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.
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.
Last year, Liza McCosh, Director of Scope Galleries, generously invited me to exhibit my video work “Gaia is Symbiosis as Seen from Space”. I took this as an opportunity to develop some of the thinking contained in the video as well as to further develop my installation processes. Inside Out marked an important step forward in my thinking about my specific research as well as my broader understanding of how art produces knowledge. I came to realise the extent to which this video work is very much in conversation with the work of colonial landscape painter Eugene von Guerard and his observations which sought to understand the landscape as an interconnected ecosystem. I also came to realise the important role art plays in not only observing and critiquing our relationship to the world but also how crucial it is in proposing new and alternate ways to imagine this relationship.
I was fortunate to share the gallery with an exhibition titled Embedded produced by Andrea Radley, Gareth Colliton and Karen Richards. Embedded was an acclaimed exhibition of works made during a residency in the Emergency Department at South West Health Care Warrnambool. You can read more about their work by following these links:
I reworked my footage from “Gaia is Symbiosis (…)”, slowly it down and playing it from end to start so as to let the viewer work backwards back to the ground. I also set this footage to a very simple soundtrack, a recording of my washing machine as it works through a wash cycle, occasionally thumping as it spins itself off balance. The spinning footage and the sound of the washing machine were a perfect complement and worked to draw together the sense of the ordinary domestic with the sense of the “bigger picture”. I made a series of sculptures that imitated water hung out on my clothes horse and my ironing board. As a happy coincidence the smell of the running data projector was almost identical to that of a hot iron.
The following is the statement that accompanied Inside Out:
Through PhD research at the Australian National University Canberra I have been examining the overlap of body and environment as an “aesthetic subjectivity”. This way of understanding subjectivity emphasises how embodied consciousness is embedded in and emergent from its environment- an environment that we primarily experience aesthetically as the combination of sensation, emotion and meaning. A creative practice led inquiry into my domestic environment has centered this research. From this point I have attempted to make sense of and plot my relationship to the larger world in which I exist. I have used photography, drawing, sculpture, written reflection and sound and video recording in this continuous observation of my relationship to space.
Inside Out is a fragment of a larger body of practice that reinterprets my 2013 video work Gaia is Symbiosis as Seen from Space in order to imagine continuity between our ordinary domestic world and the larger social, ecological and cosmological realities we share.
Focusing on the aesthetic nature of our connection to the world has provided me with a way to imagine the materiality of our continuum with time and space. My aim now is to create spaces that convey this to others.
The video Gaia is Symbiosis as Seen from Space was originally created as part of “The Kitchen Table Art Expedition”, an Arts Victoria Artists In Schools Program held at Macarthur Primary School in 2013.
2014 and was such a busy year for me! One of my highlights was having my video “Gaia is Symbiosis as Seen From Space” included in Warrnambool’s Silver Ball Film Festival. (Venture further down my blog posts to find out more about this video & its role in Artists In Schools 2013). My video is currently posted on a kind friends Vimeo channel & you can check it out by following the link above- rather than the “arty” version, it is the “brief-story-of-how-it-happened” version, its a lot of fun but it might make you dizzy!!
The Silver Ball Film Festival was held outdoors in and amongst Warrnambool’s laneways last May. It was staffed by numerous devoted arts people in Charlie Chapman kit. It was a freezing yet spectacular night you can read more about it below.