The destruction of Sydney’s Garden Palace was dramatic, with flames “rushing up in long tongues to the dome” and the skylight’s stained glass falling like a “molten rain”, reported The Sydney Morning Herald in September 1882.
The largely timber building, constructed to house the International Exhibition of 1879-80, quickly burnt to the ground. Also lost, but with little fanfare afterwards, was a collection of Aboriginal artworks and artefacts dating from the time of first contact with Europeans.
Indigenous artist and UTS PhD candidate Jonathan Jones has spent countless hours poring over photographs and archival documents to piece together the story of what was destroyed that day. And to mourn the loss.
The result is Barrangal dyara (skin and bones), created in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney for the 32nd Kaldor Public Art Project. It is the most ambitious Kaldor project to date, and the first by an Indigenous artist – Jones is a Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi man.
Jones’s vast contemporary installation covers 20,000 square metres of the garden site. There are 15,000 white shields that mark the footprint of the ornate palace, raising its “bones” for a 21st-century audience. One corner is interrupted by the Cahill Expressway; trees, plantings and pathways erupt elsewhere.
Where the palace dome once was, there is a meadow of native grasses. Eight Aboriginal language soundscapes, from communities in south-eastern Australia, are installed around the site.
“Barrangal dyara is a response to the immense loss felt throughout Australia due to the destruction of countless culturally significant Aboriginal objects when the palace was razed by fire,” says Jones.
“It represents an effort to commence a healing process and a celebration of the survival of the world’s oldest living culture, despite this traumatic event.”
John Kaldor, founder of Kaldor Public Art Projects, says working with Jones has given him an insight into a different Australia.
“His work retells imperative local history from an Aboriginal perspective … while also speaking to cultural tensions still present in contemporary Australia,” says Kaldor.
Barrangal dyara (skin and bones) is at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney from September 17 until October 3. As well as the installation, there is a program of events and talks. For more information, go to kaldorartprojects.org.au.
Visitors to the project can download the free Project 32 app to hear insights from cultural leaders, historians, artists, writers and others as they walk around the site.