March 2021

Arts & Letters

Listening to country: ‘Fractures & Frequencies’ and ‘Infractions’

By Anwen Crawford

Untitled (Death Song), 2020. Artwork by Megan Cope. Commissioned by The Art Gallery of South Australia. Image courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photograph by Zan Wimberley

Elegiac installations from Megan Cope and Rachel O’Reilly at UNSW Galleries call for an understanding of the land as a living entity under threat

The bush stone-curlew is a ground-dwelling, brownish bird with drooping tail feathers and spindly, L-shaped legs. Its most distinctive characteristic is its descending, doleful call – “a ghost-like ‘weer-lo’ sound”, writes artist Megan Cope – often heard at dusk or at night. This call forms the basis of Cope’s sound sculpture Untitled (Death Song), on show in Fractures & Frequencies, a survey of recent work by the artist at UNSW Galleries (until April 17).

In Untitled (Death Song), six instruments constructed out of discarded mining equipment, including soil augers and oil drums, sit on or hang above a bed of stones. The instruments, which are strung with violin, cello, bass, guitar and piano strings, are playable; displayed on a wall of the gallery are violin and cello bows that Cope has augmented with materials including cowrie shells. A soundtrack created with the instruments by composer Isha Ram Das completes the installation.

Cope is a Quandamooka woman from Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), and she notes that the bush stone-curlew’s call, “often mistaken for a crying baby or wailing woman”, is, in Quandamooka culture, a harbinger of death. The curlew’s song is echoed in the mournful timbre of Cope’s instruments, while their material qualities, their metal and rust and drill parts, are evidence of the extractive industries – coalmining, diamond mining, gas fracking and more – that make their presence felt upon the lands of First Nations.

What do these industries add to our shared soundscape? The creaks and cries, knocks and whispers of Das’s soundtrack evoke the sonics of the natural world, but also of mining infrastructure. What sounds (or what hearers, for the curlew listens, too) does mining take away? The bush stone-curlew’s territory extends throughout Australia, but in Victoria and New South Wales the bird is endangered, largely because of land clearance. Its song of death is now a warning of its own imperilment.

Untitled (Death Song) was originally commissioned for the 2020 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, where the sculpture was played live by a musical ensemble (another performance is scheduled for early April at UNSW Galleries). Preparatory notes for this performance were subsequently published, and are available online, as part of Unsettling Scores: Sovereignty, Resistance and Futurity, curated by Liquid Architecture for the Monash University Museum of Art in September 2020, a project that brought together the work of First Nations composers and sound artists from across the world, including musical scores, essays, conceptual proposals and performance instructions.

Cope’s instructions for Untitled (Death Song) detail a number of playing techniques, from a bowed, two-note phrase, highly imitative of the bush stone-curlew’s call, to a “harsh, scratching elongated throaty hiss of even pitch” that sounds like the expiration of machinery. An expiration is the end of a period of time and also the exhalation of a breath. Some lungs are stopped early, before their time.

In her artist’s statement, Cope describes her sound sculpture as “a lament”, and the work bears comparison with the elegiac purpose of some modern string music: Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1961), for instance, with its tonal clusters that flurry like wind. Extinction haunts both works, as does genocide: the absences, human and environmental, brought about by human acts, and the ways in which these absences are a charged space, outlined in violence.

But the purpose of Cope’s work is not solely directed towards absence. There is a productive tension in Fractures & Frequencies between making and destruction, between what is present and what has been removed.

In Cope’s sculptural work Untitled (Extractions I), a cluster of cement plugs, produced by core drilling, litters the floor – looking like a miniature, petrified forest. Marked with hot pink spray-paint, the plugs are visually surreal in a gallery context while retaining the banality, and unloveliness, of industrial detritus. The objects of Untitled (Extractions II), are also made from concrete waste, along with abalone and oyster shells. Their cylindrical shapes recall the mining drill, but the shells also serve as a reminder that the land can be taken from – harvested – sustainably. As with Cope’s ongoing Re Formation series, in which concrete-cast oyster shells serve as both a memorial to Quandamooka middens and as proof of colonisation (shell middens were destroyed up and down the east coast of Australia by settlers, in order to produce lime mortar for colonial buildings), the Extractions series makes tangible the simultaneous presence upon the land, since invasion, of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Cope’s work at UNSW Galleries is shown alongside, and in dialogue with, Rachel O’Reilly’s recent video installation Infractions (also until April 17), an investigation into shale gas fracking in the Northern Territory. O’Reilly developed this 63-minute film in collaboration with Indigenous activists and cultural workers whose lands are threatened by fracking; the film is the final work in a long-term, cross-disciplinary project by O’Reilly called The Gas Imaginary. Spectacular drone shots are combined with split-screen sequences: on the left side, Indigenous owners detail the incursion of mining companies upon country, the paltriness of mining royalties and the empty promise of mining jobs that have never materialised in communities such as Ntaria (Hermannsburg), Marlinja (Newcastle Waters) and Yallarm (Gladstone). On the right, O’Reilly amasses explanatory text about the companies, government inquiries and licences that have enabled a situation where 51 per cent of land in the Northern Territory is marked for possible gas fracking.

Infractions, then, is about different modes of perception: drone shots that parallel the aerial surveys of mining companies, or the parcelled maps of mining licences that do not correspond to – are not commensurate with – a knowledge of country held and lived by Indigenous Australians. As Irene Watson, a professor of law at the University of South Australia, and a Tanganekald and Meintangk Boandik woman, explains: “We’re connected to country in the same way we’re connected to our own bodies. Our DNA in our bodies is the same DNA that’s in the land. So to think that we can cut and paste, or separate, or extinguish our own being – [these] are like acts of murder and genocide.”

But Infractions is also about ways of listening and not listening. As in Cope’s work, the argument advanced by O’Reilly’s film is that these practices are not – or are not only – metaphors. Listening to country involves knowledge of country and, in turn, creates knowledge. A refusal on the part of non-Indigenous people, including lawmakers, to listen to this knowledge has material effects.

“We’re strong in our culture and in our ceremony, what’s been passed down to us,” says Dimakarri (Ray) Dixon, a Mudburra man of the Marlinja community, in Infractions. At the site of Newcastle Waters Creek, which, during a prolonged drought, has nearly run dry, Dixon describes the creek’s former abundance and the water’s life-giving, law-sustaining, qualities. “All the songlines for us, they’re all in the water,” he says. “It’s powerful, you know?” He points north-west and north-east, in the directions where fracking wells are proposed by Origin Energy for the Beetaloo sub-basin, which the creek runs through. As one of O’Reilly’s split-screen texts explains, 50 to 60 million litres of water would be used in the operation of each fracking well. This is the material reality that sits behind the federal government’s rhetoric of a “gas-led recovery” from Australia’s COVID-19 recession: water taken from places that are already ecologically distressed, while songlines are violated.

The cracked creek channel that Dixon stands upon is paralleled by the dry stone beds of Cope’s sound sculptures, both Untitled (Death Song) and, elsewhere in UNSW Galleries, Untitled (Old Kahibah). The latter work responds to Awabakal country, along the coast between Sydney and Newcastle, from which fossil resources have been repeatedly extracted through coalmining in the Hunter Valley, and now fracking.

In both sculptures, water is an absent presence, with the stone beds suggesting a flow – a body of water, a body of knowledge – that is, or is close to being, extinguished. Both works incorporate large rocks over which metal nets, resembling fish traps, have been woven, and these nets and rocks too, can be played – tapped or struck or even bowed – in order to produce sounds that might evoke the movement of fish, or the act of harvest, or mining equipment, or, beneath it all, the shift of tectonic plates. “These instruments should be approached with a certain amount of delicacy,” writes Cope in her performance notes for Untitled (Death Song). “Whilst they have been solidly constructed, the rocks are heavy, and with mishandling there is the potential for a string to snap.”

The land has been mishandled, and continues to be. If non-Indigenous listeners are to approach the issue of sovereignty with open ears, we (for I am one of them) must take seriously, must take to heart, the proposal that the land is not a silent, passive resource waiting to be used, but a living and listening being. What might snap – what will be beyond repair – if this living is run dry? As Cope writes, “I am deeply interested in the sound of Country; if the land could sing, how might it sound?”

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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