Illegible and semi-legible engravings and inscriptions as abstract art

Reports vary as to the exact number of passengers’ and crew members’ engravings and inscriptions at North Head: anything between one to two thousand, which means that no one really knows the exact number. This is because the great majority of them have faded, i.e. mercilessly eroded by the harsh elements of salt and rain in an exposed landscape such as North Head, which are massive cliffs standing as eternal sentinels at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, with one side of them facing the great Pacific Ocean. Time is the enemy when it comes to preservation of historical artefacts such as the North Head engravings and inscriptions at the former Quarantine Station and at a uniquely formed cliff edge called Old Man’s Hat, not far from the Station’s boundaries on the southeast.

To the researcher as well as the casual visitor, engravings and inscriptions which are half- or totally illegible can be frustrating to look at, simply because one cannot make any sense of them. We come up against a wall: it is as if the artefacts merge into the sandstone surfaces, on which they were inscribed, and disappear – not from the life-world of perception, but from the horizon of interpretation. They go back to where they come from.

What if these faded artefacts are perceived as abstract art instead? In experiencing abstract art, full understanding is not expected of the viewer, because it points to the interiority of experience itself, which varies from individual to individual and is characterised by the natural hues of ambiguity instead of the blinding clarity of rational explanations. We are, as discussed in a recent online article on the great abstract artist Cy Twombly in The Philosopher’s Mail (, only on the cusp of comprehending something, which may or may not be the thing that we think we comprehend. As Dasein, being-on-the-cusp has a temporality all of its own, which invites a nuanced understanding or conversation instead of all-too-confident statements and proclamations.