This child’s grave has stayed in my thoughts, for its home-made cabinet, perhaps previously housing photographs or some other sort of tribute, carries a particular pathos that has travelled through the ensuring decades. We do not know what coloured hair or eyes Arnold had, the sound of his voice, or his favourite music. This difficulty in knowing suggests that when representing the past there may be specific attributes to consider… about the historian’s qualities (you may be the historian), contemporary shifts in historical thinking, different cultural approaches, and the sensitivities needed when ‘writing’ other people’s histories. These are analytical and more intellectual considerations, but there are also emotional aspects that are inclusive of the atmospheric presence of the past.
If we had come to Waukaringa around nightfall, the queer feeling it engendered would have been easier to understand. Yet it was midday. Everything was normal.
It was one of those clear autumn days on the north-east plains of South Australia when the world seems peaceful and serene. Then, as we drove slowly into the main street, we began to sense its peculiar quality, its strange sense of quiet. It seemed that each of us had something particular to see, as we walked in different directions. In less than a minute each of us was alone. It was curious how a town so empty could swallow people, leavening each in his owl little pool of silence.
George Farwell, Ghost Towns of Australia, 1965.
Artists may be well positioned to explore and translate a ‘perfume of the past’, using first person, phenomenology. This entails a quiet listening within a location, allowing feelings and sensorial inputs to form in your heart. There is a saying that some locations require a great deal of travail and quest-like effort by the traveller, before the secrets of that place are revealed. Perhaps this could seem a Romantic notion, but my experience tells me that a hurried carelessness seems to metaphorically close doors in some location. Instead an openness (not directed by anticipated outcomes), patience and a careful attunement will often be rewarded.
Perhaps the past can be brought to the surface of daily living through symbols. An old piece of broken china in the dust, a piece of rusted fencing wire in the bent form of a question mark, ruts where no grass grows - left behind by wagon wheels, rows of gathered stones, ancient almond trees, and the scent of freshly cooked, local, honey biscuits… these are all symbols of the past that still have impressed my present.
There is a reminder that each different aspect of place research can be a deep study in its self. It could be a life’s work as an artist to examine the past’s ‘intrusion’ into our present day. If I were to make a more considered list of aspects of the past to explore with art it would include returning topos, shared visions, enduring myths, encounters with the past, sources of pride, pivotal moments in that location, kinship,, legacies left, the value of contributions,, best ventures, lores, intersections with the wider world, exciting discoveries, enduring appeal, shared landscapes as well as reliant foundations.
Recommended reading/ viewing:
Justin Armstrong, On the Possibility of Spectral Ethnography. 2010.
Everywhere is Nowhere, a short film by Justin Armstrong: