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Aboriginal art installation quickens ancient footprints

  • 27 September 2016


Australians know that 'stories begin on ground level, with footsteps', as suggested by French Jesuit Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life.

Our tales encompass everything from tender-footed hops across summer foreshores to pilgrimages towards Santiago de Campostella. Walks become utterances, as meaning and memory become linked by the journey — 'the waves were massive once we got to Bells', 'it was a hot day on the camino'.

Within these peregrinations there exists a multi-layered challenge: how to interpret one particular set of footsteps in the light of those tracks left by previous walkers? How to decipher the palimpsest that is the accumulated record of prior journeys?

The construction of our national narrative becomes a process of redaction whereby one set of footsteps is privileged over others in the hope that earlier competing stories quietly fade away. Yet this is a vain hope based on the delusion that Australia's terrain forgets that which has been carved onto it over thousands of years.

barrangal dyara (skin and bones), Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones' 20,000 square-metre sculpture and sound installation at the Royal Botanic Garden of Sydney (17 September to 3 October), shows that even surfaces that seem wiped smooth by fire and historical amnesia still can contain powerful traces of meaning.

Jones' work is the 32nd iteration of the Kaldor Public Art Projects and the winning entry to the 2014 international competition 'Your Very Big Idea' which sought an original piece for the Projects' 45th anniversary.

The Project partners with artists to present works in public spaces and Jones' combination of shields, native grasses and Aboriginal language joins creations from a line of artists that began with Christo and Jeanne Claude in 1969 and has featured luminaries like Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic.

barrangal dyara (skin and bones) is also a further contribution to the bicentennial celebrations of Sydney's Botanic Gardens.


"Jones was determined to find an answer that celebrated his people's history, invited others to share in it and prevent future generations from feeling the pain of such loss."


Jones' piece is both simple and profoundly moving, while being at first glance little more than a quirky reconfiguring of the architectural footprint of the Garden Palace that burned to the ground on 22 September 1882. A more informed engagement with the installation however reveals that Jones has created a provocative re-imagining and, through this, a re-membering of Australian colonial contact history which has deep resonances for today.

The Garden