In The Ghost of Wombeyan Alex Seton has created a life-sized marble figure that lies prone on a slab beneath a heavy shroud. Should we see it as a body, or merely the impression of a body preserved in solid marble? Either way, the piece has a strong funereal connotation. The ‘ghost’ is a childhood memory of a special place – a marble quarry near Wombeyan Caves, where the artist’s family had a home from the late 1980s. It’s where the artist became interested in stone carving, being given his first hammer and chisel at the age of eight
Seton often structures his solo exhibitions around a particular theme or story, but Meet Me Under the Dome is his most personal to date. It includes effigies of a favourite toy rabbit; a ladder built by his mathematically-minded father using the golden ratio; four mattocks with differently coloured marble blades; and even an organic toilet in resplendent green marble. He places a marble carving of a Besa block on a marble swing, changing a primitive weighing device into an off-beat monument. He takes the pattern from a found soft-drink bottle and reproduces it in shallow relief. The results are simultaneously remniscent of those Wunderlich pressed metal ceilings – once a common feature of stylish Australian interiors, and the weathered walls of an ancient tomb.
The dome in the exhibition’s title refers to the Garden Palace, built in 1879 for the Sydney International Exhibition. Meet Me at the Dome was the caption of an etching published in a newspaper on opening day. This colossal building dominated the city skyline until it was destroyed by fire in 1882. Today scarcely a trace remains: neither material remnant nor memory. It took Jonathan Jones’s remarkable Kaldor Public Art Project of 2016, Barrangal Dyara (Skin and Bones), to bring the Garden Palace back to life, as he mapped the outlines of the building with rows of small Indigenous shields made from plaster.
Seton has a longstanding interest in the Garden Palace, for many of the same reasons as Jones. The building was full of Aboriginal artefacts that had been gathered from across the state for the big event. The fire was not simply a tragedy for the citizens of Sydney, but for Indigenous people – then and now – who lost invaluable items of cultural heritage. Seton sees it as a rare example of a shared or common loss between black and white Australians.
The dominant feature of the Garden Palace was a central dome, 30.4 metres in diameter – which compares well with the diameter of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, at 31 metres. The dome of Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building, which opened in 1898, is 19 metres in diameter. No wonder the dome of the Garden Place became a popular point of rendezvous – it was big enough to be the nucleus around which the city revolved. Over the following century the Palace’s role as a unique meeting place for European and Indigenous culture would not be taken up by any other civic space, unless we count the display areas of the Australian Museum.
Was there much marble involved in the construction of the Garden Palace? I haven’t been able to find out, although it utilised vast quantities of bricks, timber and iron in emulation of Joseph Paxton’s famous Crystal Palace in London which opened in 1851. Marble, in all its local variations, would be extensively used in other Sydney public buildings at the turn of the century. Stone masons, the Melocco Brothers, opened their business in 1908, offering Australia’s first terazzo service. The brothers drew their coloured marble from a quarry in Wombeyan, for which they secured a 100-year lease – the same quarry Seton frequented as a boy. It would cease operation in 1998, and has now been reclaimed by the State Government.
When we pull all the threads together, The Ghost of Wombeyan emerges as more than an elegy for the artist’s childhood, it is a memento mori of a lost – and largely forgotten – convergence of two cultures. In pre-colonial days the Wombeyan Caves were an important site for the Gundungurra People. The natural beauty of the place was recognised by settlers as early as 1856, when 650 acres were set aside as a nature reserve. The Melocco brothers represented another kind of culture, bringing Italian expertise in marble and mosaic to the developing urban fabric of New South Wales.
Seton looks back on Wombeyan as a kind of adventure playground that launched a hobby which would turn into a vocation. Over time he has begun to explore the greater history of the area. Seton’s own story is but one chapter in the evolving annals of Wombeyan. His recollections would be of little import if he did not memorialise them in stone, using the power of art to transform humble objects into symbols that prompt reflection on the nature of time and memory.
One of the ways he does this is to take an ephemeral object such as a soft toy or a ladder, and immortalise it in marble, giving it a new identity. Another strategy is to borrow an apparently trivial detail such as the pattern on a soft-drink bottle, and expand it into something grand and ceremonial.
Seton’s work thrives on the multiple associations only the artistic mind can make, finding relationships that are poetic rather than purely historical. He has fleshed out the show with photographic images that create a more vivid sense of place, and included a soundscape by cellist, James Beck and composer, Charlie Chan, that strives to capture the Wombeyan atmosphere.
With the closing of the quarry and the ravages of last year’s bushfires, Wombeyan is a different place to the wonderland of Seton’s childhood. As the bush recovers its vigour, nature is reclaiming the sites of human industry, turning the abandoned quarry into a ruin that may one day be of interest to the archaeologists.
Perhaps the “dome” of show’s title should not be seen solely as the dome of the Garden Palace, but the great dome of history and memory that draws so many disparate impressions together. Under that dome we discover connections between the Indigenous past and the colonial era, between ancient geology and modern public art. In his own words, Seton has brought us “a history of forgetting”. It’s a lament for the ease with which we let go of a past that is not set in stone.
Alex Seton: Meet Me Under the Dome
Sullivan + Strumpf
26 November – 31 December, 2020
Published in Sullivan + Strumpf magazine, Summer, 2020