My action focuses on my preoccupation with Perth’s Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River), which involves freediving to its depths and documenting the changing ecology.
These actions uncover monsters in the river: these are monsters of ecological change, and like all monsters they are ultimately a reflection of our own fears and deeds. Algal blooms, metallic water, dredged shellfish reefs, invasive species, nutrient loading and habitat fragmentation are monsters of human intervention that devastate the health and biodiversity of the river. But within these silty flows there are also adaptive animals, thieving endemic plants and stories of regeneration.
My interest in the monstrous was sparked by early colonial stories from the eighteenth century of a ‘growling monster’ in the water, which turned out to be the native Mulloway fish. My action aims to invert this colonial fear and misunderstanding of Indigenous fauna, transforming the monstrous into an anthropogenic creation. Spanning drawing, video and sculpture, these actions draw on my fascination with biological processes and how these are represented in the cinematic language of body horror. We often ignore what is happening below the surface in our urban estuaries – bringing a visceral drama to these often-forgotten worlds is a strategy for refocusing our attention.
Erin Coates is a Perth-based artist working across drawing, sculpture and film. Coates’ practice focuses on the limits of our bodies and physical interaction with and within given environments. In exploring thresholds of the body she draws from her own background in rock climbing and freediving. Coates’ practice is informed by her deep interest in the natural world, biology, science fiction and genre film cultures. Recently, her work has centred on the oceanic Gothic in relation to Australia’s unique marine flora and fauna and presents hybrid forms that merge human teeth, hair and organs with various endemic lifeforms. Referencing anthropogenic impacts on these organisms her work also proposes a possible transhuman future. The works are fecund, abject, and at times engage with a transgressive bodily aesthetic.
Coates’ works have been shown in both galleries and film festivals, and recently she was included in the 2020 Adelaide Biennial: Monster Theatres at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, and Videobrasil - 21st Contemporary Art Biennial, São Paulo, Brazil. Her short films have screened in film festivals including St Kilda Film Festival, Melbourne; Oaxaca Film Festival, Mexico; Cleveland International Film Festival, USA; and her film Dark Water won awards in Women in Horror Film Festival, Atlanta, USA, and Calcutta International Cult Film Festival, India. Coates was included in the significant survey exhibition The National: New Australian Art, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2017. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and her work is held in the collections of the City of Perth, Wesfarmers and Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art.
Perth’s Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River) is home to a resident population of around 20 Indo-Pacific Bottlenose dolphins. As apex predators that can live up to 40 years, dolphins have been found to accumulate heavy metals in their bones. Metals found at contaminant levels in the river include lead, cadmium, zinc, copper, chromium and cobalt, which can come from road and roof runoff as well as industrial sources. One of the most effective means of reducing the amount of contaminants flowing into the river system is by regenerating and maintaining healthy native fringe vegetation, like samphire flats, Juncus kraussii sedgelands, forests of paperbark (Melaleuca rhaphiophylla) and flooded gum (Eucalyptus rudis), and stands of river sheoak (Casuarina obesa).
The Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River) is a salt wedge estuary flowing through Boorloo (Perth) and into the sea at Walyalup (Fremantle). It is described as a ‘wedge’ because the heavier salt water sinks to the bottom of the river and fresh water flows above it, thus forming a wedge shape as the salinity decreases further upstream away from the sea. The complex hydrodynamics, biology and chemistry of the river have been changed in significant ways in the 200 years since the establishment of the Swan River Colony. Massive nutrient loading caused by runoff from residential fertilisers and upstream agriculture increase the phosphorus and nitrogen in the water, thus promoting algal blooms and low oxygen conditions – which can lead to mass fish deaths. The rock bar at Walyalup was blasted, causing more ocean water to flow upriver and change the salinity. The shellfish reefs were dredged from the river and invasive species like the white colonial sea squirt (Didemnum perlucidum) and mermaid’s hair (Lyngbya) compete with native sea grasses. Yet many endemic and native species still inhabit the river; surviving, adapting and regenerating. Complex battles play out slowly, under the surface of the water.
Video and editing by Erin Coates. Score composed by Stuart James and performed by Louise Devenish.
Estuarine oyster shell reefs filter the water and create a habitat for plants and animals. Between 1927 and 1956, over three million tons of oyster shells were dredged from the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River). The shell, which contains lime, was ground up and used for mortar, cement and building materials. The city I live in, Boorloo (Perth), has the river embedded in its bones. Taking discarded oyster shells from restaurants, I am slowly creating a huge chainmail curtain. It memorialises the removal of the oyster shell reefs, marking their transformation from organic, horizontal stratum into ordered, vertical built forms.
Many initiatives are underway to reintroduce shellfish reefs into urban estuaries. The seed of one is beginning here, and perhaps one day the Derbarl Yerrigan will again grow an underwater city of oyster shell reefs to bring their benefits to the river system.
In 2009 there was an unusual mortality event in the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River) and nearly one third of the resident dolphins died. All showed signs of tattoo skin disease (Cetacean Morbillivirus). The virus is zoonotic – meaning it jumps from one species to another, in this case from whales to dolphins. One of its symptoms is circular skin lesions. Estuarine dolphins are prone to various stressors – many anthropogenic – that make them more vulnerable to the virus, including; river contaminants, changing salinity levels, entanglement injuries, vessel strikes, low-oxygen at depth, mechanical and vessel noise.
Using cast silicon, shell, porcelain, pigments and glass animal eyes, this series of new sculptural props references a visceral, changing ecology in the river. Zoonotic transmission, mutation, invasion, lesions, fecundity, viral resistance. While making this work and against the backdrop of humanity’s own zoonotic viral pandemic, I found out that another outbreak of dolphin tattoo skin disease has occurred in the river. Some of the older dolphins that survived the previous viral outbreak may have a level of immunity. A biological battle plays out below the surface of the water.