Craig Walsh (Sydney and Brisbane: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Institute of Modern Art, 2013).
There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
– Walter Benjamin1
Where there’s muck, there’s brass.
– Yorkshire slang
This year, SBS screened a compelling three-part documentary. Dirty Business revealed how, since the gold rushes of the 1850s, mining has shaped Australia, its landscape and its people.2 The industry’s booms and busts have generated waves of immigration, nationalism and racism, and have seen fortunes made and lost, towns built and abandoned, and governments rise and fall. However, despite mining’s dominance, most Australians distance themselves from it; they see it as happening, literally and metaphorically, over there. Indeed, mining has sponsored the creation of that distance. Many of our earliest civic and cultural institutions were built using mining profits, laundering fortunes forged in dirt. More recently, my state, Queensland—the economy of which is thoroughly grounded in mining—called itself ‘the smart state’, prefering to align itself with the virtual rather than the material, the digital not the dirty.3
Such denial is hardly specific to Australia. Last year’s Manifesta addressed it as a global phenomenon. The Deep of the Modern was held in Genk, Belgium, in the old Waterschei coal mine, which ceased production in the late 1980s.4 The show’s premise was simple: as much as modernism ushered in utopian fantasies of crystal palaces and lives of leisure, these were enabled by an industrial revolution premised on coal; coal mining was modernity’s repressed. With consummate detective work, the curators found sufficient works addressing coal mining to create a corrective, explicitly coal-centric view of modern art.
For some time, Craig Walsh has been interested in addressing mining in his work.5 But, in 2012, when mining giant Rio Tinto offered him a project commission, it wasn’t to look at mining, but to celebrate Indigenous rock-art sites on the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara, in Western Australia. The Pilbara has long been a frontline in the struggle between mining interests and the first Australians. From its inception, mining was enabled by denial of Aboriginal citizenship and land rights. Applying the principle of terra nullius, the law held that, although Aboriginal people had lived on the land for millennia, they didn’t own it. Unsurprisingly, Aboriginal people felt differently. In 1992, after decades of resistance and protest, the landmark Mabo decision forever overturned terra nullius, paving the way to the recognition of native title, which would force mining interests to negotiate with the traditional owners.6 It changed everything.
In her 2012 Boyer Lectures, The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom, Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton argued that the mining industry has now transformed from the Aboriginal peoples’ former foe to their newfound friend.7 A new relationship with mining has fostered Aboriginal education, employment and economic advancement, creating an Aboriginal middle class.8 For Langton, the private sector is forging new models for working with Indigenous Australia, while government initiatives lag behind.9 Walsh’s Rio Tinto commission is rooted in these changes. As part of their 2007 Burrup Conservation Agreement with the Federal Government, Rio Tinto undertook to invest in raising awareness of the Peninsula’s ancient rock art, implicitly acknowledging traditional ownership. One outcome was a coffee-table photography book documenting petroglyphs, published in 2010.10 A little later, Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, Director of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), suggested that Rio Tinto (one of the MCA’s major partners) commission Craig Walsh to develop a project offering a more personal response to the rock-art sites. The work would be presented in a show at the MCA, ensuring an explicit public outcome. Rio Tinto agreed.
In January 2012, Walsh visited the Pilbara, to view the rock-art sites and meet with representatives of Rio Tinto and Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation. The Corporation encompasses the five Indigenous language groups with relationships to the Peninsula. Walsh explained to the Elders that he wanted to look at the rock-art sites not archeologically but in terms of the local Indigenous people’s living connection with place. They gave his project the green light. In June, he returned with a technician and gear. During a four-week residency, he developed two multi-channel video works and a series of related photographic portraits.
Walsh videoed Murujuga Elders talking about their relation to country. Through personal connection, ancestral protocol and Aboriginal law, his subjects—Tootsie Daniels, Tim Douglas, Lawrence Kerr, Pansy Hicks and Wilfred Hicks—have the right to comment on specific sites. Of course, some things cannot be discussed on camera. At night, Walsh projected the videos at Mount Rushmore scale over rock formations across the Peninsula and revideoed them. With the resulting footage, he created a five-channel flatscreen video panorama called In Country, and a series of still photographs. In the video, each screen shows one of the Elders speaking in turn. The scenes are deftly composed and juxtaposed to suggest a continuous landscape. Superimposing the video portraits (with their temporality and currency) onto the craggy landscapes (which imply deep time), Walsh argues the inseparability of the locals and the land. Although they had minimal involvement in the projection process, considering it dangerous to venture into the sites at night, Walsh says his subjects felt empowered by the idea of occupying the landscape on this grand scale.
Walsh produced another multi-screen video work, a single-channel video wall. Standing Stone Site shows a sacred site on the Burrup, which contains the largest concentration of standing stones in Australia. This otherworldly, rocky red landscape is clearly significant, but is shrouded in mystery. The traditional people of the area, the Yaburara, were decimated in the 1868 Flying Foam Massacres, and much knowledge of the stones was lost.11 From a fixed position, Walsh took high-resolution photographic stills of the scene at three-second intervals in two sequences, one at sunrise, the other at sunset. The stills were composited and animated to create a looping sequence. The way the light changes seems weird, perhaps supernatural. At points, Walsh replaced the sky with a deep black, making the rocks appear incandescent. Here, there are no human figures to provide a sense of scale; no one to speak in, of or for the landscape. Although none of the works in Walsh’s Murujuga project refer to mining, they are all about mining. One can see their commissioning as political—an extension of Rio Tinto’s diplomacy. For the Circle of Elders of Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, they are political too, recalling past conflicts and asserting native title. As part of the agreement with Rio Tinto, Walsh was required to exhibit the Murujuga works at the MCA, but he was also able to include other work in his show. He took this as an opportunity to reframe the Murujuga works to address the elephant in the room: mining as the conversion of country to commodity.
While mining is a hot-potato topic—something all Australians have opinions about—few of us feel implicated in it. Not many of us even know what iron ore looks like. In response, Walsh brings the stuff into the gallery. His 2013 MCA show, Embedded, features twenty-one massive industrial bins brimming with it. Painted a garish fluoro yellow, the bins are arranged in a regular array across the floor, with absences here and there where columns stood in the way.12 Viewers will, no doubt, be reminded of the innumerable containers of ore lined up and transported daily by rail to the sea, for export to China. Walsh has also painted the gallery walls with a lurid colour scheme based on the standard high-visibility uniforms worn by miners and other industrial workers for their health and safety: fluoro yellow to a height of 1.1m (matching the colour and height of the bins), dark blue above, separated by a reflective silver strip, suggesting a horizon.
The bins and the wall painting condition the ways we read the photos and videos. The bins impede visual and physical access to the works, becoming a landscape to be negotiated; one in which viewers may feel buried, embedded, trapped. The bins both get in the way and frame the view; for instance, creating an avenue down which we approach Standing Stone Site. The rude literalness of the ore and luridness of the wall colours contrast with the warm tonalities, holistic atmosphere, allusive symbolism, and implicit humanism of the videos and photos. They are chalk and cheese.
The title, Embedded, is a prompt. It hovers over Walsh’s show, suggesting different ways to think about it. An obvious association is embedded journalists. The US started embedding journalists with their troops during the Iraq War as a way to secure politically favourable coverage. Embedded journalists are routinely criticised for their complicity, for lacking critical distance and independence, for doing their masters’ bidding. In choosing his title, Walsh acknowledges his own embeddedness with Rio Tinto. But, if his Murujuga project fits Rio Tinto’s public-relations needs, advertising their respect for the locals, it also enables the subjects to speak for themselves. So, Walsh is equally embedded with Murujuga, and committed to endorse the Elders’ claims to country. Indeed, the project finds Walsh embedded on both sides.
In the Murujuga works, mining was in the background—indeed, invisible. But, in Embedded, it comes into the foreground—bins of iron ore are the first things we see. By reframing the Murujuga works within this new mise-en-scène, Walsh puts them in scare quotes, making us ask what is at stake in them, for their various stakeholders and for us. As viewers, we are stuck in the ore in a way that is at once like, and yet totally unlike, the Murujuga Elders shown projected onto their land. Thus, Walsh asks us to consider the nature of our own embeddedness in this scenario.
Art-literate visitors will quickly spot precursors to Walsh’s installation in classics of minimalist and post-minimalist sculpture. There’s a nod to American artist Walter De Maria’s Munich Earth Room (1968), in which soil was dumped into a gallery, filling it to a consistent depth. Similarly, for 20:50 (1987), English artist Richard Wilson filled a gallery to waist height with recycled engine oil. And, for his House in the Mud (2005), Spanish artist Santiago Sierra defiled Hanover’s Kestnergesellschaft by swamping its ground floor with mud from the Maschsee, the nearby lake created during the Nazi period using forced labour. (Sierra’s ‘return of the repressed’ cannily recalled Margret Mead’s understanding of dirt as ‘matter out of place’.)
In various ways, Embedded dialogues with all these works, but it reminds me more of the American artist Robert Smithson’s ‘nonsites’, particularly A Nonsite (Franklin, New Jersey) (1968). Smithson distinguished his site-specific works, made in the landscape, from his nonsites (or ‘indoor earthworks’), where he brought materials from specific sites into the non-specific site of the gallery—a somewhere that could be anywhere. In the Franklin work, for instance, he juxtaposed bins of rocks with aerial photographs of the site from which they were sourced. Walsh’s Embedded similarly juxtaposes iron-ore samples with views of the landscape from which they derive.13 As much as the Murujuga works are about the locals’ integration with landscape, Embedded is ultimately about the opposite—the transformation of site into nonsite, mining as disembedding. The contrast between Walsh’s holistic images of Indigenous people projected onto their land and the bins of ore extracted from it suggests the morphing of country (site) into a fungible commodity (nonsite). Mining turns landscape into a resource that could come from anywhere.
‘Embedded’ is an ambiguous title. It carries positive and negative connotations. While it suggests being holistically grounded within place and culture, it also suggests being trapped, stuck, typecast. There is a popular, idealised image of Aboriginal people as noble savages, as people who have coexisted with the landscape for eons and who have a deep spiritual connection with it. In recent times, this idea of the ‘spiritual Aborigine’ found Aboriginal people characterised as natural conservationists and presumed them to be aligned with environmentalists against the big bad mining companies. However, now that Indigenous people have a stake in economic development—now that they can participate in it and reap its benefits—this presumption is becoming untenable. Today, Langton says, one cannot assume that Aboriginal people will necessarily side with the Greens against development. We are witnessing the emergence of, what she calls, the ‘economic Aborigine’.
The popular image of traditional Aboriginal owners as spiritually embedded in the land is double-edged. On the one hand, it has and can serve to disempower them, keeping them in their place, either by assuming they have no rights (terra nullius) or by presuming how they will exercise them (co-option by the environmentalists). On the other hand, it can provide the basis for the land rights that now enable Aboriginal development. In reframing his images of spiritual Aborigines with bins of iron ore, Walsh’s installation addresses this twist. Taken straight, his heartfelt Murujuga works identify locals with land, asserting a deep spiritual and cultural connection. However, by reframing them within Embedded, Walsh also makes it impossible to see these works in themselves, but only as part of a larger picture, in which the spiritual is always already framed by the economic—indeed, is, paradoxically, embedded within it.
With this provocative show, Walsh prompts us to consider not only how he, his Aboriginal subjects, and the MCA have negotiated their embeddedness, but also how we—as casual viewers and interested parties—might now negotiate ours.
[IMAGE: Craig Walsh Embedded 2013]
- Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, 1940.
- Dirty Business: How Mining Made Australia was directed by Jacob Hickey and Sara Tiefenbrun for Renegade Films, Melbourne.
- The Queensland state government retired the tag in 2012.
- Manifesta is a nomadic European biennial that occurs every two years in a different European city.
- This interest emerged during Digital Odyssey, with Walsh’s growing awareness of the effects mining has on regional communities, even those far from the mining locations, who engaged in the boom employment opportunities.
- The law began to change with the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (1976), which overturned terra nullius, but proved toothless in protecting the rights of the traditional owners. Real change only came after Mabo.
- Marcia Langton, Boyer Lectures 2012: The Quiet Revolution: Indigenous People and the Resources Boom, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2013.
- Some Aboriginal communities enjoy benefits of mining, others don’t. The money may also be temporary. What happens for Indigenous communities when the mining companies go?
- Langton’s work also has its critics. Some were quick to point to the support her research has received from mining interests. Expatriate Australian John Pilger paints a bleaker picture in his recent article ‘Australia’s Boom Is Anything But for Its Aboriginal People’, Guardian, 28 April 2013.
- Mike Donaldson, Burrup Rock Art: Ancient Aboriginal Rock Art of Burrup Peninsula and Dampier Archipelago (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2010).
- The Flying Foam Massacre was a series of confrontations between white settlers and Aboriginal people around Flying Foam Passage in Murujuga, on the Burrup Peninsula, between February and May 1868. Triggered by the killings of two police officers and a local workman, the confrontations resulted in the deaths of unknown number of Yaburara people.
- This gesture draws on themes of inundation familiar from Walsh’s video installations, such as Blurring the Boundaries, where architectural spaces appear to be flooded with water and overrun by fish. Here, however, Walsh turns his back on virtual inundation and goes for the real thing.
- At least, that is what is suggested. Actually, the iron ore Rio Tinto supplied does not all come from Dampier, or from any one specific mine in the Pilbara. It consists of samples from all over the world, including South Africa. Iron ore has, indeed, become a fungible commodity.