Hand­crafted Habi­tat

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Ni­cole Gill

Not far from Ho­bart’s Sala­manca Mar­ket, with its ven­dors hawk­ing the usual arts and crafts, ce­ram­i­cist Jane Bam­ford is cre­at­ing some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary. Bam­ford has just com­menced her three-month Art/ Science res­i­dency at the Univer­sity of Tas­ma­nia’s School of Cre­ative Arts. The white walls of her or­derly stu­dio at the Hunter Street cam­pus are dec­o­rated with maps of the nearby Der­went River, as well as news­pa­per ar­ti­cles pro­fil­ing the spot­ted hand­fish and its un­der­wa­ter realm. Bam­ford, who grew up south of Ho­bart in Kingston and spent much of her youth ex­plor­ing Tas­ma­nia’s east coast, is work­ing with sci­en­tists from CSIRO to painstak­ingly hand­craft a key piece of habi­tat for this threat­ened species. The spot­ted hand­fish (Bra­chionichthys hir­su­tus) was one of the first fish doc­u­mented in Aus­tralian waters, ap­pear­ing in Wil­liam Buelow Gould’s Sketch­book of Fishes in 1832. Rather than swim, the fist-sized crea­ture

“walks” on mod­i­fied pec­toral fins; its bulky body, for­ward-jut­ting dor­sal fin and per­pet­u­ally down­turned mouth give it the slightly com­i­cal air of a minia­ture aquatic bouncer. It was rel­a­tively abun­dant in the Der­went River sys­tem un­til the 1980s, when num­bers plum­meted after the ar­rival of the North­ern Pa­cific seastar. This in­va­sive species made its way to Tas­ma­nia in bal­last wa­ter from vis­it­ing ships. The seastar doesn’t feed on the hand­fish di­rectly. Rather, it eats the stalked as­cid­i­ans (sea squirts) that the hand­fish gen­er­ally lays its eggs on. While the hand­fish can lay eggs on other seafloor fea­tures, such as sea­grasses and sponges, with­out the as­cid­i­ans it has strug­gled to breed suc­cess­fully. To­day, the spot­ted hand­fish per­sists in only a hand­ful of pop­u­la­tions in the Der­went River sys­tem, and was listed as crit­i­cally en­dan­gered in 1996. For­tu­nately, these odd lit­tle fish have proven to be quite adapt­able: many have taken refuge in “bot­tle reefs” formed by beer and rum bot­tles turfed over­board by sailors for the past hun­dred or more years. And re­cent CSIRO stud­ies show that, in the ab­sence of a nat­u­ral breed­ing habi­tat, hand­fish will lay their eggs on spe­cially de­signed plas­tic sticks of a sim­i­lar size to the sea squirts. Sci­en­tists and vol­un­teer divers have planted some 6000 of these in the Der­went over the past cou­ple of years, and the hand­fish ap­pear to have ac­cepted them as tol­er­a­ble homes for their eggs. Bam­ford’s project takes this ini­tial ex­per­i­ment a step fur­ther. She is craft­ing 3000 porcelain spin­dles – known as ce­ramic ar­ti­fi­cial spawn­ing habi­tats – for the hand­fish to use. While the plas­tic spin­dles have been ad­e­quate so far, CSIRO is keen to find a less-pol­lut­ing op­tion for the hand­fish to breed on. Each ar­ti­fi­cial spawn­ing habi­tat con­sists of two parts: a biscuit-sized disc with a small hole punched in the cen­tre, through which a long thin spin­dle about the size of a drink­ing straw is threaded. “Even though it looks like a re­ally sim­ple thing, just a stalk that goes through a disc,” says Bam­ford, “in ce­ram­ics, you’ve got move­ment in the kiln, you’ve got shrink­age rates.” She hands me one from the ini­tial batch. The spin­dle slots snugly into the ce­ramic disc. “That’s ac­tu­ally quite pre­cise for a ce­ramic artist.” When in­stalled, the disc sits to­wards the base of the spin­dle, buried slightly in the sed­i­ment to pro­vide sta­bil­ity. Bam­ford points at the mid­dle of the stalk. “This lit­tle area here is where the hand­fish will lay her egg mass. The fe­male dances around the stalk, and lays her eggs, then the male comes and fer­tilises them. She will stay with her eggs and pro­tect them.” Many fish pass through an in­ter­me­di­ate lar­val stage after spawn­ing, but hand­fish hatch as tiny per­fect repli­cas of their par­ents. Bam­ford forms her ar­ti­fi­cial habi­tats from an ex­cep­tion­ally pure white clay known as South­ern Ice Porcelain, de­vel­oped at UTAS in the ’90s by lead­ing ce­ram­i­cist Les Blake­brough. Once the ar­ti­fi­cial habi­tats emerge fired and glass-hard from the kiln, they seem al­most too clean to be in­stalled in the murky depths of the Der­went. “I wanted to work with a white porcelain be­cause I was given this image.” Bam­ford hands me a photo

It’s the artist’s touch, the rolling and round­ing of the in­di­vid­ual pieces that gives the ar­ti­fi­cial habi­tats their fi­nal in­tegrity.

of one of the stalked as­cid­i­ans. “It’s got this beau­ti­ful stalk, which is quite white. I chose the clay to try to match that.” She shows me some fancy ar­ti­fi­cial habi­tats she’s made, formed with whim­si­cal top­knots and dec­o­ra­tive in­den­ta­tions. “I can’t help be­ing a lit­tle bit artsy!” she ad­mits, laugh­ing. While these more elab­o­rate ar­ti­fi­cial habi­tats won’t be in­stalled in the wild, they did at­tract the in­ter­est of court­ing hand­fish in one of the cap­tive breed­ing tanks. A fe­male hand­fish laid her eggs on one of Bam­ford’s cre­ations. “Oh, it was just fab­u­lous,” she says. “It was like, ‘One of my clients is happy!’” “I’ve done a lot of work in the past that’s quite in­ter­pre­tive,” says Bam­ford, “but this project is amaz­ing be­cause my work is ac­tu­ally go­ing into the en­vi­ron­ment to sup­port a threat­ened species. It’s a fab­u­lous thing to be in­volved in.” Bam­ford walks past the mas­sive slab roller where thick slices of raw clay are thrown down and flat­tened out like fresh pasta, and past the kilns that will fire the ar­ti­fi­cial habi­tats at 1280 de­grees Cel­sius. She ends up at the ex­truder, a bat­tered metal tube topped with a long lever, mounted on the wall. “This has come out of the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion,” says Bam­ford as she slaps some clay into a lump and shoves it into the ex­truder. She pulls on the metal lever, ratch­et­ing it to force the clay through a round aper­ture at its base. The clay streams out like tooth­paste – per­fect 7-mil­lime­tre-di­am­e­ter cylin­ders that Bam­ford breaks off and places on a tray for fine-tun­ing. It’s not enough to just cut the spin­dles to the cor­rect length – clay has a mem­ory, and if not rolled out by hu­man hand, these stalks will bow in the kiln. “If I roll them, it just gives the clay that lit­tle bit of com­pres­sion, so I can have them straight, which is great for the de­sign, and also for pack­ing, de­liv­er­ing and de­ploy­ment into the Der­went,” says Bam­ford. “If you’re han­dling these things un­der­wa­ter, with gloves, in scuba ma­te­rial, you want it to be as easy as pos­si­ble. It’s not just de­sign­ing some­thing that I want to make – it’s got to ac­tu­ally work in the field. Every one of these pieces is be­spoke, hand­made.” It’s the artist’s touch, the rolling and round­ing of the in­di­vid­ual pieces that gives the ar­ti­fi­cial habi­tats their fi­nal in­tegrity. Her smooth­ing of burrs from the edges of every un­fired disc al­lows the pieces to slot neatly to­gether to form an el­e­gant whole. One that will, hope­fully, catch a pass­ing hand­fish’s eye.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.