Regional Art

This article seeks to challenge regional communities away from the self-prophesying defeatism of whingers from the bush towards a concept of growing communities. The arts have an intrinsic contribution to make within the chosen future. Fettling discusses this with reference to globalisation, de-centred cultural and ethnic hybridization and individuality. Featured artists include Megan Jones, Andrew McDonald, Janet Gallagher, Vicki Reynolds, Danielle Hobbs, Chris Booth, Craig Christie, Rodney Spooner, Michael Doneman, Motoyuki Niwa and Lee Salomone.

USA's longest serving Supreme Court Judge, Justice Homes, pre-empted much recent debate in regional Australian art communities with this statement. It is particularly pertinent to the future of inland Australia, and in this instance - Mildura. While Mildura may not be special (although in the last three years, key developments in the arts have challenged that assessment), its problems correlate consistently with other regional centres. These communities all share a common view that systematic government and business rationalisation, along with globalisation have collectively delivered body blows to their confidence and ultimately their sustainability. Postcolonial regional Australia has always struggled with notions of sustainability. The focus on our major capital cities has resulted in Peter Fuller's statement, that Australia is: "&clinging to a habitable coastal ribbon which fringed vast, uncultivated expanses of desert dust, emptiness and natural dereliction." 2

With our major funding agencies, public and private gallery networks, and art schools generally positioned on this coastal ribbon, an artist who chooses to reside outside this hegemony faces the battle to shift the gaze (not to mention the influence).

With the title 'Theorising the Regions', this article seeks to challenge regional communities away from the self-prophesying defeatism of 'whingers from the bush' towards a concept of 'growing communities'. The arts have an intrinsic contribution to make within this chosen 'future'.

'Globalism' is a much maligned term in regional communities. It suggests a loss of "distinctiveness and individualism", attributes of some importance and pride for these communities. Distinction should be made between the global village that appeared in New York City in the 60s, which celebrated an all-encompassing modernist movement, to today's 'catch all' term Globalism. Regionalism can celebrate the global eclecticism of the new century. De-centred cultural and ethnic hybridization, and a heightened awareness of the individual. A fusion of national and ideological boundaries.
Concurrency, displacement, transformation, implantation, migration and info technology have become 'tools of resistance' to Mc Luhan's vision that each of us will incorporate the whole of mankind in us. 3

This new world seems to embrace a type of dynamic disorder. Isolated communities often fall victim to a 'neo-phobia' which limits their ability to capitalise on these opportunities.

Earlier, I alluded to the fact that the plight of inland Australia is often thrown into contrast by very positive events. Mildura, a city of 44,000 residents and one of the few regional cities with a population growth, is positioned in a rich historical and geographic region that sits uncomfortably in the politically bureaucratic conjunction of three states – Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. It is located in north west Victoria, on the great east/west transport arterial in Australia, and positioned at the confluence of the nation's two great river systems, the Murray/Darling Basin. It is strategically important, but this in itself may not be enough to sustain a viable community or culture. Two major events have contributed to a change in this assessment, one of which reflects Frances Cairncross's phenomenon, the "death of distance." 4 Both are contemporary art projects.

Mildura Palimpsest is an ambitious regional art initiative responding to socio-cultural and ecological issues in contemporary Australia.

Artists in Industry addressed complex inter-related cultural, ecological and industrial themes around the sustainability of Mildura and the Sunraysia region into the 21st century.

One may ask how the visual arts can contribute to viable communities. Albert Einstein did say:"The significant problems that we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when they were created." 5

The arts generate public interest and comment, and introduce questions that might not otherwise be asked. The arts allow debate, a ferment of ideas that challenge traditionally held notions. Dr Cornelia Flora from Iowa State University stated that the characteristic of a growing community is one where "controversy is considered normal". 6

Mildura Palimpsest was initiated by Ian Hamilton, Director of Mildura Arts Centre, in 1998. The original meaning of the word palimpsest:"Writing material, manuscript, the original writing on which has been effaced to make room for a second: (adj) so treated (f, lf gk) Palimpsestos (Palin – again, psaõ – rub smooth)." 7 was used as a metaphor for the way land is changed by human activity. Palimpsest #3, conducted during March 2000, was the largest and most comprehensive Palimpsest thus far, showcasing seventy artists under the curatorship of Peter McNeill Stitt.

The land lies beneath
a palimpsest etched
erased and re-etched
by wind and time. 8
The thematic nature of the Palimpsests interfaces with issues of land, environment, history and culture in contemporary Australia. Although much of the artwork exhibited is site specific, it is also cross-disciplinary within the genre of post-modernism. Stitt, in the catalogue introduction, referred to the "&blurring of certainties brought about by & an arts field where there is no longer any privileged access to particular codes of usage", and to the"the artists who have bridged the many gaps and schisms set synthetically between science, philosophy, idea and myth." 9

Much of the work in Palimpsest #3 is experimental. The focus is intentionally on the artists and the energies they each bring. Often this focus has led to collaborations between other artists, artists and scientists, indigenous artists and non-indigenous artists, etc. In an artworld often dominated by the 'curator' where exhibition content is determined by an all-too powerful cloistered few, Palimpsest's structure is organic and responsive to those "plugged in artists unfettered by geography." 10 In responding to a world where everything is happening at the same time à la Foucault's "epoch of simultaneously", 11 the result is often a patchwork of different inputs torn between the regressive and the progressive.

An installation by artists, Vicki Reynolds and Danielle Hobbs, Désquámátus, consists of a mermaid skin of delicately sewn carp scales fished from the Murray River. This evocative skin lies abandoned on a bed of salt. Désquámátus, in pathological terms, means to come off in scales, as does the skin in certain diseases. The use of European carp scales ironically parodies the myth of the mermaid and the threat of salination.

Adelaide artist Lee Salomone's installation Branch Rationalisation consists of 150 cut oleander branches standing upside down with royal blue flocking applied to the cut visible edges. Perceptively, these branches sit over a series of linear cracks in the cement floor which have been filled with blue pigment thus suggesting the Murray/ Darling Basin river system.

Melbourne-based artist Janet Gallagher used flywire mesh in a wall/floor installation. Gallagher 'transmogrified' the material from being utilitarian and synthetic to an organic impermanence suggesting nature's cyclical energies. On the wall the mesh unwinds into masses of gestural calligraphy. On the floor, the mesh re-figures into forms reminiscent of miniature indigenous fish traps, connecting back to traditional Barkindji tribal artforms from this area. These forms confront us; though they lose their practicality as nets, they retain a conviction based on Aboriginal spirituality.

The work of these artists is involved in the history of the region as it confronts a complex present. They contradict in every sense Fay Weldon's recent remark about her native England: "nature long ago settled into sedate ways." 12
Many artists do experience an anxiety associated with the 'gaze' inland. Weldon once again noted: "that living in Australia, where they don't, come to think of it, have countryside, merely outback, the interior being altogether too large, too hot, too un-regarded, too unobserved and in general too alarming to be described as anywhere but somewhere else." 13

A feature of Palimpsest #3 was the introduction of the Science/Art Symposium which provided a forum for visual artists and scientists to explore concepts of pattern, time, scale, change, and place. Guest speakers (John Wolseley, Ken Orchard, James McArdle, Professor Stuart Hill, Dr. David Eldridge, Dr. Bernie Gawne, April Blair and Dr. Jeannette Hope) engaged a captive audience on topics including archaeology, art and dreaming, mosses and lichens, living soils, landscape and pattern, and freshwater ecology.

Running parallel to this palimpsest of artworks, Sunrise 21 sponsored a major regional collaborative initiative based on sustainability called the "Artists in Industry" project. Project Director Ian Hamilton, Curator Helen Vivian, and a committed steering committee selected five artists to work with five industry host agencies and five project writers. Funding grants from the Australia Council, Arts Victoria, NSW Ministry for the Arts, Mildura and Wentworth Councils and Sunrise 21, all helped to generate a vital synergy between this historic convergence of industry and the arts.

Hamilton stated that in "places like Sunraysia, there is an understandable tendency to seek economic and engineering solutions." 14 The project's vision was pitched beyond the immediate issues of water and soil management to concerns about culture and community. Artists Chris Booth, Craig Christie, Megan Jones and Rodney Spooner, and Michael Doneman and Motoyuki Niwa working as a team, all embraced difficult linkages between specialist fields of knowledge, indigenous spirituality and the different kind of reverence that scientists and farmers bring to the dialogue.

Chris Booth, a New Zealand sculptor, collaborated with host industry CSIRO/Riverlink and other indigenous and community groups in producing a sculpture, Earth, Water, People on Lock Island. The work is made of natural limestone rock, drilled, wired, then formed into three earth blanket mounds. Out of each mound a tree trunk emerges like a flag pole or ship's mast. The earth blanket protects the earth and the soil underneath from exploitation. On top of the mounds, gypsum crystals form caps reminiscent of Aboriginal mourning customs. The work will patina with age, and may eventually be swept away if the river's regulated cycle ever permits another flood. The sculpture "is proof of the presence of the past, the thoughtfulness of the present and of a future that will remember the past." 15

Rodney Spooner's monumental sculpture Channel 2000 echoes and acts as a counterpoint to the architecture of the region. The geometry of irrigation, of pumping stations, the unseen pipes purvey the region's richest asset, water. Collaborating with the First Mildura Irrigation Trust (FMIT), Spooner's work didactically establishes tension between the icons of European settlement and the natural emptiness surrounding them. Even more poignant in its understatement is Spooner's sound/video installation, All is not Well 1999, a melancholy, sadly humorous work in which the song Old Man River plays endlessly over footage of a practically motionless Murray River. This work contrasts with Channels in its suggestion of the timelessness of our uncontrolled natural resources.

Palimpsest and Artists in Industry are major regional projects that have important messages for a nation currently divided on notions of national identity, economic and cultural sustainability and the concept of reconciliation. Increasingly, visual arts events are being programmed away from the accepted larger cultural capitals, like Kassel Documenta, Munster, and the spate of international biennials in locales like Johannesburg, Seoul and Sao Paulo. In addition, the establishment of a major new museum in Bilbao.

Recent discussions concerning Palimpsest have suggested possible expansions to other regional sites, for example Toowoomba in Queensland and Sale in Victoria, a notion that will truly expand its identity in the wider Murray/Darling basin. Project chairperson for Artists in Industry, Ross Lake, wrote: "the artists, in telling this region's story, have a currency in Australia today and a relevance to the great debate that is rural and urban, seaboard and interior, sustainability and degradation, a polemic that ebbs and flows like the great inland seas that once covered the land." 16 In the great memento mori tradition, the artist's role is to continue to get underneath the skin.