Maiden voyage, Looking for Black (photo by Dale Meehan)

Maiden voyage, ‘Looking for Black’ Boat (photo by Dale Meehan)

Today the boat made of sticks and cloth exceeded my every expectation. She was very stable, completely water tight, strong and unfaltering.

I sat quietly and calmly for about an hour at sunset on Aura Vale Lake, near Emerald, the boat gently moving with the wind and turning slowly. I watched the colours on the water change from oranges and blues to greys and blacks. All the while my love was taking hundreds of photographs from the shore.

In a way the experience was uneventful … I didn’t even get my feet wet. Yet at the same time it was a great adventure. My little boat! That I tied together by hand! And now I can recall the buoyancy of the water beneath us, holding steady.

See ‘Looking for Black’ Boat for more images.

Julia Birch, Boat for 'Looking for Black', sticks and cloth, 2013

Julia Birch, ‘Looking for Black’ Boat, sticks and cloth, 2013

My boat made from branches, sticks and sailcloth is ready to launch, planned for this Sunday at a local lake at dusk. I will make some images from the launch as the light fades. The work is about looking for silence, for what is unknown. It’s about transformation and travelling to the immaterial. It’s also a test: the boat’s first crossing from studio to water.

my photograph of the Svalbard mountains on long shutter speed

Svalbard birthday adventure, 2006, gelatin silver print

Mount Analogue offers artists a striking metaphor: it is the highest mountain on Earth and can only be seen at sunset by those who believe it’s there. Mount Analogue is described within a little book of the same name written in 1952 by Rene Daumal, which is about a group of explorers who set out to climb it.

British artist Tacita Dean, who includes an image of Mount Analogue in ‘FILM’ (shown in the TATE Modern’s Turbine Hall) as a metaphor for film, of being able to see something within the medium that is specific to film itself. Dean’s work is also about obsolescence, timescales (including ‘cosmic’ timescales) and ways of looking that require faith in seeing what is there. See the Tate Modern’s ‘The Unilever Series: Tacita Dean: FILM,’ which includes a video about Dean’s work.

Closer to home, Australian artist Immants Tillers included Mt Analogue in his 1985 painting, ‘Mount Analogue,’ owned by the National Gallery of Australia. The word ‘analogue’ of course meaning something that represents something else; in describing the painting in 2002 on the NGA’s website he quotes the poet John Anderson, ‘The world cannot be overcome by the analogue ‘I’’. Tillers has an exhibition coming up called ‘The Fleeting Self’ at Arc One Gallery in Melbourne from 18 Jun 2013 – 20 Jul 2013.

(The photograph above was taken around my 30th birthday at Svalbard, some 1100km from the north pole. This was a fantastic adventure across the world to see the spectacular northern lights on my birthday. I took the photo with a long shutter speed, balancing my parents’ 1960s Pentax camera on a rock in minus 30 degrees Celcius!)

When people have asked me how I meditate, I have often tried to describe a “kind of contemplation,” a “questioning of what is,” which seems to simply frustrate whoever asked and I notice a little furrowing of their brow. And I also feel a little frustrated because I can’t describe it properly. I just found out that Thomas Merton can describe it very well, in a way that makes me feel sort of uplifted and expanded, the opposite of how I make my poor questioners feel. Merton (1915-1968) was a Catholic writer and mystic. Not only does he describe contemplation beautifully in the video below but he also relates contemplation to art, as follows:

‘… contemplation is not vision because it sees without seeing, and knows without knowing. It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images and words or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows, the contemplative mind takes back what it has said, and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by unknowing, or better, we know beyond all knowing or unknowing. Poetry, music and art have something in common with the contemplative experience, but contemplation is beyond aesthetic intuition, beyond art, beyond poetry. Indeed it is also beyond philosophy, beyond speculative theology. It resumes, transcends, and fulfils them all and yet at the same time it seems in a certain way to supersede and to deny them all.”

Thomas Merton – What is Contemplation?

Perhaps art could point a viewer in the direction of a contemplative experience (in the spiritual sense). Perhaps art could create a kind of contemplative stirring within a person? From what I understand Merton is saying, this is just a beginning, something of a little inner shift or a reminder, then if a genuine practice of contemplation occurred, it would be beyond that initial experience in a way that had almost nothing to do with the art.

Writing this feels pretty familiar. It reminds me of being in my 20s (in Europe in the late 90s) and discovering abstract expressionalism, in particular, Rothko and Kandinsky, and kind of having my mind blown open in a very welcome way, as in, “other people have this inside?” Merton’s words ring true for me, as the experience of viewing those works was, in a way, like the few contemplation experiences I have had since then, but in a small way, you know like a grain of wheat in a field, moon in the solar system, leaf in a forest … that sort of a way.

I’m a Masters student at the VCA in Melbourne. I’ve been thinking that some words on silence are ok to say in earnest at school (and perhaps within contemporary art everywhere) and some are not. I’m not sure how I know the rules. They’ve somehow made their way into my awareness. Who made the rules?! Why am I following them?! Here’s a list that shows my current understanding:

ok to say in earnest at school on silence in art

silent, transcendental, beyond, unseen, infinite, reality, Buddhist, Taoist, Zen, Kabbalistic, Sufic, nothingness, unity, ‘active field’ (beautifully articulated by lecturer Norbert Loeffler last year), metaphysical, contemplative, ethereal, immaterial, expansive, awareness

Borderline ok

Soul, spiritual, mystical, divine, sacred, rapturous, religious, holy, angelic, blessed, heaven, euphoric, love, Christian

Not ok


Weird, I could only think of one.

“Spiritual sounds a little sappy in English. When we say somebody is spiritual, we’re not certain if we’re giving them a compliment or being ironical, in English. But in German if you say somebody’s a “Geistiger Mensch” that’s a true compliment, somebody deep, reflective, and serious.”

Donald Kuspit, Reconsidering the Spiritual in Art