'Mytho-poetic' will open tomorrow night May 3rd. at the Gympie Regional Gallery in Queensland before touring selected regional galleries throughout Australia.I have attached an essay from the catalogue that hopefully may give you an understanding of the threads of associations with history, identity and place that underpins the work.
Mytho-Poetic: Historical Traces
”The past is foreign and historical understanding is not so much a recovery of the past as a mediation between our sense of ourselves and our sense of the past.” Hans-Georg Gadamer (1)
The stories we claim as ‘our own’ grasp the framework of our personal references. However, these stories are transformed once shared with the communities we inhabit. The poetry of myths are altered and tempered in their response and meaning as they enter the realm of shared experience. Mytho-poetic descriptions have the capacity to reaffirm a deeper reflective quality within our personal stories. In so doing they have the potential to blur the divisions between fiction and non-fiction, the individual and the collective, the poetic and the rational.
Self-narratives often run counter to the ‘bigger’ stories of history. In turn, they also influence and inform alternative meanings of identity and place. Mytho-poetic structures often employ a non-linear flow in the recording of experience; such narratives often challenge rational inquiry, yet they are capable of conveying an intrinsic understanding of everyday existence.
In June 1960, below a full moon and clear sky, a Fokker-Friendship F-27 passenger aircraft crashed into the Coral Sea seven kilometres east of the North Queensland township of Mackay. Having already abandoned two attempts to land on the runway, due to dense coastal fog, the aircraft finally made contact with a calm Coral Sea. Twenty-nine people died. There were no survivors. The investigation into the crash was unable to determine a probable cause. A somewhat unworldly final sentence from the aviation accident report reads:
“The accident happened at night and there were very few visual clues.”(2)
My childhood home was within walking distance of this coastline. European settlers had named it Far Beach. The local Yuipera first nation peoples called it Illawong, meaning ‘view of the sea’. An austere granite stone memorial erected at the edge of the beach between picnic tables and barbeques provides an historic memorial of the sorrowful accident. As a community and as individuals we inherit the effects of history through the narratives already set in place by previous generations. The inherited memory I have of the aircraft tragedy was gained through my mother’s memory of being seated at the kitchen table of our South Mackay home and listening to the sound of the attempted landings. The stone memorial at the edge of Illawong Beach endures to preserve history’s narrative of the tragic event. It remains a narrative that is collectively shared. However, its memorial is to absence.
For Gadamer, the process of connecting identity and place with history relies upon the alignment of both the familiar and the foreign. He suggests that a more eloquent confirmation of place is acquired by a mediation that recovers and equally rediscovers the past. The founding of meaningful connections between history, memory and place requires an imaginative and poetic searching within the layers of personal historical consciousness.
The journals and diaristic notations of Australia’s early explorers abound with evidence of the coalescing of references to self and place through their navigation between the familiar and the remote. The Austrian artist dubbed the ‘da Vinci’ of natural history illustration, Ferdinand Bauer, accompanied Matthew Flinders on the circumnavigation voyage of Australia in 1802-03. The visual clues were so foreign and bewildering that Bauer’s European colour chart containing 250 variations of tints and shades, used as a reference for his field studies, had to be increased by him to almost one thousand on his return to the northern hemisphere. Bauer’s method employed clusters of numbers that corresponded to a particular tone on his chart. The intensive numerical order applied by Bauer to each illustrated specimen evokes a sense of an individual who, while struggling to make sense of his witness to an unfamiliar territory, simultaneously creates a map that is a type of ersatz self-portrait, a mapping of self.
In essence, Bauer’s coded notations reinforced a European use of language as a means of familiarizing the unfamiliar, ordering the seemingly disordered. The language of cartography as an abbreviated numerical ordering of the landscape was part of the broader project of mapping, naming and possessing territories from the former occupants. In Australia the mapping of territories by European settlers neglected the pre-existing first nation peoples’ understanding of boundaries and naming of place. This vain disregard for the pre-existing cultural inscriptions that had long marked the boundaries and cartographies of the landscape for Indigenous Australians enforced a Western spatial consciousness upon place.
At the edge of the sea that destroyed the Fokker Friendship in 1960, on the sand hills within the margins of all that was deemed to be enlightened and humanized throughout my childhood, stood a shanty town. This assemblage of jerry built corrugated iron dwellings with their sand and prickle grass floors continues to occupy a poignant site within my memory. At the very periphery of sea and continent this corpus of bleak shelters opened the door to another realm - one where the rational world ended and a kind of poetic madness held tenancy. What arises from such encounters is the possibility for place to serve as a geographical indicator of liminal space. This transitional space of the betwixt and between allows for the creation of new stories, which in turn generate a redefining of the layers of Western definitions of history, space, time and self.
The preserving of family ephemera was never afforded any depth of priority within my extended family. A mix of Irish Catholic self-possession and detached Nordic spirit fostered a mind-set that discarded the capacity for inanimate objects to invoke memories of past narratives in any meaningful way. And yet, curiously, both cultures are embedded with iconography that gesture and summon memories of what remains absent, both real and mythic.
In 2003 following the death of my grandmother, I was gifted a collection of postcards whose inscriptions were created primarily in the first half of the twentieth century. Postcards have a way of negotiating the relationship between self, memory and place that corresponds with our experience of maps. Through an abridged use of language they order, recall and impart descriptions of a particular spatial environment. Memory is fused within text and image. In a salient fashion they maintain the colonial plan of appropriation. With the presence of the photographic image space is transformed into spectacle and display. The photographs capacity to reduce personal experience to a Western universal likeness dispossess place of the possibility of engaging with pre-existing narratives. As such space is denied a more original geographical identity rendering personal experience of place less authentic. Collectively, through a juxtaposition of text and image they form an encyclopaedic archive that conveys a certain European sensibility continually striving to connect and inscribe the self within place.
The complexity of a community’s or individual’s sense of connection to place is not measureable by any simple analysis of the spatial dimensions of their everyday experience. In order for place to disclose meaning, what is required is a spirit of reflection that binds self-narratives equally to both the present and the past. It is possible that formal accounts of colonial history can be re-negotiated through a blend of personal and historical narratives that maintain a consciousness that defined territories were already mapped, named and described. For non-indigenous Australians, the potential for more meaningful connections between ‘self’ and ‘place’ will require approaches to mapping that creatively negotiate both the historical and the reflective self.
1 Gavamer,H-G. & Silverman,H. Gadamer and Hermeneutics (New York, Routledge 1991) 176.
2 1960 Aviation Safety Investigation Report