When your Prime-Minister is admiring a McDonalds in Ohio while other world leaders are attending a United Nations summit on climate change, it gives a pretty clear indication of the importance this government assigns to environmental policy. The PM likes to present himself as a real Aussie bloke and his solution to global warming could hardly be more true-blue: “She’ll be right, mate!”
Scientists are warning of many disasters in the making, but on the Darling River the effects of government policy are already being felt. In River on the Brink: Inside the Murray Darling Basin, at the S.H.Ervin Gallery, curator, Gavin Wilson has brought together works by 25 contemporary artists united in their outrage at what has been happening to the Darling – or as the locals call it “the Barka” – near Wilcannia.
The roll call includes locals such as Badger Bates, Ruby Davies, and Eddy Harris; and frequent visitors to the region such as Idis Murphy, Luke Sciberras, Euan Macleod and Elisabeth Cummings. The show features paintings, photographs, carvings, and even an engraved stele by the versatile Ian Marr, whose family property is only 30 kms from Wilcannia.
The Barka, which has been central to the lives of inhabitants of the area for thousands of years is now effectively dead: a great, dusty trench gouged out of the earth. A number of works in this show were painted while standing in the dry river bed. In the e-catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Guy Maestri gives a vivid description of the experience:
“It feels wrong to be here. I should not be able to set up at the bottom of this massive empty river, looking up at its thirty-foot high banks. It feels like some mysterious force is holding back all the water upstream and at any moment it will all come flooding down, collecting me and anything else in its path.”
There is a mysterious force holding back all that water. It’s called ‘money’. Despite the government’s best efforts to blame everything on the drought it doesn’t require a scientific analysis to figure out that when gigantic volumes of water are extracted from the Darling and held prisoner by corporate interests, it might have a slightly damaging effect on the water flow.
If the water still surged like it did in W.C.Piguenit’s Flood on the Darling, 1890 (1895), the big cotton and rice growers might take as much as they liked. In a hotter, dryer world such appropriations are clearly not sustainable. Aside from the devastation wrought on the environment there is a moral issue as to whether the Darling, which belongs to everyone, can and should be privatised by big business so share-holders may profit at the expense of communities such as Wilcannia.
None of this seems to concern those same politicians who care so deeply about our “religious freedoms”. But for indigenous people the land itself is a religious experience, no less sacred than “private property”. In this region the traditional owners are called the Barkandji and their very identity is bound up with the river.
What can a bunch of artists do in the face of brazen corporate greed and political indifference? Only what artists have been doing since time immemorial – pursuing a vision of the world that touches something in the hearts and minds of those who view their work. It could be called ‘consciousness-raising’ but in this instance it’s more of a lament for a landscape and a community that are being put to death by degrees.
Ever the activist, Ben Quilty goes for a frontal attack with a monstrous diptych showing a cartoonish figure with spikey blue hands standing in the landscape. In Wilcannia, Zombie Rorschach he implies that we, the white invaders, are the zombies who have drained the life out of this place. If Quilty intended to paint an ugly picture, he’s succeeded. It’s certainly not one of his masterpieces.
Euan Macleod’s paintings are more wilfully symbolic, showing a group of six faceless men carrying a rowboat down the the empty river bed. We’re witnessing a funeral procession but it’s the river that’s being laid to rest.
One of the most powerful images in this show is Ruby Davies’s staged photo, Water as life: the town of Wilcannia and Darling/Barka 20 August 2007. It shows the citizens of the town standing in the dry river bed, as if they’ve gathered to investigate the miraculous disappearance of all that water. Over the past decade the situation has only gotten worse.
Another eye-catching photo was taken by Melissa Williams-Brown, who portrays performance artist, Bonita Ely, floating in a pool of water in Menindee, surrounded by dead fish. The pose is borrowed from John Everett Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite classic, Ophelia, but it suggests that when a million fish can die in a once healthy river, we’re tolerating policies with suicidal implications.
Julie Harris aims to convey a similar message in a abstract painting called The Churning (2019), in which vigorous sweeps of the brush conjure up dying fish thrashing about in a muddy pool. The pale, almost monochrome appearance of this work seems more stark than most of the other paintings in this exhibition, in which artists have worked hard to find traces of beauty in a harsh setting.
Luke Sciberras’s When the river runs dry (2018), for instance, crams an extraordinary amount of colour into a view of the dessicated Barka. The same might be said of John R.Walker’s paintings that use small, coloured highlights to offset depictions of a vast, hot landscape. Justine Muller’s pictures made from pigments and ochres are as moody as German expressionist watercolours.
The artists may be angered and saddened by what they see in the Murray-Darling basin but they have little desire to make propaganda. The issue is clear enough but a work of art has to be more than a political statement. The best way to view River on the Brink is as a creative contribution to a groundswell of public concern about the environment that is growing larger by the day. One wonders how many more fish, how many more communities, will have to die before our leaders feel that tide lapping at their heels.
River on the Brink: Inside the Murray Darling Basin
S.H.Ervin Gallery, 20 September – 3 November, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5 October, 2019