Thirty years ago I looked after a very elderly Russian man who had suffered the harrowing experience of being sent to Siberia during the 1917 Revolution. A member of the White Army, he had been captured, and along with hundreds of other soldiers, all were transported in densely packed rail carriages across the breadth of Russia to a gulag on the Kamchatka Peninsula, north of Japan. He miraculously escaped to Japan on a hijacked tug boat, eventually making his way to Australia via Hong Kong long after the War ended.
He vividly related his experience of his lengthy rail journey couped up in a windowless carriage, bereft of any amenities, and of how day after day he and his fellow captives would take turns to spy out of a peek hole that one of the prisoners had gouged out from a knot in one of the wooden carriage panels using an improvised tool.
They did not know where they were going nor to what fate but a key motif in his story was of the image of a landscape presenting itself, partially, day after day, espied through a tiny aperture – a continuous and compelling fragment of a featureless and seemingly interminable horizon. This monotony was relieved only by anxiety-filled stops at night-time, when the train came to unexpected halts and carriage doors were rolled back under armed guard, to enable the issuing of food.
It was with these associative thoughts in mind that I departed from the darkened interiors of the derelict SA Railway carriages on the banks of the Murray River at Murray Bridge, on the final day of the presentation of Heidi Kenyon’s engaging installation Turn Back to the River (12, 13, 14 April and 18 May, 2013).
Heidi Kenyon’s interventionist project Turn Back to the River has drawn gallery goers and visitors down to the riverside in a cleverly understated way, by the temporary deployment of a rank of old and largely overlooked rail carriages on Wharf Road, on the river flat below the township of Murray Bridge. Their transformation into a series of camera obscura is not apparent until one goes beyond the heavy curtains and enters the darkened spaces. These carriage spaces have become, for the duration of her project, activated interiors reflecting the environment of the river, subtly compelling viewers to reflect on their own engagements with the river, with time, and with memory.
Like giant crystal-radio sets, the derelict carriages were “receiving” into their darkened interiors fugitive and differing imprints of all that was happening in the immediate environs adjacent to the river: the wharf, the railway bridge, the limestone rises on the far side of the river, the vast dome of the sky. And like a foreign language, indistinct yet audible, everything in view in each of the carriages was presented upside down and back to front, adding to a sense of pleasurable disorientation. The time was late afternoon, the light was falling. Birds passed in erratic trajectories across the inky blueness of the cotton screens, a few river craft moved quickly in and out of scopic range, and the drone of a distant diesel engine, Adelaide bound, became a muffled roar from inside the stationary carriage as the engine laboured with its payload over the only railway bridge to span the Murray in South Australia.
In such an environment, where most light has been necessarily excluded for the obscura to function effectively, the visual sense of looking as a deeply inscribed participatory act was heightened. One was forced to slow down, to suspend immediate expectations and to submit to that offered up, happening in real time. Participants were invited to enter into the space in small groups, share stories, make their own associations. The sound of one’s own foot falls on the wooden floors and the accompanying smell of timber and old paint, long seasoned by the years, elicited a viewing experience that would be difficult to simulate in the sanitised environment of an art gallery.
It seems appropriate too that the artist has chosen to work on the footprint of this site, with its industrial and historical functions still in evidence – but at the same time landscaped, accessible, well cared for and providing, mercifully, one of the few places along this stretch of the river where families can share a picnic, kick a ball, or walk the dog.
The inclusive possibilities of Kenyon’s installation were also extended, through the agency of the Murray Bridge Regional Gallery and the Murray Bridge Library, by a postcard project, concurrently displayed 24/7 in the Gallery’s street front windows. This satellite has given numerous members of the various cultural groups in the township and individuals within the wider community of Murray Bridge an opportunity and a portal to breath deeply, to share something of their own encounters with the river, and to capture a special memory of the river that may have lain dormant for decades. These personal mementos have been launched safely, like so many votive testaments, into the public sphere and will act as a permanent window to this fugitive and engaging community event.