Karen Miranda Abel: Liminal Refugia

By Dr. Ann Finegan

Published by the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre in conjunction with the exhibition Karen Miranda Abel: Liminal Refugia at the Blue Mountains City Art Gallery, Australia | 24 March - 6 May 2018

Exhibition catalogue front cover, Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Australia, 2018

Exhibition catalogue front cover, Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Australia, 2018


Karen Miranda Abel’s Liminal Refugia invites reflection on the deep time of the planet’s geohistory. As the visiting 2017-2018 World Heritage Artist in Residence, Abel spent much of her time walking the national parks of Wollemi and the Gardens of Stone developing a deep appreciation for their ancient geological formations – specifically the magnificent sandstone caves shaped by natural processes over millennia.

As such Abel is a kind of ‘Triassic flaneur’, a contemporary Situationist whose psycho-geographic experiences are drawn from the action of water on stone, the texture and composition of earth, and the play of the light on the powdery walls of shallow caves. In Abel’s view, these ancient rock shelters are portals to a parallel world of time that co-exists concurrently with our age of the Anthropocene. For Abel, these caves offer a place of temporary refuge from the frightening speed through which human action is terraforming large parts of the planet. The rock shelters function as sites of respite through which to connect to an ancient and enduring dimension of time.

Referring to her work as “an atmospheric, embodied reflection on the deep time interrelationships between earth (stone), water (rain) and fire (sunlight)” (1), the central focus of her installation is a grouping of shallow water-filled meditation pools that reflect the shapes of the apertures of seven major sandstone caves of the Gardens of Stone where Abel spent many hours of contemplation: Michelangelo Cave, Rain Cave, Sand Cave, Cathedral Cave, Acoustic Chamber, Dome Cave and Cosmic Cave. Simply titled Gardens of Stone these pool sculptures translate Abel’s experience of looking out from within the interior of the caves to one of ‘looking in’ from outside, and function as a series of thresholds mediating between two modes of time. In the darkened zone of the installation visitors may glimpse their own reflection intermixed with video imagery of a sunlit sandstone cave floor projected onto the water.

The pool sculptures were left to weather under the action of rain and sun over a period of weeks to obtain a natural iron oxide patina. This references the distinctive ironstone banding found in the sandstone caves of the Blue Mountains and is complemented by another series of sculptures, titled Flowstone. Referencing talus – fallen rock resting at the mouth of a cave – these are watermarked to likewise evoke the characteristic local iron oxide bands. Made from hand cast gypsum mixed with locally sourced materials of earth and sand from Bilpin, Darug and Gundungurra Country, Abel chose, however, to borrow the forms from stones on her mother’s property in Ottawa Valley, Canada – symbolically creating a form of reciprocity through trans geological exchange.


Reflecting the primordial interplay of time and light, Abel describes the projected ‘light pools’ in Oculus, as “rudimentary reverse sundials” (2). In this observational work, recorded over a period of ten days, time became the measure of the pools of light entering the threshold of the rock shelter she provisionally named Oculus Cave. In this study of elemental phenomena, Abel was also a ‘mindful listener’ of the cave’s unique acoustic ecology.

The final installation, Veil of Time, addresses the elemental component of earth. More than 65 participants gathered samples of earth from land holdings spread throughout the Blue Mountains area through the call-out process of the GEODIVERSITY project. Ground and finely sieved to form a graduated palette representative of the local geology, the resultant sands were likened by the artist to the eroding quartz on the floor of a sandstone cave, like a “shoreless beach” (3) formed by the action of water through sandstone. Exhibited in a series of hourglasses, the trickling sands reflect the slow natural process of cave formation, and, in turn, direct attention to the Earth’s fragile soil mantle supportive of all living things.

In so doing, Abel recalls us to our own memories of walking in the Australian bush and the textures of the rocks, soils and sands. This is her quiet way of sounding the alarm bells. In attuning us to the slow processes that maintain the geodiversity of the Blue Mountains, and its role in the broader ecology, we come to better understand the ever-increasing threats of the extraction industry, and that any destruction of the foundational geological layers supportive of life would take millennia to remake, if it could be remade at all.

Like Timothy Moreton (4), Abel understands that entities of vast temporal and spatial dimensions, like geological time, nature and natural processes, are too large to be encompassed at the scale of mere human perception. Hence, her method of environmental art practice is to effectively slow time and draw her audience into modes of noticing, moving from studied detail to an understanding of the grander whole.

Dr. Ann Finegan, Independent Curator, Writer & Educator | 2018


1 - 3 Artist notes. (March, 2018).
4 Moreton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press.