Centennial Parklands incorporates three parks in eastern Sydney: Centennial Park, Queens Park, and Moore Park. They are the “green lung” that provides densely-packed Sydneysiders with open spaces where they can be surrounded by nature. They also provide room for sport, recreation, coffee, barbecues, and, of course, art.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the Parklands over the decades and as my nearest green space it was a natural location for me to experiment with my Silueto series. This is the one that’s directly inspired by Ana Mendieta’s “earth-body works” known as Siluetas. She located her practice in a grant application:
I have been carrying on a dialogue between the landscape and the female body (based on my own silhouette). I believe this to be a direct result of my having been torn away from my homeland during my adolescence. I am overwhelmed by the feeling of having been cast from the womb (nature). My art is the way I re-establish the bonds that tie me to the universe.
Initially, Mendieta performed “her body in nature to claim a connection with the earth and the Santería goddess Yemaya (the protector of women) and eventually, in the later works from the series, removes her body entirely, marking its absent form with gashes of dirt or flames.” My dialogue is between a different body and a different place but we are both negotiating our existence in a foreign land.
“Silueto” is a neologism that alters the Spanish word for silhouette to honour Mendieta in transgressing social space, promoting environmental awareness, and expressing performativity as an “act of meditation and dedication”. My figures also have an inherent masculinity that contrasts with Mendieta’s “female essence”.
As these “sculptures” consist of just two physical aspects –found objects in a landscape – it is technically speaking quite easy to carve a self-portrait out of the living landscape. Unfortunately, the psychological aspect is not so easy. I always experience some anxiety when beginning a public art performance – possibly because it lowers the walls with which I protect myself from unwanted interactions with strangers – and there’s also the issue that some people see the action as damaging to the environment, drawing ire. For these reasons (and others) I am very happy to leave ephemeral artworks, taking only the photographic documentation before heading off.
Each Silueto represents my presence in the physical world and the “social sphere”,  linking me to the land and the society in which it exists. I become the Parkland, the country, and the earth in a way that doesn’t happen when I merely look at it on TV. Making marks in the landscape with my body is at once a deeply personal and extremely public act.
Carving out negative spaces is not the only technique available to the sculptor of nature; there is also the construction of positive spaces. Pine needles, sticks, mown grass, stones, bits of a fig tree, and gravel are some of the materials I have used (see above). I try to walk as lightly as I can through the environment so I try to only use things that have fallen naturally, close to where they land.
Of course, there is always the aesthetic consideration so sometimes it is not the material but the location that I want to document. Over time I’ve developed a process that records the Silueto at a scale which mirrors the way I feel when in the landscape. I take a wide shot with the figure at the bottom right (or left) corner. And I’ve just realised that this is where a traditional landscape painting would be signed. LOL.
It doesn’t take much to encourage me into transforming the documentation into its own work of art.
The sequence above (top left to bottom right) features the original Silueto, an enlarged torso because it wasn’t showing up very well on my phone screen, then four transformations: a colour splash and three complimentary colour backgrounds based on different stones. When I get my act together I’ll turn some of them into t-shirts.
Meanwhile, just as Mendieta’s work evolved to feature blood and fire from Santería, I began incorporating materials from the culture around me. One thing that shouts at me every time I leave the house is the neon spray chalk made on footpaths to mark buried conduits and cables. My subconscious combined them with an earlier idea of crime scene outlines to produce this new set of Siluetos.
These may have been influenced by the male symbol on the park’s brand new toilet block.
I went on a bit of a spree trying to work out how the material worked in the environment. I particularly like the last two Siluetos. The penultimate overlooks Lake Kippax from the place where one would enjoy the view so the meaning expands to include everyone else who stops at this particular spot. The ultimate is placed to mimic the silhouette of a pedestrian, challenging the notion of what is authorised (and what is not), what is informative (or artistic), and what gender means when a figure represents everyone (or just one person).
As I had feared, someone saw me spraying paint all over the park. Although he was apologetic for being confrontational (this is the Eastern Suburbs after all) he challenged me regarding my aberrant behaviour. Fortunately I had prepared two responses. Firstly, I said that this was an “art project” and he took a figurative step back (this is the Eastern Suburbs after all). Secondly, I said I was using spray chalk “like they use on the footpath” that would disappear with weathering. Fortunately it was the same thing that his toddler uses on their footpath (this is the Eastern Suburbs after all) so it was all good. The crisis was averted but the anxiety remains. I imagine this will be an ongoing feature in my work as I explore the space where artistic expression meets social expectation.
Conybeare Morrison & Partners, & Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust. (2003). Centennial Parklands Conservation Managemant Plan. Paddington, NSW: Centennial Park and Moore Park Trust.
Iles, C. (2004). Subtle Bodies: The Invisible Films of Ana Mendieta. In O. M. Viso (Ed.), Ana Mendieta: earth body: sculpture and performance, 1972-1985 (pp. 205-223). Washington, DC: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in association with Hatje Cantz.
Schor, M. (1997). Wet: On Painting, Feminism, and Art Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Viso, O. M., Mendieta, A., Herzberg, J. P., Iles, C., Brett, G., Roulet, L., . . . Miami Art Museum. (2004). Ana Mendieta: earth body: sculpture and performance, 1972-1985 (O. M. Viso Ed.). Washington, DC: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in association with Hatje Cantz.
Warr, T. J. A. (2000). The artist’s body. London: Phaidon.