Yhonnie Scarce breathing, and the sound of knuckles cracking
by Teri Hoskin
Yhonnie Scarce: I'm driven by a respect for a place, strength of the old people and a love of the medium,...
Teri Hoskin: as in, in love with? (1)
I met Yhonnie Scarce in 2007 when we were both 'doing' art in a two week on site project in Port Adelaide. Thereforever was its title.(2) 'Participatory' is what we called that kind of thing then, or situational, locative, or psychogeography — the drift of twentieth century white institutional art lineage. Each day Yhonnie sat on the ground and stitched a large black canvas with red thread. Repeated puncturing by needle of the stiff fabric was repetitive and painful work. Made in memory her grandmother's journeys, it was as if Yhonnie was travelling with her, all over again. 'Fanny Graham was born in 1925 at Point Pearce Christian Mission north west of Adelaide on the Yorke Peninsula. Her vices were alcohol, cigarettes and BEX powders. She moved around South Australia with her husband and five children often living in Ardrossan, Oodnadatta, Oldea, Pimba, Point Pearce, and Port Adelaide. Whilst living at Pimba Station crossing Fanny passed away aged 42 years, she is buried at Point Pearce settlement in an unmarked grave … yet to be found' (artist's exhibition notes). Beside her on the ground sat a small cardboard suitcase holding remnants of those pain powders, a good dress, a pair of gloves for church perhaps, the few things a young Aboriginal woman with a growing number of kids to care for would need as she moved from place to place following work and government directives: to impress, to make good.
enclosing — wrapping — holding — entering — rolling — twisting: tipping
gone in no time, gone in no time
During opening hours Yhonnie Scarce sat at a table ripping strips of white canvas, each strip was then cut into portions, painted with wide black strokes, then rolled up and bound tight with jute. The black paint transferred to Yhonnie's skin, her fingerprints left their marks in the hand-held objects – the dimensions of which resembled something one might squeeze or hold onto for strength. The strange things cracked like knuckles as she twisted and turned the completed forms into shape. Each day the pile grew larger. The objects sat there dead-like (like dead), their affect becoming more visceral as the pile grew, yet resisting any kind of simplistic analogy.
While she binds the rolls of wet canvas Yhonnie tells me she is thinking about death, bodies, genocide, 'the camps outside Berlin.' The makeshift table, a trestle, recalls roughly the dimensions of coffins, or a post mortem slab. Working through the tearing, cutting, painting, binding process, (the black–white bound and malleable), 'politics', she says, 'they are all different yet have a relationship'. Questioned by both her own, and by white people about the colour of her skin, bound but not restricted between the two, tired (tied?) of being judged (black? white?) she sits in the contested zone (here the white cube of experimental art institution) – identity – Aboriginality is not only skin colour – 'we are all sorts, especially urban Aboriginals; it's family, memory, connection', the way one lives and dies.
gone in no time, gone in no time was an artist in-situ installation at Australian Experimental Art Foundation, the nine artists were generally up and comers, compelling makers Domenico de Clario had met on his way, with a few local Adelaide artists (Yhonnie's 'hometown' at the time) I reckoned would round out the selection from Melbourne, Perth, and Austin, Texas.(3) Once again Yhonnie sat over two weeks (this time on a chair) and worked bare-handed with black material and thread. During both projects Yhonnie's quiet persistence moved many visitors to the space. Complete immersion pervaded her process while she experimented with what she didn't yet know the material could do or would be. This didn't mean she was unavailable, Yhonnie always loves to talk and yarn, she and Nick Selenitsch – her co-artist in the space for the fortnight – had fruitful conversations, as did many who stopped by to see what was happening in the suddenly-made-lively space. Yhonnie always has the rare ability to be both focused on what she is making and present to what's happening now, aware if you like, of the capacity of history and time to be both there forever and gone in no time. Given the artists' brief was to work with what was already in the gallery including the traces of the works of the pair of artists that preceded them, the question was how to end? What to do with the accumulated pile of oddly anthropomorphic dead wrapped things? Tip them: she tipped the table away from her and the pile fell to the floor where they remained 'til the artists that followed re-marked the space.
In 2007 Yhonnie Scarce was already blowing glass and her approach was conceptual, she had thoughts and stories to relay and express, rather than beauty for beauty's sake, or as Donald Brook so aptly said it many years ago – the kind of art where beauty is merely incidental. I take that now to mean an explicit awareness of what beauty can do, the attention it can gather in service of affect, of a politic that insists on action (in all increments). Glass is an unusual medium for an installation artist, more than mere display Scarce’s spatial arrangements play with the power of that beauty while opening story zones of dreadful pasts and presents: gobsmackingly real stories of violent dispossession, and disregard, the array of dehumanising policy practices of colonising powers. As Nation and nation we are all involved in these stories (and I don't know my Great Grandmother's name).
Yhonnie Scarce has strength of purpose, she relays the stories and voices of her ancestors, and her grandparents and their parents through her breath. Scarce channels the stories of the old people — her great grandparents and grandparents who couldn’t tell their stories, the babies who didn't get a chance to grow, Strontium 90 (2016). There's a pragmatics to her process, the poetic is implicit. There’s a hook to that beauty, the fire before the glass, the horror that this was done, these events happened, these histories are real — of kids who never had a chance to be, of people dispossessed, disregarded, shunted here and there, treated then and now shamefully as non-people without voice, ergo without rights.
YS: As Aboriginal people we are constantly having to stand up for ourselves — that's what makes us very powerful and very strong, we've had to put up with so much shit — as artists that's a very powerful motivator.' (4)
Yhonnie Scarce, a Kokatha/Nukunu woman, was born in Woomera, South Australia. Woomera was the town also called home by those who worked on British bomb test sites at Maralinga, and later at the eponymous asylum seeker detention camp. Alice Springs was home for most of Yhonnie's formative years, the central Australian place where 'people go to leave something else behind … a very racist town then, and now.'
TH: I'm always struck by the thought of your breath, each breath a yam. A kind of mourning for what's gone before, what's been passed over with barely a thought.
YS: I think of it as an extension of self. Nat [Natalie] Harkin says the old people are speaking through me. I'm giving voice to my grandparents and great grandparents — they didn't have a voice. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't have an education. I wouldn't be able to retain my culture...
Poetics is the term writer-artists like me call acts of making capacities that grab attention, that transform while escaping language — it’s the in-between zone of emotion, thought and affect before language-as-knowing kicks in: a space of it's possible, it's do-able, and why not? For Scarce the considered and controlled act of breathing is a poetic act where the artist, and the attuned viewer who witnesses the work (in its making and as object), may sense the invisible, abiding life force made material, enclosed by a film of molten sand/glass that is in turn and increments made hard by exposure to air. And then there's the installation of the objects themselves, the way the works appear in space, that is, the capacity of the works to rearrange space and play tricks. Light plays a critical role by expanding the field of affect and by harnessing drama the works often appear out of darkness, most successfully in Thunder raining poison (2015) when the 2,000 blown glass yams suspended from the ceiling took full advantage of the stairwell approach to the AGSA's lower gallery to express the horrific beauty of the fallout of a mushroom cloud.(5)
YS: the blue danube, though destructive is quite beautiful as an object.
And in another of her things-inside-other-things works, Glass Bomb (Blue Danube) (2015), also appeared out of darkened space, glass yams are the payload inside a transparent glass atomic bomb, multiplying its affects in shards of light and slippery messages.(6) Both those works are directly related to the fallout from the atomic tests by the British Commonwealth at Maralinga and Emu Plains in the 1950s and 1960s.
Military expediency and history making demands names for bombs, from Enola Gay to The Blue Danube. The original 'Blue Danube' is a Johann Strauss waltz; culturally ubiquitous it figures in Stanley Kubrick's 2001 A Space Odyssey akin to those outline drawings of man-woman-child sent into space for other sentient life. It's also a tune inescapable for citizens of Vienna, Austria where it acts as an unwished-for second national anthem. The Maralinga Blue Danube was a warhead of 1.4 kilotons of plutonium proof-tested at the Marcoo (surface) and Kite (air-drop) nuclear trials sites by a team of Australian, British and Canadian scientists in late 1956. The blasts were so intense that parts of the ground were turned to sheet glass, 'up to seven centimeters thick in some places.' (7) The impossibly inadequate site clean-up is well documented, and yet the push is on for a nuclear dump site as a panacea to South Australia's economic woes, once again with disregard to the wishes of the custodians of the land.(8)
YS: in Strontium 90 I wanted the colours of the darkness — black lustre — you flame it — it's like bruising, ... Toby Fehily wrote that my work 'makes glass look really painful', and it's true one feels stuff, yet they are such humble objects, such humility in them (9) They're perfect metaphor for bodies, even though they are food, I chose the bush plum because of their embryonic state, like the moment the sperm enters the egg, the initial beginning of life, but these kids didn't get that chance, hence dysmorphia.
Yams and bush plums. The yam was/is such a humble plant, barely known as Australian, yet quintessentially so. In Dark Emu Bruce Pasco makes clear the crucial role cultivation of the yam by women and children played in land management by pre-white settler Aboriginal Australians, and the role of hoofed animals (sheep, cattle) in decimating those yam fields.(10)
First Nations, a term borrowed from North American Indigenous peoples, signifies a country of many nations before white settlement. It will be a sign of maturity as a nation when non-Aboriginal Australians recognise Nation is not a concept that comes unhindered by catastrophe for Aboriginal peoples. While many argue the demise of Nation as signifier in a global economy, as a concept it remains critical to many Aboriginal Australians who’ve never had their sovereignty acknowledged by either the State or non-indigenous Australians.
My own life-practice traces and tracks a few lineages in the spirit of nation as underbelly, the events and elements that make a country hang together without the big N. Actions, catastrophes, events, persons, places, institutions that are key to covering over, sidestepping, and also to listening and giving voice and that in themselves are quiet, or sidelined, or unacknowledged. The feeling that drives me can be called spirit, with some care about the danger that concept holds in whitey knowledge, and it can be called heart with something larger in mind than the sentimentality usually ascribed to the term. The mother of my mother's absent father is said to have been Aboriginal, that's just three generations ago, and I don't know her name, where she lived or where she died. My Australian lineage (of the workers), is English (convict), German (Lutheran Oberlanders), Chinese (Cantonese/Guangzou gold seekers), and Aboriginal. While the first two nations have their partially legitimizing family trees, of the latter two the first has a tree constrained by its white-out of Chinese heritage (effect of the White Australia Policy), while my Aboriginal geneology, arguably the most authenticating of the four, under the ongoing sense of terra nullius has no nation at all. My own twig deterritorialises: a single never-married mother, twice over! where do we put this one? thus the tree continues as a wild and weedy rhizome. My unnamed, unknown to me Great Grandmother was real and her DNA is part of my grandchild's. Yes, I take it personally, Nation or nation is personal, its about all our futures. I look to my Aboriginal friends, to the Indigenous artists, curators, poets, writers, and activists, and to the scratchy intellects of formidible thinkers like Professor Irene Watson, and Professor Marcia Langton (even when I don't agree with her), and to Dr Doreen Kartinyeri, the remarkable Aboriginal Geneologist who stood up to developers about what constitutes Aboriginal knowledge, and I owe them all my attention and action.
In 2017 Australia remains a monarchy, our first peoples without a treaty or constitutional recognition. Aboriginal Australians continue to survive ongoing wars, the dispossession of their lands, disregard and outright denial of knowledge systems evolved over sixty thousands years of continuous culture, incarceration and removal from families, deaths in custody, and the everyday violence of bigotry and racism. The current political cultural scene is a disaster that sees white culture expressing a muscular violent reaction to loss of power as THE apex position holder in a pyramid of power. In 'Mourning for Whiteness' Toni Morrison infers white-men-fight-back in her recent devastatingly ironic contribution to 'Aftermath', the New Yorker's response to the election of a misogynist, racist demagogue as president of what we think of as the most powerful nation on this crazy human-destructo planet.(11) In case you don't think what's happening now in the United States is relevant to Australia read the rhetoric and watch the techno-bureaucratic actions of the response here by politicians emboldened by the anger of the dispossessed 'entitled' any-coloured-collar middle class. In the 2015 centennial issue of The Nation (founded by abolitionists) Toni Morrison wrote about the kind of despair artists can often feel when the political landscape is so dreadful, so full of hate and malevolence that the making of art seems pointless:
“...This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”(12)
YS: A while ago I gave a talk at a Desart Symposium in Alice Springs — it meant a lot to do that. When I lived there I was shy with braces, painfully shy. I've found my voice now — learning how to blow glass is really empowering, as a woman being able to utilise a medium to my advantage. I have a strong relationship with my medium, the bond is strong: you have to get along with it, you have to have respect for it otherwise you hurt yourself or others around you. It is alive, it's moving, it comes from something very still — sand — and is made live by heat. I've really thought quite deeply about the process over the last couple of years.
Yhonnie has to be a bit of an athlete, it takes a lot of strength and collaboration to lift and maintain a hold on the pipe that, in and out of the glory hole, transforms sand to a molten glass glob. Damage to the body happens and living with pain is debilitating. Yhonnie has a fierce determination to regain the strength to keep up the love affair with blowing that glass glob into stories. With many works and exhibitions in the pipeline it's all go for Scarce now, she says the medium still has lots to teach her, and she's listening. See her work in Sovereignty, a large group show at ACCA in Melbourne 'focusing upon contemporary art of First Nations peoples of South East Australia,' on now until March 2017, and perhaps the first at that institution in many years.
Yhonnie Scarce in conversation with the writer. Yhonnie and I had a FaceTime chat, Melbourne-Adelaide, interrupted by nieces, barking dogs, a grey screen, the grass-green screen. I got to share Yhonnie in her role as Aunty primary care-giver sorting space for herself, for her practice: women always have to do this, arranging space with closed or partially open doors. 'I'll just put you in my pocket' she says, I'm on her phone, like one of the bush plums or yams she placed in the apron at AEAF [Florey and Fanny, Border Planting, 2013]. I hear the dogs, the directions, the greetings and sortings. It feels weirdly intimate, the dark screen punctuated by shifting light through gauze.
Yhonnie Scarce, 'Fanny Graham', Thereforever (2007), curated by Linda Marie Walker, Port Adelaide Festival.
Domenico de Clario made gone in no time, gone in no time his first event as Director of the Experimental Art Foundation (a fourty year plus art institution made non-existent by State economic expediency as of 31.12.2016. Vale the EAF), I was curator at that time. The intent was to make odd couplings and see what would happen, to show what younger artists were doing and what the space could be outside of exhibition cycle. I wrote the web blurbs at the time and documented the goings on.
Yhonnie Scarce in conversation with the writer.
'Thunder Raining Poison,' Tarnanthi, 2015, curator Nicki Cumpston, Art Gallery of South Australia.
Recently sold to RMIT as a citizen its pleasing to know that a high proportion of Scarces’s works are collected by public institutions, this means their stories will continue to circulate as part of an ever growing story field of public memories and consequences.
With this reference Helen Hughes places the work Yhonnie Scarce into the vicinity of Burns' "soft echo". See "Looking South […]', Tim Burns Minefield, A + A Publishing, Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, 2016, p. 26.
Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission, Government of South Australia, 2016. For Terms of Reference, Tentative Summaries, and other relevent material see: nuclearrc.sa.gov.au/information-library and uNclear race, my by chance, accidental and deliberately slow take on an article published in The Adelaide Review by John Sphoer 'Nuclear Poker'.
Toby Fehily, 'Through a glass darkly', Broadsheet Melbourne, 16 June 2014.
Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, Black Seeds: agriculture or accident? Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation, Broome Western Australia, 2014. I've got the e-book so no page numbers, see Chapter 1, 'Agriculture'.
Toni Morrison, 'Mourning for Whiteness,' in 'Aftermath: Sixteen Writer's on Trump's America,' The New Yorker, 21 Nov 2016,
Toni Morrison, The Nation, 150th Anniversary Edition, April 2015, p184-185.