Art in Place #1 — Students respond to D Harding’s ‘Spine’

A collaboration between Honi Soit and The Power Institute. Facillitated by Nick Croggon, Ann Stephen, Stephen Gilchrist and Maya Stocks with Thomas Sargeant and Amelia Koen.

Art in Place was the first in a series of workshops for University of Sydney students to think and write about the campus artwork ‘Spine’ by Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal artist D Harding.

Organised as a collaboration between Honi and The Power Institute, the workshops took place over Thursday and Friday last week, during which student participants were prompted to develop critical responses to the work and received collaborative feedback from University curators and lecturers of Indigenous Studies. 

Students may recognise Spine 2 as two sandstone blocks elevated on the City Road side of Eastern Avenue, however two further elements of the work exist nearby — Spine 1 (Universe) is located in the Life, Earth and Environmental Sciences (LEES) building, and Spine 3 (Radiance) is located on the side of the Carslaw building. 

As a collective, Harding’s works represent a dialogue between old and new, Indigenous and colonial; a point of tension — read on to hear the voices of students in response and see the poster below. 

Emily Greenwood, Visual Arts III:

Have you ever noticed D Harding’s work on Eastern Avenue? Camouflaged by the colonial structures that surround it sits D Harding’s Spine 2. Monolithic and by far the largest work in Harding’s Spine series, the work sits on a plinth of grass and shrubbery, camouflaged and framed by flowers alongside it. At the base of the work sits a concrete hill. The sandstone cubes that sit atop have made it the peak of the mountain. The first cube hangs off the cliff with the tension of a fall or potential to slide back to the bottom. One cube is perfectly angular, the other similar, though the top appears to have been freshly snapped out of the earth it was once a part of.

That second cube has sparked my attention on many occasions, without ever realising it was a part of art on campus. Why didn’t they cut the top down to make it a hard angled cube, like its counterpart? Like the buildings surrounding the work, or the metal frame at the base of the work? Spine 2 juxtaposes sedimentary rock placed on top of angled constructivist architecture, a visual metaphor of the now coexisting colonial and Indigenous ways of learning, as well as the old and new architecture that comprise the University of Sydney’s Camperdown campus. Art in its traditional place is easily recognisable. But when place is art, it is easy for it to hide in plain sight. This may be why you have never noticed D Harding’s work on Eastern Avenue.

Jasmine Anderson, Visual Arts II:

Observing Spine 1, 2 and 3, I am moved by the delicate placement of these installations which gracefully situate themselves within a public space.  I feel these works are a poised expression and acknowledgment of the indigenous heritage of both materials and site. 

What I was most drawn to are the marks made by the artist’s hand, in the expanded sculpture Spine 3, (radiance). As a visual artist, I myself like to incorporate traces of my own process. I feel that visible gestures bring a rawness and humanity to a work which remains sensitive in such an expansive space. So often architecture is cold, whereas this work brings warmth to the campus. This warmth is further enhanced by the haematite pigments used. 

I would encourage anyone to take the time and reflect upon these three artworks and to further investigate the work of D Harding. 

Thomas Sargeant, Art History / Politics IV:

Defined by the space it occupies in the LEES building, Spine 1 lives in what is both an enclosure and a playground for the piece. While its counterparts reside on the highly visible thoroughfare of Eastern Avenue, Spine 1 is instead bordered by classrooms and labs. The work is anchored by a petrified wooden log, which sits on a bronze shelf with an information panel beside it — an artefact in the building’s clinical setting. The stark white walls which it sits against, as well as its claustrophobic bounding, keep it cloistered in a hidden corner.

The work comes alive, however, in its expansion upwards and across the halls of the building, unafraid to claim institutional and physical space. Blown pigments, described by Harding as “illustrations of [their] breath”, act as vivid illustrations of their presence across the canvas of the building’s interior. As a Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal artist, Harding draws on their matrilineal history of mark making through the rock art of Carnarvon Gorge – the source of the work’s fossilised tree. The sprawling nature of the work emphasises and questions the boundaries of the space, pushing at its seams through ceilings and hallways filled with their very breath.

Jessica Maronese, Art History / English Literature II:

D Harding’s Spine 3 is a full bodied, sensory art experience camouflaged into the landscape of Eastern Avenue. The word ‘camouflaged’ in relation to this piece does not refer to its palette, texture, or placement, which are exceedingly eye-catching, it more so refers to the near imperceptible way Harding’s fresco-like work has adapted to its environment.

If you pause to observe the work, stand from several feet back and watch as the space created opens the piece up to a current of Sydney University students who flow past; preoccupied. Watch these living bodies mingle with the liveliness of the wall and amplify the physical movement and labour which is embedded in the very plaster of Spine 3. This river of students opens another sensory experience in the form of auditory space. Listen to the noise of footsteps, echoes of voices and light drums of music from phones as these sounds evolve to create an immersive experience. As you stare at this piece of textured wall, it becomes almost representational of a natural, living landscape, one which both exists within and is amplified by the surrounding urban environment of Eastern Avenue. 

Amelia Koen, Art History / Philosophy of Science IV:

Harding’s sculptural triptych incites questions about its own physical treatment. Not by viewers or students, but by its place — the University. Spine 2, aside from the expected impacts of nature such as moss and algae, has accumulated a thick soot, leaving the top of the structure black from pollution off City Road. Further, it has a large gash on its side from a fly-away stall at Welcome Week. I suppose it is up to the individual to decide if this is neglect or simply a part of an outdoor artwork’s life; after all, what is land art without the contribution of the land itself? 

However, Spine 1, residing in the sterile LEES building, is covered with cobwebs, dirt, and live spiders. The blooming blue hues of Harding’s blown pigments are dampened and littered with black dots. It feels not only wasteful, but shameful to have deeply significant First Nations artworks within deeply colonial spaces that are left to accrue dirt; rather than to stand in defiance.

Our university is an institute that embodies a colonial power which it has exerted since 1850. Erected on stolen Gadigal land, it has since stood as a global monolith of Western ideas wrapped in European, Gothic facades. The significance of having First Nations art on display, such as Spine, lies in that it creates an Indigenising force across our campus, counteracting all that which USyd is built upon. We must ask ourselves: Is the physical presence of these works enough, or must we continually uphold and review their standing within our collective place? Arguably, the impact and significance of these works is only justly upheld when the artworks themselves are upheld with respect by the University in which they reside. 

Fin McGrath, Art History II:

The certain mystery that embodies abstraction in artwork is that it is not abstract in order to deflect or prohibit meaning, but to prevent its abstraction from being the focal point of attention. Its abstraction is transitory. Dynamic and evolutionary in the viewers eyes, I believe this follows that the viewer is as much the subject as the work itself. They exist outside, alongside, and within the art. This statement is also true of each different work included in Spine.

The works which compromise Spine exist in ‘non-art spaces’, external and always revealed to the public eye. They sit alongside a walkway and an avenue – a space between places. By virtue of this, the work coincides with the function of Eastern Avenue as an avenue, with people never truly stopping to watch or consider, always on the move to be someplace else. For instance, Spine 2, which on first approach seems to almost melt into the university’s neo-gothic backdrop. As is with the rest of the work, Spine2 is monolithic yet unassuming, and indeed that is how any good placemaking should be. D Harding’s work considers and collaborates with both students and land in order to create a sense of place, body and time   in an exposed space, unprotected and vulnerable.

Callum Gallagher, Art History / Philosophy IV:

Slow down enough on Eastern Avenue, and at the end near City Road you might actually take in D Harding’s Spine 2. Two cubes of sandstone, one perfectly cut, the other a little rugged across its top edge, sit stoically on a concrete plinth running along the channel of flowing students that move along the North-South axis of Eastern Avenue. I don’t think it’s an accident that the abstract sandstone forms sit directly in front of Madsen Building’s imposing sandstone architecture. As if a perfect distillation of the material, the sandstone cubes sit in stark contrast to the highly worked arches and doorways that have become the quintessential poster child of Western universities. However, the two cubes of Spine 2 sit at the top of a concrete ramp, the highest sitting precariously slightly off its edge. In my mind it suggests a fragile precarity of those sandstone buildings associated with elite education that stand in as the ivory towers of Sydney University. Sandstone taken from the ground is lifted up to support esoteric and intellectual pursuits, yet the danger of it crashing down is forewarned by Spine 2 if it cannot remember the ground it is so essentially connected to.



SPINE, 2018.
Born 1982, descendant of the Bidjara, Garingal and Ghungalu peoples of Central Queensland.

Lapus lazuli, viviennite pigment, hematite, & a pure lemon commercial pigment from Italy. The University Art Collection, the University of Sydney, UA2018.25.1.

SPINE 2, 2018.
Gosford sandstone, off-form concrete, hematite oxide, 3 parts: wedge-shaped plinth, 113 (to 200) x 1200 x 130 cm; front block 138 x 150 x 150 cm; back block 150 x 150 x 150 cm, The University Art Collection, the University of Sydney, UA2018.25.2.

Plaster, haematite oxide, 4.450 x 12.000m. The University Art Collection, the University of Sydney, UA2018.25.3.