2-channel 4K UHD video, stereo audio, 28:24 minutes, 2020
Where Lakes Once Had Water is a spectacular and sensorial video and sound installation that transports us to remote northern Australia - from the ancient dry lakes of the Northern Territory, to Nitmiluk/Katherine Gorge and coastal Girraween Lagoon.
Where Lakes Once Had Water takes us on an imaginative journey, exploring the labour of Earth scientists and Traditional Owners as they dig and delve into the past, reading the signs and signals in the landscape, over concepts of deep time.
The project is built up around the fieldwork of Earth scientists working with Indigenous Elders, rangers and participants from the Marlinja, Elliot, Jawoyn and Larrakia communities, in areas of Australia where long-term aridification is most evident.
'Our project tests the hypothesis that the Earth is experienced and understood through different but interconnected ontologies. These ways of being, seeing, sensing, listening and thinking can align with art, Indigenous thought, science, ancient and modern cultures, the non-human, and somewhere in between.' - Sonia Leber & David Chesworth
From fieldwork in Australia’s expansive deserts, to microscopic work in the laboratory, the scientists seek evidence of Earth's forces over long-term cycles of wet and dry. Many of Earth's forces – wind, temperature, long-term aridification and tectonic movement – are invisible to the human eye or lie beyond human timescales.
The video introduces Ray Dimakarri Dixon calling to ancestral spirits to watch over Country as scientists excavate the red earth of once-submerged lake beds. The fieldwork is observed by non-human cohabitants, as ecologies of birds, termites, flies and vegetation continue their own struggles of survival. Across the ancient shorelines, everyone is receptive to the signs, signals and rhythms of the land and water.
Leber and Chesworth deploy video as a tool, scanning the surface of the earth, observing markings in rocks and landscapes, registering erosions, tree lines, and the effects of sun, fire and water. The camera follows the path of a dusty riverbed over many kilometres, revealing unceasing aridity. We experience vegetation through the jerking head movements of a falcon.
A disquieting soundscape encompasses natural and human-made sounds, and also the acoustic biodiversity that exists beyond the range of human hearing.
Leber and Chesworth used an array of contact microphones, hydrophones and electromagnetic transducers, alongside regular microphones in order to capture and translate the hidden signals and energies both in the field and the laboratory.
This is analogous to the work of the Earth scientists, who capture sediments in cores to take back to the laboratory. There they unlock energies and understandings of time and climate – in electrons, isotopes, ancient pollen and flecks of charcoal – to uncover patterns in the long-term record.
Where Lakes Once Had Water contemplates how different, seemingly separate, investigative pathways and knowledge systems can converge and resonate in surprising ways.
Ecosystem Assembly, Casino Luxembourg Forum d'art Contemporain, Luxembourg (2023); Rencontres Internationales Paris/Berlin (2022); Sonia Leber and David Chesworth: Where Lakes Once Had Water, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Australia (2022); Sonia Leber and David Chesworth: Where Lakes Once Had Water, Drill Hall Gallery, Canberra (2022) and CDU Gallery Darwin (2023)
Filmed on the lands and waters of the Mudburra, Marlinja, Jingili, Elliot, Jawoyn and Larrakia communities in Northern Territory, Australia, with additional filming and editing on Barkandji, Dharawal, Djabugay, Yidinji and Wurundjeri Country. We acknowledge and pay our respects to Elders past, present and future.
Filming, Editing and Sound design: Sonia Leber & David Chesworth
Colour grading: Peter Hatzipavlis
Voice: Bec Plexus
Touring curator: Judith Blackall
Where Lakes Once Had Water is the inaugural CABAH Art Series Commission of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) in association with Bundanon. University of Wollongong Art Collection, Australia.
The artists gratefully acknowledge the support of the Marlinja community, particularly Ray Dimakarri Dixon and Eleanor Dixon; the Elliot community, particularly Auntie Susan Kingston and Claudette Albert; Newcastle Waters Station; the Barkandji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation particularly Badger Bates and Gerald Quayle; the Larrakia Rangers; and the Jawoyn Association Aboriginal Corporation Rangers.
We are grateful for the support of many CABAH affiliates who appear in the work, with special thanks to Earth scientists Tim Cohen and Cassandra Rowe, as well as Aara Welz, Michael Brand, Nicola Stromsoe, Matt Forbes, Michael-Shawn Fletcher, Michael Bird, Ceri Shipton and Rainy Comley. We are grateful for the stewardship provided by Amanda Lawson, Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts, Chantal Knowles and Carolyn Cooke of CABAH; working with Deborah Ely, Sophie O’Brien, Judith Blackall and the team at Bundanon Trust. Our gratitude to the School of Art at RMIT University, Melbourne.
A comprehensive monograph has been published by Bundanon in association with CABAH with commissioned essays by Sophie Knezic, Fiona Gruber and Tim Flannery, plus Michael-Shawn Fletcher in conversation with Sonia Leber and David Chesworth. Supported by the Gordon Darling Foundation and designed by Paul Mylecharane and Kim Mumm Hansen of Public Office. Available from Perimeter Books.
All Sonia Leber & David Chesworth
Installation views at TarraWarra Museum of Art by Andrew Curtis