Postcard to Cuba (2019)
Video 9 min 38 sec, Stereo Sound
This work was created for a program of Australian artists shown at the 2019 Havana Bienalle. I always try to do something site responsive when exhibiting and although this was a single channel work I nonetheless worked to make it Cuba specific. The artist statement below goes some way to explaining my thinking for the work which I hope provides a kind of snapshot, or postcard, of my home.
This is my Hügelkultur: we just call it “the hugel”. Hügelkultur is a German word meaning mound culture, or hill culture, describing a type of garden bed created by laying down wood in a strip or mound and then burying it in mulch. It becomes a habitat for insects and lizards and so attracts birds, and over time becomes a very fertile garden bed, typically for growing food. They are supposed to be less than a metre high, practical for gardening. Mine is as tall as I am in places. You will also notice it is not covered in mulch. I built it here because our backyard has lots of trees and generates a lot of fallen wood as trees die or lose branches. I thought the hugel could catch water run-off from our sloping block. In time I have the intention of planting mushrooms in it. I started it five years ago, but I can’t bring myself to cover it or even stop building it. I just love the look of the thing. It is visually complex, even chaotic, with occasional order in the form of the repetition of the various trees and shrubs that make up its substance. This balance between order and chaos is exactly the kind of thing that I like to make videos of. Indeed, I have been telling myself I will make a video of it for three years now, and this postcard to Havana from my backyard provided the impetus to get it done. If I were to come to Cuba I would visit the urban food gardens of Havana and, if possible, the organic farms that have begun to colonise the old sugarcane fields. So, instead of visiting the gardens of Cuba, I thought Cuba might visit my garden.
My wife wants the hugel covered up with mulch, as intended. She is terrified of the tiger snakes that are probably living in it, and the children are banned from going too near it. Where we live, south-eastern Australia, is a global hot spot for bushfires. There are fires in our region every year. The town I now live in was entirely burnt out when I was a teenager. I remember my father coming to wake me and tell me of the Ash Wednesday death toll. Since then we have had worse fires in our region, a day called Black Saturday a decade ago, when our city was the hottest place on earth and many more people died. As climate change gets worse, our fire seasons are longer and the fires burn hotter. Although many of our plants can survive, or in some cases even depend on burning, now the fires burn so hot that the earth is cooked. The fungus the plants need to regenerate is lost and the forest can’t return.
People are understandably nervous about fire in my town. Whilst there is no science to support the practice, many of my neighbours gather all loose material off the ground into piles and burn it. They are encouraged to do so by the local fire brigade. It is called “fuel reduction”. I hate to see all the piles of bark and leaves and fallen branches around my neighbourhood, waiting for fire season to end so they can be burnt. This rotting material is where the vital fungus and microbes live and make soil. The last thing Australian soil needs is to be scraped of organic material. We have a very thin soil profile in most of Australia and it had never seen hard hooved animals until the Europeans arrived. It is old, old dirt. Where I live there is a thin layer of flinty grey earth before it gives way to clay. It is an old and fragile place and has been cleared and over grazed. I leave the plant material to rot down in place a lot of the time. Some of it I move to our hugel. It seems paradoxical to me to fight the effects of global warming by burning more plants, releasing more carbon and creating more atmospheric pollution. This hugel is a form of quiet and slow resistance: I am trying in my small way to build soil. I must admit now, though, I just love the object itself. Uncovered, I can watch it rot down ever so slowly, making earth.