16 April – 30 May, 2021
If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume that Elands was likely some form of digital world—‘lands’ with the now-ubiquitous ‘e’ prefix, like an e-tag or even an e-mail. I’m from Southern NSW, so my knowledge of the NSW Mid-North coast hinterland is limited. Not so for many of the other viewers of Inside Elands—a recent group show exhibited at Newcastle’s The Lock-Up—who were better-versed in both the geography and psychogeography of Elands, as well as its local lore. Those from up North, for example, who may remember their parents taking them to film nights there as a child to see cult classics like The Man Who Fell To Earth and 2001: A Space Odyssey, even if their parents were ‘straights’ tapping vicariously into 1970s counterculture. Local specificity aside, Inside Elands was ultimately evocative of familiar and familial territory for most people who have communed with nature all over the country and lived through the period. The way it operated as a collective memory trigger—and not just for the artists involved—reminds me of Roland Barthes’s definition of a ‘writerly’ text: a text that is scriptable rather than lisible (or readerly). It was an open text, an iterative text, with space for subjective reverie, rather than offering a master narrative or singular version of place.
In many ways Elands was presented as a (digitally) mediated world, but not the CGI-kind I would have expected. It is a real place – on the Bulga Plateau, home to the Ellenborough Falls (the tallest single-drop waterfall in NSW), on the traditional lands of the Biripi and Worimi people. As curator Una Rey writes in her catalogue essay, ‘The “falls” were a factor in the summer of ’68 when American atomic refugee Gladney Oakley (1935-2006) moved his young family to Elands, buying a failing farm adjoining the waterfall reserve’. It soon became, as Rey notes, what was then pejoratively called a ‘hippie’ community, and slowly evolved over time—an authentic anathema to what we might now term a bespoke eco-village. In one of the show’s digital works, Melbourne-based expanded photography artist Alison Bennett used photogrammetry to remodel some of the remaining Elands buildings which have fallen into disrepair and dereliction. As a viewer, it felt ironic to feel envious of this, shall we say, ‘wabi-sabi’ aesthetic, or perhaps of people whose parents had the wherewithal to handcraft such houses and communal spaces. The experience was like going to Pompei and, rather than ruins, seeing the template for Western civilisation, or, in this case, an Antipodean Age of Aquarius. At the same time the nature of ruins always affectively suggests at least a tinge of atrocity, colonial or otherwise.
All the artists involved in the exhibition have been part of the Elands community at some point in their lives, and the show was built around representation from two generations. Nested somewhat protectively in The Lock-Up’s more traditional inner gallery was the work of first generation artists, including plein-air landscape painting, many featuring Ellenborough Falls and painted from the 1970s-1990s. The second generation—‘the kids’, now in their 40s and 50s—have all, as Rey writes, ‘graduated from the hills to work within the economic and social systems their parents once rejected’ and their contemporary multimedia work was squirreled away in the surrounding cells, as if containing darker themes. Rey also notes ‘the stylistic contrast from canvas to screen from the training intense studios of the 1960s Sydney art schools to the interdisciplinary technologies of the 1990s university degree and the online revolution’. Yet there was an underlying dialogue going on, echoing down The Lock-Up’s cold corridors—it was all part of the same matrix.
At the artist talk closing the show, second generation artist Rilka Oakley—Gladney’s daughter, whose rustic video installation The Bridge (2021) paid homage to the bridge and river of her childhood—spoke of her father as a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of man, implying a patriarchal dominance underlying his visionary politics. Oakley drew on personal archives in another installation, Chop wood, carry water (2021), which included a tiny ad her father placed in the University of Sydney student paper Honi Soit in 1969, advertising for a student drop-out to help an ‘harassed mother trying to raise two FREE (self-regulated) children’. Perhaps inevitably, Oakley and her sibling soon moved back to Sydney with their mother, travelling up to Elands for school holidays. In a scriptable moment, reading the other classifieds, I was struck by how cheap it was to rent back then: $10 a week for two people, or $8 single for a room in a terrace in Glebe. It made me wonder about the third generation, trying to afford either share-house life in inner Sydney or ‘dropping out’ and living on some land, given today’s real estate prices, whether urban or rural. Yet the same questions of sustainable living persist, along with the threat of species annihilation. In the lead-up to this exhibition was a long drought, the bushfires of 2020 (which threatened the destruction of many of the Elands buildings), a global pandemic and lockdown, followed by flooding. If the fact that Elands was established in the late 1960s by a Philadelphia man fleeing from the threat of World War Three sounds a little paranoid, consider that, for the last four years, the man in control of America’s nuclear button was Donald Trump.
The artist talk also discussed an omnipresent duality in this exhibition, inevitable given its location in an historic police lock-up: incarceration and freedom, and the paradoxical claustrophobia of both confinement and community, rather than necessarily being at opposite ends of a spectrum. There are, of course, moments that transcend and close the circle of dark and light. Bennett’s architectural photogrammetry is projected straight onto The Lock-Up’s cell walls rather than screens; it’s hard to discern what is surface and what is image. As a viewer you must literally be conscious of both places at once, and, as Bennet commented, there’s a point where the mottled digital circles that occur as part of the datapoint mapping process become painterly. Second generation artist Juliet Lamont also gestures to the chiaroscuro of growing up on Elands in her 6-minute video BEAST (2021), shot in Northern NSW with last-minute footage of Ellenborough Falls when the recent floods subsided. In her artist statement Lamont writes about a childhood spent:
thundering through the sweep of the valley til we fell, dizzy and drunk, midnight bareback horse rides, eating chapatis and powdered milk at the kids’ house. Falling asleep stoned, under clapped out Holdens, while the adults danced up the sun and sunk the full moon.
At first I thought the young girl acting in BEAST was so otherworldly she could have been CGI-generated, and here the mythology was that of a dark fairytale, also hinting at the aftermath of those ‘self-regulated’ childhoods: lax parenting and abuse. Crime author Leigh Redhead’s installation Cleave For Me (2021) is the book trailer for a graphic novel set in a fictional (wink wink) alternative community in the 1980s, as encapsulated by one of the characters: ‘For a bunch of so-called hippies, there wasn’t a hell of a lot of peace and love around.’
The duality of utopia and dystopia is also central to the exhibition, and holding it in The Lock-Up seemed spookily apt given the spate of lockdowns we have all recently experienced, locally and globally. In Newcastle, during the 2020 lockdowns, Merewether Beach—which is usually full of grommets with surfboards—was closed, and blue and white police tape cordoned off all public facilities. Around the headland further south, however, the unpatrolled Burwood Beach was littered with people lying on towels, dolphins playing in the waves, girls riding bareback on horses as if time-travelling back to Puberty Blues. Now, regional properties have never been more in demand, given flexible working arrangements negotiated during the pandemic’s first wave. Yet, in comparison to Elands, our contemporary sea and treechange impulse seems driven by gentrification. I doubt any of these Elands properties are now on Airbnb. As Rey writes, ‘accessing the “bush idyll” of Elands requires planning and accommodating weather at the best of times’.
I imagine, however, that, at the time, the 1970s local community of dairy farmers also saw the Elands alternative community as an invasion by city slickers, let alone the cedar cutters of the 19th century who horrifically displaced Indigenous populations. Will the twenty-somethings of today move to tiny towns even further afield, the last frontiers of affordable housing? I know many places in Southern NSW that would be amazing, looking for post-bushfire recovery and nestled in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains (though not on the coastal side). COVID lockdowns also impacted planned site visits by the Inside Elands artists, who had intended to, ‘take photographs, record sound and shoot film, to track down historic art works in the local archives; to swim in the headwaters of the Falls and explore the casual ruins of remembered dwellings.’ Despite these unexpected impediments during the exhibition’s gestation, the lockdowns paradoxically still enabled intimacy and expanded forms of collaboration between the artists, and perhaps deepened the desire for connection, especially with the idea of ‘home’.
Inside Elands was presented as a provisional homage, not the final word. Its strengths were both conceptual and perceptual, a tantalising microhistory which also resonated with broader socio-cultural epochs. Rey’s earlier curatorial work, such as Black White & Restive at the Newcastle Art Gallery in 2016, focused on cross-cultural exchange between non-Indigenous and Indigenous artists, making space for the ‘restive’ rather than the reconciled. In this show, there’s a similar acknowledgement of unresolvable tensions, a necessary pervasive unease on multiple levels—including the representation of non-Indigenous connection to these mountains, skies and waters—while seeking to find ways to honour a complex cultural and creative inheritance. As with many earlier and better-known Australian artistic enclaves—some, like the Heide group, built around landscape, and other libertine circles such as Norman Lindsay—it is the following generations who often seek redress, here thoughtfully curatorially framed by Rey, between Boomers and Generation X.
Keri Glastonbury is a poet, essayist and Associate Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle.
Dr Una Rey has over 25 years experience in the Australian art sector, including a decade as a lecturer and researcher in art history and creative arts at the University of Newcastle. She has recently been appointed Editor of Artlink magazine.