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Dig it! The hole in Australian contemporary art

Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney Glenn Barkley surveys the hole in contemporary Australian art starting at the 1973 Mildura Sculpturescape.

Glenn Barkley | Feature

Jill Orr Bleeding Trees 1979. Photo: Elizabeth Campbell for Jill Orr.

Performative action, idea or site, a thing in itself, or a place in which things are buried and hidden: the hole is surprisingly constant in the last forty years of contemporary Australian art practice.

It finds a precedent internationally in Claes Oldenburg's Placid Civic Monument (1967), where in response to a temporary public art brief Oldenburg arranged for a grave-sized trench to be dug in Central Park, which he then refilled three hours later. Placid Civic Monument contains many of the ideas and concepts that would later go on to inform hole-making in Australia in the 1970s and beyond.

Firstly, Oldenburg’s hole is ephemeral: the piece literally involves the act of digging, carried out by workers hired for the task. It questions the then-dominant (and perhaps still dominant) idea of civic sculpture as something vertical and hard. And it has a relationship to the formality of minimal art, the hole being a neat geometric form. Most importantly, Placid Civic Monument is profoundly political, produced during the time when America and its allies were mired in the Vietnam war.[1]

The complexity of Oldenburg’s work provides a template for the use of the hole by a variety of artists in Australia since the early 1970s. This essay attempts to map the use of the hole from post-object and conceptual practices, through to its use as a device to explore strategies of passive political resistance.

In Australia, the first flush of hole-art occurred within similar political and artistic contexts, and its first truly public outing, en-masse, was at the 1973 Mildura Sculpturescape. This event saw sculpture thrown, grown and lived-in. It was open in its curatorial approach, with works ranging from formalist welded metal through to performance and post-object practice. And it was a veritable minefield of holes.

Works by Bruce Barber, Ross Grounds, Alex Tzannes, Imants Tillers, Donald Walters and Michael Young all had elements that involved digging into the banks of the Murray where the exhibition was spread. In the case of Tzannes, Tillers and Young, the works were very much about the “displacement” of earth, and their holes were displayed alongside, or in the context of, the displaced soil. Walter’s “Cross” dug a cruciform hole in the earth, with its equivalences in minimalism then softened by plantings within the cavity. Barber similarly used minimalist rectangular metal boxes that were buried to their tops, and then in-filled with sand and water.

While the work of Ross Grounds in Sculpturescape, Untitled or Environmental Shaft also utilised minimal forms, it flagged some (then nascent) environmental concerns in art. In his artist’s statement, at the time, Grounds wrote: “this sculpture or environment is a reaction to a need for the workings of all of nature’s systems around me, and my deadly reaction to seeing nature breaking down”.[2]

Grounds’ work, like Oldenburg’s, was deceptively simple, allowing it to be in-filled with meaning. It consisted of a shaft that was dug down in the earth at a scale which enabled a person to walk into it. Resembling the inner workings of a mineshaft, propped up with boards and sandbags, Grounds’ work was to be experienced rather than simply observed. In conversations I have had with participants and visitors to Sculpturescape, this is the one work remembered as a purely visceral and sensory experience – the smell of the earth, the dampness of the hole.

The early relationship between hole-art and earthworks organically shifted towards a concern with environmental issues. This trajectory, from the formal to the political and activist realm, is integral to the rise of the hole in Australian art.

From the 1970s onwards, the increasing awareness by artists of environmental degradation, grafted onto the ephemeral practices of post-object art, led to the bush environment being increasingly used as site for performance. In addition to digging holes into the ground, some of these works involved burying something (or someone) underground, as political performance, or as a meditation on decay and flux.

Mike Parr’s Self Circle on Sand I (1971) saw a further variation in hole-making: self-burial. In this work (documented on film by Peter Kennedy) Parr created a circle in the sand with black powder. Sitting within the circle, he then scooped out with his hand a hole into which he placed his head, and self-buried it “for as long as possible”. [3]The footage of the work stops before Parr bursts from the sand, leaving him on film in a state of self-inflicted tension: permanently in a state of self-asphyxiation. Parr revisited this action in 1989, in a piece entitled But Now I Would Like to Speak as an Artist. Working alongside twelve other artists, he repeated the actions of Self Circle, with all the participating artists digging holes in tandem, into which they placed their heads and then buried them.[4] Taking place as it did in the south-east forest of NSW (then undergoing logging for woodchips by the Harris Daishowa Company) the work had a tangible political dimension, dramatising Parr’s notion of artists’ opposition as mute in the face of the seemingly unstoppable grind of the chipmill’s onward progress.

Similarly, in the late 1970s Jill Orr began to site her performance works in the Australian bush, using her body as an “emotional barometer”[5] within the terrain, manipulated by the forces of nature. In her Bleeding Trees performance cycle from 1979, Orr planted herself, naked and head-first, into the ground. Orr’s work can be read within a number of contexts, as she points out: “feminist, environmental and in some instances religious”.[5] As described by Peter Conrad, Orr’s was almost an act of “mad mysticism”[6] – and in one of the most shocking of the documentary images, Orr’s head is buried up to the mouth and her body is twisted akimbo. For Conrad, “To be planted ... involves the sacrifice of freedom and identity … The pantheistic dream of union with the landscape is here a screeching trauma.”[6]

These works by Parr and Orr correlate with environmental activist approaches to direct action in forests. Campaigners in a variety of different contexts have often used self-burial as a method of protest, and as a way to delay the destruction of wilderness. However, with these political protest actions there is an important reversal. While both the artists discussed buried their own heads, the heads of protesters usually remain aboveground, with the torso dug (and in some cases even concreted) into the earth.[7]

Digging trenches to delay or halt trucks or other heavy machinery is another tactic employed by environmental activists. Tasmanian artist James Newitt, in his photographic and video work Passive Aggressive (2009), lets the camera rest on a protestor digging one of these trenches across the road in the Upper Florentine Valley in Tasmania’s south. Newitt’s video heightens the sound of shovel on dirt to physically place us within the action: turning an act of political agitation into one that is strangely meditative.

Beyond such personal, symbolic or political gestures, other artists have created monumental holes for large objects to be buried within and left to decay via the forces of nature. This is exemplified in an action by Bert Flugelman, Tetrahedra (1975). During the mid-1970s, Flugelman was developing a conceptual trajectory (as exemplified by his work with Optronic Kinetics, and at the Tin Sheds in Sydney) alongside his more formal abstracted sculptural practice. The Tetrahedra were a series of six equilateral triangles constructed from aluminium that Flugelman had manufactured in 1969/70, and which were exhibited within a wide range of contexts. In 1975, Flugelman was invited by Tom McCullough (former director of the Mildura Arts Centre and organiser of Sculpturescape 1973) to create an earthwork for a festival of art and science he was organising in Canberra.

Flugelman chose to extend the conceptual potentiality of his Tetrahedra by using them as the main component for a work in which they were neatly and systematically placed into a large trench in Canberra’s Commonwealth Park, and then buried. A sign, installed for the duration of the festival, was the only evidence of what lay beneath. Flugelman saw the natural breakdown of the entombed Tetrahedra and their disappearance over time as integral to the piece.[8]

Importantly, Tetrahedra forms a junction between the two ways of working presented by conceptualism and formalism. As Flugelman stated later, in a comment that seems to capture the spirit of the post-object age – “I was motivated at the time, about the question of how one looks at a piece of sculpture. How one values it. And how one thinks about it. What is it we value? Is it the concept? The idea? The object?”[8]

Flugelman’s burial finds a contemporary parallel in a piece by Sydney artist what, entitled Truck Rest (2000), which involved digging an enormous hole and burying a large semi-trailer truck. The vehicle was interred at a truck stop on Razorback Mountain south-west of Sydney, where in April 1979 a general strike had been staged in an attempt to improve drivers’ working conditions. what’s father was one of these drivers, and Truck Rest commemorates an event remembered mainly in the minds of those involved: an underground monument to mark an occasion of intense personal, regional and culturally-specific significance.

The use of the hole by contemporary artists – whether as sculptural form, or as a space in which to bury an object or body-works on the tension between that which is visible and permanent, and that which seems ephemeral or transitory. Although a visible or solid artwork might seem to possess a degree of permanence, this does not mean its cultural relevance, or underlying purpose is truly understood. Conversely, whilst some of the performative actions discussed here no longer ‘exist’ in physical form, their significance and influence continues to resonate over time. The conceptual breadth of Flugelman’s Tetrahedra questions the meaning of sculpture and its purpose. what works audaciously with the idea of memory and the act of remembering, by critiquing the idea of public sculpture or memorial. Each of these aesthetic burials returns us in spirit to Oldenburg’s Placid Civic Monument. By choosing to site their gestures underground, this disparate set of hole-artists create sculptural time-capsules: histories waiting to be dug up and understood anew.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology, Guggenheim Museum National Gallery of Art, New York/Washington, exhibition catalogue, 1995, p. 257.
  2. ^ Ross Grounds, statement concerning Sculpturescape ’73, an exhibition in Mildura, Australia, exhibition catalogue, Mildura Arts Centre, 1973. 
  3. ^ Mike Parr, Performances 1971–2008, Schwartz City, Melbourne 2008.
  4. ^ The work included, amongst others, John Coburn, Jeannie Baker, Heather Dorrough , Janet Laurence, Ann Thomson, Julie Vivas and Ace Bourke. While the artists’ heads were buried, a text by Albert Tucker, on the concept of wilderness, was read by John Coburn. For documentation of the piece see Mike Parr Performances 1971–2008, ibid. 
  5. a, b  Jill Orr, Bleeding Trees, 1979, www.jillorr.com.au/bltress.html, accessed 26/2/2010
  6. a, b Peter Conrad At Home in Australia, National Gallery of Austraia, Canberra, 2003 p. 114.
  7. ^ See Caleb Williams, Protest!: Environmental activism in NSW 1968–1998, Historic Houses Trust, Sydney, 1998.
  8. a, b Peter Pinson Bert Flugelman: On Further Reflection, The Watermark Press, Boorowa, 2008, pp. 21–25.