Words: Briony Downes
Installed within Pier 2/3 as part of rīvus, the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, Never the same river twice, 2022 appeared like a giant waterfall cascading from the ceiling. Created by WestAustralian artist Erin Coates, it was based on the Derbarl Yerrigan/Swan River, a salt wedge estuary flowing through Boorloo/Perth. Meticulously constructed from oyster shells, human hair, porcelain and river pearls, the installation reflected the artist’s experiences of free diving and her firsthand observations of the effects of colonial occupation and land management.
“My interest in underwater spaces began when I was growing up,” says Coates. “My Dad was a professional shell diver and there was seafaring on my Mum’s side. We spent a lot of time in and on the water. When it comes to my art practice, my work draws from direct experiences of free diving, memories of things I saw growing up, and the important work marine biologists are doing now.”
Also influenced by parkour, rock climbing and the built environment, Coates maintains an artistic practice encompassing film, sculpture and drawing – bringing these experiences together to create work focused on biology, body horror and oceanic gothic.
A term coined by Coates and frequent collaborator, Perth-based artist Anna Nazzari, ocean gothic “is a less explored subgenre to Australian gothic (a film genre made popular by films like Picnic at Hanging Rock),” Coates explains. “It focuses primarily on underwater spaces, maritime histories, and submerged ecosystems.”
Expanding on these themes further, in 2023 Coates will be engaging with the collection of the Museum of the Great Southern in Albany as part of an ART ON THE MOVE Activating Collections Artist Residency. During this time, Coates is producing a series of graphite drawings and sculptures focusing on the intersections of memory, body and nature.
In February, her work will travel to Kuwait City for Speculative Horizons, an exhibition and symposium featuring Australian and Kuwaiti photography and video art. Back at the Holmes à Court Gallery in Perth, in March Coates will show work in Bread to Bone, an exhibition reflecting on how our relationship with food is influenced by cultural heritage, environment and modern consumerism.
Featured image above: Erin Coates, Never the same river twice (detail), 2022. Discarded oystershell lids, silicone, river pearls, porcelain, lead, animal hair, human hair and glass, 500 x 240 x 3cm. Photo: Anna Kucera. Courtesy: the artist and Moore Contemporary, Perth.
Featured image below: Erin Coates, Thigmotaxis, 2014. HD video, 5.1 surround sound, 9 minutes. Photo: Bo Wong. Courtesy: the artist and Moore Contemporary, Perth.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 103, January-March 2023.