Jonathan Jones: Barrangal Dyara

September 22, 2016
Prototype ceramic shields on site at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. Photo: Emma Pike/Kaldor Public Art Projects
Prototype ceramic shields on site at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. Photo: Emma Pike/Kaldor Public Art Projects

Jonathan Jones’s Barrangal Dyara (Skin and Bones) is one of the most ambitious art projects ever seen in this city, and one of the most ephemeral. It acts as a massive aide-memoire to public consciousness, reminding us of what has been buried and forgotten within little more than a century. Yet the physical form of the work is hardly more than a sketch: the spectral outline of a long-lost building defined by 15,000 plaster copies of Aboriginal hand-held shields. These shields reach almost to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on one side of the Royal Botanic Gardens. On the opposite side they leap the Cahill Expressway, clustering on a traffic island behind the William Shakespeare Memorial, looking like mementos of a great corroboree held in honour of the Bard.

Barrangal Dyara is the 45th Kaldor Public Art Project, and it has turned out to be one of the bigger, more difficult ones. In scale it is reminiscent of the very first Kaldor event – Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Coast of 1968-69 – but physically it is the inverse of that historic installation. Whereas Wrapped Coast sought to conceal something we see every day and render it mysterious, Barrangal Dyara aims to make visible a piece of the past that has faded from view.

To walk around the area defined by the plaster shields is to get an idea of the vast size of the Garden Palace that occupied this space from 1879-1882. It was built for the International Exhibition of 1879 as a symbol of the pride and prosperity of the colony of New South Wales. Within three years it was burnt to the ground by a fire that might have incinerated the entire city had the wind been blowing in a different direction.

To this day nobody knows what caused the blaze, although there are many theories. Arson is a distinct possibility, but because the Garden Palace was the first building in Sydney to have electric lighting the fire may have been the result of nothing more sinister than a fault in the wiring. Either way, the conflagration was spectacular and there was no attempt at reconstruction.

Exterior, Garden Palace, Sydney, c1879, Messrs Richards and Company. Collection: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney.

Exterior, Garden Palace, Sydney, c1879, Messrs Richards and Company. Collection: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney.

Most people have never heard of the Garden Palace, or like me, had heard of it but had no idea of its awesome dimensions. Jonathan Jones became aware of the building while researching indigenous cultural material, when he kept coming across references to items that had been lost in the fire of 1882.

Jones, who traces his ancestry to the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people, has a particular focus on the large collections of indigenous artefacts that were destroyed, but the losses were not limited to anthropological holdings. Planned as a cultural showcase the Garden Palace also contained the collections of the NSW Arts Society, the Technological and Mining Museum, the NSW branch of the Linnean society and the Colonial Archives. That translates into valuable works of art, rare natural history specimens, and the records and documents of the convict era. Much of this material was irreplaceable.

While precious artefacts were lost in the Garden Palace fire it’s an historical irony that so many indigenous pieces have survived to the present day only through having been held in museums. This issue was explored in the National Museum of Australia’s Encounters exhibition earlier this year, when items from the collection of the British Museum were allowed to travel back to Australia.

Had the fire never happened Jones might have been appreciative of the colonial collectors who preserved such artefacts for posterity. Instead the loss seems doubly tragic because our major access to Aboriginal history is through the study of material culture and the oral traditions that survive today.

We are familiar with the colonial era from the written accounts of explorers and settlers, but there are no memoirs of the time written from an Aboriginal perspective. It is only comparatively recently that Aboriginal history has begun to be written down and analysed. Today it’s a rapidly expanding field.

In Barrangal Dyara Jones has not approached the Garden Palace fire as a source of mourning and recrimination. He has chosen to present this installation as a celebration of the resilience of indigenous culture, as symbolised by the continuing vitality of tribal languages. As viewers move around the perimeter of the display they encounter eight different languages being spoken by the descendants of those figures who created the lost artefacts.

In the imaginary centre of the building Jones has planted a patch of kangaroo grass, from which we hear more voices and occasionally the sound of flames. It’s a reference to Aboriginal land-management, which helped alter the patterns of vegetation and animal life over many thousands of years.

Dancers perform during a Bangarra Dance Theatre And Kaldor Public Art Projects Announcement event at The Royal Botanic Gardens.

Dancers perform during a Bangarra Dance Theatre And Kaldor Public Art Projects Announcement event at The Royal Botanic Gardens.

The other significant element of this project is an extensive series of talks and events. Every day at 12.30 there is a lunchtime lecture, and every Saturday a 3 pm forum. There are also artist demonstrations and a range of other activities. The full program may be accessed at the Kaldor website, along with a downloadable app.

By now you may be thinking that Barrangal Dyara sounds like a social history extravaganza, but is it art? It’s a distinction that’s increasingly difficult to make, as the de-definition of “art” at the end of the Modernist era has left the term open to interpretation. Some believe that anything may be art if an artist says it is. Others prefer Andy Warhol’s notorious formula: “Art is what you can get away with”.

Jones may be unorthodox but he is also one of the most scholarly artists at work in Australia today. Few academics could claim to have researched indigenous history so thoroughly, or to have examined so many objects. Jones’s artistic efforts have grown out of this intellectual enterprise, as he has set out to explore the emotional, historical and spiritual connections between indigenous people and their land.

At times this can impose a strain upon the viewer’s credulity and good will, but there can be no doubting the sincerity of the work. For much of the time, Jones allows objects, signs and symbols speak for themselves, as if he is merely the conduit by which these age-old representations of indigenous life find their way into the contemporary realm.

With Barrangal Dyara Jones is not simply acting as an artist, but as curator, designer and entrepreneur. With the support of the Kaldor team he has orchestrated a festival of indigenous culture, with the aim of educating the general public and fostering a greater understanding of Aboriginal life.

Jonathan Jones, barrangal dyara (skin and bones), 2016, courtesy the artist and Kaldor Public Arts Projects.

Jonathan Jones, Barrangal Dyara (skin and bones), 2016, courtesy the artist and Kaldor Public Arts Projects.

Wandering around the Gardens on an overcast day, looking at the plaster shields laid out on green lawns, this all seems rather wonderful. No-one is obliged to listen to the talks and seminars, no-one need linger in the kangaroo grass eavesdropping on unfamiliar languages. But for those who are interested there is a wealth of information being disseminated on a daily basis.

After pacing out the perimeter of the Garden Palace and listening to whatever talks are on offer, I’d recommend crossing the Cahill expressway to the State Library, where there is a small exhibition of photos, plans and illustrations of the original building in the Amaze Gallery.

Even though the emphasis of Jones’s project lies squarely with indigenous history, the story of the Garden Palace speaks strongly to the very nature and character of Sydney.

Sydney is a forgetful city, more inclined to seize the day than to dwell on the past. One can only wonder if the catastrophic loss of cultural property and historical documentation that occurred when the Garden Palace was lost has exacerbated these careless tendencies. Over the past century we have been eager to tear down important parts of our architectural heritage and replace them with undistinguished office and apartment blocks.

The Baird government seems determined to revive this process with its heavy-handed attitude to urban planning and the utterly impracticable scheme of moving the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta – so yet another historical site can be sold off to developers. Jones’s massive installation serves to remind us that it’s not just Aboriginal history that needs care and protection, it’s the entire fabric of memory that resides in the built environment. Sweep away a city’s heritage and you take away its soul.

Jonathan Jones: Barrangal Dyara (Skin and Bones)
Royal Botanic Gardens, until 3 October.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 24th September, 2016