Between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, 2006, I worked on a project I had been commissioned to produce for the Exeter tEXt festival, Devon, England. The project, TRIG, was a response to the life of the Victorian explorer William Wills, who was born and educated in Devon and who emigrated from England to Australia as a young man. TRIG was a multi-site installation on three points of a geographic triangle.
I installed images and text in Totnes, where Wills was born, in Ashburton at the Chapel of St Lawrence, where Wills was educated and in St Michael’s Church, in the village of Ipplepen where the Wills family lived. Each of these three sites was associated in the work with one of three characters from the saga of the trans-continental crossing out of Melbourne.
Inside the larger geographic triangle is a smaller triangular shaped area of land called Orley Common. It is one of the most ancient, undisturbed sites in Devon and very near to the Wills family home. I documented Orley over the three month period of the project photographically and used it as a site for imagining moments in the childhood of Wills as he played on the Common in the weeks leading up to the meningitis-like illness which left him with a severe speech impediment and which is mentioned in his father’s journals.
One week I imagined that the boy Wills had built himself a small shelter out of coppiced hazel branches and, crawling inside, had a premonition of lying inside the shelter his comrades would build him when he was a young man in the Australian outback, to shelter him from the sun as he lay dying. The text that emerged from that week’s encounter with the common I called halseny – an old Devon dialect word that means to divine the future using a hazel wand, like someone dowsing for water. The following week, I wandered into an area of the Common I had not previously explored and discovered a fragile structure, a rudimentary shelter that looked like the lacey hull of an upturned boat.
He has made a shield, a shelter, a small world
of shadow, striped vertically, The hazel twigs
once lively as a puppy in his arms, now frame
his view, but remain tense, full of a potential,
an old longing, to turn and spin, to dip
and dowse like woody compasses. Severed
stalks, they remember their tree-nature, are
alive with a potential to re-root, to flower.
The child sits like a statue for an hour
and sees another makeshift dwelling, feels
his back stiffen, counts his breathing out
and in. A beetle crawls across the skin
above his knee. Hawks circle. He foresees
his own small death. It's like remembering
a potential to re-root and to flower
In October, 2008, I was invited to present a paper about the TRIG project at a conference “Re-fashioning Mythology” at the University of Melbourne. Several people approached me afterwards and said how much they thought that the story of the project should be made more widely known in Australia
I did some more research and became interested in the observations made by Neumayer at the old observatory in Flagstaff gardens, Melbourne, during the last months of the expedition. I was particularly struck by his record for June 29th 1861, the date of Wills’ last diary entry, of the phenomenon which Neumayer describes as “the most extraordinary appearance of light in the S.E..” and I wondered whether Wills had also observed and noted the same celestial feature. There did seem to be a correspondence between Neumayer’s observations and that of John King, who recounts the appearance on June 25th of strange lights in the sky to Wills, who is by this time too weak to observe them in person, but who concludes from King’s description that he must have seen Venus in the ZODIACAL LIGHT “with a corona around her..”. I was moved by this discovery, and an idea for a piece of work that would link the idea of the halseny hut with the Flagstaff Observatory began to gel in my mind.
In April, 2013 I had the chance to visit Melbourne to document the Flagstaff gardens site and artefacts from the Burke-Wills expedition that are archived in the National Library of Victoria. This evolved into a piece of work, ZODIACAL LIGHT that included images, text and objects from the original TRIG project, archived in a glass cabinet that was displayed together with an interactve e-book documenting both projects and using ambient sound recorded in the UK and in Victoria Market, Melbourne, Australia. It was shown at Fascinate, 2013, in the Performance Centre, Falmouth University.
The transdisciplinarity of my creative practices in response to the life of an historical figure informed the research direction of the Trevisa Project. Art and technologies, particularly new media, provided me with the means to express ideas, in an alternative book format, for my poetics of uncertainty. I began to feel that this was becoming, like Trevisa's paratext to his translation of the Polychronicon (a dialogue between a Lord and a Clerk ) a kind of radical historiography