MAAS Magazine

The collection as constellation

Dr Kate Scardifield, MAAS Visiting Research Fellow, investigates cosmic tapestries and bodies of knowledge. 

Display of objects titled Archival Enactments: New Constellations
Archival Enactments: New Constellations on display at the Powerhouse Museum.

As an artist, I often describe my practice as a process of mining history. My approach to creative enquiry has always been research-driven, drawing largely on archival material and exhumed collection objects from across the fields of medicine, anthropology, art and design.

As a research fellow at MAAS, I examined objects and ephemera linked to the former Governor of New South Wales and Scottish astronomer Thomas Brisbane (1773–1860). Over three weeks in January, the Powerhouse Museum and the Observatory opened its stores to me and unlocked its display cabinets containing 19th-century objects brought to Australia by Brisbane. This included a refracting telescope made by Banks of London, a Kater Azimuth compass and part of a Troughton mural circle, which had been transported from Brisbane’s private observatory in Largs, Scotland, to Australia’s first observatory on the grounds of Government House in Parramatta in the early 1800s. These astronomical objects used by Brisbane and his assistants Carl Rümker and James Dunlop to chart and map the southern sky have helped inform and inspire my new body of work and exhibition, Archival Enactments: New Constellations.

The roots of this project stem from a research residency in 2016 where I investigated social history collections and civic archives across regional parts of Scotland. Supported by Creative Scotland and a consortium of Scottish museums, Archival Enactments: New Constellations is an evolving exhibition of new work scheduled to tour four Scottish venues from December 2017 to 2019. The works respond to these archives and collections as particular bodies of knowledge, each with its own distinct system of information. They intend to explore ideas of sovereignty, identity and place as concepts that can be both constructed and deconstructed through creative engagement with fragments of the past.

During my five-week residency I visited St Andrews, Kirkcaldy, the Scottish Borders, West Kilbride, Glasgow and Falkirk, delving into cavernous museum storage facilities. The metaphor I began to use in my thinking and that continues to underpin the conceptual rationale for this project is of each collection as its own celestial configuration, its own unique constellation of knowledge.

I first learnt about Thomas Brisbane at the West Kilbride Museum, a modest civic archive located above the village hall in Ayrshire in south-west Scotland. This collection accounts for over 400 years of local history; however, it was a chance conversation with a museum volunteer that put me on the path of examining Brisbane and his engagement with celestial cartography as a thread line connecting Scotland and Australia.

As a Visiting Research Fellow at MAAS, and with the assistance of Conservator Tim Morris and Curator Dr Andrew Jacob, I have been able to undertake a sustained period of engagement with what are considered to be some of the most historically significant scientific instruments in Australia. Brisbane’s equipment and the data garnered were responsible for determining position systems and standardising time for the colony. In a broader sense, I’ve come to think about how these objects represent a period of celebrated scientific discovery in and among what remains a fraught colonial legacy.

Kate Scardifield with Curator Andrew Jacob at Sydney Observatory
Kate Scardifield with Curator Andrew Jacob at Sydney Observatory.

I often reflect on the turn of phrase ‘crafting my ideas’. Exploring concepts through different modes of materiality and taking a lateral approach to ‘making’ allows me to create a range of propositional spaces for ideas to translate and unfold. Archival Enactments: New Constellations exists in a multitude of forms, including sculpture, installation, textiles, video and performance.

Throughout this body of work there is an interlacing of references to celestial mapping and navigation, modes of cartography and stargazing that underpin the formal and aesthetic properties of each piece. This project is moving my practice into new and exciting terrain that includes the design of a digital textile print in collaboration with Heriot Watt University and the delivery of Canis Major, a live and evolving work. Inscribing a celestial configuration through the remapping of earthly terrain, Canis Major will transform the scaled distances between the constellation’s eight major stars into seven distinct walking routes through the Scottish landscape, which I will travel over the course of three weeks in July 2018.

From Scotland to Australia, key questions have arisen around the role of objects in narrating historical narratives and their connection to our construction of identity and framing of place. What new potential might collection objects have when they are reconfigured or re-imagined within a contemporary context?

High Noon is a new video work resulting directly from my research fellowship at MAAS. It uses the remaining part of the Troughton mural circle brought to Australia by Brisbane, capturing the circle in perpetual rotation from a central axis point. The circle’s slow and pensive oscillations on an inky black background subtly reference a solar eclipse. A bright shard of golden brass turns on itself into darkness before folding back into light, a gesture that denies the object’s static positioning within a collection context for an infinite sense of time and becoming.

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