A group of artists showing sculpture in an open-air site, far from city lights. There's nothing new in that. So why make the journey out to the rain shadow country where the hills salute a rising sun and the land tilts down towards an ancient flood plain? And there to trek over stony ground under a scorching sun and squint at the horizon in the windy silences of Palmer?
The answer may lie in the lessons of the journey, that letting goof sprinkler-fed lawns and chilled shopping malls, that exchange of the have for the have-not. Being without things again, not only streets and shops and traffic lights but most of the visual reference points which remind us that we are in control of all we survey.
What better place to stand in to achieve a feeling of being without than a stretch of country that once had something and is now almost without. Walk the country and see the bones of the land sticking out through a tawny mid-summer hide. The trees, bushes and grasses that once grew across this landscape are now grouped in small pockets of fierce resistance. Nothing has been safe. Even the stones in this area have been prized from the land and sent to the city to enhance sprinkler-fed lawns.
It's country like this, borderlands stripped to the bone and given little in return, that Australian artist Fred Williams discovered when he returned from Europe looking for a place to make a stand and gouge out a sense of Australianess from scrubby done-down slabs of Vegemite-on-toast gullies and plains. Palmer, is likewise, far removed from any picturesque ideal but its magnetism is strong.
Adelaide sculptor, Greg Johns was so attracted to the area that in 2001 he purchased a section of land with the idea of establishing a place where outdoor sculpture could be sited and made. As this vision has continued to develop and with it plans to regenerate the land through replanting and land care measures, other artists have come and made art. This group comprises Ken Orchard, Clifford Frith, Michal Kluvanek, Ed Douglas, lan Hamilton and Chris Orchard, artists whose collective practice encompasses painting, drawing, printmaking and photography. While welcoming and encouraging this coalescence of interest in Palmer as a place to engender and explore ideas, Johns sees the full realisation of the vision in terms of establishing his Palmer property as a site for sculptures.
Five of his works are now permanently installed and it is anticipated that the participation of eight other sculptors over the Adelaide Festival period will create the momentum and interest to encourage other artists to participate in the program. Perhaps the spirit of Mildura Sculpturescapes past is blowing through the country.
And in the final analysis what can the viewer expect to find? Dry grass shaken by the wind or ideas clothed in shiny garments? The outcomes are uncertain because in this landscape allw the usual props like avenues, streets, doorways and corners are missing. The light is not hemmed by architecture. On a mid-summer's day the light falls like a hammer on all things beneath. Shadows shrink to slivers and small pools. Metal reflects and dissolves form. Late or early shadows run away. Unrestricted by walls, fences or buildings, the viewer may approach or view large sculptures from a long way off. Painstakingly conceived and constructed sculptures can be reduced to dashes and dots on an epic canvas defined by a land mass meeting the sky. The idea that the artwork matters or makes a difference is challenged by the visual forces massed against it. Can any work survive in these border lands and if so will it be on its own terms or on a country's which has been forced to do without so much, including art?
John Neylon, March 2004