Art Essays

From Bondi to Broken Hill

Published May 1, 1998

It was in the middle of a London winter that I first became aware of the great, abiding seductiveness of Sydney. The occasion was a trip to the movies on one of those typically grey days when a little watery sunshine appears at about 10 o’clock and is gone by half-past three. The air was moist and cold, the light was dim; the city was enveloped in an early evening haze that gave the streets a grimy, depressing aspect. In Picadilly and Soho, people hurried past on their way to tubes and buses. Everyone was swaddled in overcoats and scarves, their eyes fixed on the ground in front of them. It was the kind of atmosphere that seems so poetic in one of Whistler’s nocturnes, but the reality was more akin to that Edvard Munch painting in which hordes of zombie pedestrians shuffle along Karl Johan’s Street, every figure a study in urban paranoia.
The cinema was showing an Australian film, ‘The Last Days of Chez Nous’, and it drew a relatively small audience. Amid the muttering that accompanies the ads, it was no surprise to hear mostly Australian accents. The lights went down, the talk subsided, and then – from out of the darkness – rose a vision of blue sky and sunshine, a glimpse of Sydney Harbour and the inner suburbs. From all sides came the sound of sharp intakes of breath, followed by a long, drawn-out, collective sigh. Yet “sigh” is probably too wistful a term: this was a groan that rose slowly from thirty individual diaphrams. It was partly a cry of pain; partly an expression of immense relief, as though thirty pairs of cold feet had slid simultaneously into a warm bath. It was an expression that mingled the shock of recognition with a heartfelt longing for familiar climes.
In Australia I had never been much interested in the beach or the bush, I had never romanced about Sydney Harbour to overseas visitors. London had the superior cultural attractions of the museums, concerts and bookshops, while Sydney seemed laid-back and provincial. In a flash, with the first frames of ‘Chez Nous’, I realised my folly. Australia, and especially Sydney, was suddenly revealed as a wellspring of promise and possibility, and unquenchable optimism.
Nothing could be more essential than that dazzling Australian sunshine, no place felt more like home than Sydney on a summer’s day. One may acquire culture piece by piece, like a prize collection of postage stamps, but there is no substitute for feeling organically connected to one’s environment. The quality of life itself has a dramatic impact on the expansiveness or narrowness of one’s attitudes. In London while people dart through the cold streets, rushing from point A to point B, in Sydney, the inhabitants spend much of their lives out-of-doors. There are always people lazing in Centennial Park, or strolling along the heads at Bondi; on weekends, every patch of grass from Glebe to Vaucluse is overrun with picnickers. Or so it seemed.
Apparently this is not an unusual experience for Australian expatriates. The most famous ones, such as Robert Hughes, Jeffrey Smart or Clive James, who fled overseas in the 1950 and 60s, when their native land seemed a backwater, have never stopped returning. Indeed, their affection for the place seems to grow with age. Referring to Sidney Nolan’s migratory habits, Patrick White sarcastically claimed that Australia was the great teat on which the artist had to suck. Yet all the wellknown emigrants, including White himself, have felt the need to come back – for short stays or forever – to the country that formed their temperaments and personalities. It is not like the deep, sentimental return to Mother Russia for which generations of sad Russian exiles have yearned, it is more like a need to recharge one’s batteries – a quick surge of electricity from a city that is one of the world’s great natural dynamos.
There is virtually nothing to prevent most people coming to Sydney – no oppressive political regime, no threatening crime and poverty – nothing except a long trip on an aeroplane and a larger-than-usual fare. As I write, Sydney has just been voted the world’s most popular destination by readers of a leading travel magazine, for the third successive year. To the prodigal expatriate, personal bitterness or bad memories need not be an obstacle because few cities keep changing so rapidly, like a serpent that sheds its skin with every season. No city is more supremely indifferent to the past, to old grudges and other viewpoints. Is there another settlement of 3.7 million people, anywhere in the world, with such a short attention span? With a capacity for tolerance that is almost indistinguishable from sheer disinterest or self-absorption?
One’s feelings for Sydney can only be ambiguous. Every virtue could be interpreted as a sin, and vice-versa. In a letter, Patrick White complained that Sydney “was the blot on the Australian landscape. In some ways alive, it is full of hatefulness – and ugliness and bile.” Perhaps this made it the perfect home for the irrascible Nobel laureate. For White, as for so many Sydneysiders, much could be endured for the pleasure of living in a place that is “in some ways alive”.
For tourists the city the city is touted as the very definition of ‘aliveness’. It is portrayed as one of the world’s pleasure capitals – a place of surf and sand, bush walks, harbour cruises, shopping and gambling. Sydney’s citizens often seem happy to accept this image themselves, creating a sense that everything is to be appraised for its value as entertainment or distraction. It is, of course, a careless attitude, because it deals with problems simply by ignoring their existence. The slums of Redfern are close to the heart of the city (literally, if not figuratively), but the poverty and squalor of a largely Aboriginal underclass is treated as though it were invisible. Perhaps the unspoken hope is that the Aborigines will eventually be squeezed out by Redfern’s ongoing gentrification, just as the region’s original inhabitants, the Eora, were dissipated by the growth of the British colony. It would be a typical Sydney solution, because capital is generally regarded as the cure to all social ills, even if it might have been the cause.
In such cases Sydney reveals its unwillingness to think through a problem and act accordingly. It may be that the city accepts inertia and intellectual slovenliness like it accepts nepotism and corruption, because it is too busy attending to its own pleasures to worry about such matters. Small brushfires of indignation flare up and die down just as quickly. It is as though the very mention of a subject in the press exhausts its news value and fulfils every civic duty. This is why so much of the city’s architectural heritage of the Georgian and Regency periods has been demolished in the twentieth century, to be replaced by the concrete boxes favoured by greedy developers. This is the reason that Circular Quay – the gateway to the nation, and the birthplace of European settlement in 1788 – is an unspeakable mess. It is the reason a former Premier, Sir Robert Askin, was found to have spent his years in office taking bribes from organised crime and property speculators.
Yet the flip side is a sense of perpetual movement that permeates the life of the community. Sydney today is almost unrecognisable from the city of 1958 that John Douglas Pringle described in his book, ‘Australian Accent’. The “slummy, cheerful” working-class suburb of Paddington, is now one of Sydney’s most fashionable locations, filled with fashion stores and art galleries. The Anglo-Saxon ascendency has given way to a bewildering array of ethnic groups; a city with the crudest, most monotonous cuisine, has become a gastronomic paradise. Pringle thought Sydney had no room for its one and a half million citizens, but since then, the population has more than doubled. Every year, almost four million people visit Australia as tourists, and Sydney is their number one destination.
Sydney’s acceptance of change, its readiness to follow trends and abandon them with equal alacrity, is one of the reasons why it is a stimulating place to live. Admittedly, this stimulation may be of the same nature as the irritation experienced by an oyster when it sets about making a pearl. The city’s long-time rival, Melbourne, is a clannish, tribal place by comparison. Melbourne is far more conscious of its traditions, it takes a self-conscious pride in its cultural and intellectual achievements; it has made a better job of preserving its historic streets and buildings. Sydney, from Melbourne’s perspective, is brash and superficial; a show-off city addicted to flashy hedonism. From Melbourne it is hard to see how any work gets done in Sydney, for it seems a large proportion of the population is perpetually engaged in lunches, dinners, parties, openings, premieres and book launches. The arts provide one of the best excuses to open the champagne and hold yet another celebration.
For such charges, Sydney could not care less. It is serene in the knowledge that it has the harbour, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge; it is the place of first European settlement; the gateway to Australia for the overwhelming majority of visitors and migrants. It has more than its share of writers and artists, the best-attended art gallery in the country, and a superior press to the once-mighty Melbourne dailies. A particular cause for southern envy, is that Sydney was preferred to Melbourne as the site of the 2,000 Olympics. Perhaps one should no longer even talk about Sydney-Melbourne rivalry, because nowadays Sydney seems hardly interested in events in the southern metropolis – or anywhere else in Australia for that matter.
Sydney’s exhibitionism is endemic, its narcissicism can be infuriating, but it hardly stands still long enough to be criticised. It is a place that encourages the active, not the contemplative life. With superb understatement, the travel writer, Jan Morris observed that Sydney “does not seem an introspective place”. To survive professionally in such a milieu, one must be continually re-inventing onself, since those who threaten to inflict boredom are Sydney’s lepers. Sydney craves novelty, which may be why it has embraced a recent innovation such as the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay. The name is emblazoned on the glass doors of the George Street entrance, which part automatically to confront the visitor with the entirely appropriate words: “temporary art”. Those who regret their admission fee, may also appreciate the other part of the inscription: “The Museum of Con”. Even if its exhibitions are received indifferently, the MCA’s restaurant is always well-populated, and the functions area is in constant demand.
Another recent, and characteristic, addition to the city’s cultural pantheon is the Museum of Sydney on the Site of the First Government House (to give its full, laborious title). It is the kind of project that could have been imagined by Jorge Luis Borges: a museum whose permanent collection consists of the million bits of rubbish that were extracted from the site when the foundations for the present building were dug. As such, it is a testimony to the political will and love of display that can conjure up a museum from the mere wish to have one. The building is a postmodern temple, designed by the architects-of-the-moment, Denton Corker Marshall: the surfaces are various and beautifully-finished, the details intricately-plotted and full of coded historical meaning. The fragments extracted from the excavation are displayed in exquisite brushed-metal cabinets in which drawers slide out with a slow, hydraulic smoothness, presenting their illuminated contents in the manner of sacred fetishes. It feels rather like a high-tech pastiche of the rambling, Victorian-style accumulation of the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford.
In the forecourt of the museum, is a sculpture which resembles either a barren forest, a field of Aboriginal grave posts or surburban telegraph poles. There are inscriptions relating to the settlers of the First Fleet and their Aboriginal counterparts. Inside, the theme continues with audio-visual displays and holograms, in which actors play the roles of ghostly convict ancestors. Visitors activate invisible electronic triggers that set voices whispering and mumbling. In this multi-media environment, the traditional meditative purpose of the museum has been interrupted by the kind of diversions found in Disney theme parks. Nothing could better symbolise Sydney’s endless love affair with “progress” and “innovation”; nothing sums up, so well, the dread that one of its citizens might experience a moment’s boredom. Yet within this dazzling coccoon, there is usually a temporary exhibition in which silence and rapt concentration hold sway. As with most aspects of Sydney there are rewards if one has the stamina to withstand the initial assault, or the determination to penetrate the surface glitz.
This is most obvious in the physical appearance of the city itself – a blend of extraordinary natural beauty, combined with a built environment that ranges across an entire spectrum of taste and feeling. The poet, Kenneth Slessor, once called Sydney “a vaguer Venice”, because the life of the city is so closely bound-up with the water. It may have seemed vague because, unlike the museum that is Venice, the skyline keeps changing shape, the population and social demographics are never static. Today, rather than Venice, it would be more accurate to see Sydney as Dallas with an ocean frontage.
The harbour has always been Sydney’s chief glory, and a harbour view the most desirable feature of any piece of real estate. Yet it has frequently seemed as though planners, developers, architects and builders and were determined to block out every trace of blue. An architectural barrier has risen ever higher around the foreshores, until many celebrated views have been obliterated. That fence has been growing steadily from the earliest days of settlement. It was an eye-sore in 1883, when the British traveller, Richard Twopenny, praised the harbour, but complained about the “thoroughly untidy look” of Sydney. “One feels quite angry with the town,” he writes, “for being unworthy of its site.”
Despite everything, the harbour is irrepressible. Another Victorian traveller, the novelist, Anthony Trollope, declared it “so inexpressibly lovely that it makes a man ask himself whether it would not be worth his while to move his household goods to the eastern coast of Australia, in order that he might look at it as long as he can look at anything.”
Even in 1871, Trollope noted that every man and woman in Sydney asked his opinion of the harbour, albeit in a slightly shamefaced way, as though they would have liked to draw his attention to some major feat of public works. Nature and culture were already waging war in the minds of Sydney’s inhabitants, as their love of the harbour and surrounds vied with their desire to appear progressive and “world-class”. The result is a game of hide-and-seek, in which one is always likely to turn a corner and catch a glimpse of distant ocean between buildings.
The harbour is a constant presence in Australian art and literature. It is the dark shroud that engulfs the drowning man in Slessor’s poem, ‘Five Bells’, but it is usually portrayed in celebratory colours. Its presence is so overwhelming, it forces itself on everyone’s attention. To the hero of Murray Bail’s novel, ‘Holden’s Performance’, who has just arrived in Sydney, the harbour “appeared to be never-ending. It filled the hollows and gaps, water finding its own level, it leaked into the corners of his eyes whichever way he turned. Deep! The lapping mass glittered and penetrated, lapping at the descending layers of terracotta houses, submerging the boards of the wooden jetties, slap-slapping sullenly at rocks, a heavy mass, narrowing the main road into an isthmus. Water everywhere. It shortened the side streets into dead ends.”
Any painting of Sydney Harbour seems assured of popularity, and those late nineteenth century views by Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder are among the lasting icons of Australian art. In more recent times, Brett Whiteley painted Lavender Bay as a Matissean idyll, while Ken Done made his name, and laid the foundation of a business empire, with a rapid sketch of the harbour, incorporating Harbour Bridge, Opera House, and a flotilla of tiny boats. On thousands of T-shirts that sketch has carried the essential symbols of Sydney to all corners of the earth.
Sydney presents a living anthology of strong, memorable images. It is an eminently photogenic city, a place that never ceases posing for the camera. While the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House are the two unmistakable trademarks, a multitude of tourists make their way straight to Bondi Beach – and are disappointed. For such a famous stretch of sand, Bondi is not a glamorous sight. Many first-time visitors expect rows of swaying palms and a street lined with expensive restaurants attended by waiters in white jackets. The reality they find unprepossessing, if not downright shabby; but this never occurs to the locals, who could not imagine Bondi as an exclusive, boutique suburb. Bondi’s sprawl of middle-class flats and bungalows with terracotta roofs; its low-priced eateries; its mix of ethnic groups, from Maoris to Hasidic jews, are all part of its charm. The casual nature of Bondi is a mark of its democratic ethos, and by extension, a microcosm of Australia’s all-pervasive egalitarianism. It has often been remarked that swimming costumes are a great leveller of social hierarchies, and one might see Bondi as the ultimate national melting pot. This statement could be taken literally in the middle of summer, when the beach is covered in sunbathers oozing sweat and charring themselves brown
A first glimpse of Bondi may not take one’s breath away, but it is an insinuating place. Along Campbell Parade, which runs parallel to the beach, cafe society is in full swing, day and night. The car park next to the sand is not attractive, but it is tremendously convenient; the large pavilion that connects the land with the beach is run-down but homely. People sit entranced on its concrete steps, gazing out to sea. Stepping out of the blazing sun and into its shade, is probably one of the city’s more comforting experiences.
Along its length, Bondi divides into informal groups of surfers, children on boogie boards, swimmers and paddlers, watched over by the ever-present lifesavers. The beach is frequented by young and old, rich and poor, families and lone bathers. It is an arena for teenage mating rituals, frequented by groups of young people from the most distant suburbs. Bodies are bared and displayed with exhibitionistic intent, eyes dart back and forth behind sunglasses. For those who want simply to swim or surf there are plenty of less populous beaches, but the crowds are an integral part of Bondi’s attraction. On the sands of Bondi, Sydney discovers its own startling human diversity. Had Federico Fellini emigrated to Leichhardt or East Sydney, like so many of his countrymen after the Second World War, at Bondi he might have found inspiration for his films – particularly on those days when the annual ‘Sculpture by the Sea’ competition decorates the foreshores with artworks of every persuasion.
The walk along those foreshores, to the neighbouring beaches of Tamarama and Bronte, is one of Sydney’s favourite promenades. From a distance, one look backs on Bondi as a sweeping panorama of sand and surf, speckled with frying bodies. The number of dogs one meets on this path, is an indication of Bondi’s friendliness. Rather than trying to stop owners from taking their pets along the heads, the council has settled for providing clean-up facilities.
Bondi is one of Sydney’s safety valves: a strip of sand where relaxation is mandatory, where the anxieties and pretentions of work and class are stripped away. Few other parts of the city are so blissfully uncomplicated – certainly not Circular Quay, with its illegible tangle of office blocks, train station and motorway; nor the eclectic, Beaux-Arts architecture of the Town Hall, nor the facade of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where an attempt at neo-classical dignity is undermined by a prominent ribbon of blank rectangles intended for bas-reliefs that have never been added. The great masters are represented only by their names – “Canova, Jean Goujon, Michael Angelo” and so on – the lack of any visual equivalent acts as an unsettling reminder of how few old master works there are in the gallery’s collection. The facade confesses that there is nothing by Michelangelo to be seen in Australia. It is probably an omission that worries Sydney people less than it did in Trollope’s era. Few citizens today would willingly swap Bondi Beach for the Sistine Chapel.
Despite a few hopeful forays – the Art Gallery of NSW, the Post Office on Martin Place, the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park – Sydney is emphatically not a neo-classical city. It has never been the centre of a grandiose imperial enterprise, and was rarely secure about its role as a loyal subject of the former British empire. Sydney is conscious that it has been grafted artificially onto the Australian coast, with a manmade environment that has always been overshadowed by the natural one. The city’s motto is “I Take but I Surrender”, which is at least debatable, but it could easily be “Carpe Diem!”
Sydney has an air of nervous, protean impermanence. Only the harbour seems fixed and eternal, although it may be just as hard to imagine the city without Bridge or Opera House, or Bondi Beach. If one had to find an art movement that matched Sydney’s style, it would not be neo-classicism, with its reverence for the past, but Surrealism. So much of the city seems to have grown up instinctively, not by planning or calculation, that it seems like one vast emanation of the collective unconscious of its citizens. It is as amorphous as one of Dali’s melting watches or Tanguy’s rubbery  blobs of protoplasm. Sydney practises the revolution of everyday life without ever feeling the need for a manifesto. It is also, incidentally, the home of Australia’s leading Surrealist painter, James Gleeson who, from his home in the sleepy suburb of Northbridge, creates apocalyptic visions of the seashore metamorphosing into a mass of seething, demonic lifeforms.
If these demons are recognisably Sydney’s, it is appropriate that, like everybody else, they spring from the heart of suburbia and congregate by the sea.
In the words of Frank Clune, prolific writer of pot-boilers, and himself a Sydney legend, “Australia consists of Sydney and the bush”. The repetition of this old saw has given Sydney a reputation for arrogance, but in the early days of settlement it was literally true: there was only the youthful, fragile prison town, and the menacing, unknown wastes. Convicts would wander into the forest, never to be seen again; cattle strayed and bred naturally beyond the outskirts of settlement. Until Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson found a path across the Blue Mountains in 1813, the colony was sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and seemingly impenetrable bush. The choice between Sydney and the bush, was initially a question of life and death.
As settlers made their way into the interior, especially into the slopes and plains west of the Great Dividing Range, the distinction softened, and became a matter of social anthropology. Depending on one’s point-of-view, Sydney represented everything that was progressive and cosmopolitan; it was the home of government, business, the arts and education. The bush, by contrast, was all backwardness and hardship, where lives ebbed away in backbreaking toil and provincial narrowness. Australia’s two great poets of the 1890s, Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, debated the issue in verse, painting the bush in the most brutal and heroic colours respectively.
From the farmer or grazier’s perspective, life on the land was a wholesome and natural one. The city was merely a necessary evil, a place to visit once a year for the Royal Easter Show or other business. Wealthy graziers would send their children to be educated in Sydney’s boarding schools, but expect them to return and take up their duties on the land. It was dangerous to linger, because everyone knew that Sydney’s mask of sophistication concealed a swamp of sin and decadence.
Their liason between the city and the country is still uneasy, but both sides accept the yin and yang of their relationship. Many city dwellers have sought out the mythical innocence of the backblocks, while country people like the novelist, Miles Franklin, fled to the city at the first available opportunity. Her lament at the beginning of ‘My Career Goes Bung’ gives the flavour of her frustrations: “A wallaby would have done just as well as a human being to endure the nothingness of existence as it has been known to me.”
Nowadays, the bush seems a more benign place, and increasing numbers of Sydneysiders feel compelled to explore the vast hinterland of New South Wales. It is not a trackless waste, but a network of highways stretching from the capital to Broken Hill – a distance of 1,158 kilometres, by the shortest, fastest route. There must be few travellers though, who can stick to that route, ignoring smaller roads and local distractions – not least the vineyards of Mudgee or the Hunter Valley, or the dilapidated gold mining towns of Hill End and Sofala, in the vicinity of Bathurst. If one travels for three or four hundred kilometres per day, every evening is greeted by a completely different kind of sunset, and every morning by a new landscape. As evening falls the kangaroos gather by the side of the road; during the day one sees their carcasses where they have collided with trucks and cars.
No part of the journey may be more exilharating than the moment one realises Sydney’s monotonous brick suburbs have finally been left behind, but the sense of freedom gradually increases as the lush forests of the Blue Mountains give way to the grassy fields of the western slopes; then to the dry, sparse scrub on the road to Cobar; and finally the flat desert landscape near Broken Hill.
Leaving Sydney means saying farewell to the endless distractions and entertainments, the restaurants and the ocean, but one may also be escaping unseasonable humidity and an unrelenting tide of commitments. No road through the Sydney suburbs could be described as a scenic, but Parramatta Road, which becomes the Great Western Highway, is the city’s large intestine. To proceed down this highway in bumper-to-bumper traffic, is to run a gauntlet of used car yards, shops and factories, that gives a graphic idea of Sydney’s population boom, and the infrastructure required to support it. Having come through this purgatory, the lonely country roads seem as replete with wonder as the Void of the  oriental mystics or the Rosicrucians.
The quietness of the bush has often been seen as conducive to melancholy. It the site of bitter hardship in Henry Lawson’s stories, a desolate stage bathed in eerie twilight in Russell Drysdale’s paintings. Some of the best of Drysdale’s work sprang from Hill End, which was the largest inland settlement in New South Wales in 1872, at the height of the gold rushes. Only two years later, the frenzy had subsided and decline set in. By the 1920s all company mining had ceased, and the town was patronised by only the most dogged prospectors. Hill End may have been was saved from turning into a ghost town, by the arrival of artists such as Drysdale, Donald Friend, Paul Haefliger and Jean Bellette in the late 1940s. They responded to the unique atmosphere, which presented Australia’s closest equivalent to the “pleasing decay” sought out by the European Romantics. Friend bought a house and took up residence.
Today that decay has been arrested, but the town is still barely inhabited. Little has changed since the days of Friend and Drysdale, and artists are still attracted to the scarred landscape and the ghostly remnants of Hill End’s glory days. There are not many parts of Australia where the sense of history remains so strong, nor the sense of loss so palpable. While the capital seems to think only of the future, never looking back; a town like Hill End has only the past. Part of its melancholy is the suspicion that it predicts the destiny of many another country hamlet. In recent years, rural life has grown ever harder, thanks to the droughts brought by El Nino and Australia’s efforts to scale down its reliance on primary industry. Farmers go broke, mines close down, banks and other services withdraw from unprofitable country areas, and towns die slowly.
It is widely accepted that the country is going through a crisis that can not be credited to the seasonal devastations of fire, drought and flood. The visitor may not notice any symptoms in prosperous-looking centres such as Bathurst and Orange, but Lithgow, which is even closer to Sydney, has felt obliged to start a campaign to restore civic spirit. In a recent newspaper story, a spokesman for the city referred hopefully to a “Tidy Town” award, as though it were a panacea for economic recession.
The real despair sets in when one follows the Mitchell and Barrier highways through Nyngan, to Cobar – another town threatened by the recent closure of a mine; and then to Wilcannia. There is simply no avoiding Wilcannia: it is an essential petrol stop on the the way to Broken Hill, but it is a desperately sad place. It thrived briefly as a mining town in the 1870s, when a series of stately public buildings were erected, but drought, rabbit plague and recession took their toll, and it was bypassed by the railway line that linked Broken Hill to the eastern cities. Before the white explorers arrived in 1829, Wilcannia was the home of Aboriginal tribes, who had been in the area for thousands of years. Within one or two generations, these people had been dispossessed of their land, and employed as labourers on sheep and cattle stations. The majority of Wilcannia’s present-day population is descended from these people, who still seem like exiles in their own country. Although a large area of land in the region has since been put back in Aboriginal hands, it is an uphill battle to restore pride and vitality to a town that retains a beautiful setting on the banks of the Darling, and a sprinkling of handsome buildings.
Broken Hill, the end of the journey, is in a far more robust state than most of its neighbours – if one may use such a term when the nearest town, Menindee, is 110 kilometres away. The Silver City, as it has been known since its earliest days, still has the atmosphere of a thriving frontier town, where silver, lead and zinc have been mined by the Broken Hill Proprietary Company since 1885. Local history is bound up with the history of the BHP company, and the militant mining unions who won many concessions from their all-powerful employer. The town’s greatest chronicaller was the naive artist Sam Byrne (1883-1978), but its most famous is the bush painter and entrepreneur, Pro Hart, whose versatility and showmanship have made him one of the very few Australian artists who could be called “a household name”. The artist’s private museum has a startling collection of Australian and international work, intermingled with Hart’s own creations. The blend of quality and kitsch is a genuine tourist attraction.
It is almost a cliché to describe Broken Hill as an “oasis” in the midst of a harsh landscape. After the drive from Wilcannia of almost 200 kms, the city certainly feels like a wondrous apparition. Although it has less than 30,000 inhabitants, it seems much bigger, and the spacious, elegant streets have not succumbed to the mania for new brick shopping centres that has disfigured so many country towns. The gaggle of folk painters who have made their home in Broken Hill, has given the city a reputation as an art centre, and the state government has provided funding to consolidate that impression. It is assumed that given sufficient fertilisation, culture will flourish in the wilderness, like the briliant red patches of Sturt’s Desert Pea that grow on the outskirts of town.
Already, Broken Hill is preparing for the day, perhaps twenty years from now, when the mines are exhausted. Tourism will then play a more crucial role in the local economy, and the town may take on the aspect of a museum. If and when this happens, the city may find that it has more in common with watery Venice than Sydney does. While Broken Hill’s most prominent body of water is probably the local swimming pool, the surrounding desert landscape is only another kind of ocean. Like Venice, the Silver City is an island where time can be made to stand still.
Essay for Rex Dupain: From Bondi to Broken Hill, a book of photographs, May 1998