Honouring the Past | McGrath

Honouring the Past

Issue 46
12/02/2020 | 6 MIN READ

Amidst the abundant foliage of the Grollo Equiset Garden at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), a strikingly enigmatic structure has appeared. Unlike anything in its surrounds, this nine-metre high cylinder is a monolithic wonder clad in a dark-stained Tasmanian hardwood. The installation is sliced in half - paving a walkway for visitors to explore this immersive journey and disappear within the architecture.  


Titled, In Absence, the ephemeral structure is the winner of the 2019 Architecture Commission by the NGV. The Commission - a nation-wide competition that operates annually - invites architects and artists to create and design a site-specific work of temporary and meaningful architecture. 


NGV’s 2019 Architecture Commission is a collaborative installation by Indigenous Kokatha and Nukunu artist, Yhonnie Scarce of South Australia and founders of Melbourne-based architecture studio Edition Office, Kim Bridgland and Aaron Roberts. In Absence is an exemplary story of contemplation and inspiring heritage - showcasing the best of contemporary Australian artistry. 


In 2019, the brief focused on multidisciplinary thinking, collaboration and active audience engagement. With this in mind, In Absence demonstrates a notable feat of breathtaking creativity - inviting audiences to learn about and understand the long histories of Indigenous construction, design, industry and agriculture prior to the European arrival. 


“This pavilion does not recognise the term ‘Terra Nulius’,” Scarce explains. “Instead it celebrates the structures that were built long before the colonisation of Australia. There were many Aboriginal builders of ‘houses,’ aquaculture infrastructure and long-term agriculture that has existed for thousands of years.”


In Absence is a layered architectural build that pays homage to practices of the past. The gap in the central axis of the installation is also a nod to the traditional stone eel traps that manipulate water to enable sustainable aquaculture production. Drawing visitors inwards, the form and scale are further reminiscent of traditional permanent homes. Paired with a distinct ash scent indicative of the charred and rich smell of towering old trees involved in preservation and trade; the artists heighten the immersive experience - transcending the individual into a sensorial journey to times past. 


Yhonnie Scarce and Edition Office delve deeper into more than just representation - the compelling installation uncovers the importance of architecture and space to provide sufficient opportunity of the invisible to become seen. As the NGV described it, ‘a slice of nothingness splitting wholeness, the fissure and void at the symbolic heart of this structure is designed to evoke and clarify the false absence implied by Terra Nullius.’ It explores the realities, intelligence, sensitivity and successes of Indigenous systems of living amongst the Australian identity across the fields of architecture, agriculture, ecosystem management and Indigenous treaty. 


“This commission is an amazing opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the builders of such infrastructure and their enduring legacies,” Scarce adds. Using her personal and cultural heritage as a Kokatha and Nukunu woman, Scarce addresses the legacy of colonisation on Indigenous Australians. 


In Absence signifies Indigenous practice and shared culture through an important collaboration between indigenous artists and non-indigenous architects. Drawn from difficult times of the past, Scarce and Edition Office bring forward a deeply powerful and highly developed narrative of history into the 21st century. 


In Absence by Yhonnie Scarce and Edition Office is part of a one-night-only exhibition on 21 March, held during Melbourne Design Week at RMIT Design Hub.