Bone Fire: Artistic Expression in the Arid Zone
Article and Photographs by Michael Sheill

The University of Ballarat – School of Science now runs an annual excursion to a station in western New South Wales, known as Nanya. In conjunction with this excursion they offer two artist’s residency programs. I participated in this artist’s residency opportunity in its inaugural year. This on-site opportunity appealed to me as it allowed for a more immersive experience of an environment, while also potentially gaining some feeling for how students of another field experienced and interpreted the environment.

Working in a site of which I had no previous experience was another step in the creative process for me. Prior to this excursion I had specifically focused on sites that were charged with personal history and significance. Initially I felt that this might have been of some concern as it is that personal history of the environment and my interactions with it that the works grow out of. My early concerns were ill founded, as although I had no previous experience of this site, there was quite a lot of scientific knowledge to help augment my understanding of this place. Beyond the historical perspective of the area since white settlement, I also learnt about relevant environmental and ecological issues.

This scientific basis for understanding while originally useful was merely a beginning point in terms of the creative process. It formed a point of origin for the human conversation between the environment and myself as an organism within that space. Although the initial impetus and understanding for the on-site interactions was drawn from a scientific basis the final destination was far removed from the clinical, objective results of scientific observations.

The primary focus for my work was an exploration of the concept of shelter. Shelters and cocoons act as a metaphor for a place of relative warm and safety, where one can grow and be nourished. When viewed in this manner shelters are a haven for coping with survival pressures. Far from being a point of disjunction between an organism and its environment a site-specific, authentic shelter can speak of the environment and the organism’s relationship to it. The authenticity of the shelter finds its artistic parallel in modern art’s search for a personal truth, an honesty within works. The objective of the work was then to create site-specific environmental art works that respond to these survival pressures.

The first four days of the residency were more like a placement period than a creative phase. Absorption, reflection and the subsequent creative expression is a journey of experience and time. Particularly true when the works have a site-specific concern underpinning them. This concern then implies a contextual significance between the work and the environment that it inhabits. Over this period I built up a store of the visual stimuli that I had experienced. More significantly however, I built up an emotional store of the felt responses that I had, not only to sites but also to potential materials for the works.

The most confronting aspect of being on-site in this arid landscape was the obvious lack of water. This area had not received any sizeable rainfall in approximately four years. The lack of precipitation coupled with the apparent effects of heat did appear to be the main survival pressures. These concerns then became a basis for the works.

The overall spatial feeling of being in this area is one of vast openness. The minimal undulation of the land gave a sense of great distance. I then sought out areas of depression within the horizontalness. For had there been water it was here that it would have flowed and pooled. These gentle recesses became the intimate sites for the works.

Bone Shelter (Site 1)

Figure 1. ‘Bone Shelter’ in progress

Following a process that has almost become a ritualised method I walked within a small area surrounding the site, (approximately 200 meters radius) and collected my materials. By creating this specificity of site and material collection, I am forming a spiritual demarcation of space. Although the work interacts with the land at large, due to the environment’s nature of continuity, it is only the immediacy of that small site that I am truly responding to. Within this small area I collected the sun-bleached bones of animal skeletons, as they seemed indicative of the harshness and aridity of this place. Using these materials I began to build a fragile column like structure that reached skyward. Beginning from the basic concept of the shelter I made the column hollow, which also meant that the work was more fragile and susceptible to environmental conditions. I felt that the fragility was a vital element to the honesty of the work. With this work being inspired by the fleeting, dynamic spirit of natural processes it would then feel fraudulent to create works that were dense and long-lived. After a failure during the initial attempt, the column was completed, as can be seen in figure 1. The problem then was that the column seemed like a disparate element within the space. Using the remaining bone material I encircled the base of the column to help ground it and tie it to the vast horizontalness of this environment.

Figure 2. ‘Bone Shelter’, Nanya – New South Wales

Due to the unrestricted nature of this type of work there is no delineation of time in which the work could be seen or how it is interacted with. One possible viewing time for the work was during the night. As the moon was close to full during the residency, it was the light source that illuminated the work during these viewings. Under these conditions the sun-bleached surface of the work created an eerie glow that seemed to resonate within the landscape. The primal impact of this volume of bones was quite moving. When this primitive feeling was coupled with the environment and lighting conditions, I was struck by the dense feeling of the work, which left me in silence.

Having created the works in a fragile, balanced manner ensured that the object of the work had a limited longevity. The natural effects of the environment did de-construct the physical object of the work within three days of its creation. The de-construction process was not gradual as the work toppled over until the form of the object was changed beyond recognition. As the works are intended as an interaction with nature this de-construction is as integral to the process and reading of the work as the object itself.

Although I was happy with this work, I still had some concerns that I felt needed to be addressed. The main concern was regarding the feeling of density surrounding the work that was a direct result of the materials. Although I felt the choice of bone was ideal for the site, I struggled to get past the persistent presence of death as it hung on these bones. This may not have been a problem, however, by basing the work around the concept of shelter I was seeking more of a quality of life affirmation.

Bone Circle / Bone Fire (Site 2)

Figure 3. Cracked Earth from Nanya, New South Wales, 2001.

This work was created to further my understanding of Nanya and to address the concerns that I had identified from the previous work ‘Bone Shelter’. The challenge was to use bone material as the basis for the work, but to incorporate a further element suggestive of regeneration and life as it applied to this environment. As fire is vital to the regeneration and bio-diversity of plant species, which then support animal species in this area, I opted to include this as the additional element.
Using a similar method with a tighter demarcation of space I collected the materials for this work. I then swept the loose sand out of the depression, helping to illustrate the dryness of the environment, as the cracked clay was more evident (as seen in figure 3),

Figure 4. ‘Bone Circle’, Nanya – New South Wales

then arranged the bone material in a circular form within the depression (as seen in figure 4). I worked with this circular basis because of the manner that water moves materials as it flows. If water had been present then it would have brought leaf litter with it as it flowed into the depression. This material then sits at the edge of the water as it evaporates. Once the water is gone the materials are left in circles or lines depending on the nature of the flow. In effect this patterning operates like a tiny topographical map as the leaf litter settles at the edge of flows but doesn’t reach higher than the water’s edge. These types of natural lines can be seen in figures 5 and 6.

Figure 5. Patterns left after water evaporates off salt lake, Nanya- New South Wales, 2001.

Figure 6. Leaf litter patterns after water flow evaporates, Nanya- New South Wales, 2001.

The work was left in this form until nightfall when the element of fire was to be added. By creating the work over a longer period of time it speaks more to the nature of process. This process over time was integral to the inspiration behind the piece and therefore incorporating it into the work resonates with a degree of honesty.

At night the creative process of the work could enter its next phase. I then created a cairn-like column in the center of the circle. This bone column was constructed over a fire that had been built but not lit. Once the column was complete it glowed under the light of the full moon. I then lit the fire, as can be seen below in figure 7.

Figure 7. ‘Bone Fire’, Nanya – New South Wales

The fire breathed a further dynamic life into the work. As the flame flickered and burnt it brought a play of light and shadow to the bone circle. This echoed with parallels from some earlier works where I had been doing shadow cast drawing as a means of catching a moment in an ephemeral process (as seen in figure 8). The effect of the gentle breeze passing through the openings within the bone cairn was that the flame leapt about. In turn the cast shadows danced around the ground, creating new energy and movement.

Unlike the dense heavy feeling of the first work this work seemed to resonate with a primal awe. The light, life and movement created by the elements within the work found a new energy that was more than just the sum of the parts. It seemed to capture me and draw me into the light but the weight of the materials had been diminished.

Figure 8. Shadow Cast Drawing, Charcoal on Paper

Eventually the warmth and light of the fire died, leaving only the structure. This structure remained intact for the rest of the residency.