On Ghost Nets

By Vita Forest

Ghost nets – that’s what they call the lost and abandoned fishing nets that float the ocean, moving with the tides, travelling large distances and trapping fish and birds and dolphins, sharks and turtles.  At the Australian Museum, there is a display of Ghost Net Art, made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to raise awareness of this problem and to turn something destructive into something wonderful.

I visit the museum with a bunch of sketchers, fanning out through the rooms armed with sketchpads and pencils and watercolours and brushes.  I am attracted to texture, to roughness, to coarse surfaces, woven rope, splintered wood, twisted wire.  And so I find myself among the ghost nets, read the stories, read how these massive artworks came to find themselves suspended from the ceiling and crawling up the walls of the Australian Museum.

I stand in front of a giant crab, a huge disc of netting and woven spirals and multi-coloured ribbing stretched over wire.  I sketch out the outline and begin to map out its limbs and scribble and hatch the barnacles of its body as it hangs breathless against the wall.  I stand in front of it, where the light haze dims and brightens in time to the story on the screen beside me that starts up again and again at the touch of a child’s finger.  Across the way, a projection of Bangarra dancers twist and contort, and children shriek and try to catch the slippery bodies of fish made of light that dart beneath their feet across the floor.

And when I finish my scribbly, gnarled, ancient crab, I sit on the floorboards, too tired to stand now, not wanting the bench, the angle is just not right for the fish, the cod, floating high above our heads.  So I sit on the floor, out of the way, but still visible to the boy who slides down beside me to peer at my paper as his mother reads about the crocodile spirits, about the men who could hitch a ride on the back of a crocodile without fear.

‘That’s good,’ he whispers when it’s time to go, when he is called to stand up, to climb up and follow her away.

And I think about the legend of the cod and the crab who watched each other and fell in love.  And I think about the people combing those northern beaches for nets not shells.  And I think about them stretching and cutting and twisting the nylon into new shapes, new stories.  And how I am taking the ghost nets and stretching them out in a new way on my page.  And wondering if we could make something this shape, this size at school out of other thrown-away things.

And I think about the ghost net that caught me this week, floating unaware beneath the surface of everyday life, waiting, hovering beneath the flow of it.  And how I was gutted and let down, thrashing in my net, struggling to take a breath, to remember the good, until I was cut out in time, set free to slither out into the clear, warm water again.

And I think in the end, that’s all we can do – scoop up the ghost nets whenever we find them and take them out of the water so they won’t catch anyone else and try to turn them into something beautiful.

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