Mungo National Park - research visit and road trip

Kath Fries, Mungo landscape i, 2015, photograph

Last week I drove 900km west from Sydney to the dry ancient lakebeds of Mungo National Park, with artist Shoufay Derz and musician Emily Rice. As night fell it began to rain heavily and our car slowed to a crawl, frequently stopping to wait for the thirsty kangaroos and echidnas drinking from the puddles forming in the ruts of the unsealed dirt road. Around midnight we settled into our accommodation in the old Shearer's Quarters, knowing that we would be stranded there for couple of days, as the unsealed clay roads became boggy, slippery and completely impassable in the rain. After our long journey we were glad to have arrived and not concerned about having to stay an extra night in this magical, quiet, ancient place. It was a fascinating place to just be. We were quite lucky to see this wonderful desert landscape in the unusual wet weather - the last big rainfall was in 2011. There was a significant amount of water, but it was soon vanquished by baking sunshine and blistering winds, drying the landscape, vegetation and roads. Then, as each day passed the park rangers re-opened a section of the loop road so we were eventually able to visit all the main sites and rock formations.

Kath Fries, Big puddle in Mungo, 2015, photograph

Mungo is one of the most ancient parts of Australia and buried in its thick layers of sand and clay is significant evidence of changes in climate, waters and landforms spanning the last 100,000 years. This geology is both fragile and robust, quiet and resonant, as the layers of sediment have washed and accumulated, piling up with narratives of historical time and place. Dreamtime-stories and scientific-rationality not only meet on these dry ancient lakebeds, but they coalesce and find common ground. Mungo's layers of clay have revealed significant evidence of human habitation dating back over 50,000 years across expanses of the last ice age, so Mungo is one of the oldest places outside of Africa to have been occupied by modern humans since ancient times. “The ancient Willandra people thrived with the abundance of the lakes, then adapted to drier, hungrier times of the last ice age and survived to the present day. Their story can be discovered in the folds of the land, along with their fireplaces, burials, middens and tools.” (link)

Kath Fries, Mungo landscape ii, 2015, photograph

As tourists visiting Mungo, we were understandably confined to the boardwalks, unlikely to recognise or appreciate the subtle traces of these stories in the land or see the slight differences between ancient mega-fauna fossilised bones and those of recently deceased kangaroos. Although as artists, we had our own ways of being receptive and sensitive to the intense and ancient presence of our surroundings. But it was somewhat difficult to match this with the dry scientific and pastoral histories conveyed via the information panels and diagrams of the visitors centre. However, over the course of several conversations with Tanya - traditional custodian and Mungo park ranger - the depth, breadth and resonance of the site came alive.

Kath Fries, Mungo landscape iii, 2015, photograph

Towards the end of our visit, the night skies cleared and we walked a short distance from the campfire pit and the buildings’ few solar powered lights, to lie on the road and look at the stars that stretched from horizon to horizon in every direction, a vast dome around us. For the first time I could clearly see the Emu - a definitive symbol of Aboriginal Astronomy, which Tanya had described to us earlier in the day. The Emu isn’t a pattern connecting the stars themselves, but rather the darkness of the dark dust lines between the dense stars of the Milky Way, which forms the shape of the Emu and its egg (link). The Emu changes orientation and shape somewhat with the seasons and these changes tell Aboriginal people the correct time to collect emu eggs. During the daytime, we saw about eight wild emus, flouncing their fabulous long tail feathers running through Mungo’s saltbush and scrub. Tanya told us that the ones we saw were female, as at this time of year the males are sitting on the nests minding the eggs.

Kath Fries, Mungo clay and sand patterns, 2015, photograph

At night sitting outside around the warm smoky campfire-pit, under those stars, sharing stories with other visitors staying at the Shearer’s Quarters, I felt the prickling’s of a spooky presence watching over our shoulders from the vast dark landscape around us. Indeed there were ancient burial grounds not far away. Famously 40,000-year-old remains of a woman were discovered at Mungo, in 1968. Dubbed the ‘Mungo Lady’, she is the oldest demonstrated ritual cremation anywhere in the world. She is a crucial ancient link to the rituals and emotions of people living in this area so long ago, and literally embodies the importance of death and grieving that remains so core to our understanding of what it is to be human. The 'Mungo Lady's' bones were exposed by erosion, so she wasn't as much discovered as revealed, a gift from the land and the spirits. Her bones were taken from Mungo by the archeologists, but after considerable lobbying from local Aboriginal groups, she was returned to the area and her continued presence is immensely profound. I was fascinated to hear from Tanya, that her Nana had been a key spokesperson in the negotiations and respectful handling of this delicate and sensitive episode, making clear that ‘Mungo Lady’ is her ancestor and part of her family. This strong interconnection with people, place and past continues to be very powerfully felt, and the sense of the 'Lady’s' spirit watching over the Mungo region permeates how all humans – visitors, scientists, archaeologists, locals and traditional owners – engage with this ancient site.

Kath Fries, Mungo landscape iv, 2015, photograph

More recently, in 2003, ancient perfectly preserved human footprints were revealed beneath the shifting sands of Mungo. The twenty-five trackways are about 20,000 years old, the oldest footprints ever found in Australia and the largest set of Pleistocene ice age footprints in the world. After being thoroughly documented and researched by the traditional owners, scientists and archaeologists, the trackways were then considerately reburied. It would be impossible to try and remove the imprints or leave them uncovered, if they had been left exposed to the elements, animals and humans, the trackways would have quickly disintegrated. It was agreed that the best place for these precious records to be kept was in the exact same environment that has preserved them for so long. I think there is something poetically wonderful that these extremely valuable treasures have been reburied with only an 'X' marking the spot on the geophysical maps and in people's memories who can read the land. (link)

Kath Fries, Mungo landscape v, 2015, photograph

The fragile shifting surface of Mungo is like a constantly changing skin, growing and shedding, rising and falling, which contains and protects the powerful vitality of resilience and presence beneath. To feel the abrasive sandblasting wind blowing against my face as it skidded across Mungo’s clay layers, and witnessing the alarmingly quick way that the exposed clay dissolved in the rain, was an evocative experience of impermanence. Reflecting on what I could not see, but had been told, about the burial grounds and ancient bodily remains of humans and animals contained and protected within the clay, then briefly whisked to the surface to see the light of day in my own lifetime, conjures further notions of embodied existence and interconnection between the known and unknown. Aboriginal elders, scientists and archaeologists agree that there are even more fossils, trackways and precious ancient history hidden within the layers of clay. 


Kath Fries, Mungo Kangaroos, 2015, photograph

Today, Mungo is a landscape that reveals its history in its own time, rather than people purposefully setting out to dig it up. The land and weather have their own agency, timeframe, purposefulness and ways of responding. Traditional custodians and Aboriginal Elders are teaching visitors and scientists that there are certain ways of patiently listening to the land and learning from it. I feel fortunate to have experienced a mere inkling of  the traces of history and presence in the landscape at Mungo, which was quite profound, effecting and unique to that place.

Kath Fries, Mungo landscape vi, 2015, photograph

The dissolving rains and buffering, blistering winds that sandblasted my skin – as well as the surface of the land, emphasised how easily this ancient, fragile and robust environment changes. There were many nuances in my personal present-time encounter with Mungo, the sense of constant gradual changes and shifts, being traced and imprinted on the surfaces of the landscape, feel like they have also left an imprint on me.

Emily Rice, Shoufay Derz and Kath Fries, Mungo 2015
More info about Mungo - www.visitmungo.com.au

2015 John Fries Award Finalists Announced

Fifteen artists have been announced as finalists to the John Fries Award 2015, one of Australia and New Zealand’s most coveted awards for emerging contemporary artists. The finalists are from all over Australia, with two New Zealand and three Indigenous artists represented. Works include painting, sculpture, installation, video and live performance.
The finalists are: Erin Coates (WA), Georgie Roxby Smith (Vic), Eloise Kirk (Tas), Kenneth Merrick (NZ), Kelly Doley (NSW), Archie Moore (Qld), Tim Bruniges (NSW), Tully Arnot (NSW), Darcell Apelu (NZ), Ben Ward (WA), Giselle Stanborough (NSW), Leo Coyte (NSW), Will French (NSW), Vincent Namatjira (SA) and Biljana Jancic (NSW).
All finalists’ entries will feature in a month-long exhibition at UNSW Galleries at UNSW Art & Design – the award’s presenting partner for the second year running. The winner of the award’s $10,000 prize money will be announced on its opening night on Friday, 4 September.
This year’s new guest Curator Oliver Watts, said it was a difficult process to whittle down the 730 entries to just fifteen finalists.
“There could have been any number of great shows made out of the entries we received, which was without doubt from some of the best and brightest Australian and New Zealand artists. In the end, we had to curate something that fitted together and said something about ‘the now’. The show will be decidedly contemporary; I think it is characterised by the legacy of conceptual art. The finalists’ pieces resist the norms of society and attempt to deflect our expectations in a humorous or sly way. Many straddle the extremes of reality and fantasy, the serious and the absurd and work in between these two poles.” 
Oliver was joined by three highly-regarded professionals on the judging panel, New Zealand-born Justin Paton Head Curator of international art AGNSW; exciting cross-disciplinary artist, Nell; and installation artist and John Fries Award Chair, Kath Fries. The judges will convene again in September to choose the winner from the finalists’ exhibition.
The award’s $10,000 prize money is donated by the Fries family in memory of former Viscopy director and honorary treasurer, John Fries, who made a remarkable contribution to the life and success of Viscopy.
For further information, go to www.johnfriesaward.com
Viscopy was set up by artists for artists in 1995. Today, Copyright Agency | Viscopy advocates for artists’ copyright and provides services that ensure artists are fairly rewarded for the reproduction of their work by issuing licenses and collecting fees on their behalf. In doing so, we aim to help build a more resilient creative economy where new artistic expression is valued and artists are acknowledged and financially rewarded for their work.
2014 John Fries Award finalists exhibition installation photo, UNSW Galleries

Studio visitors

Kath Fries in her SCA studio, 2015, photo by Shoufay Derz

Recently, my friend Shoufay Derz, invited me to speak to her TAFE students about my work, materials, processes and research. Her class visited my studio at Sydney College of the Arts and they were interested in my work and asked some good questions, we also discussed various avenues for studying art and developing one's practice outside the art school systems.

Kath Fries and visiting students, SCA studio, 2015, photo by Shoufay Derz

Kath Fries and visiting students, SCA studio, 2015, photo by Shoufay Derz

Divest - tunnel installation at the Coal Loader

Kath Fries, Divest, 2015, beeswax and ash in heritage coal loader tunnel, detail view

My site-responsive beeswax and ash installation, Divest, has recently been installed in a heritage coal loader tunnel as a finalist in Sustainability - the 2015 North Sydney Art Prize. This work features clusters of polyp-like forms nesting in the crevices of a disused man-made space, echoing global concerns for dramatically declining honeybee populations. Divest quietly reflects our fragile and complex dependance on honeybees for pollinating crops, and the much maligned - yet vital - functions of insects in all ecosystems.

Kath Fries, Divest, 2015, beeswax and ash in heritage coal loader tunnel

The word 'divest' means to disposes - to deprive of rights or property. I'm used it as the title of this series to imply loss of natural habitat and how creatures adapt to living in human dominated spaces, often where we don't want them. Divest is a continuing series of installations exploring the tactile, aromatic and sensory materiality of beeswax and ash, layered with history and symbolism. These materials are both nurturing and threatening; the beeswax polyp forms have been made by wrapping warm pieces of beeswax around my fingers in a healing bandaging gesture, referencing traditional healing remedies using honey and beeswax. But when installed they take on different nuances, seeping into an interior space – clustered and clinging together, massing the in the corners and crevices – conjuring a sense of unease and vulnerability. 

Kath Fries, Divest, 2015, beeswax and ash in heritage coal loader tunnel, detail view

Embedded in Divest is the symbolism of the materials themselves, the beeswax speaks of the hive, the bees’ honeycomb home, as a nurturing life force for the bees and their essential  pollination role in ecosystems. It also implies an awareness of the current global honeybee crisis, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), caused by pesticides, parasites, viruses and unsustainable practices of mono-cropping and intensive commercial beekeeping. CCD is an epidemic that poses serious threats to our human food chain, as honeybee pollination is required for the production of over a third of the world’s agricultural crops. 

Kath Fries, Divest, 2015, beeswax and ash in heritage coal loader tunnel

Ash is the other material in Divest, and it is also rich with symbolism of natural cycles, more specifically of life passing into death. Here eucalyptus ash is scattered across the beeswax forms, a gesture that echoes grieving rituals across many cultures and more personally for me, it recalls my father's cremation. Conversely, when combined with beeswax, the ash also suggests practices of smoking of beehives and insect exterminations. Divest is a quiet installation that contemplates our complex human dependence on honeybees, and the fragility of our interconnections with our environments and ecosystems. More info about my Divest installations



7 – 22 March 2015
Sustainability - the 2015 North Sydney Art Prize
The Coal Loader, 2 Balls Head Drive, Waverton NSW
The 2015 North Sydney Art Prize curatorial theme - sustainability - embraces innovation and diversity in contemporary art and provides an entry point into the many conversations about our complex relationships with the world around us, and our individual and collective responsibilities in our increasingly finite environment. www.northsydney.nsw.gov.au

Silence Awareness Existence - open studio

Kath Fries, Forest sky snow, 2015, video projected onto snow

On Monday evening I projected video footage onto the snow covered hill outside my studio door at Arteles. The video was initially recorded in the forest looking up to the sky with the wind blowing in the bare branches of the birch trees. So this installation took part of the forest inside via the video projector, and then sent it outside again through the window. I stood outside with a few of the other resident artists to watch it, and just within our peripheral vision was the actual forest, we could clearly hear the wind whistling through the trees around us.


Kath Fries, Forest sky snow, 2015, video projected onto snow

Inside my studio there are wonderful big windows that look out onto the countryside and let in the natural daylight as it reflects off the snow. The walls have insulating fibrous rope stuffed into the cracks between raw wooden logs, which seem as if they were originally harvested from the forest right outside the door. I've been collecting pieces of bark and sticks from my walks in the forest and bringing them indoors to my studio, in a sense this is also bringing my tactile personal experiences of the forest inside. The building used to be a school house - there's still an old backboard and chalk in my studio, adding to the sense of layered narratives in this place. I found a long scroll of blue paper in one of the cupboards and used the blackboard chalk to do a rubbing of the log walls, as the walls seem to be a touching point where these internal and external worlds overlap. The walls and windows are the boundaries and meeting points for the wild forest and severe weather outdoors outside and the sheltered, warm safety inside the buildings. And as the studio also includes my sleeping area and bed in one curtained off corner, it is also a site where dreams, imagination, fears, reflection and rational reality sit closely together. 

Kath Fries, Arteles studio installation, (detail), 2015, chalk on paper and video projection.

Sara Maitland, in her book 'Gossip from the Forest', writes about how frequently forests are the setting for fables and fairytales. This resonates with how we feel about forests even today "...the forests that remain are strange and wonderful places with rich natural history, long narratives of complex relationships – between humans and the wild, and between various groups of human beings – and a sense of enchantment and magic, which is at the same time fraught with fear… ‘Once upon a time’, the stories would begin [with] no particular time, fictional time, fairy-story time. This is a doorway; if you are lucky, you go through it as a child, aurally, before you can read, and if you are very lucky, you become a free citizen of an ancient republic and can come and go as you please.” (p16-18)

Kath Fries, Arteles studio installation, 2015, video projection, chalk on paper, stick and bark

For Wednesday's open studio afternoon, I projected this video footage on the curtain and chalk rubbed blue scroll in my studio, next to an installation of birch bark on the log wall. The bark installation sits within a doorframe of a door that was closed up and sealed off when the building was converted from a school into studios. Like a mysterious portal into another place and time, and now covered in birch bark, this space seems to be a fairytale passageway into another world.

Kath Fries, Birch bark doorway, (detail) 2015

Birch trees, along with conifers, dominate the forest here and continue to be used widely in building houses, making furniture and kitchen utensils, gates, fences and for fuel. Traditionally birch bark was also used to make rope, to smoke and preserve food and for tanning leather. The sap was used in medicine, gunpowder and alcohol. Birch trees are silvery, elegant and graceful in appearance. They have traditionally been thought of as magical trees, often symbolising the goddess of the forest. "Druids claimed them as the sister tree to the oak; witches’ broom sticks were traditionally made out of birch… [as] were maypoles.” (Sara Maitland, 'Gossip from the Forest', p49)

Kath Fries, Birch bark doorway, (detail) 2015

Arteles conclusion presentations and open studio afternoon, 25 Feb 2015


My participation in this residency has been made possible with the support of The Ian Potter Cultural Trust, supporting Australian emerging artists to develop their skills and gain experience through international professional development opportunities, ianpotterculturaltrust.org.au, and NSW Artists' Grant Scheme, an Arts NSW's devolved funding program administered by the National Association of the Visual Arts on behalf of the NSW Government, visualarts.net.au/nava-grants.


Snow and ash palisades - Arteles Finland

Kath Fries, Palisade, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

There's a little yellow painted wooden cabin set a short distance away from the other buildings, on the edge of the forest. This cabin houses a traditional Finnish wood burning sauna, built in 1961 and still used regularly by the staff and artists-in-residence at Arteles Creative Centre. In Finland, sauna is one of the most important cultural practices and traditions - the sauna is considered an almost sacred space, even more so than church for many people. Preparing and using the wood burning sauna is a lengthy, ritualised and contemplative activity. 

Kath Fries, Arteles Sauna, 2015

The sauna is central to Finnish life, children are taught and expected to act respectfully and calmly in the sauna. Traditionally it was the place to give birth and to wash new born babies due to the warm and almost sterile conditions, for the same reasons the sauna was also the place where healers did their work, and where dead bodies were washed and prepared for burial. So the sauna - a small cabin of wood, steam and fire - was the site of the beginning and ending of life. In a more everyday sense the sauna is also an important place for the family to relax and spend time together, and this continues today. The first records of built saunas in Finland date back to the fifth century, but the ancient nomadic Finns dug spaces into the ground to heat up water for bathing. Even today, every household that can afford to build a sauna will do so, and there are over 2 million saunas in Finland for its 5 million inhabitants. I repeatedly hear that Finns think of saunas not as a luxury, but as a necessity. 


Kath Fries, Palisade, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

The traditional wood burning sauna at Arteles has been the most authentically Finnish cultural activity of my residency (although I did encounter some Finnish karaoke at the local pub on Saturday night!). On the second day of our residency, Reetta, Arteles' program co-ordinator, showed us specifically how to build, maintain and use the sauna, so we've been able to incorporate this traditional cultural activity into our time here. It's quite labour intensive and somewhat ritualistic building the fires and ladling water to prepare the sauna, but from an artist's view of process - the physical engagement in a specific series of time consuming activities are significant in themselves. And then the saunaing which follows is relaxing, warming and rewarding - especially in contrast to the cold snow outside. 

Kath Fries, Palisades, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

Before building the fires, the ash from previous saunas has to be removed, usually it is scattered on the snow around the trees behind the sauna cabin. Scattering ash, even when it's an everyday domestic act, always seems to be poetic and ritualistic. In my mind this is intrinsically linked to cremation and grieving. A number of my works over the past few years have incorporated ash, as ash is what remains when life has departed, from a tree or a human body. For me scattering wood ash is ritualistic and recalls my father’s death and cremation in 2009. The grieving process does not fit neatly into our normal notions of daily time, measured by clocks and calendars; it ebbs and flows for each person differently with various scales of intensity. Ash is an embodiment of impermanence - especially the weightlessness of the ash as it floats through the air, demonstrating quite a different relationship to gravity than that which we're used to. I was fortunate to be at the performative opening event of Zhang Huan's 20-tonne-incense-ash 'Sydney Buddha' installation shortly before I left home for my residency in Finland. Ash is a material that always appeals to me, and when Reetta mentioned scattering the ash on the snow under the trees, I sensed an idea for a potential artwork and decided to collect the ash to make an installation scattering it intentionally. 

Kath Fries, Palisade, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

In Finnish mythology, all things - trees, water, stones, fire, animals, plants and buildings have Haltijat, guardian spirits, which sometimes manifest as Väki - little elves.  Most of the specifics of these pagan beliefs have been lost over time, but interestingly the sauna elf is still remembered. At the end of saunaing the final ladle of water poured on the hot stones on departure, allows elf spirit to enjoy the last of the sauna's warmth in peace. Gifts are also left for the sauna elf especially during Christmas. Whether intentionally or not, I've noticed a few of our unfinished sauna beers have been left in the snow outside the sauna door - and I like to imagine the Arteles' sauna elf enjoys these in the remaining steamy heat of the sauna after we have vacated.

Kath Fries, Palisade, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

With the sauna elves in mind, and the ephemeral materials of snow and ash to hand, I selected a site near the sauna cabin on the edge of the forest. There I made a group of knee high, hollow snow pillars and filled them with ash from the sauna. The sizes and forms looked similar to some nearby tree stumps and related to my vague notions of sauna elves watching over their special sites. I've called this installation Palisades - a palisade is a protective stake wall, handmade from tree branches. Over the following week the weather changed, with warmer temperatures and a pre-spring thaw. This became an essential component of my Palisades work as the outer layers of snow melted away and then re-froze, exposing the ashy core within. 

Kath Fries, Palisade, 2015, snow and ash, Finland

My participation in this residency has been made possible with the support of The Ian Potter Cultural Trust, supporting Australian emerging artists to develop their skills and gain experience through international professional development opportunities,ianpotterculturaltrust.org.au, and NSW Artists' Grant Scheme, an Arts NSW's devolved funding program administered by the National Association of the Visual Arts on behalf of the NSW Government, visualarts.net.au/nava-grants.