Sydney Opera House: 85,000 oyster shells tell of site’s true story in major public artwork | Culture – Gündem Haberleri

Sydney Opera House: 85,000 oyster shells tell of site’s true story in major public artwork | Culture

Some 85,000 oyster shells have been hand-polished, drilled, threaded and mounted to create three large-scale public works now open at the Sydney Opera House forecourts.

Quandamooka artist Megan Cope’s new installation, titled Whispers, recognises the history of the Bennelong Point site – namely the plundering of natural resources caused by colonisation.

Long before excavations began for Jørn Utzon’s vision in the 1950s, the site – known as Tubowgule – was a meeting point for the local Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

The area was strewn with the debris of family feasts and ceremonies, creating myriad ancestral middens over thousands of years.

Whispers by Megan Cope can be viewed at the Sydney Opera House forecourt through October.
Three thousand volunteers gathered, treated and prepared the shells across more than 100 community workshops. Photograph: Daniel Boud

With the arrival of the first fleet, convict women were put to work collecting the oyster shells and bones from the middens, burning them down to create the lime that formed the cement mortar that built Australia’s first Government House, which overlooks Bennelong Point to this day.

More than 10 million people visit the Sydney Opera House each year, says Cope, yet few know that the site was of profound cultural significance for tens of thousands of years before white occupation.

Whispers by Megan Cope.
‘I really wanted to remind visitors of our existence,’ says Megan Cope. Photograph: Daniel Boud

Her installations are an acknowledgment of country embodied in sculptural form, she says.

“We all know how iconic that building is and how it attracts all these people. So I guess I really wanted to share the way we see country and remind visitors that evidence of our existence as people was removed and repurposed for the foundations of the colony.”

Thousands of oyster shells have been threaded on to wire mesh forming a decorative windbreak under the building’s imposing exterior staircase. Thousands more form a contemporary midden, piled at the forefront of the Bennelong restaurant. On the northern boardwalk overlooking the harbour, dozens of timber poles stand sentry, oyster shells clinging to their sides.

The immediate and future fragility of the local environment is also embedded in Whispers, which poses questions about how art and culture might heal oceanfront land facing existential threat from climate change. It is no coincidence that a significant proportion of the kinyingarra (oyster shells) used to create Whispers were sourced from the oyster farms devastated by unseasonal torrential rain that brought the Sydney rock oyster industry to its knees statewide in 2022.

Since early this year, Cope has corralled 3000 volunteers to gather, treat and prepare the shells for her sculptures. More than 100 community workshops were held across three sites – the Opera House’s forecourt, Sydney’s Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville and the artist’s own studio in Brisbane.

Megan Hope preparing Whispers at Addison Road Community Centre.
‘We’ve made a sculpture that it will last forever’: Megan Hope preparing Whispers at Addison Road Community Centre. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

Cope also convinced the private Sydney restaurant group Merivale to save the shells of oysters consumed by hundreds of their customers but her largest single donor, she concedes, is probably the Opera House’s own chief executive, Louise Herron, who co-owns a modest oyster lease in Wonboyn, in the Bega Valley Shire (“It’s just a hobby,” Herron says).

Whispers’ will be on public display only until the end of October. But Cope is hoping the work will find a permanent home when the Opera House’s birthday celebrations wrap up.

“We’ve made a sculpture that it will last forever,” she says. “It was made for Bennelong Point, but once there were millions of middens everywhere, millions of vast oyster reefs built by my ancestors. So it’s a sculptural form that is relevant to the entire coastline of this country.”

Whispers is on public display until 31 October at the Sydney Opera House.

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