March into the archives : On Common Ground review

THIS REVIEW/ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY COMMISSIONED BY OPEN CITY INC PUBLISHER OF REALTIME AND CAN BE SEEN HERE

On Common Ground by The Cad Factory
16-18 October 2015 in Narrandera
Artistic director: Vic McEwan
Creative producer: Sarah McEwan
Project Co-ordinator: Julie Briggs
Project assistant: Kimberley Beattie
Production manager: Michael Petchkovsky
Rigging and production: Craig Hull
Production assistant: Kevin Ng, James Farley, Kate Allman

Last year The Cad Factory left from the Narrandera Common for a healing walk with National Museum of Australia’s historian George Main and friends. This year they’ve returned to the site with many more friends to install sculptures, textiles and other works.

Dozens of artists and many more locals came together to promote different perspectives on the location, and the healing theme continues with acknowledgment of the River’s “long history as a contested site”.

This historical perspective is brought into focus during Haunting on the Friday and Saturday nights. It featured a collection of vignettes from the region with images projected onto the River Red Gums across from Second Beach. Richly saturated photographs streamed through smoke onto pale trunks and eroded banks, as George Main and others provided recorded narration over an atmospheric soundtrack.

Haunting is one work developed by The Cad Factory’s artistic director Vic McEwan during his time as artist-in-residence at the National Museum of Australia. The projection brought together water, earth and branches and made them active in the storytelling, “‘enabling understanding that would be possible nowhere else, under no other circumstances’’” says Main in his introduction (quoting literary historian Robert Macfarlane’s view of the poetry of Edward Thomas).

During Main’s narration he remarks how few look at the fields of wheat in the Riverina and imagine the forest of River Red Gums that existed before the latter half of the 19th Century. The Common is one of those places where Australian gums feel like a forest. Many old trunks are wider than cars and some have scars from indigenous use.

While the trees reflected an older landscape, the projection of static images panning slowly across the River did too. It led me to think on the early days of Australian cinema, when the Limelight Department of the Salvation Army were one of the world’s first film studios.

The idea that art is spirituality in drag makes a lot of sense at a Cad Factory production, as the audience see local stories projected large. However, a sluggish pace is a divisive characteristic. The reverence in their tone and spaciousness for reflection has been described as “ponderous”. The snippets of history were like bubbles on the passing river and the variety of voices helped but sometimes George Main was speaking. So. Very. Slowly.

It was surprising to see police arrive as the audience departed Haunting. Facebook later showed a message from Michael Petchkovsky describing an incident with a local:

“The lout must have thought the bunyips had come for him when Hero Fukutu and I floated Gay Campbell's gorgeous black swan right past him in the darkness and Craig said boo to him from behind. He leaped up and ran screaming from the beach in front of all his friends, giving us all (his mates included) a number of giggles…”

The next day a local artist told me these “boys” were a feature at local events. Perhaps they are performance artists in their own right? She also enthused that the youthful audience weren’t engaged in their usual activities in the Common, reinforcing an idea this landscape remains a contentious space.

On the Saturday night there were introductions from McEwan, Main and local artist Michael Lyons, who performed imitations of wildlife such as “devil birds” (owls) on didgeridoo. It was the first of two musical performances that bookended the night. Local musician Fiona Caldravic closed Haunting with an operatic vocal in a bewitching outfit. It wasn’t until I looked at photos did I notice the pattern on her cloak matched the huge backdrop.

The huge backdrop was Vanishing Point, an installation across the River that was colourfully lit but still impressive the following day. It was elegant how the narrowing wires form a vanishing point and the billowing fabric serves to reflect the black swans that were driven from the landscape. The team of artists led by Julie Montgarrett drew on the writing of Mary Gilmore, who described the decline of swans as ‘swan-hoppers’ disrupting their breeding.

Swans and billowing fabric were recurring features in On Common Ground. Black swans appeared at First and Second beaches in the works of Kerri Weymouth, on a totem pole, and Julie Briggs, in a formation of paper birds streaming down the riverbank. The title of the latter, Yes Faux Nature is a Real Trend, is explained in the program as referencing Glen Albrecht’s term ‘solastalgia’ to describe the anxiety developed in response to negative environmental change.

Fabric on site took many forms, including kites, quilts and an extensive variety of eco-dyed sheets that were the result of workshops with local artists and Nicole Barakat earlier this year. There were many shades but also beautiful details, such as printing the shapes of leaves and branches.

Emma Burden-Piltz is one local artist whose practise has blossomed through collaboration with The Cad Factory. When I wrote about Burden-Piltz’s exhibition in Leeton, she identified circular motifs as an element from the landscape incorporated into her collections of found and reworked objects. In Tangible Spirit, Burden-Piltz hung eco-dyed fabrics to give form to the movement of air, as well as shaping structures that resembled fishing traps. Up close I spotted hand-sewn circles.

Another local artist was Elizabeth Gay Campbell, whose sculptural works are often seemingly simple figures with a deeper message when you read her statements. For example, Ophelia (2015) shows the figure from Hamlet dying in a puddle surrounded by rubbish. In the program the work is described as acknowledging the contaminated waterways and bush. It suggests dying Ophelia is the only remaining beauty but she’ll soon decay.

While a number of the works in On Common Ground shared pessimism about environmental change, I think the event was beaut for showing appreciation of Narrandera’s magical Common. The Cad Factory’s Vic McEwan often explains their role in creating memories within landscapes and the collection of activities and installations showed itself to be more than Bondi’s Sculpture by the Sea replicated on the Murrumbidgee.

More photographs can be seen here