Yhonnie Scarce and Edition Office’s timber pavilion celebrates Indigenous histories
A sobering monument to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, In Absence is a collaboration between the contemporary artist and Melbourne-based studio for the 2019 NGV Architecture Commission
In the wake of receiving a prestigious Australian National Award earlier this month for Hawthorn House, the Melbourne-based studio Edition Office has erected a soaring cylindrical monolith of radical cultural significance within the Grollo Equiset Garden of the NGV International. It is the realisation of the firm’s winning submission for the NGV Architecture Commission competition (now in its fifth year), created in collaboration with Kokatha and Nukunu artist Yhonnie Scarce, whose practice explores the ongoing effects of colonisation of the Aboriginal peoples.
Rising 9m high and straddling 10m in diameter among verdant shards of kangaroo grass, the imposing steel framed tower clad in black stained and rough sawn timber comprises two interfacing ‘C’ shape forms that visitors can enter to confront its darkened chambers. On the timely eve of the 250th anniversary of captain James Cook’s landing at Botany Bay, Sydney, the temporary sculpture invites us to better understand the fallacy of terra nullius, which declared Australia as an empty continent awaiting ownership.
The work ‘consciously acts as a vehicle and carrier for forgotten Indigenous histories; to stand these consciously forgotten stories up within the grounds of one our most celebrated architectural icons, the NGV, and to say that they too exist, and that they too must form our shared history and inform our shared future’, states Edition Office’s co-director, Kim Bridgland.
Addressing the misconception of the Aboriginal peoples being solely a ‘hunter-gatherer’ civilisation, In Absence acknowledges the aquaculture infrastructure and agricultural sophistication that existed long before colonisation (including sowing crops, irrigating, harvesting and storing goods).
Scarce’s clusters of hand-blown black glass yams cling to the internal chambers like leeches – a colossal 1,600 in total. Symbolically representing harvested food, and more abstractly the history and memory of the artist’s ancestors, they slowly secrete a murky substance. Marking the walls with their tears, while staining them with truths, their ‘unveiling’ is made all the more poignant as the sun filters down amongst them from the oculus above.
‘In some ways the physicality of the project can be understood as a Trojan horse for the sharing and normalising of Indigenous knowledge and culture,’ explains Bridgland. The void that visitors experience upon entering the tower acknowledges the false absence of a complex society that was never acknowledged by historians.
‘On an aesthetically abstracted level, the C-shaped chambers also reference the function of traditional Indigenous stone eel and fish traps as they funnel people within the twin inner chambers,’ adds Bridgland. Their arced footprints also reference the shape and scale of traditional stone and timber roofed permanent dwellings, despite the common belief that Aboriginals were a nomadic people.
Both Edition Office and Scarce have developed a programme of public events together with the NGV to provide a platform for stories to be told and discussed from an Indigenous perspective, enabling the tower to act as an uplifting space for cultural exchange that draws from a difficult past. ‘For me it is a prolific work that is symbolic of the infrastructure that was built thousands of years ago – and it is still standing strong today. It is a keeper and guardian of knowledge,’ reflects Scarce. §