Sharne Wolff takes a trip out west to take a look at some very lonely figures…
If I look toward the horizon and squint I can make out human figures. First one, then another, like dead trees after a fire. Each of them stands in the misty beyond – dark, proud and very, very still.
I never expected to be here – poised precariously on the muddy surface of Lake Ballard, 50 kilometres from the town of Menzies in Western Australia which, according to a sign at the local roadhouse, is ‘a Bloody long way from anywhere’. The roadhouse closed a while ago and petrol is purchased by credit card from several lonely bowsers. There must be other people here – there are small signs of life and the faded door of the only hotel is open – but we see no one as we roll in from Kalgoorlie in our hire vehicle, a Toyota Landcruiser with a flashing light on top, a fluorescent orange flag on the roof and an imposing black bull bar. We all laugh when it’s first delivered to our hotel, but the joke’s on us when we realise it’s the same as a dozen or so others parked outside the Vietnamese baker when we pull up to grab some lunch for the trip. The family has no idea where we’re going and are probably now wishing they’d said ‘no way’ when I mentioned the idea. My husband is used to my crazy ideas. He doesn’t mind testing the brand new Toyota on dirt roads either.
Four years ago, on holidays with several families and an author friend, Ed Chatterton, we had a discussion about his first adult novel. He’d just started writing a thriller, set in Liverpool, England and in several Australian locations. The book would also be about art. Specifically, the plot (and a dead body) was to be wrapped around sculptural installations by British sculptor Antony Gormley – ‘Another Place’ (Liverpool) and ‘Inside Australia’ (Lake Ballard). Ed told me what he knew about ‘Inside Australia’. Curiosity stirred, I researched it on the internet, bought Gormley’s book and couldn’t get the idea out of my head.
Fast forward to July this year. A long flight to Perth, seven hours by fast train to Kalgoorlie and two more hours on the road zooming past gold mines, we see an unimposing sign with an arrow ‘Lake Ballard 55K’s’. A well-made road of red dirt leads us further east of Menzies. An hour later here we are – standing in the middle of a damp salt lake, far inside Australia, wearing wedge heels of red mud. Signs warn us to take 5 litres of water and sunscreen onto the lake. The temperature can reach 50 degrees out here. But today the heat’s no problem and instead gloves, warm coats and cosy scarves are a must. It’s freezing.
Sean Doran, Artistic Director of Perth International Arts Festival, commissioned Gormley to produce the sculptures in celebration of the Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2003. Gormley had a grand vision but the process wouldn’t be easy. The artist door-knocked the residents of Menzies (a total of 62 at the time) asking them to be his subjects. It was important to the integrity of the work that his subjects be local. After some initial difficulty persuading the participants (miners and pastoralists – indigenous and non-indigenous locals) to strip for full body scans, he scanned each person and digitally reduced their horizontal mass by two thirds. A Perth foundry produced the steel sculptures based on patterns made from the scans. The traditional owners of the land – people of the Wangkathaa language group – granted permission for the (then temporary) installation.
Fifty-one sculptures were made, fired and eventually installed on the Western edge of the lake according to intricate plans drawn up by Gormley. At a distance the Insiders appear identical but at close range individual faces and attributes are evident. They stretch out almost 360 degrees around an ironstone mound on the western edge of the lake, up to 10 kilometres in all directions.
The figures are arranged with random perfection. Their placing reminds me of Ian McLean’s description of the notion of the picturesque. That is, one which doesn’t seek the ‘absolute wildness of the sublime’ or the ‘clean symmetry of the neo classical’ but a way between the two. No one figure directly faces another but their silent conversation can almost be heard in soft murmuring ripples across the landscape. There’s a beautiful sense of community.
No one seems to know why Gormley chose this specific place for ‘Inside Australia’ although he’s said he was trying to ‘leave himself behind’ – to distance himself as far as possible from the usual context of art. The lake is animated by the Insiders’ presence and it’s this immersive experience of mind and body Gormley wanted to achieve. Without this place, Lake Ballard, the Insiders are dispossessed of this meaning. They evoke a sense of belonging in and to the land and its spirit, indigenous and non-indigenous subjects alike. They speak silently about a sense of place, the potential for healing and reconciliation, and harmony with nature. I have to wonder however that if, as ‘outsiders’, we’re imposing meaning on those who are more acquainted with the land than we are.
Although the earth is red below us, colours oscillate as they stretch towards the horizon. A mirage of whites, blues and greys vibrate and reflect the sky. Lake Ballard stretches to infinity. Meanwhile the Insiders are still. Far. Inside. Australia.
Sharne Wolff was (unfortunately) not the guest of Qantas, Tourism WA or Menzies Shire Council. Ed Chatterton’s new thriller ‘A Dark Place to Die’ was launched at the Byron Bay Writers festival last week.
Antony Gormley ‘Inside Australia’ 2002/3
Lake Ballard, near Menzies, Western Australia.
Permanent sculptural installation.