Australians know that 'stories begin on ground level, with footsteps', as suggested by French Jesuit Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life.
Our tales encompass everything from tender-footed hops across summer foreshores to pilgrimages towards Santiago de Campostella. Walks become utterances, as meaning and memory become linked by the journey — 'the waves were massive once we got to Bells', 'it was a hot day on the camino'.
Within these peregrinations there exists a multi-layered challenge: how to interpret one particular set of footsteps in the light of those tracks left by previous walkers? How to decipher the palimpsest that is the accumulated record of prior journeys?
The construction of our national narrative becomes a process of redaction whereby one set of footsteps is privileged over others in the hope that earlier competing stories quietly fade away. Yet this is a vain hope based on the delusion that Australia's terrain forgets that which has been carved onto it over thousands of years.
barrangal dyara (skin and bones), Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones' 20,000 square-metre sculpture and sound installation at the Royal Botanic Garden of Sydney (17 September to 3 October), shows that even surfaces that seem wiped smooth by fire and historical amnesia still can contain powerful traces of meaning.
Jones' work is the 32nd iteration of the Kaldor Public Art Projects and the winning entry to the 2014 international competition 'Your Very Big Idea' which sought an original piece for the Projects' 45th anniversary.
The Project partners with artists to present works in public spaces and Jones' combination of shields, native grasses and Aboriginal language joins creations from a line of artists that began with Christo and Jeanne Claude in 1969 and has featured luminaries like Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic.
barrangal dyara (skin and bones) is also a further contribution to the bicentennial celebrations of Sydney's Botanic Gardens.
"Jones was determined to find an answer that celebrated his people's history, invited others to share in it and prevent future generations from feeling the pain of such loss."
Jones' piece is both simple and profoundly moving, while being at first glance little more than a quirky reconfiguring of the architectural footprint of the Garden Palace that burned to the ground on 22 September 1882. A more informed engagement with the installation however reveals that Jones has created a provocative re-imagining and, through this, a re-membering of Australian colonial contact history which has deep resonances for today.
The Garden Palace was constructed for the Sydney Exhibition of 1879 and was twice the size of the Queen Victoria Building. Although the palace has been forgotten since its destruction, it can be argued that its major exhibits influenced the manner in which Indigenous culture was represented throughout Australia for decades. Jones' work interrogates and undermines these assumptions.
As a young art student Jones was struck by the influence of material objects on artistic practice in other countries and so went to the Australian Museum to see material objects from his ancestors. He was told that the museum not only did not have any, but that it would be nigh impossible to find examples elsewhere because of the destructive Garden Palace fire, about which noone seemed to know more and remembered even less.
Upon further research Jones found that the palace had housed a large collection of artefacts of great cultural significance to Aboriginal communities of southeast Australia, including ceremonial wooden shields. In the manner of 19th century world fairs, these Indigenous objects had been placed in sharp juxtaposition to displays of white man's progress. Agricultural and industrial exhibits were presented as superior to bits of painted wood, civilisation contrasting with savagery. Three years and five days after the building opened it was razed to the ground and the precious relics turned to dust.
Jones' work has now brought these shields and their stories back to life. In so doing he has also managed to re-posit Indigenous Australia's centrality to the national story back into downtown Sydney. 15,000 bleached white shields recreate the footprint of the palace and audio speakers interspersed throughout the installation broadcast utterances spoken by members of eight different Aboriginal language groups. In the middle of the piece, under what was the original Dome and now is Pioneers' Garden, Jones has cast a meadow of native grasses, as a reminder that fire invigorates as well as destroys and that Indigenous communities have been custodians of this land for millennia. (It also alludes to the fact that Aboriginal Australia is considered the first bread-making people, more ancient than even the Egyptians, who used such grasses to make flour.)
Jones left the museum that day filled with pain. He asked himself: 'How does one hold onto something when the object does not exist?' He was determined to find an answer that celebrated his people's history, invited others to share in it and thereby prevent future generations from feeling the pain of such loss.
The Kaldor Public Art Project is his result. Visitors are coaxed to create new and common stories by walking, overlaying their footsteps onto ancient pathways as they weave in and out of a soundscape that is delineated and yet not-limited by a cast of shields and a sense of timeless wonder. barrangal dyara (skin and bones) takes flesh before people's eyes, and under their feet, and thereby reminds us of yet further tracks and stories meandering across our ancient land.
Dr Jeremy Clarke is a visiting fellow in the Australian Centre on China in the World at the ANU and Director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd.