Is Dubbo better than Paris? It depends.
A few years ago I was sitting on a bus on the way to Cobar, a red-dirt outback place a few hundred kilometres west of here, when I overheard a discussion between two schoolboys about places they’d been. One of them, about ten or eleven years old, delivered a line I’ve remembered ever since: “Dubbo is better than Paris.”
For my international reader*, Dubbo is not well known for the arts, history, romance, food or architecture, although all of these things exist there. It is known for a zoo just outside town that has giraffes, rhinos, zebras and other charismatic animals. These animals have large open spaces to run in rather than the small allotments offered by city zoos. If they squint their eyes and try to ignore the fences, they might be able to imagine themselves on the plains of Africa: the flat, dry landscape is similar. I’m assuming the boy who had been to both Paris and Dubbo had this in mind when he made his surprising pronouncement. In Dubbo, he would’ve been able to get quite near a majestic giraffe, close enough perhaps to smell its flanks, to see it breathe. At the Louvre, by contrast, he would’ve been herded about with dozens of other children by cranky worn-out adults. He might have looked through gaps between the backs of other people’s heads at the small framed Mona Lisa and thought: “Whatever”.
For him, Dubbo was better than Paris.
This ran through my mind the other night when I went along to a discussion panel at the local regional art gallery. All of the people on the panel were, metaphorically, Paris. We in the audience were, metaphorically, Dubbo. Or that’s how it felt, to me.
I just got up and started cooking dinner. I can feel the weight and mass of the chip on my shoulder.
Okay, to continue. Three of the artists on the panel had work in the gallery’s current exhibition. Juz Kitson works with shapes that are like bodily organs or appendages, drooping, hanging, bulbous, hairy. The hair looks like real hair, growing out of synthetic skin that looks like real skin. It’s all bundled together in ways that are both beautiful and uncomfortably intimate. The sparse, coarse hair, reminiscent of pubic hair, flows down over pendulous bodily shapes to touch the floor. It’s exquisite.
In the next room there was a small house suggested by a bare timber framework. Sandra Nyberg’s work is open and airy. It is generous toward its surroundings because you can see the surroundings through it. In the gallery, at the moment, it frames jewelry made of shells and other sea-things and other bits of found nature. There’s a gleaming necklace made of king green maireener shells. These pieces by Lola Greeno are beautiful, an engagement with the biology of her Tasmanian home.
In the last rooms at the back were the joined PVC elbow pipes by Mark Booth. This plastic looked plastic, unlike the skin-plastic of Juz Kitson’s assemblages. After the tactile, overtly biological pieces in the other spaces, these things seemed hard and remote to me. It took a moment to recalibrate before I could enjoy them.
Juz Kitson, Sandra Nyberg and Mark Booth were all on the panel discussion which was hosted by Alex Wisser from Cementa 15. Juz, Sandra and Mark were introduced as artists who “live and practice in a regional setting”. Juz lives between the Yarramalong Valley and China; Sandra went to art school in Sydney before returning to a tiny island off the coast of Finland; Mark Booth has worked and exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney but now has a studio in Hill End, an old gold mining town that is now partly an artists’ colony.
The topic under discussion was the “advancements, challenges and future of contemporary practice in a regional context”. The main preoccupation was how contemporary artists located outside of big cities might stay in touch with the main game. Networking is essential to a career in the arts; if you’re not showing up in all the right places, you risk being forgotten. Thankfully, said everyone, there’s the Internet. Now, you can have the best of both worlds: splendid isolation plus Facebook. This is a win-win in all directions: artists can now spread themselves around. They can rent cheap studios in little towns.
The downsides were expressed with disarming honesty by Alex Wisser, the host of the discussion: Out of your window, there’s this unchanging landscape. Whereas a city has a “nowness” about it, the countryside has a timelessness about it. The art world, the main game, is all about the now. If you’re not careful, the landscape might soften your edge. And the locals think you’re crazy. As a rule, the people you run into don’t understand what you’re doing, or don’t like it, or don’t care. That small, daily, lack of recognition can grind you down. (These are not exactly Alex’s words. It’s a week later and my notes are not that good. But this is the gist of it.)
“You need an audience,” said Alex (I wrote this bit down). “I mean in people who, in an affectionate way, come to understand what you’re doing.”
Alex, his artist partner and their daughter and some other artists have moved from Sydney to Kandos, a small town next to a giant cement works that has closed down. The rent is cheap. The post-industrial setting against the drama of sandstone cliffs is inspiring. Cementa 15 is coming up just after Easter.
Sandra Nyberg spoke about her experience on the island of Korppoo in Finland, accessible only by ferry. Every year there’s a contemporary art festival on the island, in which artists respond to the local environment. She said artists work closely with the locals, and they feel “part of it”.
So far, the discussion was all about what happens when artists go “out” to live and work beyond the major cities.
In question time, Vianne Tourle, who grew up on a farm near Dubbo and now lives in Bathurst, asked if it might be possible to conceive of a contemporary art practice born, maturing and continuing to exist outside of the city. She wasn’t being mischievous, or perhaps only a little bit.
Anyway, as they say in the Sesame Street song, it’s all relative. The big becomes the little when you take it back a bit. There are probably only a handful of artists in the world who truly think of themselves – and are thought of – as being in the centre, whatever the hell that is. The closer you get to it, the further it moves away. The chip on my shoulder – resentment over the city’s sense of superiority just because of its address – is a bad old habit, weighing me down. In any case, a lot of people would look at me and see some sort of insider, or at least someone closer to the inner bands of the circle than them. And there’s the fact that between my remote and regional days, there were years in Newtown, which is the centre of the entire universe.
Afterwards, I headed over to Russell Street and the opening of the latest t.arts gallery exhibition. In that tiny artists’ co-operative gallery you find a heterogeneous mix of traditional and contemporary arts. The new exhibition includes the luminous landscapes of David Lake – evocations of that seeming timelessness that Alex Wisser was talking about. David and fellow artist Tim Miller had been out to White Cliffs – the remote beyond remote – to paint in the extremes of light and heat. Music for the opening was supplied by a trio called String Theories, who had written a piece inspired by David’s painting, Moon rise Hobby’s Yards. Someone brought the painting out and put it on a chair next to the band so we could listen and look.
Another artist in the exhibition, Margaret Ling, fires her pots in a hole in the ground on a friend’s property out of town. She likes slow-burning hardwood. She arranges the layers of fuel in such a way that the fire burns down slowly towards the pots. It’s work that emerges, quite literally, out of this landscape.
So, at one gallery we had a self-conscious discussion about who we all are and what it all means, while at the other, it was just people getting on with doing their home-grown thing. All very interesting. All part of being out and about in a regional city on a Friday evening.
The moral of the story is that Dubbo is better than Paris for giraffes; Paris is better than Dubbo for croissants. But there are also giraffes in Paris and croissants in Dubbo and pictures of all of the above are available, right now, on the Internet. And I do love this song.
* Her name is Jane.