Talking Water: artist-in-residence

18 March to 11 May 2013

Marily Cintra, Antonia Aitken, Christine Atkin and Marian-Hosking

Lingua aqua by Maurice O'Riordan

This is the river ... Writing its past and prophesying its future in massive gorges slicing through mountains and cliffs so undercut they call them verandahs, and in eroded boulders and beautiful gilded eggs of river stone, and in beaches of river gravel that shift year to year, flood to flood, and in that gravel that once was rounded river rock that once was eroded boulder that once was undercut cliff that once was mountain and which will be again.

How does water 'talk'? With what language does it communicate, and how do four visual artists interpret or articulate its lingo? The 'talking' in Talking Water, the latest iteration of Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centres' annual Designing a Capital: Crafting a City initiative (begun in 2007), may be read in both a verbal and adjectival sense: 'talking' as in 'to talk about' water; and 'talking' to signify water as the active 'speaker'. Both senses are in fact active as indeed the overall project activates awareness of water, and of Canberra's protected waterways in particular, as an increasingly vital commodity and subject within current ecological and artistic discourse.

Talking Water is a residency-based project in the ACT's National Heritage-listed Namadgi National Park, about forty kilometres south-west of Canberra. The Park, almost half the size of the ACT, takes in the northern end of the Australian Alps, and is the primary source for Canberra's water as part of the Upper Murrumbidgee catchment area. The residencies took place at two historic locations: 'Nil Desperandum' Homestead (first built in the 1890s, within the Park's Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve), and the Gudgenby Ready-Cut Cottage (first built in 1927), with two artists assigned for separate periods to each: Christine Atkins and Marian Hosking at 'Nil Desperandum', and Antonia Aitken and Marily Cintra at Gudgenby Ready-Cut Cottage.

The choice of these four artists through an open expression-of-interest and subsequent selection process represents a diversity of mediums (glass, jewellery, ceramics and printmaking) with each artist also having a direct personal and (in most cases) professional experience of the region. In this regard, Talking Water provided an opportunity for the artists to extend and refine a dialogue of artistic field research within the Park.

Although Namadgi National Park is very accessible to the city of Canberra, I have to confess that in my past five years of Canberra residence, I had not ventured there until Marily Cintra's artist talk at Gudgenby late last year. If anything, Craft ACT's Designing a Capital: Crafting a City initiative, through this residency program, leads urban (Canberra) dwellers to engage with their (semi)-rural surrounds, to reconsider the ways in which urban existence (such as water access) depends on rural resources. Similarly, in the speaking and saying of placenames such as Namadgi and Tidbinbilla, we are compelled to commemorate, reconsider and even perpetuate the pre-eminent cultural significance of these places for the region's Aboriginal people even if we don't readily know what these words originally signify.

Cintra, originally from Brazil and whose ceramics-based practice has strong connections to social issues, has lived quite close to Namadgi National Park for some years, as a resident of Canberra's outer-southern 'village' of Tharwa. With Namadgi virtually at her doorstep, Cintra had already closely observed the Park's Gudgenby and Murrumbidgee rivers, as well as the devastation wrought by Canberra's seasonal bushfires, most notably in 2003. At first I was surprised to learn that Cintra lived so close to the residency homestead, presuming that the opportunity was best availed by artists 'newer' to, or less familiar with, the area. But living near Gudgenby cottage is remarkably different to living in it, as Cintra attests, even if for a short period. The relative isolation and simplicity of the cottage, which harkens back to the region's early pastoral-settler incursions, is a haven for 'peace and tranquility', as Cintra explained at her talk, as well as a touchstone for reflecting on the human toil for survival in the region's recent and distant past.

Cintra's artist talk was short but sincere; admittedly she was only a week into her residency so ideas and responses were still forming. Yet in many ways it was better in this outdoor setting to have less 'talking', or at least less human talking, so that the immediate landscape could better relay its own grandeur and subtlety, its own visual cadence and silent narratives to the slowly de-chattering minds of her audience. Cintra had also created a site-specific work on a clearing downhill from the cottage, which she invited visitors on the day to walk around and experience: a spiral-path of Gudgenby clay punctuated with pots filled with river water. Among the day's visitors was Craft ACT's former Gudgenby resident-artist, Canberra-based Kirstie Rea, lending credence to the program's underlying idea of ongoing engagement, of the cottage and setting's abiding allure for creative potential and artistic process.

Perhaps in living so close to Namadgi National Park, Cintra's own artistic process here naturally focuses on the domestication of the Murrumbidgee and Gudgenby rivers for Canberra's water supply. 'Do we realise that when we open a tap in Canberra we are diverting the river to our homes?', she asks in her proposal statement; and, more evocatively: 'Where does the river dream?' It needs to be said that I am writing this essay well before these four artists have completed their residency-based work for exhibition at Craft ACT. In this sense, I write alongside the artists, while they are still talking (about) and thinking/feeling through the process of making work. And so, just as Cintra asks of the river, the residency process also compels us to ask where or how does the artist dream/create, rather than what it is exactly that their dreams have produced.

Of these four artists, Cintra's process appears more concerned with the 'macro' view rather than a 'micro', or highly personalised, response. In this light, she is also tapping into the project's realisation during Canberra's centennial year with a proposed installation comprising one hundred pipes (fifty hand-formed ceramic, and fifty PVC); each pipe echoing the form of a Brazilian rain stick/percussion instrument and, en masse, a circuit-maze of water channelling. When I speak with Cintra, she is unsure how exactly the pipes' gallery installation will be resolved; she is determined though that her installation will also 'talk', or rather 'sing' (like the rain sticks), with an accompanying water-inspired soundscape by Sydney-based jazz musician Gai Bryant, with whom Cintra has previously collaborated.

'Designing a Capital: Crafting a City' was initially conceived with a view towards Canberra's centenary this year, and the participation of Melbourne-based jeweller Marian Hosking, the project's only non-ACT-based artist, accords well with this overarching vision. Hosking's grandfather (with his wife) was an early resident of the region, a teacher based at the Duntroon Royal Military College (founded in 1911) who produced climate-based graphs (measuring weekly temperatures and rainfall) while there. His PhD research was on the viscosity of water, 'a difficult concept to convey' admits Hosking. Hosking's grandparents were also present at the naming of Canberra ceremony, at Capital Hill, 12 March, 1913.

Hosking's residency at Tidbinbilla's 'Nil Desperandum' Homestead builds on this family history through a range of objects cast (mostly) in silver and porcelain. 'I have concentrated on human interaction with Tidbinbilla', she states, mindful of the site's association with a former eucalyptus oil distillery (still intact) and koala sanctuary (destroyed in the 2003 bushfires), and of its present-day attraction for bush walkers intent on encountering a 'pristine' alpine landscape and its abundant wildlife. An image from Hosking's studio shows the jeweller's craft in potent display: a detailed koala lid in silver; brooches modelled on vintage buttons; white porcelain vessels with relief foliage forms – some holding tall eucalypt stems, some with finely etched, silvery disc lids. Not yet visible in her studio are the silver cylinders she will make in homage to her grandfather's climate data collecting tools. Perhaps in another nod to Hosking's scientist grandfather, and to Tidbinbilla's charter 'to preserve', Hosking will present these objects as a cabinet of curios.

Glass artist Christine Atkins's residency at 'Nil Desperandum' afforded an opportunity to hone in on the micro details of Tidbinbilla, a tendency consistent with a practice which looks to the minutiae and subtle transformations within the natural world for inspiration. Atkins subjects her own glass-making process to similar organic shifts involving a mix of chance and design. The patterns she shows me – prototypes for her final work to be displayed as sheets of glass – are formed through combining powdered glass with water collected at Tidbinbilla. The textures and chiaroscuro tones evoke the soft calligraphy of the river bed: tidal markings, silted shadows, a weathered rock-face; the metamorphic cycle suggested by Richard Flanagan's opening lines above.

The Talking Water residencies do not uphold Namadgi National Park as an 'untainted' wilderness, or as a site for romantic escape, even while some of its work appears as lyrical abstractions of the Park's impressive natural phenomena. The residencies, after all, take place within the Park's built environments, now considered as much part of the area's heritage as its known sites of Aboriginal significance, such as the Birriagi or Bogong rock shelters or the so-called 'Yankee Hat' rock paintings. Notably, Craft ACT has extended the residency program this year to specifically target involvement by Indigenous artists.

Of the four artists considered here, printmaker Antonia Aitken's practice bears the most enduring connection to Namadgi Park and its waterways as this has been her ongoing subject for at least the past seven years, stemming from the work in her 2007 solo exhibition Reading Namadgi (shown at Tharwa's now defunct theblueroof gallery), and culminating more recently with her solo exhibitions River (2011/12, shown in Wagga Wagga and London) and Vestiges (2011/12, shown in Canberra and New York). During her residency at Gudgenby Ready-Cut Cottage, Aitken continued her investigation of the Park's land use and its environmental impact (as mediated by its changing waterways) through on-site drawings. These drawings attest to a close-up, immersive view, in parts responding to the debris ('largely the dead wood from the 2003 fires', Aitken explains) scattered along the waterway by recent flooding. Some of these drawings will make their way to the gallery wall but they are mostly source material for a large-scale triptych woodblock print, the laborious process and grainy effect of this medium perfectly in synch with the austere form and materiality of the residency's timber cottage. Aitken's carved woodblock to produce this triptych print will also be part of her installation, cast as a mirror-image in the same way that the image of flood debris is reflected in the waters of the Gudgenby River, and to lay bare her process.

Writing on Aitken's recent printmaking, fellow ACT printmaker Alison Alder touches on the lasting essence of Craft ACT's Talking Water residency program:

On the surface the works are literal transcriptions of country but on deeper viewing they alert us to land use and abuse, the relationship of city to country, the impermanence of what we assume is permanent – environmental politics born from the bush capital.

Maurice O'Riordan is editor of Art Monthly Australia.