Back to Nature Scene | Linda Short

Getting ‘back to nature’, a concept that has gained currency since the industrial revolution, appears ever more desirable today as we seek balance in our fast-paced lives. The more transfixed we are by screens and devices, and the more built-up our environment becomes, the greater our craving becomes to escape from it all. In this context, it seems that ‘the smallest green feature lifts our spirits, while the wide open spaces can change our lives.’[1]

Siri Hayes reflects on being more in touch with nature in a group of new works that respond to Heide’s abundant gardens and parkland, a remnant green sanctuary in inner-suburban Melbourne. Hayes’s large colour landscape photographs have often explored particular sites and the histories connected to them. Whether recording the ecological imbalance of a now industrialised landscape or the impact of European settlement on native bushland, her desire to evoke the interrelationship between people and the land is central.

At Heide the artist has focused on her personal experience of place, investigating different ways to connect with and understand her subject matter. Though principally known for her photographic work, Hayes also has a background in craft and has embraced tactile skills she learned during her childhood and teenage years from her mother, grandmother and school craft teachers. Interestingly, the artist also takes a handcrafted approach in her photography, preferring the time-based manual operation of her old-fashioned large format camera to new digital technologies. In this exhibition her photographic and textile works are shown together, revealing some surprising correspondences.

For some time Hayes has been drawn to the idea of colouring wool with natural dyes extracted from plants as a ‘novel way of constructing a record or description of the places where they grow’.[2] In this she finds parallels with photographing a landscape. Both processes involve transmission; of light, which reflects off objects and is captured as an image by the camera during photography; and of colour, which transfers from plant to textile during the technique of dyeing, leaving its impression on the wool. While, as Hayes points out, the dyes cannot create ‘a literal image of the landscape’, they can be used to create textile works that convey an experiential and abstract sense of place.

Equipped with a ‘do-it-yourself’ guide to making natural dyes, Hayes, with the help of Heide’s gardeners, identified over twenty plants across the site that were suitable for making dyes and experimented with half of these. Eucalyptus leaves, Osage orange heartwood, hollyhock flowers and elderberries were among plants she collected to create a spectrum of soft-to-vivid orange, yellow, pink and blue wool.[3] Such colours are often pleasingly at odds with the characteristics of the plant material in its natural form; for example, the noxious weed Oxalis (sometimes referred to as sour grass) produces an enticing fluorescent yellow dye. The aesthetic effect derived from a plant commonly regarded as invasive and a nuisance appealed to Hayes, who is inclined in her photography to emphasise ‘a scene’s beauty even when the ecology of it is degraded.’

The artist also finds meaning in the ritual of gathering plants and extracting dyes, activities that evoke for her a sense of connection to ‘old times’. ‘I feel like a witch or shaman simmering amazing smelling brews in massive pots on my kitchen stove’, she says. She also observes correspondences with the alchemic processes of old-style photography, likening the method of ‘soaking and brewing the plant in water’ to using a ‘developer in old-fashioned wet-process photography’. The application of a binding agent to make the plant colour attach permanently to the fibre similarly reminds her of the ‘fixing stage of darkroom processing’ when the developing image becomes set.

Hayes recognises the value of preserving past knowledge and this informs her skillful hand-making of Heide Colour Spectrum (2013), a woven rug and colour-sampler of the artist’s dyed wools. The work is meticulously crafted from a traditional weaving pattern passed down from her familial mentors. Displayed on the gallery wall, the rug’s utilitarian function as a floor covering becomes redundant, allowing us to more fully enjoy its textural and abstract qualities. Hayes has deliberately chosen a pattern of simple concentric circles; the overall design mimics a colour-wheel such that the tints of the Heide landscape can be experienced in an ‘almost scientific manner’.

The ‘Heide-coloured’ wool in this textile work gives material form to Hayes’s interactions with the landscape. A different but related approach has been taken in her photograph Colour Trap (2012). Here in Heide’s Wild Garden (adjacent to the Heide I house) we see an intuitive weblike weaving that the artist has constructed between two persimmon trees, the distance between them perfect for intervention on a human scale.[4] The softly-hued woollen forms appear to catch the colours of the garden like shards of refracted light, their harmonious fusion with the surroundings a gentle reminder of the benefits of working with, instead of against, nature. Immersing herself in the sights, sounds and smells of a springtime garden, the artist when making this work felt ‘a part of nature’, and took time to reflect on her place in its grand scheme: ‘I love the idea of being tangled in nature and of nature having its own way in the end’, she says.

Hayes takes this idea further in the photographic self-portrait Entangled (2012) by portraying herself as a spider-like weaver. She has draped skeins of yarn over her head like an absurd and strangely wild form of camouflage, as she stands surrounded by the autumnal leaves of the silver vein creeper in Heide II’s main courtyard. Resembling a mask or guerrilla-style headgear, her outfit also calls to mind the recent phenomena of yarn-bombing—a form of graffiti or street art where knitted or woven fibres rather than paint are used to adorn and personalise the urban environment. The image is a playful, yet canny, representation of the artist’s own creative powers, the yarn, string, knitting needles and the camera cable-release (signalling her own authorship of the photograph) transfiguring her as a multi-armed ‘creator creature!’

Contrasting with the performative actions in this work, the large photographic frieze Billabong Web (2012) is conceived as a theatre for the viewer. In this woodland scene (located on the southern border of Heide’s grounds and neighbouring Banksia Park), the nearly bare branches of late autumn trees intertwine to form a natural proscenium arch that beckons us into its realm. Here, the natural world is presented as a place of beauty and refuge, but in reality the site falls short of these ideals. The trees are in fact box elders, an introduced species now defined by environmentalists as a riparian weed.[5] And nearby a towering transmission pylon rises up from a public car park.

From beneath her photographer’s darkcloth—a mysterious setting ideal for plotting and trickery—Hayes conjures a transformation of nature.


In Swift (2013), a video work purposefully shot on Super 8 film, we encounter the mesmerising vision of a weaver’s swift being used to wind wool. Displaying it on a small monitor positioned low on the gallery wall, Hayes invites us to crouch down and view the gently rhythmic motion of the swift rotating, as we might stop and bend down to revere something we stumble upon in nature. The footage is accompanied by a soundtrack of experimental music, composed from recordings of Hayes’s children plucking the strings of the loom she hand-built especially to create work for this project—for them, it is a new musical instrument to play while their mother weaves.

In her quest to connect with nature Hayes re-purposes ways of the past so as to make them relevant to her art now. She uses time-honoured techniques that could soon be altogether forgotten in our technologically advanced world. For her, there is ‘something of discovery, meditation, patience and trust’ encapsulated in these age-old methods that can bring us closer to the tranquillity and constancy offered by nature. In Heide’s grounds the co-existence of designed gardens, natural bush and river flatlands invoke for her ‘a sense of wildness that is intriguing’. Likewise, the artist’s ‘scenes’ are natural, but also partly of her own and other’s making. The modelling of nature by culture—and, in turn, culture by nature—is a theme explored more broadly in Back to Nature Scene. As the wordplay in her exhibition title suggests, for Hayes nature is a source not only of ‘scenic’ views or landscapes but also of cultivated ‘scenes’ where human activity and dramas play out.

Linda Short, Assistant Curator
Heide Museum of Modern Art

[1] Tuija Seipell, ‘Getting Back to Nature’, 28 February 2013.

[2] Siri Hayes. All quotes are from the artist, taken from conversations and email correspondence with the author, February –March 2013.

[3] Hayes also used the leaves of native indigo, ivy and rhubarb plants, pear tree bark and walnut husks. She trod very lightly on the land, collecting only small amounts of plant material and using surplus wood resulting from the gardeners’ tree maintenance program.

[4] The location of this work is also a tribute to the original creator of the Wild Garden, Neil Douglas, a gifted gardener, artist and environmentalist who was involved in the creation of the Heide gardens in the 1930s and 40s. Douglas was also a friend of Hayes’s grandparents and an early pioneer of the ‘back-to-nature’ lifestyle that inspires her.

[5] John and Sunday Reed, the founders of Heide, planted one box elder which propagated throughout the river flatlands.