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Memories in Place: art in high country huts

A project incorporating an exhibition at Craft ACT and three discrete temporary installations located in the Brayshaws, Westermans and Waterhole huts within the Namadgi National Park.

Imagining the past, creating the future

Barbara McConchie
Collected Residuum: Joanne Searle

Paull McKee, Joanne Searle and Daniel Maginnity, the artists involved in Memories in Place: art in high country huts, interpreted the role and cultural importance of heritage and the environment, in particular three historic high country huts located in the Namadgi National Park of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).

Paull McKee, the artist who initiated the project, knew of the Brayshaws, Westermans and Waterhole huts, and of the great and often unacknowledged work of the Kosciuszko Huts Association (KHA) in maintaining and restoring these huts. These huts, born of utilitarian necessity, resonate with impressions of what would have been hard yet enduring lives. McKee considered how artists could, through creating a contemporary craft and art response to the huts, reinvigorate an interest in the huts.

Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre accepted McKee's challenging proposal of revisiting everyday life through the prism of art, linked with both the historical and contemporary landscape of the huts. In association with the KHA and the Park Rangers of the Namadgi National Park, Craft ACT hosted the exhibition at its galleries, the installations in the huts, a day long walking tour to the huts, and in conclusion, the forum - Interpretation: Imagining Past Present Future.

This project touched upon questions such as: how can we engage with the lives of the people who used to live here from our current experiences; how can we better appreciate the rich history of this environment; and what might we learn from a reinterpretation? The answers to these questions lie in each individuals response. The following is a brief story of my encounter of the exhibition and installations.

Cultural Detritus: Dan Maginnity

On the Craft ACT Gallery floor sat a set of installations that had dissolved the invisible boundaries that usually separates one work in a gallery from another and emerged as a new work altogether. As I viewed the works of Daniel Maginnity, Paull McKee and Joanne Searle, I had an overwhelming sense of looking upon a vista: a pasture; home or shelter; and a contrived and conditioned landscape - a garden.

Stepping into the space I walked amongst kangaroo skulls and dirt, carefully arranged and organised. The spacing evoked a sense of distance, as if I might be walking over uneven pastures from skull to skull. The skulls were from kangaroos and suddenly they were no longer random mementos of death in the way that sheep skulls in a pastured landscape might appear to be. These skulls were deliberately collected and woven into a fabricated pastoral landscape - a place of ideas. Alongside, underneath and separate from the skulls were squares of dirt. Not piles, but squares and rectangles, suggestive of order, control and intent.

As I kept walking I found myself at the edge of a spread of black velvet. A dark expanse, it contrasted strongly with the floor around it, building imagined walls and a roof and rendering it an imagined and enclosed space. Sitting at angles to each other upon this blackened fl oor were a single steel bed frame and an old wooden kitchen chair. Their shadows, cast in fluorescent thread, eloquently referred to shadowy and unseen lives that may have used this furniture and inhabited this imagined space.

Thistle lumps: Joanne Searle

Moving forward again I was surrounded by a number of enigmatic mounds. The strange gatherings of densely packed dried thistle heads were deftly organised into perfect spherical lumps. The formalness of this work suggested to me a considered and planted front yard, a site that repelled the native vegetation and imposed alien concepts of beauty. These topiaries of weeds had a strange allure as an unusual choice of plant for a practice of ordering the natural landscape.

Over one weekend during the exhibition, the three artists each created an ephemeral installation in one of the huts. What struck me most about these interventions was the manner in which the artists constructed a sense of otherness in the huts, similar to the effect in the gallery. They did not try to reconstruct the internal spaces by furnishing them with relics of past lives. Instead each artist gave to us an idea that encouraged us as audiences to imagine, rather than assume, the role of these huts.

Brayshaws hut, originally a bachelor residence, is the very essence of a wooden slab hut: an exposed tin roof; slab walls bravely covered with disintegrating newspaper to stop the draughts coming in through the gaps; and in the main room the essential and generous hearth. To the side of this fireplace was delicate new wallpaper. A repeated floral motif, not of roses or perhaps violets, instead - and as if it was the most desired plant of all - it showed a cascading picture of thistle flowers. A short distance from this was a small wooden table, and upon it, a collection of glass specimen bottles fi lled with what on fi rst impressions were skeletons of thistle plants. Thistle heads, stalks and seeds all cast in clay slip and fi red bone white. This collection could only have come about through dedicated harvesting of these prickly plants. Was this a collector gathering for domestic decoration? Or was it scientific research in an effort to rid the native environment of this prolific weed?

Joanne Searle pierced through time as she alluded to our battle with introduced species in what is now a national park and protected environment. She captured the human longing that inspired colonists to install their own patch of home, and in doing so notes that these introduced plants were oblique declarations of ownership and control. Searle rightly reminds us that the full impact of our presence in any wilderness can only truly be understood and reinterpreted through the kaleidoscope of time.

Artist Daniel Maginnity inhabited two rooms of Westermans hut with painted skulls of various road-kill animals sitting atop cloth bound books. The work was deliberately similar to his work in the Craft ACT gallery. Both bodies of work were created from found skulls and other objects, and refl ected a kind of making do with things at hand, reminiscent of the methods for making the huts. Maginnity intuitively responded to lifestyles that were not abundant in material wealth and collected the detritus of both agricultural and industrial cultures.

Cultural Detritus: Dan Maginnity

He created a succinct and remarkable experience: a rural environment within an urban environment and vice versa. His painted skulls on old books in the hut referred to urban culture; the painted skulls suggestive of domestic hobbies of decoration and the bold colours and markings were a nod to the primarily male cult of modern car adornment. The collection of kangaroo skulls and raw earth in the gallery, referred to rural life: kangaroo skulls a typical fi nd in any setting just beyond most Australian cities and the dirt piles a visual representation of the architecture of agricultural and pastoral endeavour. Neither work dictated a literal reconstruction of the history of the hut. Rather, Maginnity had contrived to connect a contemporary urban audience with an historic rural place by demonstrating that the alienation we have from our past is almost the same that industrialised urban dwellers have to non industrialised rural lives.

Paull McKee's installation in the austere Waterhole hut poetically described loneliness and aloneness: the solitary pursuit of shepherding and the imperative of the work that had to be done over and above the acknowledgement of the person doing the task. McKee relocated only the black velvet covering from the Craft ACT gallery and installed it in Waterhole hut. There the thin tracing of the single steel bed frame and kitchen chair fleetingly illuminated the way for the past to meet the present.

Without using any relics, McKee evoked the understanding that this place was once the only shelter and also the only expression of the man/men who worked this land. He put us literally in their shoes. The covering almost fi lled the whole space requiring the audience to walk upon it, and to walk in the footsteps of those who once inhabited this place. The walking then was an act of desecration - we were walking on the art, and we were walking on the heritage. By giving us this experience, McKee could also tell us a story of the hut: the single bed; the solitary chair; the small dimensions of the hut; the most rudimentary of all of the three huts built entirely of tin. This hut was not for visitors - there was only one chair, and this hut could not house an assembly of personal items with its bare walls - it was purely utilitarian. Could we imagine living a life like that which McKee had extrapolated from this hut?

This project successfully renewed interest and curiosity not only in these huts, but also in the environment that they are situated in, the Namadgi National Park, the Brindabella ranges and the Australain alpine country. It was a project that brought together people with different relationships to these sites, including the KHA volunteers, the Park Rangers of the Namadgi National Park, the art community and many others.

This catalogue captures all the talks presented at the associated forum, Interpretation: Imagining Past Present Future. It clearly demonstrates how such a project can be an active tool for the myriad of interests for one place. Paull McKee as the author of the project provided a context for artists as cultural facilitators. He demonstrated that heritage can be proactive sites for remembering and sharing. Anne Brennan, an artist and writer delves eloquently into the privileged place of interpretation that artists can have when not confi ned to established rules and conventions. Brett McNamara invites us into his "backyard" and shows us just what an amazing place it is. Matthew Higgins tells us the story of this region known now as the Namadgi National Park and the Kosciuszko National Park and encourages us to contemplate its many histories. Mark Cleghorn opens our eyes to Australia's rich and unique 'bush' heritage and asks how we can fi nd ways of (re)interpreting these signifi cant sites before they slip through our fingers and out of our consciousness.

The value of this project as Mark so aptly tells us "is not monetary or singular ownership, rather it is one of understanding, knowing and appreciating". The full range of this project can not be recaptured in this publication, but the essays presented here will indicate to you the richness of the experiences that can be encountered in this very special place. As Ann McMahon stated: …

[These] buildings are invaluable connections to the lives of ordinary people, to the battlers that contributed their courage, stoicism and amazing self reliance to our sense of national identity….Crafts [on the other hand] are a living heritage, but clashes of class, culture and economics have created inequities in how they are understood and valued…In this post modern world of global mass consumption, people are being alienated from processes of making and from traditional ways of life. So, it is more important than ever to acknowledge and celebrate craft and heritage…they are both integral to our sense of identity."


Catalogue cover

The above essay and images are from the 38 page Memories in Place catalogue which can be ordered from Craft ACT for $10 (inc. GST)

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