03 September 2014

Statement: Between the shadows and forgetting

Ash Island has undergone a number of occupations which have shaped both the occupants and the land.  The 20 years of sheltered life that the Scott sisters enjoyed allowed them to expand their knowledge and skills into professional careers, which sustained them long after their departure from the island.  While there is little evidence left of their physical occupation today, their considerable body of work included a catalogue of local flora and fauna which is now used by the Kooragang Landcare group to restore the environment at Ash Island.

My art practice tends to deal with a distant world; my landscapes are from the pages of art, history and myth.  The people who populate my worlds are similarly mythical, or so far removed in time as to be practically mythical. Rarely do I get to visit the places that appear in my work or do I deal with figures from relatively recent history.

Between the shadows and forgetting references a walk I did with the other artists and the curator Belinda Howden, through a mangrove swamp at Ash Island.  It was claustrophobic and eerie, but of course also captivatingly beautiful. Throughout, environmental degradation wrought by successive occupations of the land for farming, military and industrial uses was clearly evident.

In Between the shadows and forgetting, the viewer walks through a short passage of layered papercutting which evokes the claustrophobic repetitive environment of the mangrove.  Figures emerge from various repetitive patterns taken from nature and Victorian era illustrations (such as lace making manuals, catalogues and the work of the Scott Sisters themselves), like imprints on the landscape. The Scott Sisters’ story is told in remnants and shadows, for the viewer to get glimpses and suggestions in the way you do when walking on Ash Island today.

Between the shadows and forgetting

Work details:
Between the shadows and forgetting
Tyvek, foamcore, tape
260cm x 460cm x 220cm

Acknowledgements and thanks:
Ash Island and its Transformations is supported by the NSW Government through Arts NSW
Emma van Leest acknowledges Between the shadows and forgetting was creating through the commissioning support of the Lock Up, Newcastle, Australia', as a part of Ash Island and its Transformations.
Emma van Leest acknowledges the generous support of the Lock Up, Newcastle, Australia, through its Artist in Residence Programme in the creation of this work.
Emma van Leest is represented in New South Wales by Olsen Irwin Gallery, Sydney.

Ash Island and its transformations

The show opens on Friday and it looks amazing. I am so excited about how it all looks. Nicola Hensel, Cherie Johnson and Shan Turner-Carroll have all produced beautiful work.

See all the details and read about the relaunch of the Lock Up here.

IMAGE: Shan Turner-Carroll, Hattie and Nellie #1, 2014, digital ink jet print
Courtesy of Shan Tuner-Carroll and the Lock Up Cultural Centre.

Ash Island and its Transformations is supported by the NSW Government through Arts NSW.

27 May 2014

Plein air experiment

I've hung up the paper cutting on the washing line outside. I want to see what happens to the Tyvek when it rains. It's windy and the rain clouds are gathering so I won't have to wait long to find out.

Trying out the exercise yard...

The exercise yard at the Lock Up is a calm and slightly surreal space, with those distressed walls and iron bars across the roof. You hear the hum of traffic and beating of pigeon wings outside, but it's very quiet otherwise. I hung my work up from the Heritage Listed iron bars and watched as it floated and swayed with the breeze. And considered the possibilities...

19 May 2014

Imprints, occupation, and drawing a very long bow.

What do you read when you do a residency? This is a surprisingly central question when you are isolated from your family and friends, focussing on your work and living in your own head, as you often end up when on residency (the only actual humans I spoke to over the weekend were shop assistants and baristas). What you read can colour the residency and your research, and the decision about whether to let this happen or not can be a tough call.

Elizabeth Gilbert has recently released a book about a Victorian era, female botanist and my friend Kate had suggested perhaps I should read that while on residency.  Despite other of her books being made into Julia Roberts films, apparently the lady can write. But as I stood with the book in my hand (at the airport, not very organised), I remembered how reading 'A Passage to India' while in Rajasthan really hurt my brain and sent me on a massive post-colonial guilt trip, which in retrospect I don't think was helpful. I put the volume back on the shelf and picked up my borrowed copy of volume 1 of Simon Schama's 'History of Britain'.
December Saints IV, 2005
It's no secret that I love British medieval history (see above) and Schama's wonderfully engaging book also introduced me to the even more fascinating stone age world of prehistoric Britain, in particular the ancient settlement of Skara Brae in Orkney.  And then, last night when I was forced to watch free-to-air television (having finished History of Britain, and watched all my Game of Thrones, Pride and Prejudice and 30 Rock), a documentary about the sacred places of Britain came onto SBS.
Skara Brae, image courtesy of orkney.com
Basically Britain is littered with remnants of ancient (read: thousands of years old) villages, structures devotional sites, including one field which was a collection of filled-in 12 metre deep flint mining pits (bizarre because there was plenty of flint at the surface and no need to go digging for it).  Some places are perhaps a mound in the countryside somewhere, which will be dug to up to reveal a tomb. Skara Brae, a Neolithic village abandoned as the climate worsened in Scotland about 2500BCE, was concealed beneath sand for millenia, until a massive storm uncovered it in 1851.  Revealed in the ruins of this village were layers of occupation, a forgotten society, inhabitants who had begun to shape and impose their beliefs on the land.
Long Man of Wilmington, image courtesy of Wikipedia
Humans mark the landscape. Sometimes it's really obvious through environmental degradation, building pyramids, damming a river. Sometimes its more subtle.
Despite a wide perception that moors are wild, naturally pristine places, many moors in Great Britain, such as those in the Penines, were the result of widespread tree-felling that occured in the Mesolithic era. Thanks to Wikipedia for the image, BBC World service for the story I heard yesterday about the ecology of moors!
Look at Ash Island.  The cattle grazing, industrial sites and wholesale land clearing have left the most obvious marks on the land, and the environment is the poorer for it.  There is little evidence beyond 2 palm trees (one of which is now dead) and the remnants of an old jetty to mark the Scott sisters' 20 years of occupation of Ash Island.  The majority of the island's pre-existing plants and trees were left untouched by the Scott family. Historians have noted the few discoveries of occupation of Aboriginal occupation, although an area has been designated where remains of middens and other evidence are probably buried.
Burke and Wills 'Dig Tree', image courtesy of National Library of Australia
Yet these more subtle occupations have shaped the occupants and the land.  The 20 years of sheltered life that the Scott sisters enjoyed, on an island that supports a huge variety of butterflies and other living things, allowed them to expand their knowledge and skills into professional careers, which sustained them long after their departure from the island.  Ok, sure, gender politics held them back from having the careers that their talents truly deserved, but by the standards of the day, their career fulfilment would have been unknown to most women.  They left their permanent mark in the form of their considerable body of work, some of which is still used by scientists today, even in the days of photography! And while their work can be seen as part of a wider process of colonisation through the classification of the environment, their legacy included a catalogue of local flora and fauna which is now used by the Kooragang Landcare group to restore the environment at Ash Island.
The Lone Palm, Ash Island
Ash Island's abundance of plants and wildlife sustained and nourished the Awakabal and Worrimi people for the many thousands of years of their occupation of the area.  While early European settlers liked to think that the Indigenous inhabitants had done almost nothing to shape the land, we know this is not true.  In particular, in such a fertile area, there would have been deliberate harvesting and cultivation of particular plant species for, among other things, food, medicine and weaving. It might have seemed like Captain Cook had stumbled on an untouched wilderness, but if you were to look with different eyes you would know the truth.
Detail from my Scott Sisters sample piece
I've been thinking about this for a week now, but watching the BBC documentary last night gelled it for me.   We mark the land, the land marks us. We are inextricably linked.  There are layers of occupation, of interaction, that are left on the land, if you know how and where to look.  The land tells stories. It conceals and reveals them. It reminds us of who we were, what we did, and what the land did to us.

So there you go, I took a book which I thought would be completely unrelated to the Scott sisters (I also thought about them while watching 30 Rock and Pride and Prejudice, which are after all created by women who have struggled with the realities of career and gender) and turned it into the central thesis of my residency. I wonder what would have happened if I'd picked, say, the History of Concrete???

Finally, the sample piece finished...

15 May 2014

It's in the little details

Newcastle is full of tiny little interesting things you have to look twice to see. Like these gorgeous and unusual windows. That's actually a dance studio, I saw some people doing ballet moves up there last night.

11 May 2014

Kooragang (Ash Island)

One of the highlights of the walk the artists did around the Ash Island area was having the insights of local artist Cherie Johnson.  Cherie is from the Gamilaroi language group, now living in Newcastle and participating as an active member of the local Aboriginal community.

Cherie was able to explain to us how various plants were cultivated, adapted and used for weaving and eating, how fish traps were set and what sort of wildlife would have lived on the island in the time of the Scott sisters.  She pointed out a sea eagle that was flying up and down the river and explained that the sea eagle is the totem animal for the area.  Apart from the insect populations documented by the Scott sisters, the area was a huge breeding ground for animals, fish, whales and birds. Huge crabs, the size of two men's handspans, were regularly caught and eaten. Much of that activity is now gone, and the environment is in need of rehabilitation (Belinda said 'no way you would eat a crab you caught here now').

Cherie also provided information, from contemporary sources, which indicated that at the time of the arrival of the second wave of settlers in the area in the mid-1820s there were at least 4,000 adult indigenous men, indicating a sizeable indigenous population.

It raised questions for us. What happened to these people? Where did they go? Who was the land taken from when AW Scott was given his land grant?

The knowledge that Cherie had about the land, the uses and significance of it and its relationship indicates just how much was lost when the local indigenous people were displaced from their lands. We are all the poorer for it.

The Scott sisters' time on Ash Island was the beginning of several incarnations for the island, including an orange grove grown by their father, and later on dairy farming and industrial uses.  There are almost no original trees left on this island; it would be unrecognizable to the Scott sisters today. Interestingly, the Scott sisters' painstaking documentation of the local flora and fauna, part of the Victorian mania for collecting (and when you think about it, a part of the colonisation process), is now invaluable to the Landcare group that is involved in rehabilitating the island.

It was interesting for me to have Cherie's perspective.  In my work for the last couple of years, I have considered the role of the 'colonisers 'and what the process meant for them, to have a hands-on, on-this-spot glimpse of what it meant to the people at the receiving end, and of course the land, was incredibly illuminating.

A walk with the artists around Ash Island

One living and one dead palm tree is all the remaining evidence of the Scott sisters' house at Ash Island

From left: Belinda Howden (curator), Nicola Hensel, Shan Turner-Carroll, Cherie Johnson
The revegetation project at Ash Island seeks to repair the damage wrought by dairy farming and land clearing
Beautiful and somewhat eery mangroves. The boardwalk through this area was fantastic.
New growth in the mangroves
Shan investigates some nature
Shan and Cherie explore the riverbank (and find a jellyfish)