Lily-rose Pouget
Concrete Womb: Re-imagining Urban Water

On Lhotse Collins: the feral green gemstone and other stories

Blood, bile, intracellular fluid; a small ocean swallowed, a wild wetland in our gut; rivulets forsaken making their way from our insides to out, from water womb to watery world: we are bodies of water. — Astrida Neimanis

The story of a city is first the story of its water. Our cities have always grown along large bodies of water. Like a placenta, they provide food and hydration. They are also a medium for commerce, enabling human populations to swell on fertile banks. The urban modification of water systems transcends easy spatial categorisation as it flows beyond the political borders of the city. Localised changes to the flow of water have national and international effects downstream, as water pollutants and toxins seep out across ecologies and into the ocean — a river's tears will wash up onto another's beach eventually.

Lhotse Collins, 'the feral green gemstone and other stories', detail, 2024, installation view, West Space Window, Collingwood Yards. Photography by Janelle Low

Reimagining our relationship with urban water begins with an acknowledgment and understanding of the current predicament: The fantasy of the ‘clean, sanitised Western metropolis1’ impossibly necessitates that bodies of water – especially rivers – be a measure of a the city's modernity, while also functioning as a drain for our waste. Gagged by concrete banks, footpaths, urban leisure spaces, bridges and pipes, the river is left flat and unmoving. It is our dirty little habit to obscure the mutilation of the urban river through its domestication — If a river is barely recognisable as a river, is it still being harmed? Are its rights to conservation nullified? These questions, in my mind, seem comparable to the infinite degrees of separation put between supermarket meat and the actual animal from which it came. Rendering the natural world unrecognisable, and therefore undeserving of our compassion, is what makes capitalism feasible.

Historical accounts born of Settler, Indigenous, and non-Western imaginations all shape our understanding of water and place. Writer Rob Giblett, in the epilogue of Australian Wetland Cultures: Swamps and the Environmental Crisis, explains that:

The project of colonisation, especially in its modern phase and especially in relation to the establishment of settlements and the foundation of cities, is strongly tied to the draining or filling of wetlands … [without which] the establishment and expansion of many modern cities would not have been possible.2

The wetland, and by extension, the river, exist in an ontological liminality, their sprawl lacks stable demarcations and therefore defies the binaries of western thinking. This is significant since most cities in so-called ‘Australia’ are built on the banks of rivers or beside the ocean, inevitably positioning peri-urban areas within, and on top of wetland environments.

Here in Naarm (Melbourne), the Birrarung (Yarra River), unsurprisingly, suffered the same post-invasion, urban asphyxiation described by Giblett. The area we now know as ‘Dights Falls’ is an artificial weir built on top of a natural rock bar. The Birrarung was harvested, its water taken for use by industrial textile and flour mills that flourished at the Falls in the later half of the 20th Century. The mills filled their bellies with the Birrarung’s water and soil, and returned to it the off-cuts of greed; the river tired of flushing the physical and cultural detritus of Melbourne out to sea. Invasive fish species moved in, weeds spread and the ancient trees along the river rotted and collapsed. We decided when the water would bend or slow. The Birrarung was straightened out in the name of progress and economy. With the river's bending structure gone, the estuary pushed the ocean’s salt water further upstream, causing an abrasive confluence of both fresh and salty waters. A brackish and noxious soup was born and the Birrarung’s sediment and swamp became septic. As the 20th century came to an end, the industries slowed and the infrastructure was reconstituted into apartment blocks that still run along the Yálla-birr-ang (Collingwood) side of the river to this day.

Lhotse Collins, 'the feral green gemstone and other stories', detail, 2024, installation view, West Space Window, Collingwood Yards. Photography by Janelle Low

With permission from the Wurundjeri Land Council, artist Lhotse Collins has collected and shaped sediment, woven it together with hand-processed wool, and displayed it alongside objects from the Birrarung’s river bank ‘just above dights falls where the artist swims.’ Lhotse collaborates with the Birrarung in their piece, the feral green gemstone and other stories, to offer us new imaginaries of a rewilded, post-human river of the future. The mobilisation of material from the banks of the Birrarung to the West Space Window showcases how art might renegotiate our imaginations of place and build new associations with them as holders of wisdom, knowledge and magic.

To think about (and with) water is also to think about (and with) its more-than-human denizens — the plants, animals, insects and stories that share place and memory. At the highest point of the West Space Window, we see a singular, all-seeing creature gyrating in dynamic twists of clay, the human [that] becomes an eel.’ I imagine Lhotse crouched on the riverbank gathering the sediment in their hands, carrying a small piece of the Birrarung back into the city like a baby. Lhotse articulates in their artist statement that:

Mud, when held, can transport you to a gelatinous river bank coloured by flour, blood and the washing of fleece — It can take you further too — to a river winding out through wetlands before the sea rose and long before the boats came.

Mud and clay are materials that absorb and swell, only wrangled into solidity through the process of being dried out or fired. To work with this medium is to acknowledge that it is alive, existing in a state of dormancy and rest. The Birrarung mud sleeps in the West Space Window for now, but it’ll be returned to the river later. Lhotse’s choice of material, and its fraudulent inertia, interprets their understanding of the word feral as a state of un-domestication and dislocation. A feral material perhaps, is one caught in a foreign suspension, still capable of sentience if it were to be set-free (in this case, to water) again.

At the bottom of the West Space Window lie three bricks and a broken plate. Stamped with spirals, they rest like the carcasses of old infrastructure, their crust crumbling onto the white floor beneath them. Mimicking the mixing of salt and fresh waters at Dight Falls, Lhotse has added salt to the sediment, an exchange that oxidises the mud and shifts its colour. It’s been found that a ‘saltwater’ clay cracks and crumbles when mixed with fresh water. Salt erosion, or salt wasting, is a weathering process by which rock is physically decomposed by the growth of salt crystals within its structure. As crystals precipitate from solution in the rock, they require more space than is available in its pores. Their growth exerts pressure on the internal surface area of the rock, causing it to fracture.

As we visually wade through the water of Lhotse’s gift, we are reminded that stream-of-consciousness is not merely a metaphor, but rather, an organic condition of being. Like the mud in the West Space Window, we are, as bodies, always enduring a re-moulding/a stasis/an erosion of the self, transposed spatially and temporally. We are watery bodies — metonymically, metaphysically and biophysically; and therefore human sentience is aqueous. Water irrigates us, drives and sustains us.

As we travel downstream along the Birrarung, the West Space Window churns and coils behind us. The patient resilience of the Birrarung river reminds us that caring for our water needs to be an on-going, collaborative project.

Lhotse Collins, 'the feral green gemstone and other stories', detail, 2024, installation view, West Space Window, Collingwood Yards. Photography by Janelle Low

Commissioned by West Space in response to Lhotse Collins: the feral green gemstone and other stories in the West Space Window, 4 May → 29 June 2024.

Lhotse Collins works across sculptural installation, weaving, writing and performance, engaging with myth, folklore and historical pasts to uncover lost futures. Their practice is a process for unlearning and re-worlding. For Lhotse, place, materials and matter are considered mystic collaborators and speak with more-than-humans an action of resistance.

Lily-rose Pouget is an emerging writer in Naarm/Melbourne.