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Slip into landscape
Almost everyone brings back rocks, shells and driftwood from the beach. Also seaweed: these things hang around the house to prompt our memories, to help things "come to mind ... ". This unselfconscious activity, with hints at metaphysical enquiry, was amplified in two installations by Heather Winter at Gertrude Street-She Collects it and more recently The Sand Fire Story.
She Collects it was distributed over three gallery spaces: a slide at the door to 200 Gertrude Street end a plexiglass column containing kelp in water in the window space/gallery were introductions to the main installation in Studio 12. In this, Winter had hung a circle of kelp from the ceiling. The south window of the room was covered in photographic negatives of text from early Scottish and Australian sea songs. Hung edge to edge, these formed a net of songs from the old country. A projector shone light through this throwing the words into the room next door and reflecting them back, reversed, into Studio 12. Although the ring of kelp was lit from the inside, most of the light in the room came from the projector, from the examination of the songs taking place in darkness, shadows and reflected light.
The other part of the installation was a white A4 page carrying the artist's statement. In this, Winter put forward a quotation from Don Watson's book Caledonia Australis, pointing out that English-owned sheep displaced Scottish Highlanders who were forced to the coast to collect kelp. Watson's epigraph, "Of what they had before the late conquest of their country, there remains only their language and their poverty", seemed to clarify the artist's work. She had, in shaman-like simulation, collected kelp and brought it home to the gallery. The kelp was then surrounded by two atmospheres, the songs or rather their skeletons, and the salty, sulphurous smell.
In contrast with the first installation, Sand Fire Story was fully lit, with white walls blazing, and the Studio filled with a bed of red sand brought in from Western Australia. She collected it. Some rocks were placed asymmetrically in this sandscape; these and the raked finish around its outer edges gave it a look of a fiery RYOAN-JI. The sand was ground down by the artist from the rocky lumps of its transported state. And sand? It was more like pure pigment, a fine powder that was flattened to a chalk finish when walked upon. The purity of this material was such that over the installation's existence, some visitors couldn't resist touching it and smearing it onto the surrounding walls.
This installation had its A4 page, too, black this time with a more biographic/diary-like series of notes by the artist on how the sand came to be in her possession (so to speak) and why it might be in a gallery. At the heart of it was the idea of the story and its social use, indeed its political purpose. In her notes, Winter brought together two stories. One was from the Yawuru and Bard people of the Kimberleys, a story which maps the origins of fire onto the red soil of the landscape. The other was a story of colonisation and desecration; as the artist puts it, "…the overlay of bitumen, a tabloid surface ... ". In a reversal of this, Winter laid the sand in Studio 12 over black plastic, a pragmatic necessity and also a symbolic inversion. Both stories were thus present at the same time, up North and down South, posing questions about the artist's (and by implication, everyone else 's) responsibilities when approaching other cultures.
"There remains only their language and their poverty the migrant experience is that you bring both of these to a new country and lose them. With some luck, you may keep Heather Winter, She Collects It, 1995. Installation view. Bull kelp (King Island) treated with glycerine, ballads of early Australian and Scottish sea songs. Reviews bits of the language. The land of origin is then known only through song, but even these become wandering abstractions. "Oranges and lemons, the bells of St. Clements" or "Kalinka, kalinka, kalinka Mai-ya ... ", repairing the net, time and again, to catch the memories. This may be one reason why the identity of story and song with land is of such fascination for us. In She Collects it, Winter 'stole' the songs, or rather re-collected them where they might re-enter the culture. In The Sand Fire Story, the story was the red sand spread out in the landscape with no identifiable difference between the whole landscape and the ten garbage bags collected by the artist.
Collecting folk songs is now a worthy pursuit and hardly the daring enterprise that it was for Percy Grainger, Bela Bartok or John Manifold. Notation, cylinders , tapes, photographs are all recording devices that tear the songs away from their contexts and allow them to exist, institutionally, as a nomadic currency. But the total identification, the fusion of song and landscape is still a conundrum, like the full-size model. Worse, the landscape alters, slowly or catastrophically. What should the landscape/song do? To be identical it too must alter. Unlike the Scottish ballad, such a song cannot wander, except maybe as itself, as a truckload of samples. Sampling as a material fact.
For this artist, then, the shamanic kelp collecting is closer in spirit to the Sand Fire Story than the photographic images of songs. Even then there is a photographic link. For photographers, there is an uneasy truce between the reality of the light sources (the landscape) and the photograph (the song). To have photographed something is to believe that it exists, or has existed. No amount of montage and computer simulation seems to have dissolved this faith. The slip into the landscape, to be closer to reality, is a slip into the pre-condition of photography, into the dream-time of silver nitrate.