Over the years as I have learned more about the land use and cultural overlays my sensitivity to country has changed - from landscape to land - I read the land differently.
Previously I have talked about Bill Gammage’s book The Biggest Estate on Earth and how part of his research into land management systems of the first peoples involved looking for clues in the artworks from the European trained landscape painters. He looks at the work from the late 1800s out of Melbourne known loosely as the Heidelberg school. One particularly famous and representative piece is Arthur Streeton’s Golden Summers – painted during a drought on the hinterland around Melbourne. This image depicts dreamily beautiful paddocks of golden pasture in the summer. As I noted in a previous episode:
Perennial grasses don’t do golden summers – many perennials are active summer plants that hold colours of green, purple and rich browns through the heat of the summer, that’s the pleasure and the point of them – so these ‘golden’ carpets would have been introduced grasses, annuals like wild oat that die in summer and leave the soil vulnerable to scouring wind, rain and sun.
So Bill’s point is that we are looking at land that had gone from being managed grasslands to dried paddocks in a very short span of time.
In August 2017 a friend and I visited a station a few hundred kilometres northeast of Geraldton. We went because we felt like doing some station time and because I had met the owner, an elderly man, who was generous with his invitations to interested bodies – he could clearly do with a hand.
His was a cattle station that had given him a good living over several decades. His wife had died a few years ago, his health was declining and he was now the last one standing and facing a bit of a succession crisis. He was a bit bitter about the fact that his kids weren’t interested in taking the station on. I got the sense that years of hard work and pride in his achievements, not to mention a large house and lots of infrastructure and machinery were his legacy and he was eager to see them into the right hands.
My perception of the place was that the land had been hammered and needed major restorative work – years of poor rainfall and constant grazing pressure from native and feral animals as well as sheep and cattle meant there were expanding tracts of land that were denuded of plant life. The house and gardens were lovely and the sheds well maintained, but there was much work to be done on the thousands of acres still stocked with cattle.
In his house he had some artworks by a well know local painter from the Murchison region. I had seen this man’s work before – he is a skilful painter in a craft sense and his work is traditional and realist in that he depicts what could be called ‘consensual reality’.
I was transfixed by an image painted on a large steel saw blade mounted upright on a stand. It was one of those circular plates a few feet in diameter with wicked steel teeth and a little hole in the middle. On one side was what I recognized as a ‘typical’ painting of the Outback.
This image was in browns, reds and golden colours in afternoon light. It showed a wooden slab hut, with a corrugated iron roof and front veranda partially reflected in a still pool of water. In the foreground this water is circled by a dirt road that winds past the front veranda and away into the distance. The dam has a high side that has a series of fat buns of clay with deep dried channels created by running water leading into the pool. There is the inevitable windmill next to a corrugated iron water-tank on a stand and the image is divided by a mauve horizon line with blue sky above. Central and low in the picture three crooked fence posts stand in for a broken-down fence linked by wire in front of the dam. No people. This is the clichéd station life in the outback.
The old pastoralist pointed out this painting in the living room of his lovely house with great affection. I didn’t get to discuss the nuances of his attitude to the image – but it seemed from our exchange that the painting satisfied something in him about his life in the Rangelands. Maybe because it is representative of enormous hard work. I had listened to him talk about his life long enough to understand that hard work was something that he valued very highly, perhaps above all other qualities and this artwork certainly hints at arduous labour. What I couldn’t understand is how he could derive any comfort from an image that appears to me to depict the broken-down end game of generations of non-regenerative pastoral practises.
To me the image speaks of environmental degradation, human wrongheadedness, isolation and heartbreak. Having said that, the image is a depiction of the arid zones of Australia that I am familiar with, I might not even have particularly noticed this scene except that it is all painted on an industrial saw blade, an object that could stand in without much controversy as both the cause and effect of such degradation. And it is apparently presented without irony.
I can only imagine that what I see is not what the painter intended or what the owner of the picture sees.
But I have been there too, in that irony-free zone. Thirty years ago, living in Melbourne, I moved a few hundred kilometres north-east to stay in a cottage on a working sheep farm with a friend who had scored a job in a high school at the nearby town of Mansfield. It was my first experience of living rural and e both revelled in it. Every day we walked for miles along gouged out creek lines and across barren stony hills loving the romance of nearby Lake Eildon with its striking stands of dead trees sticking up from the waters like huge, grey forks, finding a post-urban thrill in the far horizons and big skies.
It wasn’t till later when I moved permanently to the regions that I started to ‘realeyes’ the land. I started to understand that the country I had lived on for this year was suffering from massive erosion – I can see it now – but then, I was seeing from a very limited urban perception, finding beauty in the openness and emptiness and drama and power in the large cracks in the earth.
At the time I was a huge fan of Patrick White. His books had been one of my first introduction to a sensual understanding of the land I lived in. Voss, published in 1957 and based on the life of 18th century Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, takes the reader into the desert. Patrick’s desert is a vast, empty, metaphysical wasteland where outsiders go to die – a perfect springboard from which a romantic urban girl can experience her first sheep and wheat farm…. without actually seeing what is there. All my voracious book reading had not given me eyes to see. In reality I was living on soil that had been stripped of all its defences against wind, rain and sun by decades of inappropriate land management regimes.
You live and learn. I left the farm at Maindample to go to Art school. In my art-as-religion phase that lasted all through art school and throughout 25-years of practice I would simply have dismissed the circular saw painting as bad taste, a cliched response to our land, to be lumped in with the clumpiest type of bush poetry. But the heady days of post-modernism and the happy intellectual pursuits this entailed has given me lots of interesting filters and not least, an interest in what other people are seeing. This saw painting appeared to carry a lot of ideology - unconscious ideology - and how (as they used to say in visual culture classes) should I unpack it?
How come my old pastoralist mate see the hubris and ruination of his life’s work in this image and hurl it through one of his lead-light panels - tastefully decorated with local wildflowers? He was already upset that his ‘legacy’ was not being embraced, yet he gives house room to a painting that appears to be to depict human labour as pointless and destructive to country.
I can only say that our perceptions are there to give us feedback from the world that protects our carefully constructed self-image and what we think is vital to our continuing existence. It has occurred to me that if he did read the image as I have, it could trigger a crisis in his consciousness that he would be unlikely to recover from – so he’s smart to look at the painting as an ornament to a life well led and to maintain his anger, it is all keeping him in the manner he is accustomed to be.
And, in case you think I’m not taking any lessons from this – my perceptions of this image bolster the view of myself as someone sensitive to country and awake to hidden ideologies. I just wanted to reassure you that it has not gone unnoticed that I am an over-educated smarty pants. So why did I get so stuck on analysing attitudes to what is really a cliched piece of art? I felt for this man and I wanted to understand why he loved the painting. Perhaps, deeper than the human traces the painting depicts, it shows country that persists and this works with something in the old man's soul.
And speaking of ideology, this time ideology-made-conscious, the word ‘outback’ offends me. What is meant by ‘outback’? For those who live in the arid Rangelands, the 'outback' is the centre of the planet. ‘Downunder’ is another annoying word. While we are unpacking clichés, let’s have less of the urban-centric – especially northern Euro-urban centric - language. Eighty-five percent of Australia is no longer Patrick’s imagined emptiness – surely we have moved on enough from 1957 attitudes to understand that inland Australia is a place rich with life that can never be adequately depicted on saw blades.
Twenty years ago I had the opportunity of living in the bush out the back of an old cattle station turned tourism business near Kings Creek in Central Australia. I spent three months tracking through this country, observing, lighting fires, drawing bushes, absolutely blown away by the red dirt, plants, the wildlife.
On one of the monthly supply runs to Alice I saw a bunch of Western Desert dot paintings in the art galleries - possibly not for the first time – but for the first time when I could actually ‘see’ them because I had some experience of the country they depicted. They blew my mind. This was a whole different way of viewing country – once seen, things can’t be unseen and everything changes.