Serpent Songs / Windshadows
From Blindside’s website I have learnt that Melbourne stands upon stolen never ceded Wurundjeri land.
This exhibition tries to respond to those words in their full force and meaning.
I have read them through the lens of my own relationship with more familiar stolen lands of the Eora nation in and around Sydney.
Each work relates to the ground beneath our feet but begins and ends with silence – the not quite “Cageian” silence that always surrounds us.
The “Galileo Drums” and “Rice Wheel” can be turned to sound with small objects falling to earth either as quantum events or granular cascades.
The “Serpent Horn” is difficult to play but is more designed to activate the viewer’s aural imagination so that they might hear lost ghostly voices on the fringe of silence.
The “Cinema of Poor” is born from the experience of prolonged and actual poverty upon stolen lands and tells the story of a grave robber with live music.
The “Galileo Drums” and “Rice Wheel” also link back distantly to a lost world of sound I once knew – the world of sound inhabited by a wheelchair bound blind man living in a government run group home on Sydney’s northern shore.
I was employed to care for Alan and other people with disabilities while completing a degree at Sydney College of the Arts. I continued this work post-graduation.
Alan was constantly alert to the tiniest nuance of sound and its different spatial locations. He was always open and curious to experience new sounds but could also hear familiar sounds always in their original freshness.
One night Alan was injured while being handled by staff, falling face first to the ground. Because of his intellectual disability he could not say what had happened. The staff reported it as an accident but on subsequent occasions Alan complained to me of being bullied by those same staff. I raised concerns with management about how Alan and the other residents were being mistreated.
The previous year I had been troubled by mysteriously violent dreams – such as a vision of standing at the edge of an abyss and being prodded in the back by a crowd of shadowy faceless strangers.
The dreams were premonitions.
Overnight I was barred from my workplace and declared unfit for employment, unless I submitted to a psychiatric examination by a government appointed doctor – a catch 22, for the doctor had been hired to confirm my permanent, incurable unfitness ever to work again.
I refused and was suspended without pay and driven inexorably over the course of a year into destitution and homelessness.
Just before I reached this point, I met Isabel Coe-a lifelong Aboriginal activist and co-founder of the Aboriginal tent embassy. She invited me into a smoking ceremony on the dry earth of a park in Balmain, just off from the main shopping street.
She and her people had reoccupied Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. I later attended court as a supporter as they battled my employer- the Crown in the Right of NSW. I remember the instant rage of a supreme court judge when the Aboriginal flag was unfurled along the back wall of the court.
At the same time I was in a grossly uneven fight with the same shape shifting/ accountability-dodging monster and in the same hostile courts. This battle dragged on for eight years of homelessness and poverty during which time I forged an intimate visceral, unmediated relationship with stolen lands of the Eora.
Sometimes I slept on the hard surfaces of the CBD – kept awake by the city’s ceaseless hum and street light glare. Other times I would shift to the grassy surface of the parks where the air was fresher but the risks of being beaten up greater. I would closely clutch to my side my most precious possession – a King trombone in its case.
My favourite place was near a lonely stretch of beach south of Port Kembla. The skin of my trombone is pockmarked with the air’s salty spray.
Towards the end of my ordeal, I was welcomed into a young community of Sydney musicians exploring collaborative improvisation and composition. Their approach to sound and intense listening reminded me of Alan’s sound world of the blind.
This community and parallel communities in Aotearoa /New Zealand were literal life-savers for me.
They helped me survive my ordeal on the stolen lands. Others have not survived. In the abyss on the ground you learn of so many stories of terrible injustice perpetrated by the state – always against the most vulnerable and defenceless.
Their voices are the shadow winds that blow across the land – winds of shades, of ghosts. (“Windshadows” from the Paul Celan poem “Weiss und Leicht” /”White and Light” – evoking the haunted genocidal landscape of post war Europe.)
The serpent horn with its darkened ashen skin invites their voices into this space so that they might have a hearing.
There are people in this land too frightened to look at the ground beneath them.
I saw this in Sydney one hot January day in 2009. I had returned to New Zealand and was briefly back in Australia. It was a mid-week lunch hour. Pedestrians teemed along the footpaths. I was dashing to a post office across from the Queen Victoria building.
A young Aboriginal woman was sitting on the ground by a pedestrian crossing, quietly at work on a tiny radiant dot painting. There was a cup for donations next to her but it was empty.
The crowd flowed past and around her without stopping or even looking down. They had rendered her invisible.
I placed some coins in her cup. On my return from the post office I sat down on the ground beside her. She was as welcoming as Isabel Coe had been under the trees of Balmain. I felt at perfectly home with her as the indifferent world rushed on by above us.
Gerard Crewdson, born in New Zealand/Aoteoroa in 1954. Over a nomadic career of collaboration, now spanning over 40 years, Gerard Crewdson has developed a highly personal experimental and interdisciplinary practice.