weeping walls

date 2000
location sydney international airport
medium fibre optics, morse code light generators, metal halide light boxes & mixed media
dimensions 2.5 x 4 x 0.2m
photographer ian hobbs and artist
collection sydney international airport

While people depart, the light appears and disappears in rhythms of morse code, transmitting messages of separation.

place-making in the liminal zone by susan best

Place-making in the liminal zone: Sydney Airport’s Art Work Program by Susan Best, Art and Australia, 38.3 March/April/May 2001  

Site-specificity and Non-place: Sydney Airport’s Art at Work program “Roissy, just the two of us!: these days surely, it was in these crowded places where thousands of individual itineries converged for a moment, unaware of one another, that there survived something of the uncertain charm of the waste lands, the yards and building sites, the station platforms and waiting rooms where travellers break step, of all the chance meeting places where fugitive feelings occur of the possibility of continuing adventure, the feeling that all there is to do is to ‘see what happens’.” Marc Auge

On the cover of Marc Auge’s book on non-places is a photograph of an airport transit lounge. Unlike his very geographically-specific description of a trip to Roissy airport which begins the book, this lounge is not identified, it could be anywhere. The existence of such sites, that are simultaneously evocative of both ‘anywhere and nowhere’, is precisely the point of his book. Airports, for Auge, are a prime example of the non-places of supermodernity. In this category he includes: ‘the airports and railway stations, leisure parks, large retail outlets, and finally the complex skein of cable and wireless networks that mobilize extraterrestrial space for the purposes of a communication so peculiar that it often puts the individual in contact only with another image of himself.’

Of his examples, it is the airport that best fits his account of solitary supermodern identity. For it is here when arriving and departing that the individual must prove their identity, only to become simultaneously denuded of it as the ‘everyman’ traveller. The alienated solitude of everyman in non-place is underscored by the fact that the predominant form of exchange is with signs, rather than humans. Signs silently call to us: ‘Welcome to Sydney Airport,’ ‘We hope you enjoyed your stay,’ and more officiously instruct us that: ‘Bags must be attended at all times,’ and ‘Smoking is prohibited in the terminal.’ From this characterisation of non-place one might think that making site-specific art works for an airport is a contradiction in terms. To be sure, airports by their nature are not specifically national in their design or organisation. To travellers they are experienced as strange liminal zones between departure and arrival–the new ‘waste lands,’ as Marc Auge calls them. Thus their affinities lie less with the nation states that house them, than with the international loop of airports whose curious esperanto they must speak. Site-specific art works located in this context have a difficult task: should they refer to the land that lies beyond, or beneath, the airport, or do they refer to the nature of the airport itself? The artists in Sydney Airport’s Art at work program have responded in all three ways.

Taking the four works that are accessible to the non-travelling general public: Jonathon Richard’s wallpiece, Arrival: Southern Cross, is about the airport, Ron Smith’s Touchstone is about the fauna of the country beyond, Robyn Backen’s Weeping Walls is a quintessential work about non-place, and Walama Forecourt is simultaneously about the land beneath and beyond the airport. Of these works, it is the last two which have the most complicated relationship to site, place and non-place. This is not to say that the siting of the other two is without complications. Being set beside one of the many new cafes in the terminal, Ron Smith’s giant green and golden frog is constantly covered with crawling toddlers, despite signs forbidding this very activity. The sub-literate do not respect the silent interdictions of non-place. Weaned on child-friendly eating venues which routinely provide giant animals for their entertainment, these proto-citizens of non-place are following an altogether different code. Touchstone has inadvertently drawn far more than touch. Perhaps if the frog was situated somewhere else, its gleaning skin might not appear to be such a magnificent climbing surface.

Arrival: Southern Cross: 10 June 1928, has a slightly different problem. This wallpiece is about the first flight to Sydney by Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm. In form it is like an elegant design for a social history museum, so it requires close scrutiny of the image-text relation to work out what it is about. Currently it is in a kind of corridor space which tends to discourage stopping, so that the subtleties of this evocation of history may be missed. Walama Forecourt, the environment/installation on the apron of land just outside the terminal, is much better suited to the distracted apprehension of travellers. By day, the traveller’s attention is immediately engaged by Judy Watson’s bold sculptural forms, while at night, the eye-catching operation of Brook Andrew’s whizzing arc of red neon boomerangs provides a witty embodiment of the Eora word ‘walama’: to return.

These initial triggers give over to the more subtle elements of the space that manifest themselves once brisk passage is slowed to a more exploratory gait. Slowed movement will allow what is underfoot to be revealed: dynamic swirls, wisps and pools of watery aqua bleeding into the ochre ground, insets of shells, slightly raised bronze ribs, and the names of the Aboriginal language groups of the Sydney basin. One is walking on a kind of cultural map, a history spread across the ground which speaks of a grounded history. The western viewer called to look beneath their feet is in a very unfamiliar position here. The very painterly form of the forecourt’s surface, coupled with this unfamiliar position, very gently and ingeniously draws attention to the western habit of neglecting the fragile beauty of what supports them. The illusion of spatial depth of this ground painting gives yet another twist to this experience. The viewer is simultaneously standing on the surface, while also looking down at patches of blue that appear to recede away from the surface. The effect of this is a subtle sensation of floating, of not quite being on the ground depicted. Displacement is thus carefully woven into the formal properties of this work. This feeling is amplified by the complicated sense of place made manifest here. The predominant colours of the horizontal plane, ochre and aqua, suggest northern rather than southern Australia, but this painted ground is inlaid with references to some of the practices of Sydney basin Aboriginal language groups such as: fishing, whaling, shell work. The range of locations invoked by this work is further expanded by the upright forms which emerge from the eddying field of colour. The bronze monoliths are based on the shape of upturned dillybags and the giant rust-coloured sculptural forms are inspired by woven fishing nets from Maningrida in the Northern Territory. We are thus reminded that the airport is on Aboriginal land, and also lead outwards from that specific location to think of indigenous cultural activity further afield.

These complex transpositions and transformations of form make this work simultaneously about Sydney, and not just about Sydney. In this way, the work both participates in, and departs from, what Auge calls the anthropological sense of place: that is, the concrete and symbolic construction of places–the ‘social demarcation of soil’ he contrasts with supermodern non-places. The work participates in the construction of place by making an oasis that shows different modes of interacting with, and representing, the land. On the other hand, by drawing together past and present symbolic forms of different lands, the enclosure of anthropological place is broken open. The result is not, however, a non-place. The loss of identity and authenticity, described by Auge, does not pertain to this creative liminal zone. Walama Forecourt thus points to other ways of thinking about the complex forms of communication and interaction that dominate our supermodern world. Robyn Backen?s two works for the North and South departure gates, Weeping Walls, also lead us to think differently about non-place. Indeed, her work could almost be in direct dialogue with Auge’s conception of non-place: she uses the very materials of communication that contribute to non-place–optical fibres–and she explores the liminal zones they create. In tenor, however, her exploration departs from much of Auge’s analysis, (which is more preoccupied with a kind of globalised loss of contact in the wake of standardisation), only to pick up on the hint of freedom that occurs in his description of waste lands. Her soaring forms of flickering light, positioned on the very threshold of departure, capture something of the joyous ‘weightlessness’ of this liminal zone of being.

This might seem an unlikely feeling to be elicited at a departure gate where embarrassment, loss, and worry are often the predominant emotions, but there is something quite wonderfully transcendent and uplifting about Backen’s translucent walls of shimmering pale green light. This uplifting feeling is partly the result of being in proximity to something of such unearthly beauty. One is calmed by what Freud referred to as the mysterious and ‘mildly intoxicating’ effect of beauty, and then comforted by the reassuring rhythm of pulsating lights: the distress signal of morse code which animates the work is slowed to a gentle heartbeat.

However, the main cause of this uplifting feeling must surely be the fact that the curtain-like form of the lightly draped loops of optical fibre provides a suitable backdrop for catharsis. The separating couple stand in front of the cool sheets of glass that encase the luminous curtain, and there, seemingly just for them, is a beautiful enclosure for their hopes and fears. Their emotional load is perceptibly lightened by having such a clearly defined place to say that last goodbye. With this reduction of unpleasure something like joyousness can come forth. It is easier, for the traveller at least, to move forward to the next phase: the pleasure of a kind of passive abandonment to the fates, the loosening of control that allows one to just ‘see what happens’. Non-place here can be a generative zone of transition. On the air-side of the terminal are four more groups of works which engage with place, non-place and the journey between. In Departures Pier B, Fiona MacDonald’s frieze, Millennium Tympanum, shows white Australia?s primal scene: the missed encounter of James Cook and the indigenous inhabitants. His claim that the land was ‘scarcely inhabited’ is belied by the clear signs of occupation shown in this artistic ‘reconstruction’. Against the wavering form of the coastline traced from Port Jackson to Botany Bay are exquisite silhouettes of the people, their instruments, and the flora and fauna, co-present at this scene. Only their shadows meet on the land behind them. These shadows on the land are a reminder of the pressing need for reconciliation. Among the large advertising light boxes along the Arrivals corridors are photographs by some of Australia?s leading photographers. Some refer to tourism, travel and flight in highly amusing and irreverent ways. Destiny Deacon’s Some Day I’ll Fly Away, shows a young Koori girl in a Supergirl costume on the ground but with the outstretched arms of cruising mode. Patricia Piccinini’s Psychotourist features a ‘holiday snap’ of an intense Hitchcockesque heroine with her impassive lumpland companion posed against the steep precipice of a digitalised canyon. Two images from Rosemary Laing’s Flight Research, are included. One of a disembowelled jet interior and another of a levitating bride. Judith Ahern’s quirky eye shows us tourist delights from Noosa such as a doorway in the form of a fabulously fake Big Shell. And Emmanuel Angelica?s image of a boy under the flight path holding an aeroplane, previously titled Person who would rather not be in Marrickville, has been conveniently abbreviated to Marrickville.

Above baggage collection are two videos, one by Susan Norrie and the other by Michael Riley, which unfortunately were not in operation when I visited. The final project to mention is Wingara Bridge in Pier C by the architects, Lindsay and Kerry Clare, which again picks up the pressing concern for reconciliation. The bridge, which includes inlaid text from Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Archie Roach, borrows its title, wingara (to think), from the Dharwal language of the La Perouse Aboriginal community, the descendents of the land on which the bridge stands. Indeed, reconciliation is the right note to end on. The strong references to reconciliation and co-existence, evident throughout this public art program, suggest that even in this quintessential non-place of supermodernity, a renewed consideration of anthropological place can take place. 

text plaque

Weeping Walls Artist: Robyn Backen

In her arrangement of fibre optic cables, Robyn Backen seems to gather all the lines drawn by artists in understanding distance and perspective, their tautness relaxed to express the concept of distance rather than its appearance. The harmony which inhabits the configurations suggests they are drawn from a continuous thread, as a silkworm creates a cocoon from a single fibre.

While people depart, the light appears and disappears in rhythms of morse code, transmitting messages of separation. An extinct form of communication animates the sophisticated medium; the sculptures combine the sensibility of the most refined calligraphy with the irreducible simplicity of distress signals. Draped in contemporary materials, they reach back towards an essential genealogy of communication, perhaps to forms of writing.The carving of tablets creates meaning by the removal of its material; allowing light and shadow to form legibility. Illuminated manuscripts introduce light to the book’s interior by reflections of goldleaf; its light appearing and disappearing in the locomotion of turning pages. If the colours of nature are found in pigments, light is the colour of consciousness.

The sculptures express separation and distance both for passengers and those remaining. They are finally visible to each other through the work; the currents of air to be travelled and those of feeling are joined.The Weeping Walls hold the moments of this experience, as the giant loom of Penelope measures the time from her husband, Odysseus, and contains the emotion of their separation. Each day she weaves ‘the great web’ of tapestry and unravels her work each night, its creation and undoing reflecting the tidal movement of the seas he travels, the wearing away and renewal of the heart.

Art at Work, 2000, project 5 and 6 Original Text Panel for both Weeping Walls by John Murphy

morse code signals

Pier C (large wall)

Better three hours too soon than a minute too late (Shakespeare 1564-1616) (right signal)

famous for fifteen minutes (Andy Warhol 1927-87) (left signal)

Pier B (small wall)

Parting is such sweet sorrow (Shakespeare 1564-1616) (right signal)

I have nothing to declare but my genius (Oscar Wilde 1854-1900) (left signal)


The art of the airport by Tempe Macgowan, Monument, Oct/Nov 2000

Maps of the heart sweeten departures by Geraldine O’Brien, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 2000

Public art and the Olympics by Susan Best, Architecture Australia, Spring 2000

Impressive Entry by Leo Schofield, Sunday Telegraph, 9 July 2000


Project Management: Tony Oxley - Roslyn Oxley Gallery9, Neil Mackenzie - Tonkin Zulaikha Architects

Curators: John Kirkman, Sally Gray Construction

Construction: Bill - Caporns

Fibre Optics Lightguides: John and Liz Cowley - Hadfield

Signs: John Hadfield

Morse code electronics: Stephen Jones

Morse code box constructions: Alan Galt, Weidmuller

Assistants: Kyle Ashpole, Michelle Oxenham, Sarah Oxenham, Annemarie Dalziel, Heather Mitchell

Supported by Artspace Wooloomooloo and NSW Ministry for the Art