Glenn Barkley: Plant Your Feet

I have lived and worked on the South Coast of New South Wales since my parents left Western Sydney in 1979 and moved to Sussex Inlet. I went to primary school there, and later, went to Shoalhaven High School in east Nowra. The South Coast landscape has printed itself onto my brain and I dream of it.

The title Plant Your Feet comes from a poem, Bloom, by poet, Gunai woman, Kirli Saunders:

Plant your feet like roots
next to mine.
Bloom alongside me.
Like leaf and vine,
our tangled bodies
will always chase the sun. 

This poem neatly encapsulates the way I feel about my home and place in the Shoalhaven. It is a shared place with family and friends and also an anchor. As I travel back and forth, the relief and exhalation I feel as I cross the flats at Rose Valley near Gerringong is palpable. I also like the sense of entanglement – of personal histories, global politics and economies, objects, and stories.  

Plant Your Feet is very much about exhibition-making as a creative, as well as curatorial, act. It is both an artwork and exhibition, an environment in which objects are displayed in dense setting not unlike the international exhibitions of the nineteenth century. These exhibitions, although racially problematic in terms of the hierarchy of objects, people, and materials, have shaped the modern museum. This is especially so in smaller regional collecting spaces that still bear the heavy weight of European colonialism often at the expense of truth-telling and acknowledgment of deeper problematic histories, and the continued legacy, of the colonial project. 

The work looks at obscure histories of the Shoalhaven as well as acknowledging the many Indigenous communities and custodians of the region. It features paintings and objects from the University of Wollongong, Wollongong Art Gallery, Shoalhaven Regional Gallery, Bomaderry TAFE, and private collections including the painting Black Cockatoos, 1998, by Reuben “Ben” Brown that depicts the birds after which Nowra gets its name. 

It also includes a number of objects sourced from small volunteer-run museums in the area. There are a number of small pieces from Lake Tabourie Museum, the first museum I ever visited  as a child on a school excursion. This museum’s eccentricity and anything-goes aesthetic – which as an adult I am troubled by certain cavalier aspects of – in some way shaped my own curatorial ethos. Other objects being included are an early convict brick from Alexander Berry’s estate at Cullunghutti, fern specimens collected in the 1880s, fossils from Ulladulla and a paw print from the infamous panther that still prowls the bush in Kangaroo Valley. 

I have made a number of major pieces specifically for the exhibition. A large still life of over thirty pieces includes pots that reference places, sights, and animals that populate the Shoalhaven landscape from football teams (the Wandandian Wombats) to animals (kangaroos, owls, waterbirds, and parrots) and local iconography (a red rocket in a playground in Bomaderry). 

There is also a large roundel, consisting of hundreds of small tokens, that includes lines from Judith Wright’s poem Reminiscence: I was born into a coloured country – a poem that references memory, family legacies, colour, and the sound of birds. I have also constructed a wallpaper that uses mostly images of Wedgwood pots now becoming perches for honeyeaters, finches, parrots, and owls, often covered in images of bi-valve shells as if found under the sea. 

And lastly, the show includes a small house clad in tiles made by local people – assisted by an incredible team of collaborators – who have used clay tiles to depict their own ideas and memories of home in the Shoalhaven.   

I made these works in my studio at Broughton, Shoalhaven, New South Wales, Adelaide/Kaurna, and Sydney on Gadigal land. I undertook a residency at JamFactory in June, and with the assistance and encouragement of my friend Kirsten Coelho I began using porcelain. This has bought a change to my work with brighter and sharper colours, so on a personal level it tracks this shift in my working method. 

I acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of the land I work on in Broughton. I’m privileged to be able to create there with the doors of the studio open, with the sounds of birds and the bright light splintered through a dome of green.  

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 61, 2022. 
Images courtesy the artist, Artspace, Sydney, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre, New South Wales, and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney and Singapore.

Plant Your Feet
3 December 2022 – 28 January 2023
Shoalhaven Regional Gallery, New South Wales

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