Urban Artists Creating Record of Rural Decline

November 25, 2009 Updated: November 25, 2009

Turtle, Lake Bonney. (Dean Sewell)
Turtle, Lake Bonney. (Dean Sewell)
“I was shocked—the amount of dead trees. I realized the whole wetlands had been over-processed with re-directed water, droughts, and floods,” said Fran Ifould, a post graduate student from the Australian National University’s (ANU) College of Art.

Ms. Ifould was part of a three-year field project, which took urban artists out to rural communities to visually interpret what those communities were experiencing in the face of dramatic changes to the environment.

Initiated jointly by ANU and the Murray Darling River Basin Authority, the field studies project titled “Engaging Visions” took both undergraduate and postgraduate students to four close-knit communities reliant upon, and thus affected by, the catastrophe mismanagement of Australia’s Murray Darling River system.

Murray Darling Catastrophe

Understood to be the “food bowl” of Australia, the Basin contains roughly 40 percent of all Australian farms and covers a low-lying catchment area of over 386,000 square miles, around one-seventh of the entire land mass of Australia.

Three of Australia’s largest rivers flow through the Murray Darling Basin, starting with Queensland’s Darling River in the north, New South Wales’s Murrumbidgee River, and the Murray River, which flows through NSW and Victoria to reach the southern ocean in South Australia.

Riverland Salt Pan. (Charles Tambiah)
Riverland Salt Pan. (Charles Tambiah)
Bad rural management, overallocation of water, combined with drought conditions and the variable effects of climate change have seen the Murray Darling River system’s very existence threatened. Water flows in many parts of the river have stopped, waterlands have dried up, salination is growing and farmers are in increasing crisis.

“I was disappointed to witness growers having to burn the orchards their grandfathers planted because they no longer had the water,” said Ms. Ifould, who is not only documenting her experiences through works on paper, but also bound books, one of which was shortlisted for the NSW Parliament’s “plein air painting” prize.

“I realized all we could do was record visually what was happening,” she said. “We were not there to comment. By recording and presenting a visual record to the people who make decisions, hopefully, they will be inspired to make more environmentally sensitive decisions in the future.”
<subhead> Field Studies Beneficial <subhead>

Field studies are “inspirational” for artists, says John Reid, original initiator of the project and head of the Fenner School of Art at ANU, but the idea of linking urban artists with rural communities is also “affirmatory” for those communities.

“It can help communities to establish what it is of value for them, where they live and work,” he told the ABC.

“It also helps people reflect on their attachment to place, especially when communities are under stress. It is that attachment that helps them face the challenges that are obviously looming for us,” he explained.

Visual arts can also offer a different way of approaching the discussion about such sensitive, ostensibly life-threatening issues, he said.

“A lot of people respond well to visual material, so the work that artists can produce can be provocative and assist in public discussion…it helps debate different aspects.”

Many of the artists included in the project were photographers, including Dean Sewell, “one of Australia’s best, if not the best, social documentary photographers,” Mr. Reid said, stressing the importance of having “so much of what is going on registered culturally.”

Mr. Reid compared Engaging Visions to the famous photographic record of the cotton-growing areas of the U.S. during the 1930s, an initiative of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“They are very revealing of how a nation acquits itself of change, environmental change in the face of adversity,” he told the ABC.

Charles Tambiah, from the Australian Research Council, which funded the project, said the artists visited the respective regions during two 10-day visits, or three 5-day visits.

During that time, the artists talked to locals and experienced the surrounding conditions, while working on their respective art pieces. The works were then exhibited, not in galleries, but in shop fronts situated in the main street for maximum exposure.

The original intention of the application, which commenced in 2006, was to come up with “an adaptive methodology for engaging artists as a way of contributing to a greater discussion of the Murray Darling Basin,” he said.

Mr. Tambiah’s role was to research community response to the project, “identify what advice they have, what expectations, what they felt about the project, what they would like to see changed…”

The results of his research will be collated and compiled as a guide to similar projects and will be released next year.

What was notable he said was that the art works did not depict all “doom and gloom.”

“In each of these communities, there are beautiful activities, highly inspired, doing some wonderful things that bring people together to talk about the hope that still exists in these areas,” he said.