Sixteen Earth Bowls

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Penny Dunstan, Dirt/Soil/Earth installation, 2018. Altar/d at Adamstown Uniting Church. Photograph by John Cliff.

I am standing on the river flats of the Hunter River at Warkworth (-32.490620,151.028671: paddock reference). It’s a narrow flat valley slashed through with a slow meandering river resting in a deep sinuous trench. The soil under the drought-browned pasture is black. It crumbles easily in my hand. In the distance, there’s a mob of kangaroos grazing on the remaining plant roots. Across the river, there’s an old farmhouse that in times past belonged to a breeder of stock horses. I stayed there once as a guest but the family has long since moved out. Now it belongs to a mine with an overburden wall that rises up like a frozen tidal wave, forever threatening the house and the surrounding river flats.

Here, soil is a commodity. Soil is not as valuable as the coal that lies underneath it if we think in short term economics. But thinking intergenerationally, these black-soiled river flats should be preserved. One day, once again, humans may need them to grow food.

How shall I talk about the absolute importance of soil to human civilisation? Soil, along with air and water, is one of our most fundamental natural resources. Soil grows food for us and earth-others. It grows trees and grasses and fungi and a host of micro-lifeforms that we never see but are dependent upon to survive. A teaspoon of a well-cared-for soil can contain up to one billion bacteria, several meters of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Soil contains vast quantities of carbon and is a holder of surface water.

In the transitional zone between open-cut mining and rehabilitated post-mining landscape, soils are a carpet of hope rolled out to pacify the requirements of legislation. Mines managers assume soils will be resilient and cover up the mountains of Permian stone piled high. The small lives contained in soil often don’t transition well from pasture to the manufactured lands via heavy machinery, trucks, piles, bulldozers, and ploughs. It is asking a lot of one of our most valuable resources to cover up the sins of avarice.

Michael Northcott (theologian and ethicist) puts the problem this way:

… the earth and we are in co-creaturely relationship and … when we neglect the beneficence of God’s good earth and the prudential use of what God has granted to us, and subject nature … to our devices and desires, we not only frustrate the capacity of our fellow creatures to give God praise; we also put at risk the very services that the earth renders us.

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Penny Dunstan, Merriwa soil bowl in Sixteen Earth Bowls 2018, installed at the Hyatt Canberra for the National Soils Conference. Photograph by the author.

Making earth bowls is a way of thinking about my ethical responses to soil use in a post-mining landscape. It is a way of thinking with my heart and not just my head. As I work with each Hunter Valley topsoil, I come to understand each as an individual, a special part of God’s creation. Each soil behaves according to its own chemical nature and historical past when I fashion it into a bowl shape. Some hold their shape, and some don’t; or perhaps, is it that some won’t? The agency (or will) of the soil is expressed by the way the bowl keeps form. Soils with good health often crack or crumble. Sad soils, those mistreated and overworked, stay where they are put.

Each bowl is made from a Hunter Valley topsoil, except for one. The grey bowl is mudstone doing its best to impersonate soil. It’s having trouble as it hasn’t been to the surface of the earth for 250 million years. Of all the soils, this one is the most sterile. This is the soil that will be found on the surface when we run out of topsoils rescued from mining. It is a legacy that our grandchildren will not thank us for.

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Penny Dunstan, Sixteen Earth Bowls, 2018. Installed at Holy Trinity Church, Merriwa for the Festival of the Fleeces. Photograph by the author.

So here is a question: What were those earth bowls doing on the altar? And on a white linen cloth? This is where you, the reader, come in. Art should make you question the world. Are those bowls made of dirt (plus all those beasties) that we should sweep out of the door and into the bin? Or are they made of soil that we should at least put on the garden, but really, they have no place in church? Or are they made of earth to be examined, to be questioned, to be listened to as earth-others?

These soils, full of tiny lives, are responsible for growing our food, making our air and storing atmospheric carbon. Our very lives as humans on the earth depend on them. By fashioning these soils into bowls and placing them in sacred places, I hope to remind us to honour the earth that we stand upon, that earth that speaks to us by pushing back at our feet. Soils deserve care and nurture, as they reciprocate to care and nurture us. Tangled in the web of earth understandings is a call to think about an intergenerational issue such as postmining land rehabilitation and building housing estates on prime agricultural soils. When we care for soils, we are in fact caring for ourselves and our descendants.

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Penny Dunstan is a soil scientist/agronomist and artist with particular interests in anthropogenic landforms and the human/land dialogue that arises when humans create the world. Her transdisciplinary PhD research investigated post-coalmining rehabilitated land at one mine site in the Hunter Valley, through fine art, human geography, and soil science. She has presented and published in a wide variety of forums including Hunter Valley Rehabilitated Mine Lands, National Soil Science Association, Institute of Australian Geographers, and Creative Arts forums in Australia and overseas. Penny is an accomplished artist who regularly exhibits work that details aspects of the Upper Hunter interactions with the Anthropocene. She works within and with Wonnarua country.

Seeing Over the Fence: Visualising Trauma and The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

As both an artist and a pastor, I am well aware of the capacity for works of art to bring healing, to provide a container for grief and loss, and to create a future based in hope. I have also experienced the capacity for works of the imagination to break down the supposed barriers between the church and its community, between the holy and the profane, the sacred and secular, and to create a fruitful conversation about life’s meaning. I have great hopes that the arts provide us with resources for engaging the culture we inhabit and for dealing with any of the big difficult issues we face together. But despite these hopes, I am really struggling with how to respond at a visual level to the aftermath of the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse, and the terrible stories that have surfaced into public consciousness. As an artist, I wonder how to help people visualise the trauma and pain of such experiences, and how the Church as an institution allows for this to be made present in sign, symbol, and art making. How might art help the healing process and bring reconciliation and understanding?

 

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Rodney Pople, Last Supper, 2008. Oil on canvas.

 

It was about fifteen years ago through my work with the Blake Prize that I first began to observe visual responses to this issue. In 2008, Rodney Pople submitted a work entitled Last Supper, a work that proved to be something of a premonition of the impending crisis for organised religious institutions. A reference to the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples has been pushed to the back of the picture as something of incidental interest. What takes centre stage is a vast chandelier that seems to shudder under its own weight of self importance. Not a light but a weighted piece of staging that is about to come crashing down. The metaphor is clearly about a structure that has become too focused on its own importance and grandeur, so much so that even the Last Supper has been pushed to the periphery. Rodney Pople went on to deal more directly with these issues. In one of his later exhibitions, held in trendy Paddington in Sydney, a group of pious folk camped outside praying for his soul and for those brave enough to enter the gallery under prayerful siege.

But Pople was correct in anticipating that there would be a shaking of foundations and a rattling of fences. It was during 2015 when the Royal Commission heard stories in the city of Ballarat that ribbons began appearing on the fence of St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. They were tied on the fence as a simple memorial to those who had died or still suffer as a result of a history of abuse. This simple act of remembrance has spread quickly around Australia and is now found all around the world. This gesture has, however, not always been well received by those on the inside. Whether it was Church authorities or parishioners there were reports of ribbons being removed. The visibility of the act of colourful ribbons fluttering in the breeze was perceived by some as a protest of anger at the Church or at least a criticism of its silence and lack of visible response. St Patrick’s Cathedral has continued to dialogue with this wider ribbon community and there are now plans for the fence to open up into a memorial garden where a more permanent space of recognition is be created. Through the visual form of ribbons, known locally as the ‘Loud Fence’, boundaries have been shifted and a new more open conversation has begun.

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In Geelong, at St Mary’s Basilica, the Loud Fence response took a different turn. One of the key priests on staff actively worked with survivors through the Life Boat Project and with the assistance of a group from a Men’s Shed found a means of preserving the ribbons and the heartfelt gestures that had created them. A container in the form of a boat has been introduced inside the Basilica where ribbons can be permanently stored after they have flown on the fence. This shifts the visual reception of the ribbons to a more permanent memorial where they are being treated with dignity and respect. This boat has become part of the interior fabric of the Church alongside other memorials that remember significant moments of national and local history. What is being preserved is not just silk threads, but the deeply-felt gestures that have been repeated over and over again as people express their sense of grief and loss. Gathering them up for preservation emphasises the importance of these small acts of grief and remembrance. Someone is listening, noticing, seeing. The Loud Fence project looks for a community of people who speak up and act on behalf of those who are victims.

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In my local city of Newcastle, like in many cities around Australia, ribbons appear and disappear off the fence of the local Cathedral. It is a disputed space between those who want this to be visible and those who wish it to remain hidden or at least managed out of sight. This is a pressing issue as in my city the extensive volume of abuse and the individual number of stories is staggering. Thousands of people in my local community are suffering the long-term effects of grief and trauma, including their families, neighbours, as well as the educational and religious institutions of the region. It must be one of the largest contributors to mental illness and social trauma in my local community and it is otherwise hidden. But it is also appearing more often in the work of local artists, like in the work Cracked by Janita Ayton. Here, the soft pages of a Bible have been repetitively folded over to spell out the word cracked. This is only observed when the Bible is opened and the word then literally spills out. Clearly, the culture of secrecy and power that once clothed the Church has now been cracked. For the first time in Australian history, the Church has been drawn to public account for its actions, inactions or shameful cover-up. This assumed privilege due to social power or religious authority has been found wanting. The Church is not above the law; it is accountable to the people it seeks to serve.

 

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Janita Ayton, Cracked, 2018. Bible with folded pages.

 

Cracked is an artwork that visualises the crisis of authority facing organised religion. But it also offers, to my mind, a way forward. When something is cracked, then what is contained inside can get out. Rather than fear being the first response, a response that reinforces denial and secrets, here is an invitation to find within the life of the Church a range of other responses that focuses on victims and those impacted by this history of abuse. The Church has nothing to fear in losing its well-preserved social power if it, in turn, recovers what is at its heart in terms of compassion, forgiveness, and love. Self-preservation cannot be the default position of the Church when facing this sort of accountability in the public square. Here is an opportunity to visualise compassion and a form of agency based on love. The loss to the Church in the face of this ongoing scandal is incalculable, but the opportunity for the Church to renew its purpose will be life-giving and renewing. Cracked leaves me with the possibility of such a hope.

Rod Pattenden is an artist, art historian, and theologian interested in the power of images. He lives and works on Awabakal land.

 

Altar/d

During 2018, Adamstown Uniting Church played host to the Altar/d Art Installation series curated by Rod Pattenden, who is also the minister of the Church situated in Newcastle, NSW. The title of the series was a play on the words ‘altar’ and ‘alter’, and invited responses about change, transformation, and hope. Six artists were chosen to display work in the body of the church and to take on its architectural form while continuing the interests of their own practice. In this video, Rod Pattenden highlights the features of each artist’s work and the responses they found among the ‘congregation’ of viewers. The video was produced by John Cliff.