The stereotypical non-Aboriginal experience of inland Australia encompasses a sense of ‘other-ness’ and a disconnection with place. With strong cultural influences from mother England or Mediterranean Europe, the earliest contact of white people with inland Australia perpetuated the notion of terra-nullius, or ‘empty land’. In addition to associations of political conquest, this notion of ‘empty land’ embodied the perceived intangibility of habitation or of a sustained civilisation in the ‘dead heart’ of Australia. The creation of a nation crowded onto a green, fertile coastal ribbon, looking out to sea and turned away from the centre is an unchanging aspect of our history. Even the nation’s major chain of mountains, the Great Dividing Range, attests to the geographic separation of culture on the fringes of the continent from the arid desert within.
When l first moved to Mildura in the northwest of the state of Victoria at the crossroads of Melbourne Sydney and Adelaide some 20 odd years ago, those friends who visited me would arrive after a long drive from Melbourne numb and incapable of articulating any sense that they had a worthwhile experience along the way. The endless, parched flat plain often seems to result in feelings of agoraphobia and alienation. The subtlety and nuance derived from a deep appreciation of the beauty of the landscape was often overlooked in the frustration or ennui of sensibilities attuned to more conventional measures of experience such as the iconic, the picturesque or the sublime.
It is within the context of the need to sensitise Australians to appreciate the ‘dead heart’ of their country that one of Australia’s most interesting and idiosyncratic art events was born. ‘Mildura Palimpsest’ was born in 1998, building on the artistic heritage of the Mildura Sculpture prizes of the 1960s and the Sculpture Triennials of the 1970s and early 80s. Following the first Mildura Palimpsest in 1998, a second event was conducted in 1999, followed by a third in 2000, number four in 2001 and five in 2003. A re-vamped Murray Darling Palimpsest – number six (more about this later) – was launched in September 2006.
Palimpsest is an Australian contemporary visual arts event, remarkable for its locations in distinctly regional places, rather than capital cities, and significant for its direct engagement with issues of environmental and social sustainability. It is un-apologetically a view from the periphery, which lead Benjamin Genocchio, then art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, who visited Palimpsest #4 and reviewed it, to refer to it as the ‘biennale of the bush’. Although charges of paternalism against the event were heard at the time this comment was made, the comment was nonetheless received as an audacious challenge to the hegemony of the city centre mainstream.
What, then, is Palimpsest? Palimpsest, from the Greek palimpsestos (palin, meaning again, and psestos, meaning scraped or rubbed smooth), is a word referring to the successive texts on a manuscript (usually of Medieval origin) on which the original writing has been erased for re-use.
The land lies beneath,
A palimpsest etched
Erased and re-etched
By wind and time
Symbols in ancient script
We slice the ancient parchment
Into squares, triangles, parallelograms,
The straight line rampart……….
This fragment of an unpublished poem titled ‘view from a plane’ by Jennifer Hamilton alludes to the central premise in this presentation, that is, the exploration of a palimpsestuous space. Interestingly enough, Hamilton wrote this poem while reflecting on a flight over Mildura. For the un-initiated, the geometrical patchwork of vivid green horticultural blocks butted against the tonal, organic texture of the semi-arid desert, is profound. This is then overlayed with the evidences of ‘process’—the natural and human made scarring of roadways, rivers, cutaways and crusts of white salinity breaking the land’s surface. Palimpsest becomes the metaphor for the way in which land is changed by human activity.
When Henri Lefebvre, in The Production of Space, creates a spatial literacy based on the physical, conceptual and metaphysical phenomena, he embraces a notion of space that is both dynamic and interactive: lived spaces; spaces that develop, grow, decline, metamorphose. Hence, a palimpsestuous space is non-linear, is layered by intention, accident, ambition, progress and failure. Paul Carter, in an essay titled Sustaining Places, calls this the mythopoeic. Carter (a Palimpsest #5 symposium speaker), articulates the challenge for an environmental art that contributes to a cultural debate, as needing to engage with historical myth—the mythic narratives and symbolic thinking that transforms places into what he calls mythoforms. Many of the artists responding to Palimpsest embrace Carter’s idea of mythoform. They engage with the site-specific mediations between the natural and cultural worlds. Carter would also refer to this activity as ‘place-making’, the interface of politics, economics and the philosophical.
Much of the work produced since 1998 occupies this area of critique about contemporary environmental practices, the battleground between ideologies of land use. Earlier this year during the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, author Maria Tumarkin read from her first book Traumascapes. Tumarkin discussed the power and fate of places indelibly marked by histories of violence and loss—the notable examples used being New York, September 11, 2001; Port Arthur on the 28th April, 1996; and even the Alma Tunnel where Princess Diana was killed in 1997. Unfortunately there are too many examples. She speaks of ‘lived geographies’ (Tumarkin 2005) where death and memorialisation have rendered the past as unfinished business. Events experienced are re-experienced across time, triggered by visual and sensory associations. In an essay titled ‘The Post-modern Turn’, American cultural critic Ihab Hossan writes: “[H]istory is a palimpsest, and culture is permeable to time past, time present, and time future” (Hossan 1987: 88). Palimpsest is hence intrinsically pluralist. Places marked by the trauma that Tumarkin refers to have an ability to produce a surplus of meanings and unsolicited interpretations. They are fertile ground for artists interested in mnemonics. Echoing Tumarkin’s voice, Paul Carter states that its landscapes increasingly express a collectively self-destructive place myth.
Mildura, the central site of Palimpsest, however, is no Port Arthur, no Hiroshima. It is not a place on the geographic map synonymous with a time when the world was unequivocally changed by a cathartic event. But Mildura is, like practically all places that have had a history of human placement and displacement, a place of layered myth. It did experience the inevitable clash of culture—Aboriginal culture with the colonising European culture leading to the marginalisation of the Barkindji river groupings and the destruction of the neighbouring Latje Latje tribes.
A region one hundred kilometres due West of Mildura, at Lake Victoria (geographically located at the corner of three states) witnessed one of Australia’s notable indigenous tragedies, known as the Rufus River massacre. What followed were the 1840s pastoralists that cleared large areas of scrublands (eucalyptus Dumosa—or mallee forests) for crop production. The second wave of colonists, returning soldiers from the First World War, were given small blocks of unsustainable land that they tilled with inappropriate farming techniques. What resulted – erosion, a rising water table, the rabbit scourge, degrading soils, heat and drought – all added to the collective mythopoetica. Carter in his 2002 book Repressed Spaces: the Poetics of Agoraphobiastates that these second wave settlers experienced agoraphobia: “[T]he more they tried to drive the symptom out, the more they reproduced it. In the process of removing trees and over grazing, they advanced towards self destruction. Yet the panic to produce an ideal flatness from which every ghost of the environmental unconscious had been removed seems to have been irresistible. One unsustainable place after another is abandoned, and the ruinous wake is not picturesque” (Carter 2003: 6).
Even now, in one of the fastest growing regional cities in Australia, Mildura, the horticultural oasis, is traumatised by an economic downturn influenced by cheaper global markets, irrigation versus environmental water wars and severely declining natural ecosystems. The recent expedient decision by the Victorian Government to impose a toxic waste dump into the region confirms that the prevailing cultural terra-nullius politics continues to self perpetuate.
These are the issues that underlie much of the artwork from Palimpsest.
Neither people nor places should be thought of as entirely independent entities, writes philosopher Edward Casey. ‘[P]ersons who live in places—who inhabit or re-inhabit them—come to share features with the local landscape, but equally so, they make a difference to, perhaps indelibly mark, the land in which they dwell’ (Tumarkin 2005: 99).
Let me change tack for a moment and discuss Mildura Palimpsest prior to the plans for 2006. Palimpsest #1 in 1998 involved 25 artists. By the fourth Palimpsest, over one hundred visual artists from around the world participated. Artists from Russia, France and the USA gathered (some with a virtual presence) to work next to and in some instances in collaboration with regional artists. Collaboration has been an important motivation for artists, to work with scientists, farmers, industry and community groups. Palimpsest has captured the imagination of younger and emerging artists who are often disillusioned with the established commercial gallery system. Pragmatic conservatism, where even alternative exhibition spaces are structured on user pay principles, has attracted these artists to look beyond this establishment. Palimpsest is un-curated, inclusive, democratic, artist driven, collaborative, experimental and cross disciplinary. Despite support for an open and un-curated exhibition, the only negative impact of this is the sometimes disparate and uneven quality of the work presented. Its venues have been abandoned warehouses, fruit packing sheds, shop fronts and site-specific, as well as formal gallery spaces.
Palimpsest #3 in 2001 was combined with an ‘Artist in Industry’ project where five artworks were commissioned, as opposed to the un-curated events previously outlined. This formalised the process of interdisciplinary collaboration.
I have up until now been talking about Palimpsest in historical terms, that is the evolution of the project from 1998 to 2003.
l would now like to discuss the plans and structures established for Palimpsest 2006. It became clear that as the event grew, a new approach was needed to manage the scale and complexity of the project. Although it may sound like a contradiction, the solution was not to diminish its scale but rather to expand it. Instead of a Mildura Palimpsest, the concept was pitched to encompass the entire Murray Darling Basin. A diverse region, geographically linking four states: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. The basin is defined by a network of river systems, fed by the comparatively larger rainfall that falls along the eastern escarpment, that meander thousands of kilometres (in an east/west and north/south direction) across semi-arid lands. Ultimately, their waters flow together and then empty into the southern ocean at Goolwa in South Australia. This system of major rivers, the Murray, the Barwon/Darling, Murrumbidgee, Lachlan, the Gwyder, the MacIntyre, Condamine and the Loddon among other smaller rivers and creeks are vital to the socio and economic future of this area: a land mass of 1,061,469 square kilometres, representing 14% of the country’s total land mass. Communities across the basin share a common challenge. How does one sustain the environmental health of the rivers and their environs within the increasing demands for water by irrigators expanding into horticulture, viticulture, rice, cotton and vegetable production? When the mouth of the Murray is closed due to a lack of flow, how do you balance these competing interests?
Enter Murray Darling Palimpsest.
We do not delude ourselves that a biennale art event can solve issues of such complexity, but Palimpsest does add to the debate and raise ideas at times with surprisingly effective resonance. With Ian Hamilton, the architect of all bar one of the previous Palimpsest exhibitions, employed as project manager and a new committee of management, the project was re-invigorated. ‘Host’ organisations drawn from regional, public and commercial galleries, art schools and community-based agencies, were invited to develop their own regional projects under the aegis of Murray Darling Palimpsest. About twelve hosts and 55 artists were involved. Warwick Art Gallery, Balonne River Gallery in Queensland, Moss Vale, West Darling and Mungo in NSW, The ANU art school in Canberra, Swan Hill, Mildura Arts Centre and Gallery 25, La Trobe University in Victoria and Alexandrina City Council and the Palmer group in Sout Australia ensured that the project had wide coverage.
Queensland artist, Yvette Burge, for example, created and documented an installation called Flow signal which will be floated at various sites along the course of the Dalrymple Creek, Condamine, Balonne, Darling and Murray rivers, progressively increasing in scale in proportion to the body of water travelled through. Re-cycled timber was used, assembled to form three large floating circles of red, amber and green colour. The installation embodied the symbolism of the traffic light and therefore referenced control of flow.
All hosts, artists and artworks for Murray Darling Palimpsest#6 were linked via a website and connected during the official opening in Mildura on Friday 1st September. Installed works across the various basin sites were electronically profiled prior to a series of artists’ talks, and a symposium on the Saturday and Sunday followed the opening. A full colour catalogue documenting the event will then be launched in 2007.
In conclusion, l would like to make reference to the 2003 novel by Adelaide author, Peter Goldsworthy, Three Dog Night. The title euphemistically refers to the Australian bush analogy of the degree of warmth required to survive a cold desert night. Goldsworthy plays with a Palimpsest space. In Three Dog Night, the fictional character Martin Blackman returns with his new wife Lucy to Adelaide after 10 years away, and is reconciled with an old friend, Felix, once a brilliant surgeon, now barred from practising and changed beyond recognition. In a complex triangle of events, the three begin the darkest of all journeys. Layered with what Robert Drewe in his cover review called‘Goldsworthian disquiet’ (Goldsworthy 2003), the human capacity for love, jealousy, retribution, forgiveness, deception and fidelity are palimpsested over a journey to a mythic waterhole, only accessible through Warlpiri Aboriginal trackless country. This walk into empty space at the edge of unconsciousness, is both the navel of creation and the arsehole of the world. As Goldsworthy writes, ‘the oasis is a sinkhole of carrion, a stinking oubliette, a doorway into hell’ (Goldsworthy 2003: 307).
As Felix is granted his wish, that is to die at the void, (although in reality the void is nothing more than a cesspit), Goldsworthy is able to dream new places into being. This approach of layering human aspiration over the metaphor of place and space is an ambition shared at least with Palimpsest.
P. Carter (2003). Palimpsest #5 Catalogue (Mildura Palimpsest).
P. Carter (2002). Repressed Spaces: the Poetics of Agoraphobia (London: Reaktion).
P. Goldsworthy (2003). Three Dog Night (London: Penguin Books).
I. Hossan (1987). Towards a Concept of Postmodernism, in the Postmodern Turn (Ohio State University Press).
M. Tumarkin (2005). Traumascape (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press).