The scene is typical of the Covid-19 era: Yhonnie Scarce grins at me through the camera from her house. “I’m still in bed,” she says. I am too. We have both been teaching our classes online for the past two months. For me, distancing is playing out to be not as distanced as promised. All communication feels intensified, and much more intimate than expected. The moment has necessitated a fraying of the line between the personal and the professional.
In the frame, Scarce’s niece Hakira is wandering around, asking for coffee. Scarce looks at me. “My sister dropped off an R2-D2 coffee plunger.” Hakira eventually settles in the corner of the screen, where we invite her to stay; she reckons “this is interesting”.
When we speak, Scarce is about to head over to see Worimi artist Genevieve Grieves. I remember that Ellen van Neerven’s sharply drawn portrait of Scarce, written for The Saturday Paper in 2017, also mentioned Grieves, and her presence in Scarce’s life. When I speak to Grieves a few days later, Hakira is over, helping to babysit. Everyone’s looking after each other in this time of forced stillness. Grieves tells me it’s important to know that Yhonnie’s very clever, very funny, and that she’s a carer to her nieces: “Yhonnie’s a mother to those girls.”
Since 2017, Scarce has been on the move. Defying Empire, the 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia, was one of the biggest national art shows that year. I remember art fans from Narrm taking long road trips to see it. People still talk about it. The triennial featured the large-scale installation Thunder Raining Poison, which Scarce described at the time as her biggest work yet, involving more than 2000 hand-blown glass yams. It told the story of the impact of nuclear testing at Maralinga on Aboriginal communities in South Australia.
Until the Covid-19 pandemic began to unfold in earnest in Britain and she had to return to Australia, Scarce had been spending time at the University of Birmingham, researching Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, the scientists who, at Birmingham, worked on developing the technology for a bomb that would burn as hot as the inside of the sun.
Scarce’s project at Birmingham, which will continue once international travel is possible again, is to develop a piece in response to these two men, following the work done in Thunder Raining Poison. It is now 80 years since the release of the Frisch–Peierls memorandum explaining the prospects for the “super-bomb”:
Some of this radioactivity will be carried along with the wind and will spread the contamination; several miles downwind this may kill people.
The story behind this work bears repeating, and needs to be spoken, because this is how we can make and unmake reality, and sort the truths from the lies. The British and Commonwealth governments tested nuclear weapons on Aboriginal people and Aboriginal land.
“I don’t like being lied to,” Scarce says.
“When you think about how for 10 years, even longer if you include the explosions at Emu Field, they were setting off bombs, and they knew that there were blackfullas around in that area, but they didn’t care.
“It spins me out how recent it is. When we think about genocide … there’s this intergenerational stuff going on now, kids now are getting sick after the parents were affected by radiation.”
The first time I saw Yhonnie Scarce’s work was in 2014, in the 19th Biennale of Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Weak in Colour but Strong in Blood was a bloodless horror scene. In my memory, I see hospital curtains drawn, fluorescent lights glaring down on clean white and stainless steel surfaces, and trolleys, gurneys, glass beakers with Scarce’s glass yams inside and test tubes arranged like a lab or a surgery theatre for the Biennale punter to wander into. Blood is mentioned in the title of the work, and the scene suggests dismemberment, but there are no recognisable bodies in view, only the glass yams.
Across the body of Scarce’s work, these yams are like a familiar guide, narrating, holding your hand. In Weak in Colour but Strong in Blood, they are clamped, prodded, tied and tested. In Thunder Raining Poison, they stand in for the toxic nuclear rain. They are arranged carefully in Remember Royalty (2018) alongside blown-glass bush plums, placed in cases in front of photographs of Scarce’s family as offerings and as placeholders to keep you from coming too close. The yams are also stuck to the walls of her 2020 architectural collaboration In Absence, signifying medicinal sap, while also letting those familiar with Scarce’s work know that they are looking at her art. The yams keep you company.
In Absence was a large-scale architectural work made with Edition Office and installed behind the NGV International in the Grollo Equiset Garden. It referenced what Scarce identifies as some of the elements and structures of Indigenous design and invention: yams, smoking trees, birthing trees, saps, plants, farming practices, domed structures. While it may seem to be a significant shift in Scarce’s practice to turn to architectural work, she has been investigating architecture for a while, with a particular interest in political monuments and memorial sites.
For years she has travelled through Germany, Poland, Ukraine, the former Yugoslavian states, Japan and the United States, tracing the design of monuments and memorials. Initially interested in the memorial to the Wounded Knee Massacre after watching the film Thunderheart, she invited Victorian College of the Arts lecturer Lisa Radford along on a multi-episode research trip to follow this lead.
They have, over the past two years, conducted an investigation into a series of sites of nuclear trauma, genocide, massacre, rebellion and war. As we watch these sites unfold visually through the artist’s lens, compelling threads appear to link them together: the Maralinga nuclear testing site in South Australia, the Wounded Knee memorial in Pine Ridge, the former camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Fukushima and Chernobyl exclusion zones, Hiroshima, and the grand political monuments dotted across Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia and Bosnia.
Our conversation turns to William Ramsay Smith, a collector and trader of human Aboriginal remains at the turn of the 20th century, who supplied bones, skulls and soft tissue to an international network of interested buyers. A Scottish physician and graverobber who practised medicine at the Royal Adelaide Hospital in the early 1900s, he was responsible for the collection of between 500 and 600 documented individuals for study at the height of the racial and eugenic sciences movement.
One of the sources he mined for bodies was the then Parkside Lunatic Asylum in the Adelaide Botanic Garden. The long disused Parkside morgue is the site of Scarce’s recent Adelaide Biennial work, In the Dead House, and Smith is a subject of her investigations.
“He was known for interfering with the dead, and he was one of the main suppliers of Aboriginal remains to the United Kingdom. We suspect that he would have performed a lot of those dissections and dismemberings in that house. Smith used to deflesh bones and send the flesh overseas,” she tells me.
“There were times during that install process where I wasn’t sleeping very well; neither was the curator. I was in that house, by myself, pretty much the whole time. I think that was part of the process; for me it was really important to make sure that the work was installed right, and people could get a sense of what had happened there.”
The images of flesh removed from bone make me catch my breath. My face, visible to me in the thumbnail at the corner of the video call, twists in shock and disgust; Hakira’s does too. Scarce continues talking. I think she must be used to reactions like this. I consider what it would be like to work with these stories, knowing that Aboriginal people were incarcerated in the Parkside asylum.
Looking at some of Scarce’s photography from Fukushima and Chernobyl, I notice a calm and reverent curiosity towards sites of trauma. She and Radford have been asked whether their work was a type of dark tourism.
“There’s a difference between dark tourism and research, visiting sites to pay respect and acknowledge what’s happened there,” she says. “I was teaching a memorial subject last year, and to compare notes, we went to Cook’s house in Fitzroy Gardens with all the students. I turned to them and said, ‘Do you wanna go in?’ And they didn’t want to interact with it at all. ‘Fuck that. I’m not going in there!’ Us mob, I wouldn’t say we’re used to it, but we’ve learnt how to live with it, we find ways to deal with it.”
Scarce’s enjoyment in this work isn’t about voyeurism. “I have this need or want to go after these people, to draw attention to them,” she says.
The glass bush bananas, visible in photographs of the inside of the dead house, are slightly oversized, about 30 to 40 centimetres in length. Made with the help of glass artist Kristel Britcher, they’re cut open, “as if they were flayed”, and alabaster in colour. Scarce describes it as a murder scene. She and Hakira say together: “South Australia is the serial-killer capital of Australia!”
Scarce wants the audience to feel they are “viewing the dead”, to give them a sense of identification and empathy, without giving the dead the indignities of re-enacting the dissection itself. This is part of the respect, skill and grace of Scarce’s artistic discourse on horror.
That her work has moved from Maralinga to the men at Birmingham shows a new focus on some of the pivotal characters in the nuclear story. Along with that, she’s investigating body-shoppers such as Ramsay Smith, tracing the story like a detective, across Europe, the US and Australia.
She notes that Norman Tindale, the anthropologist who constructed a map of Aboriginal language groups, swapped tips with the University of Virginia, which swapped them with the Nazi regime. Tindale also worked as a collector of “specimens” for the South Australian Museum, perhaps not far removed from Smith’s practice.
Scarce tells me the Nazis took inspiration from the anthropologists and eugenicist scientists working in the US when Tindale was there writing his work on Aboriginal people in the 1930s. He operated alongside scientists who were perpetrating the eugenics projects of forced sterilisation on women with mental illness or disability, and who were driving the anthropologist trade in bodies. This trade, she believes, still continues.
“I was in Virginia maybe 2012, and that’s when I found out about how there was still this – we call it the dark web now – this group of people that exchange body parts,” she says. “They’re collectors of human remains, like skulls and stuff. But it’s all kept under wraps, because it’s illegal.”
The idea of this dark web, a contemporary market smuggling human remains from place to place, uninterrupted by the advances in medical ethics, human rights and cultural heritage law over the 20th century, is hard to process.
I grapple with the information that there were explicit links between the Nazis and the Australian anthropologists in the early 20th century, a time when I would have thought racist scientists on opposite sides of the world would not have been able to connect and co-operate easily. But everything is connected, always, and Tindale, I realise after a quick search, wasn’t just an accidental relation. His journals place him at the scene of one of Hitler’s rallies in Munich in the 1930s, describing the Nazi leader as “an impressive figure”, and detailing in full the educational program of the regime.
I think about this for days after we finish talking. I can see why Scarce finds the interrogation of these characters so compelling. With a long view of her work, I can see a project to uncover the connections between all these events in full detail, to look at them unflinchingly, and to ask the viewer to do the same. It feels urgently relevant to do so.
As Scarce told me: “They knew exactly what they were fucken doing, hey?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 6, 2020 as "Magnifying glass".
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