Cape Grim 1828

 

In order to acknowledge the meaning of occupier being in Australia I made a work of mourning called Cape Grim 1828. This work is a response to the 1828 massacre of Indigenous families by shepherds from the Van Diemen’s Land Company at what is now called Cape Grim, in North Western Tasmania.  On February 10th of that year the Pennemukeer clan were mutton birding (an activity involving the entire group) when they were attacked on the cliffs.  The shepherds had recently been in conflict with other local clans over sheep having been speared. Estimates are that between 30 and 40 people were killed that day.[1]

 

  Cape Grim 1828  (2016). Picture credit P1xels

Cape Grim 1828 (2016). Picture credit P1xels

The support for this painting is a door so its dimensions are just larger than human scale.  Doors offer a way in or out of a location and I wanted the work to present the viewer with an entry point to awareness of this historical event. Location is vital to the work and is expressed through the use of the door as support and via materials that hold traces of the site itself. The painting does not attempt to retell or illustrate the killings but rather responds to the event as an act of melancholy by bringing the past into the present.  Making the work was a way for me to reflect on the massacre and to express through materials an affective response to this horrific event. 

  Cape Grim 1828  (2016) (detail). Picture credit P1xels

Cape Grim 1828 (2016) (detail). Picture credit P1xels

The materials and processes used in the work are chosen with the intent to draw a viewer in, slow them down and prepare them to reflect on the events that occurred at Cape Grim.  A materially driven work allows viewers to fill in the gaps and come to their own conclusions but in doing so it invites them in, making them part of the work, thus it is inclusive rather than exclusive, suggestive rather than didactic.  To this end, the cliff over which the people were driven, is represented by slabs of jagged edged lead sheet, a material with strong connections to death and the afterlife in the principles of Alchemy, lead also shields us from radiation, alluding to the shielding of settlers from histories of massacres.  A text describing the event is embedded in the work but is partially obscured with paint and bees wax as it falls down the length of the panel, evoking the difficulties contemporary viewers have in accessing historical memory. Sand is mixed in with the paint and wax at the bottom of the piece and delicate grey-black mutton bird feathers have been crushed and drift among the text, a trace of the birds the families were hunting when they were ambushed and an echo of the falling people themselves.

  Cape Grim 1828  (2016) (detail). Picture credit P1xels

Cape Grim 1828 (2016) (detail). Picture credit P1xels

Viewed from a distance Cape Grim 1828 is a quiet and restrained work with soft tonal qualities. There are affective elements that are complex and beautiful so as to attract the interest of an audience. Once the curiosity of a viewer is captured I wanted to keep it for long enough that the viewer invests something of themselves in the experience.  I needed to slow down their encounter and involve them in the work. Techniques employed to achieve this involved using massive scale combined with tiny detail, layering, partially obscuring or obfuscating elements of the work as illustrated by my use of bees wax to blur the text. These processes mean a viewer must make an effort to look in a different way.  I also wanted to open a space for viewers to engage with the work so that they can be active participants in the art not merely passive receivers of a message that is already decided for them.  In slowing viewers down the work obliges them to give something of themselves, to allow themselves to be moved, to ponder the title and perhaps to feel something. This is witnessing, it is acknowledging someone else’s pain.  The theorist Mieke Bal states “The past is always out of our grasp.  We always arrive too late.  What can art do?  It can know.  To know is important.”[2]

  Cape Grim 1828  (2016) (detail). Picture credit P1xels

Cape Grim 1828 (2016) (detail). Picture credit P1xels

 

[1] N.J.B. Plomley, Friendly Mission (Hobart: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 1966) 175, 181, 196.

[2] Mieke Bal, Of What One Cannot Speak: The Political Art of Doris Salcedo. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 225.