Melbourne craftsperson Damien Wright’s furniture and sculptures explore and celebrate the splendour and bounty of the Australian landscape. In his work 5.45pm 18/02/2020, 2020, Wright takes this further by juxtaposing the ancient material of a 10,000-year-old red gum, with three commonly found plastic white chairs.
5.45 pm on 18 February 2020, master craftsperson, designer and historian Damien Wright downs his tools. The fresh tang of tung oil and citrus thinner hangs in the air. In his Northcote workshop a large, black, shimmering organic slab – existing halfway between timber and oil – is intersected with and supported by three white plastic chairs. This strange combination of material and object results in a bench seat that asks more questions than it answers. And that is how, as a designer, Wright likes it.
The chairs are the ubiquitous plastic outdoor variety. The kind you expect to see at a sports carnival or awkwardly stacked in the back corner of the shed gathering dust. These chairs are manufactured globally. Compared to their useful lives, the material life span of the plastic is excessive – thousands of years and maybe more. Certainly far longer than we humans can comprehend.
The slab is ancient river red gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis), or it was. It was dug up at a quarry on Yorta Yorta Country near Wodonga, Victoria, and through radiocarbon dating is estimated to be around 10,000 years old. When timber is unearthed after so long underground, it is in the midst of a material transformation. It can no longer be classified as timber, but neither is it a fossil, and needs at least another 49.9 million years deep underground to become oil. It is a process of metamorphosis that is as old as time.
5.45pm 18/02/2020 is all about time. Named for the time and date it was ‘completed’, it took two weeks from the spark of an idea to applying the final layer of finish. For a work that embodies vast timescales in its material and philosophy, trying to pinpoint when the work ‘started and finished’ proves elusive. It has been a journey.
Depending on which way you look at it, the journey began long before the first pass of the brass brush to remove burrs and prepare the surface. It could have started four years ago when Wright collected the timber slab from miller, woodworker and seventh-generation farmer, Kelvin Barton’s Wodonga mill. Barton, who had a local supply of the material from the nearby quarry, introduced Wright to the challenges and rewards of working with ancient river red gum. Wright had been visiting Barton’s yard regularly for twenty years and remembers the mysterious piece of blackened timber. ‘It had been lying out in the weather at Kelvin Barton’s mill … every time I was there I’d check it out’. As Wright explains, he has ‘known that piece of timber for a long time’.
Or it might go back earlier still, to 1990, when geomorphologist Jim Bowler received samples of a curious black material that was fibrous and very hard. Bowler identified and dated the sample as oxidised and ebonised river red gum at approximately 8,000 to 10,000 years old. Recognising the outstanding historical and material qualities of this discovery, Bowler and his wife Joan Bowler encouraged woodworkers and millers, including Barton, to work with this ancient material.
Maybe then, the story begins with the seeding of this river red gum.
Based on Bowler’s dating, this particular tree would have grown up on the banks of the Murray River after the last ice age, which peaked about 20,000 years ago. It would have enjoyed a steady rise in temperature and water levels. Eventually it toppled over and perhaps it was submerged in the water, providing food and shelter to a multitude of aquatic life in the river that once nourished its roots. For the Indigenous populations that lived through the last Ice Age the mighty river red gum provided spiritually, culturally and economically. For both the Yorta Yorta and now non-Indigenous people such as Wright, the red gum that have survived logging, mining and other destructive human activities, continue to provide.
Over several thousand years, melting snow and receding glaciers transported vast quantities of gravel and scree from the Victorian Alpine region – carving out valleys, collecting organic matter, and entombing fallen trees, including the river red gum, in sediment. Compacted in an acidic and oxygen-deprived environment, the timber slowly absorbs and becomes saturated with iron and silica – gradually becoming oxidised and ebonised, hardening and turning black. It is through these ancient and ongoing cycles of material change that this river red gum is transformed. Naturally black through to the heartwood and unbelievably hard, this familiar, yet strange material holds an enticing, ethereal quality befitting its lived experiences.
The ancient, blackened slab held in dialogue with the contemporary, all-pervasive, and possibly everlasting, polypropylene of the white plastic chairs is visually and metaphorically complex. The clash of materials brings into sharp relief the deep time, natural cycles and geological forces required to produce both this piece of red gum (10,000 years) and the oil (approximately 50 million years) processed into the plastic for the chairs. By literally intersecting these materials, Wright invites us to travel, not back, but through time. As Wright explains, ‘5.45 challenges our binary logic of time and place. Of belonging. Of the precious and valuable. The intersection of deep time and the very now. [It asks us to understand] that now and then are not separate’. He points to institutionalised systems of categorisation, including in the design field, where the desire to compartmentalise through an ‘Enlightenment logic’, underpins much of Western history. Wright sees great potential for Australian craft and design to challenge and ultimately broaden that mindset towards a more holistic understanding of our place in the world and in time. In that regard, there is still much ground to cover, but this seems a good time to start.
Maybe 5.45pm 18/02/2020 does not mark the end, but simply another step along the journey.
This article was originally published in NGV Magazine Issue 25 Nov–Dec 2020.