finding country burning

Radical architecture: erasing the city

1 June 2018
Examining the city to find the Country within
Indigenous architect Kevin O’Brien uses collaboration, fire and drawing to elevate an understanding of Country.

Curator Alexandra Brown first met Kevin O’Brien during her architecture undergraduate studies in Brisbane, when she was one of many invited to contribute to an early iteration of O’Brien’s, now long-running, Finding Country project. Nine years on, Brown is now a senior lecturer at Monash Art, Design and Architecture and finds herself they are working on the Finding country project again. This time, her collaboration with O’Brien takes the form of an expansive exhibition at the Tin Sheds Gallery titled, Finding Country | Radical Practice.

Kevin O’Brien is a Brisbane-based architect, Professor of Creative Practice at the University of Sydney and descendent of the Kaurareg and Meriam people of north-eastern Australia. For O’Brien, it is essential that the Aboriginal conceptualisation of Country is seen as the starting point for the City1.

“Architecture in Australia continues its 18th century European tradition of drawing on empty paper,” he explains.

“The Aboriginal position is that this paper is not empty, but is full of what can’t be seen.”

Finding Country map burning

These ideas were the starting point for Finding Country. When Brown joined the project in 2009, each contributor was given a square from a gridded map of Brisbane and asked to remove 50% of the city’s fabric, revealing Country on the map. The result was not just a reimagined city, but a group of practitioners who had each undergone a rigorous examination of their own identity and relationship to place as Australians.

Finding Country has since become a set of practices realised in various forms with many different collaborators. The exhibition at Tin Sheds Gallery traces the ongoing evolution of the project, from its very beginnings as a project proposal in 2006, through to present day. It has been exhibited in Melbourne and Los Angeles, and taught as a studio workshop at universities Australia-wide, including the University of Sydney. In 2012 O’Brien was invited to show the project as part of the Venice Architecture Biennale, where he worked with over 40 collaborators.

Tin Sheds Gallery

In the early stages of working on the Tin Sheds exhibition, O’Brien handed a hard drive over to Curator Alexandra Brown, containing 13 years of correspondence, notes, drawings, photos and other forms of project documentation.  As Brown began to forensically piece all of the ideas together, it felt important to her to represent Finding Country not as a series of individual projects, but as a living practice and network of practitioners.

“For example, one of the tables features work by a group of young architects who have worked with Kevin and now have their own practice,” she explains.

“A big part of Kevin’s practice is about empowering people.”

finding country exhibition

Throughout the exhibition the contents of each display table are being burned as part of a public performance. The custom-designed tables are then flipped and used as vitrines for the ashes, which will then become part of the exhibition. Pre-colonisation, controlled burning was used to manage the land and to encourage new growth. The transformative act of burning is central to the Finding Country project, both as a symbol of regeneration and as part of a need to never let the project become static.

Finding Country | Radical Practice will conclude with a symposium titled Indigeneity and Architecture which will include the launch of the Our Voices – Indigeneity and Architecture publication and an exhibition closing event. 

Exhibition: Finding Country | Radical Practice
3 May - 14 June 2018
Tin Sheds Gallery
Tuesday to Friday 11am-5pm / Saturday 10am-2pm

Event: Indigeneity and Architecture Symposium
Friday 15 June, 12-5pm  
Tin Sheds Gallery
Free, registration essential