On Albatross Island


For a long time I did not know where to begin On Albatross Island.  Never before had I experienced such a visually, emotionally and biologically dynamic environment—not to mention the compelling cultural aspects. I was overwhelmed by it all. To camp inside a giant sea cave, once inhabited by colonial era sealers and Aboriginal women, surrounded by raucous nesting penguins and fairy prions is one experience I’ll not soon forget. There are many others.

But how to make sense of and translate such multifaceted stimuli into charcoal on paper, into art —in a mere seven months? I could spend ten lifetimes coming to terms with Albatross Island, its startling and various topographies, its wildlife, human histories, and the crucial scientific work being done there.

I tried many different ways into the project: oil paintings on canvas of Sealers Cave and the natural amphitheatre called The Trap; acrylics of the yellow and orange lichens and the multi-coloured carpets of succulent groundcovers; charcoals of conglomerate rock formations and boulder-fields like something from the Icelandic Fjords; drawings of a wind-whipped sea and crashing surf; and Black Pyramid Rock looming low on the Western horizon. But, in the end, I kept coming back to the birds. It became clear that on Albatross Island, the birds, the Shy Albatross are the stars of the show and I wanted to bring them to the forefront of the artwork.

In a last ditch effort to bring some clarity to these studio experiments, I turned to a journal entry I made in the field on Albatross Island in March 2015 at one of the main nesting sites named North Colony;

The colony is a guano-polished flat outcrop of conglomerate rock, stripped of all vegetation and patterned with the systematic placement of nests, roughly one and a half metres apart. Most of the nests contain a fledgling chick, 3-4 months old, nearly fully grown. They are covered with tufts of soft down. Sitting upon the nests in which they were hatched, the chicks are not yet grown enough to fly. Their adult mothers fish throughout the day and return to feed the chicks in the late afternoon—a diet of mostly regurgitated squid, the smell of which is potent and distinctive. On the one hand, the scene is one of hope and optimism—of new life, of giant fluffy birds and of motherly attention, but on the other, all this takes place within a localized landscape of utter desolation.  A number of nests, shaped like flowerpots, made from dirt and any scavenged material—old grasses and shale, Albatross and fish bones and even detritus from the local fishing fleet, now lay empty, the chicks having failed.  All around lay the old clean bones of birds long dead and the newer half decayed bodies of the failed chicks. The decapitated heads and old skeletons of fish scavenged from trawlers are scattered about with   rotting squid and Cuttlefish bones and all manner of flotsam and jetsam like something out of the Apocalypse. And in amongst this rubble lie the brightly paint-spattered scientific markers telling their own story of decades of scientific research on the island.

Reading this note again after a few months working in the studio, gave the project its necessary focus. I hope the finished drawings and their installation in the galleries do justice to the potent sense this field note recalls in me, of what it is like to sit in quiet contemplation of life and death, with the Shy Albatross on Albatross Island.

Richard Wastell
September 2015

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