A common magic

Jason Richardson: The Cad Factory, On Common Ground

Haunting, creative team led by Julie Montgarrett, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

Haunting, creative team led by Julie Montgarrett, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

Haunting, creative team led by Julie Montgarrett, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

Last year The Cad Factory, along with National Museum of Australia’s historian George Main and friends, took a three-day healing walk from the Narrandera Common on the Murrimbidgee to Birrego, 40km away. This year they returned to the Common 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 continued with acknowledgment of the river’s long history as a contested site.

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

Haunting was developed by The CAD Factory’s artistic director Vic McEwan during his time as artist-in-residence at the National Museum of Australia. His projections brought together water, earth and branches and made them active in the storytelling, “enabling understanding that would be possible nowhere else, under no other circumstance,” said Main in his introduction to the event, quoting literary historian Robert Macfarlane’s view of the poetry of Edward Thomas.

Main remarked in his narration how few of us look at the fields of wheat in the Riverina and imagine the forest of redgums that existed before the latter half of the 19th century. The Common is one of those places where a stand of Australian gums feels like a forest. Many old trunks are wider than cars and some have scars from Indigenous use. While the trees reflect an older landscape, the projection of static images from old photographs panning slowly across the river did too. I thought of the early days of Australian cinema, when the Limelight Department of the Salvation Army was 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 reverential tone and too much spaciousness for reflection can feel ponderous. The snippets of history were like bubbles on the passing river and the variety of voices helped but sometimes Main spoke so…very…slowly.

It was surprising to see police arrive as the audience departed Haunting. A Facebook message from Michael Petchkovsky later described an incident with a local: “The lout [one of ‘the boys’] 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) the 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 on the Common, reinforcing the notion that this landscape remains a contentious space.

On the Saturday night there were introductions from Vic McEwan, George 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 that I noticed the pattern on her cloak matched the huge backdrop—Vanishing Point, an installation across the river that was colourfully lit but still impressive the following day. Narrowing wires elegantly formed a vanishing point and billowing fabric served to reflect the black swans that had been driven from this landscape. The team of artists led by Julie Montgarrett drew on the writing of Mary Gilmour who attributed the decline of the swans to “swan hoppers” [whose work was to hop the swans off the nests in the breeding-season and smash their eggs, disrupting their breeding in order to reduce the birds’ damage to pasture. Eds].

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 anxiety in response to negative environmental change.

Tangible Spirit (detail), Emma Burden Piltz, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

Tangible Spirit (detail), Emma Burden Piltz, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

Tangible Spirit (detail), Emma Burden Piltz, On Common Ground, CAD Factory

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 practice has blossomed through collaboration with The Cad Factory. When I interviewed the artist for Western River Arts 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, Elizabeth Gay Campbell, creates often seemingly simple sculptural figures with a deeper message. Ophelia (2015) shows the character from Hamlet dying in a puddle surrounded by rubbish. In the program the work is described as acknowledging contaminated waterways and bush—the dying Ophelia the only remaining beauty, but she’ll too soon decay.

While a number of the works in On Common Ground expressed pessimism about environmental change, the event was beaut for its appreciation of Narrandera’s magical Common. Vic McEwan often explains CAD Factory’s role as creating memories within landscapes. This collection of activities and installations revealed On Common Ground to be much more than Bondi’s Sculpture by the Sea replicated on the Murrumbidgee.

The Cad Factory, On Common Ground, artistic director Vic McEwan, creative producer Sarah McEwan, project co-ordinator Julie Briggs; Narrandera, 16-18 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2015 pg. 32

© Jason Richardson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 December 2015