Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are respectfully advised that a number of people mentioned in the following text have passed away.
8 January 2018: I think this is what I want? To be an artist making work in the studio.
I’ve risked my relationship due to my singlemindedness. No-one said I had to do it this way. But here I am, paying to stay in a stranger’s house & work eleven-hour days & I am in such debt. When I finally get paid for the rest of this work, I will clear my debts, but I won’t have much left to show for it. Boe is close to breaking up with me and has told me she has lost respect for my being an artist.
It began with a provocation. A challenge laid down to me indirectly by Goenpul author, academic and activist Aileen Moreton-Robinson. In March 2017 I was listening to an episode of The Minefield; Boe and I were subletting an apartment in Margareten. I was on an exchange, halfway through an MFA, and Clare Land’s call to change the “shape” of my life had already encouraged me to begin re-evaluating how to live and make work as an artist from Australia.11
Beyond critical self-reflection and public political action, Land calls for the transformation of non-Indigenous individuals living within the dominant system in Australia; a changing of “the shape of our lives.” Clare Land, Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles (London: Zed Books Ltd, 2015), 117.
In her discussion with Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens, Moreton-Robinson asserted that I had an “extractive and possessive” relationship to the planet.2 She was making a general statement about non-Indigenous people in Australia, and I took it personally. I thought that she had good reason to make this claim, and consequently I felt compelled to confront the environmental and cultural repercussions of resource extraction and material displacement because these raw ingredients constitute the products I use in my sculpture. I thought to myself, why should my art making hold immunity from the rest of my consumerist life, where I am conscious of provenance and avoid wastage?2
Aileen Moreton-Robinson, interview by Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens, “Is ‘Australia’ morally justifiable?,” ABC Radio National, podcast audio, January 25, 2017, http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/ rn/podcast/2017/01/mld_20170125_1130.mp3
19 September 2018: I am not a stonemason. I don’t do things efficiently. Chipping basalt to rough out shapes is time-consuming & sometimes leads to broken material.
Rifling through chuck-out piles, looking for material that is the right size & with flat top and bottom takes time. To an outsider it would seem crazy, especially when there’s so much basalt lying around. Stubbornness, principles & belief in my concept & transforming the shape of my practice means that it will take time.
While driving along the Hamilton Highway in southwestern Victoria in January 2018, I wondered about the name geologists have given the area. Was it called the Newer Volcanics Province because volcanic eruptions figure in living memory and are retold in oral history traditions?
I stopped near the town of Derrinallum to take a photo of the dry stone wall running parallel to the highway, evidently built in the late 1800s in the “Galloway Dyke” style, using the weathered lumps of basalt that would have littered the adjacent farms and fields. Behind the wall sits a dormant volcano now known as Mount Elephant. It was known as Djerrinallum to the local Djerrinallum gundidj people, and one possible translation of this name is A hill of fire.33
Ian D. Clark, ‘Indigenous and Minority Placenames Australian and International Perspectives: 13. Multiple Aboriginal placenames in western and central Victoria,’ ANU Press, Australian National University, accessed 7/2/19, http://press-files.anu.edu.au/ downloads/press/p286811/html/ch13.xhtml
The extinct volcano I was heading towards is 100km further west of here, in the town of Penshurst. Rising 120 metres above the surrounding volcanic plains, Mount Rouse is an enormous mass of scoria, basaltic lava ejected during volcanic eruptions. Active approximately 330,000 years ago, it is one of the oldest eruption points in the most recent phase of volcanic activity occurring on these plains.
6 December 2018: I like coming in to the studio in the morning & seeing the work the spiders have done overnight. The work water & rock has done to form crystals over the last 330,000 years.
The slightly sulphuric smell when I cut into particularly porous stone, which holds water like a sponge, and I wonder just how long has that water been in there?
Tony Rowe told me that he’s seen boulders split open & water pour out like a tap has been turned on.
The lava that coursed from Mount Rouse followed the arms and branches of shallow riverbeds south towards the coast, both reshaping the existing lie of the land, and being shaped by it. Ending up 60 kilometres away at what is now Port Fairy, these ancient basaltic lava flows are quarried, boulders bigger than cars cut into slabs of durable bluestone pavers, kerbs and cladding of uniform thickness at Bamstone’s vast production facility on the Hamilton-Port Fairy Road.
14 November 2018: As I walked the circumference of Griffith Island at some point I came across a large patch of wild growing rocket. I smelt it before I noticed it & when I ate a leaf it tasted peppery and salty. Further along on my walk I considered how I was walking upon the furthest extent of the Mt Rouse lava flow above the water line. Here the ocean weathered basalt is a deep black.
Despite the careful processing of these boulders, inevitably there is waste material: offcuts too small to sell, broken slabs caused by unforeseeable fissures known as “dries.” Trapped gas bubbles, or vesicles, appear unpredictably as porous patterns or voids in the slices of basalt, hinting at an era when this rock was liquid. Small hills are formed by the piles of this remnant bluestone.
20 September 2018: Around 5pm, once all the saws are off & the last compressor has been switched off the large shed known as the “Granite Shed” fills with the sound of birds singing. I wonder if the swallows are always there & their chirping is drowned out by the din of the machinery, or do they arrive after knock-off time for the workers? The water on the bridge saws & wiresaws continues to run even when they’re not cutting. I like walking around the yard at this time.
I had travelled to this part of Victoria to begin work on a commission for the inaugural exhibition at the Lyon Housemuseum Galleries, which were being constructed in Kew. The Rouse-Port Fairy lava flow is the source of the basalt which clads the new gallery building, and in responding to the theme of the exhibition I had decided to track the building material back to the point where, as molten magma, it had ruptured forth from the Earth’s asthenosphere.
This was the first of several trips I would make to this area, including a three-month period of residence in Port Fairy while I completed the commission in a shed Bamstone had kindly given over to me. Out of mindfulness for the basalt that remains underground, I collected unused slabs, reject sections and offcuts of bluestone for my art making, both from the Lyon Housemuseum Galleries building site, as well as from Bamstone. In an act of performed depositing, I fixed these remnant pieces of stone together to create new figures and forms.
6 November 2018: Arrived in Port Fairy last night.
Left Broken Hill for the last time. Driving through Coombah in a drizzle I recalled the woman who served me at the roadhouse there in May 2018. She had a stutter & when I asked her if there was some kind of archaeological dig taking place just down the highway a little, as part of the Wentworth to Broken Hill (W2BH) water pipeline, she replied, “yes, they’ve found some s-s-s-silcrete, not from around here.” Stopped in Mildura & bought more shit from Totally Tools. Got in to PF around 7:30.
Bluestone is a heavy material, it has a bulk specific gravity of 2596 kg/m³. Bluestone is a heavy material, stone from this area has been used as a building material in dams, eel traps and dwellings by Gunditjmara people for millennia,4 and more recently it was appropriated by Europeans to construct dry stone walls and colonial edifices upon this Country.4
Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Black Seeds Agriculture or Accident?, (Broome, W.A.: Magabala Books, 2014), 63, 92.
25 July 2018: Before the delivery arrived Monday I was having a crisis about what I’m making so I read Ross Gibson’s Basalt. Got me thinking over the last day about “masonry memory” & fluidity of basalt & that I’m part of a lineage including Gunditjmara engineers & Irish, Scottish & Welsh dry stone wall builders. Lifting and placing basalt.
As I ventured along the walking track to the top of Mount Rouse in January 2018, I was thinking about other people who had walked, lived and died on its slopes. I couldn’t see the ocean when I reached the summit, although facing north I had a clear view of the mountain ranges of the Grampians. I would later learn that on August 6, 1855, Eugene von Guérard climbed Mount Rouse and, gaining a vantage point similar to mine, sketched what he saw. Six years later this study became the painting View of the Grampians and Victoria Ranges from Mount Rouse, West Victoria (1861).
In the bottom left-hand corner of this painting, von Guérard has added a European man leading a horse. This figure uses his left hand to signal something to two Aboriginal people, one kneeling, the other standing, holding a spear as a support. Looking at a reproduction of this painting, I wonder if the European man portrayed is based on James Dawson, a local station owner and advocate for Aboriginal people who, also in 1855, commissioned von Guérard’s famous painting of another nearby volcano, Tower Hill.
It was at this time that von Guérard met Johnny Kangatong, an Aboriginal teenager who was employed as a stockman by Dawson. Von Guérard sketched portraits of Johnny Kangatong, and also collected drawings and paintings that he had encouraged the youth to create.5 Some of these drawings are now included in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. In a symmetry of mutual observation, one of the drawings depicts von Guérard himself in profile, seated on a folding chair with his boots resting on uneven ground. He is looking straight ahead, right hand drawing on a folded-over sketchbook (maybe even the same one containing his sketches of Johnny Kangatong and the Grampians) held in his left hand.5
‘Johnny Kangatong - Making sense of the world,’ Learning, State Library of New South Wales, accessed 3/2/19, https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/ learning/johnny-kangatong-making-sense-world
Between 1840–1841, approximately fifteen years before von Guérard travelled to this part of Victoria, prior to Dawson’s arrival in 1844, and just before Johnny Kangatong was born in c. 1842, up to forty Aboriginal people, possibly of the Kolorer gundidj clan, were killed by European squatters at Mount Rouse.6 Within this historical context, the outstretched arm of the European man leading the horse in View of the Grampians becomes a clue to past atrocities contained in a single, mollifying hand gesture.6
‘Colonial Frontier Massacres in Central and Eastern Australia 1788-1930,’ The Centre for 21st Century Humanities, The University of Newcastle, accessed 17/2/19, https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/ colonialmassacres/detail.php?r=1646
When I stood atop Mount Rouse in January 2018 I was surrounded by a cluster of mobile communications towers, a geodetic station and a bluestone boulder missing its bronze directional plaque. There was no indication of the killings that took place on this site, although near the end of the Rouse-Port Fairy lava flow, in between the Port Fairy Cenotaph and the Visitor Information Centre is an upright bluestone boulder with a right angle cut out of it. Inscribed on its vertical surface is the following:
IN MEMORY OF
THE THOUSANDS OF
WHO WERE MASSACRED BETWEEN
1837 AND 1844 IN THIS AREA
OF PORT FAIRY.
TODAY WE PAY OUR RESPECTS
TO THEM FOR
THE UNECCESARY SACRIFICES
YOUR SPIRIT STILL LIVES ON
WITHIN OUR PEOPLE
9 November 2018: Drove to Heywood this morning to do a tour organised by Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation. Deb was our guide…starting at Tyrendarra – where we saw eel trap remnants & two recreations of stone dwellings built on top of the footings of ancient stone dwellings. She showed us Water Ribbon growing in the Darlots Creek – the bulbs of which are edible – & I sampled a leaf of water parsnip – tasted parsnip-y. There was a plaque there recognising the eel traps as an “Engineering Heritage National Landmark” by the Institution of Engineers Australia.
At the foot of the walking track to the Mount Rouse summit, I noticed a small, lichen covered basalt monument with a bronze plaque fixed to it. It was a tribute to the artist Napier Waller, who was born and raised on a farm directly beneath the old volcano. Waller’s early art career was interrupted in 1916 when, at the age of twenty-three, he enlisted to serve in the First World War. While fighting in France in May 1917 he sustained an injury to his preferred right arm, requiring it to be amputated at the shoulder.
16 December 2018: Maybe with this material I have satisfied some niggles I’ve had with art-making. The use of extracted resources & also the preciousness of art. I hope this work deteriorates & grows lichen & houses spiders & birds shit on it. Entropy, decay, impermanence, erosion. Working more consciously w/ time & material.
During his convalescence in France and England, Waller taught himself to use his left hand for writing and drawing, and from the late 1920s he gained success undertaking mural, mosaic and stained glass commissions, ambitious in their scale and detail. The majority of his commissions were completed in publicly accessible locations throughout Victoria, such as his 1933 mosaic I’ll put a girdle round about the earth on the façade of Newspaper House at 247 Collins Street, Melbourne.
The linocut self-portrait, The man in black (1925) depicts Waller standing in front of Peace after Victory, a mural he would complete in 1928 at the Melbourne Public Library. Waller portrays himself with both of his arms intact, his left hand holds a cigarette, and in his right hand, it’s difficult to make out, but I think he’s holding a cigarette lighter? A passage from Gibson’s Basalt comes to mind:
“REMEMBRANCE. It is a paradoxical word drawn from two roots: ‘memor’ – to be mindful & ‘membrum’ – a limb. When you remember, you put a body of knowledge back together in your mind by coordinating some disaggregated, wasted or severed members of the corpus that was once known.”77
Ross Gibson, Basalt, (Hobart: A Published Event, 2017), 77.
Here, Gibson is addressing the perseverance of knowledge in the face of dispossession and death. It is the reanimating potentiality of an imagining-remembering that is critical for the ongoing survival of culture, environment and life. With Gibson’s words circulating in my head, I was curious for insight into Napier Waller’s act of remembrance in The man in black, in which his battle-scarred body is represented as undamaged.
In the middle of January 2019, as I was finishing my own commission, I had the opportunity to meet with Lynne Strahan, an author and Port Fairy resident who had assisted Napier Waller on a number of mosaic commissions, including the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and the Eight Aboriginal Tribal Headmen at Temple Court, Collins Street Melbourne.
According to Strahan, Waller spoke neither about his arm, nor the war. She went on to tell me that Waller had died a disappointed man. When I asked her why, she told me that she thought it was because his life was devoted to celebrating things he didn't believe in.8 He was an atheist with socialist leanings, and had experienced firsthand the brutal reality of war, and yet he undertook commissions for insurance and mining companies, churches and war memorials.8
Interview with Lynne Strahan, 16/1/19.
Waller was famously modest, with one biographer describing him as “self-effacing,” as well as claiming that Waller’s own reticence was the reason he was not known to a wider audience.99
Nicholas Draffin, The Art of Napier Waller, (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1978), 3.
16 December 2018: Boe used a good word, “purpose” for what art-making does for me.
But at what cost the toil? Losing my relationship?
I clock in & out at a similar time to the workers, but what do they make of the artist toiling in the old shed? I wear a white helmet, this colour designated for visitors, while the other workers wear yellow & the supervisors orange.
Waller may have struggled to reconcile the commissions he received with his own beliefs and values, but he was confident in the direct and lasting impact of his monumental artworks in the public domain. In 1931 Waller stated, “[M]ural art is a unit of architecture which, more than any other sort of art, reflects and is definitely linked to the life of the people.”10 It is conceivable that in Waller’s mind there was no need for him to be outspoken, when his many public artworks could speak on his behalf.10
Napier Waller quoted in Draffin, The Art of Napier Waller, 5.
Waller’s inclusion of his lost right arm in The man in black gives an indication as to how he wished to be remembered. Perhaps in creating public commissions throughout Melbourne and other Australian cities, he simply wanted to be remembered.
What do I remember? What does the basalt remember? What can be remembered in the making of this work? The multivalent relationships other people have had with this Country and its basalt over time.
Note from the Editors: This pamphlet is published on the occasion of the inaugural exhibition Enter, at the Lyon Housemuseum, Kew, Victoria, Australia.