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Ephemeral Art in Suburbia

Read Thursday, 28 Apr 2016

After watching her family grow heavily interested in geocaching, Karen Andrews wonders about the possibility of art as ephemera. Then, after scattering tiny works of poetry throughout her neighbourhood, Karen stumbles upon another artist creating her own impermanent masterpieces.

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Creating a piece of ephemeral art requires a deliberate sense of play. This becomes clear to me while I’m sitting cross-legged on my lounge room floor, scissors in hand, cutting out lines of poetry to glue onto picture cards. I’m a non-crafty type – the rare times I employ the use of these tools are to wrap birthday presents or Christmas gifts. Still, in the midst of this task, I feel a distinct sense of happiness. As I cut around my words, I realise I’m unburdened by all the regular fears of imperfection that so often accompany the preparation of writing for page or screen. Unlike a status update or an essay or a book, the tiny square objects I am creating are going to be free to be seen, without expectation of feedback or reciprocation. Art-as-gift, there one day without guarantee of the next. But what is the gift, exactly? That’s what I want to find out.

In the early winter of 2015, I quietly pack a bag with my smartphone, camera, poetry cards, sticky tape and scissors and announce to my children that we are going to take a drive down to Eltham Lower Park. They are delighted, thinking we are going to pay a visit to the miniature railway. When I tell them I have a different plan in mind, I watch their faces slide into dubious consideration.

‘You’re going to display the cards out where people can see them? What if you get in trouble?’

‘I won’t erect them on private property,’ I say. ‘And if the council objects, they can peel them off again. I’m only using tape. They don’t have to be permanent.’

The questions continue as we make our way down in the car: What if someone steals them? ‘At least I’ll know they made an impression.’ What about graffiti? ‘Strictly speaking, aren’t they graffiti, too?’

Eltham Lower Park has a cricket field at its centre, the north-east edge of which is abutted by the miniature railway. I head south along the access road and park far away from the cars at the local pony club. The area is busy with kids on scooters or kicking balls; runners shuffle past on the Yarra River crossover point of the main running trail up to Diamond Creek. We approach our first display site: an exposed band of concrete right beside the trail. Questions arise: Which poetry card should I choose? Do I release in order of personal preference, or from the least favourite up? (That way, if any are lost, I wouldn’t feel too sad.) A nagging self-consciousness creeps in. What if we are watched? Worse – what if someone approaches and asks what we are doing?

My daughter brushes away strands of grass, preparing the ‘gallery’, while I rip off the first swatch of tape. Once the card is protected from the elements as best as possible, we stand back and regard our handiwork. I lift my camera and take a photograph. Someone could walk past and not know it was even there, if they didn’t know where to look. In that respect, it was perfect. This is an intersecting moment of experimentation, play and practice.

As the afternoon deepens, we work our way around the southern tip of the park where the path follows the curve of the river. At a viewing platform, I scramble up underneath to tape a poetry card to one of the wooden pylons and watch my children throw sticks into the water, their jeans marked with muddy smiles at the knees from playing. We tramp around an empty lakebed and interrupt another family’s picnic as we adhere a poetry card to a nearby post. At each site, I capture the GPS coordinates on my phone, but each time I come closer to thinking maybe I won’t make this a public poetry trail after all. Once we finish, I wish the cards luck as they fare their way alone in the world.

Ephemeral artwork by <a href=””>Anna Trembath</a>: ‘destiny’s tendrils’. April 2016 in Eltham, Victoria.

Recently, I discovered the work of Anna Trembath on Instagram and was overjoyed to learn she also practices her art in my suburb, but with far more perishable materials; using leaves, twigs and flowers to create decorative delights. I asked what prompted her to undertake these projects, and her answers are similar to my own: ‘I can do it anywhere, including on my work commute, on the go with the kids, when I travel for work, on my wanders in the beautiful local environment … It encourages outdoors adventures and a move away from my otherwise quite sedentary office and writing lifestyle. It costs nothing and produces no waste.’ 

Ephemeral artwork by <a href=””>Anna Trembath</a>: ‘friendship circles’. April 2016 in Eltham, Victoria.

As the months passed, I wondered about those poetry cards. In what ways had the weather taken advantage of their vulnerable spots? I could imagine those few by the river peeling off to flit on the air before landing in the water. If that happened, did they become litter? And would they truly be gone? I had their images on record, there would be no forgetting. Occasional hashtag check-ins had yielded no results – either no one had seen them, or thought to capture them on social media. It nagged. Until I realised I was still navigating through creator-as-owner territory. A digital footprint – an Instagram record, a blog post – of a piece might attract a like or a share before falling down the feeds, forgotten. In that sense, one could argue that the digital space itself is a giant self-contained ephemerality.

Ephemeral artwork by <a href=””>Anna Trembath</a>: ‘the strange comfort of the melancholic cocoon’. April 2016 in Eltham, Victoria.

So, if art is created to be consumed, can ephemera really then be included among its ranks if its purpose is neither world-changing nor, generally, noticed? I’d argue yes, because it democratises the viewer – the public as patron. Thanks to its transitory nature, it is bound to an especial time and place, demonstrating the different ways spaces can be imagined. I’ve occasionally spotted the poetry cards since: in February, we participated in a fun run along the very path we had decorated. And there, left intact by time and lawn mowers, was the very first card we put up. Another, the most public one, in (fairly) plain sight of hundreds of students, is underneath local high school footbridge.

One day it won’t. None of them will, and that’s fine. My world remains richer from having added to it.

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