Review of exhibition of Audio-Visual Art
Where Lakes Once Had Water | Sonia Leber and David Chesworth
Drill Hall Gallery | Until 10 April 2022
Where Lakes once Had Water (2020) is a video that runs for 28:14 minutes. Whether gallery visitors see it from start to finish depends on whether they manage to arrive as it commences to play. I arrived around 7 minutes into it, so stayed to see the missed opening scenes after viewing all the rest of the video.
In 2018 and 2019, Melbourne/Naarm-based artists Sonia Leber and David Chesworth travelled with a team of Earth and environmental scientists investigating changes in climate, landscape and ecology in the Northern Territory over millennia. Their resultant video channels this experience, in which Indigenous rangers, Elders and community members collaborate with scientists in spectacular yet challenging environments.
Leber and Chesworth are known for their distinctive video, sound and architecture-based installations that are audible as much as visible. Their works are speculative and archaeological, often involving communities and elaborated from research in places undergoing social, technological or local geological transformation. The works emerge from reality but exist significantly in the realm of the imaginary, hinting at unseen forces and non-human perspectives.
Presented across two screens, this immersive long-form video is a journey encompassing audio-visual realms, scientific endeavour and traditional Indigenous knowledge, stories and custodianship – an amalgamation of efforts to understand this ancient land.
Where Lakes Once Had Water was filmed on the lands and waters of the Mudburra, Marlinja, Jingili, Elliot, Jawoyn and Larrakia communities, with additional filming and editing on Barkindji, Dharawal, Djabugay, Yidinji and Wurundjeri Country. In partnership with Bundanon, it is the first of four art commissions by The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), which works across disciplinary boundaries, and seeks to garner broad perspectives of the past in order to engage new audiences with the story of ‘epic Australia.’ The aim is to engage artists with aspects of research – to make new work that responds to, questions, and interprets the research for broader audiences.
From fieldwork in deserts to microscopic work in laboratories, scientists sought evidence of Earth’s forces over long-term cycles of wet and dry. Many of those forces – wind, temperature, long-term aridification and tectonic movement – were invisible to the human eye or lay beyond human timescales.
Leber and Chesworth say their project “tests the hypothesis that the Earth is experienced and understood through different but interconnected ontologies. These ways of being, seeing, sensing, listening and thinking can align with art, Indigenous thought, science, ancient and modern cultures, the non-human, and somewhere in between.”
The video introduces Ray Dimakarri Dixon calling to ancestral spirits to watch over Country as scientists excavate the red earth of once-submerged lake beds. The fieldwork is observed by non-human cohabitants, as ecologies of birds, termites, flies and vegetation continue their own struggles of survival. Across the ancient shorelines, everyone is receptive to the signs, signals and rhythms of the land and water.
There are few spoken words – essentially only Auntie Susan Kingston, appropriately using Indigenous language. There are, however, numerous other sounds employed. Was that a created xylophone I saw and heard? Were sounds recorded by microphones and other recording devices scanning termite hills part of the soundtrack I listened to?
There is so much to see in this video. Dry landscapes, grains, gorges and ants. Core samples, bottled water, laboratories, measurements, analysis. Geological explorations, erosion, dirt roads, fishing. Cattle, a road freight train. I could go on and on.
It is wonderful to see art used to educate artists and art lovers about biodiversity and heritage research and, hopefully, gain at least a little more understanding of these places where lakes once had water.
This review was published on page 37 of The Canberra Times of 7/3/22 here. It is also available on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.