'Palimpsest’ is a veritable tongue twister, but it translates to a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that it can be used again. The Mildura Palimpsest Biennale (1998-present) follows in the wake of the groundbreaking Mildura Sculpture Triennials curated by Tom McCullough (1970-78),1 a site specific cultural experiment that is said to have left an indelible mark on Australian art history.2 These earlier Triennials were true to their seventies context, a period of freedom, experimentation and diversity of style.3 Selected works expressed a range of approaches from intellectual formalism, to spontaneous assemblage, from the permanence of the object, to the ephemeral nature of a performance. The Triennials were widely viewed as an extraordinary experiment.4
Many years have elapsed since 1978 when the Mildura City Council declared the Mildura Sculpture Triennial catalogue to be in breach of its ban on ‘nudity, pornography, obscenity and blood-letting’ and burned all remaining copies. Among other things, the catalogue included illustrations of Nick Spill’s photograph Art in the Hands of Capitalism, which depicted the artist and his girlfriend simulating sex in a rather satirical way. Ironically it also included letters to the Council from artist Peter Tyndall questioning the Council’s right to ban artists from experimenting with boundaries. Facsimile copies were later sold at the Mildura Arts Centre.5
The current organisers view the Palimpsest exhibitions as taking up the thread of history from the earlier Triennials. According to the curator, Helen Vivian,
The now global Mildura Biennale offers artists and audiences an opportunity to explore new ground, unexamined territories of great cultural and national significance, (such as Lake Mungo National Park and World Heritage Area and the confluence of the Murray and Darling Rivers), and invites people to be curious about inland Australia and the great transformations that have shaped this country.6
Mildura Palimpsest Biennale #9 took place over four days in October 2013 and included performance art, site-specific work, durational work, installation, sound sculpture, video and film by some fifty artists in fifteen locations around Mildura. This article reviews a selection of works, while questioning the degree of continuity with the earlier Triennials. While perhaps less experimental and cutting edge than the earlier Triennials, this experiential festival nevertheless included some thought provoking works.
Mildura Palimpsest fits comfortably into the current era of cultural tourism—a three-day event in Mildura coinciding with the country music festival. It felt a little like a food and wine tour where art was the highlight of the tastings. This was not exactly what Tom McCullough had in mind with the earlier Triennials but fits neatly with a 21st century agenda where experiential culture is marketed and the mainstream starts to acclaim socially engaged art.7 Participants were bussed to various locations to participate in forums and events and to see a varied mix of site-specific installations, such as David Burrows’ spectacular Mirage Project [salt] (2013). A series of stereoscopic viewers mounted on poles were installed across the saltpan at Lake Ranfurly. Visitors walked long distances to see an unfolding mirage, as each stereoscopic view opened into a parallel world of cool Antarctic ice. The sensuous detail of the ice created a visually immersive experience for the viewer who crossed the terrain on a scorching hot day.
While contrasts can be drawn with the radicalism of the earlier Triennials, Palimpsest #9 was not without its own controversy. Those who flew into Mildura encountered Bindi Cole’s billboard, which had the Mildura Airport Authority demanding its removal. In a clever but hardly subtle parody of the well-known Viagra billboard advertising ‘Longer Lasting Sex’, this artwork, in Aboriginal colours, states,
Want Longer Lasting Love? Reconciliation is not holding onto each other’s wrongs. Love is personal. It requires a touch, an embrace, a heart. Dare to know each other.
Later the Airport Authority said they had been confused and, after discussion with one of the event directors, were ‘satisfied that it meets our criteria’, noting that: ‘when you really look at it, we don’t think it’s offensive’.8 While this is hardly on par with the book burning which followed the 1978 Triennial, this is a powerful work that cuts to the core of Australia’s cultural heritage and addresses the heart of reconciliation.
On my arrival in Mildura I received a phone call from a Queensland friend who had relatives who lived in Mildura. When I told her where I was she immediately asked me if Mildura still had the longest bar in the world. I was subsequently to learn that the bar had been removed from the Mildura Working Man’s Club (MWMC) in 1995. The MWMC’s Longest Bar first appeared as a T-shaped bar in 1938 and was believed to be of a record length in the State of Victoria. This bar lasted until 1970 when it was rebuilt to include a hook at one end of the T-top, which gave it World Record Length status, as noted in the Guinness Book of Records.9
In response to the erasure and re-inscription theme of Palimpsest, Sara Oscar and Mary Teague created what they described in their proposal as a temporal reinstatement of the bar using ad hoc materials found within the Mildura region. The artists, in conjunction with the local hospitality industry, made the bar operational for an event. Key props were used, including coasters, labels, banners and staff uniforms. An outdoor location was chosen for the reinscription, and the artists perceived this as objectifying the work as a play on minimalist sculpture and installation, applying rather a long bow in referencing Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981). In attending the event I could attest that it fulfilled the artists’ aim to allow a space where a nuanced interplay could occur between the culture of entertainment, mateship, socialisation, and the sociometrics of the town and the language of contemporary art practice.10 My own experience of it was that the audience participants morphed into the gender roles typical of the sixties and seventies, complete with the blokey language of mateship and the sense that the men ruled.
Raef Sawford’s Turning and Gliding Together Through Space (2013), a two channel HD video projection featuring pairs of ballroom dancers gliding across a ballroom floor, harked back to an earlier more ‘genteel’ time, when the formal ball was a highlight of the rural social calendar. Sawford’s work took place in the original ballroom in the Rio Vista homestead at Mildura, now a contemporary art gallery in the Mildura Regional Arts Centre. Sawford’s aim was to bring forth the ghosts of the past into the present. He used the gesture of a traditional ballroom dance as a way to engage with Mildura’s history and its community.
Sawford conceived of the work as a digital recording of ballroom dancers dancing in the site of the original ballroom. This was then projected back into the space of the former ballroom. He invited a small, vibrant community of ballroom dancers from Mildura into the space to perform the waltzes of the past—the Palma Waltz, the Pride of Erin and the elegant and rhythmic Viennese Waltz. Sawford wanted the viewers to embody the experience of doing the waltz, with its grace, elegance and grandeur, rather than just looking at the dancers. He fitted the most experienced dancers, the ‘camera pair’ with GoPro™ cameras on their torsos so that he could record ‘the embodied motions as they glide and turn together through the same space’.11 Sawford recorded the ‘camera pair’ dancing alone, and then gradually filled the space with the other dancing couples until the space was full of the sounds, smells, movement and intensity of bodies moving together in the rhythm of the waltz.
It was quite an odd and disorientating experience to be viewing the world from the chest of two dancers as they perform the Viennese Waltz. This sensation was made stranger, by the layered and abstracted images, moving in fluid slow-motion and the haunting and hollow slurred soundscape. It distorts and dislocates our sense of time and space.
I am old and rural enough to remember the days of the weekly country-dance and the annual debutante ball. This was a gendered space where the blokes stood outside smoking, drinking and yarning while women skirted the walls of the dance hall gossiping … and waiting. And then, when the band struck up, the men would sweep in, take a partner and they would turn and glide together to these dances. By contrast the windowless basement location of the Mildura ballroom provided an intimate and claustrophobic space where the landed gentry and the community’s aristocracy mixed, mingled, turned and glided in their own world. Sawford successfully transformed the space ‘from a container of a representation of history/memory/culture into a site embodied by these themes’, hence binding the past with the present. Through the way he constructed the work we, as viewers, became giddy, disorientated and drunken.
Martin King’s installation Confluence (2013) was in a small room with a glass wall. Onto this translucent surface the artist projected a video that shows two rivers in Tasmania flowing into each other. One is murky and polluted (Queen River) whilst the other is pristine and sparkling (King River). Duchamp would have appreciated the confluence of the clean king and the dirty queen. I entered through this abstract watery image and encountered Searching for Bird River. Here a stack of books had become a plinth for an artist’s book projection. The book was open to a double spread etching of a bridge, a man, a rifle and a bird. These appear out of a ground of contour maps and quaint archival geo-physical data, running horizontally and vertically across the pages, which have been glazed with encaustic wax to bring out the subtle elements of the (print) making.
The bridge on the left hand page crosses the King River. The young man is dressed in smart 19th century hunting attire and he holds his rifle at ease across his hips. A perky cockatoo perches on the barrel. To enliven the waxed-palimpsest, King projected a hand drawn animation from above and onto the page. A large bird thus appears to fly closely above the book’s surface casting its dark shadow over this quirky but mysterious scene. To my left were a series of etchings of a similar bird from the series Melencolia (the artist uses the old Italian spelling).
Martin King says he is most interested in the confluence of ideas and how things come together. The merging of the rivers—the dirty and the clean—and the uncanny occupancy of a cockatoo at a shooting party merge together with wax, light and animation. Despite the imbedded fixture of the etching process, King insists on the ephemeral fleeting of medium and idea to create a quietly magical experience for the viewer.
Eric Demetriou’s Bunghole (2013) was a disorienting work which had resonances with the translation of the term Palimpsest. This work struck me as being about confronting the new and the unfamiliar as an accretion or layering of associations drawn from sensation, memory and rational thought processes. A solid timber church pew was located close to the entrance of the space, facing a wider window through which could be seen seven large painted petrol drums being fed by a horizontal metal pipe via a series of vesicular tubes or feeders descending into the drums. On the far wall opposite the pew, there appeared to be a scroll or unfolding parchment placed on a narrow alter-like table. At first glance I concluded that this was the artist’s wry critique of contemporary life through a visual juxtaposition of the holy, the sacred and the profane. I was further convinced of my capture of this ‘installation’s’ manifest meaning as I made out the logos and commercial labels on the drums: ‘Fuchs: The Lubricant Specialists’ and ‘Valvoline’.
However, my viewing companion who had read the curator’s tabs on the walls informed me that there were two works in the space, including a frottage drawing from Emma Hamilton’s Lake Transversal (2013). There was a tenuous connection between these works since each alludes to changing conditions of the natural environment—albeit using different approaches and to convey quite disparate themes.
So, was the pew merely an incidental inclusion, a latent or unconscious curatorial choice—or perhaps serendipitously, a bench to sit on whilst contemplating the works and awaiting the shock sound component of Demetriou’s work? As the evening drew on—a number of big bangs resulted in the loss of tumescence of each of the drums. When I commented on the amusing sexual overtones in this work the artist assured me that none had been intended and indeed, that he had not consciously considered the labels on the drums.
Although the Palimpsest exhibitions (Biennales) share a history of place with the earlier Sculpture Triennials, they are situated in a different time. The ’70s avant-garde was criticised during postmodernism as yet another male and pale master narrative. Subsequently the art world is more sceptical and sophisticated in terms of experimentalism, the participatory and the socially engaged. Christopher Williams’ sound installation Manifesto (2013) sums this up in an ironic but poignant assault by a series of loud speakers each emitting a seductive and cultured voice reading excerpts from avant-garde manifestos. The clipped texts are received as truisms, contradictions, propaganda, silliness and stupidity. Yet there is also a nostalgia for these lost ideals, the pronouncements of utopias, and the incitement to rebellion. Palimpsest is like this: it entertains the notion of an avant-garde whilst delivering experiential spectacles complete with good food and wine. It is a recipe bound to succeed.
David Burrows, Mirage Project [salt] iceberg view, 2011. Photograph courtesy the artist.
Eric Demetriou, Bunghole, 2013. 44 gallon drums, vacuum pump, electric timer, scaffold, dimensions variable. Photograph Daniel Downing.
Archival image of the original Longest Bar in the World, Mildura Working Man's Club; Sara Oscar and Mary Teague, The World's Longest Bar (Mildura Workingman's Club), 2013. Mixed media installation, dimensions variable.
Raef Sawford, Turning and Gliding Together Through Space, 2013. 2 channel HD video projection (layered), video still, 20min. Image courtesy the artist.
1. The earlier Mildura Prize for Sculpture (1961-1969) became the Mildura Sculpture Triennial in 1970. Although the Triennials continued until 1988, the 1970s exhibitions are generally considered to be more experimental.
2. The decade long lull followed the 1978 local Council burning of every copy of the exhibition catalogue Exhibition Exposition for the Fourth Mildura Sculpture Triennial. The Sculpture Triennials continued from 1978-1988 but with less focus on the experimental.
3. Ken Scarlett, ‘Who Employs the Sculptor?’ in The First Australian Sculpture Triennial at Preston Institute of Technology and La Trobe University Melbourne Australia, First Australian Sculpture Triennial Committee, Melbourne, 1981, p.9.
5. Tom McCullough, ‘A Political Preamble’ in The First Australian Sculpture Triennial, op. cit., p.11.
6. Helen Vivian, Fertile Ground for a Revolution, 2013, unpublished paper supplied to the authors, March 2013.
7. Anne Marsh, Performance_Ritual_Document, Macmillan Art Publishing, Melbourne, 2014, p.217.
8. Lauren Roden, ‘Billboard row: Art event promo sign raises concern’, The Illawarra Mercury, 27 August 2013. See http://www.illawarramercury.com.au/story/1733085/billboard-row-art-event-promo-sign-raises-concern/
9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longest_bar_in_Australia accessed 13 March 2014.
10. From artist’s proposal provided to the authors.
11. Thanks to Raef Sawford, all quotes are from email communication with the artist, March 2014.
The authors are Melbourne-based writers.