The exhibition Landscape/Portrait (February/April 2017) documents the creative research that forms the core of a three-year Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Grant project, When Science Meets Art: an environmental portrait of the Shoalhaven River Valley. This arts driven research project, is based at Macquarie University and has as its personnel the researchers; Professor John Potts; Artist and Adjunct Professor Nigel Helyer; Professor Mark Taylor (Macquarie University) and Professor Mark Evans (UTS). Industry partners for the ARC Linkage Grant project are Bundanon Trust and the Australia Council for the Arts.
Section_01 Bundanon: an environmental portrait ( John Potts).
The overall aim of the project is to create a complete environmental portrait of the Bundanon region, using techniques of environmental science, artistic practice, information technology, media technology and cultural history. Science meets art in the fusion of data – collected by environmental scientists – with the communication of this information through artworks and media technology. The artworks presented in Landscape/Portrait have been created as part of this process; each conveys part of the greater environmental portrait undertaken by the research project.
General view of the Landscape/Portrait exhibition.
The research process involves the analysis of soil and river water quality by a team led by environmental scientist Mark Taylor. The data representing environmental quality is digitally transformed into visual information and sound, and communicated by various means: in numerous artworks; in the Landscape/Portrait exhibition; on a website devoted to the project; through GPS onto smartphones for mobile users on site at the Bundanon property; in a lavishly illustrated book and e-book. The environmental portrait of Bundanon also incorporates the social and cultural history of the region, as it pertains to its environmental status. Social history is included in the project as it embodies the environmental shaping of the region.
The Bundanon region is the site of our environmental portrait because of its distinctive natural and cultural character. The 1100 hectares have been overseen by the Bundanon Trust since 1993, when Arthur and Yvonne Boyd made a gift of Bundanon to the Australian people. The Boyds’ gift to the Commonwealth included adjoining properties Riversdale and Beeweeree, as well as a huge collection of artworks and archive material.
The 1100 hectares, including a winding section of the Shoalhaven River, incorporate eleven different vegetation communities, an abundance of flora as well as native wildlife. The landscape is central to the Trust’s activities, which include replanting of native vegetation, and the removal of exotic weed species from the riverbanks. Each year, around 300 artists take advantage of the artist residency program, living at Bundanon while working on art projects in all forms and media. Some of these artworks, when completed, have been based on, and within, the landscape. Janet Laurence’s Treelines Track (2014 – ongoing), for instance, is a walk that traces the history of plants and plantings at Bundanon. In The Lantana Project (2009), Gary Warner left an impression on the landscape by removing the weed lantana over a three-week period; he has revisited the project every year during the Siteworks festival weekend at Bundanon. The ‘terrible scourge’ of lantana, choking the Shoalhaven riverbank, had been noted with dismay by Arthur Boyd in 1982.
An environmental history.One of the fascinating aspects of Bundanon is that the region’s social and cultural history has left an imprint on the landscape. The Indigenous people whose traditional country encompassed the contemporary Bundanon Trust properties were part of the Yuin group, with close ties to the Wodi Wodi people to the north. An Indigenous Cultural Heritage Plan commissioned by Bundanon Trust in 2011 found only two sets of axe-grinding grooves and possible stone tools in the region. The scant traces of habitation suggest that the lower Shoalhaven was an area moved through rather than settled, with the river an important means of travel by canoe. Extended family groups moved through their country responding to seasonal availability of resources, managing country by fire. These groups came together with others for ceremonies or activities such as kangaroo drives or burning country.
European occupation brought a radical transformation of the landscape, through tree-felling and then clearing for agriculture. Cedar-cutters felled valuable red cedar trees (cedar was reportedly Australia’s first export) from 1811; in 1812 there were nine ships transporting cedar back to Sydney. The clearing of the forest removed the site of traditional Indigenous life, and opened the land for agriculture. 600 acres of land were sold to R. H. Browne in 1832, on the condition that ‘55 acres were to be cleared and cultivated and fences erected.’ This and other adjoining properties were bought by Dr Kenneth McKenzie in 1838; the McKenzie family endured severe periodic flooding of the Shoalhaven River to establish their farm and farm buildings. The destructive flood of 1860, which wiped away buildings along the river, prompted McKenzie’s building in 1866 of the two-storey homestead, built of sandstone and local cedar, along Georgian lines and on high ground: this house today is open to the public as the former house of Arthur Boyd.
The McKenzie agricultural estate of Bundanon focused on dairy farming and maize crops; access to Nowra was by river ferry. Other farmers cleared and cultivated land in adjoining areas, among them the Biddulph brothers, who owned Earie Park. The Biddulph diaries are used as a source by Nigel Helyer in his work Milk and Honey (2012); these diaries display a farmer’s sensitivity to the weather, the productivity of the land, and a watchful eye on the river (there were disastrous floods in 1870, 1891 and 1898). By the early twentieth century, the Bundanon homestead was the central building of a working farm that included stables, a curing shed, orchard, vegetable garden, pigpens, dairy, beehives, as well as workers’ huts.
The McKenzie family left Bundanon in 1926, following a tragic double drowning in the river. The property was leased to tenant farmers for half a century, running dairy and beef cattle. The next major transformation of the Bundanon landscape occurred in 1968, when the property was sold to art historian Sandra McGrath, her husband Tony, and art dealer Frank McDonald. Most of the working farm buildings were removed, trees planted, and an English-style cottage garden installed. A magazine article in the 1970s, entitled ‘The Happy Valley’, commented that ‘a Sydney art dealer has built a mid-nineteenth century landscape on a grand scale’. Bundanon was now less a working farm than an artists’ community; it was this environment that Arthur Boyd visited in 1971. He was so captivated by the landscape that he bought the nearby property Riversdale in 1974, then Bundanon itself in 1979. Boyd built his studio at the rear of the homestead in 1981 (the studio was the initial site of Nigel Helyer’s work Heavy Metal in 2016).
During his tenure at Bundanon, Arthur Boyd fought to preserve the environment from development and damaging activities such as sandmining. He was quoted many times in his belief that ‘you can’t own a landscape’. He realised his vision of protecting the natural and cultural heritage of Bundanon when the Commonwealth accepted Bundanon as a gift in 1993, establishing the Bundanon Trust. Boyd saw Bundanon as ‘a place for the community to enjoy the bush and the river, and a place to be used as a forum where those from every facet of the arts and science could get together’. Collaboration and interaction were essential: ‘I like the idea of people talking to one another,’ he stated. This exhibition, with its collaboration between art and science, and its focus on the landscape and environment of Bundanon, develops the spirit of creative inquiry advocated by Arthur Boyd.
Section_02 We Are but Pilgrims (Nigel Helyer).
Should the guide I choose
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way.
The Prelude, William Wordsworth, 1888
Recently I watched in astonishment as a vast, linear roll of cloud moved at high speed from the coastal ranges out into the Pacific Ocean, rapidly spanning the horizon. I later learnt that this remarkable formation was an arcus cloud, formed by the outflow of cold air from the strong sea breeze, and classed as a soliton, a unique standing wave that is distinct from other cloud systems.
What is it to know a place, and how is it that we know? Do we slowly accumulate intimate details gathered during repeated visits to a familiar terrain, or are we perhaps transfixed and transformed, as I was that day, in an encounter with a solitary phenomenon?
As with most complex questions, the answer is almost certainly the interplay between two extremes – resulting in the formation of a third way that hybridises the familiar with the exceptional. So it is with the series of creative works that underpin the project When Science Meets Art – all of them hybrids of art and science, of poiesis and techne.
My primary aim is to produce a creative work which is compelling and affective but which is simultaneously a work of scientific utility; tapping into both sides of the brain!
In collaboration with environmental scientist Mark Taylor and researchers John Potts and Mark Evans, I have set out to create a portrait of a landscape, a simple enough task, it may seem, but one that begs the question: how might a portrait be conceived, and what constitutes a landscape? The approach is to think about landscape as an amalgam of lives, cultures, histories, biologies and economies; never the one thing, always a jostling of the many; the different and incommensurate; some obvious voices, some which are quiet and hidden.
The project is centred at the Bundanon Trust property in the Shoalhaven River Valley, NSW. We have contributed to the Trust’s annual Siteworks festival as a means of manifesting our reflections upon and relationships to the landscape. We hope to act not as distant and impartial observers but embodied within the terrain, moving through it, working with it.
Project 1: Milk and Honey.
A precursor project, which established much of the subsequent creative approach of When Science Meets Art, is Milk and Honey (2012), an eight-channel sound-sculpture installed in the music room of the old Bundanon homestead. Milk and Honey invoked the voices and atmospheres, the actions and beliefs of generations of Bundanon settler inhabitants as they struggled to eke out a living in these strange surroundings.
‘A land flowing with milk and honey’ is the phrase from Exodus that describes the agricultural plenty of the chosen land. Early colonial settlers to the Shoalhaven region forged their own path toward realising this metaphor in a life that melded European practices and stereotypes with an unknown, even unknowable, landscape.
Milk and Honey installed in the music room at the Bundanon Homestead.
As if stranded by some ancient flood, two sonic punts ‘float’ in the Bundanon homestead, carrying cargoes of milk and honey, sounding out their riverine environment with fragmentary voices in a strange new world.
For when I shall have brought them into the land
which I swear unto their fathers, that floweth with milk and honey;
and they shall have eaten and filled themselves,
and waxen fat; then will they turn unto other gods,
and serve them, and provoke me, and break my covenant.
Project 2: BioPod_V01. Old Testament voices mingle with the prosaic and terse entries from the farm diaries summoning a life of constant physical action and interaction; a life in which the ebbs and flows of the river provide both a daily pulse and a lifeline to the outside world; a life where the constant routines of farming are interrupted and supplemented by the more ancient rhythm of hunting and foraging in the bush.
Shipped 22 bags of corn on punt
Picked preserving dish full of grapes to make jam
Got a small swarm of bees, mother practiced her hymns
Mother had a yarn with Hugh at Cowtails
Caught some fowls to send down by peddlers boat
Drummed down a swarm of bees
Mother cut up some quinces and hung them to dry
Took some eggs to peddlers boat
Boys went shooting and got four pigeons and a lot of parrots.
BioPod_V01(2014) was the prototype for a series of site-specific, micro-architectural sculptures designed to facilitate active listening in the natural environment. Positioned on the lake, a sonically significant site at the Bundanon property, a single-person capsule allowed for an overnight acoustic vigil. BioPod_V01 combined sculptural, architectural and acoustic experiences that could create an extended narrative of aural experience.
Participants were invited to make digital recordings of their sonic surroundings as well as their own voice as contributions to the ongoing sound archive – a type of ship’s log. Imagine a meditation cell, an escape pod, a re-entry capsule, an ark in which an overnight acoustic reverie can be recorded on the pod’s user-friendly audio system.
For many, the combined sensations of camping alone in the (extremely vocal) Australian bush and floating in the middle of a lake in total darkness proved quite a challenge, but the temporary withdrawal from the quotidien permits an acuity in listening, experience and thought – a brief period of transformation and identification with the environment.
From the BioPod Users Guide:-
Our species makes a lot of noise – we have created a world in which silence is a rare commodity. The BioPod invites you to spend an overnight acoustic vigil where you can maintain your silence and listen to the voices of other species.
Preparing the environmental recording equipment inside the floating BioPod.
During your overnight stay you are invited to make a series of short audio recordings of the soundscape and to also record a personal audio-log reflecting on your experience. Please also sign the visitors book and leave a short written commentary.
Project 3 BioPods_V02: the Nebuchadnezzar suite (2015) responded to the 2015 Siteworks thematic, “The Feral Amongst Us.” Put simply, the suite of three Biomorphic sculptures could be considered as biology turned feral as sculpture or, conversely, sculpture turned feral as biology. In either case, each structure contained a narrative of a feral or re-wilded being.
Each of the works was designed to be inhabited in a single mode – standing, sitting and laying down – and each form was equipped with a solar-powered audio resonator system that spun the narratives of the outcast King Nebuchadnezzar II. Moreover, visitors were required to crawl on all fours to enter the works, emulating the posture of the savage king.
The orientation and motivation of the work was drawn from a large series of Arthur Boyd paintings depicting Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian king of overarching military ambition, who, for a period of seven years, was outcast into the wilderness to live as an animal (or rewilded) as a form of rehabilitation and redemption.
Sadly, from the historical record this period of humility did not have much effect on the king, who returned to his chauvinist despotism. Of course, history (even ancient history) abounds with tales of hubris. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 poem Ozymandias relates the material vestiges of the earthly powers of Rameses II:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In a similar vein, the Book of Daniel recounts how King Nebuchadnezzar was punished for his overbrimming, warlike ambitions by being exiled into the wilderness to live as a feral creature.
The same houre was the thing fulfilled vpon Nebuchadnezzar,
and he was driuen from men, and did eate grasse as oxen,
and his body was wet with the dew of heauen,
till his haires were growen like Egles feathers,
and his nailes like birds clawes.
Installation view of the three solar audio inhabitable sculptures.
Possibly in homage to the iconic image by William Blake, Arthur Boyd painted Nebuchadnezzar in an almost obsessive manner over several years. He produced some seventy allegorical works featuring an outcast, tortured figure in a blazing Australian landscape – the human reduced to the subhuman, beyond society, alone.
The following are narrative extracts from the three sound sculptures – my haiku-like responses to Boyd’s images; a repertoire for exile:
The King stands in a burning desert weeping.
The King stands for his portrait.
The King stands and stares at the horizon.
The King stands and bows his head in sorrow.
The King stands but does not brush the flies from his face …
The King sits and birds peck at his head.
The King sits under a tree with melancholic thoughts.
The King sits in judgment of emptiness.
The King sits on a throne of dried grass.
The King sits in his own excrement and is foul …
The King lays staring at his claws.
The King lays engulfed by his own stench.
The King lays with aching bones.
The King lays dreaming of a huge tree.
The King lays dreaming of four monsters …
Project 4: Heavy Metal. Elements and minerals lay buried in the landscape tracing diagrams of human activity. Specks of alluvial gold washed down to the floodplain from worked-out mountain mine shafts; the mineral auras that reveal the long-vanished outlines of farm buildings and the telltale chemical fallout from workplaces. Arthur Boyd painted this (mineralised) landscape with colours that were themselves formulated from earthy compounds and exotic metals, milled to a fine paste in linseed oil and turpentine. Heavy Metal (2016) invites us to interact with one of Boyd’s paintings to discover a hidden world of elements and minerals in an experience that is simultaneously chemical, visual and musical.
Heavy Metal version 2 show at Maquarie University Gallery.
The initial concept for Heavy Metal arose after spending time on-site with Professor Mark Taylor. Mark and his students had been surveying the mineral composition of Bundanon, looking for traces of human activity that, for example, derived from farm and workshop activities, but also looking for the effects of upstream mining for gold and other heavy metals. Our intent was to create a map of human activity based upon this forensic evidence. While we were taking environmental samples, I invited Mark to visit Boyd’s studio and bring his portable mineral analysis machine as it struck me that we may have a great opportunity for rethinking Boyd’s works. The starting point was that Boyd was situated in this landscape, painting the physical features, and using (or making himself) colours that were substantially minerals (originally extracted from the earth), thus forming a metaphorical circuit.
Mark was surprised by the massive levels of heavy metals in the materials used by painters and was keen to collaborate – so we proceeded to analyse the mineral composition of the entire colour range that Boyd used and came up with a huge database of minerals that corresponded to his palette.
The second stage was to sample the Steinway piano at the Bundanon homestead, note by note. Firstly, we recorded regular keystrokes; secondly, we recorded the reverberance of the sounding board resulting in one to two minute sound files per note. Working with another colleague, Jon Drummond, who is an expert in data sonification, we created a computer-driven audio-visual system able to read the video stream from a camera facing Boyd’s unfinished painting Return of the Prodigal Son (c1997). The screen interface displays a highly magnified colour ‘target’ area from the painting along with the RGB values and the predominant minerals present, which are shown as elements of the periodic table. The system then translates the stream of mineral data into sound, which is layered in two components: a generalised harmonic chord structure that corresponds to the colour, overlaid by individual note highlights that illustrate the distribution of the most prominent minerals. The computer monitor gives feedback on the area of interest, colour ratios and a graphical display of the minerals detected.
Footprints and Fingerprints. The fusion of mineral sampling, the landscape and cultural representations of the landscape that are brought into focus in the Heavy Metal project relate to a wider and more longitudinal approach to sampling the mineral structure of the Bundanon environment. Mark is compiling a database that traces the distribution of elements left in the soil by the historical processes that have formed the landscape – flooding, upstream mining, architecture and, of course, the daily activities of farming. We have begun a process using the metaphor of footprints and fingerprints to forensically reveal these natural and human modifications to the land. While Mark and his team are compiling the data, I am recording a series of walks in the landscape with old Bundanon hands, documenting their subjective responses and memories of the environment. Eventually all of these elements will be amalgamated into media-rich interactive maps suitable for the web and mobile devices.
Beta testing the Phone app.
For the moment I have created a static two-dimensional painted sketch, Fingerprints and Footprints (2017), which acts as a starting point and a means to reimagine our relationship to the land.
Endnote. Never the one thing, always a jostling of the many, the different and the incommensurate … In the end there is no portrait, just as there is no landscape. There is simply an infinite series of transitory portraits attempting to capture the essence of the complex mix of forces that form a constantly evolving, unstable landscape. We are but pilgrims following Wordsworth’s wandering cloud.
Section_03 Edges, Proximity and the Creative Leap (Cecelia Cmielewski).
Milk and Honey (2012). The Steinway usually has pride of place in the music room of the Bundanon homestead but the sounds of the working life of the farm, its workers and the creatures of its environs have taken over for a while. In Nigel Helyer’s installation Milk and Honey (2012), hand-painted flannel flowers from the local bush adorn the almost-heritage milk cans inside the punts, whose oars and seats emit segments of the diaries written by those who lived and worked on the Bundanon farm. The piano is alive: fragments rise from its belly giving way to the sounds of bees; the slapping of oars against the water as the punt transports people and all manner of things to and from the farm on the fast-flowing river; the squirt of fresh cow’s milk onto the side of galvanised buckets; and segments of a concert played on the Steinway by a family member, who stays at the homestead from time to time.
Helyer recorded all these sounds: ‘I like to record it myself. Sound recording is quite difficult, it takes you to interesting places, and once you have done it you know you have something original.’ He poked a microphone into a huge feral bee’s nest and held it there for as long as he dared; he captured the sounds of water slapping on the oars of a skiff; he rose before dawn to record woman hand-milking her cow, her forehead nuzzled into the cow’s shank; he placed microphones inside the piano and recorded Jamie Boyd, playing the instrument.
Milk and Honey crosses time. The work conjures the past, the ways in which time passed on a farm on the Shoalhaven River and inside its genteel homestead, whose wisteria climbs and covers the courtyard between the kitchen buildings near the garden leading to Arthur Boyd’s studio. Milk and Honey is also very much in the present. The bees, the beef cattle herds, the piano playing are of our time. This is the success of Milk and Honey: it is not a romantic idealisation. The piece re-creates a sense of the arduous repetition of farm life back then, without mod cons; the isolation, both blissful and demanding. Working the punt required attention to the river and its conditions, but also provided timeout and a chance for reverie on the smooth-flowing system. Helyer asks us to compare food production then and issues of food security now; the pace and rhythm of life then and now; the close proximity and forms of mobility and markets then and the ease and environmental havoc of the transport and dispersal of produce now.
Despite the seductive and beautiful quality of reverie that the composition of sound and objects in Milk and Honey evokes, it is a deeply political query into the rapid shift that has happened in the short time of farming at Bundanon. It is the signature of a successful artist when the audience can arrive at similar queries of their own accord. Milk and Honey provides a space for contemplation that can lead to an enquiry into the ways in which land management shapes the environment and those who live in it and benefit from it.
BioPod_V01 (2014). Just glimpsed, through rising mist, an improbable tent floats slowly around the edges of a lake. The tent is buffeted by breezes and moves gently on the lake, held just above the water’s surface by a platform barge. That would almost have been enough, just to be able to watch the dance of the floating home responding to the slight currents caused by wind. A small landing jetty held the red rowing skiff for a passenger to be rowed to the tent – again, the sound of oars slapping against water, but in this work it is a live sensation. Attempts to get to the platform gracefully from the rowboat must be abandoned. Most people don’t row on water or sleep in tents; a very select few sleep overnight in a tent on a lake.
The BioP0d at night.
BioPod_V01 was originally designed to be one of Helyer’s beautifully structured signature forms based on Radiolaria, primitive microscopic marine creatures researched by Ernest Heackel in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. But this was not to be, due to cost. The concept of the work, however, was maintained: to provide a space (the ‘pod’) for one person to stay overnight on the lake near the homestead, and be nearer to the night and dawn creatures (the ‘bio’) that inhabit the particular site. Participants ‘camped’ in the pod, replete with high-quality sound equipment that was used to record the sounds of their environment as well as their thoughts. BioPod_V01 is an authentic immersive experience for the intrepid soloist. Helyer invites a deeper consideration of the biology of the lake, and opens up a sonic world that feels like prehistory.
At the purpose built jetty ready to ferry an overnight participant to the BioPod.
Kangaroos thump loudly as they come to and from the lake to drink; frogs are abundantly loud and varied; egrets and kookaburras swoop close by, wings touching the water; the smallest of insects are out and about. It is not peaceful; it is a rowdy, hectic cacophony and one not heard during the day, but only at night in places where people don’t often go. The work is another string to Helyer’s bow. He presents a seemingly simple, almost innocuous, proposition – stay on a lake overnight – that slowly reveals a complex world that cannot be seen, only heard. The result is a disarmingly humbling experience in which the human is completely disregarded and not required. For a moment, it is as if the Anthropocene had not begun.
BioPods_V02: the Nebuchadnezzar suite (2015). There are flies everywhere, they are in our eyes and crawling on our skin. It is hot; we are in a temporary shade shelter painstakingly slotting large pieces of builder’s plywood into notched formers that will form the shape of these seemingly unwieldy beasts. We crawl on the ground to push and pull, not unlike King Nebuchadnezzar II crawling like an animal in the wild. There is a system, of course – there has to be – as these are complex structures, based on Radiolaria, ‘countless millions of which form the geological strata of this, the oldest continent’. Helyer draws and designs these structures by hand with complicated calculations for each element. Big they may be, but the level of precision is the same regardless of scale. Each slot is carefully held in place as ropes, elastic bands and a clever use of chopsticks cajole the tabs into their respective slot. They must also be safe and very sturdy as these are sculptures into which people move, play, contemplate and listen.
The soundscape is written and spoken by the artist. It describes the physical and emotional toll of Nebuchadnezzar after his fall from grace due to acts of tyranny and arrogance.
This is another work that delights and challenges visitors. It is large scale, robust, intent on being seen first and heard later. The suite of three huge elegant forms – the tube, the onion and the bulb – sit on the hill at Riversdale, having gone ‘feral’, claiming their presence must be felt and attended to. But the works are feral in the most appealing way, as immediately they become playful objects for all ages. For children, they are spaces in which to crawl, climb on and jump from, away from the usual tame playground. Children take to these objects and take them over completely as their own; they love them. Teenagers and younger adults – often too cool to get really enthusiastic – enjoy the feeling of being safely enclosed in the vessels and being able to either drift off or listen attentively. Older adults get absorbed by the meaning of the text and stand alongside, closely listening to the sound work. Visitors are transported into themselves and into another world by these unlikely elegant edifices sprawled over the hilltop.
Heavy Metal (2016). Winding toward Boyd’s studio through the beautiful garden at Bundanon, with flowering azaleas and orange clivias, under the shade of bright-green deciduous amber trees, the chord-like sounds of a piano become increasingly distinguishable. The sounds do not make a discernible melody but, once in the studio, they exert an immediate calming and almost meditative effect. Visitors are intrigued and delighted by this work. Occasionally a high note pops into the space that jolts the listener into attentiveness.
The sound of a painting. Artists have responded to paintings by playing music to them, but not until Heavy Metal have they composed music from their material composition. This work is a genuine collaboration between scientist and artist. It is rare for such a collaboration to actually be a creative conjuncture of both disciplines. Usually one is at the behest of the other. Either the art is used to explain or ‘communicate’ the science or the science is made too simple by the art. Helyer has a good grasp of many scientific principles and has worked with scientists for over thirty years, the results of which we see in this collaboration.
In Arthur Boyd’s studio.
Heavy Metal is interactive at a complex and conceptual level. The composition of chord-like sounds (recorded from the homestead Steinway) is created by a real-time analysis of the minerals in the colours of an unfinished Boyd painting, Return of the Prodigal Son (c1997). As a video camera is trained onto a section of the canvas, the screen displays the mineral content of the selected colours, in the form of the periodic table. The image and corresponding sound change each time someone selects a new section of the canvas on which to train the camera. Heavy Metal also brings together two kinds of science: environmental and computational. The creative leap of the artist is matched with the precise methodology of the scientist. Heavy Metal could have been quite a cold work – simply a digital archaeology of a painting. Instead, it is a lively work that uses the warm sounds of the piano and finely calibrated composition to bring the painting into a new space for contemplation.
Screen shot, showing focus area and interactive periodic table, and colour value display.
Heavy Metal provides participants with different ways to animate a ‘static’ painting. It takes some time for viewers/listeners to put together what it is that they are experiencing. The sound is dynamic, based on the elements used in a particular area of Boyd’s oil painting. One little boy of about seven years old knows the periodic table. He is thrilled to be able to ‘read’ this painting because each sequence on the screen includes a representation of the elements from a particular section of the painting. All of a sudden he is able to correlate his knowledge of the periodic table with the materials used by the artist. For another visitor, a writer, who does not usually ‘get’ art, the layers of sound and data provide a way for her to consider the work beyond that of colour and texture. For some of the men visiting from the Wreck Bay community, the data resonates with their use of naturally occurring materials used to paint their bodies for ceremony.
Everyone who comes to Siteworks (and there is a large audience) spends time with Heavy Metal. The studio stays open for several hours longer than scheduled, and many visitors come back more than once. As the sounds from the studio close down, the chorus of the frogs in the nearby lake take over in the dark of evening at Bundanon.
Footsteps and Fingerprints (2017). The homestead and its paddocks have been carved out from an enormous forest that stands close to the edges of habitation. Seen from above, the proximity of the bush highlights the human scratchings on this landscape. The spatial perspective in the roughly painted ‘zoom-out’ sketch lifts the viewer beyond the mundane to generate the larger context of Bundanon. At the same time, the viewer ‘zooms-in’ to read the precision graph of the soil sampling analysis from its environs. Eventually this sketch will become an interactive media-rich digital map of the soil, work efforts, musings, plant information and biodata of Bundanon.
Over the course of this longitudinal scientific and cultural research, Nigel Helyer has developed a wide range of creative concepts to interrogate how a place can be explained or described. A few of the approaches he has drawn on include poetry, ancient texts, myth, biology, mineralogy, data sequencing, walking, randomised sound attributions and paint. Ultimately he delves deeply into how data can be used to develop meaning.
Section_04 One World (Deborah Ely).
The floodplains at Bundanon, represented in so many Arthur Boyd paintings, are layered with social, geological, ecological and Indigenous references. Historically carpeted with red cedar saplings, which were periodically washed downriver during tidal floods, the grazed paddocks now present a flat foreground for a sheltering escarpment that wraps around the horizon to the south.
Boyd first saw the Bundanon property in the blazing summer of 1971. Resident in London for a decade, his return for a residency at the Australian National University in Canberra resulted in an invitation from art historian Sandra McGrath to spend a weekend on the Shoalhaven. The visit reignited Boyd’s desire for an Australian base and began a passionate connection to the timeless landscape of Bundanon with its Spotted Gum forests, searing light, gullies and caves.
The 1993 gifting of the property, an 1100 hectare parcel of land, plus buildings and artworks, saw the transformation of Bundanon from a secluded retreat for many of Australia’s key artists and intellectuals to a publicly accessible institution. The display of hundreds of artworks in Boyd’s home and studio uniquely situates the work of this iconic Australian artist in the place where it was made. Both a cultural and an environmental gift, Boyd saw the property as somewhere to be secured for reflection and recreation. Today, the maintenance of this iconic landscape is an overarching custodial responsibility for the Trust, alongside care for the art collection and the colonial and award-winning contemporary architecture.
Since the founding of the Trust, a substantial residential and day creative arts program has been established, attracting over 6000 students every year who immerse themselves in the property’s culturally significant offerings and rich biodiversity. And in keeping with Boyd’s vision, Bundanon hosts hundreds of artists and scholars of all disciplines into its residency program annually and supports the development of new work for presentation in galleries, theatres, concert halls and screens all over the country and the world. This signature program has enhanced our understanding of how a cultural institution in an isolated regional setting might make a contribution to contemporary culture in a way that is relevant to its location and to the national conversation.
In 2008 Bundanon Trust hosted a group of geologists who wanted to collect data from the Shoalhaven River floodplain at Bundanon in order to measure the impact of climate change over the previous millennia. The research, which took place over twelve months, was shared with interested artists. Their dialogue around ideas of experimentation, the role of empirical data, the place of fictional narratives and the way we communicate ideas, was jointly presented to an invited public in 2009. This public dialogue and immersive performance, titled Ten Trenches, created the framework for a new way of uncovering information about Bundanon and provided a model for engaging audiences with interdisciplinary practice.
Siteworks, as the program is now titled, has been successfully presented annually for eight years, each edition carefully themed to reflect research that has taken place on site and to engage wide audiences in current discussions about place and how we impact on our surroundings. Around 1000 people now participate each year in talks, walks, open discussions with experts from across the country and around the corner, as well as immersing themselves in site-specific performances, exhibitions and didactic presentations. Significant in the development of this platform has been an engagement with a core group of artists, scholars and scientists over time. Thus there has been an aggregation of knowledge and creative endeavour, building a shared understanding of Bundanon and its unique properties.
Nigel Helyer was invited to a ‘discussion in the field’ during the development of Ten Trenches and has been in attendance, in person and/or through his artwork, for most of the Siteworks editions. In 2010 an invited artist cohort, including Helyer, was joined by scientists, historians and local experts and taken through the landscape by Aboriginal songmen and Landcare volunteers. This laboratory opened up remnants of Bundanon’s nineteenth-century agricultural history and its pristine – and weed-infested – bushland to outside interpretation.
Helyer’s installation Milk and Honey (2012) responded by realising the imagined poetic rhythms of life on an isolated dairy farm in the form of two river punts, seemingly abandoned in the homestead music room through the force of historical floods, still carrying their freight of milk churns. Stories of life on the river was told through a soundscape of contemporary conversations, nineteenth-century accounts drawn from diaries and music spontaneously playing on the Steinway piano at Bundanon.
Visitors aboard the BioPod.
A series of other works followed for subsequent Siteworks: Biopod_V01 on the lake in 2014; BioPods_V02: the Nebuchadnezzar suite sound sculptures in 2015; and the traces of the deep past exposed in Heavy Metal in 2016. Over the years of his engagement with the Bundanon site, Helyer has developed a language that engages visually and aurally with the physicality of the place – its literal material – and with the ideas held within its histories and the artist’s imagination. Just as the sounds of Bundanon are reinterpreted for us through these artworks so the presence of Arthur Boyd, and the wide landscape of his mind, is never far away: in King Nebuchadnezzar’s monologues; the drawing room piano Boyd listened to; the paint he used to create mythological and dream visions on canvas; his voice.
In the final piece, Footprint and Fingerprints (2017), Helyer traces the river’s own story alongside those of the inhabitants of the Shoalhaven floodplain. Soil samples, metal traces from a mining past, remnant agricultural history, wildlife, half-remembered stories and their poetic counterpoints map the landscape for the active walker and alert listener. It is possible to be both deep in the place and transported to another which challenges the synapse to join the dots and to imagine the world as one, a space-time continuum to be deeply experienced.
Note: the title ‘One World’ is drawn from a chapter heading in the catalogue for the exhibition Arthur Boyd: an active witness authored by Zara Stanhope, Bundanon Trust, 2013.
Section_05 Geochemical Footprints and Fingerprints of European Occupation at Bundanon (Mark Patrick Taylor).
Environmental contamination from anthropogenic activity can be measured via changes to temporal environmental geochemical markers. Human activity has left a marked ‘footprint’ on the landscape by way of altering the biosphere’s composition across every facet (that is, land, air, water). These footprints have left unique geochemical markers of former or current activity. Some contaminants, such as the inorganic toxic element of lead, have well-established histories – it was first emitted in significant quantities when Roman mining and smelting started and as a result is found in Artic ice dating from that period. Twentieth-century emissions of lead from its use as an additive in gasoline have resulted in millions of tonnes being distributed throughout all global ecosystems, with the greatest impacts in major urban centres.,
Other organic, man-made contaminants are more recent and have become pervasive since the 1950s. One such group of compounds are the less well-known and understood group of perfluorinated chemicals. These organic chemicals have been (and, in certain cases, continues to be) used widely in everyday products such as carpets, clothing, upholstery, food paper wrappings, non-stick cookware, photographic materials, Scotchgard™ (and related goods used to protect fabrics), firefighting foams and metal plating. Perfluorinated chemicals are also a global contaminant and, like lead, are persistent, pervasive and harmful to the environment and human health. The footprint of perfluorinated chemicals is such that it is even found in human populations and wildlife (including polar bears) that reside in remote and pristine wilderness areas of the globe, such as the Arctic.
The presence of industrial chemicals in environmental media such as air, dust, lichens, soil, sediment and water provide opportunities to measure, source and ‘fingerprint’ contaminants back to specific anthropogenic activities. Such data enables scientists to delineate the consequences of human activity on the environment and to quantify the extent of the impacts. Moreover, the use of isotopes can also reveal specific sources and shifts of contamination over time, which can be important in untangling causal links between human activity and environmental change.
Environmental contamination is pervasive, persistent and, in some circumstances, problematic due to the adverse effects that can arise from exposure to people, environment and the food chain. Delineating contamination in the environment superimposed with knowledge of human activity can unveil a history that is typically not accessible via the documentary record.
Contaminants are typically well-circulated throughout the biosphere such that no place on the earth could be described as ‘pristine’ in the true sense of the word. Global dispersal via water and air usually results in dilution and, as such, exposure to organic and inorganic contaminants in remote uninhabited locations (for example, the Arctic and Antarctic) are at concentrations significantly below levels of concern. By contrast, localised and elevated environmental pollution arising from human activity involving urbanisation, industry and agriculture has resulted in multiple organic and inorganic contaminants adversely impacting NSW land., Emissions and discharges from such activities have resulted in localised site contamination (that is, values above natural background) in air, dust, soil, surface and groundwater, plants, animals and humans., , , ,
More diffuse terrestrial and aquatic environmental contamination has also arisen from industrial and human activities. For example, contaminants have been transferred in catchment run-off and industrial discharges as well as in atmospheric emissions from industrial and mining activities. Industrial emissions that have contributed to diffuse environmental contamination include the release of lead from automotive vehicles over its 70 years of use (1932–2002).,
A precise estimate of the total number of contaminated sites in NSW remains elusive; for example:
• The NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) reported in the 1993 NSW State of the Environment Report that, as a ‘rough estimate’, there are over 7000 contaminated sites in NSW;
• A 1996 NSW Parliamentary briefing paper estimated that NSW has approximately 60,000 contaminated sites, with some 7000 possibly requiring remediation at a cost of $2 billion (1996 dollars);
• The Auditor-General reported in July 2014 that there were 30,000 contaminated sites in NSW, but noted that a precise number was not available because a comprehensive database of all contaminated sites did not exist. This estimate included sites that were not sufficiently contaminated to warrant notification to the NSW EPA. However, it is not clear what land contamination types or concentrations this estimate comprises or from what data source(s) the 30,000 figure is derived;
• The NSW Legislative Assembly Public Accounts Committee reported in 2016 that ‘The EPA manages the registering, monitoring and remediation of more than 30,000 contaminated sites in NSW, with a budget for contaminated sites of $1.8 million;’
• As at 21 June 2016, the number of sites formally notified to the NSW EPA under the Contaminated Land Management Act 1997 was 1617, with 830 still under assessment.
More broadly, Andrew Langley estimated in 2002 that there could be as many as 200,000 contaminated sites across Australia. A more recent estimate suggests that Australia has 160,000 contaminated sites with a current market value of >$3 billion per annum.
The total number of contaminated sites is not necessarily indicative of the risk to human health and to the environment. Often this risk is not known and it may lay dormant or non-activated until land use changes or an individual excavates, exposes or interacts with a contaminated source in a way that causes inhalation or ingestion.
The project When Science Meets Art at Bundanon aims to examine the site and the site’s catchment changes in land use via analysis of environmental materials in soils, sediments and paints.
Fingerprints and footprints of contamination at Bundanon,
acrylic on ply painting with soil sample data charts.
The catchment of the Shoalhaven River was subject to exploration and mining for gold predominantly from the 1860s to 1900. The most well-known goldfield is that of Yawal that lies in the headwater of the Shoalhaven, upstream from Bundanon. The mines were last reworked during the depression years of the 1930s and have since been abandoned. Nevertheless, the environmental activities and impacts are not well described but what information exists indicates the mining resulted in a range of upstream environmental impacts including deforestation, damming and sluicing. Downstream, the ‘fingerprints’ of mining activities on the landscape are even less well known. However, this knowledge-gap provides a unique opportunity to understand how mining affected the floodplain environments through the dispersal and accumulation of contaminants over time.
Consequently, this project will analyse floodplain sediments for gold, silver, lead and zinc, which are common contamination markers of anthropogenic activity. Fingerprints of anthropogenic impact will be benchmarked against natural background values. The application of lead isotopic compositions to the deposited materials will allow determination of the sources in the sediments. Sampling of floodplain sediments will effectively provide a temporal sequence, with sediments aging with depth. Shifts in geochemical profile will be linked to the European catchment history relating to the ebb and flow of mining activity.
In terms of the heritage curtilage at Bundanon, the project will investigate the geochemical footprint created by European occupation, which began in earnest after the 600-acre Bundanon property was granted to Richard Henry Browne in 1832 (confirmed in 1837). The current building of Bundanon was completed in the 1860s. This project will analyse soil across the site to assess the land at Bundanon for ‘footprints’ of former human activities. Values will also be benchmarked against natural background values to understand the extent and impact of anthropogenic activity.
Anticipated impacts on surface soils include the construction of former buildings and various land uses including a piggery, an orchard and blacksmiths. Other possible sources of localised impacts to surface soil geochemistry include the use of lead-based paint on the old cottages that remain on the site and ad hoc gold processing that may have been carried out by the employees of Bundanon’s former estate.
In addition, the use of metal-rich artist paints was commonplace and preliminary analysis of the paints used by Arthur Boyd shows they contained up to 35% (350,000 mg/kg) cadmium and 60% lead. While paints such as these are stable on canvas, Boyd mixed a lot of his own paints from powder and, in doing so, may have inadvertently contaminated himself in the process. In the context of contamination, the project has also analysed and reported on the geochemistry of the paints used by Boyd. This report has been included in the Heavy Metal (2016) project, which relates the analysis of the paints on a particular artwork through the medium of sound.
The artisanal mining for gold in Shoalhaven’s upper catchment and the agricultural and artistic endeavours at Bundanon provide the perfect nexus for the art and science collaboration, which intertwines the art expertise of Dr Nigel Helyer and Professor John Potts with the author’s knowledge of environmental contamination and geochemistry.
In summary, this aspect of When Science Meets Art uses geochemical and environmental data to understand and explain legacy footprints and fingerprints of anthropogenic activities that are now overlain across the culturally important Bundanon site.
Direct Links to projects.
- Sonus Maris
- The Oratorio for a Million Souls
- Two Islands
- The Deluge Ark(ive)
- A Dissimulation of Birds
- The Biological Mixer
- Heavy Metal
- CultCult – audio illumination from the Ocean
- BioLogging Retrofit
- BioPods_V2 The Nebuchadnezzar Suite
- Eine Kleine GeneMusiK
- Songs from the UnderWorld_v3
- Architecture for Bees; Bees for Architecture
- Breathless; Take a Deep Breath
- Public Art concepts
- Ars Memoriae Mexicana
- Float like a Butterfly; Sting like a Bee
- Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste
- Songs from the UnderWorld_V2
- WYSSA – All my love darling
- Songs from the UnderWorld
- Milk and Honey
- Weeping Willow
- Bio_Logging and Under the IceCap
- New Host_V6
- Law of the Tongue
- New York Drawings
- Zephyr II
- Run Silent Run Deep
- Sculpture in the Vineyards
- WA Marine Facility ~ Ondes
- Quint de Loup II
- The Wireless House
- Talking Stick
- Syren for Port Jackson
- Factory Spirit.
- What Survives
- KellerRadioActive at IASKA
- Magnus Opus
- Preaching to the Converter
- Virtual Spirit
- AudioNomad + Syren
- An Unrequited Place
- Voyages from Eden to Utopia; Hercules
- The Transit of Venus
- A Symphony for Other Cultures
- The Lament
- Sonic Landscapes
- Siren Song
- Ship to Shore
- Re-Entry Vehicle; Natural Science in the Spirit World
- Naughty Apartment
- Mute in TalkTown; the sweet warm breath of science
- La Zona del Silencio
- Everything’s Nice with American Rice
- Silent Forest
- Dual-Nature (Ebb and Flow).
- Die Melodie der Welt; Bringing Home the Bacon
- Sample Content Of Radio Works as MP3
- Big Bell Beta
- Din: Ding, Dang, Dong
- GeneMusik – Sounds for Lower Life Forms