First Nations artists’ eel projection lights up Melbourne landmark

What sets the freshwater adult eel off on its northerly migration remains a mystery, but it covers thousands of kilometres of ocean over the course of a year, up the east coast to somewhere off the coast of Cape York, between Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia.

In an unknown location there, around what is presumed to be a submerged mountain deep below the Coral Sea, the adult ‘silver eels’ converge in large numbers to spawn and die. Ocean currents carry their larvae back to the continental shelf where, more than a year later, the larval eels become ‘glass eels’.

The installation provides First Nations communities with a new connection to the Hamer Hall site, honouring their unique connection to the land and giving greater visibility to their cultural heritage.Credit: Eugene Hyland

Tides and currents then convey these transparent eels back to the coastline, into southern coastal estuaries, where they metamorphose again, this time into ‘elvers’ that travel upstream, and even over land, to occupy fresh waterways for up to three decades until they embark on their own fateful return pilgrimage to the tropics.

This mysterious odyssey of the eel – or iilk – as it crosses land, river and sea, taking on many forms on its path to maturity, is depicted in a new digital artwork projected onto one of Melbourne’s landmark cultural centres.

Ancestral Memory was created by First Nations interdisciplinary artist Mutti Mutti/Yorta Yorta/Boon Wurrung/Wamba Wamba woman Maree Clarke and her nephew, Boon Wurrung/Barkindji emerging artist Mitch Mahoney.

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“The work really touches on the idea of passing down intergenerational memory between parents, their offspring and the generation to come,” said Mahoney, who describes his art as a revitalisation and celebration of south-eastern Aboriginal culture.

The projected digital animation unfolds into different iterations of the Spirit Eel as it weaves around the curved facade of Hamer Hall on Melbourne’s Southbank.

“Both Mitch [Mahoney] and I are super excited that so many people are going to see it this time around. Especially for young ones to see work on this scale that you can dream as big as you can dream, and it can end up somewhere like Hamer Hall. I love that!” Clarke said.

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