Interview: Catherine Evans reflects on her time as 2017 Fellow

Your project for the Georges Mora Fellowship, The View from Mount Disappointment, examines the historical perspective of this landmark 60km north of Melbourne. As part of your research, you accessed the diary of the two British explorers who named this mountain, Hume and Hovell. Was there anything of interest in the diary that you would like to share with us?

The richest thing for me in the diary is the descriptions of the environment back then, from before the land had been colonised by white farmers. I actually read the diary before I arrived in Melbourne via a digitised copy and the descriptions of the native plants and vegetation created for me some kind of thick, imaginary jungle that I had grown before I had even arrived.

You have conducted your own visit/s to Mount Disappointment.  What was your experience and how was it shaped by your research into the site?

The area is very different to the descriptions that I held in that imaginary jungle. As you drive north out of Melbourne the land is flat and dry, eventually the new housing estates and industrial warehouses give way to farm land with bands of twisted grey gums, some alive, many dead.

The actual walk up to the summit is nothing like it would have been, it’s an easy, clear trail that winds through fern gullies before rising between granite boulders. But it never raises you higher than the canopy. As you reach the top, you think you’re about to see this spectacular view, but it never unfolds, there is always another layer of trees and even the bracken eventually swallows you so that it’s impassable.

I took a photo of the view from the top, inserting myself in the photograph, so that it is a self portrait of me in the act of viewing. I’ve printed it as a postcard, imitating early photographic postcards.

Before going to Mount Disappointment I found an etching from 1850 in the library’s collection and I tried to find exactly the same vantage point that the artist has used back then. I think I got pretty close and you can see the same band of trees that are still there from the original 1850 etching. If you look really close, you can also just make out a tiny slice of a view between the trees.

Have you been able to locate much information from the Indigenous custodians of the land?

I initially set myself the task to find out if there was an Indigenous name for Mount Disappointment. I was motivated by an understanding of how names carry a lot of cultural baggage and that the origin of the name Mount Disappointment was no exception as an example of colonial emotional geography. It carries its own set of power relations that is repeated all over Australia.

But as I’ve done more research and contacted more people, I realise that finding an Indigenous name for a specific landmark is not as easy as I had first thought. The ways of forming Indigenous placenames differ greatly from European practices, not just in their meanings, but also what counts as a significant feature to be named. There is not always an Indigenous equivalent, just as some Indigenous placenames don’t have a European equivalent.

Add to that the fact that Indigenous people suffered a great dispossession of land, life and language at the hands of the invaders and that in many cases only broken records remain, and it suddenly becomes a much more difficult task. I think it’s tragic that after this busy period of European exploration/invasion slowed down, the sum of our knowledge about Australia had actually been reduced.

You have described the way you work in your studio, sometimes shifting objects around for years until you find a combination that works.  I don’t know if it’s possible for you to explain it here but I’m curious, how do you know when an artwork is finished? Or when you have achieved this ‘natural affinity’ that you seek?  

I think that it is never actually finished. It’s more like the objects, the image, the combination and arrangement are momentarily paused. At that moment something works and it is somehow extracted, taken to the gallery for installation or documented, so that it becomes a final work.

But then after that moment the objects are reabsorbed into my studio and re-join the repertoire of things I can draw upon. An example of this is one particular volcanic rock that I have used in three different works over the 5 years between 2012 – 2016. It’s so heavy I couldn’t take it with me when I moved to Berlin, it now sits in the garden of a friend of mine in Footscray, so it’s taking a break for the time being.

How does having the support of cultural institutions like the Georges Mora Fellowship and the State Library allow you to work differently?

My time at the SLV went much too quickly. By the luck of timing I was given a big private space to work in that actually used to be the head librarian office, hidden just off the La Trobe Reading room, behind the Australian collection.

I’ve worked in library and museum collections for a long time now, but to have formal access and to be paired with a specialist librarian, Susan Long, made a big difference to the amount of material I could move through. I must admit that it was a bit overwhelming at first, but once I had settled in I could have stayed for years, which I know some Fellows do unofficially.

I had all my research materials posted back to my Berlin studio and I was able to unpack them just recently. All my research for this project seems to be through a filter of absence; earlier imaging the terrain of Mount Disappointment without having been there, now working with rocks here in Berlin that I had collected from the summit, and even accessing the digital collections from over here. The postcard that I’ve made somehow seems fitting to this way of working in absence.

As part of the recent Triennial exhibition at the NGV, a discussion was held featuring six of the exhibiting artists/designers on the question of whether artists and designers could be agents of change.  How would you respond to this question in relation to your own practice?

For a long time I assumed incorrectly that there exists a ‘true’ knowledge that is fundamentally non-political, but I have come to realise that actually the circumstances under which knowledge is produced are highly organised and ultimately political, and that if we don’t try to uncover this, it continues to function almost silently, invisible.

I think that through having the freedom to combine ideas, histories and materials in new combinations, we can all create new knowledge. In relation to my own practice, I think that in the process of researching and creating an artwork I also experience a new perspective or way of being in the world, and that is where change begins.

Have you got anything to share about your project The View from Mount Disappointment?

I’m continuing the research I started in the library in my Berlin studio now. The rocks that I had posted to me here are special not only because they were collected from the summit of Mount Disappointment, but also because they contain great flecks of pyrite, or fool's gold; a common mineral (stone) that sets itself apart in cultural mythology by shining like a precious metal (gold).

Pyrite smelting happened alongside gold extraction during and after the Victorian Gold Rush. As a by-product of goldmining, it was smelted to produce sulphuric acid, a messy process with little return. There was even a smelting works in Yarraville, Melbourne, right on the banks of the Yarra.

At the moment I’m experimenting with how I can use this as a sculptural material, but it’s too early for me to say where this will lead.


Read our earlier interview with Catherine Evans here.