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The drive to Art

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We drove from Kalgoorlie to Lake Ballard in search of Anthony Gormley’s sculptures. This is an account of the trip itself and it asks what is it that drives us to art?

Kalgoorlie is a mining town, actually it is an out back town 7 hours by train from Perth, the nearest metropolis. It is very like a frontier town in the spirit of the ‘Wild Wild West’. The main street, Hannan Street, has a number of grand hotels with ornate balustrades overlooking the street.  And, the bedrooms, open unto these verandahs. Any moment now, you imagine a fight on the verandah, gun slinging cowboys and men falling down unto the road below, and splintering balustrade with wood flying everywhere. It mustn’t have been that different in the early days of the 20th century here on Hannan Street. The gold rush started in late 1800s and by 1902 the town was full of ambitious, aggressive people or people with a big dream of gold and wealth. Today, the town has the air of a worn and weary dress that has been to the best parties, that has danced with the handsomest men, that has soaked up sweat and perfume but that has now yielded to the second hand market in a bazaar in the back of beyond.

There are two working brothels left on Hay Street, a reduction from 6 just 20 years ago when the whole street was valiant and strident as it displayed women with one who stood on the street inviting customers in as they still do today in many parts of the world. One of the brothels had a red light, a fluorescent lamp above its doorway and the other a blue light. Both were housed in a shed, a wooden building with a tin roof. When we walked past, one of the women was dressed in her negligee, walking with a cup of tea or cocoa in hand. This was brothel life at its most prosaic. There was no long line of sailors or miners restive in the queue. Just us, and then a car of middle class voyeurs, a couple and one parent, who stopped to breathe in the intoxicating air of sensuality, the mystery of brothel life. Were they aroused? What is secret and hidden held to our gaze, to satisfy not merely our curiosity but our repressed desires, our guilt and our urge to transgress.

Past Hannan hotel, we stopped to read the plate that told of the race riots of 1934. Jordan, a well-liked miner had insulted the barmaid whilst in an inebriated state and had been warned several times to desist from his intolerable behaviour before being told to leave. Next day he came back and a scuffle ensued during which he was pushed and he fell, knocking his head on the pavement and dying of a broken skull. Two days of rioting commenced. The British settlers shooting and killing southern European and Slavic immigrants. Hannan hotel was itself burnt down, it is said, because the immigrants cut the hosepipe of the fire engine.

On the outskirts of town is the Super pit, the largest open cast-mining site in the world. It is several kilometers long and several more deep. This is an inverted, cylindrical pyramid, cathedral to gold mining. The colours shade from brown through yellow and rust red to crimson and then blue-grey granite, to black. Gold is extracted as efficiently and totally as current technology permits. It is estimated to last until 2021. All the stories here are of nugget finds, prospectors staking their claim, crime and murder. But above all, the beauty and prestige of gold, its romance and power to lure and allure.

We drove to Menzies and stopped briefly. Menzies is a desolate place. Anthony Gormley has cast the 51 residents in rusting iron and placed them in Lake Ballard. For posterity. Menzies has one bar and we stopped to use the toilet. We were served by an Irish woman, thin and ill-used. Standing behind the bar waiting to serve the unlikely tourist, never knowing whether any would turn up. She was still cheerful though. On the wall was a sheet of an Irish dictionary of medical terms:  Cauterize (caught her eyes), Dilate (stay alive longer), colon (a punctuation), coma (a punctuation), etc. Across the road from the bar was the only shop in town, now shut for the day. A stocky aborigine strolled past it, his walk was a rolling from side to side, all loose limbed. Just down the road was a play space with bouncy castle, and other rides festooned with banners reading  ‘Menzies Awareness Day’! There was the solitary child on a swing, not much of a day, then. To imagine that this was the equivalent of a shire/county headquarters. Bleak and sorry.

We drove 51 kilometres from Menzies to Lake Ballard. The road was uncovered laterite red with the dust billowing behind us and ahead of us on the few occasions when we were overtaken. On the map, Lake Ballard lay to our left but we did not see it shielded as it was by vegetation. There were surprising and sudden glimpses of bulls and cattle. Black and self satisfied, these animals grazed on the tussock-like grass or walked as on a Sunday promenade in Barcelona across the road without any caution or care. Lake Ballard itself was mostly dry. The lakebed was a white crust of salt on bare laterite red. Gormley ‘s sculptures were laid out across the lakebed. Thin stick like figures. The male ones had their penises stiff against the wind. The females, their breasts on stalks like fruit borne on the chest without any risk of flopping southwards with age. The iron was already rusting reddish ferric brown. Against the light the statues were stately even proud. They cast long shadows, thin, in the evening sun. I am not sure what essence Gormley was trying to capture or depict but the each figure was strangely solitary and insulated from the others. Is this how our lives are, ultimately? Strangers to one another even if we live in a small town of 51 souls. Terrible.

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What urge did this drive satisfy? There is quite a literature on why human beings create art but far less why we attend to art. Was it the journey, the actual drive that was satisfying, providing opportunity for self-reflection or was there something about the art itself, some ineffable something that we grasped at, reaching for an object in the external world that points back inwards, to our subjective world? And, why was that satisfying?

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Photos by Jan Oyebode

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