… as colours pour from tar

24 November 2020

“Nothing could be more magically tremendous than … the world of colour that emerges from the world of blackness, from that black mud, protoplasmic Osiris … equivalent to the refuse remaining at the bottom of the alchemist’s pot following combustion.” 

 – Michael Taussig, ‘What Colour is the Sacred?’

In early 2016, some friends from art school and I drove to Warrandyte to explore bush tracks along the Yarra River around the Pound Bend Tunnel. Chris brought torches, Layla had an elaborate recording device with headphones, and I had a pair of Rainbow Fireworks Glasses in my pocket. It was 10 pm on an overcast night in early autumn. The water looked like black, gooey tar – deep, glossy and sinister. Pobblebonk frogs and sleeping dusky moorhens lay hidden in the reeds on the riverbank. We were on this walk because I used to go on similar adventures in Warrandyte as a child with my aunty, uncle and little brother. The memories of those times seemed to have transformed into my own personal folklore; entire sensorial experiences of light, sound and sensation, amplified and distorted so that they had become bizarre and unearthly. Koalas growled in the trees above us as we got out of the car and began walking.

The tunnel loomed in the darkness; an impossibly dense void that could have been a portal to the centre of the Earth. It was created in 1870 as a way to divert the Yarra River so that a five-kilometre expanse of the riverbed could be mined for alluvial gold. As detailed in the Visitors Information Guide that we read on signage that dotted the path as we walked, it was the discovery of gold and the rapid influx of miners in Warrandyte twenty years prior to the tunnel being formed that resulted in the forced removal of the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people, from their land. The Evelyn Tunnel Mining Company never found the treasure they were searching for and a proposal that was later made to utilise the tunnel to generate electricity was also unsuccessful. Pound Bend was just an abyss.

It was so mild that night that I was barely aware of my own body. I gazed up at the towering silhouettes of trees on the other side of the river and Layla asked, ‘Are those trees gigantic?’ – she couldn’t really tell in the moonlight. I wasn’t sure but somehow they looked prehistoric from where we stood. A scuttling noise and movement in the reeds by the water were caused by what I assumed was a river rat – but it could have been anything. What we couldn’t see was limitless in how its form might manifest and even what we could somewhat more directly perceive in the dark was still polymorphous.

Human beings are not naturally nocturnal animals, so what we perceive at night can become distorted and malleable in the mind’s eye. In the darkness, there is potential for the human imagination to overcome apparent logic or reasoning. The opportunity to rethink the constraints of matter and consciousness that we are afforded when we are immersed in darkness is akin to the raw potential of stem cells to be triggered into specific conglomerations. What light or colour that does emerge once the sun disappears below the horizon becomes a shape-shifting substance capable of growing itself into an infinite variety of entities. As Michael Taussig describes in his essay, What Colour is the Sacred?, it is in this state that ‘Colour vision becomes less a retinal and more a total bodily activity common to fairy tales in that we may pass into the image while we are looking at it.’ We can actively weave mythological or imaginative narratives into our own realities in the present moment as opposed to exclusively in retrospect when we are then disconnected from the first-hand experience. Nighttime is conventionally associated with menacing portents, as darkness is often portrayed as the home of monsters that wait for the ordinary daylight world to be transformed into the ominous territory. But it is through the darkness that we can generate new, self-determined narratives and identities for ourselves. In her essay A History of Shadows, Rebecca Solnit describes ‘the world as a theatre’ in which the ‘acts of the powerful and the official occupy centre stage’ whilst the ‘inventive arenas that exert political power outside that stage’ (in the ‘audience … the aisles, backstage, outside, in the dark’) go largely ignored.

In a hut just up from the banks of the river, we found torn pieces of kitsch curtain material and small pieces of rotting timber. We used head torches to bathe objects in a concentrated circle of light. The blurry edges of the spotlight created frames around the vividly coloured images. Within this narrow illumination we began constructing possible stories and scenarios – had somebody been squatting here, in this makeshift abode? Why had they left? Just as my vision was compromised during these night adventures, so too was my ability to fully comprehend the past. I was blind to it, only able to sieve through the dimly lit materials of my consciousness in order to make sense of myself in all of the time leading up to that present moment. That was the only time I was ever offered an examinable reality, and even then, it was so utterly impossible to know it. If only upon returning to that place in Warrandyte where I used to walk at night, I could excavate my memories from that river of tar, experiences once mired in the past, now perfectly preserved under a black, glossy mask. Life could emerge from the asphalt body and perhaps as I continued to explore, I could understand the experiences as they were first lived.

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