View of the town of Cumnock, NSW (2012). Image: Yasmin Smith and Alex Pye.
To start at the beginning. A trio of disclosures:
Three years ago I was offered a job in New York City. Shortly before my departure I happened to pick up the latest issue of The Monthly. The graphic cover was a colour still of Jack Thompson as the hedonistic hanger-on in the recently re-released inland horror film, Wake in Fright (1971). I flicked to the feature article by Kate Jennings, a piece that cleverly coupled a crisp reflection of her youth in regional NSW together with a musing on the standing relevance of the iconic, albeit largely forgotten, film. I was engrossed by her wonderful ability to speak so clearly of herself within a subject matter that did not necessitate such personal revelations. Who was this woman? I turned to her bio to discover the bold line, ‘She lives in New York’. I tracked down her agent and shot off an email—it was the action of a little girl equipped with the balls of youth. I didn’t really expect a responses—it was just a hunch that I should try—and less than two hours later an email in my inbox from the personal address of Kate Jennings, ‘Rachel, here is my cell. Call me when you get in’.
Perhaps I’m paraphrasing a little but it was almost that simple.
I landed in NYC, I called Kate and the rest, as they say, is history. As the weeks and months passed she finally revealed that there were two reasons that she replied to my email. One, it turns out her fairly formidable reputation excused many from contacting her. Two, I was a country kid. And she liked that. She knew what I was made of.
Twelve months ago I emailed her again from afar, ‘Kate, what do you think about me moving back to the country? I feel like I would be stepping off, letting go of my ambition’. Expecting her to reply with like sentiments, she instead answered with, ‘Rachel, if anything, it would prove your ambition.’
In the summer of 2010 I was invited to take part in the FLAG residency at Bundanon Trust, two hours south of Sydney. The residency was loose in structure, the only contribution expected being that each artist should come equipped with an ‘offering’ such as a discussion, a performance, a game that the group could participate in as a whole. I asked the other FLAG artists to discuss their thoughts on regional Australia. Most of the other artists had little experience of the land outside of metropolitan areas and thus most were limited in their understanding of what it was like to live in the country. Most surprising though was the fact that many of the artists outwardly expressed their fear of the inland— it was a place where artists weren’t welcome, let alone outsiders of any kind.
Don’t you know, we are different. We’ve all seen Wake in Fright.
The author’s view from her current home, Sydney (2012). Image: Rachel Fuller.
In early 2011 I had a job interview with the Regional Arts NSW office in Walsh Bay. The interview was going swimmingly, until during question time, I naively asked whether Regional Arts NSW saw itself as a body to promote regional areas as a site for the relocation of urban artists. And with this question, bid for the role was promptly ended. I was met with defense and a reiteration of the fact that Regional Arts supports regional artists, not those living in the city. And, of course, so should it be the case. To my mind, though, I could see the huge potential in encouraging city artists to move to country—the arts community strengthens by virtue of numbers and diversity and hey presto, you’ve got yourself a burgeoning cultural landscape.
It didn’t seem to me that this was such a far out proposal. And yet, in preparation for my meeting with the Minister of the Arts for this article, I sent through a list of questions to his media advisor. Within minutes I was knee-deep on the receiving end of, ‘Now, why on earth would the department have a decentralisation policy for artists?’ To be again met with such derision, I started to think I had it all wrong. But, how could this be such a crazy idea?
My grandfather was the first Minister for Decentralisation in New South Wales. I have long been interested in ways in which regional areas can be promoted as rich and accommodating places. I am proud of where I came from. I can see the enormous potential, but the practicalities leave me in a wake of fright.
It is hardly a new idea to talk about Australian artists spending time in rural areas, with the tradition of landscape painting firmly mythologised. Yet, what does it mean for a young, contemporary visual artist to uproot from the city–and more importantly, from a community of like-minded critical thinkers–to a perceived culturally barren land? With living in Sydney fast becoming a financial strangle, artists are slowly starting to look for alternative locations. But how does one start to decide where to from here?
For young Sydney artists Alex Pye and Yasmin Smith, their decision to move to Larras Lee, a tiny village near Cummnock in the state’s Central West was somewhat circumstantial. Alex’s parents were living on a property in the area, and after spending the last year camping by the creek with friends on long weekends, the couple decided to give the country a go. Full-time jobs in Sydney left little time for art making and a residential lease swiftly running out gave the two the opportunity to seize a new challenge.
Both artists had been active in the Sydney ARI scene, with Yasmin having been a director of Locksmith Project Space and Alex having been involved in the running of Peloton. Both had completed degrees at Sydney College of the Arts and, in addition, Alex had spent three years in the midst of a promising radio career as host of FBi’s morning program, ‘Up for it’. Yasmin, now represented by The Commercial, tells, ‘It wasn’t an easy decision. I was worried about homophobia and I also really didn’t think we were going to be able to find an arts community similar to the one we were a part of in Sydney. At the same time, though, even before we moved I had already begun incorporating some of my experiences in the country into my art practice so I could clearly see the potential of the place to inform my work.’[i]
Working within an object-based practice, it is perhaps not so surprising that it is not the trees of the natural landscape which stir Yasmin but rather the ability of the land to isolate man-made objects. Years ago Yasmin had come across Murray Bail’s description of the way in which the gate within a paddock is similar to the indent of a paragraph on a page, with both the gate and indent acting as entry points. Now living in a rural area she can see the way in which objects become much more visible surrounded by a minimal natural landscape. ‘It is almost as if the natural falls away and just becomes a blank page or white cube and then these objects become sculptures and really pop. Even on the outskirts of town there is an old tennis court with the orange clay floor, caged in wire with old hanging lights and it suddenly becomes very easy to see this in a gallery.’[ii]
For Sydney performance artist, Brian Fuata, who moved to Newcastle 18 months ago, isolation has operated in a somewhat different role. ‘I felt incredibly lonely and I realised how much I had relied on the social dialogue and interaction I was involved with in the Sydney arts community.’[iii] And yet, this very separation pushed Brian to find new avenues for his work. ‘I started doing these SMS pieces where I texted stories to my friends’,[iv] which, as Brian says, was a way of reaching out but also receiving an immediate response. Brian also initiated an email exchange whereby he invited different writers to engage in a one-month conversation—a type of call and response activity similar to a language-based game of Exquisite Corpse.
And similarly to Yasmin, Brian found himself taking refuge in the built environment, spending hours at a time at the monumental Newcastle City Library, a modular, concrete, purpose-built institution from the 1970s, much like the architecture of the interior of the Sydney Opera House. As Brian says, ‘It is beautiful and of course, it is free and easy to spend time in by yourself.’[v]
He says as a performer he started to observe all the goings-on in the library, specifically the daily children’s reading class which became a trigger for his commissioned performance The Sarraute Conduit (after Fraser Studios) (2012) recently presented as part of Time Machine at Serial Space.
Interior view of The Dark Tea Time of the Soul, Cumnock, NSW (2012). Photo: Yasmin Smith and Alex Pye.
As a concept, isolation has obvious benefit to those working in
the visual arts, or, in fact, any creative field. And MCA curator, Glenn Barkley agrees, having spent 11 years studying and working in Wollongong before moving to Sydney in his thirties. ‘It allowed me to develop my own ideas, outside of the status quo and without being part of any one camp.’[vi] At the same time though, Glenn feels conflicted about the time he spent outside of Sydney and not for the reasons one might readily expect, but rather he sees the enormous potential for art in sites outside of the centre. ‘I guess when I was living there I often thought about how invisible we were to Sydney when actually that disadvantage is something so easily turned into a positive. If nobody is looking then you can actually do whatever you want.’[vii] And Glenn sees this in direct relation to regional institutions. ‘There is a real opportunity there for radical programming and as we’ve seen with the case of Western Sydney over the past ten years it does actually happen where the centre starts to look to the periphery for new ideas.’[viii] Another great case in point is curator, Tom McCullough, who moved to Mildura in northwestern Victoria to work as an art teacher in 1961. In 1966 he became director of the Mildura Sculpture Triennial, a lauded reign that continued until his resignation in 1978, not before his innovative stewardship was recognised with his appointment as Artistic Director of the second Sydney Biennale in 1976.
In 2005 I created a work with my dad called Thinking like you (so you’ll think like me). It was an exchange whereby over a six-week period my farmer father and I emailed each other lessons with subsequent assignments. I taught him about the major theories behind contemporary art and he provided me with more practical life tutorials such as how to best look after my car or balance a budget. I asked my dad to produce an art work on time. He cut out a number of photographs of my grandmother and chronologically ordered them on an A4 piece of paper. The work resembled floating heads and I thought, ‘Really Dad, have you learnt nothing from me!’
View of “Kallateenee”, the author’s childhood home (2009). Photo: Rachel Fuller.
But now I see. Sometimes we set out to teach, to show and what we really figure out is that this is so much more about me. Not you. I thought I was setting out to write an article on the practical concerns involved in a move from the city to the country in a bid to show you how it is done. So you will move. And then I can move too.
But now I see that this is much more an exploration of isolation.
Of where we find ourselves when our circumstances see us move. Or move on. Away from the pack.
[i] Yasmin Smith, conversation with the author, June 22, 2012.
[iii] Brian Fuata, conversation with the author, June 25, 2012.
[vi] Glenn Barkley, conversation with the author, January 13, 2012.
Rachel Tolosa Paz (nee Fuller) is a Sydney-based writer and photographer. She has written for The Saturday Paper, ABR, ABC Arts, Art & Australia, ArtistProfile, Collective Magazine,...