The Pilbara is a place of extreme contrasts. Here, the idea of land as a source of spiritual and cultural identity and the idea of land as commodity co-exist.
In June 2012 Craig Walsh travelled to the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara, where he spent four weeks as artist-in-residence. Commissioned by Rio Tinto and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Walsh was asked to explore the unique rock art of the Burrup Peninsula and realise a new body of work from the experience.
The Burrup—“Murujuga” in local language—is a significant heritage landscape; it holds a vast collection of ancient petroglyphs, over a million images engraved into the rock surfaces, as well as a number of standing stone formations. These extraordinary sculptural arrangements, pushing skywards from rocky mounds, are as mysterious and inspirational as the megalithic monuments of Europe.
Being there, Walsh could not help but be impressed—the sheer volume and diversity of rock art is breathtaking—but nor could he ignore the presence of large-scale industry that shares the landscape. The Pilbara is iron-ore mining country and since the 1960s the Burrup Peninsula has been zoned for industry. The Karratha Gas Plant, occupying over 200 hectares, dominates the horizon; the flames from its emission towers burn day and night.
Walsh spent days with Elders of Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, assisted by Murujuga National Park rangers and Rio Tinto staff. In a makeshift studio in the Murujuga rangers’ headquarters in Dampier, he video-recorded the Elders speaking of the rock art that guides traditional culture and its importance to Country. Afterwards, at dusk, he ventured to the locations indicated by his subjects and, with their permission, projected their features onto the landscape, careful to avoid sites with rock engravings. From the documentation of these projections, Walsh produced video works and photographic portraits reflecting the cultural connections of the traditional custodians to the rock art. He says: “My aim was to explore and seek inspiration from the less tangible but significant role the rock art plays in defining and guiding a culture.”
The installation Embedded: Craig Walsh at the MCA brought together dominant aspects of the Pilbara landscape. In the multi-screen video work In Country (2012–13) traditional owners spoke of the importance of Murujuga’s rock art and keeping it safe. Another five-screen digital video work captured the monumental formations of the sacred Standing Stone Site (2012–13), its red-brown colours transformed by the changing light at dusk and dawn.
The-landscape-as-commodity was represented through the physical presence of mining in the gallery. Twenty-one industrial bins, brimming with iron ore, dominated the floor. The walls were painted the colours of safety clothing worn by people in the mining industry. We are all touched by iron ore and we benefit from its exportation through employment, local infrastructure, strong currency and a healthy stock exchange. Yet few of us know what iron ore looks like. By presenting the raw material in the gallery, the artist brought us face-to-face with tonnes of it.
The title “Embedded” was intended to operate on a variety of levels: the artist was embedded in that his access was facilitated by Rio Tinto, but he was also embedded within the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, and his videos and photographs are about communicating its views. The local Aboriginal Elders are embedded culturally in Country, and the rest of us, while we may prefer not to think about it, are implicated in mining and the resources boom, and all it entails. As citizens and consumers, as we walk through Walsh’s installation surrounded by bins of iron ore, we too feel embedded.
- ^ Craig Walsh, introduction to the exhibition Embedded, MCA Australia, Sydney (12 September – 24 November 2013).
- ^ Murujuga Elders Tootsie Daniels, Tim Douglas, Pansy Hicks, Wilfred Hicks and Lawrence Kerr collaborated, and appear in In Country (2012–13) while sisters Berry Malcolm and Dinah Smith were photographed for In Country (Python Pool, Millstream) (2012–13).
- ^ Artist Statement in Murujunga in the Pilbara, published MCA September 2013 p28 and on-line http://murujugainthepilbara.com.
- ^ See interview with Tracey Clement published in Art Guide Australia, September 2013 http://artguide.com.au/features/recommended/craig-walsh/.
Judith Blackall is co-curator (with Robert Leonard) of Craig Walsh: Embedded, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (11 September – 24 November 2013), in association with the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. She was Head, Artistic Programs at the MCA during Craig Walsh’s artist residency in the Pilbara with Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and she managed the national touring project Craig Walsh: Digital Odyssey.