2002 Bondi Exhibition Catalogue Essay – By the sea: A history of human engagement

Posted: October 31, 2002 / Bondi Exhibition Catalogue Essays, Essays

By Dr Paul S.C. Taçon 
Head of the People and Place Research Centre, Australian Museum

It was by the sea that they did it. Along the edges of great oceans, on the beach and in the water, human ancestors travelled on a quest to explore and conquer the world. By the water they met, shared experience, ideas and each other. Undoubtedly, many places were mapped, marked and mythologised in the process. Lines were drawn in the sand, boulders were carved with aesthetic arrangements of long-lasting designs and temporary shelters were erected. But those landscapes are now well and truly gone, having been drowned by the rising sea levels released by the death throes of the last great Ice Age, many thousands of years ago, That great period of global warming shaped and marked the land on an unprecedented scale for early humans, challenging and changing our ancestors in profound and permanent ways.

Humans also have an incredible capacity to mark, shape and transform land. It is almost as if the first humans were born artists whose purpose it was and always has been to mark, make and immortalise special places. The urge to come to terms with new landscapes must have been enormous, as recent research has shown that as soon as people reached new areas they began to change them, to mark and make them places charged with meaning. Some of those marks, those special places, have survived in the form of rock-paintings, rock-engravings, stone arrangements and other sorts of early sculpture. Countless thousands have not but we can well imagine that at any given moment of history humanity’s artists were hard at work bonding with, reconciling and transforming the land. Today, ancient rock-art and sculpture gives us glimpses into those past ages, as well as the early artists themselves.

Australia is home to one of the largest bodies of rock-art in the world, with over 100,000 sites and millions of images. New sites are found each year, usually in some of the more remote, rugged parts of the continent. Invariably, these significant, elaborately adorned places are close to water. Often the more impressive galleries also have commanding views of their surrounds. It is as if the raw aesthetic power of nature inspired both ancient and recent Australians to create an aesthetic of their own.

Some of the earliest surviving marks, both in Australia and in many other parts of the world, consist of stencilled hands, rudimentary prints, carved or abraded grooves and cup-like engravings, the latter pecked or ground into the rock surface. Indeed, these sorts of designs are among the oldest forms of rock-art in most countries but they continued to be made in recent times. These marks of the individual, marks of contemplation, appear to reflect a bonding process, a coming to terms with landscapes, places and spaces. They say ‘I was here’, ‘this is a p!ace important to me’ but also con-tribute to the immortalisation of place. The memorialising of place has manifest itself in many ways since the earliest semi-permanent marks were made 30,000, 40,000 or more years ago in Australia and possibly as much as over 200,000 years ago elsewhere. But more recent marks also include images and symbols of group identity, as well as scenes depicting daily life, ritual, belief, experience and history.

We continue the process in both old and new ways, from graffiti ‘tags’ or sculpted material of the individual to buildings, monuments and edifices of the group. We stamp our identity, experience and history on the land wherever we venture to. For better or worse, we bond with the land, commemorating past good fortunes and mistakes, expressing some form of reality in the present or advertising bold new visions of the future. We change the land; the land changes us. Artists, the world over, are good at this but all of us engage in this activity, sometimes without fully realising it. It is events like Sculpture by the Sea that both remind us of our marking obsession and express new relationships to p!ace in meaningful ways. They bring past traditions together with present experience, unite individual with community and reaffirm relationships with both land and sea.

Importantly, the sculptures placed so carefully along the ocean’s edge each year, as part of an annual event all of Sydney can participate in, are not the first marks to highlight Bondi’s sand-stone-water boundary. For instance, there are Aboriginal depictions of marine creatures delicately carved into sand-stone platforms near the water’s edge and other images of humans and animals can be found on rocky outcrops near water throughout Sydney. But there are also more enigmatic marks that tell of human relationships to place in Bondi. For instance, at the end of the Notts Avenue cul de sac there are numerous long, straight lines carved deep into the rock. They were pecked and abraded in a manner similar to the carved marine animals nearby but do not define a recognisable image. Elsewhere in greater Sydney such lines were sometimes pecked into platforms to divert water into natural hollows or to places suitable for sharpening stone axes but this does not appear to be the case here. But certainly time and trouble went into their production so they surely once had purpose.

Close to the pecked lines is a large boulder with vertical, horizontal and sloping grooves carved into one side and along its back. The grooves are reminiscent of those found at many Aboriginal sites across Australia and the boulder is carved in a similar way to others in NSW and beyond. For instance, they resemble axe-grinding grooves found in outcrops of sandstone throughout the Sydney region. However, axe-grinding grooves are usually on flat or slightly sloping surfaces, and are somewhat wider. But elsewhere in Australia, boulders were often adorned with deep, narrow grooves. This resulted from a range of activities, including initiation and commemoration, invariably signifying the boulder and/or larger place as especially significant. It is thus likely that the Bondi grooves are of Aboriginal origin or are at least Aboriginal-inspired but the pecked and abraded lines are more of a mystery. It is not known when or why they were made and what cultural influence led to their production. Perhaps they were made by Aboriginal people or are a recent, non-Aboriginal reminder of human interaction with place, a precursor to the more elaborate sculptures that now dot the coastline as a rite of spring passage.

Rites of passage are implicated in many past human marking activities and continue to underlie much of the present. Gravestones and memorials to the dead are obvious marks about ultimate passage but others, from foundation stones to gardens to temporary sculpture commemorate changing lives and seasons. From the dawn of modern humans people have been marking time and space with expressions of experience, their relationship to the environment, other creatures and to each other. These long-standing human practices celebrate life, love, land and longing. They illustrate the very human need to mark change, bond with place and initiate new beginnings. People have been arriving in Australia by sea for many tens of thousands of years. Each new wave has sculpted the land in its own way. But the land has also changed the people, imprinting itself on their most basic of traditions.

Tradition_s are never static but they do anchor us in past and present group experience and identity, in culturally meaningful ways. This helps to alleviate stress by reassuring people of group acceptance, providing an outlet for self-expression and giving hope or plans of action for the future. This is especially important in changing times, times of uncertainty, and can take place at any meaningful location. But it is at certain places, such as mountains, hilltops, waterfalls or by the sea, places of dynamism and change, that inspiration and revelation about who we really are and where we might be going may best be encountered. Many people consider water to be the essence of life, stone to be the essence of land and air, through respiration, to be the essence of being. Together, water, stone and air make sand, clay and earth, the soils that support terrestrial and even marine life. Thus liminal zones where water, stone and air dramatically intersect, where minerals are released and ultimately life is nourished or born, will always be some of our most special places. Throughout the world, these places are marked with art and architecture, often with an aspect of sacredness. But the natural beauty and power of such places is also important, as it is what inspired human creativity in the first place. Natural place thus has deep roots in our psychology, it has and continues to significantly shape who we are. Our paintings, engravings, sculptures and architecture are merely extensions of a place’s natural significance. Something to contemplate when next visiting a spectacular waterfall, mountain or rocky outcrop by the sea.

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