Yesterday I spent three hours companionably in the company of crocheted, knitted and otherwise crafted mushrooms. They were poked into a mesh bed, and under the mesh, it was a tangle of white string that made me think of neurons in trouble – the sort of image used to show to illustrate the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. The mushrooms were made during a community craft workshop led by Liz Day, and they were part of the Cementa 15 contemporary art festival in Kandos.
The tangled network below the mesh represented what really goes on in in nature. Plants talk to each other via the fungus internet.
I was scheduled to mind these mushrooms for three hours from 1pm to 4pm yesterday afternoon. Before I headed off to the community hall for my shift I picked up a Cementa 15 counted cross-stitch kit. I imagined sitting quietly beside the mushrooms, stitching contemplatively, nodding or chatting to the visitors coming through.
But when I got there it was all as noisy as a PCYC hall in full swing, with children shouting, people shouting at the shouting children and lots of other colour and movement. This was art outside the “white cube” of the art gallery. This was art in amongst it. Would it hold up to the thrashing? My job was to keep the kids off and out of the mushrooms. Two feral children (where the hell were the parents?) spent the afternoon going near, near, near, over, over, around, around but not quite touching. Apparently they’d been there all morning, too. They’d taken up residence near the mushrooms. This was their spot for the day. In a faintly aggressive manner they offered visitors wrapped Starburst lollies. (Lucky they were wrapped, because the fingers were grubby.) Some accepted the gift, others frowned. Eventually the kids spilled half a bottle of no-name Cola over the wooden floor and were sent out.
One of them came back, hovering in the doorway. “Out!” I said, having had more than enough. But he had in his hand a fragrant double delight rose, obviously pinched from a nearby garden, which he handed to me. So I took the rose and let him walk quietly across the floor to the back door.
The room at the back of the hall also contained Christine McMillan‘s great big pile firewood. It looked like an ordinary woodpile except that each piece was nice and smooth on one side, showing off the grain. Men in particular liked this one. Women gravitated towards the mushrooms. For whatever reason – nature or nurture or an interesting combo – that’s what I observed.
There was a robot down the far end of the room that wasn’t working. “Robot’s off,” I’d say as people entered. This box, made out of pallets, the shape of a tardis or phone box, stood silently, unmoving. Some people, having read that it was supposed to follow you around, spent time with it, doing hopeful antics around it. But it stood there, blankly, offering nothing.
Before that, my friend Jacqui and I sat on a pew in the little stone church on the other corner to experience Jason Wing‘s sound installation. The sound was of cockatoos and other birds recorded in Blacktown and Kandos. The piece related to how stolen Aboriginal children and their parents would try to communicate with each other using bird sounds, because the missionaries forbade them to use their own languages. The screeching got louder and louder until we were all completely absorbed in this sound and then, as it tailed off, you heard the monotonous raspy cries of baby birds calling for food, and the beautiful carolling of magpies. Cockatoos speak directly to my soul. “My true church”, I scribbled in pencil as I listened. I looked at the empty wooden holder for HYMNS and listened to the hymns of this country.
And then, after the cockatoos and the mushrooms and feral children, I went back to Karen‘s pom poms planted in the vacant block with the majestic escarpment behind them. Leanne, who lives in the house opposite, had composed a poem about them. She read it out so I could record it on my phone. As she finished reading, a small flock of parrots flew across the sky.
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.
It is in the nature of things to come and go. This is the theme in my friend Karen’s pom pom installation that will cover a plot of land in Kandos just after Easter. Her installation will be a part of Cementa, a week of arts and culture in the post-industrial landscape of a little town that was once fed by a giant cement factory. The factory is still mighty in the landscape, visible for miles around. The cement it produced is part of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Now all that work, all that movement, all that creation, has been stilled. But the mighty architecture is still there; a reminder of the very recent past. Karen started making pom poms as her partner Steve Kirby was dying of cancer. Making pom poms was something – something light and colourful – to do in the midst of grief and sadness. It provided a way for friends to sit in companionship before, during and after Steve’s death. These pom poms, made of see-through nylon and clear plastic on slightly bendy sticks, are small and light, their ephemeral nature a delicious counterpoint to the massive industrial machinery nearby. Even if people don’t realise it, a memory, a trace, of Steve Kirby will be kept alive in those pom poms. And then they’ll be pulled up out of the ground and they’ll go, just as all of us have to go. We arrive, we bloom like pom poms or sunflowers and then we go. An aura of memory stays in the air that we have left but eventually we are forgotten. That’s in the nature of things.
The Kandos cement factory is just one of the many reminders of our industrial past studded through the landscape in these parts. These are monuments not to individual lives but to collective memory, collective effort, whether endured or enjoyed. They tell us something of how we got here, how things used to be not so very long ago. They’re woven into the memories of thousands of people, each remembering – or misremembering – their own bits of story, whether that’s a couple of generations of family working there, or something seen out of a car window and an idle thought: “What’s that?” They are collective reference-points in a world that changes all the time.
What should we try to save? Not everything, clearly. Time moves on. Hoarding, as we’ve seen on the TV shows, is not healthy.
But some things are worth saving so that they continue to be part of the fabric of a changing community; part of its collective memory. The town I grew up in, Carnarvon, is slowly losing its iconic one-mile jetty to the waves. Busselton has saved its long jetty; the Carnarvon jetty – unbelievably for those who know and love that place – is rotting slowly into the glittering Indian Ocean. Here in Bathurst we have buildings galore of striking grandeur. Unlike Carnarvon, which has clung less certainly to a bit of windswept earth, we have a great big gaol complete with lion with key in its mouth; a great big courthouse for putting people there; an old railway station and nearby, tall cement wheat silos that make visitors do a double-take as they come down Havannah Street. Over the past two centuries these things have become part of what defines this town, this place (as well as ancient natural features like Wahluu/Mt Panorama and the Wambool/Macquarie River).
This week, before I really knew what I was doing, I got involved in an impassioned plea to save the mighty wheat silos and old flour mill buildings opposite the railway station.
My friend Helen and I went straight from the Hub cafe where we were talking about it to talk to Chris Frisby at Bedwell’s Feed Barn (one of the occupiers of the old site). I whipped out my trusty iPhone and started filming.
Depending on who you talk to, the silos and flour mill are under immediate threat or we’re worrying about nothing. The information we’ve heard is that there is developer interest, and the D word (demolition) has been mentioned. It’s early days, and there may be nothing to worry about. But we think it’s worth saving and we feel it can’t hurt to get in early. Some developers prefer demolition and starting from scratch; others like to work with the fabric of the past to create something new. That’s the sort of development we need.
I don’t know about the rest of the world, but an R rating in Australia means something is a bit racy and rude and therefore Restricted. I always think of the porn magazines hidden in a big clump of bamboo in the vacant block next to Lou’s house. We discovered the stash when we were eleven. We sneaked in from time to time to study the rain-damaged pages and hope we weren’t about to be ambushed by their secretive owner.
For most of this year I’ve been working towards my own personal R rating: Remission. Once I’d been diagnosed and had a treatment plan, I was able to see that by spring, I’d be clear of surgery and chemotherapy, my hair would be regrowing like the buds on the local blossom trees and, if everything went well, I’d be in remission. That became my goal, remission in spring. As it turned out, I got there with 12 days to spare!
On Thursday morning, the doctor casually mentioned the R word in a little volley of sentences produced by a brief examination of my medical file (now a big fat pile of paper like you get in complicated legal cases) and a mouse-scroll through my CT scan. Wait, I thought, did he just say REMISSION? I stopped him and got him to say it again. This wasn’t my usual chemo doctor; this was a stand-in I hadn’t met before. He had absolutely no sense of occasion. Yes, he agreed, you’re in remission. It was a beautiful moment.
Afterwards, Steve and I found ourselves in the giant complicated maze that is the Parramatta Westfield shopping centre. We shared a plate of nachos from a Mexican-themed eatery. While things had been looking good for me since surgery, it was only upon hearing the R word that I was really able to let out the breath I’d been holding since February. I ate my lunch as a person who had had cancer. Past tense.
I know I’ll never be out of the woods. My fate now is to wander in these woods, wondering when (a lot of Ws in this sentence) or whether I’ll get another wallop. But for now, past tense rules.
I’ve had a lot of trouble writing this blog post. It’s now Saturday and I’ve been meaning to do it since Thursday afternoon. In the middle of treatment I blogged every Thursday without fail, no matter what, even when hooked up to my post-operative patient-controlled pain relief (aka Green Button), even when I had to write from a prone position with one finger picking out letters on the iPad. Suddenly, with this great release of pressure, it’s been hard to get motivated. Anyway, here we are now.
Meanwhile, bit by bit, I’ve been getting back out into the bustling world. Last Saturday a car load of us went to Kandos, about an hour and a half away, for a craft forum organised by the Cementa people. It went wonderfully well (more Ws). I showed my crocheted guts, and then threw them out into the audience. As someone caught one of my fuzzy tumours I suddenly realised the unfortunate symbolism – a bit like the bride’s bouquet – but it was too late to worry about that. (Alex Wisser of Cementa has done a great write-up of the evening here.) Afterwards, as we sat round the fire eating hot Kandos chips, Alex was holding forth about something or other, with expressive hand movements. His young daughter wriggled in behind him on the sofa and began doing his hand movements for him. It worked a bit like the YouTube clip of the dogs eating dinner. I found this so funny I almost lost the plot entirely. It was my first true belly laugh all year. It was my first big stomach-muscle workout since surgery.
On Wednesday, after I’d gone into the white doughnut for my CT scan, I got on the train to Circular Quay to check out the Anne Messager exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. One of the artists at Kandos, Nicole Barakat, had told me about the room full of bodily organs hanging from the ceiling. And there they were – a multitude of body parts, larger than life, made out of fabric and soft filling. Everyone wanted to walk right through and amongst them (and feel them), but the minder was stopping us and telling us to walk around the edges and don’t touch. I felt a great companionship with these soft pieces. In another room, a darker vision: everything in black, objects spread out across the floor, some “breathing” eerily, light playing over them to throw spooky scenes on the walls, and a big projected clock displaying “real time”. The real time was about 3pm. It was an image of death, dying and end-times. I felt an affinity with this, too. This was the day before my doctor’s appointment to get my test results.
On Friday, we took Larissa’s dog Harry to have acupuncture. He sat quietly with small needles jutting out of his fur. There was a small brown curly dog there that was partly paralysed as the result of a fractured spine. It was being dried off in a big fluffy bath towel. It was all strangely relaxing.