CLOUD CHAMBER—

Yhonnie Scarce in conversation with Hetti Perkins

Cloud Chamber 2020 (detail)

‘A cloud chamber makes the invisible visible’1

HP Your ongoing project in collaboration with Lisa Radford, The Image is Not Nothing (Concrete Archives) (2019–ongoing), aims to ‘experience the physicality of loss and how it has been built into brutalist monuments that commemorate genocide and/or nuclear destruction,’ and asks: is the representation of large-scale and unacknowledged violence too large to depict?2 I don’t know if you have an answer to that, or if you ever will, or even intend to.

YS I’ve been researching memorials since I started my practice as an artist. I became more aware of the lack of acknowledgement of the frontier wars in Australia when I was in Berlin on a scholarship that enabled me to travel internationally to research genocide.

I call it the ‘City of Memorials’ and what attracted me to that place is how open it is to acknowledging the Holocaust through memorials in many different forms. I decided to create memorials when I came back to Australia because there weren’t enough in the public realm. I wanted to create sites of significance that were in the form of an artwork. So, I made numerous burial grounds or works that are related to particular massacres, and they just grew bigger.

I was drawn to the scale of Spomeniks, when they were built, the reasons why they were built, and where they are.3 I asked Lisa to come along with me because I’d been visiting sites like Auschwitz and Birkenau and Berlin off and on, and when you’re going to specific sites where people have died, I feel like it’s healthier emotionally for someone to accompany you.

We went to the US and visited Wounded Knee at the Pine Ridge Reservation and that was really important because I’d known about that place since I was a teenager. We moved on to Yerevan in Armenia to visit a genocide memorial to Armenian people.

Then we flew to Ukraine because there’s a structure called the Halls of Parting (in Memory Park, Kiev) in the main cemetery, which is a crematorium made out of concrete. It’s like it has wings and has two chambers. While we were there, there was a funeral service and it was snowing in the middle of the day, heavy snow, minus 12 degrees.

We went to Chernobyl and Pripyat, and then Georgia and Poland, and then on to Japan to visit Hiroshima. We visited the prefecture of Fukushima and the radioactive site. That’s a short version of a long story!

HP You have said:

It angers me that there is very little recognition of the massacres in Australia […] I want people to have a place to mourn the ancestors that we have lost during these events, and I want people who are unaware of these massacres to be aware that this is part of our history …4

YS Why doesn’t Australia have something as big as the War Memorial in Canberra or the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne which recognises the massacres of Aboriginal people? Why aren’t Aboriginal people shown that respect? Myall Creek and Appin have memorials, but I strongly believe that we need more and it’s not happening fast enough. There’s community recognition happening for the 1849 Waterloo Bay massacre in Elliston, South Australia, but there was resistance to using the term ‘massacre’. Why shouldn’t we?

Mob fought for Country. And they were fighting to survive, they were being killed over a few sheep. I get upset about it and part of it comes from anger. I put this anger into my artwork, but I also express my love for the people who died in those circumstances.

1. Authornotattributed,‘Cloudchamber’, URL: https://www2.physics.ox.ac.uk/ accelerate/resources/demonstrations/cloud-chamber, accessed 1 November 2019.
2. Lisa Radford and Yhonnie Scarce, ‘The Image is Not Nothing (Concrete Archives) – Part 1’, Art and Australia, Issue Five (55.2): Brutalism, 2019, p. 88.
3. Spomeniks translates as ‘monuments’ in Serbo-Croatian. The term is commonly used to describe monuments which were built to commemorate Second World War battles sites in the area formerly known as Yugoslavia.
4.  ‘Yhonnie Scarce’, Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, published September 2012,
URL: https://kluge-ruhe.org/collaboration/yhonnie-scarce/, accessed 1 November 2019.

HP I think that as Indigenous people we carry around a reservoir of grief within us and there’s no place to mourn, as you’ve said.

YS There’s some sites we can’t access because the land is privately owned and it’s not public knowledge where many massacres have happened, so you’ve just got to create another space for it.

The more I travel around the more I find out about particular sites, or by spending time with family in Tjutjuna (Ceduna).5 There’s not a lot of documentation of massacres in South Australia and that is of concern. It usually means police are involved, so of course it’s not documented. That was the case with Waterloo Bay, it was documented that only a small number of people were forced off that cliff, but oral histories confirmed the death toll was far higher. In my works that are created for these mourning processes, the shadows that come off the glass represent those people who are not spoken for.

My people are Kokatha and Nukunu. Kokatha are from central South Australia and Nukunu are from the lower part of the Flinders Ranges, near Port Augusta and Port Germein in South Australia. That’s my grandmother’s Country and Kokatha is my grandfather’s Country. Both are on my mother’s side and I was born in Woomera. The majority of my extended family, my grandfather’s sisters — my nannas — were living in Tjutjuna and my grandmother, Nanna Kit, is there at the moment. I’m pretty much related to the whole of Tjutjuna! I come from the desert that meets the sea. Tjutjuna is a small town that has a strong Aboriginal community. I’ve been spending a lot more time back there.

The more I search for information, the more I uncover about South Australia in general and the history of Maralinga.6 They were shooting rockets from Woomera7 around the same time as they were testing in Maralinga, and sending planes to fly through the atomic clouds of the bombs. I was born in 1973, just over a decade after they stopped testing at Maralinga. There’s a history related to the mortality rate of children, not just white children, in that area. There’s not enough documentation related to Aboriginal deaths during those nuclear tests, but there’s definite written documentation on stillborn babies and babies born with deformities in the area that’s still being uncovered.

Woomera is still being used as a military base. The Woomera prohibited zone is my Country, but I’m not allowed to cross any borders because it’s overseen by the military. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time up there in the last few years, returning to reconnect with my birthplace. They have a ‘trophy park’, as I call it, where they have all their little planes, jet fighters, rockets, bombs, satellites …

HP … whereas the only form of memorialisation of Maralinga and its fallout are those toxic dumps, they’re like burial mounds out on that Country.

YS I call them tombs; they buried everything there. The Marcoo site was one of the biggest craters that they filled in. That area was littered with radioactive material that has been buried in the ground. There’s pits where they scraped the surface of the ground and then buried it and turned it into glass through a process of

in situ vitrification to retain it and prevent it from seeping out.

HP The warning signs around the area have the radioactive warning symbol and underneath it says ‘Ngura Wiya’. In desert languages, ngura can mean ‘home’ and wiya is ‘no’, so it translates to ‘no home’.

YS You can’t camp there, you can’t cook there. I wouldn’t want to live there either.

HP The burial mounds at Koonibba8 cemetery are decorated with shards of glass and your work in glass is obviously an echo of that; the idea of memorialisation — of mourning — being associated with glass.

YS The traditional owners — now that part of the test site has been handed back to them — want people to know what happened out there. There are information signs that have been placed in areas around ground zero, and there’s photos near the Breakaway site of where the ground turned to glass from the blasts. It looks like water. The land melted. You can see the fragments of glass that are left there now after the supposed ‘clean up’; the traces left behind.

My extended family was still living at Koonibba when the bombs were being set off. There’s stories about the substances from those clouds coming down as far as Tjutjuna and nappies being burnt on the clothesline, skin rashes that people were being told was measles, and ongoing issues of cancer. It has a lot to do with where the clouds travelled: south and across to Woomera, and further depending on where the wind blew.

5. Ceduna is a town in South Australia located on the shores of Murat Bay on the
west coast of Eyre Peninsula, 786 km northwest of South Australia’s capital, Adelaide.
6. Maralinga is in the remote western area of South Australia, covering approximately 3,300 km2.
7. The Woomera Range Complex is located in the north-west of South Australia, with the operational area of the Range encompassed by the ‘Woomera Prohibited Area’ (WPA). The range also includes the restricted airspace over the WPA. The entire Woomera test and evaluation capability is known as the ‘Woomera Range Complex’ (WRC). The WRC is comprised of both the Woomera Test Range (Air Force Test Ranges Squadron), Royal Australian Air Force Base Woomera (20SQN) and the Nurrungar Test Range. Woomera is 450 km north-west of Adelaide.
8. Koonibba Aboriginal Community is located on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, 800 km west of Adelaide and 40 km northwest of Ceduna.

HP The British nuclear tests were the subject of a Royal Commission in 1984–85 and a number of legal actions. Robert Menzies, then Prime Minister of Australia — a known Anglophile — didn’t consult with Cabinet. It’s such an indictment of a colonialist mentality and its disregard for the welfare of Indigenous people.

I was reading about Marcus Oliphant, the Australian physicist, who was born in South Australia, and thinking about these parallel worlds. There’s your people and your extended family living throughout this region and, meanwhile, there’s this other world — the Cold War and the arms race. And, coincidentally, there’s Oliphant, who played a significant role in this at the University of Birmingham, where the Frisch-Peierls Memorandum was written in 1940. You’ll be undertaking a residency in Birmingham and showing your work at Ikon Gallery.

YS It is interesting to reflect on my visit to Birmingham in May 2019 and how I ended up there. The University of Birmingham was where they discovered nuclear energy. And not long after that they tested one of the first bombs in the US with the Manhattan Project.

It seems serendipitous that this opportunity has arisen. I feel like I’m meant to be there to delve deeper. Those scientists knew it was dangerous and when you think about where they tested this in the US and Maralinga, there was no respect for humankind. And the urgency to rush it through to test at Maralinga, to supposedly remove Aboriginal people from the area. There wasn’t enough time, there were Aboriginal people all over the place. And, to this day, there are ongoing intergenerational health issues, kids are still being born with issues related to radioactive poisoning.

I feel like I’ve been sent there. I remember reading about the University of Birmingham years ago. I used to work at the University of Adelaide in my twenties and worked not far from the Oliphant Building. There’s an uncanniness to this connection.

HP It’s parallel worlds and thinking about how those worlds collide: the colonial world, the Aboriginal world and the spirit worlds. With the Memorandum, they knew what the damage would be and it’s chilling: ‘it will, for an instant, produce a temperature comparable
to that of the interior of the sun’.9 And the Memorandum doesn’t mince words, it states that this will kill people, people who come into the area afterwards will be killed, people downwind will be killed.

YS When you go out to Maralinga, you are told about the ‘guinea pigs’. You see where the people were sitting, waiting to be told to go out and roll around on the ground. They called them volunteers but they were military personnel. They were given orders. It’s very sinister.

In Frank Walker’s book Maralinga: The chilling expose of our secret nuclear shame and betrayal of our troops and country (2014), there’s talk of a mass grave of Aboriginal people out there somewhere — all the ones that have been unaccounted for, that disappeared. I think there are people who know, who are still alive. So many Aboriginal people died during that time, and in more recent times too. Maralinga is a site of mass genocide.

HP The disregard for military personnel leads you to understand the lack of regard for Aboriginal people. At that time, we weren’t even counted in the census.

YS Easily disposed of. No-one knew how many people were out there. Only community knew, and who was going to listen to them at that time?

9. Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, ‘The Frisch–Peierls Memorandum’ (1940), in Rudolf E. Peierls, Atomic Histories, New York: Springer Verlag New York, Inc., 1997, p. 187.

HP Cloud Chamber, 2020, is such a fitting evocation of the Maralinga disaster. One of the bombs they exploded was like the one dropped on Hiroshima. There’s been a war on our people that’s continuing well into the middle of the twentieth century. Aboriginal people are the victims of war crimes.

YS They are. It was another way of eradicating, of killing off, Aboriginal people. And it was fast. People would have disintegrated. The Country there wants to speak, I feel. Areas where something horrible has happened retain that memory.

HP Judy Watson talks about that when she writes:
I listen and hear those words a hundred years away

That is my Grandmother’s Mother’s Country it seeps down through blood and memory and soaks into the ground.10

Our Country is sentient, it’s our ancestors. The Wanampi (rainbow snake) is a big story at Maralinga. Then there are these recent stories. Those stories need to be heard by all Australians.

YS Even though where they set those bombs off is not my Country, it was a catalyst for what happened to mine. My ancestors used Ooldea, which is now a railway siding that you cross as you drive into Maralinga. Ooldea is a water soak that my Kokatha ancestors used as a meeting place and, when the military moved in, that soak dried up. So my mob had to move on from there. A lot of places were desecrated.

HP There’s no going back once a desert well is gone. There’s places where the wells are now permanently off limits and, for desert people, the land becomes virtually uninhabitable.

In Australia we still have a secret or silent war. The arms race to make the super bomb happened in an era of paranoia and suspicion known as the Cold War. The Brutalism movement comes out of this era, it’s post-apocalyptic.

YS What draws me to Brutalist architecture and monuments is because they look otherworldly; like bunkers, a military form — and they’re big. I believe that, with me being born at a military base, it’s in my blood, and I keep tracing back to that history — as well as my love of sci-fi. And that terminology ‘brutalist’ is what has drawn me to it too. Those Brutalist buildings were built during a time of great oppression, for example, for the people of the former Yugoslavia during the Soviet period. These massive structures enforce power and I’m trying to decipher it in some way.

The monuments are in obscure places and a lot of them are situated on killing fields. At The Three Fists in Serbia (built in 1963), there was a really strong sense of death. A sense of the energy shifting. You get that same sense here [in Australia]. Nothing needs to be there physically, but you know when you’ve walked into a place and something’s not quite right. At the Breakaway site in Maralinga where the glass is, you can see how big that bomb was because the vegetation will never grow. It poisoned the country and the people who live there. In order for Country to be living, human beings need to be there.

HP The natural landscape reflects the spiritual landscape. It’s become stunted — how do you heal that? You can dig pits and bury radioactive material, but how do you heal the spirit? That’s where art is so important, the intangible energy source that creates art has the capacity to heal. To return to the original question of whether your experience of violence — collective, personal — is too large to depict, it seems to me that the work you’re doing probably will continue to be in-progress for a long time, a process of mourning and healing.

YS There are always things to be told, there’s always stories that are waiting until they’re ready. Then they rise up. My mum always says they’re just floating around.

HP That’s what struck me about the definition of a cloud chamber: ‘a cloud chamber makes the invisible visible’.11 I thought of your work, mushroom clouds and the black cloud from the atomic testing. Otto Frisch, one of the writers of the Memorandum, was working on the cloud chamber, a scientific device to display invisible tracks of ionising radiation. Cloud Chamber is cloud-like, comprising over 1000 floating anthropomorphic glass yams. Your glass bombs have a lightness, a transparency, all of those things that we associate with light, air and clouds. They are brought into being by this process of fire and human action; you literally breathe life into them.

A cloud chamber grasps all these things floating around us that we can’t see and makes them visible to us. Your work is a cloud chamber both physically and metaphorically.

YS The invisibility becomes apparent. When I was installing Death Zephyr (2017),12 one of the gallery lights was pointing directly through it and hit the back wall. There was this cloud of bodies hanging from nooses. I had to leave. It was en masse. It spread across the whole room. It was really confronting for me, even though I think about death all the time, but it was like this mob just appeared. It’s amazing how these old people come through and reveal their presence …

HP … through the cloud chamber. It is otherworldly, parallel worlds colliding, again.

YS I wonder if the old people will come with me to Birmingham. I’m sure they will.

10. Judy Watson, artist statement, in Wiyana/Perisferia (Periphery), exhibition catalogue, Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative at The Performance Space, Sydney, 1992, not paginated.
11. Authornotattributed,‘Cloudchamber’, URL: https://www2.physics.ox.ac.uk/accelerate/ resources/demonstrations/cloud-chamber, accessed 1 November 2019.
12. Yhonnie Scarce (Kokatha/Nukunu peoples), Death Zephyr (2017), hand blown glass yams, nylon and steel armature, dimensions variable. Purchased with funds provided by the Aboriginal Collection Benefactor’s Group 2017, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.