Artist in Residence

Erin Coates

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Erin Coates

September 2020 - February 2021


When I was invited to undertake the Tilt residency at Goolugatup Heathcote, I knew straight away this would involve taking a literal deep-dive into the river. My practice as an artist regularly involves forming a visceral proximity to the things I am exploring. This has included climbing public artworks, living in my car, and freediving in bodies of water. Others in the Tilt program have looked at the social history of the site, its architecture, local flora and fauna, the surrounding suburbs. It was something much older and wetter that interested me.

The Derbal Yerrigan / Swan River is an ancient salt wedge estuary that runs through Boorloo (Perth), wraps around Goolugatup (Point Heathcote) and into the sea at Walyalup (Fremantle). It is described as a ‘wedge’ because the heavier salt water sinks to the bottom of the river and fresh water flows above it, thus forming a wedge shape as the salinity decreases further upstream away from the sea. At Goolugatup Heathcote, the Derbal Yerrigan is briny and at its widest, forming a broad swathe of water with mixed marine/estuarine ecology. The river is actually one of the reasons that Heathcote Mental Health Reception Home was built here in 1928. It was believed that this proximity to the water and the vistas across it would have a calming influence on Heathcote’s patients.

Another connection between the river and the site’s built structures is ground up oyster shells. Between 1920 and 1956 over 3 million tonnes of oyster reef were dredged from the Derbal Yerrigan and used in mortar and building materials throughout Perth. Heathcote has the bones of the river in its architecture. I discovered this fact early in my research and it was an essential thread that ran between the site, the river and my work.

There were many things I learnt while researching the river that fed into Alluvial Gold. This research took the form of reading everything I could about the river within the City of Melville’s archives, speaking to marine biologists and acoustians, and also frequently diving in the river – during the day and at night.

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I wanted to know more intimately the estuarine plants and animals, the way light filters through the water and is coloured by microalgae and tannins, and the dramas that play out below the surface. I began to focus in on the exchange of matter into and out of the river that has occurred since the settlement of the Swan River Colony in 1829, and the changes in ecology that have occurred as a result. In addition to the extraction of the native Ostrea Angasi oyster shells, there has been a huge amount of nitrogen and phosphorous ending up in the river due to agriculture upstream, which promote algal blooms. Metallic compounds and heavy metals, like lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, copper and zinc, are also at higher that natural levels in the river as a result of industrial and residential activities. Some of these metals bioconcentrate in the bones of dolphins – the long-living apex predators of the river.

While finding out all I could about the river, I learnt about Tattoo Skin Disease in dolphins (Cetacean Morbillivirus), which is a zoonotic virus that jumps from pilot whales to dolphins and seems to particularly affect the estuarine population of dolphins, as they live in a low-saline environment and are prone to additional stressors like pollutants, vessel strikes and anthropogenic noise. The virus causes welting skin lesions and eventually death. It felt at times that the more I looked, the more horror I uncovered within the river. And yet I also learnt and saw first hand that – despite these unfair exchanges enacted on the river – there is incredible resilience. Within these silty flows there are adaptive animals, thieving endemic plants and stories of regeneration. And there are communities of people dedicated to protecting rivers species and working on genuine habitat rehabilitation.

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It was with this mixture of horror, awe and hope that I made an interconnected series of works for Alluvial Gold; pearlescent glazed porcelain forms, honoring the extinct Ostrea Angasi oystershells; a suite of graphite drawings and cast bronze, porcelain and gold leaf works, exploring heavy metals in dolphin bones; a suspended chainmaille curtain of 1000s of oystershells, recognising the transference of the oyster reefs from an organic, horizontal stratum into vertical built forms; and an underwater film, Alluvium, which brings a visceral drama to the often-forgotten world below the river surface, exploring changing ecology and interspecies exchange.

I always try to work in the company of people I admire and there were many collaborators in this project. I would like to acknowledge all of them:

Composer Stuart James and percussionist Louise Devenish

Studio assistants Tanya Lee, Kate Driver, Jen Jamieson, Jessica Wyld, Annabel Dixon

Welder Neil Aldum
Ceramicist Holly O’Meehan

Freedivers Gareth Wood and Tanya Lee

Scuba Diver Jasper Silver
Metal smith and jeweller Max Butcher
Casting expert Robert Hitchcock

Oyster Shucker Jerry Fraser

Noongar Consultant Karen Jacobs
City of Melville information specialists Michelle Campbell and Gina Capes
River and marine biology experts Delphine Chabanne, Joseph Christensen and Chandra Salgado

By Erin Coates