‘London: Looking East’, 15 September – 9 October 2005, UTAS Plimsoll Gallery, Tasmanian School of Art, Hobart, Australia

London: Looking East

In 1995, Nicole Ellis was a resident at the ACME studio, (In London) and indeed both she and Rebecca Cummins would feature in a site-specific exhibition, Down the Drain, in Birmingham that year. Nicole Ellis’s work, Historical Fluidity (Nocturnal Emissions) was her first completely resolved work to emerge from the residency. Historical Fluidity was a direct response to living on the Isle of Dogs in the east end which had been undergoing massive urban transformation. Nicole Ellis recalls visiting the east end of London in 1989 and being overwhelmed by the changes that had occurred by the time that she had come back in 1995.

One is acutely aware of the tidal ebb and flow of the river in London and in many ways this becomes an extended metaphor for the ebb and flow of the river’s many-layered history. Once one of the export and import hubs of Britain, increasingly the markers of that river’s rich history are becoming more and more vestigial. Historical Fluidity is constructed of two large projected images – The Hard which is an image taken of a 1700s stone ramp that is only visible at low tide on the South Bank of the Thames; Canary Wharf Tower on the other hand, is the tallest building in Europe and absolutely dominates the Isle of Dogs on which it has been built. The two images were projected on the ground in such a way that one could imagine walking down the ancient ramp and across the water to the base of the Canary Wharf Tower – the flow of water at once separating these two historical monuments and, at the same time connecting them visually.

The major work that came out of the residency was eventually shown at the Object Galleries in the Customs House on Circular Quay in 1998. Below the Waterline was a complex installation that included a five metre long replica of the sternpost of an eighteenth century British ship. Patinated panels of copper encase the sternpost and lead Roman numerals are nailed to the post to stand for depth of water displaced as cargo is taken on or off the ship. Nicole Ellis’s aim was to create a work that could a once speak about the ‘body’ of the river (the Thames) at the same time as symbolising the other ‘bodies’ that were consigned to prison hulks on the river before being transported to Australia. Also included in the installation was an image of the deck plan of one of the hulks, Captivity showing how it had been reconfigured to become a prison. The names of the prison hulks – Stirling Castle, Ethalion, Justitia, Lion, Zealand, Thames – become almost like a mantra uttered in the name of the mass of humanity incarcerated within these vessels awaiting a fate, transportation, so inconceivable that it was worse than death.

The residency in London allowed Nicole Ellis to piece together all the complex elements of this installation. In describing Below the Waterline she has observed:

[The work] focuses on the river Thames as a site of historical significance relevant to Australian colonial history; specifically those areas of the river where convicts were kept in floating prison hulks, prior to transformation. It aims to convey the idea of a river, conveying the memory of its historical past, as a trace and to give a corporeal form to that idea, by constructing animated, underwater contour images of the prison mooring stations. The curve of tidal displacement [has been] calculated using a Win Tide program: an equation for the leaving/returning motion, associated with colonial displacement. 8

It is a compelling installation rich in historical nuance and subtlety. Ellis has continued to create works that explore the issues of colonisation, migration and displacement and Bivouac, one of her most recent projects, takes as its motif a fragile Indian beach structure that transforms itself from makeshift dwelling when high and dry to a boat form when the tide gradually submerges the substructure and only the canvas roof form can be seen ‘floating’ on the water.

Jonathan Holmes 2005
Excerpt from the London Looking East catalogue, University of Tasmania, 2005, p18 – 20

8. Notes supplied by Nicole Ellis, August, 2005

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