Curatorial Essay - Emily McDaniel
The void is a politicised space, which cannot be defined as simply an absence or a presence. It is the space between distinct worldviews, which implicates our way of seeing, understanding and knowing. Void encompasses the subjective, lived experiences and articulations of the concept by each artist and approaches the concept of the void as landscape, space and the undefined. As a spatial notion, the void holds misconceptions of vacuity and emptiness, a notion that stands in opposition to the reality of these artist’s understanding; that the space made by the void always contains matter – as yet unseen, unknown or undefined.
Kaurna artist James Tylor’s practice examines concepts around cultural identity in Australian contemporary society and social history. Tylor’s series’, (Deleted scenes) From an untouched landscape and (Erased scenes) From an untouched landscape position the void as a visual and metaphorical emblem of censorship, erasure and control. The artist intervenes upon the surface of the landscape photograph, removing select aspects through incision and replacing them with a literal void – representative of the erasure of Indigenous peoples in the Australian landscape.
dhawin-dyuray (axe-having) by Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones appears to trace mountainous ridges and valleys of what we perceive to be a landscape in the distant horizon. In actual fact, we are looking at an intimate microscopic view of the serrated edge of a stone tool, made by a Wiradjuri Ancestor, using stone collected from Wiradjuri Country and held in the present by Jones. In Wiradjuri language, dhawin-dyuray (axe-having) describes a ‘stone for making an axe’, it literally translates to ‘axe-having’ The axe is within Country, waiting to be removed and worked by the Maker, expressing that there is an inherit knowledge embedded in Country. Jones offers an alternate perspective of landscape, which is shaped by the relationship between language and country.
Budawang and Yuin artist and designer Danièle Hromek uses design as a speculative tool to interrogate possible futures. In Untitled (Eisenman by hand, speculative design) Hromek responds to a prototype series of houses designed by deconstructivist architect Peter Eisenman. Eisenman’s radical and influential designs are characterised by their conceptual foundations; often times they are ‘thought’ rather than ‘built’. In this work Hromek simply asks, ‘what if I rendered this conceptual space?’. In that process of careful rendering, Hromek makes room for her own Indigenous understandings of space within the voids of architectural history.
Hayley Millar-Baker’s Meeyn Meerreeng in Gunditjmara language translates to 'Black Country' and traces divergent notions of invisibility. Growing up off Country (Gunditjmara) Millar-Baker uses her birth Country (Wathaurong) to nurture a cultural connection. The eruption of Budj Bim (commonly known by it's colonised name Mount Eccles), resourced Millar-Baker’s ancestral country with granitic and volcanic rock formations, providing her ancestor’s safe passage and refuge during early colonial settlement. For Millar Baker, these formations speak to her own feelings of connection to and disconnection from Country. Millar-Baker has carefully washed and cleansed 71 rocks, before painting them black and varnishing them to conceal their identity and protect their stories within colonial spaces.
The late Thaynakwith artist Dr Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher AO was a senior custodian of a immense body of knowledge including the use of traditional medicines and foods, language, song, stories and lore, and she used her art as a medium to educate both her own people and others about her culture. Thancoupie expressed these ancestral narratives by graphically carving into the exterior of her partially enclosed spherical vessels, which she referred to as 'story pots'. Her story pots maintained a small opening and an internal void, which poetically and evocatively, we can speculate, contains and preserves her knowledge for future generations.
Ngemba artist Andy Snelgar is descended from long line of carvers and was first taught 25 years ago under the instruction his uncle, recognised and respected elder Paul Gordon. Carving into the surface of hardwood mulga or softwood mangrove, each object he creates is the result of a timely dedication. All the while, he is conscious and responsive to the character of the wood grain, allowing the density, texture and fibres to inform his technique. His linear marks create graphic positive/negative relationships upon the surface of the object – it is the negative space that defines his designs.
Western astronomy has traditionally drawn focus to the stars that illuminate the night sky, in contrast, this field of knowledge for First Nations peoples often draws meaning from the negative space between stars. The Great Emu in the Sky is a constellation recognised by many Indigenous nations across Australia, it is the dust lands and dark clouds stretching across the Milky Way create its form. Senior Gija artist Mabel Juli is renowned for her minimalist paintings dominated by strong iconographic forms suspended in space, using natural pigments, the dense black she uses seems to absorb light, making the white clay forms shine even brighter. The important Ngarranggarni narratives she paints express restricted love, kinship and the origins of mortality as told by the night sky.
The sculptures of Kuninjku artists Jennifer Wurrkidj, and Josephine Wurrkidj depict the reclusive Mimih spirits who reside within the crevices and voids between rocky escarpments in Western Arnhem Land. It is through these narrow passages that they enter their own lands, which lay beyond bounds for the living. The Mimih predate human existence and are acknowledged as having taught humans to hunt, sing, dance and make art. They are so slim that even the slightest breeze would be fatal. The slight irregular form of each figure describes the rough and rugged interior of their homelands and demonstrates they are literally shaped by the negative spaces that they live within.
Renowned Kuninjku artist John Mawurndjul AM’s Mardayin Design At Milmilngkan depicts an abstracted and geometric representation of a ceremonial site. The deeper ceremonial information contained within this work is purposefully withheld, in the broader context of the exhibition this work emphasises that the void often contains knowledge that is intentionally placed beyond the limits of an individual’s knowing. The void is a complex space of exclusion and inclusion, definition and deliberate ambiguity. But as these artists demonstrate, the void is always lived upon, navigated and known even as it remains unseen, unknown and undefined.
I pay our deepest respect to the traditional owners of the lands this exhibition is presented upon; the Eora nation and we acknowledge their continuous connection to this country. I would like to sincerely thank all the artists for their contribution to this exhibition, as well as Maningrida Arts & Culture, Warmun Arts Centre, Vivien Anderson Gallery and Bruce Pascoe for his powerful words and insights into the void. I would like to acknowledge the support of Museums and Galleries NSW and Bathurst Regional Art Gallery toward the realisation of this exhibition and its tour. Thank you to Lucy Simpson for your always considered graphic design, Annie-Renae Winters, Amy Bambach, Alex White and Jonah Johnson for sharing your expertise and developing the exhibition’s digital learning resource. I am grateful for the support and opportunity that UTS Gallery have provided me, thank you to Tania Creighton, Alice McAuliffe and JD Reforma, and particularly Stella Rosa McDonald for her commitment to this exhibition.