FACT SHEETS

In the arid zone: notes from our first art commission

10.09.18 by Sonia Leber and David Chesworth

We are artists working as the collaborative duo Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, and we are delighted to have been awarded the first CABAH Art Series commission, to create an artwork that responds to Associate Professor Tim Cohen’s climate theme research.

Our art practice is research-based, often responding to cultural situations in different cities and settings, using video, sound, architecture, and public participation. We develop our works in places undergoing social or technological change, creating video-based artworks that are both speculative and archaeological in the broadest sense of the word.

William Driver and Jonathan Palmer using a coring tool to extract a small core, Nitmiluk National Park, NT Photo: Sonia Leber and David Chesworth
Dr Tim Cohen, Aara Welz, Dr Nicola Stromsoe arriving at ancient shoreline of Lake Woods, NT Photo credit: Sonia Leber and David Chesworth

Engaging with scientific research is both exciting and challenging. The artwork we are going to make is out there waiting; images and activities to be re-interpreted, re-framed, recorded and edited. The artwork will emerge from Tim’s scientific research, as a kind of video-essay, but it will also exist significantly in the realm of the philosophical and the imaginary.

The first step has been accompanying Professor Tim Cohen’s team – Dr Matt Forbes, Dr Nicola Stromsoe and Community Liaison Officer, Aara Welz – on a field trip to the Northern Territory as they investigated the current and ancient shorelines of the remote, arid Lake Woods, and the palaeoflood deposits of Katherine Gorge/Nitmiluk, NT.

During a seven-hour drive south from Darwin, Tim made us aware of the intersecting timescales in the landscape formations we were passing. We were traveling at speed towards the centre of Australia’s vast continental plate, a long way from tectonic action at the plate edges. We observed a landscape around us that has been ‘unchanging’ over a timescale that is truly exceptional, eroding much more slowly than the rest of the world.

Engaging with scientific research is both exciting and challenging. The artwork we are going to make is out there waiting; images and activities to be re-interpreted, re-framed, recorded and edited. The artwork will emerge from Tim’s scientific research, as a kind of video-essay, but it will also exist significantly in the realm of the philosophical and the imaginary.

The first step has been accompanying Professor Tim Cohen’s team – Dr Matt Forbes, Dr Nicola Stromsoe and Community Liaison Officer, Aara Welz – on a field trip to the Northern Territory as they investigated the current and ancient shorelines of the remote, arid Lake Woods, and the palaeoflood deposits of Katherine Gorge/Nitmiluk, NT.

During a seven-hour drive south from Darwin, Tim made us aware of the intersecting timescales in the landscape formations we were passing. We were traveling at speed towards the centre of Australia’s vast continental plate, a long way from tectonic action at the plate edges. We observed a landscape around us that has been ‘unchanging’ over a timescale that is truly exceptional, eroding much more slowly than the rest of the world.

We suddenly found ourselves both captivated and disoriented; present, but also connected to the ancient past, where one timeframe folds into another. The words ‘old’ and ‘ancient’ are often used in relation to Australia in timescales that are hard to fathom. Here, we found ourselves temporally displaced, in a landscape that we could sense and understand in a new way, through Tim’s reading of the signs and signals.

“What you see out the window is in many ways similar to what you would have seen during the last interglacial period, 125,000 years ago,” Tim revealed.

“Also, during this warmer period, the temperature range would have been comparable to the present day.”

The work of the team required great acuity, and it took us on long journeys across remote cattle stations to study sediments at the shoreline of Lake Woods. A particular focus was the ancient shoreline that sits some 7km from the current edge of Lake Woods, like a massive dry “bathring” in the landscape, as Tim puts it.

“Here there is evidence of a large, presumably enduring, mega-lake that existed episodically throughout the last glacial cycle, suggesting more rainfall and runoff than today.”

“But is it that straight forward?” Tim asks, “CABAH’s research is really aiming to determine when in Australia’s past it was wet or dry and for how long. What about the cold peak glacials, such as 20,000 years ago? Was it cold and dry all over the continent? How spatially variable was it?”

We travelled north to Nitmiluk Katherine Gorge where, with the assistance of rangers and traditional owners, the team investigated palaeoflood deposits (evidence of mega-floods) in secluded riverbanks and side gorges.

At Nitmiluk, we were able to observe Zoë Thomas and Dr Jonathan Palmer taking small tree cores from cypress pines (Callitris intratropica). While tree cores reveal changes in climate over the past 100 years, this research can also inform Tim’s work on the palaeoflood deposits.

We have returned back to our studio with a great deal of audio and video footage, to view, assess, and develop thematically, as we plan our next field trip with Tim team.

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