Eucalyptusdom: Through the spectral forest

Infinite histories of destruction, regeneration, and hope are inscribed on the silver-white skin of the ghost gum.

Art by Amelia Koen.

Against the rugged primary colours of the Australian landscape, the white-skinned Eucalypt stands apart. While inner-city Ultimo feels far removed from its bushland home, it is here at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum that one of the tree’s many nomenclatures – the ‘ghost gum’ – materialises from the darkness of the exhibition space.

Curated by First Nations director and Wiradjuri woman Emily McDaniel, alongside Sarah Rees and Nina Earl, Eucalyptusdom showcases commissioned works from composers including Ashley Hay, Vera Hong, Nicholas Mangan, Lucy Simpson and Wukun Wanambi, to explore Australia’s shifting relationship with the gumtree in the context of settler-colonialism.

Both themes of ‘haunting’ and ‘truth-telling’ lie at the central heartwood of the exhibit. Conceptually, this haunting refers both to First Nations’ spirituality and knowledge, as well as a resistance to the legacies of colonialism: a “relentless remembering and reminding that will not be appeased by settler society’s assurances of innocence and reconciliation”, as argued by academics Eve Tuck and C.Ree.

These ghosts are atmospheric and viscous, woven into light, texture, and sound. An eerie undercurrent of voices draw visitors toward floating visions such as Lucy Simpson’s Mayabuu (still, continuing) (2021), where layers of white and dusty-peach silk, dyed with Yuwaalaraay and Gadigal earth and plant pigments, hang from a circular ceiling frame. In the centre, warm light illuminates the Eucalyptus branches printed on the fabric, animating them as they sway and settle in an invisible breeze.

As Simpson intends, the ephemerality of the work “remembers cycles of life and long-time (both back and forward) and maps movement through space and story”, reminding visitors of “the importance of relationships, and the interconnected kinship systems woven into the story of Bibil [Eucalpytus].”

This kin-centric relationship is similarly expressed by Wukun Wanambi’s Mittji (2021), a spectral forest of Larrakitj (traditional memorial poles) designed to “eventually erod[e] and return Yolngu back to Country”. Gravestones are perhaps the Western equivalent — though, upon reflection, impermeable stone appears incompatible with our own human transience, pointing to the Anthropocenic conceit imbued within Western value systems. 

Still, if mortal bodies are temporary, legacies of settler-colonialism remain deep-rooted.

The Eucalyptus stands – and falls – as a witness to this paradox. Susan Skelly, in her review of Eucalyptusdom, notes that the exhibition space becomes “a kind of parallel universe. On the one hand, it is a curation of objects built on the colonial economics of botany […] On the other hand are things not so easily framed and captioned: interconnections, culture, myths, ancestral stories, the country that grew the trees.” 

Eucalyptusdom exposes the inadequacies of the former. As the Powerhouse’s embedded artist Agatha Gothe-Snape, whose research led to the exhibition’s inception, queries: “How do you fall in love with something when you can’t name it, when it keeps escaping your methods of categorisation, of knowledge?”  

Nicholas Mangan’s deeply visceral video installation, Cutting (2021), embodies this tense entanglement between Western and Indigenous knowledge systems by recreating the extractive logic of settler-capitalism.

Audiences are positioned as voyeuristic consumers who watch as a jagged blade saws through the air, accompanied by the discordant grinding sounds of metal against wood. Mangan deliberately omits visual violence within his work, allowing museum-goers to imagine the process of dissection that generates tangible products, evidenced in the wooden samples from 1890-1925 contained within steel pallet crates onto which the video screen is mounted.

Behind-the-scenes storytelling through art, such as that which Mangan achieves, “reactivat[es] relics from the past […] to draw out spectres of earlier times, without romanticising them”. 

Still, there exists an undeniable aesthetic beauty in the scaly blues, greens and pinks of the Eucalyptus leaf under the microscope.

In blurring the paradigm between art and artefact, Eucalyptusdom reframes the Eurocentric, colonial history of anthropology and problematic practices of collection and objectification through a critical Indigenous lens. Even the exhibition labels have been transformed according to a First Nations’ ethos, shifting from their prescriptive role to instead facilitate personal, emotional, and spiritual reflection.

Under the heading, ‘Spectres and Sentinals’, author Ashley Hay encourages visitors to:

“Imagine the texture of a smooth Eucalyptus trunk; holding a different kind of time, slow progress compared to the seconds, minutes, hours of our daily chronologies.”

As we wander through the spectral forest of Eucalyptusdom, we, like the gum trees, must remember what we have seen.

What lingers, what haunts: the people and stories and infinite histories of destruction, regeneration and hope inscribed on the silver-white skin of the ghost gum are far greater than the sum of the Eucalyptus’s extracted parts.

Eucalyptusdom is at The Powerhouse Museum until 28 August 2022.