Claire Taylor, “Introduction” to Drawing Lines in the Sand, exhibition catalogue.
Artists: Julia Davis, Elizabeth Day, Christian Edwardes, Lisa Jones + Derek Allan, Geoff Kleem, Adam Norton. Curated by Claire Taylor.
Exhibition on Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour, 16 Feb – 18 Mar 2012.
Drawing Lines in the Sand is an exhibition on Cockatoo Island of installation projects developed by Julia Davis, Elizabeth Day, Christian Edwardes, Geoff Kleem, Adam Norton and Lisa Jones in collaboration with Derek Allan. Cockatoo Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour. Post-European colonization the site has been radically reshaped by successive institutions. It has previously been a prison, reformatory and government shipyard. This exhibition uses a number of spaces on the Eastern Apron of the island within the former Industrial Precinct, an area that foregrounds a lot of the current authority’s “revitalization” projects and conservation efforts. The artists have engaged with Cockatoo Island’s inscribed history in a way that avoids some of the buildings and spaces being used as merely a backdrop to the artwork whilst also avoiding a didactic or interpretive approach towards the island’s heritage on the other extreme. Instead the artists in Drawing Lines in the Sand have approached the island as a context tangentially. The individual projects are discussed in the main section of this catalogue, but below is an introduction to some of the connections between the works in the exhibition.
In the Western imaginary, the maroon on the desert island is both removed from society and seeks to reproduce an idealized form of it. However, the island in this context is intimately bound with a colonial worldview—Defoe’s Crusoe assumes complete dominion over “his” island and any people he encounters there. In the image of the island is the contradiction inherent within European colonial expansion. Contemporary discourse was dominated by the desire to create utopian societies but colonialism as enacted was anything but. Cockatoo Island has been administered by a number of different institutions, many of which reflect the particular form of colonialism enacted in Australia. The island’s convict, colonial and industrial history encapsulates what Elizabeth McMahon describes as, “the Western colonial tropism of island territories as condensed sites of acquisition, containment and control”, whilst representing not only the inversion of the utopian island trope but the condensation of a lot of the contradictions and inversions that the early Australian colonies represented to Europeans at the time. Many of which have persisted in the Australian imaginary. McMahon claims that this imaginary is primarily geographic and the endurance of terms such as the Island Continent to refer to Australia, highlight the centrality of the island as a mobilizing trope in the construction of this imaginary. What links the works in Drawing Lines in the Sand is an exploration of a number of paradoxical and contested spaces that move between the specific context of Cockatoo Island and the legacy of its various institutions, different island tropisms and their role in Australian identity, and the logic of the Western modernism.
Themes related to interiority and exteriority recur throughout the exhibition. Elizabeth Day’s work is perhaps the most explicit in this. Her installation CAUTION! THE LAW IS NOT ALWAYS JUST is largely comprised of barrier mesh fencing erected throughout several of the cavernous buildings in the industrial complex. These relate to Cockatoo Island’s history of institutional regimentation of behaviour as well as what Day describes as “a stepping up in the intensity of ‘lines’ drawn around us” in contemporary public space. At its periphery, Day’s installation seamlessly extends the proliferation of existing “safety” demarcations and fences already on the site. Her barriers enclose spaces, surround disused equipment, highlight multiple layers of abandoned signage, reinforce existing fences, and in some instances Day uses them to open up a number of areas that are usually restricted to the public. The barrier mesh appears to perform a function but there are many instances where the lines of the tape and fencing meander off. Day creates multiple focus points where an accumulative intensity reveals what seems like the practical implementation of a kind of administrative logic gone awry. Kleem asserts that the correlate in his work renders the functional dysfunctional. Cockatoo Island’s now abandoned spaces were all built, excavated or reappropriated for particular purposes. Both Kleem and Day’s works speak to the way in which utility and order would have once overarched all activity on the island—in the period from the construction of the convict-cut grain silos to when Australia’s primary naval dockyard was finally decommissioned—as well as to the site’s resistance now that it is largely obsolete and is in the process of being reinvented as a kind of museum project to its own heritage.
Day’s work can also be read as an attempt to resist the logic of modernism as manifested in “the grid”, which Melanie Daniels explores in the main section of this catalogue. This has echoes throughout the exhibition. In Julia Davis’ salt wall a grid is faintly visible that follows the internal mesh structure supporting the cast. This ghosting on the crystalline surface belies a chemical reaction corroding the internal frame. In A Ship Aground, Christian Edwardes’s creates the illusion of the cartographer’s grid overlaid on what reads as the ocean surrounding the ship. The role of the grid in mapmaking and surveying is also alluded to in Adam Norton’s Virtual Reality Simulator, where a grid across the floor is a key component of the installation. It speaks to the architecture of the spaces that abound within computer games but also the related virtual spaces used for military training and remote engagements: in particular the coordinate-grid feedback used in missile guidance. Within the installation, this grid defines and confounds the perception of space within the room and, like Geoff Kleem’s installation, Norton avoids following the architectural lines in the space. Kleem’s installation, can be read as either fundamentally against architecture, in the sense that it contradicts modern architecture’s dictum “form follows function”, or as having pushed modernism’s logic to the point that it reveals its inherent contradictions. Interiority and exteriority in this work is primarily bound to the materials but also in the way the installation occupies the space. The space between the supports is close enough that viewers are reluctant to pass in and around them individually, effectively directing circulation to the periphery of the space and prohibiting mobility in its centre, creating a simultaneously open and closed structure. In terms of material and form, there is the prosaic relationship of the steel interior to the micron of 24-karat gold on the surface. It is the steel that provides the “form” that gives the architectural supports the structural integrity to stand up and span the space between the floor to ceiling, ie. the ability for them to “function”. The gold exterior confounds this relationship and instead relates to the way in which “Form” can alternately relate to the non-material abstract that we recognize across a class of things—the ideal or archetype.
In Adam Norton’s work, exteriority is considered in several different ways, most notably also in terms of a dialogue between form, function and appearance. This is primarily explored in relation to the role played by armour, camouflage and decoy in combat. It also relates to the role of the public exhibition of military hardware in attempting to create or seeking to minimize the perception of threat—this is predicated on the appearance of the capability of the weapon rather than necessarily its effectiveness if it were to be deployed. In Norton’s work, a number of different scales are considered from the proximity of a visitor’s own body to a “to-scale ‘decoy’ tank”, through to the scale of naval production on Cockatoo Island during the majority of the twentieth century and perhaps to the more abstract notion of the war machine. At its core, the work questions, for example, what are the boundaries of the individual or nation state, and the boundaries between the real and virtual, the body and machine? Christian Edwardes’ work employs scale in a very different way rendering grand narratives in souvenirs and knick-knacks, largely to subvert some of the conventions on which his images are based. The vitrines themselves appear as miniatures when installed in the grounds. Some of them can be seen as encapsulating the epic failure of various explorers in the early colonial period but they primarily refer to the mythologizing of place perpetuated in the absence of situated knowledge. They relate as much to the prefiguring in the European imagination of the antipodes and Terra Australis well before the European “discovery” of Australia, as to how Australia has been variously represented and imagined subsequently from, and in relation to, the UK.
In one of the works by Julia Davis, titled Surface Tension, the former shoreline of Cockatoo Island is marked with a wall of salt. It fills a large interior doorway and forms a deceptive barrier since it is in fact accessible from both sides. Both here and in Elizabeth Day’s work, there is a sense in which they mark boundaries rather than erect barriers, since they collapse and conflate interior and exterior. It is also significant that Davis’ work connects the architectural interior of a sandstone building that is being eroded by the salt in the sea air with a dual sense of land interior. In Davis’ other piece on the island, a video installation titled Horizontal Fall, the viewer follows a journey into a remote salt mine. The deep underground space revealed, the mineral formations and the pervasive surrounding darkness recall the void that Tournier’s character Robinson seeks in Friday, or the Other Island. In this rewriting of Robinson Crusoe, it is in the figurative depth of the interior of the desert island and not on its shores, that the main protagonist reconciles himself to his mortality and enforced solitude. The island’s interior is also repeatedly treated as a metaphor for the interior of the body, particularly this underground space within the rock. This is strongly echoed in Lisa Jones and Derek Allan’s installation Inner Soundings in Cockatoo Island’s Dogleg Tunnel. In this work many different types of interiority are reflected on: interiority of mind, interior of the body, the interior of the island. On an experiential level, the installation directs your attention back onto your body: within the first half of the tunnel, as soon as your eyes adjust to the darkness you become aware of the soundscape’s sub-bass reverberating through your own body as well as vibrating through this interior space that has been cut through the bedrock of the island. After you turn at the bend in the tunnel, its darkest point, the sound becomes less enveloping and more remote. In this second part of the tunnel, you become increasingly aware of the sound of your own footsteps at the same time that the origin of the audio recording becomes more evident: the noise of an MRI machine in the process of scanning. The topography of this space connects powerfully with that explored in parts of Davis’ video work and both speak to the hard labour involved in excavating the spaces largely with hand tools. The soundscapes in the two works, however, could not be more different. Horizontal Fall is dominated by a deep silence that is penetrated by occasional machinery and footsteps in within the arterial tunnels of the mine and then, in contrast, by the sound of water seeping through the rock and salt crystals being crushed underfoot in some of the other spaces being reclaimed by salt formations. Davis’ video installation is reflected in a pool of water on the floor. At times it is almost impossible to distinguish whether the sound of water dripping is on the soundtrack of Horizontal Fall or within the installation space. Despite being highly sheltered within this bunker, through any of the quiet parts of the video you are acutely aware of the sound of the harbour alongside the building. In this way the shoreline is incorporated into the work, albeit in a very different way to the reference to the historic shoreline in Surface Tension. These interfaces of rock and salt are reiterated on different registers in both works and speak to the processes of accretion and erosion that create marine sedimentary rocks and also extract salt from the same rocks once formed. The salt and sand(stone) here connect a site on the coastal periphery to the continental desert centre. This is the second, quite different, sense of land interior that Davis’ work brings into play. The use of salt in Davis’ practice is deliberate in relating to a materiality of Australia’s interior and shifting perceptions of that space. Salt is pivotal to the notion of a dead centre and Davis’ use of this material speaks as much to Australia’s naturally occurring salinity as to its intensification from changes in land use since European settlement. Amongst these changes in land use are mining, which has probably been the most significant factor in changing non-Indigenous Australians’ perceptions of the continental interior.
Both Davis and Day share a consideration of ecology within their broader practice and engage with contrasting or incompatible conceptions of place, land and resources as a reflection of different ways of seeing the world and our place within it. Day’s installation in the Turbine Hall is centred around a large fragment from the Of The Earth series. The way in which this series explores interconnectedness between migration, place and identity has been extensively discussed elsewhere but the isolation of this fragment within the vast Turbine Hall highlights Day’s ongoing dialogue with displacement and “uprootedness”. The text in the fragment spells out “THE LAW IS NOT ALWAYS JUST” and Day is explicit in citing that this work refers to the imposition of English common law over Indigenous law. In this sense the text speaks to the source of contention in the foundation of modern Australia and the lack of recognition of the First Australians: the declaration of Terra Nullius. The grass roots are surrounded by double layers of barriers that create a bounded space but direct particular points of entry and access around that space, reflecting on how the law has recognized and treated those for whom migration was/is not a choice. In this way the work refers to the transportation of convicts (and what seem to us now as their disproportionate punishments compared to the crimes for which they were sentenced), to the historic displacement of Indigenous Australians within the country, through to perhaps some aspects of contemporary “border protection” policy in Australia and what constitute legal channels for seeking asylum.
The phrase “drawing lines in the sand” implies setting limits or boundaries; assertions of authority intended to end dialogue. In contrast, the act of drawing on the ground is perhaps the earliest form of drawing: these ephemeral gestures exemplify the working nature of mark making, its immediacy and the desire to communicate where spoken or written language fails. Some site-specific practices could be thought of as revealing or (re)framing marks that have been left on that site over time, making visible their effects or legacy. The artworks in Drawing Lines in the Sand engage with many different layers of Cockatoo Island’s institutional heritage, and in the case of Davis and Jones/Allen also its topography, and in doing so consider a number of different physical and conceptual boundaries and borders. The artworks reflect on a number of contradictory and conflicting extremes that explore the island topos in a uniquely Australian context. McMahon describes this topos as “a paradoxical and contested space, one that represents a condensation of the tension between land and water, centre and margin, and relative to a national perspective, between reflective insularity and an externalising globalisation”.
[Elizabeth McMahon, “Encapsulated Space: The Paradise-Prison of Australia’s Island Imaginary”, Southerly 65:1, pp. 20-29].
Claire Taylor is an independent curator. Prior to migrating to Australia in 2003, she organised a number of art projects in alternative spaces and the public domain in London. In Australia, her curatorial experience has included curating a site-specific exhibition in Taylor Square for the 2008 Sydney Mardi Gras, projects for the City of Sydney’s 2008 By George! laneways program, researching the Revolutionary Reader for the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, and developing the Public Art Strategy for two precincts of the City of Sydney’s Laneway Revitalisation Program. Curatorial development of Drawing Lines in the Sand was undertaken on a self-directed residency at Banff Arts Centre, Canada. Claire established the curatorial consultancy GREYSPACE in 2007 and was a director of Peloton 2008-2012.