Thursday, January 29, 2009

Negotiating Boundaries - Australian Art

Negotiating Boundaries

Gates, salt lakes and hallowed ground

Boundaries are present in our lives in diverse ways. They may be natural or man-made, psychological or social. They may have a spiritual significance. Boundaries may be negotiated in diverse ways. This is the domain that Negotiating Boundaries explores.

The region where I, a descendent of first settlers, grew up and now live encompasses Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, from Strathalbyn to Milang and Narrung and the northern reaches of the Coorong. Mount Barker is a constant feature of the horizon. For me the lakes region has a profound spiritual atmosphere.

In this region some boundaries are man-made constructions such as gates and fence lines, while other boundaries follow natural forms of waterways, shore lines, salt lakes and horizons. Such forms can become metaphors for boundaries marking colonisation and exclusion. They also become metaphors and suggest transformation.

Around Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert old farm gates and fences of corroding, battered metal and wire, stand or lean in discomforting elegance. The gate is familiar, yet ambivalent. On one hand the gate constrains and controls, denoting colonisation of land and people, yet it also conveys possibilities of openness and transition. For the Ngarrindjeri nation this country, with its salt lakes, freshwater lakes and the Coorong, is hallowed ground, a spiritual place. 1 In past history, colonisation and control of Ngarrindjeri lands and people was not negotiated. Cross-gates over Coorong country personifies the gate as a sign of authority on one hand while suggesting transcendence on the other.

Today, decomposing man-made boundaries can be a metaphor for new possibilities of negotiation, including cross-cultural exchange and reconciliation. In this collection, Negotiating histories was created in collaboration with artist and Ngarrindjeri elder, Ellen Trevorrow. Suggestions of country are overlaid with rush woven forms, aged found wire, a pair of mapping callipers and a constructed gate symbolising shifts in ownership and relationships. Further works shows Mt. Barker, Wommamukurta - Mountain in the Plain, a site of ancient burial customs of the Peramangk people, with floating veils, weeping or blissful, patterned with disintegrating gates, a token of our mourning and remembrance.

For many people this country with its dark alluvial soils, limestone outcrops and flattened horizons is apparently lifeless and at times dark and foreboding. Yet unexpected flashes of colour at salt lake’s edge, in vegetation and sky denote life. The austere, vast expanse of sky, land, water and sparkling crystalline salt flats emanate a spiritual ambience. While this atmosphere may be sensed in the optimism of dawn or the melancholia of nightfall, it is also evidenced in summer when light-drenched, bleached out surfaces of salt lake and grassland saturate the eye. It becomes a ‘thin-place’. 2 There can be a sense that material life is indeed finite, and the infinite and intimate Other is present. In this context, corroding gates and remnants of fences become metaphors for encountering and negotiating a material-spiritual nexus.

Decorative forms of disintegrating gates leading to Warrenji Station, a Ngarrindjeri place of significance, become reminiscent of universal signs for wholeness. In one series iconic gate fragments levitate over, or lie embedded in, land and roads - disembodied, seemingly benign.

Shimmering salt lakes, round or elliptical, suggest soul forms. In many spiritual traditions salt and light are symbols of a blest life. In works entitled Hallowed ground and Night flight, subtle shifts of light in darkness and floating, often incomplete, salt lake or soul forms, imply that negotiating and crossing material-spiritual boundaries is an uncertain and mysterious process.

The art of conveying such ambiguity can be described in the words of Korean artist, Lee Ufan, as ‘creating relationships between transparent and non-transparent things, making and non-making. Through this process the work comes to incorporate the known and the uncertain’. 3 In Negotiating Boundaries broken layers of colour lie over dark, textured surfaces built up with earth from the region, sometimes deeply scarred, or float on glass. Found wire and metal objects and cast stone are unexpectedly introduced. Some surfaces are salt encrusted and will be subject to change during the life of the work. Further uncertainty is generated in works such as the Borderlands series and Warrenji saltflats - rotating. Here the viewer negotiates boundaries visually. Landscape forms on multiple panels are layered, inverted, reversed, rotated and suggest that landscape, like life, is subject to fragmentation and change. Thus boundaries of gates and fence lines, salt lakes and horizons may be freshly negotiated and evoke new meanings.

This series contains the darkest works in the artist’s oeuvre to date, acknowledging the ominous times we grapple with, where hope is fragile. However, the work affirms that the spiritual may be present in darkness as well as light.

Helen J. Stacey MVA UniSA 1997, MVA (research) UniSA 2004, Associate Royal South Australian Society of Arts, July 2007

1. In Ngarrindjeri Nation Yarluwar-ruwe – Caring for Ngarrindjeri Sea Country and Culture, the Ngarrindjeri Tendi (Council) states, ‘Ngurunderi (the Creator) taught us our Miwi, which is our inner spiritual connection to our lands, water and each other and all living things (this) is passed down through our mothers since Creation’. (p.8) (copies available from Camp Coorong, Meningie)

2. In God, where are you?, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1997, Gerard W. Hughes refers to an indigenous Celtic theological notion of ‘thin places’, where the borderland between the material and spiritual world has little substance, a notion with similarities to indigenous Aboriginal theology of land which affirms the spiritual interconnectedness between place and people. (see footnote #1)

3. Ufan, Lee, ‘The Subjects of Sculpture’, The Art of Encounter, trans. Anderson, Stanley N, Lisson Gallery Turner, London, 2004, p.30.

The Earth's waters are both boundaries and pathways for peoples, objects and ideas.
Fumio Nanjo

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