field work slow making
“We spend our lives hurrying away from the real, as though it were deadly to us.
‘It must be up there somewhere on the horizon,’ we think. And all the time it is in the soil, right beneath our feet.” (Logan, 1995)
Coming here from Canada in 1994 as a postgraduate arts student, one of the first things I remember about Australian television was the SBS promo “The world is an amazing place”. I believed then, as I do now, that the Earth deserves far more respect, and in my new capacity as an educator at ECU I added the SBS promo as a by-line to my email signature, and also to the cover pages of my teaching plans.
I included small graphic symbols of Earth observed from various hemispherical perspectives, prompts to consider learning as a holistic life-long journey, well beyond the classroom.
“I’m a wonderer ...” is a line from Arnhem Land band Nabarlek and their song ‘Wonderer’, which I love to sing (howl?) along to. I play it while driving in the field, rocking in my seat, wistfully and viscerally, investing these words with more breath, my life force. I just realised the song line could be “I’m a wanderer” but it makes no difference. To me wandering entails wondering, and wondering is wandering.The two words permeate the temporal space of my life journey.
I moved to Australia because I love to walk its ancient landscapes and because
I’m in awe of its unique plants and animals. Curiosity inspires me to come in closer, spend more time investigating.Wandering and wondering, my two best friends, means having conversations with animals and greeting inanimate things with the brush of a hand or a few words. My gestures support an ongoing ontological en- gagement with place and express gratitude.These embodied conversations with the field are about stewardship.
My environmental awareness was passed down from my father. On his return from long stints of working in the field as a geologist he shared his sense of wonder; the deep satisfaction of walking, day after day, and of being lulled to sleep at night by the wind thrumming taut tent walls. His stories of living with an ear and an eye to the ground whetted my appetite to explore remote places, where few people go, where silence amplifies the pulse.
My father also unwittingly inspired my arts practice. He worked on an Apollo 11 lunar study project. I recall his laboratory drawers contained small vials of moon rock processed into powder. When he heated the Moon’s “earth” to demagnetize it, it oxidised and turned rusty red.The determination to collect geological samples in the field as far away as the arctic and the Moon, and being able to modify and separate rock colours through processes of sample preparation (crushing, grinding, magnetizing, sieving) and understand a rock’s origins in time and location through laboratory analysis (isotopic dating and chemical analysis)
stayed with me.
My studio has numerous drawers of geological and topographic maps.
Everywhere small rocks jostle for space. Miniature vials and bags contain
powdered mineral pigments labelled with geographic coordinates. Place names for bush sites are rare; I’ve added my own names to trigger memories of the site.
I’ve hand-prepared these colours from earth samples collect- ed while conducting fieldwork at mine sites, road cuts, and other industrial excavation projects in WA. I adapt scientific mineral preparation methods to create variations in tone. It’s very slow making.
I’ve worked in the field for 36 years now.The first 13 years as a bush cook in the Canadian arctic where our field seasons were several months long and we lived
in cotton canvas communities.Yes there were a lot of bears. In these ‘bush’ camps (there is no bush in the arctic) I did a lot of hand stitching and sometimes
hand-colouring of new geological maps. I tried obtaining colour from rocks but it was almost impossible; glaciers had scraped away any colourful, weather-altered surface rocks.
Since 1993 I have conducted fieldwork in Australia.This continent was mostly glacier-free during the last ice-age resulting in highly weathered surface rocks that yield plenty of colour suitable for studio use. In contrast finding rocks suitable for our geochem and geochron sampling is arduous. Good out- crops are so far apart that fieldwork is an unrelenting nomadic existence with a daily and systematic routine of unpacking the ute to set up camp, and reversing the process in the morning. Everything has a particular place under the ute’s canvas canopy. Nothing is tossed inside, order is paramount. Out there our survival can depend on finding something quickly. I’m constantly wrestling with the canopy straps, buckles and zippers, and stretching its tight elasticised hem to secure or release
it from the ute’s tray back.
The pace of fieldwork is rapid; there is never time to make art.The best I can do is to ensure I have a pocket-sized camera and Ziploc bags and spoon to grab a few soil samples on the run. Except for small clay pinch pots I put in the campfire over night or the canister of coals to make charcoal over- night everything I make is in the studio.
Slow making happens back home, where years of fieldwork notebooks tempt me with sketches of unrealised works. Several are based on tents and other portable forms of shelter.
I’ve always been attracted to the field vehicle canopies, photographing the
heavily repaired skins infused with the red dust that goes with the job of protecting field and survival gear.This work at Spectrum will come from an “‘empty’ mind”, the ‘mind of don’t know’ (Jacobs, 2004). I know from experience that this state of “non-attachment”, in which I resist self-censoring feedback, will allow me to see the familiar “anew” and create an innovative work about this place.
—Nien Schwarz Hamilton Hill 2016
Logan,W. B. (1995). Dirt:The ecstatic skin of the earth. New York; Riverbed Books.
Jacob, M.J. (2004). In the space of art. In j. Bass & M.J. Jacob (Eds.), Buddha mind in contemporary art (pp. 164-177). Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Nien Schwarz has had a life-long passion for Earth sciences. Her work is a continual reflection of the ground beneath her feet. The choice of materials for
her installations, objects and paintings are considered carefully in relation to the future availability of natural resources. Her preference is for recycling unloved domestic objects and creating paints that are pure Earth. Nien completed her PhD (Visual Arts) at the ANU in 1999 and since 2000 has mentored students in Visual Arts at ECU. Her solo exhibition Promised Land was a feature of the 2001 Perth International Arts Festival and included 800 hand-made shopping
bags each one individually folded from a different topographic map sheet of Australia. Over my shoulder, her 2006 exhibition at PICA included 170 square metres of wall and floor surfaces ‘tiled’ with aerial photographs of Western Australia. Her 2008 exhibition Earth Matters, at Turner Galleries, was based on
the inside circumference of a roll of flagging tape – the circles inferring lenses,
drill bits, drilling patterns and bores. Nien has frequently exhibited at Sculpture
by the Sea and her works are represented in the Edith Cowan Art Collection, John Curtin Gallery Art Collection, The Chamber of Mines and Minerals, and numerous private collections.
The Australian Artists’ Grant is a NAVA initative, made possible through the generous sponsorship of Mrs Janet Holmes à Court and the support of the Visual Arts Board, Australia Council for the Arts.
At Laeanas Breath Cave
on the Nullarbor Plain, 2012, Photographer Michael Wingate
Heading towards Diemals Station, 2013
chemical analysis, 2012