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Speaking With the River  |  LabX - 10 March - 2 May 2021

An art/science exhibition curated by the LabX environmental arts group at Southern Cross University. Featuring the work of artists, scientists and historians from the Northern Rivers region and beyond, the exhibition explores an understanding of rivers and river systems as complex environmental, social, cultural, spiritual and economic phenomena.

Exhibiting artists - Rob Garbutt, Grayson Cooke, Amanda Reichelt-Brushett, Frances Belle Parker, Annique Goldenberg, Jo Kijas, Adele Wessell, and Marcus Ferguson.

The spirit of exuberant chaos and fluctuation 2021

48 Handmade watermarked sheets of paper, strip LED lights.

A moment in time 2021

3.5 min Projection onto etched acrylic - Duck Creek

Unique and delicately balanced ecosystems, swamps are intimately linked to rivers. These complex systems in their naturally evolved form have the capacity to reduce the impact of flooding, mitigate drought, clean polluted water, control erosion, and provide shelter for fish stocks, animals, insects, and plants. In balance with human needs, they can provide food and water for livestock and be places of recreation and wonder.

Whilst this work - In the spirit of exuberant chaos and fluctuation [1] - is a site specific story from the Richmond River's Tuckean swamp, on Widjabul and Nyangbul Country in the Bundjalung Nation, it could be the story of so many swamplands across time and place. 200 years ago, most colonial settlers experienced swamps as an inconvenience, a diseased and fearful wasteland, a place to be cleared, controlled, and then put into service. Over time, the Traditional Owners’ knowledge was ignored and overridden as the swamp was cleared and extensively drained. This misguided belief in an ability to control water and land in the name of progress led to extreme degradation of the swamp, deeply affecting its flora, fauna, water, and soil.

In 1915, following extensive drainage works, the final tracts of Crown Land in the Tuckean were advertised by ballot - 48 small homesteads offering the potential for a new life.  The offer was eagerly taken up, but instead of a fertile opportunity many of the homesteaders wrestled with poor soil, high salinity, extreme drought and flood, not the dream they had been promised. The Tuckean swamp and its relationship to the Richmond river, had been irrevocably damaged.

These 48 sheets of handmade paper have been made slowly in response to this lottery and our impact on the Tuckean. Using pulped sugar-cane, cow dung, and water from the area, as each page was formed the flow of the water (in the papermaking process) moved unimpeded across the deckle and mold, pushing the carefully placed numbers out of an ordered alignment into a meandering pattern of watermarks across the installation. I felt a sense of the river's voice taking form as the swamp and this story of settlement was materially embedded into each sheet. .

100 years on, with diverse local groups in consultation, a re-imagining of the Tuckean is emerging. New understanding of the interconnectedness and importance of swamp and our place in it is unfolding.

Accompanying the paper installation is a video projection of the surface of Duck's Creek, a water place of local significance. A space to slow down, a moment in time.

This work has been made in Widjabul, and Nyangbul Country in the Bundjalung Nation; I pay my respects to the Traditional Owners of this land.


[1] An Echo of Wings: A History of the Tuckean Swamp. Johanna Kijas. 2019 p. 74

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