Tessa Zettel & Karl Khoe
[First published in Zanny Begg & Lee Stickells (eds.), The Right to the City, 2011, Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney University]
At one end of a darkened room or corridor is a curious construction attached to the wall and spot lit. The object is the reverse side of a wearable mask/piece of personal architecture, built up from an old stereograph viewer with found materials (timber, urban waste, things picked up in the bush etc.). It affords some protection from the elements – perhaps it has an awning, a small solar panel powers a light, a receptacle catches water – and formally or materially references certain masks held in the collection of the Macleay Museum. The mask could be characterised as anachronistic and tragic, invoking survival and escape as well as resourcefulness and desperation.
The stereograph component (left intact) holds one of a series of black & white stereographic images depicting ‘wilderness’ landscapes in which a small figure can be discerned standing in the receding background, facing the viewer and wearing the very mask the viewer is now looking through. The photographs are all taken on the fringes of the city, in locations such as the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury River. They refer to a collective imaginary that is neither fully past, present or future, in which inhabitants of ‘this place‘ (Sydney) feel – almost – at home amongst tall trees, dense undergrowth and rocky paths. Also evident in the image on inspection are traces of the built environment: defunct or decaying machinery and components of infrastructure (a burnt-out car, the remains of an old gas streetlamp).
Some weeks ago, Matt Poll, Indigenous Curator at Sydney University’s Macleay Museum, shows us a neatly arranged drawer of stone tools, collected around the Blue Mountains over decades by geologist/lecturer Father Eugene Stockton, and now the subject of a minor scientific scuffle over age and authenticity. Our conversation also takes in the not uncommon disturbance of historical Aboriginal skeletal remains during building excavations for new public works, whose repatriation the Museum then manages. Hanging above the staircase is another quiet reminder that this city’s foundations are lodged uncomfortably in the living ground of its dispossessed other – a huge latex mould (a 1940s Boy Scout badge-earner) of an ancient rock carving, long since asphalted over by Epping Road.
More dubious delights are encountered in the offsite storeroom: elaborate New Ireland masks and a puffer fish helmet from Tarawa island, beads exchanged for country by colonists, and a copper plate proudly declaring ‘this land 22,000 acres was bought by C. Delatore from the chiefs and people’. Back in the public display Matt points out a wrinkling photograph of a bushland scene somewhere in Wentworth Falls, where archaeological sites have shown at least 22,000 years of human occupation, and where we ourselves spent two years evading rising Sydney rents to live amongst the hippies and the ghosts of escaped convicts striking for China, just over the hills …
At the time of writing, we two are literally escaping from the City to the Country, or since we are in Australia, to the Coast (better still, to one on the other side of the continent) – en route to Esperance, WA, via a languorous train journey that cyclone-related track wash-outs stretch out a little longer. A tinny announcement marks the passing of Metropolitan Sydney’s invisible border, as suburban backyards and industrial lots slip past the double-glazed frame before bleeding into project homes, ramshackle tin sheds and eventually the manicured green of the Southern Highlands. Over several days there are incidental stops (demanding contemplative time that is purpose-less or at least less purpose-full) in Adelaide, in the so-called ghost town of Cook at sea in the Nullarbor plain, and in Kalgoorlie, site of Australia’s worst race riots in 1934, where cavernous pressed metal ceilings look down on racks of dusty two dollar shop plastic.
Books stacked in a pile above the fold-out sink in our capsule hotel-sleeper cabin, relative weight balanced by potential usefulness in the development of a new project that has been percolating for several months: Simon Schama, Landscape & Memory (1996), 653 pp., a brick of a book; Flaubert’s 1881 Bouvard et Pécuchet (Gallimard French edition and 1976 English translation); Henry David Thoreau, Walden (the Peebles Classic Library, undated); Griffith Review 27: Food Chain, Autumn 2010, 245 pp. paperback; Tony Fry et al., Metrofitting: Adaptation, the City and Impacts of the Coming Climate, (2009) 49 pp.; Claude Levi Strauss, The Way of the Masks, (1983 translation); Mortality exhibition pamphlet, ACCA, 2010. Of course we need them all, and curse for those left behind.
ACCONCI : ‘“Land ho!”: the sailor’s cry of discovery, from high up on the mast, as the ship approaches its goal after a life at sea. This is the beginning of the word “landscape.” In order for discovery to be possible, land has to be considered first as far away: land has to be far off so that it can be seen all at once, as a panorama. Land recedes and becomes “landscape.” “Landscape” equals “land-escape”; the land escapes, out of your reach: the word “landscape” pulls the land away, or pushes you back away from the land.’ 1
THOREAU : ‘From the desperate city you go into the desperate country and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. … It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them. … The New Hollander goes naked with impunity while the European shivers in his clothes.’ 2
LEVI-STRAUSS : ‘Each type of mask is linked to myths whose objective is to explain its legendary or supernatural origin and to lay the foundation for its role in ritual, in the economy and in the society … “everything seems to come easy to those who have the mask”’. 3
In employing a kind of ‘shuttling’ between time scales and fictional but still recognisable worlds, the work seeks to confront what theorist Tony Fry has called our innate ‘chronophobia’ – an inability to think much beyond the limited timeframe of our own lives and a key determinant of the ‘defuturing’ urban trajectory now in full swing. It attempts to create space (and time) for participants to rethink who and indeed where they are, on the basis that to remake the city is to remake ourselves. It asks what we, here, could potentially be, in what other ways we could ‘dwell’ (the fantastical as well as the pragmatic), and by implication what the urban infrastructures or built worlds supporting our new, changed selves might look like.
SACKS : ‘Now, as I wandered in the cycad forest on Rota, it seemed as if my senses were actually enlarging, as if a new sense, a time sense, was opening within me, something which might allow me to appreciate millennia or aeons as directly as I had experienced seconds or minutes.’ 4
FRY : ‘In making ‘our’ world of habitation futural we not only have to create its object-being as a physical and mental reality but equally fabricate another way of becoming. Here then a fundamental fact of design which bleeds into the imperative of forming new imaginaries, visions and processes of realisation. In such a project self-making, the agency of others and world-making cannot be divided.’ 5
ACCONCI : ‘… our projects perform a site, it’s as if we’re trying to coax the project out of the site, as if it’s been there all the time … the project is built within the site, by means of the site – the architecture grows out of the space around it. On the other hand, it’s as if our projects build a scaffolding over the site: it’s this scaffolding that can support another site, either on top of or within the old one – a future city, a city in the air, precisely because it wasn’t there all the time.’ 6
In another room of the Macleay archives lie at rest strange and cumbersome camera equipment and filed stacks of photos reaching back to the early days of the colony, when Sydney was a cluster of huts captured on glass in silver emulsion, when everyone wore hats and horses and trams shuttled busily up George Street, when the edge of town was being carved out of the hostile ground daily. This fragile built history sits awkwardly alongside a collection of early postcards on permanent display, documenting the purportedly ‘disappearing’ way of life of those that occupied this place otherwise for many thousands of years. Outside, in the glinting Broadway traffic and shopping centre melee, to imagine such a city sustaining any view 22,000 years hence does not come easy.
Twice removed, and looking sideways to boot, seems a useful place to acquaint oneself with the death of the city (such as it is), as well as that which came before it; with the city as landscape (constructed, as all landscapes are) and with the land-escape that the myopic city appears to afford. To escape our own diminishing finitude will require something else to be built over and within this artificial home, an architecture of the body which has roots (and sense) all the way down, through time and land that is as much our others’ as it is ours.
If time permits there may in fact be three or four different masks/viewing devices on display in the gallery. There is further potential to take the objects to nearby outdoor locations as a one-off public event, with passers-by invited to view these ‘otherwise’ images through the masks, framed by the city street.
found postcard, Nellie’s Glen. Collection the authors.
- Vito Acconci. “Leaving home – Notes on Insertions into the Public”, in Public Art: A Reader, ed. Florian Matznew (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2004), 30. ↩
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, (New York: Peebles Press International, 1967), 5–10. ↩
- Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Way of the Masks, trans. Sylvia Modelski (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), 14–23. ↩
- Oliver Sacks, The Island of the Colour-blind, (Sydney: Picador, 1996), 224. ↩
- Tony Fry “‘Time, Things and Futures”, unpublished paper. ↩
- Vito Acconci. “Leaving home – notes on insertions into the public”, in Public Art: A Reader, ed. Florian Matznew (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Canibidtz, 2004), 28. 31. ↩