Finalist 2020

In Absence

Edition Office / Yhonnie Scarce / National Gallery of Victoria

‘In absence’ seeks to highlight the erasure of Indigenous knowledge and memory from Australia’s national story.

‘In absence’ is the fifth annual NGV Architecture Commission which seeks to highlight the erasure of Indigenous knowledge and memory from Australia’s national story. The elemental exterior form exerts a tangible presence upon its surroundings, signifying a history that must be acknowledged. The void within the centre of the work, the false absence of a people, leads the audience inwards to a twin pair of chambers that enable a space for deep listening and knowledge sharing. Thousands of handmade, black glass Yams bleed out from the cracks of these chambers; echoes of truth and memory seeping from the walls.

Design Excellence

The form of the internal spaces (referencing permanent stone-and-thatch dwellings) along with its rough-sawn, black-stained surface, subdues the sounds of the surrounding area, creating a space elsewhere from its immediate context. These hollows recall the interior charred forms smoking trees, used by Indigenous communities to smoke and preserve eels and fish caught in the stone traps found in many regions and waterways around Australia.

From inside the work, this dark, textured surface frames the theatre of time and of sky as its penetrating sunlight drifts down and across the two central chambers as if in a slow and synchronised dance.

Design Impact

In Absence seeks to use contemporary architectural strategies (site, program, structure, material), combined with the semiotic potential of architecture, art and landscape to reveal resonant stories, and by doing so to reject the systematic denial, destruction and erasure of Aboriginal knowledge (design, agriculture, engineering) as part of a colonial strategy to legitimise dispossession.

This project seeks to highlight that architecture exists as a social structure, as a cultural and political entity when understood and experienced through the prism of the contemporary lived experience of our diverse communities. Ultimately this dialogue may help forge a pathway towards treaty and constitutional recognition.

Design Transformation

The hand-blown glass yams were installed as to be seeping out from the cracks of the architecture, representing the spirit and resilience of 60,000 years of connection to Country. The introduction of scent within the project heightens the sensorial qualities, allowing the audience to be held within the narrative echoes of the work. Within one inner chamber the lingering scent of camp fires speaks of the layered memory of 3000 generations of continual occupation, while the smell of fresh eucalyptus leaves emanates from the other, reinforcing the contemporary lived experience of Indigenous Australians and their connection to culture and country.

Design Innovation

The project sought to utilise the high-profile platform of the NGV Architecture Commission and the medium of architecture to expose and amplify the presence of Indigenous memory, history and knowledge, particularly to aspects which have been removed or unremembered from our national history. The aim of the project is to both celebrate Indigenous voices, and to act as a truth telling and knowledge sharing platform, shedding light on important and missing elements within our national story, which provide a pathway to better understanding and respect between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Other Key Features

A landscape of Kangaroo/Wallaby grass and Murnong (yams) surround the tower – vital species that speak to a long history of sustainable land management and which will be important and resilient future crops in adaption to climate change. The plants will all be donated to community and school gardens at the end of the project’s time at the NGV. Timber used in the construction of the project is Responsible Wood or FSC Certified. The work has been designed to be de-constructed after its temporary installation at the NGV, after which it will be permanently relocated to another major gallery within Australia.

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