barrangal dyara is the most ambitious artwork presented by Kaldor Art Projects to date.
A major installation in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens by Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones revives its forgotten history. Presented by Kaldor Art Projects, the work will be on show until 3 October 2016.
For 48 years, since 1969, Kaldor Art Projects has had a significant influence on contemporary art in Australia, and has presented groundbreaking contemporary art to the country by influential international artists such as Gilbert and George, Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik, Tatzu Nishi and Sol LeWitt. Until now, the most ambitious of all was the inaugural project in 1969 when Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped Little Bay in Sydney’s southern suburbs. At the time, Christo assured Kaldor that “a project is successful when it’s larger than every[one] imagined.”
However, Kaldor Public Art Project 32, Jonathan Jones’ barrangal dyara (skin and bones) in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens from 17 September to 3 October 2016, has pushed the boundaries of this ambition beyond perceived limits. Taking two years to develop, the work is monumental in scale and scope.
Jonathan Jones is based in Sydney. He works across a range of media to create site-specific installations that use light, shadow and repetition to explore Aboriginal practices, relationships and ideas. He has worked on several major public commissions, including the Commonwealth Parliament Offices in Sydney, and has exhibited nationally and internationally.
Jones is a member of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi nations of south-east Australia. Twenty years ago, as an art student, he began to explore his cultural heritage through his art. Struck by the absence of historic Aboriginal cultural material in Sydney’s museums, he learnt that countless objects collected by the colonisers were destroyed. In the catalogue essay, curator Emma Pike quotes the artist as saying:
I first went looking for cultural material from where my family is from and found out that much of this material was lost in the Garden Palace fire. Ever since, I’ve been struck with the loss of our cultural material, what that loss means for our communities and how you can move forward as a culture when you can’t point to your cultural heritage.
The name barrangal dyara is taken from the local Sydney language, and translates as ‘skin’ and ‘bones’. Jones envisions the project as peeling back the ‘skin’ of the site to reveal the ‘bones’ of the building:
barrangal dyara is a response to the immense loss felt throughout Australia due to the destruction of countless culturally significant Aboriginal objects … It represents an effort to commence a healing process and a celebration of the survival of the world’s oldest living culture despite this traumatic event.
The installation is made up of three formal components. 15,000 white shields made from gypsum outline the Garden Palace’s footprint. The shields traverse the city’s highest ridge and extend across to an island in a major expressway. Reminiscent of scattered bones in the landscape, or masses of rubble left by fire, the shields are based on four shapes that refer to the many Aboriginal nations of Australia’s South East. Unlike the originals, which would have carried markings that refer to connections with country and family, these shields are devoid of markings. Mens’ shields, used for both ceremony and war, were a popular souvenir of the colonisers. Captain Cook was notably the first to obtain one after firing gunshots at the local people upon first landing in Sydney’s Botany Bay.
In the heart of the installation, where the massive dome once stood, Jones planted a native kangaroo grass meadow. The wild planting disrupts the European style formality of the Royal Botanic Gardens, as well as the commonly held belief that, prior to colonisation, Aboriginal people did not practice agriculture. Across southeastern Australia, grasslands were widely cultivated and harvested.
To manage food supply in the vast landscape, fire was used to clear the land and promote growth of preferred plant species, some of which actually require fire to regenerate or release seeds. Extensive grasslands were a food source in themselves, seeds of grasses such as kangaroo grass were ground to make the flour. The recent discovery of a 30,000 year old grinding stone is evidence Aboriginal Australians were in fact the world’s first bread-makers. These cultivated grasslands also attracted wildlife such as kangaroos, simplifying the hunting process.
The final component of barrangal dyara is composed by the soundscapes that infuse the space once occupied by the Garden Palace. Voices speaking and singing in eight Aboriginal languages recall not only the objects lost in the Garden Palace fire, but the material excluded from the colonial collections – those used in agriculture and by women and children.
At one time there were 250 language groups across the country. Today, as a result of the punishments metred out to Aboriginal people for speaking languages other than English, it is rare to hear any words uttered. As a result, many languages have almost disappeared. In the last few years, however, there has been a passionate revival of language across the country, offering communities a precious connection with their culture in the absence of historic objects. To make the eight soundscapes, Jones travelled throughout Southeast Australia and collaborated with people from the various language groups – the Sydney Language, Gamilaraay, Gumbaynggirr, Gunditjmara, Ngarrindjeri, Paakantji, Wiradjuri and Woiwurrung.
Themes of loss and memory are not only relevant to Aboriginal people. Prior to Kaldor Art Projects 32, the Garden Palace itself had been forgotten by all but a handful of people. In his presentation during a symposium leading up to the opening of barrangal dyara Jones said:
How surprising it is that a building measuring 250m long and 150m wide, so almost two football fields in size, an enormous building, a huge undertaking of the colony, and a building that really stands for a way of understanding Australia’s coming of age story … How is it possible that we can miss that building? … If we imagine that we have the ability to blindside this enormous building, this enormous moment of our history, what else have we forgotten?
The Garden Palace was purpose built in 1879 to host the International Exhibition, Sydney’s response to London’s Crystal Palace and the Palais du Trocadero in Paris. At the time the colony was optimistic and energetic – the population had tripled in the 20 years since the Gold Rush in the early 1850s. A sense of independence and national identity was developing. The Exhibition was the opportunity for the convict colony to present itself to the world showcasing wealth and success with exhibits of wool, wheat and gold. Not surprisingly, the national identity excluded Australia’s original inhabitants, their representation was limited to the dedicated Ethnological Court. Cultural objects and ancestral remains were presented in a way that supported discourse at the time – the mission to “civilise” the natives, and popular theories such as Social Darwinism.
The subsequent fire that destroyed the Garden Palace just three years after it was built, along with the vast collection of Aboriginal cultural objects, could be considered a disaster. However, Oliver Costello, a Bundjulung man and Co-founder of Firesticks, offers an alternative perspective:
Fire creates change. The Garden Palace fire cleansed the site and created meaning. All those artefacts, taken out of country, were used to misrepresent our identity … The Garden Palace symbolised the colonisation of Australia and attempted to say our culture was over. The fire provided the opportunity to cleanse that negative energy and t step back from the colonial framework and ask ‘where are we?’ … The artefacts were already lost and the fire has given us a chance to find them.
There are a variety of ways to interact with barrangal dyara. Each day of the exhibition there is a talk by Jonathan Jones on site. Aboriginal elders, curators, artists and theorists are also involved in daily talks; on the anniversary of when the Garden Palace burnt down, 22 September, Bangarra Dance Company presented an on-site performance. To guide viewers around the installation, onsite invigilators will share stories about the work, reminiscent of the way oral history has transferred Aboriginal culture across the millennia. The Project 32 App activates on site to stream insights and conversations. Podcasts of the three Spitfire symposia held in the lead up to the opening are available online.
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