Mermer Waiskeder: Stories of the Moving Tide is one of the largest hand-crafted public artworks in Australia.
When Lynnette Griffiths first came to Sydney to explore the possibility of an artwork on the edge of Sydney Harbour, a plan of sorts was already taking shape in her mind. But then she laid eyes on the site itself and everything changed.
It was early 2020, and the early stirrings of the pandemic were being felt across the country. With her collaborator Marion Gaemers, both key members of the Ghost Net Collective, Griffiths made her way from Cairns to Sydney to see the proposed location of the new Lendlease commission.
As they descended the escalators from Wynyard Walk, the rich vista that is Exchange Square opened up before them, and the scope of the challenge became clear. She saw how they needed to capture the imagination of the whole community—workers, residents, visitors like them—who used this site as a thoroughfare and a meeting place every day.
“From that first instant, the thoughts we had, which revolved around Sydney Harbour and the sails, dissolved completely,” she says. “We wanted to engage people as they went through that space, to bring people together.”
Griffiths and Gaemers returned to Far North Queensland and set to work. Their visit to Barangaroo South had convinced them of the need for a kind of horizontal artwork, something that would float in space. More than anything, they wanted to respond to the site itself.
With the Erub artists, they reflected on the shoreline, the activity on the water’s edge, and the common features of the Australian coast. This is, after all, the objective of the Ghost Net Collective: to bring people together, to engage communities across the country, indigenous and non-indigenous.
They quickly settled on the perfect subject—rays—that would allow them to tell stories that travelled the length of the country.
“Eagle rays are found in the shallows of most of the coastlines around Australia. There are all sorts of stories along with them, so this was about connecting people and collaborating with historical and modern ways of thinking,” she says.
“There are ray carvings around Sydney Harbour and up the Hawkesbury river, and they’re a totem in the Torres Strait as well. They have great cultural significance from the past right to the present and for indigenous and non-indigenous people too.”
The Ghost Net Collective is a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists from Cairns, Townsville and Erub in the Torres Strait.
With Griffiths as lead artist, the collective worked to create eleven majestic eagle rays, each one measuring 2.8 metres in width and 3 metres in length. All rays are hand-stitched with colourful ghost nets in unique patterns covering aluminium frame structure.
The ghost net materials—abandoned, lost or discarded fishing nets—carry a message about marine conservation, caring for Country and sustainability. This in turn connects with the ambitions of the Ghost Net Collective, which is driven by a deep respect for biodiversity and the need to care for their environment.
So amid the beauty of the designs is a message of great urgency. Griffiths points out that almost half the pollution in our waters has its origins in the fishing industry.
“The ocean is a huge life force, and it’s the oceans we need to look after,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons for the rays. As the nets drift into shore some of those bottom dwelling animals get caught.”
These rays will float in graceful arcs above Exchange Square, enveloping viewers as they walk below, like on the ocean floor, looking up at the brightly coloured sculptures above. They will be lit at night by an undulating blue light in a reminder that the ocean never sleeps.
“It’s a magical underwater feeling that not only makes you think about the animals but also raises awareness about the problem of plastic and ghost nets in the ocean,” Griffiths says. “We’re trying to share the knowledge that we’re an island nation, and we’re connected to the world by the oceans.”
The artwork has been stitched by Lynnette Griffiths and Marion Gaemers from the Ghost Net Collective, and Jimmy John Thaiday, Lavinia Ketchell, Florence Gutchen, Racy Oui-Pitt, Emma Gela, and Nancy Naawi from Erub Arts. Joining this core group of artists are more than 100 people from around the world including communities along Australia’s coastline and Canada, who contributed hand-stitched miniature rays to be incorporated into the finished sculptures.
Griffiths is also fascinated by the way the original tidal line of Sydney Harbour runs through Exchange Square.
“We speak about connecting people via the oceans,” she says. “We want people to think about where we’re going with built environments, to bring nature back into that environment and we’re hoping that thinking about those marine animals will help that process. So it’s about hope, not just destruction.”
Mermer Waiskeder: Stories of the Moving Tide, curated by Nina Miall, is one of the largest hand-crafted public artworks in Australia.
Communities along the coast, from Sydney to Darwin and Perth—even as far away as Canada—also sent miniature stitched rays to be incorporated into the final works. One woman sent a design in memory of her late husband, a man who had been particularly fascinated by the creatures and whose stage name had been “Stingray”.
It’s been a long process, with up to 30 days’ work and four to five people required to complete each ray. “We all designed and modified those designs together, so it’s been a huge collaborative effort.”
Words: Ashleigh Wilson