Notes on the origin and route of the Nothofagus. Towards a cultural bridge between Tasmania and Chile
by Francisca Moenne *
The Gondwana landmass once joined the ancient lands of Australia and Chile. Today, its geographic memory echoes in a number of shared plants and in the relations that root the place they inhabit and so, their identity; amongst these plants is the Nothofagus, a genera whose fossil records date back to the early Campanian, about 84 million years ago, in the Antarctica.
Today, the geographic memory of the Gondwana, and in particular the history and ecology of the Nothofagus, is key to my art practice and curatorial research. With the ability of a magic wand, the Nothofagus walks me to the edges of time and space and allows me to trespass the walls of conventional knowledge without having to release the anchor of facts and reality. I follow the origins and routes of the Nothofagus by zigzagging in between the constellations of the Milky Way and by crawling down to the darkest subsoils of Tasmania and Chile, fearless of crossing the margins that divide science and art or upturning the hierarchy that separates academic expertise from community knowledge.
Roots of the modern Australian and Chilean Nothofagus were widespread across the Weddellian Biogeographic Province, a region of shallow waters that encompassed the coasts of southern South America, Antarctica, Australia including Tasmania, during the Late Cretaceous through to the Eocene (about 98–65 mya). The region was a diversification centre, meaning that todays four extant subgenera of this plant (Brassospora, Fuscospora, Nothofagus and Lophozonia) co-existed here at once, a fact that reinforces the hypothesis of a Nothofagus' Antarctic genesis. Whether the extensive pollen record collected in this area is enough to pin the genus' centre of origin in the Weddellian Province, remains of doubt to key Australian and Chilean researchers such as Professor Robert Hill and Marcelo Leppe.
Nevertheless, this hypothetical wonderland of past-present connectivity formulated Black Matter’s first chapter: Origin, which in October-December 2016, brought Tasmanian artists Julie Gough, Robert O’Connor to Santiago, Chiloé and to the Region of Magallanes, including Isla Navarino. Unsure if we were somehow going to hear the echo of such co-existence, as artists all we could do was apply magnifying lens to the surroundings, observe present social similarities and speculate around possible past and present cultural connections.
Origin quickly manifested a need to edify a cultural bridge, a passage of connectivity and interpretation that could facilitate translation of knowledge. This urge generated a three metre collective canvas, while in Santiago Robert O'Connor worked collaboratively with local students on paintings that mapped the suburbs of Pedro Aguirre Cerda, La Victoria and Ñuñoa, while in the meantime, Julie Gough and myself improvised uncanny performances and outdoor actions inPuerto Williams (Isla Navarino).
The formation of land bridges were also key to the dispersal of the Nothofagus that from Antarctica shifted to Chile through the Region of Última Esperanza while also drifting to Tasmania through the Transantarctic mountain range. Fossil records in Cethana (Tasmania) and in the Region of (Southern Chile) show that this early passage occured during the Oligocene (some 35 mya) in Tasmania and during the late Maastrichtian (some 66 mya) in the South American continent.
In the form of mountain ranges and isthmus, these geologic land bridges trailed ancient cultural practices: basket weaving, canoe building and ritual customs, still resonate today in Tasmania and in Southern Chile as traces of a shared geographic memory.
The translation of the Nothofagus and other plant genera inspired Black Matter’s second chapter: Route, and just like the origins of Gondwana had resurfaced as an abstract collective map during the Chilean residencies, the bridge that walked Chilean artists Eduardo Cruces, Macarena Perich and Cristian Rodríguez to Tasmania took the form of, not a relic boat, but extensions of the body.
Between March and April 2018 the artists activated the Tasmanian landscape through a series of performative works that deferred the geographic ruin, recollecting stories that are bounded in the land and addressing them as contemporary self, cultural and environmental concerns.
Looking back to Origin and Route today, I realise that these residency experiences fell somewhere in between the archaeological investigation and the social experiment. Plants, objects and humans loaded with individual stories that carry indelible imprints of our present identity.
Refugia. Aesthetics of displacement from the geographic was an exhibition to reflect upon this legacy. As a quick response show, it was a genuine attempt to establish a long-term cultural exchange program based on reciprocity. Whether it was capable of weaving the past and present of my native Chile and my Tasmanian home with a discreet and respectful invisible thread is yet to see. To me, Refugia was gift to the other, a place for all artists to restore hope and to reconnect with place and identity. The Tasmanian Nothofagus gunnii and the Chilean Nothofagus alessandrii have reminded me the meaning of endurance, resilience and persistence. But have also warned me about fragility and isolation. I will stop here. For now.
* I want to acknowledge the work of Professor Robert Hill, Director of the Environment Institute of the University of Adelaide and Marcelo Leppe, Director of the Instituto Antártico Chileno (INACH), whose papers and vocation to their studies nourish my research on the Nothofagus.