What travel has taught me: Carolyn Fraser


You could spend a lifetime in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art without ever seeing everything in its collection, but the object there that made the most profound impact on me was a simple label placed beside a window looking onto Central Park. Like all the labels in the museum, it identified the makers of the artwork – Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted – it's title – Central Park – and, on the line used to identify the work's medium, where we're used to seeing "oil" or "watercolour" or the like, it read "natural materials rearranged".


When I was 17, I was part of the youth crew for the bicentennial voyage of the Young Endeavour, a replica of the tall ship captained by James Cook on his exploration of the Pacific. I'd never sailed before. Horribly seasick, I swallowed a motion sickness pill, immediately vomited it up, and watched the tiny white speck fly into the sea. I peeled hundreds of potatoes, scaled the masts to set the sails, did complicated things with ropes. At the end of the voyage, we were interviewed and assessed by our naval instructors. I was told I was too boy-obsessed. I was mortified.


I've sought out a public library in almost every place I've travelled. They're always places of respite, from the grand ones to the one-room kind. I like to flip through local newspapers and magazines, and check out the public noticeboards if they have one. They always have a public bathroom (even if sometimes you have to ask for a key). I sought refuge in a public library in east London one day in 2017 and was appalled at how rundown it was – the carpet was held together with gaffer tape and the books were all worn and sun-damaged. It was a stark reminder of the reality of government austerity.


In 1982, in my local library, I read about a palm-leaf library in India in which the futures of everyone ever born, or to be born, were inscribed on palm leaves. I went there in 2009 with my friend Lisa. Our readings were recorded on cassette. There is a moment on mine when the astrologer tells me when I will die: a Saturday in the third month of my 72nd year. On the tape, I am silent. In the small, hot, blue-walled room, my vision receded in a rush, like in the moment before fainting. I thought I might throw up. The fortune teller told me this is my last life.

Carolyn Fraser's latest exhibition is Velvet, Iron, Ashes, which uncovers the surprising connections between some of Victoria's greatest historical stories and includes the Ashes urn, which is on display for a limited time. October 24, 2019 to July 12, 2020 at the State Library Victoria's new Victoria Gallery. See slv.vic.gov.au