A performative walk in search of the metre


In June 1792, Napoleon Bonaparte tasked two French astronomers with an ambitious task: to traverse an arc inscribed on the surface of the Earth and determine a new ‘universal’ standard — the metre. Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain traveled the length of the Meridian arc from Dunkerque to Barcelona in order to extract a singular number drawn from the curvature of the Earth itself – a number that would ultimately define the length of the metre.

Exemplifying the French Revolution’s promise of equality, this metric was calculated as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator – a standard literally drawn from the earth itself; belonging not to France, but to the entire world. Over 220 years later, the metre remains — validating Napoleon’s proclamation that ‘Conquests may come and go, but this work will endure’.

Remeasuring space, place and self

Director Chris Saines and Sara Morawetz in front of Vida Lahey’s Monday morning 1912 / Photograph: C Callistemon © QAGOMA

It is the intention of Sara Morawetz to replicate this journey as a durational action étalonthe French word for ‘standard of measure’. In 2017, Morawetz was awarded the Vida Lahey Memorial Travelling Scholarship. The $40 000 scholarship has given Morawetz the opportunity to design an extensive itinerary of travel that informed both her artistic research and her practice. The scholarship enabled Morawetz to conduct a program of independent research that included developing two site-specific, durational performances that took her to France, Spain and the United Kingdom.

‘Support from the Scholarship has been pivotal in making étalon happen’ Sara Morawetz

Morawetz is an interdisciplinary artist, her work explores the processes that underpin scientific action, examining how these concepts can be leveraged through artistic inquiry. Interested in the ‘Scientific Method’ and its philosophical implications, her practice examines how concepts of observation, experimentation, method and standardisation operate as both scientific and cultural apparatus.

Sara Morawetz’s durational action étalon / 112 days; 2,108.7 km; a measure of earth and self.
Sara Morawetz traversing 1 500 km across France and Spain

The Summer of 2018, Morawetz and a team of female artists are traversing 1 500 km across France and Spain to measure the Earth’s unseen curvature and create a new ‘metre’ derived through physical action. Over 100 days Morawetz will walk the meridian arc from Dunkerque to Barcelona, joined weekly by different partners who will aid in the creation of a new standard. Each step taken will be an act of (re)evaluation and (re)consideration – examining the lived act of measurement and scientific exploration through the female gaze.

étalon is conceived as a counter-measure, privileging a feminist perspective distinctly lacking within the historical narrative of science. This new ‘metre-étalon’ will be formed by a collective of voices – brought together to expand upon existent forms of knowledge and to focus on a mode of production. This new standard is intended as something more than a fixed and immutable construct — it is to be a shared phenomenological encounter; an assemblage of time passed and distance travelled; a measuring of self against the limits of our domain.

This is an edited excerpt from Sara Morawetz’s website

Vida Lahey Memorial Travelling Scholarship

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / Monday morning 1912 / Oil on canvas / 153 x 122.7cm / Gift of Madame Emily Coungeau through the Queensland Art Society 1912 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

The Vida Lahey Memorial Travelling Scholarship gives one emerging Australian artist or Australian art history student the extraordinary opportunity to develop their practice or research through an itinerary of national or overseas travel for the further development of art practice or research that will make a contribution to an understanding of Australian art.

The Scholarship is funded through the Estate of Shirley Lahey (1925 – 2011), the niece of Vida Lahey, whose specific bequest made this scholarship possible. A great admirer of Vida Lahey’s artistic and social work, she honours not only the woman and her achievements but also the significance of travel in her life and art.