WHEN Keith artists James Darling and Lesley Forwood waded into the edge of Lake Hawdon near Robe on a cloudless summer's day, they were transformed back in time.
The ancient rock-like structures they found in shallow pools date back billions of years to when microbes were the only living organisms on earth.
These thrombolites are among the best preserved in Australia and have inspired the couple's latest exhibition Living Rocks: A Fragment of the Universe, which opened last weekend in Venice, Italy, at the Biennale Arte 2019.
The conceptual artists have the huge honour of being the first Australian solo project to be an official collateral event at the prestigious exhibition.
It looked as if the air, the sky, the water had merged - we were totally blown away.
Best known for their large installations using mallee roots sourced from their farm, James and Lesley have again used them with wondrous effect.
Three tonnes of the arid eucalypt stumps have been shipped to Venice and positioned in a huge pool of water to re-create the geological marvels at the Magazinni de Sale, Venice's old salt emporium.
James says the project is a great SA collaboration with huge screens on three sides of the pool projecting images of the evolution of time and seasons, created by Adelaide-based virtual reality studio, Jumpgate.
The 30-metre-long and 3.25m-wide pool was built by Distinguished Gardens, also from Adelaide.
The music adding to the experience was composed by Paul Stanhope and perfomed by the Australian String Quartet.
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After being told about the thrombolites by ecologist Ben Taylor, James and Lesley had to see the place for themselves.
James says there was an "ethereal presence" about the site at Lake Hawdon.
"We walked about half a kilometre in when the birds took to the air, there were just thousands of them screeching and squawking as if we had invaded their place," he said.
"It looked as if the air, the sky, the water had merged - we were totally blown away."
After speaking to thrombolite experts Bob Burne and Malcolm Waters, they recognised the need to share their experience as art.
When people ask what is more important my agriculture or my art - my answer is what is more important, your arm or your leg?
In June last year, Living Rocks:A Fragment of the Universe, opened at the Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide.
It was a huge success, attracting quadruple the number of visitors of any exhibition at the gallery in the past decade.
On the recommendation of many in the art world, James and Lesley applied to be part of the Biennale Arte.
In December they heard the exciting news they had been chosen as one of 21 successful projects from more than 1000 applicants from around the world.
It has been a busy few months planning the project on a much grander scale than their Adelaide exhibition but James says it has been important to still find time to be in the yards and paddocks at Duck Island near Keith where they run 3200 composite cattle.
"When people ask what is more important my agriculture or my art - my answer is what is more important, your arm or your leg?" he said.
"Art is a function of life, my sense is an intellectual, creative life and physical farm work are complementary parts of the same dynamic balance of living."
James says mallee roots are fundamental to the social, political and environmental statements they make with their art.
"The largest degraded land form in Australia is the mallee and not understanding the role and function of plants and particularly the mallee gum is why there has been that level of degradation," he said.
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"It has been 250 years since white settlement and the land managers of this country are still coming to terms with the fact as if it was something unknown."
Living Rocks: A Fragment of the Universe is open in Venice until late November.
"I hope it helps those who visit gain an understanding of time and the poetry of life, in a way that draws attention to our own fragility and the fragility of the world," James said.