Tracy Lock on an artist-run environmental art project in the Mount Lofty Ranges
The Palmer Sculpture Biennial is a characteristically transient, remote art event that takes place in the Mount Lofty Ranges of South Australia, some 70 kilometres east of Adelaide. Led by sculptor Greg Johns, who purchased the 163‑hectare property of rain‑shadow country at Palmer in 2001, it has become a place for artistic nomads, who converge on the landscape to create ephemeral and site‑specific art. This unique art event that takes place every two years is aligned with an ongoing program of land regeneration, supported by a community of artists and environmentalists.
The 2016 Palmer Sculpture Biennial was a delicate sensory experience and featured 23 works that were installed in various locations around the Palmer property. Mostly on promontories and exposed hillsides, some were more modestly placed in discreet narrow ravines, such as Steven Bellosguardo’s spectacular pink thread piece, Landmark, that optically twisted and turned as the viewer passed by the undulating track. Similarly, the more prominent linear formations of Lorry Wedding‑Marchioro’s Entanglement created a striking presence calling to the natural world.
In a work responding more directly to environmental issues, David Atkins’s Tipping Point, raised the contentious issue surround the generation of electrical power through wind farms, while Flossie Peitsch laid out a patchwork of bags of Canadian soil in her provocatively entitled Land Grab. The purposefully incongruous, Hood III, by Nicholas Uhlmann, standing elegantly adrift and upright against the vast and remote landscape, further extends the reference to national themes of conquest, invasion and entitlement.
More ephemeral works, treading lightly on the soil, through their use of materials sourced from the land, were the expansive stone‑circles as song lines by Swedish artist Karl Chilcott, India Flint’s Eulogy, a striking mandala of scrubbed white bones, and Tony Hannan’s delicately constructed arch‑dome of sticks inspired by the twentieth‑century American visionary, Buckminster Fuller. These are just a few examples of the rich diversity of practices represented.
As a regional, artist‑run environmental sculpture project, the Palmer Project has a relatively low profile outside of South Australia. But all who have visited or participated in it have been resoundingly affirmative about the experience. A less heavy‑handed version of environmental art than the often‑invasive earthworks of the late 1960s and 1970s, the Palmer Project is also an antidote to the type of large‑scale public and corporate art commissions found in art museums and urban spaces that can, in the words of art critic Hal Foster, “induce numb passivity”. There exists a great divide between the touchy‑feely impassioned and altruistic sculpture of artists coming together to respond to a unique site and location, and corporate commissions supported by huge construction budgets and planning protocols.
Greg Johns, a child of the 1970s environmental art movement, is proud to work off‑the‑corporate grid. His works can be understood as a three‑tiered artistic practice: as personal work based on formalist art and environmental concerns, as the founder and coordinator of a public art project, and as a permanent remedial environmental restoration that is the Palmer Project. Johns has worked tirelessly as an environmental activist to remediate the degraded and denuded landscape and property near Palmer that is the environmental arm of the project, established to raise awareness of biodiversity loss and of an abusive relationship to the land.
With the assistance of Palmer resident and environmentalist Andrew Allanson and significant community engagement, the Palmer Project has involved the recovery and regeneration of the remnant native woodland, including rock grass tree (Xanthorrhoea quadrangulata), drooping sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata), golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha) and river redgum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) and numerous native grasses and bulbs, which according to local oral histories were denuded within five years of European settlement.
Using plants sourced genetically from within five kilometres of the property, the biodiversity is now increasing, with up to 120 species re‑established over fifteen years, an enormously gratifying achievement, given the fact that 87% of the vegetation of the Mount Lofty Ranges has been depleted since 1836. Johns has placed a Heritage Agreement on the property to protect and preserve the vegetation, which he hopes will remain a habitat for biodiversity. It is part of a long‑term strategy to set up a series of similar large tracts of conserved land across the state to assist with establishing corridors for wildlife.
Greg Johns’s personal practice presents a consistent exploration of the creative possibilities of Corten steel, timber and stone through a fusion of traditional European and Eastern motifs. In opposition to international contemporary practice, he has remained committed to the pursuit of a national sculpture style and has predicated his work on the critical notion of place to aspire to an identifiable form of Australian sculpture. His practice continues to explore formal concerns in nature, inspired by the work of pioneering Australian environmental artist John Davis, who had an abiding interest in the evocation of the landscape through found organic materials. Johns’s approach plumbs resonant depths: “I have always thought that the stories, which lie beneath the old and worn Australian landscape, have a great depth to them—mythologically and spiritually”.
This commitment to place echoes that of Australian novelist Tim Winton, greatly admired by Johns. Winton states: “The place comes first. If the place isn’t interesting to me then I can’t feel it. I can’t feel any people in it. I can’t feel what the people are on about or likely to get up to.” Following suit, Johns was inspired to expand his commitment to sculptural practice in response to the Australian landscape when the opportunity arose to acquire the property from the Hicks family, who have maintained a supportive and active interest in the Palmer Project.
Known as Rathjen Hill, its spare undulating ridges and valleys of stone country, nourished by the seasonal flow of Reedy Creek, were formerly used for sheep grazing. It is a culturally loaded landscape—the hills are home to an Aboriginal stone U‑shape hide (used for hunting) and its dramatic rocky outcrop overlooking the River Murray floodplain was a historically strategic surveillance point as borderline territory for the Peramangk and Ngarrindjeri people. This intersection of colonial pastoral wounds and Aboriginal heritage on the landscape at Palmer make it an ideal platform for exploring the reconciliation of these two colliding worlds.
Neither a sculpture park nor a completely informal event, the Palmer Sculpture Biennial, first staged in 2004, is more “an open laboratory for ideas about art and land. It has become a kind of sculptural eminence grise, haunting the fringes of settlement with holistic visions”, as described by Adelaide art writer John Neylon. In this way, it is part of a national and worldwide development of sculpture displays in the open air, either in biennials or in sculpture parks. Indeed, the Palmer Sculpture Biennial has inspired the creation of at least one major South Australian private sculpture park and the not‑for‑profit Adelaide Hills International Symposium, although somewhat conservative, has flowered in its wake.
Johns wanted to provide an opportunity to place sculpture, unhindered by intermediary processes and shaped only by the landscape, including its essential and post‑colonial qualities. The Biennial is open to all artists and its singular compulsory requirement is that artists visit the landscape and respond to it. Seven biennials have been staged and all have attracted a wide array of practising artists, including the late Inge King, the late Bert Flugelman, Max Lyle, Sue Kneebone, Craige Andrae and Deborah Sleeman. The event is consistently attractive as a rare chance for artists to showcase their work, free from committee or community constraints.
The Palmer Sculpture Biennial has provided significant opportunities for South Australian artists, such as Sue Kneebone, who regarded her early involvement with Palmer as a formative experience. Today, Kneebone sees Palmer as having provided her with a “testing ground” through which to pursue her exploration of site‑specific environmental work, especially in localities that wear the legacy of damaging past farming practices. After participating in site‑specific art projects in Victoria and Queensland, she was keen to engage with the Palmer landscape. The Palmer Biennial provided her with opportunities to connect with other artists with similar interests. She was also able to relocate works from the gallery space into the landscape, to activate other contexts. She recalls her 2009 participation in Adaptation, a one‑day project at Palmer, as a satellite event of the Murray Darling Palimpsest:
“The work I installed for Adaptation was H E A R I N G loss, a work about the dispossession of Aboriginal people, as evidenced through harrowing morse code messages sent along the telegraph wires from outback ration stations to the Protector of Aborigines urgently asking for more food, as the Aboriginal people were facing starvation. The denuded landscape of Palmer, once itself pastoral property, announces the sounds from this dimly lit past. Palmer as a site was perfect for me to embark on deeper explorations into South Australian colonial history.”
The establishment of the Palmer Sculpture Biennial was for Johns both practical and revelatory. Conceived as an infusion of art in response to the environment and Aboriginal and European legacies, the Palmer initiative coincided with unfolding revelations about his own identity and connections with the country. Like Kneebone, Johns found great personal resonance in learning more about his Australian colonial family history. In 2011 he met for the first time a warm cohort of his Aboriginal cousins, all descended from his grandfather, police constable William Francis Johns. Its seems that Johns’s grandfather had an even larger story to play in the Roper River region of southern Arnhem Land in the early twentieth century than his documented connection with Aya‑I‑ga, a famed Alawa man who saved the constable’s life.
Assigned in the early 1900s to an area previously infamous for punitive expeditions and waves of conflict, Johns Senior straddled the conflicted line of law enforcer and frontiersman, returning to Adelaide with an immense respect for Aboriginal people, shaped by unspoken connections wrought in blood. Greg Johns heard first‑hand recollections of his grandfather’s experiences as a young passenger in the back of his father’s 1939 Chevrolet in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He would travel along the windy narrow roads from Adelaide through the rolling stone country of Palmer, to visit relatives in the River Murray town of Mannum. This undoubtably predisposed Johns to the Palmer district and his subsequent projects when the land became available for sale.
The Palmer Sculpture Biennial is a triumphant assertion of place in Australian contemporary art practice and its ongoing success is an affirmation of a maturing relationship to country. Importantly, it provides a progressive and critical model for contemporary Australian sculptural practice in its unrestricted provision of a space for investigating concerns that reach back to the past and also beyond the physical elements of the landscape.
The next Palmer Sculpture Biennial takes place in 2018. palmersculpturebiennial.org
- ^ Quoted in Rowan Moore, ‘The Art–Architecture complex by Hal Foster: Review”, The Guardian, 16 September 2011: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/sep/16/art-architecture-complex-foster-review
- ^ Quoted in John Neylon, Edge of time: Greg Johns sculptures 1977–2015, Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2015, p. 208-9.
- ^ Cited by Jason Steger, ‘It’s a risky business’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 2008: http://www.smh.com.au/news/books/its-a-risky business/2008/04/24/1208743128098.html
- ^ John Neylon, ‘Adelaide sculptures: Just can’t get enough’, The Adelaide Review, December 2013: http://adelaidereview.com.au/arts/adelaide-sculptures-just-cant-get-enough/
- ^ Sue Kneebone, email to author, 30 June 2016
- ^ See the ABC Radio National broadcast ‘Uncommon bravery: the story of Neighbour’, 12 December 2015: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/awaye/gallant-neighbour/7018230. William Johns later served in the First and Second World Wars and became South Australian Commissioner of Police
- ^ Greg Johns in conversation with the author, 5 November 2015.
Tracey Lock is Curator of Australian Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
The next Palmer Sculpture Biennial takes place in 2018.