In 1828, my ancestor Stephen Hedges was transported to New South Wales. On this residency in Newcastle, Australia, using themes from my research (the past and the present; history, myth and reality; imagination and the landscape) I’ll examine his story in relation to my own experience of travelling to the country; using the city and cultural centre (The Lock Up) as a means of exploring our relationship to the past.
Carrying on with the work I did in Australia, I’ve spent the last couple of days videoing the canvas ‘sail’ that I made there, which was itself made from the pattern of several walks made around Newcastle, NSW. This work (‘Repaired Sail of HMS York (1828)’) is in many respects linked to a piece I made for my third Mine the Mountain exhibition called ‘Old Battle Flags‘ and is about the feel of the wind – the wind being something which although one may read about in history (particularly in the context of sailing) one can only experience in the present (of course the same could be said of everything else, but in light of the theme of this residency, the wind is especially pertinent).
This piece is about the disparity between language and experience. The wind we feel today is the same wind that’s blown over – and indeed through – the centuries and millennia. In winter the wind may blow from the east, from the vast and distant land of Siberia – a place well beyond the horizon but nevertheless a place which exists all the same.
The sail is made from my own past experiences, and the wind a reminder of movement in the past – that which is missing from the pages of history. It’s also about the everydayness of the past – something which we take often for granted like so much else but which is integral to our experience of the world.
The photographs of dead birds which I took on Newcastle beach are particularly poignant; the lifeless bodies which had once soared high in the sky above are analogous with lost moments in time and, indeed, with the photograph itself. Dying out at sea, the birds had been washed up on the beach, joined in a line marked by that of the tide, rather like the words in my sketchbook, joined by the trace of the line of a walk.
Putting the two together seems to make sense; the words of the walks referring to moments which once lived and which in the instant they were written down fell to the ground like the birds themselves. With every reading they are as those birds washed back up on the beach, joined again by a line – this time, the act of reading in sequence, or of reading them out loud.
Since returning to England this morning after my residency in Australia, I’ve been looking at my notebook, and feel it’s worthwhile putting the pages up on, in particular those relating to the walks I did. So reproduced with this blog are those pages, written as I was walking (such is why the handwriting is atrocious whereas normally its little better than poor).
I finally finished stitching together the canvas pieces for a workI have tentatively called Repaired Sail of HMS York (1828), refrerring to the prison hulk on which Stephen Hedges was incarcerated before being transported to Australia. The hulk was a demasted ship and on contemporary images one can see how clothes were strung across the ship, almost as if replacement sails themselves.
This piece also alludes to an earlier work of mine called ‘Old Battle Flags‘ which I exhibited as part of my recent Mine the Mountain exhibition. This work – Repaired Sail of HMS York (1828) – was made in response to the old battle flags one finds sometimes hanging in cathedrals. As I wrote in a text accompanying the work:
“Whenever I see them, hanging from their poles, still and lifeless, I think of the wind that would have once shaped them, a wind which would have once blown and turned the pages of history as it was being written. It reminds me that the flags had a place in what was then the present, rather than a scripted, preordained past. I can remember as a child, sitting on the beach when the weather was less than clement, when the wind whipped the sand, drilled the waves and flapped the canvas of the deckchairs. These deckchairs on display still have their colours, and in the main, their shape, but now they are broken; metaphors for times which cannot be revisited.“
The flags hang lifeless without the wind – the past hangs lifeless too. HMS York in this sense is a metaphor for the past – demasted and without a sail, lifeless almost, a prison for the past which in its own present criss-crossed the globe. To re-witness that past we need to see it move again, to catch the wind: we need a new sail.
The sail in this work is made of canvas, and is derived from a pattern made from data recorded on a GPS. The data itself represents a series of nine walks made during the first week or so of the residency here in Newcastle, NSW. As I have discovered through my work over the last few years, walking and being in a particular place and experiencing the everydayness of a place, is vital in our understanding of associated historical events. It is relevant therefore, that this ‘sail’, made to catch the wind and ‘move’ HMS York once again, is constructed from a series of walks.
Often, it’s the reverse side of a piece like this which proves to be the most interesting, and indeed the most aesthetically satisfying. This particular canvas is no exception. When I turned it over and laid it out, I found the loose threads and knots particularly interesting. Perhaps they remind me the cut lines of past lives or the unwritten lines of text of which, for the most part, history is comprised.
After a very nice weekend in Sydney, it’s back to work on the canvas; more cutting and stitching. With just two days left of the residency, it’s going to be a close run thing as to whether I get everything done – hopefully tomorrow I shall complete the canvas at least.