‘Nicole Ellis Below the Waterline’, 17 October – 15 November 1998, A Sea Change Sydney 2000, Object Galleries, Customs House, Circular Quay, Sydney, Australia

Below the Waterline

The rotting hulks: in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, convicts waited out the time between sentencing and transportation to the colony of New South Wales in the holds of wooden ‘man of war’ ships fitted out as prisons.

The rotting hulks had names. Many of the names referred to other places – York, Canada, Stirling Castle, Dunkirk, Chatham-reminding us that these decrepit ships fitted out as holding prisons were both places and non-places. The cargo housed in storage below the waterline was human. For convicts awaiting transportation between 1777 and 1857, the hulk was where-and when- home was irretrievably lost, and the new home still inconceivable.

In this installation there is a frieze of names of hulks moored in the waterways of the Thames and Medway rivers in England and in Hulk Bay in Sydney. The names flesh out the experience: Captivity, Retribution, Hardy, Defence, Fortitude, Discovery, Savage, Security, Defiance, Spiteful. The names themselves could allude to moments in history or in myth: Leviathan, Warrior, Hebe, Ceres, Heroine, Narcissus. Nicole Ellis has proposed a loose narrative order, from Capivity to Phoenix. The mythical bird burnt on the funeral pyre, rises from the ashes to live again through the cycle that begins with Capitivity.

Men who received colonial convictions after transportation from Britain were held on the Phoenix, moored in Hulk Bay (now Lavender Bay) from 1826 to 1837. In dreadful waiting, they anticipated the terrors of Norfolk Island.

Below the Waterline explores the theme of exile and return, both as constitutive of Australian history and character, and as an imaginative, creative process. The point of departure is also the point of return for the artist Nicole Ellis, who commenced this work during her residency in the Docklands are of London in 1995. The exile and return is both a spatial and a temporal experience.

The lettering recalls the traditional craft skills that convicts and settlers brought here. The Baskerville font, designed by John Baskerville in 1750, was used for maps and charts, and is still used today. Nicole Ellis describes it as ‘a touchstone to the traditional craft of typefounding’. Handwriting and the material trace of hand skill implies an accumulation of human experience and of immersion in everyday life, in contrast to the dehumanising process of detachment from family and community implied by the term ‘awaiting transportation’.

Hand worked lettering is also employed on the copper-clad wooden structure, representing a ship’s sternpost, left on the floor here like an ancient artefact. The vertical line of Roan numerals, hand-cut in lead, recalls the measurements which appeared on the side of ships from the 1680s to indicate draught and displacement of the hull below the waterline. The humanity of the cargo is suggested by the hand-lettering, the dehumanising waiting and liminal status of the convicts is signalled by the starkness of the markings which essentially measure cargo weight.

Displacement is indicated literally by these measurements and metaphorically by the experience of involuntary detachment from home, family and community in anticipation of transportation into an unknown, unimaginable place. The use of metaphor here is apt, since metaphors themselves are displacements producing new figurations. It is unlikely that the convicts experienced their hulk imprisonment or their subsequent transportation as colonial displacement, though they may have registered their exile acutely and been transformed profoundly by their new lives. We make vicarious sense of their lives historically by understanding them in the contact of colonisation. Distance across time is as much the subject of Below the Waterline as distance across space. This temporal distance is conveyed by the patination of the copper sheets, evoking the transformative effects of salt water on the ship’s protective cladding below the ‘wind and water line’.

The connotations of protection implied by the copper cladding, used from the 1750s to prevent wood worm damage, seems ironic in the context of harsh imprisonment. But the copper imparts a particularity to the need for protection from water for both prisons and inmates. The patination evokes the passage of time, the abstract hand of history. The ‘pastness’ of hand-lettering and the patination of the copper both inflect history with a sense of erasure. But in this work, the most poignant reference to the passage of time is water itself. For a brief moment, hulks displaced water. Water becomes a metaphoric medium of history, of memory. As a medium, the ways in which water changes our capacity for sensory orientation is suggestive of the mediation of memory that interposes itself between an event and its recollection. Just as water accommodates and erodes material objects, so the historical memory may absorb and deplete traces of formative events.

A small engraving from the London Magazine, c. 1760, shows convict hulks moored on the Medway river at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham. Its inclusion here as a document that evidences the ‘fact’ of the hulks reinforces the irretrievable loss of material evidence. As an image of the skeletal body plan of Captivity is both instructive in identifying the modifications to the ‘man of war’ ship to form the prison, and a further reminder of the lack of the ‘flesh’ of the ship itself. These emblems are complemented by 3D animations of the mooring sites themselves. These underwater ‘cages’ are inferred from the spot levels of early water charts. From the displacement of water we trace out the presence of the hulks. Their human cargoes long departed on their own journey of exile and ambivalent re-settlement. The hulks no longer force the waters to part and surge around them.

Once again, the co-existence of the original eighteenth engraving with the digital imaging of computer technology reinforces the doubling strategy that underpins this installation: displacement is treated as a temporal notion as much as a spatial one.

‘Sites of memory’ are formed, says Nicole Ellis, ‘where the curve of tidal displacement in a body of water, its ebb and flow, suggests an equation for the leaving-returning motion, often associated with the colonial experience’. In this work, water is the central motif. As an image, it connects the rivers of the great cities, such as London, and bays around which embryonic settlements where formed, such as the town that grew on the shores of Port Jackson, on the precise site of this exhibition. Noting that former seamen made up a very large majority of the first male convicts, Alan Atkinson, comments in his recent study, The Europeans in Australia: ‘settlement was a product of maritime life and therefore shaped very much by the sensibilities of seamen’ 1. On the water and on its banks and shores, history is shaped by the lives and activities of men and women – then and now – here and there. But Ellis asks, how does water carry the memories of those who lived on the shores and even on the water and below the waterline, as our convict forefathers did? Toni Morrison writes of the Mississippi River in flood that it is remembering where it used to be before it was ‘straightened out’. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was’ 2. As a metaphor, water implies that memory shares its fluidity, its ebb and flow, its insistence and its inexorable erosion of even solid rock.

This work builds on previous works by Ellis, to set up histories for which little material evidence remains in the public domain and to re-people them: to claim history for human experience and agency. Recently, her public artwork Rollcall (1996) at Casula Powerhouse pays tribute to all those people who had worked at the Liverpool Power Station between 1952 – 76. Other works include her ‘skin works’, in which the imprints and residues of floors were lifted to become wall or floor pieces which resonated wit the life of the shearing shed or clothing factory and artists’ studio 3. The underpinnings for these recent installation works can be traced through the linear modelling and the subterranean threads figured in her paintings, at least from work shown in Discontinuous Proportions (1990).

The choice of the Customs House on Circular Quay reinforces the thematic considerations of her work. Customs House is directly linked to the English mooring sites as it was built in 1845 on the site of the landing of the First Fleet. And like the hulk prisons, Customs House was to become a site of transition and waiting, marking the beginnings and ends of the journeys of exile and return.

Professor Sue Rowley
October 1998
School of Art History and Theory
The University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts

1 Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia: A History, Volume 1: the Beginning, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, p. xvi.
2 Toni Morrison, ‘The Site of Memory’, in Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha and Cornel West, Out There: Marginalization in Contemporary Cultures, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York and MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 1990, p. 205
3 See Nicole Ellis, Arrested Sites (exhibition) catalogue, Hyde Park Barracks Museum, Sydney, 1993.

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