04. 12. 2015

Wishing song for the river

The exhibition opening at Murray Bridge Regional Gallery on 24th July has come and gone successfully, with John Hill as knowledgeable speaker.

Gallery staff and several patient friends have my very grateful thanks for their wonderful attitude and help during the intensity of the installation week beforehand. We laid out a meditative riverine path across the two main rooms with 13 destinations and symbolic features which give insights on the river.

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Now I am working in the gallery- the final evaluation phase of the residency- when I get to meet the audience and spend time with them in deep discussions about content, meaning, and fabrication techniques. Their direct feedback is very important to the development of my future work. Does it touch a nerve, answer a need, open perception, expand one’s understanding of the role and value of art activity? If the form and visual language of the work is communicating well or not, or in unexpected ways, they will let me know!

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There are often surprising engagements and responses which are a teaching for me. So far most visitors immediately comment on sensory qualities- the material beauty and fragrances, and the intimacy of being fully surrounded and immersed in texture and shadows. People are surprised by how much information about the river is embedded in its forms and the way materials are laid down by water.

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We have set up a display wall for the spontaneous gifts people are bringing in to share. There are 8 samples of strikingly different coloured basketry willows ranging from black to lime green and red. One of them- Salix Alba- is bright yellow and was used to make cricket bats. I saw it on Long Island. These useful willows were also planted all along the levee banks where they still help to prevent erosion, and unlike the problematic huge weeping willows they grow straight up, to only about 1.5 metres tall.

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A 250mm X 250mm map inherited with someone’s houseboat was brought in. A little treasure of boating routes across Lake Alexandrina, hand drawn in coloured inks on thin calico, and peeling off its paper backing. Also a large and very detailed map of the lakes and Coorong, showing how much the Murray Mouth has changed since 1962.

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I am continuing to add the many river stories and facts that people are telling me, onto a traditional style river captain’s scroll chart which was made for the exhibition. It’s 3 metres long, covering the river’s way from Mannum to the lakes, and is presented in a wooden box with rotating knobs that allow you to scroll through the chart. It’s turning into a visual book, a central place where the public can access all this oral information. The exhibit will be donated to the Murray Bridge History society, who are looking for interactive ways to display their collections- the original charts are now too fragile for frequent handling.

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I have so much enjoyed this residency, especially essential research time at the river shack, making new friends and learning about the fish and bird nurseries in the Riparian zone. The rapidly changing water colours, morning mists and avian music always had me enthralled.

The gallery environment has been a developmental challenge for a sculptor like me, used to outdoor conditions of living light and being embraced by sensory rich landscape backdrops. But I found indoor advantages in being able to use fragile materials like paper, or in bringing movement and sound through technology. Besides its been winter, and I appreciated the shelter!

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I was also faced with the problem of how to speak of so many key issues in the midst of all this beauty- the things we know about and despair over. How to come out on another plane of understanding which is allied strongly to action and hope, rather than disempowerment.

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To me resilience means much more than bouncing back or coping. It’s about the capacity to

assess the past and make long term, balanced changes for the future based on an holistic understanding of the complete system- viable for all creatures. It seems that saving the river is also about saving ourselves on a deep level. It’s personal. We each need to be responsive from an informed core of integrity, and able to collaborate.

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I was inspired by the idea of the “Wishing Song”, as related by Nancy Cato in “River’s End”, where she tells of an aboriginal custom to “set the mind on wishing”. As a creative worker I know that one process for bringing something into this world starts with (even before an idea) an intention or deep wish; the first productive step, which then engages my will forces to take the necessary physical steps.

This whole exhibition, I realised, is a wishing song for the river- that it become healthy and whole again.

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Evette Sunset


Country Arts SA recognises and respects that we are living and creating on Aboriginal Lands and we are committed to working together to honour their living cultures.