Exhibitions    The National, MCA

26.03.21 to 22.08.21



Indwelling I – Interior of an Arnhem land termite mound with fungus gardens, nursery galleries and the royal cell

This work is composed of different layers of collaged paper with watercolour, wood cuts and linocut. The under layer is a large linocut which is a schematic drawing of a section of a large termite mound. Within this drawing, I have conflated various diagrammatic illustrations of the inner workings of termitaria which I have pinched from scientific journals.

Having pasted this image onto a sheet of Fabriano cotton paper I then pasted some 30 sheets of transparent Gampi paper on which I had printed woodcuts.  I had inked up one vertical plank of Huon pine flat grain, and then a complete section end grain of the trunk of an 1800-year-old King billy pine. I liked the way that the vertical slab growing upwards represented the accretion of growth forwards in time, while the circular cross section of the tree trunk imaged cyclic time.  Thus these two modes of understanding time could embody as Stephen Jay Gould put it –’the deepest and oldest themes in Western thought about the central subject of time: linear and circular visions, or time’s arrow and time’s cycle.’

This large composite relief printed work also summarises the interrelationships between tree trunks and termites which is one of the main themes of my work in this exhibition. I was intrigued to discover that termitaria can be as old as that King billy pine, and some have been in continuous use for as long as 4000 years.


Indwelling II – The eusocial life of arboreal termite nests with pardalotes and golden shouldered parrots.

 Here are two striated pardalotes. I have placed them in the same mound as a Golden shouldered parrot which can be found nesting in termite mounds in the Cape York peninsular. This rare parrot has a symbiotic relationship with the larvae of a moth trysyntopa sp. which feeds on the faeces in the nest. There is no record of this moth breeding anywhere other than in the nests of this parrot. Poignantly, I learn that there were thousands of these moths cohabiting with the now extinct Paradise parrots, but now no longer. 


Indwelling III – Tree wood termite mound with forest kingfisher

Here is a nest within the trunk of a dead tree. The inside of the tunnel which the kingfisher had made was smooth- termites having scrupulously closed all openings exposed by the birds. Nearby I found a king fisher lying dead with a broken neck exactly where, as it says in the text books, it had charged beak first into an arboreal termite mound to make an opening for its nest.  There was already another nest hole in the mound and within it I found some kingfisher feathers and a small moth similar to the one which co-habits with golden shouldered parrots.


Indwelling IV - Arboreal termite mound with owl and ants

There are often different kinds of ants living within the mounds. Eugene Marais the South African poet and naturalist wrote in The Soul of the White Ant that – ‘At first sight it appears very much as though these ants are bent on slaughter. They run rapidly between and over the termite, apparently inspired with terror and fury. Occasionally one of them will seize a termite and carry him a short distance…. In the meantime, other termites quite peacefully go about their business of repairing their fortifications. The ants continually touch and test the repairs, but they never attempt to throng into the passages or to hinder the workers in any way’. I have not been able to find any reporting of such kinds of mutualism between ants and termites by scientists in Australia except for that done by the late Ms Wirrpanda who has described this in her paintings and also given a sense of their huge importance in the ecology of these tropical landscapes.

John Wolseley on his artistic process connecting with the living world. The National MCA 2021: click here
Video: click here
An image and audio explication by John Wolseley of his work, Termitaria: Indwelling I-IV, 2021, executed in country near Gangan, the ancestral land of the Dhalwanju people in Arhem Land : click here
A profile of John Wolseley: click here
An overview of works in the exhibition, including those by Wolseley’s deceased sister, Ms Wirrpanda: click here

Indwelling III – Tree wood termite mound with forest kingfisher by John Wolseley

Indwelling III – Tree wood termite mound with forest kingfisher  2021

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Indwelling II,The Eusocial Life of Termite Nests with Pardalotes and Golden-shouldered Parrots (2020–21) by John Wolseley

Indwelling II,The Eusocial Life of Termite Nests with Pardalotes and Golden-shouldered Parrots (2020–21)  2021

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