Article written by Malcolm McKinnon (Curator of Stories, One River project)
How can we comprehend these two spectacles, presented side-by side on an autumn evening? One: an immense work of hydrological engineering, all concrete and steel and a vast weight of contained water; Two: delicate paintings of golden moths finely rendered inside the glass chambers of a dozen or so kerosene lamps, or brief video animations of insects moving across the water? There’s a challenge here to reconcile macro and micro visions, to make a nimble jump through the proverbial looking glass -and across an actual river – in order to accommodate radically different perspectives. Herein lies the artistic conceit of riverrun, presented at the Hume Dam, just outside of the twin border cities of Albury / Wodonga, on 14 April 2013.
To look at historic photographs of the Hume Dam under construction, and indeed to actually stand on top of the Dam wall itself, is to be freshly amazed at the grand scale of this particular engineering endeavour. The combined effect of upstream and downstream views from the top of the wall is to create a palpable sense of the sheer volume and weight of water contained in and by this immense structural device. Contemplation of the dam provides a bracing counter to the more prevalent sense of placidity and slowness that usually (except in flood times) characterises the Murray River along so much of its journey through a broad, flat landscape.
Of course, the Hume Weir sits only a short distance downstream from the confluence of the Murray and Mitta Mitta Rivers, and it’s really not far to the Snowy Mountains and alpine highlands from which spring water and snow-melt does move into the river at high speed and high volume, at least by the standards of southern Australia. And so the Dam is essentially a mediating device, receiving the rapid inflow of mountain waters and regulating their continuing flow into a more gentle and predictable downstream watercourse. The Albury Library & Museum and the Albury & District Historical Society work diligently to remind us that construction of the dam commenced in 1919 and continued through until 1936. It’s good to be shown the site of the quarry from which a large portion of hillside was blasted and removed by steam shovels and horse teams to be transformed into an immense concrete structure. It’s good too to be reminded of the human labour involved in this monumental project, and to be told the names and stories of those people who were accidentally killed in the process of the Dam’s construction. It’s important, I think, not to forget the effort involved in making something as grand as the Hume Dam, nor to deny the breadth of the underlying vision that has effectively transformed the Murray River in to a regulated channel so as to enable industrial and domestic exploitation of its waters. Put simply, the Hume Weir is the Hand of Man writ large upon the country.
The riverrun project, a collaborative, creative endeavour by artists Bianca Acimovic, Vicki Luke and Vernon Bartlett in association with local storytellers and various government and water management agencies, had the powerful effect of juxtaposing the grand narrative of the Hume Weir alongside more modest and intimate stories of connection and attachment to the river. The experience of riverrun involved standing on top of the Dam wall at the golden sunset hour and being given a quite visceral sense of the volume and energy of the water contained in the Dam when dissipater valves were opened briefly for our benefit. But it also involved relocating to a quite spot beside the river downstream from the wall (only at a short physical remove but, literally of course, in a different state jurisdiction) and watching vivid images of personal and intimate encounters and relationships with the river manifest in a program of fleeting projections.
As attuned as we are to big-screen spectacle, it’s a challenge for many of us to shift our gaze from a big picture projected onto an imposing concrete monolith to a small picture projected fleetingly and obliquely on to the canvas of a bush or a log in our immediate foreground. It’s challenge too to listen to the bold narrative of engineering and large-scale water management and then to tune in to a poem conveying a quite personal story of attachment to the river:
Whenever November’s aflame, and I’m below your surface again
My eyes open to the depths of your world
And the waves of wonder from within unfurled
From the mountain stream toward an ocean free
You’re the very one who gives comfort to me…*
I think that this spatial two-step is an excellent thing to do, aptly representing as it does the great and perpetual challenge of reconciling the grand industrial narrative to which we are really all subscribers (albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm or reluctance) and the personal story or intimate association that many of us have with particular riverine places. There are contradictions and difficult questions implicit in this work that really go the heart of our complex relationship with a river system that is at once an industrial machine and a natural environment, a grand national asset and a place of quite localised personal attachments and associations. We need to think big, but we need to remember to keep it personal too.
*Excerpt of poem To Name A River In Your Name by Craig Dent, reproduced with permission.