published Thu 11 April 2013
A knack for mining…
Sue Kneebone has a knack for mining. This is unsurprising given that the name Kneebone is a recurring one in Cornish mining history and that an Irish-born ancestor discovered copper in Arizona. Mining for Kneebone, however, has taken a slightly different direction to that of her forebears – she mines the museum and its collections.
The Mineral Kingdom is the title of Kneebone’s excavation of the South Australian Museum’s mineralogy collection. This is the latest installation in a decade-long collaboration between Craftsouth and the South Australian Museum, called Inside SAM’s Place, whereby artists and artisans are invited to respond to the Museum’s collections. Kneebone is an apposite choice for such a project, as in her words, she says:
Central to my studio practice is the transformative process of mixed media assemblage and photomontage that allow for new associations to be made from fragmented clues found in museums, photographs and archival material.
In The Mineral Kingdom Kneebone redeploys museum objects (including spectacular specimens from its mineralogical wonder cabinets), archival photographs, digital photomontage and found objects to re-present the state’s curious history and culture of mining. Cabinets from the Victorian period, that great age of the museum, are filled with unlikely and often contradictory specimens and artefacts. In one cabinet a camel skull is adorned with a miner’s hat-cum-candelabra. In this arresting and somewhat humorous collision of materials and ideas, the gentility of the parlour room (represented by the candelabra) meets the rugged frontier of colonisation (in this instance, symbolised by mining). This collision is a recurring signature for Kneebone who has, for more than a decade, exposed the tenuous and often absurd civility of colonisation and its resulting environmental consequences (signified by the skull of the introduced animal now deemed feral).
In the title piece for the exhibition, a ram’s head encrusted in halite, or rock salt, rests upon an upholstered footstool. The specimen was found on the Eyre Peninsula, south of the arid homestead of Kneebone’s forebears in the Gawler Ranges, and offers a return to the imagery and symbols employed in her earlier works. A photographic montage held in the collection of the nearby Art Gallery of South Australia depicts her great-grandfather with the head of a ram. Titled For better or for worse 2010, the sepia-toned montage is based on a 1890s wedding portrait of Kneebone’s great-grandparents who ran a pastoral property called Yardea Station, in the northwestern part of the Gawler Ranges. This collision of the pastoral and the parlour room provides an abiding motif for Kneebone in her critique of the consequences of colonisation, for better or for worse.
Kneebone’s findings from the museum’s collection, including the auspicious crystallised ram’s skull, are presented using the didactic language of the museum itself. She plays on museum conventions, not to underscore the museum’s authority, but to question it. Installed as dioramas, the surreal and often hybrid or conjoined objects are set against images from the state’s photographic archive. These include a large photograph of the colossal Burra Burra mine from 1875 from the archive of the Department for Manufacturing, Innovation, Trade, Resources and Energy. The state’s first known copper deposit, the Burra mine was referred to as ‘the monster mine’ and attracted fortune-seeking miners from Cornwall, the home of Kneebone’s ancestors. By the late nineteenth century South Australia had earned the reigning title as ‘The Copper Kingdom’ with other mining towns such as Moonta surpassing Cornwall as the largest copper region in the Empire.
The state’s mineral sovereignty continues with the Olympic Dam mine – home to one of the world’s largest copper deposits, although also focused on silver, gold and uranium. Kneebone traveled to Woomera and Olympic Dam during her research for The Mineral Kingdom and a radioactive glow has worked its way into her museum intervention. The cabinet-based work titled Radium Fever exposes the early-twentieth-century craze for radium, found naturally in uranium as a trace element. Considered a cure-all, or kitchen-cabinet panacea, radium was added to a panoply of products including ester dispensers, cleaning products and cosmetics. The star of Kneebone’s Radium Fever is a uranium glass water cooler, which glows ominously under UV light.
Displayed alongside the cabinets containing the mixed media dioramas are digital photomontages. The most enigmatic of these is Johann Menge Cleaning his Minerals (after Cawthorne) 2013, a digital re-creation inspired by the biography of Johann Menge, the state’s first mineralogist, written in 1859 by W.A. Cawthorne. Born in Germany in 1788, Menge’s audacious explorations led to South Australia’s first mining boom and to the resultant expansion of settlement. Kneebone’s composition imagines Menge being on, as distinct from being in, the landscape. The shape of the landscape resembles a skull, which links back to the litany of skulls found in the cabinets but also serves as a harbinger of environmental impact. Kneebone’s portrait of Menge has been cleverly constructed to remind us of earlier European landscape conventions, specifically the anthropomorphic landscapes of Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder, who in his sixteenth-century engraving The Image Breakers presents a figure-encrusted skull as an allegory of human toil and folly. Kneebone imagines Menge polishing his specimens, which had, by end of 1840, totalled more than 200 and were to become an attraction at London’s Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition of 1851. (The Crystal Palace offers the starting point for a forthcoming exhibition of contemporary South Australian art at Flinders University Art Museum, proving colonial history’s abiding lure for contemporary artists.)
To experience Kneebone’s The Mineral Kingdom is to be cajoled by art that is informed by both good humour and rigorous research. For Kneebone, the consequences of our actions, both past and present, echo into the future and we, the audience, are the future makers.
Art Gallery of South Australia