OPINION: On a Sydney September night last week, ghosts with shields danced on the flat grass outside the Rose Garden Pavilion at the Royal Botanic Garden. The Bangarra Dance Theatre eloquently evoke the spirits of those who for tens of thousands of years danced on the high ridge. It is easy to feel that past, present and future are one.

Daylight does not dispel the magic.

It is 47 years since John Kaldor initiated Kaldor Public Art Projects by enabling Christo and Jeanne-Claude to wrap a slab of NSW coastline in canvas and rope.

For almost all that time Kaldor has been bringing provocative international figures in art to Australia. In that time our country has changed, not always for the better. The great improvement has seen a more widespread understanding of the complexity and depth of Aboriginal cultures. Aboriginal artists and Aboriginal curators have all played their part in spreading knowledge of the land and those who dwell in it, past and present.

Project 32, barrangal dyara (skin and bones), is the first local Kaldor art project that is by an Australian, instead of being an import for an Australian audience.

Jonathan Jones is an artist, a curator – and a researcher into the history of his Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi ancestors. The 1882 fire that destroyed Sydney’s great Garden Palace also destroyed the largest collection of ceremonial shields, spears and other artefacts collected in the early years of the colony, including those of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi people. History and memory went up in smoke.

Most of the site of the old Garden Palace was replaced with a very British style rose garden and a fountain designed by Achille Simonetti commemorating Governor Arthur Phillip.

Rescuing language

Visitors entering from the direction of the State Library walk past the fountain, past what looks at first like a loose arrangement of bleached bones. But nothing is as it seems. 15,000 gypsum shields combine to form the shape of the lost building – and the rubble that remained. The very lightness of the shields as they form patterns on the grass serve to make the monument appear heavy and crude, an intrusion on the land.

The shield outline takes the visitor past a tree, and suddenly there are the sounds of children’s voices speaking Ngarrindjeri.

This is the second layer in barrangal dyara. The shields remind the visitor of some of the history, but the voices at eight different sites, speaking eight distinct languages, are a part of a great linguistic project – the reclamation of Aboriginal language.

Aerial view of barrangal dyara (skin and bones). Photo Peter Greig/Kaldor Public Art Projects

Before 1788 there were approximately 700 Aboriginal languages. The stripping of language was a part of the stripping of culture. In the very first years of the colony Patyegaranga, young Eora woman, taught Lieutenant William Dawes her language which he wrote in his notebooks. Now, under a tree within the “walls” of the Garden Palace, young girls say the long lost words, recovering history through speech.

One of the key figures in the recovery of language is Uncle Stan Grant, father of television’s Stan Grant, whose grandfather was gaoled when a Griffith policeman heard him speak Wiradjuri. Grant’s voice is heard, in conversation with a school teacher and children from Parkes in central western New South Wales.

This is at the heart of barrangal dyara, evidence of what was lost and what can be regained. Students at Parkes high school can now study Wiradjuri for the Higher School Certificate.

Proclaiming a reclaimed history

The Garden Palace was crowned by a dome so high that for three years, from 1879 when it opened until the day of the fire, it could be seen by ships in the Harbour. In 1938, as a part of the celebrations for 150 years of European possession, the site of the dome was reworked into a carefully manicured English style Memorial Garden to honour “the pioneers, who had transformed this vast land into a prosperous country”.

Now this garden bursts with an abundance of native Kangaroo Grass, the plant that dominated the Sydney basin when the convicts first arrived. It was the sight of the fields of native grass, in an undulating landscape dotted with trees, that reminded the English of the great parkland estates of home as designed by Capability Brown. They could not imagine that what appeared so artless in this distant land could be the result of deliberate cultivation. They could not see that Aboriginal people were Australia’s original graziers.

Now, thanks to Bill Gammage and others Aboriginal people are known to have been the creators of habitat for kangaroo and other game animals.

Aerial view of barrangal dryara (skin and bones). Photo Peter Greig/Kaldor Public Art Projects

The grass, heavily laden with ripening seed, has all the appearance of spontaneous nature reasserting its abundance, but like every apparently random element in this work its presence is precisely planned. Kangaroo grass grows all over southeastern Australia, ripening at different times, prompted by sunshine. In Sydney it usually comes to seed in late summer, so in order to have the grass at full seed in September it was taken north to be ripened and shipped south where it was planted just before the opening.

The seed is there because Uncle Stan Grant’s conversation is about grinding seed, baking bread and fire. Thanks to researchers such as Bruce Pascoe it is now widely known that Aboriginal people were the world’s first bakers and kangaroo grass the first cultivated grain.

barrangal dyara (skin and bones) is more than a great and complex work of art. It was made possible because of the coming together of many different communities – Aboriginal, philanthropic, curatorial and creative. It was John Kaldor’s initiative but a large part of his talent is the way he has been able to motivate so many other organisations and people to work achieve Jonathan Jones’ vision.

The quality of the collaboration is seen in the catalogue, illustrating this ephemeral work published on the night of the dance.

The way barrangal dyara integrates sculpture, landscape, sound and dance is a reminder that a holistic approach to art – of integrating performance and sound and visual – is simultaneously ancient and modern. It is a feature of Biennales showing contemporary art. It has always been embedded within Aboriginal culture.

Joanna Mendelssohn is an Associate Professor, UNSW Art & Design.

This review was first published in The Conversation.