Article written by Ken Orchard, member of the One River Reference Group
One River: Alluvial Connections – from source to sea.
Margaret Worth with Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh, Richard Hodges & Michelle Murray. Signal Point Gallery, Goolwa: 1 August – 1 September 2013
One River: Alluvial Connections – from source to sea recently on show at Signal Point Gallery in Goolwa featured a range of work by artist Margaret Worth, developed as part of the Centenary of Canberra One River project. The exhibition reflected the artist’s long standing interest in the river – and in part included works from an earlier 2004 exhibition of paintings by Worth entitled In the Top Paddock which visualised themes of catchment and dispersal as they related to the physical interventions and impacts of irrigation on the landscape. These works, comprising eight square paintings, formed a backdrop to newer works produced for the One River project.
A diagrammatic floor map/ground plan of the Murray Darling Basin formed the central core of the One River display. Painted directly on to a shaped canvas spread over the gallery’s polished concrete floor, this work measured approximately four meters across and was partially covered over with alluvial sands and river stones collected at different sites on the Fleurieu Peninsula flanking the Lower Murray Lakes. The floor map gave the impression of a patch of ground from the Murray River flats having been brought into the gallery wholesale. Its surface, interspersed with large stones placed at key points on the sand map, imbued the assemblage with a sense of a ritual and reference to other indigenous cultures that employ earth works and sand painting as part of their cultural traditions. On first impression this ground work was somewhat overwhelmed by the expansive space of the main gallery and seemed isolated and island-like, but these thoughts were modified by later finding out that this floor map was actually a kind of stage set in earth materials, intended as an arena for the delivery of a twenty-minute mytho-poetic oration/performance by writer and performer Michelle Murray. On the opening night the performance was embellished by backdrop projections produced by photographer Richard Hodges.
Murray’s work, entitled ‘A vast expanse of hope’ – in part a love story set against the inky depths of the lake – “the place where land gives way” – and the limitless magnitude of the night skies, and presented as the “voice of the river”, was according to those lucky enough to witness the event, delivered by Murray in a moving disquisition. The large images of the Lakes environment projected onto the gallery walls were interrupted by the movements of the performer throughout her performance, adding to the multi-layered and multi-media narrative orchestrated by the collaborating artists. The trace of these fugitive elements of narration and performance were evidenced in the drag marks left by the mantle-like cape that adorned the performer as she moved across the diagrammatic landscape of the Basin, reciting her poem
It is a pity that some documentary evidence of the performance did not later form part of the display for the benefit of the general visitors to the exhibition, as it would have given a more powerful context for the overarching ambition of the whole project. However, aspects of the event including interviews with all of the collaborating artists have been uploaded onto the One River website and provide useful background information that helps to anchor the project’s creative purpose and interpretation.
The walls adjacent to the performance arena in which these events took place have been subsequently occupied by wall texts in the central part of the gallery space. These wall panels, edited transcripts of interviews undertaken by seasoned interviewer Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh with local residents, further highlighted the co-opting style of Worth’s overall ambition for the project. A rich tapestry of life experiences of long-term residents of the Lower Lakes are captured in these interviews, many of the subjects being well-known to the general public through their involvement in campaigns highlighting the plight of the Lower Lakes and the river itself, particularly during recent drought years. Their inclusion allow for the voices of the people – both indigenous and settler – to sit within the overall catchment concept of the exhibition. A number of the interviewees have campaigned vigorously to gain increased water flows into the Lakes and worked to strengthen our cultural and ecological understanding of the Murray-Darling river system and its central importance to the long-term wellbeing of the nation. This environmental message came through strongly in a number of the interviews, all of which are available on the One River website and provide useful background information that helps to anchor the project’s creative purpose and interpretation.
One of the most keenly felt interviews was with laconic Frank Tuckwell, long term Goolwa resident and former Director of the Signal Point Museum/Murray River Interpretive Centre developed by the Alexandrina Council in the 1980s in the lead up to the Australian Bicentenary. Motivated by his historical interest in the river, Frank recounted details of the keeping of the ‘river register’, a documentary and archival record of the many ingenious individuals who have made the epic pilgrimage down the Murray Valley from localities far up in the Basin catchment. These journeys of spirit, some dating back to the 1950s, highlight the deep and abiding psychological pull that the river’s slow but insistent flow has exerted on individuals in their questing for adventure and for personal meaning in a larger world. The river’s draw on the popular imagination is underscored by these stories, which effectively serve to act as a vernacular foil to the scripted mythological theatrically adopted by Murray in her ‘A vast expanse of hope’ performance.
Adjacent to these interview wall texts was a smaller wall-map of the Basin flanked by QR codes, digital icons that can be scanned with a smart-phone, locating all of the sites where various artists have been commissioned to produce work in other parts of the Murray Darling Basin during the course of the One River project. This technological linkage provided immediate access to the documentary results of the projects, giving a succinct overview of the entire suite of One River art projects. Appropriately this summation – a fitting coda to a very ambitious project – was able to take place in Goolwa where so many journeys and life experiences connected to the river have come to distilled conclusions, or ended with a sense of finality and completion.
In a compelling contrast to these experiences, on leaving the exhibition, I took the opportunity to detour with friends to the picturesque Currency Creek Cemetery not far from Goolwa, a location I had long wanted to visit, knowing it to be the last resting place of a number of important river and Lower Lakes identities from the nineteenth century. Here overlooking a beautiful valley, amidst birdsong and the raking shadows of late autumn sun were found headstones and obelisk monuments to riverboat captains George Bain Johnston (d. 1882), James Ritchie (d.1881), and explorer and pastoralist Edward Bate Scott, (d.1909) all located within a short distance from each other.
All are now relatively unknown, but their identities were legion among the small communities on the Lower Murray more than 140 years ago. I was struck by the conjunction of the imagined river-time narratives of their parallel lives with those of the many living individuals today that had found expression through the portal of the One River: Alluvial Connections exhibition.