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Quandamooka artist Megan Cope turns an oyster shell in her hand to catch the light.
“So gorgeous,” she says. “Some of them turn purple when they’re wet. Some are creamy, some are pale white. And, look, this native one, these tiny little lines, they’re teeth.
Artist Megan Cope with part of her monumental installation.Credit: Dominic Lorrimer
Cope, an artist from Moreton Bay/North Stradbroke Island in southeast Queensland, known for her site-specific installations, has just finished installing Whispers, a major new public artwork for the Sydney Opera House, commissioned as part of its 50th anniversary.
Using more than 85,000 oyster shells, or kinyingarra in Jandai language, the work explores climate change and the fragility of the ecosystem, while honouring the pre-settlement history of the site called Tubowgule by Gadigal people.
Tubowgule, a resource-rich area and a historic place of ceremony, gathering and celebration, featured middens, mounds of shells and bones discarded by Aboriginal people. After colonisation, the middens were crushed to create lime to make stone and brick buildings.
Cope says Whispers, which features three installations on and around the exterior of the Opera House, combines two histories.
More than 85,000 shells went into the installation.Credit: Daniel Boud
“It’s a sculpture that’s an architectural intervention at the site,” she says. “With the part near the steps it will appear that the stairs are resting on that midden and the mound comes up through the top. It’s a cultural foundation.”
The installation comes from more than six months of work. The shells, sourced from restaurants, pubs, the fish market and shell waste from oyster farms affected by floods and toxic run-off from agriculture, have been individually cleaned by volunteers and project staff using a cement mixer, toothbrushes, and buckets of soapy water.
They were then individually drilled with holes before being strung onto frames or large wooden poles using wires. Cope, who has spent more than five years basing her work on oyster shells, says combing through tens of thousands of shells has revealed surprises.
“We found one species, the angasi, a flat oyster native to Victoria, Tasmania, and South Australia, which was on the brink of extinction.
“It’s wonderful to see that after a lot of restoration work done for its habitat someone’s cultivating it to the point where it’s accessible to the marketplace.”
She hopes Whispers will help people understand the importance of the site to First Nations people.
“There’s the opportunity for one month to see that midden and for the first time maybe learn about the pre-colonial history of the site,” she says.
“To see it, not just imagine it from our stories but have a physical manifestation that can allude to what was there.
“The midden we are creating is not even going to be close to like what the Gadigal people had built.
“But, it’s a small step. It will hopefully be transformative for people and, most importantly, that people can be a part of it.
Whispers by Megan Cope is at the Sydney Opera House until October 31
There will be a Sydney Opera House commemorative 50th anniversary magazine with this Friday, September 29’s edition of The Sydney Morning Herald.
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