Malleefowl Nest 3: Winter

An Installation in the Hall, Penola High School

A unique bird, the malleefowl (Leipoa ocellate), whose extraordinary annual cycle of survival depends on the precise harnessing of solar energy to incubate its eggs in a mound, provides the inspiration for the monumental sculptural works of Australian artist, farmer and conservationist, James Darling.

The installation materials - 3 ½ tonnes of sand and 4 ½ tonnes of mallee roots - come from Duck Island: the pale grey sand and the mottled browns, whites and greys of the mallee roots mirror many of the camouflage colours of the malleefowl.

MalleefowlThe malleefowl (MEGAPODIIDAE - literally 'big-footed') is one of only thirteen species of birds in the world known as mound-builders and the only mound-builder that exists in a dry, temperature-fluctuating, arid climate; all other megapodes inhabit the lush vegetation of tropical or sub-tropical regions, only malleefowl are found in the sparse arid scrublands of southern Australia and numbers of these unique birds live in the grey sand hills of James Darling's Duck Island property.

Even without taking into account large-scale land development, the malleefowl faces enormous survival difficulties with industry and ingenuity. A solar architect and conservationist, it makes the maximum use of available material with a minimal impact on its surrounding habitat.

It is a wonderfully patterned, camouflaged bird, predominantly in shades of grey, with browns, whites and a definitively handsome black line that runs from its beak down through the centre of its breast.

Malleefowl mate for life; build circular, domed mounds; they are no bigger than a small turkey (about 60cms long and 40cms high); fly for short distances; sleep in the top of mallee gums at night; do not drink; have extraordinary hearing and vanish, motionless, into the dappled shadows of the scrub with an unalarmed ease.

Malleefowl may spend up to eleven months of the year preparing, then maintaining the mound with an exquisite artistry which adapts to daily, as well as seasonal variations in temperature and rainfall. The mounds, made largely of sand raked up by their powerful feet, are each an immaculate circle approximately 4.5 metres in diameter. This labour is to establish an exact and constant 33oC - measured by its heat-sensitive beak - in the central chamber of the mound. This chamber is literally carved out of consolidated layers of vegetation, like compressed paper mixed with sand. All the eggs will be laid in this chamber - up to thirty at intervals of two to five days apart.

The key elements in the process of incubation are solar heat and fermentation. Like a farmer, malleefowl aim to make the most of precious rainfall and rely on the daily raking of the mound to harness appropriate levels of solar energy.

In winter, when solar energy is of no use to the birds, they scratch together whatever they can find - dead leaves, twigs, sparse humus - and rake them into a path that leads directly into the now volcano-shaped centre of the mound. It is not an uncommon sight to see a path of stocks and leaves, perhaps half a metre across and 20 metres long, leading from the bush up and over the side of the mound into its centre. When wet, all the collected vegetation is sealed within the mound and buried to rot and ferment. This process is repeated again and again and may take up to four months.

As the season warms and eggs are laid and buried, the malleefowl begin to uncover the mound, altering its architecture to reinforce the slow fermentation with the heat of the sun. This process increases during the summer months until the mound itself is shaped like a pointed cone and the incubation process becomes dependent on solar energy alone.

Mallee Fowl Nest 3

The ever-changing solar architecture of the mounds of the malleefowl are models for the sculptures James Darling builds with the dense, knotted, spiked roots of the mallee gum tree (Eucalyptus dumosa, E. diversifolia and its hybrids). The irregular, interlocking, building characteristics of mallee roots make unusual artistic material, resonant with the strictures and memories of Australia's frontier pioneering and land clearing days.

The installation was built over five days and nights generating curiosity, interest and many visits from the students of Penola High School. The design of the Penola Festival nest is based on the artist's last visit to an existing nest at Duck Island the day before building began at the School (25.5.96). It is an immaculate circle 4.25 metres in diameter which, measured from the egg-laying chamber below ground level, rises to 950cms from the floor. The mound grows from a circle of sand approximately 5.4 metres in diameter and 25cms thick. At the end of a long dry autumn the nest is open like the crater of a volcano. The nest is built from its circle, gaining structural strength from the interlocking random shapes of the mallee roots. Paradoxically, the final texture is one of sand.

The life-size sculptures of James Darling draw on the acute architectural perspicacity of the malleefowl. He draws together disparate elements, unlikely but intrinsically appropriate materials - a circle, a life-cycle - in his creation of a single reverberating sculptural image. Dualities of change and constancy, development and construction, the random and the ordered, form a basis for the work which has issues of land management and survival at its core. Each nest, whatever configuration, becomes a single image which expresses the farming, conservation and art of James Darling.

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Last updated Wednesday 18th March, 2009, 09:55
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