CURRENT EXHIBITION ~ HYBRID: OBJECTS FOR FUTURE HOMES
12 SEPTEMBER 2020 - 28 FEBRUARY 2021 ~ POWERHOUSE MUSEUM, SYDNEY
Johnny Nargoodah and Trent Jansen have been collaborating in the design and making of designed objects since Fremantle Art Centre’s ‘In Cahoots’ project, which launched in November 2017. During this period they have operated in the place where their disparate cultures collide, developing work that is born out of cultural exchange – coming to know each other’s lived and material culture through the process of working together and sharing their values, ideas, attitudes and assumptions.
In pivoting from their work on ‘Partu (Skin)’ for Melbourne Design Week 2020, to the Powerhouse Museum Hybrid Commission, Trent Jansen began by asking Johnny Nargoodah about his understanding of climate change, as a key theme in the briefing for this project. From his answer it was clear that this was a term that Johnny had heard before, but it was not a concept that he was familiar with. Johnny’s daily life is governed by his responsibilities as a key patriarch in his community. Johnny is depended upon by many and gives his time generously to those who need it, doing his best to ensure that his nine children and count-less grand-children are well looked after, children from remote outstations surrounding Fitzroy Crossing get to school every day, and artists working in the art center have every opportunity to create and show their work. Understandably climate change is not high on this list of critical, family and community focused priorities.
Trent Jansen did his best to talk Johnny Nargoodah through his understanding of the current scientific consensus surrounding climate change, and Johnny immediately began to draw parallels between this science and phenomena he and his community have begun to observe on Country. Johnny has been noticing changes in the natural order of things on his land, changes in the systems that have governed life on Country for millennia, but Johnny and his community had no clear understanding why these changes were occurring. Climate change seems to offer a logical explanation to many of these troubling changes, and so began Johnny and Trent’s latest collaboration, a project that aims to embody the environmental changes observed by Johnny Nargoodah and his community from the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia, as a result of climate change.
This community are the custodians of law and knowledge, pertaining to the natural order of Country in this region, passed down for count-less generations and supporting life in this place for millennia. This project for the Powerhouse Museum Hybrid Commission hopes to act as a vessel for some of this knowledge, communicating it to audiences outside of Johnny Nargoodah’s community, and once again issuing a warning of the devastation that climate change will continue to inflict, even in our most remote communities, if change does not come quickly and broadly.
Many of the changes that Johnny Nargoodah has noticed around Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia are linked to the Fitzroy River. The river is a site of local significance, with the ‘Warlu Gnari’ song-line running along the river, describing the waterholes that punctuate its flow and the many animals that live in and around the river.
As climate change begins to affect the weather patterns acting on this region, Johnny Nargoodah and his community have noticed that the climate is shifting from a tropical system that brought regular, manageable rainfalls to the region, to one that delivers rain less frequently, but in immense quantities, with longer periods of dry weather in between. According to Martin Prichard of Environs Kimberley, the region used to expect roughly six medium sized rain events each year, but this has shifted to an average of two very large monsoons annually. The region is now experiencing extreme monsoonal rain-fall during the summer months, followed by longer periods of dry weather over winter.
This may not seem like a large problem, but this shift in weather is affecting the Fitzroy River in drastic ways. It is now more common for the river to flood during summer, with people being stranded on communities or in town more frequently. Even more concerning is the affect that these dryer winters are having on the river. Johnny and older community members remember a time when the deep sections of the river would not dry up during the dry season. These sections of the river always brought fresh water to the community, no matter the time of year, and always provided shelter for the many fish species living in the river, including Johnny Nargoodah’s totem – the saw fish. Now the Fitzroy river regularly runs dry, and recently Johnny tragically witnessed saw fish beached on the dry riverbed.
The salinity of the river also seems to be changing. Johnny Nargoodah regularly notices salt crystals on the dry riverbed. According to Glenn A. Harrington of Innovative Groundwater Solutions, when the Fitzroy River is dryer it draws more water from a subterranean aquifer. This aquifer is many times more saline than rainwater run-off, and this may be the cause of an increase in salt content noticed by Johnny Nargoodah in this stretch of the Fitzroy. This growing salinity seems to be attracting new marine animals to Fitzroy Crossing, a town on the Fitzroy River roughly three hundred kilometers from the ocean. Johnny says that bull sharks are now common, as are salt water crocodiles, two more changes that are incongruous with Johnny’s memory of this place.
The design process adopted by Johnny Nargoodah and Trent Jansen began with observations of the physical environment of the Fitzroy River, in an endeavor to understand the material quality, texture, form, tonality etc. of the river. Given the significance of the dry riverbed to the narrative of increasing salinity, they focused on the characteristics of the river when dry or while transitioning to a dry state. As the river begins to dry in sections, the final trickles of water flow across the sandy riverbed, tracing their path. The very last remnants are left to sit in sandy depressions, deepening these indentations and recording, in great ephemeral detail, the final movement of seasonal water flow across this vast riverbed.
It is this organic texture that Johnny Nargoodah and Trent Jansen have chosen to adopt as the prevailing physical characteristic of a drying riverbed, and their conversation, sketch exchange, 3d modeling and material experimentation focused on recreating this textural surface as a symbol of a changing river. Johnny’s observations of dry salt crystals on the undulating riverbed have also become an important motif in the communication of this complex narrative. They have used rough Glen Innes black spinel gem stones as a subtle adornment in sections of the undulating surface to reference the significance of increasing salinity in this important and fragile ecosystem. The final chaise longue is upholstered in leather as an extension of the experimentation developed by Johnny and Trent as part of their Partu (Skin) collaboration, while the side tables are painstakingly crafted from solid walnut.
Stephen Todd and Keinton Butler
500 Harris Street,
12 September 2020 – 28 February 2021
Image credit – Zan Wimberley