Catalogue essay for ‘Draw a Wire Fence and a Few Ragged Gums’ by Alex Pye
Archive Space, September 2013
‘There is nothing on earth more desolate than its stony plains and bare clay-pots.’
– J. W. Gregory, professor of geology, University of Glasgow, 1906, on travelling to Lake Eyre.
The idea that the centre of this continent is stony and barren is an odd Australian dream. Australia is a place where contemporary life clings to a foreign wilderness. From colonialism to late capitalism, our ideas and ways of living are indelibly shaped by this wilderness we don’t understand, in ways we don’t understand. The colonial explorers who ventured past the coastal perimeter, like J.W. Gregory, could only see what they thought of as “the dead heart of Australia”. Yet, as young writer Andre Dao asked, “if we conceive of the heart of Australia as dead, what does that make us?”
An artist working outside the city, Alex Pye knows that we are bereft of a neatly inherited land mythology. Colonial Australia has done it’s best to obliterate Indigenous lore and culture and the land mythologies that accompany it, and yet the imported ones from the Western canon are maladjusted to this place. We are expatriates at home. This alienation is more easily glossed over in the city, where we toss ourselves from appointment to appointment, and faithfully beep our way through Coles self-service checkouts. But in Cumnock, Cabonne County, NSW, the town where Alex lives and works, the absence of a grand narrative for understanding the physical environment is confronting. Pronouncing the word ‘environment’ also means calling on another word, ‘obsolescence’. Cumnock, population 288, was once a hectic rural metropolis of sheep and cattle trade. It’s commercial heartbeat now lies in the local pub, the Royal Hotel, and the bowlo. Empty farm-houses line the main street, which wrinkles out into low, dry fields around the inactive Molong-to-Dubbo train line. There’s even a typically ersatz golf course, straw-coloured and usually empty.
Cumnock is beautiful, in its own way. The light is hard and piercing, and the quiet is extreme. For artists, this is gold – there is time and space to think and look and make work. Cumnock’s beauty is as far from J.W. Gregory’s “dead heart” as it is from the Edenic picture of rolling green English hills. The traditional art-history way of looking simply does not apply here. That way of looking cast a perspective on the land that has filtered through, however ill-fittingly, to contemporary artists and Australians. The Australian imagination remains bound, and even the name of this state, New South Wales, betrays the clumsily imposed British narrative that continues to suffocate Australia’s modern history.
Alex’s contribution to a new grand narrative for Australia’s landscapes is to extract functioning tools from her parents’ farm – a rabbit trap, a tractor – and transform them into abstracted art objects by dissecting them, powder-coating them with polymer paint in bold, neon colour and installing them sculpturally in antiseptic, inner-city gallery spaces. Through this industrial reprocessing, we see a trap lying in wait, an array of objects lost from one world but not yet found in another.
‘The Dead Heart of Australia: A Journey Around Lake Eyre in the Summer of 1901-1902, with Some Account of the Lake Eyre Basin and the Flowing Wells of Central Australia’, John Walter Gregory. Published by John Murray, 1906.