Traversing Space (Essay) Traversing Space

Penelope Richardson

‘ … I have drawn a map.
I have plotted a course.
I intend plugging into that map, under
landscape, under time, swimming with my
researcher’s easy freestyle stroke until I
surface, gasping, clutching …’

— Thea Astley, Reaching Tin River (Minerva, Australia 1990).

On the 28th April 1802 Matthew Flinders and his ship Investigator arrived in the Port Phillip region. The land, now believed to have belonged to the Aboriginal nation of the Kulin, contained by its own time construct, was suddenly keyed into Greenwich meantime. Another map with new names was drawn over the indigenous concept of time and space that pertained to this place. A new process of seeing the bay and its landmarks began. It was brought into sight, pinned down in new conceptual clothes and taken back to Europe locked in by latitude and longitude.

The land west of the Bay, the Wathaurong language area that consisted of about twenty five clans and the You Yang hills inhabited by the Yaawangi clan, was a central focus of this mapping. The ‘Wurdi Youang’ or ‘big mountain in the middle of a plain’ was a prominent landmark of granite peaks in a volcanic plain, easily seen from sea or land, and an important locator for navigators. Locked into Latitude 37° 57' South and Longitude 44° 25' East, the highest peak was renamed Station Peak (now known as Flinders Peak) on the 1st of May 1802. Although Flinders never put his own name on any geographical feature, his presence at this moment of mapping changed the time-space equation for the Port Phillip region for ever.

What happend to the other concepts of space when this mapping took place? Was the spirit force of the site overlaid or obliterated with the process of sighting and transforming into graticule? Playing with visual, spatial, temporal and historical perceptions and their relationship to site, Felicity Spear uses photographs, painting and reflective objects, to engage viewers in a formal perceptual game traversing historical and perceptual space. In this work the You Yang hills become the pivotal focus for her visual exploration. Her elongated wedge shaped paintings emerge to wrap around the walls like a dislocated horizon waiting to be deciphered by the searching eye of the navigator, fragmented again as they glance off a mirrored surface.

Seeing and perceiving are culturally mediated. Margaret Wertheim, in The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace (Doubleday, Australia 1999), says that we are the products of our own social schemes which, ‘are not only culturally contingent, they are also historically contingent.’ For a European, the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid’s theory of geometry can explain one’s relationship to the centre, whether one is out beyond the circumference or at its midpoint. The empirical philosopher David Hume suggests that we judge, perceive and understand new experience through what we have already experienced. So, in a sense, it is difficult to bring objectivity to new experiences. Is it possible for maps to be neutral, or are they abstract illustrations of new experiences perceived through subjective eyes?

Armed with the new tools of science and a Eurocentric world view explorers vanquished time and space through a physical enquiry that required they journey outside their comfort zones charting, collecting and annotating the new and the undiscovered. The marine sextant, a navigational instrument, used to determine latitude and longitude by measuring angular distances with the aid of the sun and stars at sea, was central to the European envisioning and colonization of the Antipodes. Instruments such as the sextant and compass enabled a conceptual grid to be placed over the globe like a web, enforcing a stricture of time and space relationships anchored to the 0° Prime Meridian – Greenwich Meantime.

Informed by her own experiences of going to sea, and with a focus on the sextant, Spear employs photography as an ‘aide memoire’ or, as Roland Barthes says, an ‘hallucination … reinstilling the ghost of the past as memory.’ Reinterpreting this first European mapping of the You Yang hills through the split vision of the sextant, exposes us to a consideration of the ways in which we locate ourselves in time and space. It also brings into focus that which got left out of the map, and suggests that other notions of time and space, both ancient and of our own time, can be laid over this site. As the viewer negotiates the visual models in ‘Traversing Space’ Spear asks us to engage in our own process of navigation and explore the idea that we are products of our own spatial schemes.

© Penelope Richardson June 2002