Ancient Red Gum
Base 750 x 750 x 2000mm
Black is made from one log of Ancient Red Gum. The tree comes from the Murray river flood plane near Albury Wodonga – on the boarder of NSW and Victoria. The tree was found in a water logged gravel quarry. In the process of mining the gravel, trees are unearthed. The gravel follows the ancient river course of the Murray. The theory is that the trees are either bowled over in a catastrophic flood or have fallen into the river. Red gum has a density greater then water and sinks to the bottom. There it is covered with silt and gravel and, over the next five to ten thousand years, is ebonised. The timber is transformed by the environment but not destroyed.
Once discovered, the tree is removed from the gravel and taken to the mill. The timber is ‘super-saturated’, meaning that the wood has absorbed so much water that it can’t take in any more. The timber has a moisture content of nearly 100%. A normal Red Gum would have a moisture content of around 30-40%. What this means is that when the tree is out of the ground and exposed to the air it loses moisture rapidly, causing the timber to change dimension. Collapsing, warping, splitting and checking are the result. This is a big problem in working with Ancient Red gum. What I endeavoured to do in Black was to make the movement and change in the timber, as it adjusts to the environment, central to the piece.
At the mill we cut from the tree seven 3000 x 150 x 150mm posts. I kept five posts at 1800mm under water while I kiln-dried the rest. When the timber was dry I built the base. With the base all but finished I took the uprights out of the bath, machined, sanded and fitted them. As soon as the posts were out of the water they started to dry and the surface became textured. This process will continue for years. It will be most obvious in the first two years, but will be ongoing – always adjusting to the environment in which it is placed.
The tree in this piece was full of a grain feature known as ‘fiddle back’. It is a wavy pattern that runs perpendicular to the vertical grain of the tree. As the timber dries, the fiddle back leaves a serrated surface. This occurs on only one or two faces of each post depending on where it was cut from the log. On the other faces the drying timber crazes and cracks.
This sculpture was first imagined several years ago when the client and I were discussing another project and I showed him a sample of the Ancient Red gum. The client instantly connected with its blackness, its mystery, its texture, its glamour. Although the timber was inappropriate for the piece I was commissioned to make at the time, the idea took hold.
Over a year later we began to think about a sculpture. The piece was conceived within a material context and through the form I have aimed to explore and indulge the sheer beauty and gravity of the material.
The base has the Hebrew letter ‘Hay’ cut into the surface. There are seven holes and five posts. The posts can be moved to any position. Some of the posts have holes through them. I don’t know what makes these holes. They aren’t knots. These holes or pipes run right through the log. The inside of the holes is covered in a fine grey silt. The entire log was covered with this material when it was extracted from the gravel. It is still possible to see fine gravel in the timber.
From an artistic point of view, Black was an inspirational piece to make. I felt honoured and grateful to be given the opportunity to work exclusively in this extraordinary material. I was intensely aware that no other Australian sculptor or craftsperson has ever attempted to create something as large, majestic and ambitious in Ancient Redgum as Black. (The timber is most often used as a detail feature.) As a maker, I daily felt the raw power of the material. It is a difficult and uncompromising timber to manipulate – it doesn’t comply easily to one’s human will – and as such it represented both a physical and emotional challenge. But I never saw the timber as my nemesis.
Rather, I endeavoured to understand its logic and potency. Ultimately, this relationship forged a deep respect. It was only after I finished the piece and was able to stand back and look at it from a distance that I realised that what I had achieved was not just artistic but also philosophical and political. I had achieved a reconciliation with the material world that symbolised what I believe is necessary to achieve cultural and environmental sustainability in Australia. That is, respect, understanding and a willingness to seek compromise, and welcome change in seemingly intractable situations.
From a personal perspective, the process of crafting Black was my way of expressing both a connection with Australia’s indigenous history and a hope for a more reconciled future. Interestingly, the aesthetic result of this process is not ‘light’. It is a melancholy, brooding piece that says something about the difficulty and struggle of coming to grips with the darkness that lies at the core of all human suffering and struggle. The result is graceful and optimistic, but it is not easy – just as it is not easy for any of us to reconcile the black heart of our own histories.