The word ‘siren’ carries multiple meanings. It is an alarm: a loud prolonged sound signifying danger, a warning to all within earshot that something is amiss. Greek mythology depicts sirens as hybrid bird-woman creatures whose enchanting song lured unwary sailors to their deaths. At some point the lore of sirens merged with legends of Nereids or sea nymphs, giving rise to accounts of mermaids recorded in sailor’s logs for centuries. The term siren is also applied to another seemingly mythical creature that has historically been mistaken for the fabled mermaid – the dugong. A family of marine mammals belonging to the order of Sirenia, dugongs are more closely related to elephants than aquatic mammals such as dolphins or whales. Gentle beings, vulnerable to environmental change and the loss of their habitat, they are almost comical in appearance. Despite a body the shape of a large, pale jellybean with fins and the head of a cow, the dugong improbably possess a sentient grace and familiarity of expression that carries echoes of humanity.
In How to raise a siren, 2016, multi-disciplinary artist Todd Fuller gives consideration to different interpretations of the term siren, while also using the dugong as a means to explore themes of conservation, innocence, naivety, imagination and love. The hand-drawn animation, set to a soundtrack of ocean waves, opens on a monochromatic coastal landscape tinted with a palette of blues that range from inky purple through to vibrant turquoise, occasionally balanced by warm gold tones that colour the sands of Sydney’s Bondi Beach. A vintage shark alarm indicates that there may be some kind of danger present, a notion soon compounded by the appearance of ominous shapes on the horizon – dark, threatening ships that cast lawnmowers into the pristine water.
A sense of nostalgia is palpable, the sound of waves evoking memories of days spent by the sea, hunting for treasures in rock pools at low tide. A child stands on a rock holding a jar, a tiny dugong falls from the sky and is captured, rescued, taken home to be raised and nurtured. The ships return in different guises throughout the video – a menacing presence in a poster on the wall of the child’s room or as toys in the bathtub – infiltrating otherwise familiar scenes of security. A pervasive reminder of the effect we have on the marine environment, but also representative of the way the everyday reality of living can impact creativity and imagination. How to raise a siren isn’t just a narrative about environmental conservation, though the preservation of the natural world is an undeniably important theme. It is also a chronicle about the importance of safeguarding imagination in a world where reality often imposes limitations on our hopes and our dreams.
When the dugong falls from the sky, it is as a manifestation of inspiration and creativity, and a personification of the vulnerability of our aspirations. Despite the ever-present hazards and dangers of the world, the dugong is cared for and protected, swimming happily in fish bowls and bath tubs, growing and flourishing even as the child matures and becomes an adult. Eventually, outgrowing every vessel and receptacle, too large and exuberant to be limited or contained, the dugong is transported back to the ocean, and set free.
Written by Tai Spruyt, August 2016