Set among the European pin oak trees of the NGV’s Grollo Equiset Garden, an enigmatic wooden tower rises upwards from a surrounding field of kangaroo grass, murnong (yams) and an undulating path of crushed Victorian basalt. The nine-metre high by ten-metre wide cylinder is clad in a dark-stained Tasmanian hardwood. It is set directly on axis with Sir Roy Grounds’s vast NGV International building, aligned precisely with the architecture’s entrance and bridge to the Garden. A narrow vertical aperture, slicing the tall cylinder open, bisects the tower leaving a void and creating a passage into two intimate curved chambers. Inside each, hundreds of hand-blown, glossy, black glass murnong (yams) populate the walls and glitter in shafts of sunlight. A wavering scent of ash emanates. The building’s presence is immediate and visceral, ‘demanding witness both to its scale and presence but also to the falsely declared void at its heart’.1Yhonnie Scarce & Edition Office, ‘2019 NGV Architecture Commission’, proposal, 2019, p. 3.
Selected from a nationwide field of proposals, In Absence is the fifth NGV Architecture Commission, an ongoing initiative to commission, through an open competition, temporary works of thought-provoking and immersive architecture. The brief encourages the submission of collaborative proposals that engage audiences in broad conversations to provide new agency to architecture as a generator of contemporary cultural discourse, free of predetermined or prescriptive functions.
It is within this context that the work In Absence, an installation by contemporary Indigenous artist Yhonnie Scarce and Melbourne architecture studio Edition Office, founded by Kim Bridgland and Aaron Roberts, invites contemplation and acknowledges the longstanding histories of sophisticated toolmaking, design, construction and agriculture established and maintained by Australian Indigenous communities for more than 3,000 generations. As Scarce and Edition Office state:
In Absence speaks directly to the richness of architecture, agriculture and industry of the traditional custodians of this land, the presence of which sadly lies hidden within the deep myopic shadows of this nation’s history … [and] discredit[s] … the long-held narrative that the traditional custodians to the land were all nomadic hunter-gatherers.2ibid p. 2.
Importantly, however, the project is not about representation; it is about establishing just enough architecture – and space – to create sufficient opportunity for what is invisible to reveal itself.
A slice of nothingness splitting wholeness, the fissure and void at the symbolic heart of this structure is designed to evoke and clarify the false absence implied by terra nullius – a colonial strategy that claimed an absence of permanent Aboriginal settlement, which thus declared Australia as an emptiness awaiting ownership. This system of erasure facilitated the seizure of land for British occupation, initially for grazing and townships, but then ultimately formed the preconditions of Australian society, as it exists today. The fallacy of terra nullius, documented so well by Bruce Pascoe – an author, farmer and teacher of Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmanian Aboriginal descent – in his seminal book Dark Emu (2018), is now understood to be a conscious and deeply traumatic tactic of British colonialism, not only in Australia but also across other colonised lands.3For further reading, see Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, Magabala Books, Broome, Western Australia, 2014.
Nevertheless, the extent to which the realities, intelligence, sensitivity and success of Indigenous systems of living – including architecture – have infiltrated mainstream Australian consciousness, or even architectural practice, is questionable. By disallowing the power of this truth to redefine our collective understanding, it minimises the potential of this information to inform our possible futures – in the fields of architecture, agriculture, ecosystem management, Indigenous treaty and, ultimately, national identity.
While revealing and amplifying the false absence, the fissure slicing through the centre of the building also references the design of traditional stone eel traps that manipulate water flows to enable large-scale, sustainable aquaculture production. The aperture lures visitors inwards along a slender footpath towards a twin pair of ‘C’-shaped chambers, the form and scale of which are reminiscent of traditional permanent homes – constructed using stone, timber, peat, bark and reed – and villages of many Indigenous communities. The lingering scent of ash conjures the charred and richly scented hollows of towering old trees, used to smoke eels for preservation and trade.
Seeping out of the cracks between the black boards and rising skywards within the structure are hundreds of ink-black glass murnong (yams) by Yhonnie Scarce. Scarce’s practice uses her personal and cultural heritage as a Kokatha and Nukunu woman to highlight the legacy of colonisation on Indigenous Australians. She explores the far-reaching impacts of government policies and historical events that Indigenous communities have witnessed and endured. For Scarce, the glass murnong represent many things, including oil from fish or eels, water, medicinal sap from trees, fish, leeches and the metaphorical mapping of waterways and stars. She intends for these yams, rising within this symbolic tower, to attest to ‘the pain of this false absence, by filling the space with the glittering light of the memories and echoes of thousands of years of occupation’.4Correspondence between Yhonnie Scarce and the author, 19 August 2019.
Kim Bridgland and Aaron Roberts of Edition Office, both third-generation Australians of British and European descent, intend the project to ask why architecture has a strong tendency to support the status quo. They seek answers as to why these documented Indigenous systems of living have not sought cause for a
re-evaluation of heritage guidelines that define what is to be held as culturally significant and which form the basis of neighbourhood and character codes … [If] the collective weight of our built environment: houses, schools, libraries, sporting complexes and shops, establish the built truth of who we are, what value do we place on the permanent homes and villages of Aboriginal communities across Australia that were decimated and forgotten?’5Correspondence between Edition Office and the author, 19 August 2019.
This simple building, a small tower in a big city, is intended by Scarce and Edition Office to be an exemplar of Indigenous and non-Indigenous collaboration, a place of shared languages, conceived for the telling and sharing of knowledge. Its design utilises minimal architectural strategies (in relation to site, program, structure and materials) and capitalises on the semiotic potential of architecture, art and landscape to draw into focus resonant stories that reveal and reject the systematic denial, destruction and erasure of Indigenous design, construction, craft, agriculture and engineering, as part of a colonial strategy to legitimise dispossession.
In Absence seeks to act as a carrier for forgotten stories, to elevate these stories within the heart of the city, to say that they too exist, and that they too must form our shared history and inform our shared future. They must be given presence.
Yhonnie Scarce & Edition Office, ‘2019 NGV Architecture Commission’, proposal, 2019, p. 3.
ibid p. 2.
For further reading, see Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, Magabala Books, Broome, Western Australia, 2014.
Correspondence between Yhonnie Scarce and the author, 19 August 2019.
Correspondence between Edition Office and the author, 19 August 2019.