PENELOPE AITKEN artist >A DARK ARCHIVE

   
     
       
   

Mapping mass and void 5, Ford Garden, Eltham, 2007, oil on linen, 24 x 24 cm

 

Mapping mass and void 10

Mapping mass and void 10, Ford Garden, Eltham, 2008, oil on linen, 97 x 97cm

 

Mapping mass and void 4, Ford Garden, Eltham, 2007, oil on linen, 25 x 25 cm

 

Mapping mass and void 11, Ford Garden, Eltham, 2008, oil on linen, 50 x 50 cm

 

Mapping mass and void 3, Ford Garden, Eltham, 2008, oil on canvas, 26 x 26 cm

 

Mapping mass and void 9, Ford Garden, Eltham, 2008, oil on linen, 41 x 41cm

 

 

Mapping mass and void 2, Ford Garden, Eltham, 2008, oil on linen, 30 x 30cm

 

 

 

A dark archive

 

Every so often I experience anxiety for the archaeologists of the future. Today’s explorers of the past are known for their dedication to detail and knowledge of history, geology and sociology: they go forth in the field protected only by sunscreen and insect repellent. But in the future people digging the dirt on our culture will need respirators with multiple filters as they stumble upon black plastic packages of asbestos cement sheeting and drums of toxic waste. Quite frankly I can't see the profession retaining the same level of glamour.


I also worry for the future genealogists. To date this pastime, like archaeology, has entailed thrilling challenges in finding fragments of lives in ancient parish records in one’s ancestors’ homelands. The scarcity of information makes each detail precious and turning up a photo or a letter is like striking gold. Now though, the information available on every person is so prevalent that it will seem a dreary sludge to wade through in the future. In a hundred years who’s going to want to sort and edit great Aunt Kylie’s early Facebook entries? Or my dad’s scrupulously kept records of rabbits trapped since 2006 (29), his fifty-year history of blood donations (81) and the time taken to run laps of Princes Park since 1982 (average: 15 mins, personal best: 14.4 mins).


But even more worrisome is the confusion we will cause geological surveyors many, many years hence. When all the car batteries and spent uranium rods have finally broken down, when Facebook, MySpace, blogs and YouTube disintegrate into ones and zeros and then to dust, rocks will remain. Many rocks will remain but they won’t all be where they’re meant to be.


Today’s geologists explain the history of the earth - its volcanic activities, tectonic plate collisions and other faults in the crust - by observation of different types of rocks in various locations. A lump of basalt, pockmarked with air bubbles, is evidence of molten larva two to four million years ago. An outcrop of granite on the distant mountain range might indicate the great crashing together of continents in the Precambrian age. Where rocks have been gathered and carved and stacked upon one another in an orderly wall, bridge or pyramid there is clear evidence of human intervention. The situations I really worry about however are the more disorderly movements of rocks.


Malta, for instance, like many small islands, is highly eroded and not an ideal site for crops. However its location in the middle of the Mediterranean and its excellent natural harbour made it a superior strategic position for the many conquering powers during its tumultuous naval history. To overcome the arid conditions (in order to support settlement) a clever plan was implemented requiring all incoming vessels to bring soil as ballast which was replaced by rocks and sand as they left
(1). These ships went on to trade and transport people and goods, depositing Maltese rocks throughout the region. Clever then, but how will geologists acount for these rocks in wrong places when all the history books, ledgers and accounts are gone?


Even within countries, rocks have been moved great distances from where they occurred naturally. Landscape designers alone will be responsible for a great deal of misunderstanding.

 

Take landscape architect Gordon Ford, for instance. A household name in the suburb of Eltham, in Victoria, Australia, Gordon Ford, alongside the architect/builder Alistair Knox is credited with much of the unique ambiance of Eltham. Knox established mud-brick house design in the 1960s and 70s; fuelling a popular movement that drew counter-cultural and back-to-earth types from all over Melbourne to settle amongst the gum trees on dirt roads. Ford worked with Knox to create landscape designs for these new mud houses and advocated a ‘natural’ environment using native plants, indigenous to the area and able to grow in the region’s hard clay soil.


Ford had, however, a sculptor’s sensibility. He looked at banks of clouds and admired their billowing mass against the empty space of the sky
(2). To recreate these kinds of mass and void forms in his gardens he found the local sedimentary stone inadequate - perhaps it was too difficult to extricate large enough pieces from the hard clay soil. Instead he imported basalt and granite rocks up to 100 kilometres or so from northern and western Victoria on the other side of Melbourne (3). Ford’s sensibility so well matched the mood and the taste of Eltham people that during his lifetime he was commissioned to complete hundreds of gardens in Eltham and other eastern suburbs of Melbourne. He has also inspired many other professional and amateur gardeners and landscape designers since, so much so that the prevalence of basalt rocks cascading down hills, lining gullies and perching along driveways might now and later indicate evidence of volcanic activity in an area which has had none. From an historical perspective this might be considered more than a little misleading.


So what can we do about all of this future confusion? Should we aim to restore things as they were? Enlarging the campaign to return the Elgin Marbles to also include the repatriation of Maltese rocks might be somewhat unrealistic. Likewise it would be a pity to undo all of the lovely gardens. Leaving better records to explain what we have done will only add to information overload but perhaps we could aim to label things better. I’ve labelled my household's black, plastic wrapped packages of asbestos sheeting, destined for the dump, with signs saying “Danger, asbestos” and hope that future archeologists will have an adequate grasp of English. My portraits of Gordon Ford’s rocks will disintegrate long before their sitters. So there’s not too much danger of information overload from my end really but just to be sure I’ve cancelled my Facebook account.


Penelope Aitken, May 2008

 

 

1. I was told this by a Maltese man at a BBQ about ten years ago and it is commonly believed by other Maltese people however I’ve had trouble corroborating this fact beyond heresay.

 

2. Gordon Ford with Gwen Ford, Gordon Ford: The natural Australian Garden, 1999, Bloomings Books, p.15.

 

3. Landscape designer, Sam Cox, Ford's former protégé and business partner explained, "Gordon used imported stone for a few reasons. Foremost was the aesthetics of field stone. Occurring naturally on the surface, basalt and granite have characteristics that enable us to place them to emulate their natural form. This is difficult when stone has been removed from deep in the ground. Their faces, bottoms and tops are hard and harsh due to the lack of exposure to the weather. Availability was also an issue post war as most of the stone was collected by man power out in the paddocks to the north of Melbourne. Farmers were keen to have the rock removed and so a tradition of using basalt evolved. The use of granite began as machinery was able to move the stone longer distances." Email to Penelope Aitken 6 May 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

________________________________________________________

 

In July and August 2007 I undertook an arts residency at Birrarung, a house and garden designed by Gordon Ford and now managed as the Laughing Waters Artist in Residence Program by the Shire of Nillumbik, Victoria. The rocks in these images are from that garden as well as from other gardens he designed in Eltham and beyond.

 

I like the way Ford thought of the rocks, as individuals that needed to be handled and placed with consideration to show off their best aspects.

 

I also see these rocks as symbols of an aesthetic impulse trumping ideology: of Ford's naturalistic ideal. He was actually unapologetic about the fact that rocks and plants he used were not always indigenous to the gardens he designed. In an essay titled 'Down to earth', Morag Fraser writes about Ford in the last year of his life,

 

"Gordon never became a crusader, a native garden zealot. 'That's the trouble with me', he says. 'I'm not prejudiced enough against other forms of garden.' His own, scattered all around the country, are testimony to a perfected naturalistic landscape art and an encyclopedic knowledge of native flora, but they are essentially permissive. The form matters more to him than any purity of species. Where we both live there are moves from time to time to irradicate imports, to return the vegetation to its pristine state, whatever that was. Gordon snorts. 'Conscientious puritanism. Just nonsense. There is no pure landscape.' "(4)

 

4. Morag Fraser, 'Down to earth', in Peter Timms, ed. The nature of gardens, 1999, Allen & Unwin, p.225.

 

    Return to menu