Through The Other's Eyes: Refuge - A Site-Specific Installation for Alice Springs by Welsh Artist David Hastie: Harriet Gaffney
Stepping into the arena of sculptural artist David Hastie's installation one is immediately shaded from the Central Australian sun and protected from its withering effects: offered a 'refuge' from the desert landscape in which the work found its inspiration; a respite from a habitat merciless, often uncontrollable. Yet the work, a juxtaposition of elements of this unique environment and hand-modelled 'shelters' that lead us out from the desert and back to 'civilisation', from the natural forces to the comfort of a home, seems to say much more.
The inherent ironies of this place: so exquisite; so hard; so hurt and indeed hurtful; so delicate; so enormous yet so intimate, strike the person that resides here so that a question such as "Why do you live here?" meets a shrug of the shoulders and an inclination of the head out, onwards. This is a place of lost souls and found; beings locked in memory and bodies searching in space. It is uncanny this place, with a black and a white side literal and metaphoric, psychological and physical.
When I first spoke with David Hastie about him coming out to the Central Australian desert to do an installation in the experimental artist run initiative Watch This Space, he was obsessed with the idea of the desert: flat, stretching, hot and empty. He flew into a land defined by a ridged escarpment, not red and dusty-dry but pink and green and sylvan grey; hills like creeping caterpillars across the landscape.
It was Hastie's reaction to the unexpectedly fragile beauty of Central Australia that saw his work take the path it did. He had talked about a 'refuge' in his proposal, a refuge I supposed, as perhaps did he, from an environment overwhelming: too harsh to overcome; too large to completely tame. It would be a tent he would install, within it a build-up of elements of the landscape he would discover; as well as representations of the culture from which he had come; a desk with an overhanging lamp, a chair, hand-modelled lead structures referencing Hastie's own ancestral history. What happened, I believe, was an intuitive reaction to the nature of space-claiming; a replica on small of the meaning behind the structures that we build in order to feel safe: larger than that, a replica of the effects on the Indigenous people of this country of the colonisation of their land.
Hastie took the tent but instead of setting it up as as a space to step inside, find shade, he hung it up like a canvas, let the tent's fabric hang down to morph its own materiality and become something else. It became a map: depicting the fragility and impermanence of this life; the spaces left unread by the asphalted roads; the gaps undefined by any white walled gallery or museum.
Central Australia is landscape country for the artist. From the works of Rex Battarbee in the 1930's and the phenomenal tradition of Arrernte water-colours this engendered; to the acrylic revolution that began in 1971 when the Papunya community school had its besser-brick walls painted by a group of Aboriginal elders who had been forcibly settled there in the 1960's: the country has given rise to a movement of painting that has revitalised the contemporary art world, given the act of painting itself new life in a tradition gone quite stale. Hastie's canvas - red-dog-pawed across its breadth, charcoal smudged and frayed at its edges - gave voice through these residual markings to those silenced by the wider cultural context in which they now live.
His lead-model houses, only three inches high and four deep, were dwarfed by the enormity of this backdrop; the piles of pink-river sand they sat atop running like dunes in miniature; some houses almost overtaken as if by a now distant wind. In front of the houses Hastie erected a wire fence, posts battered at intervals along its length. The artist's subsequent placement of globes on snaking cords in front of this border served dual purpose: illuminating the fence to cast shadows like scarifications onto the canvas, simultaneously throwing a spotlight onto these two cultures and what it has meant their uneasy cohabitation. This is the vision Hastie paints of Central Australia. Of cold, closed houses sitting stubbornly amidst the sand, gloomily settling down into the ever-defensive. Life emanated not from these structures built to aid man, structures of 'shelter' and 'refuge', but was found in the shadow land of the canvas, amidst the wandering tracks and vestigial fires of lives completely othered in the dominant 'whitefella' space.
Hastie's shadow land - in front of the canvas the rectangular houses, behind it the wider cultural referencing in the fortress-like castle - made comment on a series of historical battle fronts, where the original had fought the empirical, and lost. In Wales the fight for ownership took place behind turrets and metre-thick walls; here in Central Australia amidst the dunes and the ridges, the salt lakes and the clay. Yet Wales battles with England took place nearly a millennium ago: take place now, as the artist fervently informed me, on the rugby field, and in the linguistic resurgence in the schools. Here the battles are argued daily in the lower echelons of our courts where a lack of concrete action is sanctioned by conservative governments. And a population of people remain displaced, frighteningly distanced from the 'first' world.
The artist's sand-swept environment remained uninhabited by people, yet its very lack of human reference outside of the tiny lead houses and the desk, lamp and castle behind the canvas, spoke reams about the silencing that has gone on in remote areas of Australia, where communities exist in complete isolation and the ongoing effects of two and a quarter centuries of colonisation are lived with day by day. Much inspiration was gained by Hastie from the 19th century Lutheran mission settlement Hermannsburg, some 150kms west of Alice Springs. It was here that the painter Albert Namatjirra, the first Aboriginal Australian granted citizenship rights (in 1957, a decade before the passing of the referendum which allowed all Aboriginal people these 'rights') came from. Now sanctioned as a 'heritage' area the heavy stone, whitewashed buildings of the Church, schoolhouse and mortuary sit quietly amidst the huge ghost gums, prey to the vigilant eyes of the day-trippers and tourists. The walls are thickset and the caged windows deep. Inside the buildings one is bitten by an artificial cold.
It is the same chill one feels under the spotlight of Hastie's installation: as though a reversal has taken place and it is we, not Indigenous Australia, battered and worn. We are eclipsed by the canvas backdrop, a painting of lives unspoken that stretch so much further than our own, so alien to our fixed cultural mind set, yet so belonging in this place. His houses, diminutive, some drowning in the sea of sand, make us question our solid-stone foundations so unceremoniously erected here; let us see that they begin to crumble. The castle on the desk and the overhanging lamp remind of the mad scientist or scholar, little men building big empires behind closed doors; with no understanding, or simply no feeling, for what it is that they have truly done. Imprisoned behind the fence of our own 'civility' we lock others up as well. We trap them on the horizons, deem them marginal and turn our backs. If the whitefella's shelter remains his ability to turn his back, lock himself indoors, Hastie has shone a lamp to the windows: said, 'there is no refuge there'.
After note: A friend of the curator/writer, renowned Utopian artist Gracie Pwerl Morton (niece to Kathleen Petyarre and Emily Kame Kngwarreye) dropped into the gallery during the exhibition for a cup of tea. She stopped still in the space, pulled her fleece around her shoulders and crossed her arms across her chest: "Make 'em sad that one" she said, inclining her head towards the work. We sat there with our cups of tea, in silence. It was Anzac Day.
Harriet Gaffney: Watch This Space: 2001