arrive.
I really had attempted to not leave this all to the last minute.
With just ten days until I was due to leave for Canberra, and after about 400 distressed phone calls and emails, my missing freight was located.
At last I could properly begin.
Could I pull this off?
I “knew” what kind of form I needed to create. I knew it had to be really, really special. I was terrified that it might be almost great. I realised that pushing it beyond “almost” great would require non-stop effort, an incredible amount of materials, and the patience of my family within whose home this form would finally emerge.
The process of creating Oikos was an all absorbing dance. An interaction of making and responding through which the final form grew organically in response to the myriad parameters of its creation. A wonderful synchrony emerged between my body and the forming artwork, between my hands, eyes, materials, my home, and my ideas.
I began by placing “The Spine”- “The Big Mother-Fucker” drain pipe – in its central position and then created an outer boundary on either side using a combination of 40mm & 50mm pipes. This create a sturdy, thick framework which would allow the whole conglomeration to stand unsupported once it was in the gallery space. From here I built in sections which allowed me to only partially block the epi-centre of my home over the course of the week.
I created a solution for mounting the boxes by screwing PVC plumbing caps to them so the pipes could be plugged into them. Bless my husband’s cotton socks, he graciously helped with this time consuming job…. and bless the cordless drill who, with the right drill bit, sped the process up considerably.
Oikos took over my house. Given that this was the final stage in a long research process centred in my home it was fitting that the material form of my research should spill out and consume the domain of my family life.
Little by little, night by night, day by day (9am-3:30pm) it grew….
The best accompaniment to these photographs is the words from the final chapter of my exegesis:
“Constructing Oikos to my home’s dimensions will require me to transiently block the entrances between my kitchen, lounge, bedroom, and bathroom. This will disrupt the metabolism of this domestic organism by restricting movement of the embodied subjects whose aesthetic entanglements in this space regulate entropy and order within it. This intervention will briefly collapse the distinction between art and the everyday critiqued through this research while enabling deliberation on these objectified practices within the ordinary space in which they operate.”
“Even as energy and food circulate continuously through an ecosystem some energy always dissipates in the form of warmth. Heat is directly tied to entropy. Heat indicates the amount of disorder and net energy loss within a system. As warmth emanates from a given system or object it is as though it becomes fused with temporal-space. Perhaps the transient warmth I observed within the home is a product of the entropy we seek to delay. Perhaps warmth stretches out and fuses our subjectivities to the world like the webbing that Shiota weaves through space. The final form that Oikos takes within the School of Art Gallery will attempt to make tangible these processes through which entropy and renewal entwine in and activate materials to generate the embodied warmth and transient stability our of internal worlds.”
 Capra, F. (1997). The Web of Life. Glasgow: Flamingo: 48
 Baker, J. (2007). 50 Physics Ideas you really need to know. London: Quercus Publishing Plc: 36-39
And then, one Friday afternoon, just before school pick-up the day before I was meant to leave for Canberra, it was finished.
The dance between shapes, and lines, and angles, and textures, and ideas was done. She was done. Oikos was made.
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
The drawing series “Making Spaces” notes the shift in my understanding that occurred through the domestic observations I undertook through my PhD Research in 2013. I had come to see how the interfolding of body and environment was dynamic, reactive and productive. It could never be a pure, pre-reflective engagement. Perception is always prewired in some way. Just as each photograph I took of my domestic life operated to construct a scene, each perceptual engagement with space operated to construct that space, making it into a particular space dependent on the intention and activity of the subject and the resources and conditions of the given space.
I saw these drawing works as indicating some of the processes that enable us to make the ordinary (almost invisible in their apparent un-remarkableness) spaces of our everyday worlds. I chose to draw on maps which were directly relevant to my ordinary life. The maps include the location of my children’s school, family daycare and my house. My previous year’s research into the operation of ecosystems, Warrnambool’s geology and indigenous understanding and connection to land combined with a deepened understanding of Colonisation’s material processes of naming, dividing, selling and “developing” land. This utterly changed the way I perceive the fixed, concreteness of urbanization, its infrastructure and the cultural practices it enables. I see these drawings as an interaction between the maps, the drawn image and the title. To me this is a way of grappling with the actual material reality of how it is that we shape land and resources in order to produce and maintain the homogeneity of contemporary urban life and the regular comforts this enables.
I have been getting back into my PhD studies over the last few weeks. The main focus of this research is to investigate and develop my notion of Aesthetic Subjectivity. This model of subjectivity looks at the human, or the self, as an enfolding of body and environment, always absorbing and processing (metabolising) the external world in the process of forming its conscious image, drawn from sensory inputs and body states (synaesthesia), of its self in this relationship. Said in another way, looking at how we process the intersection of our inner and outer worlds to interact within “the world”.
I began my PhD in February 2012 by focusing on my relationship to the environment. This took in my childhood and adult geographic environments as well as the socio-historical lineages of these environments. That first year of my research was mainly spent surveying that vast contextual field. A vastness that turned out too overwhelm my core research aims. I was advised by my supervisor, Head of the ANU’s Sculpture Workshop Wendy Teakel, to narrow the aperture of my focus to my immediate domestic space. I was resistant and sceptical to this idea at first and the shift from the theoretically and geographically broader landscape to the absolutely localised space of my immediate world was an at times painful transition. But at my heart I am a good girl and I could see potential in Wendy’s suggestion so I did what I was told to do and set about observing my domestic space through visual diary format.
This process of continual observation has proven to be a rich venture yielding insight into that overlapping of self and space that so enchants me. It gave me the platform that I needed to ease myself back into the production of art itself. I can see a strong little body of works emerging that embody my research concerns. This series of small sculptures considers the way in which we interact with everyday domestic and familial objects, ingesting there physical forms and patterns as our muscle memories form the habits of their use. Through observing myself and my family in our ordinary space I have come to believe that these habitual actions provide the canvas for our social interactions, the shared moments through which we model behaviour and modes of organising emotion, communicate and gesture our believes and values, and so critically yet often so unwittingly imprint each other in shared experience. I use fabric in these pieces as a loaded medium. To me fabric conveys something of the material body, the weaves and intersections and connections of neurons, nerve fibres and muscle, the intricate braids of DNA . It is also temporal, it conveys “social fabric”, the “rich tapestry of life”, the weaves that extend from one generation to the next.
This series of works is titled “Memory Flesh”. I can envisage a kitchen full of these items, the inanimate made aesthetically animate. The work at the top is called “Memory Flesh #3, Unfold Me”. I borrowed a lyric from a beautiful, vulnerable Sia song “Breath Me” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSH7fblcGWM . I put this piece up for auction at the recent F Project fundraiser for the Artery and believe it was bought by one Mr Gareth Colliton. I am using a combination of textile work, painting and poly resins to create these expression of the body. I am quite excited to see what else comes through this creative stream.