“It is sometimes said of those individuals in modern societies who are supremely well-placed to achieve personal fulfilment that they ‘have the world at their feet’,” writes local environmental philosopher Freya Mathews in For the Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism (2003). She speaks against the dualism and hierarchy of the human mastery of nature, which places us over and outside nature. She suggests instead that the natural world is “our sovereign, our solace, our beloved”, whose will we must continually try to divine.
This kind of Earth-inclusive – or guided – way of being rests on philosophical assumptions now discredited by the socio-ecological disaster that is modernity and its accompanying settler-colonialism and extractive capitalism. Or, as Mathews tells it, since “the advent of science”. Where Lakes Once Had Water, a video work and three related sound, video and sculptural works by artists Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, returns to the energetic curiosity for the world that is proposed by Mathews.
Towards the end of the eponymous two-channel video work Where Lakes Once Had Water (2020), an unnamed Aboriginal man presides over a hole that has been dug in the golden-tinged sand of a place that is also unidentified, but which looks to me like somewhere in the Northern Territory. This hole is almost a perfect cube, a potent symbol of scientific methods of documentation and by extension extraction and settler-colonialism.
The man says: “We want to do the right thing by you spirits.” The hole must be refilled and he sets about this, working in tandem with a woman – a scientist, one of the artists? As with all the people and places we see on screen, she too is left unnamed. A pensive handheld camera studies the scene, at one moment meeting the man’s gaze as he speaks, then carefully moving to a ground shot of the dirt lifted by the shovel and cascading as it returns to its subterranean place. The diegetic audio is slight, composed of a loquacious ecology that underscores the intimacy of the scene.
Where Lakes Once Had Water is at its best in these moments. The viewer doesn’t receive specific information about this place, the spirits, the man or his mob, but perhaps this withholding of information is a strategic concession that disrupts the easy extraction of knowledge for those unfamiliar with the sites on screen and who do not have the permission to know.
As the hole is filled, I sit in the gallery in front of these two paired screens, black soundproof cladding on the wall behind me absorbing the echoes. Judy Watson’s unstretched paintings – part of the concurrent exhibition Rhythms of the Earth: Selected Works from the TarraWarra Museum of Art Collection – are also in the space, swirling with red, brown and sandstone colours that for me recall escarpments and cliff faces I’ve visited in the Territory on the coast, in Larrakia Country. However, as their titles suggest – mt riddell (2016), mt rael (2016) – these artworks are topographies of mountains seen from the sky.
Watson’s earthy paintings flicker in my peripheral vision as I watch Where Lakes Once Had Water, punctuating drifting thoughts that are primed by the sight of the hole and the man who speaks of spirits. I’m recalling something the Nyikina Elder, wiseman and storyteller of Goolarabooloo, Paddy Roe, said about digging. Later I go home and look through the books Roe and Stephen Muecke made together, Gularabulu (1983) and Reading the Country. I can’t find the words I’m searching for but Reading the Country reminds me that Roe was a rain prophet: he knew about water, where it once was and when it would come again. Reading the Country is, in part, a study of water across deep time, expressed poetically in the language of Roe and transcribed by Muecke.
Where Lakes Once Had Water, made with expert assistance from Earth scientists, Indigenous rangers and local Indigenous mob, is concerned with parts of the Earth where ancient bodies of water have run dry, leaving behind their spectral watermarks. But where Reading the Country is highly attentive to understanding the land through an Indigenous way of knowing and being, Where Lakes Once Had Water is a little less clear. Is it a critique of the scientific method, a celebration, or a simply an observation? Uncertainty hangs in the air.
The video was commissioned by the Australian Research Council’s Centre for Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, which seeks to map “epic Australia”. Perhaps the video falters at times because it’s informed by – or perhaps obliged to – an idea of the “epic”. Visually it wavers between intimate shots of scientists, rangers and artists at work studying the land and clichéd wide-angled drone shots that attempt to capture the vastness of the “landscape”. It is here the land loses its specificity: its history and local ecology become a trope for just how epic Australia is. I can’t help but recall the Tourism NT commercials shot from helicopters over long dirt roads and Gagadju and Jawoyn escarpments, which draw on frontier mythology.
The audio also vacillates between observant, seemingly diegetic sounds – fire, birds, the wind, trees – to abstract humming like the noise that high-voltage overhead powerlines make just after it has rained.
At one point, the screen gives a clue to how some of the sound is made. A hand rubs a contact microphone across an anthill, exfoliating its surface. As the dusty red dirt falls away, my mind is drawn to old bark paintings I’ve seen in Arnhem Land made without a synthetic fixative. With these paintings, the ochre dries out and slowly drifts from the surface of the painting to become dust in the air.
At the beginning or the end of the gallery spaces at TarraWarra – depending on which way you enter – hangs Balang John Mawurndjul’s Mardayin Design (2002), where synthetic fixative has been mixed with earth pigments to preserve the bark painting. It’s a meticulous rarrk (cross-hatched) bark painting in red, orange, black and white swerving patterns that are articulated by trails of white dots that render the whole thing almost iridescent, conveying a kind of magic of ceremony.
It is exactly this palette – splashed at times with the green of trees, the azure blue of skies and the deep, mirrored black of billabongs – that commands the kind of study undertaken by Where Lakes Once Had Water. To understand the Earth a little more, to tend to its inherent value. For scientists, artists and viewers to learn a little of what Indigenous people have always known.
Eventually I find the Paddy Roe quote: “Try and dig little bit more deep – you bin digging only white soil – try and find the black soil inside.” Though imperfectly, this is exactly what Where Lakes Once Had Water attempts to do.
Rhythms of the Earth and Where Lakes Once Had Water are showing at the TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, until November 13.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 6, 2022 as "Healing the Earth".
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