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bold blue, red hill

bold blue, red hill proposed a move towards redressing the legacy of 'colonial terraforming' and our inherited ecological histories.”


 



Deep time submerging

Andrea Bell, The Art Paper, SOIL 2022
Shards of polystyrene, straws and lollypop sticks embedded the crevasses of the rocky sea wall.1 While collecting strewn debris washed ashore the Otago harbour mouth following a recent storm, I attempted to casually explain our bodily connection to the earth and universe to my three year old. They replied: “I’m not made of stardust. I am made of plastic!”

Whenever heavy rain is forecast, Caitlin Clarke’s grandmother sandbags her home in St Kilda, a suburb built upon wetlands on the coastal plain of South Dunedin. Drained and in-filled by early colonial settlers, this low-lying area is increasingly vulnerable to flooding due to the high groundwater table and advancing erosion of neighbouring beaches. You don’t have to dig deep to reach the water here.

Clarke’s exhibition bold blue, red hill at Wave Project Space responded to local geological histories—the excavation of land, drainage of swamps, and the rivers and waterways hidden beneath our soil. Wave resides on reclaimed land near the original foreshore of Ōtepoti Dunedin. Located close to a former ‘waka landing site near the mouth of the Toitū stream’2, the gallery overlooks former mudflats (now Queens Gardens) on land developed following the demolition of nearby Bell Hill. The flattening and reclamation of this area was a major undertaking by unemployed goldfield diggers and forced prison labour between 1862-1877.3 Approximately 150 years later on my visit to Wave, the rear gallery wall, bathed in winter sunlight, was painted with a muddy clay-based slip shadowing the former profile of Bell Hill.

bold blue, red hill was a meditative and multi-sensory installation. Ceramic sculptures—grainy, marbled tiles, vessels and rocks embedded with pebbles and melted sea glass—were placed directly on gallery floorboards, stratified clay plinths, window ledges, or connected to simple wooden support structures. Language was material too, with artwork titles garnered from Seamus Heaney poems such as ‘Better sunk under’ and ‘I composed habits over acres.’ Accompanying the exhibition separate pieces of speculative fiction by Clarke and Loulou Callister-Baker proposed embodied accounts of sinking deep into the mud. As Bill Hicks once remarked, “we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively.”4 A sound recording arranged by composer Alex van den Broek gently rinsed over the gallery, reminiscent of the incoming tide, or the ebb and flow of the Toitū —in its past, present or future existence. Time is a river.

According to geologists, deep time dates the beginning of the earth back 4.6 billion years, as documented in layers of rock. Such a cosmic time span is hard to comprehend. Though rocks feature in Clarke’s work she recognises the absurdity in ‘making’ them given the real amount of time involved, admitting: “every scrape of texture or grain of sand on a real rock has so much more gravitas.”5

Moulding clay with her hands, Clarke’s earthworks were created as an artistic rather than civic pursuit, yet a slippery parallel seeps through this common desire to dig, sculpt and transform raw materials from the earth—changing them irreversibly. In spite of this the works in bold blue, red hill appeared organic and unpredictable: with tiny green plant shoots observed emerging from the dirt-scattered rocky support for A river from above, 2022, over the course of the exhibition. Beneath the surface the mauri remains.
Clarke located seams of clay, ash and stones across multiple sites in Te Waipounamou: in places such as Naseby, Okuti Valley, Riverton, Southland, Te Waewae, Wainui; Robinsons, Cass, Charteris, and Te Oka Bays.6 Her transparency regarding provenance builds a narrative and connection with place, but also positions Clarke’s modest foraging efforts in contrast to the commercial extraction of clay for the pottery industry; an activity significantly contributing to environmental imbalances such as erosion, deforestation and the silting of waterways. Many of the sites from which she sourced materials carry their own histories of digging and excavation: for coal, shale and gold. Mining and engineering also feature in Clarke’s genealogy and her interest in resource management—informed by a former job sorting historical maps, drawings and aerial photographs of land and waterways. In response to the stark environmental changes documented past and present, bold blue, red hill proposed a move towards redressing the legacy of ‘colonial terraforming’7 and our inherited ecological histories.

With rising sea levels and climate change imminent, the Dunedin City Council will likely follow a plan of managed coastal retreat.8 As I write this after days of rain, Ōtepoti Dunedin is flooding again—slowly submerging. I think of Caitlin’s grandmother, the fate of future generations, and what will be washed up in the years to come.

By Andrea Bell

Caitlin Clarke, Bold Blue, Red Hill, 3 – 25 June 2022 at Wave, Ōtepoti

1 Many of the rocky sea walls bordering the Otago harbour were built with indentured labour. A plaque on the banks of the Water of the Leith reads: "This plaque was originally planned to extravagantly praise Dunedin, but now I want to remember the Maori passive resisters, abducted from Parihaka, shipped to Dunedin, held without trial, imprisoned, they were used as slaves to builds the sea walls of this harbour." https://readtheplaque.com/plaque/parihaka-memorial-1848 accessed 12 July 2022 

2 Otakou marae kaumatua Edward Ellison, cited by Hamish MacLean, ‘Colonial past uncovered at ACC build site’, Otago Daily Times, Saturday, 9 April 2022, https://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/colonial-past-uncovered-acc-build-site accessed 10 July 2022. 

3 Author unknown, ‘Completion of the Demolition of Bell Hill’, Otago Witness, issue 1357, 1 December 1877, p.17 https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/OW18771201.2.77 accessed 11 July 2022 

4 Extract from Bill Hicks, Revelations, London, 1993 

5 correspondence with the artist, 6 July 2022 

6 as listed beside each work on the bold blue, red hill, exhibition room sheet 

7 as cited by the Clarke in correspondence 6 July 2022 – also refer Dr Rosie Ibbotson University of Canterbury, “Mineral portraiture: Colonial terraforming, visual representation, and the ecopolitics of scale.” Presented at Wave Project Space, 5 June 2022 

8 Grant Miller, ‘Govt may be asked for help on South Dunedin’, Otago Daily Times, 28 May 2022 https://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/dcc/govt-may-be-asked-help-south-dunedin, accessed 21 July 2022

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caitlin j clarke
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