Part elegy to landscape, time and loss, part whimsical homage to the unreliable memories of an idyllic childhood, Meet Me Under the Dome travels further into the same territory. The title is a reference to the Sydney Garden Palace, a magnificent colonial folly purpose-built for the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. A popular meeting place during its brief existence, the building housed convict records, documents of squatting occupation, and hundreds of Indigenous artefacts. The fire that destroyed it in 1882 was rumoured to have been deliberately lit to eliminate the convict records.
The invitation to meet under the dome of the Garden Palace is an invitation to meet at the interface of memory and disappearance, where the echo of an event continues to resonate – a past in which the friction between the colonial aspirations of the building and the new world artefacts it housed brought about a conflagration, and the destruction of one form of aspiration made space for another.
Or you could interpret it differently. At the centre of the exhibition is a prone, shrouded figure, waiting for burial or awakening. The sleeping figure sealed into a cave or hollow, waiting to be woken when its intervention is needed, is a legend that belongs to many cultures. The meeting place might be a future in which the dome is protection from an uninhabitable environment.
And then there’s the dome of the sky, a vast and changeable canopy arcing over the co-ordinates of memory, history, and deep time. Within those co-ordinates lie the locations from which the raw materials for the work have been sourced – the Wombeyan marble quarry, the famous Wombeyan caves, the family home built by Seton’s father, where the artist and his three brothers grew up and the narratives of childhood are embedded in the local geography.
All these interpretations sit lightly. Seton’s art is not didactic. Lightness and weight converge in enigmatic objects, humour and gravitas. The elegiac note struck by the draped figure, with its classical associations of monuments, memorials and myths, is counterpointed by the homely artefacts of boyhood – a composting toilet transformed into a throne of multi-coloured marble, a giant reclining rabbit, replica of a childhood toy and replete with textured red jacket, a leaning ladder with human feet.
Marble carries the weight of geological time and of historic and cultural associations. These associations are powerfully present in The Ghost of Wombeyan (a History of Forgetting), the sleeping figure based on the artist’s body. This is a ghost of European origins, haunting the landscape from which its material form has been crafted, invoking both the tradition of memorialising in marble and the dreaming realm of the unconscious.
Seton describes carving as an act of loss and forgetting. Whatever the act of carving reveals, the detritus that is cut away contains possibilities that can no longer be given form. This observation comes from the process of making, an embodied understanding earned at the end of a hammer and chisel. To counter some of this loss the artist has used offcuts sliced from the surrounds of The Ghost of Wombeyan to assemble a replica of the ladder his father built, with Euclidean precision and timber offcuts, for the boys to climb to the loft where they slept. In a characteristic touch of humour Seton anchors the ladder with a pair of human feet.
History is Buried In My Backyard has its origins in the irresistible metaphor of a message in a bottle. While exploring a nearby billabong the boys find a sealed bottle containing a note. They break the wax seal and open the bottle, and the note immediately disintegrates. As adults they each remember the event differently.
Seton has excavated and amplified this metaphor in a work based on an enlarged scan of the surface of the 1950s cordial bottle, reproducing the scan by digital robotic carving on eight panels of Wombeyan marble that once adorned the Commonwealth Bank in Sydney. The robotic cutting process, far more precise than the human hand, gives the plaques of pattern and text a monumental, mesmerising presence. The message on the bottle proves to be the manufacturer’s details, the artist having the last word on unreliable memory.
The four brothers are implicit in the series of tumbled pillows and the four exquisitely crafted mattocks. These are the artefacts of shared experiences and endeavours – sleeping, dreaming, digging – evidence of an unquestioning absorption in the place they inhabit. The mattocks, each carved from different coloured Wombeyan marble, ask to be hefted and swung, inviting their own destruction. This tension between beauty, functionality and vulnerability brings a delicate edge to the reflections of childhood.
In another iteration of meeting under the dome, the soundscape and the digital installation that accompany the sleeping figure evolved from a collaboration between Seton, composer Charlie Chan, and cellist James Beck. Developed in the quarry from the sounds of nature and the auditory possibilities of the marble walls, the composition brings the players together in a place where, only a few decades ago, skilled Italian migrant workers cut the blocks that created those walls. Since then nature and benign neglect have turned the quarry into something resembling an ancient ruin, and fire has again reshaped the colonial landscape, this time in the recent bushfire conflagrations that tore through the region, reducing the exposed tree roots to scorched cavities and blistering the marble blocks.
Meet Me Under the Dome is the story of a boyhood idyll, a subtle elegy to place, loss, memory and forgetting, and an adult reflection on the contradictions and complexities of connection and belonging. The shrouded figure in its classical drapes is one among many of the genius loci that inhabit the multi-layered environs of Wombeyan. Crafted from local stone that has metamorphosed through deep time, the dreamer offers the possibility that myths from another place can be transformed into something that honours and belongs to this place.