Distance Music

A new little release. Two new pieces drawn from field recordings made in Thailand last year and studio improvisations.

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What’s Happening #3: Distance and decay – Revisiting journeys south of Lady Bay and the construction of the land sculpture, Nude (2011-2016)

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South of Lady Bay – July 2011.

Sometimes being alone in the wilderness can do strange things to me. I love being alone and some of the happiest times during my childhood was when I was left to my own devices and my imagination. A child is expected to do weird things – after all, they’re preoccupied with exploring the world and observing how it gives way or pushes back to their whim. When you’re a fully grown adult such curiosities are less permissible, largely by virtue of bodies that don’t readily recover as quickly as that of a younger human.

It was mid-winter in 2011.  I had set off before dawn from Normanville caravan park and had made my way down south along the coastline. A gloomy light had emerged as a approached Lady Bay with the roar of the ocean in my ears and breeze chilling my face. I was on a field recording trip, starting what would eventually become the The Fleurieu Sound Map – documenting sites along the coastline. Lady Bay was my primary destination. Having arrived there by around 7am, I made some recordings of the water gently ebbing over the reef at low tide, the ambience occasionally punctuated by the cry of a distant crow. As I sat on a compacted lump of seaweed drinking coffee from a thermos I looked further south down along the coastline. It has been a long time since I’d ventured beyond Lady Bay on foot. I recalled a trek south of Lady Bay sometime in during high school with my brother and a friend. We’d almost made it down to some caves before the failing light made us wary and we decided to turn back. Slightly intoxicated by that bit of sudden nostalgia, I ate a couple of mandarins, packed up my recording gear and set off for the caves.

By the time I’d reached my destination an hour or so later, the allure of discovery and trekking through a fog of mild exhaustion had firmly established itself and the caves weren’t good enough for me – I wanted to go further. This involved scaling a steep two-metre  incline comprised of brittle slate and sandy soil. The destination in mind was frankly ridiculous since all that lay beyond this impasse was the breakwater of Wirrina Cove – not an awe-inspiring man-made wonder. I got about a metre up the incline and was focused on securing my foothold when a lump of soil gave way in my hand and I embraced nothing but air for about half a second. Hitting the ground thankfully wasn’t too bad (a grazed hand and bruised arm) but the mental admonishment I gave myself was particularly severe. Yes, I do strange things when left alone in the wilderness. Had I seriously injured myself, no-one would find me for days…maybe weeks. In local lore it is mentioned that only weirdos venture as far as the caves. So on the remote chance I been found I might have had my kidneys harvested and been subsequently tortured to death.

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Maybe it’s the fault of an adult imagination, untethered and unencumbered from its real-world responsibilities. In this scenario your guard is let down; the natural world soaks into the consciousness, full of allure and curiosities: C‘mon! Climb this! Look under that rock! Eat this! You’re only atoms, it doesn’t matter! Everything’s in a perpetual state of entropy!

Maybe nature’s a similar enabler to alcohol and drugs – unlocking an index of escapism. Nature won’t necessarily inspire you to climb onto the roof of a train at high-speed, but it still may lead you to do a myriad of dangerous shit which might lead to – maybe – perishing on a remote beach with a twisted ankle.

I started my long trek back to Normanville, but shortly after leaving the caves I decided to rest on a grassy rise which overlooked a stony beach. I went down to investigate the beach, which consisted of an even stretch of covered in large rocks and stones; and a slope consisting of small pebbles and shells which fell away into the shore. At one end of upper section of the beach a surfeit of driftwood had accumulated from a recent storm. Without thinking about it too much, I gathered some large pieces of driftwood and began constructing a sculpture. My intention was to construct this sculpture as a personal landmark of sorts – something relatively innocuous, but which distinguished itself enough from the surrounding landscape to be recognisable to the wandering eye. I also thought it would be interesting to have a work in a remote location that I could return to from time to time.

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My hometown of Normanville is full of personal landmarks which I didn’t happen to construct. One such landmark was a small house on the corner of Field Street. I wrote about this house quite recently since I had been  informed by my mum that it had been demolished and sent through a photo of the vacant lot.

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October 2016

I was fairly rattled by this image; it was as though a chunk of my memory had been erased. Houses and buildings are routinely demolished, but this is the first time it had ever occurred so close to home – so close to an actual past home since the property pictured on the left is my childhood home. The only trace of this property which remains is the concrete dome-shaped enclosure for what I believe is a septic tank below the ground. Everything else is gone: the cream coloured exterior, thick wire fence and a corrugated tin shed with a cross painted on it.

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Corner of Cheeseman and Field Street – January 2011

Demolition is such a radical, immediate way of demarcating the present from the past. Rather than following a linear trajectory of transformation and/or decay, within a matter of hours visible histories are wiped out and can now only be experienced through reproduced images and memory.

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The sculpture that I was constructing on the beach some five years earlier would never be demolished per se, but rather would be subject to the transformative (and occasionally destructive) whim of the elements.

I called the sculpture Nude, owing to its raw materials and exposed proximity to a body of water and surrounding environment.

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Nude – July 2011

2012-2015:

In order to get to the Nude sculpture, you’ll need a sturdy pair of shoes, some water, maybe a snack, plus surveying the state of the weather is always a good idea. Between 2012-2016 I would park at a lookout point off the main road, a couple of kilometers south of Lady Bay. From here, there’s an excellent view of the southern coastline – the impressive cliffs, rocky beaches and procession of coves and bluffs from Wirrina down to Rapid Bay. Nude‘s location is a couple of kilometers from this point and the beach that hosts the sculpture is obscured from view. It takes roughly about 45 minutes to get there on foot.

I’ve visited the site five times between 2012 to 2016, managing to get there once a year – mostly in Autumn when the weather is less prone to arctic-style wind chill and dumping buckets of rain. On a couple of occasions my partner Lauren has joined me on the trip and I’ve been frequently surprised how much further the journey actually is compared to the idea I have in my head..much to Lauren’s chagrin.

The steep hills on one side, the ocean on the other. I’ve always found these hills impressive. Whilst not necessarily cliffs, they convey such a strong physical dominance over the surrounding environment – gentle grassy slopes graduating into steep cliffs of clay and rock.  On clear days I’ve spotted hawks gliding gracefully on thermals against the blue sky. On one occasion, Lauren and I watched a fox make momentary eye contact with us before darting up the hillface with incredible speed and precision. When walking south toward the site, I cant help but spend some time looking up at the summit of the hills and scanning the rock outcrops for signs of life – expecting to see something indistinct move from one point to another, casting a curious gaze downwards at me/us. When I’m alone on this trip, occasionally I feel this overwhelming feeling of contentment couple with a deep sense of insignificance. As the trip progresses the bars denoting reception of my mobile phone ebb away – I’m at the mercy of nature here. The ideal tonic for doing stupid shit, perhaps?

Further along, the remnants of a man-made boundary appear.

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Following the boundary up the hillside, lopsided fenceposts and a tangle of rusty fence wire disappear into the hillside. At the summit, a couple of lonely posts lean out along with a small bare tree bent by the wind.

In May 2015 I attached a couple of contact mics to the fenceline as it rattled in the wind. Thanks to the wonderful Kate Carr for the inspiration on that one.

After rounding a couple of coves that involve climbing over large boulders, the beach that hosts Nude comes into sight. It always takes me a while to locate it from this point, but my reference is a small thorny shrub that sits alongside the sculpture. Approaching it is always a new experience – observing the way it’s altered its appearance in between each visit (roughly a year each time) – being collapsed to one side, its wooden planks on the top bent by the weight of rocks, or its regular inundation of sour sobs and the occasional weed.

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Nude in 2013.

Photos are taken of its current state for documentation and then I search for a plastic bottle concealed under a plank of wood and several rocks:

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And within the bottle:

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A series of notes – starting at the time of construction in July 2011 through to (currently) August 2016. Each of the notes details the date of the visit and the current state of the sculpture.

2016 – an ending of sorts:

As Lauren and I made our way down to the site in August 2016 I had reservations about this visit. In the previous month, the metropolitan area of Adelaide and Fleurieu Peninsula had been hit by severe storms. Torrential rains led to flooding in many areas whilst wild winds and powerful tidal activity wreaked havoc along the coastline, washing away dunes and completely destroying a couple of jetties. The Bungala River – with its estuary at Normanville beach surged with volumes rarely seen in living memory. It seemed as though no area along the coastline had been spared. With this in mind, I expected the worst for my sculpture to the south.

Obviously, part of the intention of constructing the work was to observe its gradual degradation and ultimate return to the natural environment as its materials decayed and are pulled away by winds, gravity and the tides. All original intentions and recent knowledge of the storms aside, I was still suprised and strangely moved by what I encountered.

 

The sculpture, which on my previous visit in May 2015 had retained a degree of its original semblance was now practically obliterated, save for a square of planks and rocks on the ground. The array of wood and stones that been torn from the sculpture now lay scattered around its foundations with the ever-present sour sobs poking out through the vacant spaces.

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August 2016

In spite of this destruction, the bottle was still there and I added a new note to it before concealing the bottle amongst the remaining wooden planks and stones:

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I was feeling slightly melancholy at this time, but wasn’t exactly sure why. Lauren and I commenced our journey back to the car and I wondered if I would return to the sculpture the following year.

Looking back now, I can see a correlation between this event and my more recent reaction to the demolition of the house on the corner of Field Street that had prefigured so strongly during my childhood. Perhaps in the case of Nude, its decay from one iteration (2015) to the next (2016) had occurred too rapidly? Over the past four years I had grown accustomed to the sculpture’s elegant collapse against the elements, yet I hadn’t anticipated a shift as dramatic as this. Its appearance on this visit had given the impression it had been demolished much like the house – albeit by nature.

When I originally constructed the work in 2011, I knew (at the very least subconsciously) that I would grow attached to it and documenting the work through photos and notes would only reinforce this feeling. I had suspected that one day it would be wiped out, but I always thought that its position on an elevated section of the beach would protect it from the most monstrous storm and tides imaginable. In August 2016, I stood at the wreckage of the work imagining that destruction by natural forces. It must have been extraordinary – with gale force winds belting the landmass and huge waves thundering into the rocks, waters surging upwards and penetrating the sanctity of a structure laid bare.

That’s something that I can certainly appreciate now: how one can ascribe such intense feelings of possession, protection and expectation over an object regardless of its form – a body of work that represents (initially and/or over time) something deeply meaningful and personal. That its destruction occurred in isolation has heightened this appreciation: I wasn’t there to protect it, I couldn’t protect it, and yet I never intended to protect it.

***

It’s late in the evening. I’ve spent the last three days coming and going from this post. Whilst fairly certain of the direction this writing would take, the work itself has come to mind with increasingly intensity; insofar that I’m very tempted to make the trip this weekend, just to see…what’s there? An array of memories are down there – my clumsy fall from the incline near the caves, Lauren’s little rock towers by the sculpture, the inclement weather – but there’s still a spot by that thorny little bush, where in 2011 I marked a spot for myself to return to. It’s still there, it’s changed…but it’s still there.