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 Semaphore is a newsletter and publishing project about art fromWestern Australia | Semaphore is a collaborative project and practice | Semphore enters into a dialogue with art from its rooted location of Boorloo on Noongar Country |


A month of leap days

14 June 2020
An object study by Susanna Castleden

In our calendar February 29th is a corrective measure; it represents the bits of excess time that gather and accumulate unnoticed each year, that are then compressed neatly into one day every four years. The day becomes an accepted and welcome rupture to the otherwise oddly numbered February, turning 28 days into 29. It’s an odd day in itself, steeped in quaint but outdated traditions, but unlike the slippages of time that led to its creation, the actual day for me rarely goes unnoticed. I seem to expect, anticipate, wait for something to happen – a meteorite shower, a thunderstorm, an earthquake – a strangely cataclysmic something. Mostly, there’s nothing.

February 29th this year however, was different. A day of sound checks with Amyl and the Sniffers on the back of a truck in a huge factory in North Fremantle in preparation for the Perth Festival closing event, Highway to Hell. It was something unusual. Sure it wasn’t a meteorite shower, but it had that sense of hot wind anticipation that a summer storm can bring; anxious, foreboding, exciting. Beyond the brooding expectation of seeing Canning Highway closed as trucks (decorated in my case with hand printed street signs that pay homage to suburban utopias - Perfection Ave, Calm Lane, Serene Bend, Pristine Court) carrying bands playing AC/DC covers rolled towards Freo, there was another unknown rumbling beyond our horizon. As the thought of thousands of people pressed together in AC/DC inspired delirium became more tangible, the sense of an imminent catastrophe was also present on Feb 29th 2020.

Exactly twenty years earlier, on that leap day in 2000, our then 9-month-old daughter Stella was admitted to the emergency department at Fremantle Hospital. It was the beginning of a month-long stay involving apprehension, separation, uncertainty, mixed with a strange calmness and a fondness for medical staff, hospital smells, bad artworks, and pastel curtains.

I was reminded of this day when clearing a space to work from home. The Highway to Hell juggernaut had passed, the street signs were now piled up in my studio, whispering Utopia, Nirvana, Desire, Perfection, and the pandemic had forced us to retreat to our homes for a while. I found, at the bottom of an old desk on pages torn from a sketchbook, several drawings of Stella asleep in her hospital cot, with ubiquitous hospital tubes weaving across the pages. They aren’t particularly good drawings, but as I was sitting, waiting, watching, thinking, still in the hospital. At that time drawing felt like a good way to breathe through this pause. (I’ve just remembered, writing this, that I ended up making a huge drawing of the ward, and framed it and gave it to the staff as a thank you after we were released, I wonder if it’s still there?). This was a time of enforced watching and observing, and drawing was its consequence.

Lockdown in late March was the antithesis of the whipping winds and thronging crowds of Highway to Hell. Calm Lane, Serene Way, Tranquil Drive. Bevan, Mia, Stella and I were isolating at home, together. Our days were punctuated by dog walks, internet frustrations, reconfigured work patterns, distanced conversations with relatives, and a bewildered marvelling at the sudden contraction of our worlds. Finding the hospital drawings prompted a reflection on our parallel time of earlier isolation. Bevan and Mia, and dogs, had built a special routine of daily walks to see Stella and I in hospital. Mismatching socks didn’t matter, punctuality didn’t matter, there was no rush, we would be there. Despite the metronome of hospital mealtimes and the beeping of IV drips, the days had an unfamiliar formlessness. Time slipped and expanded; and like all those extra bits of time that skid and slid to make up Feb 29th, these hours and days balled together to make a month of isolated but unified space.

Stella is writing her honours research proposal at the kitchen table, next to Mia juggling cancelled high-end fashion orders with a corresponding boom in leisurewear orders. The lockdown impact to the arts is playing out on Bevan’s day as studios are closed. I’m just agitated. Stella works through her biomed proposal: title; literature review; methodology; significance. Significance. Ruby Princess, Italy, Spain, the UK, JobSeeker, JobKeeper, respirators and masks. My own honours lacked significance; classes were an unwanted disruption to our specially insulted hospital time, odd and inconsequential. The next surgery was significant; a conversation with parents, with medical staff was significant. Living in the hospital and breastfeeding Stella, simple and primordial. At that time, our timeless time together was significant.

Now around our kitchen table, the registers of significance vary, but this shared time, cocooned from our familiar worlds, has a weight. Like our time in hospital, it is a weight that may not be understood until hindsight is present. I suspect the silver lining idiom will be rolled out often as we live through this time of pause. Although hackneyed, it’s one that seems apt. Things eventually move, stillness is temporary. Time continues to cleverly seep and ooze outside the obligatory 365 days in a year, creating a new Feb 29th, that will now, for us, always be a day for pause, together.

Drawings courtesy of Susanna Castleden.

Kaya. We acknowledge the Whadjuk People of Boorloo boodja who are the traditional owners of the land where Semaphore is made. We respect their culture, their custodianship, and their continuing contribution to the life of this city and this region. That includes recognising and respecting sovereignty while working in solidarity towards a treaty and supporting ongoing connection to country. That means linguistic rights, economic opportunity, and artistic endeavour. To their Elders, past, present and emerging, we say thanks.