I spent the night of the federal election camped under the starriest sky I can remember on a remote property in central western Queensland known as Bimblebox Nature Refuge. I awoke at dawn to a chorus of birdsong and a heavy heart: this precious place is under threat from a proposed coal mine which has received approval from the Newman-led LNP state government. Now the new Abbott-led Coalition federal government is highly likely to follow suit. Immersed in a living mosaic of habitat, the election news hung heavy in the morning air.
I was there as part of a week-long artists' camp, the second one in two years, instigated and co-ordinated by artist Jill Sampson and hosted by one of Bimblebox’s owners Paola Cassoni and caretaker Ian Hoch. Jill became aware of the mining threat to Bimblebox and directly approached Paola and Ian about the possibility of a Bimblebox art project to creatively explore and express the value of this place and raise awareness of its plight.
Formerly Glenn Innes Station, the property has been grazed at low levels, but for the most part has never been cleared. What you’re seeing is as close as you can to original country – living trees that are hundreds of years old and dead hollow trees that took a further hundred or so years to form, providing canopy and habitat for myriad species of flora and fauna, many of which are vulnerable, threatened, migratory, or of conservation significance, with at least one recorded species of endangered status (the Black-throated Finch). It is a quintessential Australian landscape, semi-arid and dominated by eucalypt trees and spinifex grasses.
I was invited to participate as a curator with a view to producing a touring exhibition of artworks produced from the camps about Bimblebox. It’s an information and issues-rich project profoundly balanced by the sensorial richness of the country itself – the phenomenal experience of smell and sound, hues and textures, light and space, ephemerality and timelessness. It is hoped that the artworks and the exhibition can capture and express that balance and create that much-needed space for pause and thoughtful reflection in the face of impending threat.
An art project like Bimblebox places art practice firmly within the realm of social issues and site context. Artists have become involved as part of an independent, self-funded commitment, adding their voice to the growing levels of community concerns about sustainability, biodiversity and just what kind of world we are going to leave future generations. Most of these artists have been exploring and expressing these thematic concerns for some time but Bimblebox seems to have focused a new critical point at a keen socio-political moment for all involved. There is a real diversity of voices and perspectives amongst the group of artists – rural and urban, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, established and emerging – with practices ranging from digital media to found material constructions.
Alison Clouston and Boyd’s collaborative multimedia installations have involved birdsong recordings and nests, bones and branches for several years now. Clouston also has a history of creating masks and has even worn them in public demonstrations. Her work for the Bimblebox art project includes a mask, Coal Face, which she wore in a recent coal mining protest outside the NSW Supreme Court, Sydney as an act of art activism. Fiona MacDonald’s stark photographic constructions, reproduced from collection archives and manipulated, also generate confronting social portraits.
Jude Roberts’ large-scale drawings have involved textural rubbings from trees, accidental marks and inscriptions, phenomenal patterns of water and wind, and even the effects of fire during a controlled burn. Her artworks have become a second skin of the country, as if inhabited with life. Liz Mahood’s works also featured random patterns of energy generated through using organic matter in action painting and composition, while Jill Sampson’s woven grass sculptures are more deliberate and careful constructions, evoking a mysterious if whimsical utility. Dying, stitching, and weaving natural materials onto worn Australian-made woollen blankets, she employs an immediate ecology of material and evokes rich allusions to self-sufficiency and sustainable production.
Artists have focused on intricate details in the environment, revealing rich microcosms of life in the landscape. Glenda Orr’s digital images taken through her etching loupe and Donna Davis’ digital specimen-like images of found flora have dream-like, surreal qualities at once immediate and strangely removed. Shayna Wells’ photographic experiments involve staged mirrors, expanding natural repetitions in the woodland forest in a mesmeric formalism.
Artists are also exploring narrative approaches. Mick Pospischil’s charcoal sketches and Gerald Soworka’s ink drawings documented working aspects of the property – the camp-sites, the cattle yards, vehicles, equipment and people. Samara McIlroy has gathered documentation of Bimblebox in the media, building up a complex textual story of place, while Emma Lindsay has produced detailed and lyrical painted portraits of the endangered Black-throated Finch, as a symbolic offering of both metaphor and metonym.
A carved coolamon and bull-roarer by Howard Butler evokes past Indigenous habitation of Bimblebox even as Kaylene Butler’s video records voices of those present today. Pamela Croft-Warcon’s use of Bimblebox leaves expresses Indigenous cultural and symbolic values in sensitive and lyrical patterns of collage and stencil.
Bimblebox’s status as a Nature Refuge is a legal agreement, incorporating it within the National Reserve System. This means that the property, while privately owned, is managed and protected under a strict agreement with the State Government, signed in 2002. The property itself was purchased with the assistance of federal funds. However Nature Refuges are not protected from mining.
If realised, the China First Mine (also known as the Galilee Coal Project) owned by Waratah Coal (Clive Palmer) will open-cut mine 52% of Bimblebox and subject the remainder to long-wall underground coal mining, causing significant impacts through subsidence, dust and potential damage to ground water reserves.. The extracted thermal coal, its transportation via a new rail corridor over flood plain to an expanded loading terminal at Abbott Point, its shipping through the Great Barrier Reef and its eventual fuel burning for electricity generation, has even more far-reaching and frightening consequences in terms of environmental damage, climate change and global warming.
Even as I write, Paola Cassoni is one of three local landholders in the Queensland Land Court publicly objecting to the neighbouring Alpha Coal Project owned by GVK and Hancock Coal (Gina Rinehart) on the grounds of its potential to dewater the vital underground aquifers on Bimblebox and other surrounding properties. This mine is the first one of nine proposed mega-mines in the Galilee Basin, any one of which represents an unprecedented scale of extraction. She is yet to face court actions in regard to the China First Mine which directly impacts Bimblebox.
A new report, “Draining the lifeblood: The Impact of Galilee Basin coal mining on groundwater resources,” by Tom Crothers, estimates that two and half Sydney Harbours of groundwater, equating to 1,354 billion litres, will be permanently lost as a result of water being pumped out or drained by the nine proposed mega-mines.
Ian Hoch, the caretaker of Bimblebox describes some aspects of his long-term observational understanding of the ecology, where hundred-year plus trees sink their roots down into shallow sandstone aquifers to provide the mature canopy for seedlings that only come during rare periods of good rain and recharge. Draining the ground water is as sure an act of ecocide as any open cut mine. Instead, Hoch is passionate about land rehabilitation, biodiversity and sustainable production. He is convinced there is a rewarding future on the land if we are willing to work hard, listen and understand our country. He has welcomed the dialogue with artists and is keen to see ongoing involvement of artists at Bimblebox as one means for bridging the widening gap between urban and rural Australia.
How do we calculate and comprehend the loss of a place such as Bimblebox? The art project may help to save this unique remnant woodland from destruction and it will certainly provide lasting and vivid testimony – an artistic witness from one of Australia’s frontiers.
- ^ Draining the lifeblood: the impact of Galilee Basin coal mining on groundwater resources, by Tom Crothers may be found at: http://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/lockthegate/pages/686/attachments/original/1379817274/Final_Report_Draining_the_Lifeblood_Sept19th2013.pdf?1379817274
- ^ Follow the Bimblebox Art Project on-line blog at: http://bimbleboxartproject.wordpress.com/
Beth Jackson is the Director of Artfully, an arts consultancy focused on art for public realm and social context. She is a contemporary art curator, critical writer and researcher based in Brisbane.