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Where Lakes Once had Water

Art meets science meets ancient culture in this thought-provoking video exhibition by Australian artists Sonia Leber and David Chesworth. Where Lakes Once Had Water opened at CDU Art Gallery last month, and journeys across Country and back in time as changes in climate, landscape and ecology are investigated over the span of 130,000 years.

By Tierney Seccull

To create the almost 29-minute work, Leber and Chesworth travelled to a range of diverse locations across the Northern Territory, from arid lands to tropical lagoons.

“We travelled with Earth scientists, Indigenous rangers and Elders on field trips out of Darwin to film them digging into the ancient soils to explore long-term climate history,” Leber says.

“We were fascinated by how everyone sensed the land, read the signs and signals, and experienced the environment in each present moment. Equally, we wondered about how the birds, insects and other non-humans were experiencing different versions of the land.”

Using video and audio as a tool, the work evokes the idea of hidden forces and hidden energies in the environment. It captures the Earth’s surface from different perspectives, documents its marks and landscapes, and evaluates the impact of water, sun and fire. Chesworth says Indigenous involvement was integral to the project.

“Importantly, the Earth Scientists were accompanied everywhere by Indigenous rangers and Elders, such as Mudburra Elder Ray Dimakarri Dixon, who imparted local cultural knowledge and a care and concern for Country,” he says.

“The Wiradjuri scientist Michael-Shawn Fletcher was part of Cassandra Rowe and Michael Brand’s team at Girraween Lagoon, joined by the Larrakia Rangers. Michael-Shawn encouraged us to view the environment as a cultural landscape shaped by 60,000 years of Indigenous custodianship.”

A symposium to complement the multi-media work, chaired by CDU Professor of Digital Humanities Jennifer Deger, brings the artists together with scientists from the Australian Research Council Centre Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH).

Dr Cassandra Rowe, a CABAH scientist involved in the project, says she was drawn to the project to see science through the lens of another.

“It was just really lovely to jump into a different sort of vehicle of communication … to be able to join in with Sonia and David, and to be able to design a different kind of presentation of what we do,” she says.

“I thought it was really great to show this in a place, and maybe reach different people, that pure science never really would. To have it in galleries and on display, it’s a very different space to what we do, and I was really looking forward to seeing research presented in that completely different way, to completely different people.”

Where Lakes Once had Water

Photos: Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, 'Where Lakes Once Had Water', video still, 2020, University of Wollongong Art Collection. CABAH Art Series Commission in association with Bundanon. Filmed on the lands and waters of the Mudburra, Marlinja, Jingili, Elliot, Jawoyn and Larrakia communities

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