Brett Whiteley, Dragons and Didthul: the importance of meaning in landscapes

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The listing of the Brett Whiteley House and Visual Curtilage on the NSW state Heritage Register a few weeks ago was quite interesting. In addition to listing the garden, also listed was, the house, its setting and the views….as the inspiration for the considerable body of Brett Whiteley’s art undertaken here.

The Heritage Council of NSW felt that the setting of the house and what these harbour views revealed about Whiteley’s art, life and genesis of his paintings was a significant aspect about this place. The view has meaning in the context of Brett Whiteley, his house and the art he produced there.

This got me thinking of the importance of landscape and the meaning that landscapes can have. I could give you a complicated academic description of this but I won’t. The simple way to describe it is that landscape and places have meaning and the way that we use places, change them and interact them is based on this meaning.

Meaning is dependent on who we are, our social and cultural background and what is important to us.

‘In front there is a Red Bird followed by a slow-moving Turtle at the rear to the left is the Azure Dragon and to the right a White Tiger’.

Sounds appropriately mystical, right?

This quote is from the Li Ji or Book of Rites. It is one of the Five Classics of the Confucian Canon and was written around 213 BC and describes the social forms, governmental system and ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC).

One of the topics this book covers is Geomancy, or the art of placing or arranging buildings on sites auspiciously. According to the Li Ji, where you should establish a settlement should be dictated by these features. The Phoenix should be to the south catching the sun. A source of water nearby. The Tortoise, Dragon and Tiger all providing shelter from prevailing winds, giving shelter and privacy to the settlement.

These principles were used in the establishment of a Chinese settlement in the Snowy Mountains of NSW in the 1860s. The principles set out in a book written in 213 BC helped define the location of their campsite.

They built their camp where there was a water source where the sun came from (Red Phoenix) (south in the northern hemisphere, north in the southern). A rocky outcropping behind the settlement (or the strong protective back of the Dark Tortoise), protected from prevailing winds and prying eyes by small hills to the east and west (the Green Dragon and White Tiger).

Elsewhere I look at the south coast of NSW (somewhere around Kioloa) and see a network of settlements, both extinct and extant, that reflect early European colonisation. They place a layer of meaning that links timber tramways, maritime infrastructure, roads, managed forests and any other number of elements that have organised and shaped the landscape. It has a meaning and internal cohesion.

Yet this landscape also has a different layer of meaning. The largest complex of Aboriginal middens on the south coast of NSW, Gulaga and Didthul (Mount Dromedary and Pigeon House Mountain). This is a landscape that was created by the Dreamtime serpent. It has a meaning that came from and informed how this landscape was used. Where Aboriginal people feasted, met, hunted, gathered and buried their dead are all intertwined with the meaning and significance of this area. You cannot understand the people without understanding how they viewed and lived in this landscape.

A church is on a hill because that is where it is closer to the glory of God; Three Mile Dam was three miles from somewhere; Lime Kiln Bay do I even need to say it?

What are the layers of meaning in a landscape that we are not even aware of?

So next time you look across a landscape it is worth remembering that there is meaning there. The symbolic and mythological, mundane and practical all place layers of meaning on the landscape. if you know the rules that meaning can be read today; all you have to do is find it.

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