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Black Death: Species Extinction in WA

After 25 years of living in Victoria, Gregory Pryors rediscovery of and new found appreciation for the Australian landscape came about due to his relocating to Perth. Subsequent to this profound experience whereby he felt he was viewing the Australian landscape for both the first and last time, Pryor set out to create a body of work which entailed around 200 detailed drawings made from the Western Australian Museums archives. Through detailed examinations of individual flowers and specimens, Pryor was able to metaphorically travel across a huge amount of Australia and locate specific relationships between these flowers and the lands ancient human inhabitants.

Author & Artist: Gregory Pryor | Feature

When I first ventured out into the bush on the outskirts of Perth in the spring of 2002, I was overwhelmed by the floral display. I had never seen anything like it before in Victoria, where I had spent the previous 25 years. It was like I was seeing the Australian landscape for the first time. Almost simultaneously, it was like I was seeing the Australian landscape for the last time. Over 200 years, various kings and queens on the other side of the world and their appointed governors, exiled criminals, settlers and more recently property developers and mining multi-nationals have systematically destroyed thousands of years of culture imbedded in the landscape and its people on one of the oldest exposed areas on the face of the Earth.

After this floral baptism in Perth I undertook a residency in Vienna, where I asked a friend if she knew of any botanical collections in the city. To my amazement she found out from the director of the herbarium at the natural history museum that they had an almost complete census of Western Australian species from the first 100 years of white settlement.

Over the next three months I made around 200 detailed drawings from the archive, cross-referenced with photographs I had taken the month before, but almost more significantly, I made two discoveries which helped galvanise my interest in the flora of Australia.

As I was looking at the tiny roots of a small orchid (Caladenia flava) underneath the microscope, I noticed that tiny clumps of soil were still attached. I could even identify the sparkling silica telling me it had been taken from the characteristically sandy soil of the coastal plain of South Western Australia. It was a classic 'aha!' moment. For over twenty years, I had found the size, history and age of Australia too intimidating, too immense to know where to enter it, particularly when it came to locating a language for the landscape. I looked at that tiny fragment of Terra Australis, captured hermetically within the lens of the microscope and I realised that it represented the country of my birth. From that point on, the scale of the Australian land mass had been irrevocably altered in my mind.

The second 'aha!' moment came when I was examining an early specimen sheet of a banksia, collected by James Drummond, one of the early colonial collectors in Western Australia. The director of the herbarium had told me that considerable amounts of the Proteaceae family (to which banksia belongs) were destroyed towards the end of the Second World War, when the natural history museum was bombed and the building caught fire. Russian soldiers had also apparently used Australian plants from the collections to light fires when they arrived to liberate the city (they undoubtedly discovered the volatile oils contained in many Australian plants!). The banksia that I was examining was in poor condition and had not been remounted since it arrived in the collection some 160 years ago. It also had a considerable amount of loose material in the sleeve, including what seemed to be the distinctive winged seeds from the fruit. The mounting paper also looked like it had been smoke damaged and all of a sudden I realised that when the fire raged at the end of the war, this banksia was deceived into thinking a bushfire was raging around it in Western Australia and triggered its 'survival response', releasing its seeds and thereby ensuring its survival after the fire had passed.

Inherent in these two observations are concepts of survival. It has taken us a long time to realise the importance of fire in the ecology of the Australian landscape and it was ironic that something as destructive as a world war on the other side of the world could trigger something as constructive as the propagation of a species.

I made the decision to come and live in Western Australia based on these two observations.
In late 2004 I walked into the Western Australian herbarium and declared that I wanted to draw every species of flower in the state. Scientists at the herbarium reacted to my proposal with a fair degree of incredulity, but warmly welcomed me into their domain. The south west of WA had become known as the 'Cinderella' of the world's temperate floristic regions , remaining more or less undescribed after the initial colonial treatments of Brown, Bentham, and Von Mueller, until the recent 'renaissance' of the past 15 years or so. New species are still being named at a rate unparalleled in the contemporary botanical world. I was told that a project that attempted a census would prove elusive at the very least.

After discussion with several botanists, it was agreed that a figure of around 10,500 species would be representative. This did not cover subspecies and variations and would be subject to the increasing logjam of manuscript names being penned by the taxonomists working on the flora.

One of the challenges for any contemporary artist dealing with floral subject matter is the loaded aesthetic appeal of the flower. For the most part, flower painting has offered us a timeless and ideal beauty. We see the transitory nature of the flower captured eternally. In my project Black Solander, I wanted to allude to something substantially more finite. I wanted to dispense with an idealised rendering of the flower and focus on something much more urgent. I had to draw 10,500 flowers very quickly before they disappeared. Over 2,000 species already feature on the state's endangered list. Pointedly, I also wanted to work from dead specimens rather than live material. I wanted to make this work a memorial to those plants that had gone, to those that had ended their days in the war on the other side of the world, and to those that had been erased by ball and chain, by white man's tenure of the land, by wheat, by cloven-footed animals and virulent invading plants from other parts of the world.

This work was designed as a study in funereal black. I wanted to fill a large room at PICA as if it was a mausoleum, a portent of the future. Each plant was painted with black ink on black sugar paper. By shutting out light, I was also shutting out the penetrating antipodean light that gives life to these unique, often drought-resistant plants. They had learnt how to survive for long periods without water, but without light they would not exist.

The blackness was also reflective of the moving experience of walking through the bush after a fire had passed through. Ominously, the week I began working at the herbarium, the hills that surround Perth were ablaze with a huge bushfire and smoke and ash were descending on the city. I drove through this smoke to begin work on Black Solander.

With the loss of Aboriginal fire-stick farming practices, many species have floundered. Ironically, we have spent many millions of dollars in research funding, searching for the molecule in smoke that triggers germination in many species, and we bring arsonists to justice for the millions of dollars damage they do to the environment. The fire in the hills was deliberately lit and a few weeks ago I went into the burnt area and was amazed to see the extent of the re-growth. Pyrorchis nigricans, an orchid that relies on fire to flower, was in profusion everywhere. A bizarre inversion is occurring, where we now see floral activity as a side-effect of crime or scientific manipulation, rather than as a product of a long-held cultural symbiosis with the land.

By examining and drawing these fragile plants, I was able to metaphorically travel across a huge amount of Australia. I came to realise that the best way to come to terms with the landscape is to study the plants carefully .
Daniel Solander designed a special box for the preservation of the specimens he gathered and studied on the Endeavour voyage with Joseph Banks. My solander box at PICA would contain 10,500 specimens yet remain empty.