Bathing with Mary

francais davin, wendy mcgrath, christine james, susanne mclean, sally spencer
Hervey Bay Regional Gallery, Hervey Bay; Cooloola Shire Public Gallery, Gympie
17 March - 17 April 2004; 12 May - 20 June 2004

Metaphor, science and art blurred like a river's interflowing currents in the works forming the exhibition, 'Bathing with Mary'. Five artists in residence, with three mentors, researched and interpreted water values in Noosa, Cooloola and Hervey Bay, the shires collectively embracing the Mary River catchment system.

Anecdotally, the 'Bathing with Mary' project impacted appreciably upon local cultural and environment-linked communities and by extension, general residents. The Commonwealth Regional Arts Fund supported a classic 'partnership' proposition comprising three public galleries, the Mary River Catchment Coordinating Committee and Gympie Landcare.

How would viewers have been affected by the symbolic arguments for environmental justice embodied in 'Bathing with Mary'? I posed this question at a distance, from the climate of Sydney's Biennale and its much discussed theme, 'On reason and emotion'. Distilled, this was a reassessment of the body-mind split taken up by curator Isabel Carlos through her philosophical alignment with the seventeenth century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza and the contemporary neurologist Antonio Damasio. Spinoza asserted that once we have a clear and distinct idea of an emotion, it ceases to be an emotion. Damasio further postulates that emotions are biologically indispensable to decision-making.

Were the works about fragile rainfall levels (Francois Davin), degraded riparian corridors (Christine James), remnant forest waterways (Wendy McGrath), erosion, silt and salt (Susanne Mclean) and the endangered Mary River Turtle (Sally Spencer) affective enough to bypass the 'compassion fatigue' attending the competing tragedies we face daily? On balance they do, with the simple tools of technical dexterity (reason) and sensitive interpretation of beauty and threat (emotion).

Francois Davin, based near Noosa and Christine James from Canberra were the project's mentor artists (Fiona Foley was a non-exhibiting mentor also) and their works were contemplative and immersive. Exhibited as photographic documentation, Isolated Shower, a site specific work made at one of the Mary River's tributaries, Skyring Creek, showed Davin's simulated rain of blue baling twine, streaking from canopy tops to the floor of an ethereally beautiful forest glade. His Pirogue carried a similar enchantment, a white skeletal boat of thin branches, hovering symbolically at the average level of the creek when the rainforest was intact. The latter work was created in October 2003 as part of Noosa Regional Gallery's 'Floating Land' exhibition, during which Davin investigated 'mythical archaeology' as a personal and universal phenomenon.

An installation of twenty-four drawings described Christine James's scrutiny of the rainforest tree species being planted by Gympie Landcare to revegetate the Mary's banks, and of attendant insect species. Among these occur other drawings of reworked historical moments such as the felling of huge logs and images too, of pineapple, dairy and sugarcane farms and a paddock irrigated to lime-green within the droughtstricken context of Widgee Crossing. James's botanical drawings are simultaneously delicate and forensic. They are the perceptive interventions of an artist convinced that community and environmental scientists must work together to restore the degradation wreaked by 'our ancestors'.

Wendy McGrath has been 'living with Mary' for the past twenty-nine years. Her works paid homage to the waterways she had earlier taken for granted but which now set off symbolic alarm bells. McGrath's ephemeral installations reflected the environmental problems of specific places: a large wreath of Lantana camera sited at Cedar Grove in Amamoor State Forest; a salt ring and mangrove wreath at River Heads in Hervey Bay; in the Federal forest a bed made with Camphor laurel leaves, where this species denudes all other native vegetation; and there also, Mary's Pomander, a gigantic 'forest air freshener' made again with Lantana leaves and flowers. The inkjet printed images of these works and Mary's bedspread in the exhibition seduced readily with their contradictory grace.

Highly practised as an interpreter of water's qualities, from the mystic to the chemically despoiled, painter Susanne Mclean's Fluid memories is a fivemetre long canvas embodying her 'agitation and pain' over the catchment's degradation. Its colour and texture represents silt, pollution and salt and the vigour of her aerial composition presents a painter in full control, raiding the remnant tool-kit of lyrical abstractionism; muscular, relevant and powerful. Like Christine James, Mclean engages with local and scientific communities. She gathered visitors' writings at Federal Hall during the 'Floating Land' exhibition and in displaying them stated 'It is important to me that these thoughts and wishes become part of the rapidly interweaving flow ... identifiable as a river of life giving water'.

The title of Sally Spencer's installation plainly states a fact: Mary River Turtle, endangered species. Transferred from its site-specific manifestation during 'Floating Land' to a formal gallery space, Spencer's arrangement of turtle carapaces and bleached bone fragments on the floor related to a turtle shell mandala on the wall which was worked in symbolic 'Gympie gold', as well as to ink drawings of spectral turtles on encircling drops of silk. For Spencer, the making of this work was inseparable from her desire to educate viewers about the depletion of the turtles' habitat. Their nesting banks were pillaged once for the 'penny turtle' trade in southern pet shops but now the eleventh-hour efforts of Tiaro Landcare and the Parks and Wildlife Service seek to revegetate and protect those very sites.