Terra Celestial

A footprint in time

by Brett McNamara
Manager, Namadgi National Park,
ACT Parks & Conservation Service 
Program Partner since 2006

Where once a lunar signal was received, there is no mobile phone coverage today.

Instead kangaroos graze a grassy knoll. Campers gaze upon a night sky. Pausing, reflecting on a moment that captivated the world’s attention. A point in time when a man strolled upon the dusty surface of the moon.

Beyond city lights, free from electronic interference, high on a mountain plateau a signal from the moon touched down on planet earth. Broadcast to a worldwide television audience of 600 million people, Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station played a pivotal role in human history.

As the world held its collective breadth, a ghostly figure climbed down a spacecraft ladder. Hearts raced as Neil Armstrong took a small step for a man and a giant leap for mankind. Euphoria erupted. It was a pinnacle moment.

History tells us that this moment, this journey, commenced with a bold ambition. In 1962 US President John F. Kennedy declared that humanity could choose to go to the moon. Inspiring a nation, engaging the world, NASA took tentative steps towards that goal by reaching out to likeminded countries. In support of the Apollo missions, tracking stations were established at Fresnedillas in Spain, Goldstone in California and Honeysuckle Creek in Namadgi National Park in the Australian Capital Territory. In 1967 Prime Minister Harold Holt visited the majestic mountains of the bush capital to declare Honeysuckle operational. It was, after all a vital Apollo communication link.

On a cool winter’s morning in July 1969, the Eagle landed on the moon. With an astronaut’s adrenalin racing, rest as instructed was not an option. A date with destiny beckoned. Back on Earth, highly skilled technicians were ready. With Goldstone images unintelligible, Mission Control soon realised that Honeysuckle was delivering a superior video feed. With the flick of a switch, images beamed from the bush capital allowed the world as one to witness a truly momentous moment.

Those immortal words, those incredible images captured forever. History was made on that remarkable day, and Honeysuckle Creek played a critical role in its making.

Over time, NASA’s intergalactic focus shifted and the importance of the Honeysuckle site waxed and waned, subject to enthusiasm for repurposing.

A nature studies site, a youth retreat, even a correctional institution were all flagged. Eventually the establishment of a place to retreat from the grind of daily life prevailed. A picturesque oasis, a beautiful campground, a place steeped in history. A place where a small step, leads to a giant connection with nature.

It was to these mountains that Sean Booth, Michelle Hallinan, Rohan Nicol, Sabine Pagan and Megan Watson were drawn and embedded, seeking artistic inspiration. Their creative responses form a contemporary narrative underscoring a human achievement of epic proportion.

Telling the untold of the Apollo 11 moon landing

by Dr Brad Tucker, 
Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics, ANU College of Science
2019 Research Partner

The 50th anniversary of the moon landing was an opportunity to celebrate the best in humanity. It was a chance to celebrate what happens when people challenge themselves and aspire to be the best. What was most exciting was the storytelling – telling the stories of the events, the people, the experiences, the emotions – the human experience.

In July 2019, we saw and heard the stories of our friends, neighbours, and Canberrans, and celebrated the ACT’s contribution to one of humanity’s greatest achievements. The public wanted to hear and feel more – what people on Earth and in space saw, heard, and felt.

Imagine, sitting in a capsule, seeing the moon grow bigger and bigger. Seeing the Earth grow smaller and smaller. Landing on the surface – the ground feels different, smells different. The movements. The breathing. All, literally, not of this world.

Being stuck for a week with two other people inside a capsule the size of a car, drifting away from the Earth at thousands of kilometres per hour, drifting away from everything you’ve known. This is what Sabine Pagan and Rohan Nicol tried to capture: the mindset, the thinking, the inspiration. In the truest sense, they enacted being an artist in residence to celebrate the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The moon is an object in the sky that humans have observed for hundreds of thousands of years in wonder and awe, for inspiration, as a form of shared humanity. The work of the 2019 artists in residence capture these emotions and insights. These are the views that Megan Watson and Michelle Hallinan tried to capture.

Every year, the moon is 4 centimetres further away from the Earth. A fact that we now know because Apollo 11 and other missions left reflector plates on the moon. A fact we know in part because the Lunar Laser Ranging facility at the Orroral Observatory in the Namadgi National Park did it.

From the ashes

by Rosalind Moran,
Author, editor, speechwriter and linguist 

I keep thinking about fragility. As 2019 drew to a close and smoke lay thick over the Canberra region, it became clear the decade was retreating not with a bang, but rather with a muffled cough. A magpie lay splayed face-down on my driveway like a broken fan – alive, it turned out, but too exhausted to take flight in the thick, grainy air. Water helped, though not enough. The bees vanished and the days went unaccompanied by birdsong.

Waxing lyrical about nature can feel indulgent, but it’s striking how urgently one wishes to engage with the world outside our windows when it seems to be no longer there.

Although the 2019 Craft ACT artists-in-residence did much of their work before Australia’s nightmare summer began, their residencies gain additional meaning when observed retrospectively. Craft ACT’s artist-in-residence program is nature-based: the artists went out into Namadgi National Park to explore the overlaps of nature with their craft, all the while staying at Ready-cut Cottage in the Gudgenby Valley. The work they produced engages with the land on which the program took place – Ngunnawal land – as well as with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which was one of 2019’s landmark historical moments. The residencies were consequently underscored by both global and place-based history.

The intersection of art, human endeavour, and nature is complex. For instance, how might these residencies be viewed through the lens of a fire-cracked looking glass? Celebrating the moon landing takes on a new tone when one realises that the 50th anniversary of mankind’s giant leap coincided with satellite images recording burning rainforests in Queensland. Programs like Craft ACT’s residencies offer time and space to artists, helping them to create – yet at the same time, in some ways, it has never been as hard to make art as it is now.

Artists, writers, and creative people in general often discuss the purpose of art, along with the value of what they do and how their work benefits people, society, and culture. This conversation might take place with friends, in an artist statement, or in writing applications for grant funding. In recent times, however, questions around the need for and purpose of art have become newly topical. Scientists no longer talk just of exploring outer space, but rather of whether there is any chance of migrating there, considering the ongoing degradation of our planet. Terms like ‘climate catastrophe’ have entered mainstream use. In response, people are asking: when our way of life feels precarious and the future is not assured, how do we justify making art?

It’s a troubling question. Making art in times like these feels fragile. Human industry and human endeavour, whether in the form of the moon landing or the commemoration of it, can even feel futile. The concept of our life’s work potentially being ephemeral causes real pain to those who wish to contribute to human knowledge and culture, or who aim to leave a lasting mark.

For so many Australians, our recent bushfire season has made us look with fresh eyes on familiar environments rendered unfamiliar, and beloved artistic pursuits rendered more tenuous by the knowledge they may be forced to take a back seat in hard times. Where fear and crisis exist, making art – or even finding the resources to make art – becomes harder. This is especially true in societies where art is seen as an optional extra as opposed to essential to the human experience.

Art is an integral part of being human – and, more importantly, it is a fundamental part of leading a fulfilling life. Art isn’t just about material creations, but also about the mindsets behind these: the curiosity, the questioning, the exploration. A culture that values art is also one that encourages debate and innovation. Among its many possibilities, art can delight and inspire people; it can comfort; it can explain difficult concepts; it can imbue the everyday with the symbolic; it can lend momentum to social causes, and it can even hold people and power accountable. It is full of potential, symbolising hope and investment in the future.

It merits our time, even – and especially – when we’re not sure how much time we have left.

Despite its myriad possibilities, art can feel undervalued and vulnerable; sometimes as threatened as the spaces in which we create it. Nevertheless, we cannot abandon it. Art that engages with the past as well as the future – and the land beneath our feet as well the stars for which we reach – is art that needs to be made.

Terra Celestial: Artists-in-residence 2019 and Wayfaring exhibition essay

by Jan Hogan,
Head of Discipline - Art, University of Tasmania

In the exhibitions Terra Celestial and Wayfaring, matter and memory are caught in a looping exchange of meaning.  The objects and images reveal a tender and playful transformation of materials by artists exploring the world of the senses and imagination.  The works gathered together hold traces of the travels and explorations of artists taking time to reflect on what it means for a body to be in place and in time. The Terra Celestial artists paused for a time whilst undertaking artist-residencies at the Gudgenby Ready-Cut cottage in Namadgi National Park in 2019.  The 50th anniversary of the moon landing framed their contemplations and haunted their making.  They used their precious seclusion to dream of the stars and to question and reconfigure the science and materials that achieved this extraordinary event.  The Wayfaring artists are connected by their time in Tasmania where they began to explore their entanglement with matter and how it absorbs and releases meaning. 

Wayfinding, as the anthropologist Tim Ingold argues, involves ‘a skilled performance in which the traveller whose powers of perception and action have been fine-tuned through previous experience’[i] finds their way along paths and tracks in the world.  It involves a constant adjusting of decisions and movements in response to material conditions and surrounding atmospheres.  In these exhibitions, this process is intrinsic to the creative approaches where the artists have played and tested materials making sense of both matter and place.

Making is a slowing down of time and the senses. Matter of all kinds can capture the imagination, allowing the body to remember other times, other places.  Whilst in varying techniques and approaches, the works all stem out of the sensual body; the touching and gathering, walking and balancing body, situated in place and time.  Metals are pressed onto paper, objects into moulds, slides into cylinders, traces made, memories ignited.  In the creation of work, the body remembers, it uses the knowledge and experience gained in touching the world allowing an empathetic identification to imbue the materials with meaning.  Objects bring intimacy, remind us that we are not disconnected minds but are corporeal, thick with sensorial information, living in a palpable, tangible world. 

These works tell stories, they niggle at our mind, one thought takes hold only to be challenged by a conflicting one, ambiguity and multiple possibilities reign.  Did the artists turned “gudgenauts” really take flight, did they achieve weightlessness for a moment?  Reflecting in Gudgenby cottage or walking the tracks of Tasmania, the limits of the self are sought in order to peer past the everyday boundaries, to make dreams manifest from the detritus that surrounds us.  Found objects, from shells to measuring tapes are made into category-bending forms that bely their apparent insignificance.  Containers, books, jewellery, and photographs are poised with possibilities and references, becoming animate through interaction with the human body.  The resulting works question whether makers think through the body or does the world think through them?

Re-locating and re-working matter in places enable a reimagining of their histories and meanings. Memory is part of this world, to be found and triggered in the material transformations by artists into objects that resonate with our senses, remind us of the specifics of our body on earth but also our dreams of the stars.  The tools of science; telescopes and sonars, microscopes and rulers, are all part of humanity’s attempt to hear the language of the world. Objects made by artists remind us of the body as the conscious subject of experience.  With nods to the imagination of the sciences, makers bring transcendence to us on our daily experience, achieved through responding to the imaginative transformation, re-arrangement, and re-presentation of matter. 

The investigations by these artists makes us pause and wonder again at the earth we live on, our relationship to the stars and moon, to the objects we touch and in return touch us.  This time to pause and think, reveals to us again the beauty of our world and the universe that we are spinning through.  As we gaze at the moon, we ‘bathe’ in its glow, yearn for its return, our emotions ebb and flow with the tides. There is a constant emotional pull that we often forget in our urban dwellings, but which opportunities of wayfaring and celestial gazing remind us of; the world thinking itself through us.

[i] Ingold, T 2000, The Perception of the Environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill, Routledge, p. 220
Cover image: Rohan Nicol and Sabine Pagan, Out There. Photo: Courtesy of the artist. 
Image 1: Ready-Cut Cottage, Namadgi National Park open day, 2019. Photo: 5 Foot Photography
Image 2: Mount Stromlo Observatory. Photo: 5 Foot Photography
Image 3: Sean Booth, Chasing eagles. Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Image 4: 2019 artists-in-residence at Mount Stromlo Observatory. Photo: 5 Foot Photography