A kangaroo rests low on four limbs, head alert. Beside it, another rests on its paw. From every wall of the white room, kangaroo eyes scratched out in charcoal and biro stare back. Human-sized felt pouches hang from the ceiling on gum tree branches. When the artist is present, she takes one down and encourages visitors to try crawling into the pouch for themselves. At other times, she sits in a corner and works on an embroidered piece entitled ‘Apology to Roadkill’.
This is Melbourne-based artist Bridget Nicholson, and her exhibition ‘Kangaroo Encounters’ that documents a lifelong preoccupation with the iconic Australian marsupial. Her works are at once familiar and fascinating, encouraging the viewer to study the kangaroo with fresh eyes. I recently had the opportunity to ask Bridget a few questions about her works.
Why did you choose this topic?
Probably because of my early upbringing where, as the child of an Australian diplomat, I moved country every couple of years. In those days (the seventies), Australia was not well known and it always was the kangaroo that people identified as Australian. My father’s role was very much about being Australian and this rubbed off on me – I feel a very strong tie to being ‘Australian’ and so I seek to understand what that means in myself.
A childhood memory of my first day at a new school, Malta, a British School. Comments directed at me were along the lines of ‘Australia, you come from Australia, the place at the bottom of the world where they have kangaroos, animals that hop’, followed by a demonstration, and then peals of laughter as if the whole thing was ridiculous.
At art school I started and ended each day with a 40-minute drive through the countryside surrounding Canberra. It was towards the end of a long drought and each day without fail I would see a dead kangaroo sprawled on the side of the road.
Tapatjatjaka Arts Centre, Central Australia: alone in the place, I wandered around allowing the artworks to seep into me. What struck me was a sense of connectedness embedded in the works; people, landscape, and animals, they all belonged together, were part of the other. There was a collection of kangaroo sculptures (Johnny Young) made of copper wire; the wrapping and tangling of the wire making the form. I tried drawing these kangaroos, drawing from the sculptures, understanding and feeling the form through the wire wrapping. Trying to capture the sense of character both human and animal that imbued these objects.
All these experiences have stayed with me and fuelled my curiosity and questioning of not only my own relationship to the animal, but also a collective relationship: why, what, and how does the way we see and portray the kangaroo relate to us?
Why do you think the kangaroo has become so emblematic of Australia?
I think from the early stages of exploration, newcomers to this country were fascinated by the kangaroo because it was so different to anything people had seen before. It is a unique animal even today when so many animals are known. The story goes that the kangaroo and the emu were chosen for the coat of arms because they are animals that can only move forward and this was a quality that people wanted to apply to the idea of a new nation ‘moving forward’. I also think it has physical qualities which make it easy for humans to connect to; it stands on two legs; the size, although varying across species, is comparable with the human body; their hands are extremely similar to our hands; and they are very expressive animals. Plus they move fast, which is attractive!
A lot of your pieces are in graphite on stone paper. What attracts you to these materials as a means of portraying the kangaroo?
The graphite powder on stone paper came about because I wanted to draw with my hands rather than with an instrument such as a pencil. I wanted to mould the figure with my hands (probably because I am primarily a sculptor!). I was put onto the stone paper by the lovely Luke at St Lukes in Smith Street and it is perfect for two reasons: firstly, because it is beautifully smooth and therefore gives the graphite a softness you can’t achieve on more textured paper. Secondly, it is made from marble dust, a by-product of the marble industry, and I like using organic materials [that are], especially in this case, ‘of the earth’.
You describe your embroidery piece as an ‘Apology to Roadkill’. Could you elaborate on this?
I find roadkill particularly upsetting. There is something inherently careless, and whilst I acknowledge that accidents happen, it says something about human nature to find that once an animal has been killed so quickly and horribly we don’t even take the time to stop and acknowledge or apologise for the taking of life, to perhaps move the body to a better resting place. The bodies are left strewn across the road – there is a lack of care and consideration. Remembering, of course, that this is the animal that we use constantly to represent our nationhood. So I want to do something that will take years; I want to painstakingly create something beautiful to say I am sorry to the thousands of kangaroos who have been dismissed in this way. It is a meditation in some ways - time spent acknowledging that there is something more important than speed.
How did you create your felt pieces and why did you choose this medium?
The felt pieces came from the idea of the kangaroo pouch as a place of security, a nurturing safe place. At the time I made these, I was looking for ways to find home, ways of feeling at home in a foreign environment. Thinking about how we do this, I started with how we draw the environment around us, how we use the patterns, colours, flora and fauna, of place to connect us to a place.
The kangaroo appears in the decorative arts and crafts of early European days alongside other plants and animals that were seen to be unique to Australia. That, however, did not seem enough. I needed a physical engagement with place, and this I sought through the making of these kangaroo pouches. They are made from wool, some of which has been washed and carded and some which is just raw fleece. The wool, while having itself this connection to an English heritage, also has this wonderful quality of looking like skin or an animal pelt. It is also a very comforting material; it is strong and has the quality of absorbing light and sound, so when you are inside a pouch the outside world fades.
The pieces are made as one whole, not individual pieces. To make felt you lay the wool out in layers, criss-crossing itself, [and] you then wet it and rub it. The friction causes the scales on the individual fibres to open and then the heat and moisture make it contract and shrink, thus forming a solid tough fabric. To do this I had to work with my whole body. I made them on the floor, then rubbed and stomped on them, then rolled them around and walked dragging them behind me, finally putting them in the bath and jumping on them. It is a strenuous and timely activity. I have made about five large body-sized ones and that is it - I don't have any more in me!
In your opinion, how does art relate to the environment?
In my opinion art is the environment; it is only human thinking that divides and categorises it. For me, plants, animals, landscape are what I want to be immersed in, what I want to explore. I see humans as just part of that.
Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape.
You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra.