The Oyster Project



Sydney oysters are ignoring the order not to gather in clusters

Defying quarantine and the deadly global pandemic.

They disappear, submerged and speak of the past

Of the First Nations people of the Harbour, of the plagues and pandemics of the past, of traces in our mind.




river oysters

gaping up from silted lulled mud

submerged, hiding, hidden

Wangal land.


‘There is no secret to the formula of working out where Aboriginal people originally lived. A 1989 excavation at Lilyvale on Cumberland Street uncovered a campfire (radiocarbon dated to about 1500 AD) with the remains of a meal consisting of snapper and rock oysters.’ (Anita Heiss and Melodie-Jane Gibson, (2020) Sydney Barani)

‘There is a great quantity of shell fish in the Coves that have mud flats at the bottom, Oysters very large.’ (William Bradley, (1792) Journal : A Voyage to New South Wales, December 1786 – May 1792)


Oyster Muddy River with play button

Hen and Chickens Bay. Wangal land.



The swamp of horror, the fight to underscore reality and death, escaped momentarily

Out to sea

Clear waters wash rock oysters

Back and forth back and forth.


Clear water with play button

Milk Beach, Birrabirragal land.


In the wave washed water suspended in mud the oysters defy the government order to avoid clusters, and stick together, their sharp exterior belying a soft underbelly. They meet in groups larger than 500. Submerged in sunlit waves, covered up, hacking at passing plastics with a sharp knife-edged shell. A leaf floats by, casting its shadow, oblivious. White-faced blue crane heron picks through and blends in it disappears amidst the shells.

Jubillee Park, Cadigal land

‘One of the Women made a fishing hook while we were by her, from the inside of what is commonly called the pearl oyster shell, by rubbing it down on the rocks until thin enough & then cut it circular with another, shape the hook with a sharp point rather bent in & not bearded or barbed.’ (William Bradley, (1792) Journal : A Voyage to New South Wales, December 1786 – May 1792)

‘The harbour was exploited for food using fishing line made from the inner bark of the kurrajong and hibiscus trees and multi-pronged spears tipped with bone. The many varieties of fish and shellfish – oysters, mussels and cockles – were supplemented with vegetables, grubs, birds, possums, wombats and kangaroos.’ (Anita Heiss and Melodie-Jane Gibson, (2020) Sydney Barani)



Oyster Too Deep with play button

Too deep for oysters. Plunged into social isolation, world cities empty, what will, who will, what it will and how. How long, how much time, ourself, yourself. The oysters need time out of the water, they need to breathe. They can’t be left int he deep swallows of ocean green ocean blue.

Friday (today), day five (of social isolation(, one week (I haven’t been out), ten days (since the last time I went out in a group), two hours (I have been awake), eleven days (since I last had a coffee in a cafe).


‘Around Sydney there were three main groups of First Nations people – Dharug, Kuringgai and Dharawal – each comprising of a number of smaller units called clans. The area between the southern shores of Port Jackson and Botany Bay, including the area that is now known as Sydney’s central business district, was populated by the Cadigal and a sub-group, The Birrabirragals. Their territory extended east to around Petersham.’  (



‘In less than a year after Captain Philip and the first fleet, including the ship called Supply, landed in Sydney Cove, over half the indigenous population living in the Sydney Basin had died from smallpox. The region, once alive with a vibrant mix of Aboriginal clans, now fell silent. Every boat that went down the harbour found them lying dead on the beaches and in the caverns of the rock.’




Water surface, like wild grass ready for harvest, pushed and pulled by wind and invisible currents crack up and tessellate, mirrors and fragments the sun, as squinting I peer into the muddy shore, ignoring the swathe of walkers, joggers, bike riders, families behind me.

Underneath the fractured surface in the grey and brown river water the oysters continue to cluster, still clinging to the rocks breathing in the tide, defying the social distancing instructions of our new silent ruler, SARS COV 2, the new king of the human race.

Nestled inside the feminine folds of an oyster, slowing turning in the muddy river, a pearl. Its birth an irritation to the oyster, its transforming orbit a spherical beauty.


In amongst the death and suffering, the pain, anguish and sadness, is the new love we find for simplicity, connection and understanding a way out? This disease this world slow down, this challenge to what we value and how we relate to each other and how we distribute goods and services – can we find any part of that expressed in a pearl?

In Australia the pandemic heralded the devastation of one culture that has survived but in extremis. In Europe, the Black Death has been attributed to the commencement of the Renaissance, one of the greatest eras in art, architecture and literature.

Saturday (today), day 28 (of social isolation), four weeks (I haven’t been out to a public event), one hour (I have been awake), seven (since I last had a coffee with a friend).

The Black Death marked an end of an era in Italy, its impact was profound, and it resulted in wide-ranging social, economic, cultural and religious changes. These changes, directly and indirectly, led to the emergence of the Renaissance, one of the greatest epochs for art, architecture, and literature in human history. (