Chant's Hut


Circled by sandstone escarpments in a deep valley of the Blue Mountains Heritage area, twenty-one artists, invited from around Australia and the world, camped together to make art in the Australian environment. Held in the Burragorang Valley in April 2003, this event joined a network of similar Workshops world-wide, linked through the Triangle Arts Trust, a London based not-for-profit organization. The Workshops bring together artists from diverse cultures for an intensive two weeks of work, conversation, exchange of ideas and practice. They are often sited in a place that is remote and inspiring. An Open Day allows public access to the Workshop, strengthening interactions with neighbouring and visiting communities. The Burragorang event is the first such workshop in NSW, joining one in Western Australia, and others in more than twenty different countries around the world, from Trinidad to New York, Botswana to Britain.
As if the drought was breaking, rain veiled the cliffs on the Open Day of the Burragorang Workshop. Visitors splashed through mud to open the farm gates on the track in from the bitumen. Each gate was emblazoned with Aboriginal words written in earth pigments by Waanyi artist Judy Watson. Names and placenames of the Gundungurra people, , the traditional owners of country here, proclaimed the indigenous history of this place in the very medium that signified colonial land enclosure and dispossession - closed gates, fences, and the written word. With each gate to be opened and carefully closed, the Open Day visitors made a journey, historical and symbolic, on their way to meet the 4wd vehicles that would ferry them deep into the valley below. Down at the camp, they would find the Gandangara presence reasserted in the ruins of the nineteenth century selector's hut, their ochre names drawn by Judy on the sandstone blocks of the surviving chimney.
The Burragorang Workshop artists all responded to this place and its entwined natural and human histories. Pat Hickman from Hawaii found an old wire bed frame pierced by a eucalypt regenerating in a paddock. She was intrigued by its history, how it came to be there - the sagging wire mesh springs had once borne the bodies of recruits for the military during the Second World War, when a training camp was established in the lower Burragorang Valley. Over the years the beds have been taken all over the valley for various uses, such as the stockyard built from them for the muster and capture of brumbies. Pat used animal membrane, stretching pale and translucent gut over the wire and trunk, the rusty springs and rough bark imprinting onto the delicate skin. Pat's works suggest that nature and culture are separable only by a thin and elastic membrane, a permeable organ filtering nutrient for the soul. To crown the dome of a termite mound, Pat twined gut in an openwork net. It was later eaten by dingoes, a neat cycle of material, gut to gut.
The Burragorang artists often used local materials so that the works were reabsorbed by the environment. Ramlan Abdullah (Malaysia) made basket-like circles in the eucalypt forest with the abundance of twigs that are dropped there. Gradually they relinquished themselves to gravity, sagging into a graceful contoured mulch.
In the rain, some of the works were slowly returning to the earth, revealing a beauty in their processes of creation and erosion. Christine Christopherson, an artist from the Kakadu area, collaborated with Silvana Giordano from Melbourne. Using the sticky orange Burragorang clay, they plastered gigantic totemic figures on the trunks and branches of several trees. Looming round the camp and from the perimeters of the forest, these guardian figures were all feminine, their origins in Christine's paintings and her struggle for land rights in her mother's country. Powerful, patiently waiting, foreboding, they became ghostly as their bodies dissolved in the rain. Running red stains on the white box bark, their arms reaching out along the branches and dividing in fingers like rivulets in flood-time, their breasts and faces dropped in chunks to the ground. Eventually only their watchful eyes and blood-ochre traces remained. The friendship between these artists, Christine, Iwatja language group, Silvana, of Italian descent and the Thai painter, Kapkaew Suwannakudt was evidence of the connections made possible by the Workshop. Many will remember them together outside a tent, translating from Thai to English a book of temple paintings that Kapkaew had illustrated, or hoisting Silvana up a tree with buckets of mud.
Working across a kangaroo trail, Caroline Ho-Bich Tuyen Dang (from Melbourne) touched on the connections of animal and human movements. Embroidered amongst leaf litter, her geometric patterns of yarn encircled the trunks of trees, mapping the unseen roots and routes below the surface, resembling spider web, and paths that radiate from ant or human settlements. Caroline's recent work had overlaid maps of Australian and Vietnamese cities; the experience of working in this bush camp caused a shift of perspective - this mud-map intuited and intersected the tracks of animals, a sideways reflection on the nature of culture and the culture of nature. Later the luminescent lines of wool were knitted by the feet of 'roos and the woollen loops that ascended the trunks of eucalypts were taken by birds for nests.
The perceived divide of nature and culture, like the scarps of the dividing range surrounding the campsite, is continually eroding and collapsing. Kjell Samkopf (Norway) made recordings of artists and stones. He assembled seventeen artists in a grove at dawn, equipped with a 'score' based on a numerical rendering of the word 'Burragorang' and rocks found underfoot. Harmonising with birds and occasional aeroplanes, the rock-click patterns of sound were uncannily like the call-and-response chorus of a local frog species -yet Kjell could not have heard it at this time of year.
We draw from natural processes so many of the metaphors that sustain our understanding of the world. The Burragorang Valley presented Sri Lankan artist Bandu Manamperi with a powerful image. Around the huge sandstone hearth and chimney of the 1890s slab hut on the site, he performed a slow dance ritual, alluding to the creative and destructive force of fire, both in nature and in human affairs. Making connections between the bushfire-ravaged landscapes near the site and his war-ravaged homeland, Bandu contrasted this destructive force with the warmth and comfort of the domestic home-fire. For a long time after the camp, the soft grey ash of the fireplace carried the imprint of his body.
Two weeks is a short time for artists to evolve new work, to get to know one another and to make connections and collaborations. Yet the brevity and intensity of the Burragorang experience enabled some extraordinary things to happen. It was an opportunity for the artists to work away from the realities of their every day lives, to enter and inhabit a rugged new world, filled with strange new species, geologies and stories. For the artists and the visitors, the secretive site enclosed by sandstone walls enhanced the sense of a special place. Play, spontaneity, experimentation and cross-disciplinary work could erupt at any time. The works may last a minute.
Finally, just as the land has absorbed human change before, regrowth forest crowds the hills and termites mine the buildings, so the artworks will be swallowed up and digested. Soon, we hope, another twenty artists will come to transform and be transformed by this place.