Notes on Traversing Space Traversing Space

Felicity Spear


Traversing space has both literal and metaphorical allusions. My current interest and one which has been lying dormant in my mind for some time is to explore further the ways in which we are able to physically find our way through space, from one point to another. The experience of sailing, and one particularly interesting and challenging sail I experienced in 2000 from Geelong to Sydney, further developed my thinking about the ways in which over time we have developed ways to orient ourselves in space and travel across it by finding our position in relation to the position of other things, and by the use of the time piece. These systems have an abstract overlay of mathematical precision related to instrument and chart and map making and in earlier times to highly developed powers of observation, memory and instinct. The stick charts that mapped the currents, used as a navigation aid by the South Sea islanders come to mind. Now with the advent of radio and satellite technology the navigator on land, air or sea can find his or her position almost instantly and with great accuracy using the Global Positioning System. The hand held compass is being replaced by the hand held G.P.S. Our concept of our place in and relationship to space is again altered through this technology.

The experience of going to sea or taking to the air, driving along a thin ribbon of asphalt or striking out on foot requires both a knowledge of how to orient oneself to negotiate the journey from here to somewhere, and also a leap of faith into the unknown (like that of an explorer), or the partially known (as no two experiences can be the same). The possibility of disruption is always there. For the sailor, the signal of landfall by sight of land or the flashing lights or foghorn of the light house meant both relief and danger. There are always psycho-social motivations and implications involved in negotiating space, whether it be the social and environmental exclusion of European colonialism or the more personal journey which situates the body in or out of a perceived comfort zone.

Coupled with this, the translation of a three dimensional curving surface onto a two dimensional plane through the abstract lines of graticule and grid, the observation of the sun and stars and other natural phenomenon like landmarks, winds, currents, tides, skies and birds, and the discovery that the keeping and recording of time (used in determining longitude) is fundamental to an accurate understanding of one’s position caused me to reflect on how I could work with these concepts within the scope of my own interests as a contemporary artist. Artists are interested in these very same abstractions, observations, patterns and experiences within space and time.


I have selected a landmark/form to work with. The mound of hills to the west of Port Phillip Bay called the You Yangs has always been in my purview because I live in the country near Geelong, and I’m very familiar with the region. I sail on Corio and Port Phillip Bays, and travel the Princes Highway to and from Melbourne regularly. I became interested in the activity of the navigation and mapping of this part of the world by Matthew Flinders and George Bass. This year is the bi-centennial year of Flinders circumnavigation of Australia. A friend put me in touch with an expert on George Bass, (Bass Strait), who actually owns the original George Bass compass which I was able to view. A beautiful little instrument also incorporating a tiny sundial. He also had Matthew Flinders map of this region.

More can be read of Flinder’s mappings and impressions of Port Phillip Bay, as well as his ascent on the You Yangs on Friday 30 April 1802, in The Voyage of The Investigator by K. A. Austin, Rigby 1964, PP 128-130.

The main purpose of the magnetic compass is to find your direction. Using the sun ( or sometimes a landmark) and a sextant, with the aid of pre-prepared tables and a clock also called a chronometer, (especially adapted to take into account the seas movement), you are able to find your position of longitude East or West of Greenwich which by international agreement is the Prime Meridian. We know that we can translate the difference in time between our noon and noon at Greenwich into degrees of longitude east or west of Greenwich. One hour equals 15 degrees or 1/24th of the complete circle that is our earth. The sun sights give us our latitude, our exact distance north or south of the Equator, (the angular distance on a meridian measured up to 90 degrees towards the north and south poles from the Equator 0 degrees), Now our measurement of the time difference gives us our meridian east or west of the Prime Meridian. Our position is found where that meridian line crosses the line of our latitude. This procedure requires an especially adapted clock invented by John Harrison between 1730 and 1770. The book Longitude by Dava Sobel tells the story (Fourth Estate, London 1996).

There are a number of interesting essays in Mappings, Ed. Denis Cosgrove. Especially:

  • ‘Dark with Excess of Bright: Mapping the Coastlines of Knowledge’ by Paul Carter, pp. 125 and some relevant material on pp. 125/6
  • ‘The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention’ by James Corner and some interesting comments on p. 223

I have photographed this mound of hills, the You Yangs from all angles at different distances, and from the road, the air ( in a 1937 A.O.B. Aerial Observation Base plane!), and the sea. I have climbed them and walked over them. These photographs together with diagrams, vegetation and other images and objects relating to navigation, mapping, geography and topology have been photocopied, and sometimes layered, and made into contact prints in the negative, and the objects into photograms. The negative contact prints act as traces or replicas of the absent original, an aide memoire. The photograms are one-off Images re-appearing as luminous silhouettes.

The Installation

On entering the gallery on the wall space to the immediate right I installed a grid of photographic works interspersed with mirrors, referencing the idea of graticule. This included a piece that replicates the view one would have through a sextant from a boat in the middle of Corio Bay if one were using the top of Flinders (or Station) Peak as the point of measurement to establish the boat’s position. Other images reference aerial and sea views, traditional instruments and topography. They appear as high contrast images, abstracted, fragmented, enigmatic or degraded in some way. The mirrors reflect the paintings behind and along the other walls of the gallery which behave like a dislocated horizon. Coupled with this there is a triangular painting echoing the trig. point on Flinders Peak, with map making marks. At right angles to and reflecting this piece I placed a mirror which acts as a reference to the workings of the azimuth compass and also reflects in distortion the path of these marks on the painting and the photographic map grid.

The longest wall on the left as you enter the gallery and adjacent to the door, and the end walls at the other end of the gallery held the object/paintings, elongated wedge shapes in plan and elevation of different lengths, (6 pieces in total). These forms and the minimal, monochromatic images painted on them reference the silhouette or outline of the hills from different angles (some being fragmented or distorted), and the way we experience and perceive them both topographically ( hills rising out of the flat plains), with the navigators eye (as landfall), in an atavistic sense that references pre-European history, or even as mirror images of each other. Some of these images wrap around the edges of the stretchers.

The monochromes reference both the natural and the artificial. I used red to reference the technology of the dark room, but there was also references to modernism, to danger, to blood/body, and to other human emotions or symbolic models. I usde blue to express in a more literal sense the idea of distance and deep space. The shining narrow ribbons across the works, like horizons at tilted angles, appeared more visible from certain angles than at others, and interrupted the predictability of the matt surfaces, playing with the idea of light on water and movement at sea while finding one’s bearings. The paintings were suspended above eye level, creating a sense of distance. They were stepped or abutted, with a small space between so that connections could be made between the deep edges of the stretchers, their undersides, and the interaction of shadow and light that so often distorts or interacts with our vision when viewing things from a distance or through mirrors. Suspended above these was another mirror at right angles to the wall which in certain positions gave the viewer a glimpse of the upper painted surfaces of the paintings which echoed the silhouette of a different angle of the hills.

Felicity Spear — May 2000

Position of Flinders Peak/You Yangs:
Lat. 37° 57' South
Long. 144° 25' East