To make her work for the National Biennial of New Australian Art, Quandamooka artist Megan Cope ate a lot of oysters – Sydney rock oysters, to be precise: “they’re the only native oyster in Australia”, she tells Time Out. Originally from North Stradbroke Island, Queensland, Cope returned to country and then travelled down the East coast to Melbourne, eating oysters along the way – and keeping the shells.
Roughly 200 of these shells were used to make the moulds for her work ‘RE FORMATION part 3 (Dubbagullee)’, a mound of 12,500 Sydney rock oyster shells, hand-cast in cement. The work riffs on traditional Indigenous shell ‘middens’, which Cope describes as “like the kitchen – they exist on sites where Aboriginal people have gathered and eaten. The ones on my Country have been recorded as being between 6000 and 12,000 years old.”
When Europeans arrived 237 years ago, they saw these shell mounds as a ready source of lime, and burned the mounds to make concrete for their buildings. By using cement to make her oyster shells, Cope is reclaiming material, in a sense. ‘Dubbagullee’ is the Gadigal name of the site, now occupied by Sydney Opera House, where one of Australia’s largest middens stood – said to have been around 10 metres high and 100 metres in diametre.
“These ‘middens’ are really architectural forms – hand built over thousands of years, to locate the living room, or the kitchen,” says Cope.
‘RE FORMATION Part 3’ is – as the title suggests – not the first work of its kind: Cope created two of these shell mounds previously (the first in May 2016, for the Institute of Modern Art’s show Frontier Imaginaries), both of which will be displayed later this year in the National Triennial of Art at the National Gallery of Australia.
On the origins of the project, Cope says “I had been thinking a lot about the mining of my country and the desecration of sacred sites – in particular the middens.”