So Long and Thanks...

Exhibition Catalogue Text

So Long and Thanks For All the Fish
Bunbury Regional Art Galleries
14 May - 13 June 2016


So Long and Thanks for All The Fish is an attempt to present the complex and variable experience of place. The artists in this exhibition grew up in Bunbury (or near to it), but no longer live here. Their art speaks of history, nostalgia, family and social connection, reflecting a vision of Bunbury’s identity that is connected, layered, and evolving.

In the 1960s, Evelyn Smith began feeding dolphins from a small jetty near her home on the Leschenault Inlet. She continued this until her death in the early 70s. In 1989, a dolphin specialist was hired by the newly established Bunbury Dolphin Trust to study the local dolphins and scope the feasibility for dolphin-human interaction. From this work came the establishment of the Interaction Zone in Koombana Bay 1990 and the opening of the Dolphin Discovery Centre in 1994. Dolphins have become a large part of the civic identity of Bunbury. They are a major tourism draw and are equally embraced by locals, with dolphin emblems scattered across the businesses and homes of Bunbury.  

This type of peculiarity is what people often think of when they envision what defines a place. They are endearing eccentricities that earn a community a footnote in tourist guidebooks. Building community identity around eccentricities and anomalies of legend ties a place inevitably to its past, almost as if only one thing of note has ever happened there. The events become decontextualised from larger patterns of history, politics and culture - a perspective that decontextualizes regional cities themselves. 

The story of Evelyn Smith and Bunbury’s connection to dolphins seems to be something unique and isolated, but it is woven into the social and political fabric of history. There are ways we can interrogate the story: what does it tell us about attitudes towards relationships between humans and non-humans, or the concept of animal rights? What of ideas of feminine propriety in the context of attitudes of the time? Is it significant that a man was invited two decades later to provide a scientific and rationalist analysis? Is there anything that can be gleaned about the arrogance of colonial attitudes? Merely accounting for local history or lore does not necessarily reveal the multiple vectors of race, gender, technology or ecology that all converge on this moment at this geographical site. 

Further, the story is contested. The feeding of dolphins a factor in why dolphins visit Bunbury, there are other factors. Many dolphins visit regularly and do not receive any fish, thriving only it seems on human connection. Other versions of the story favour a narrative of psychological/psychic connection between dolphins and the people of Bunbury. The story is a growing, changing, conflicted cultural artefact, just like the city it helps define. 

The tale of dolphins coming to Bunbury is a staple in the contemporary oral tradition of the town. In telling the story, people construct a civic identity, and connection to the incident helps constitute one’s identity as a member of that place. But the relationship works both ways. The story sustains the identity of its place of origin. In this sense, a city is not so much a place as a set of stories that negotiate relationships between people, places and politics. The works in this exhibition are such stories.

Mark Parfitt’s work Oasis Drive continues on from his 2015 exhibition, A Plan for the Summer, and more broadly from his sustained practice of aestheticizing everyday experience. These are documentary artworks, tracking the artist’s social encounters as he swims in the backyard pools of strangers. It echoes the plot of John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer, where the protagonist returns home via a river of swimming pools. 

This work invests in a socially constructed idea of civic identity, opening the project of definition to local participation. Parfitt’s work is both performative and participatory; it can be adapted to new places and circulate across wide populations. It recognises that a city is a social construction that is continually shaped by the practices of its inhabitants. This work evokes the image of a landscape in motion: fluid and mutable. For the artist, Bunbury is a dynamic, transforming landscape. 

In conversations leading up to the exhibition, Parfitt spoke of a new personal attitude towards the town following his swim back to Bunbury and a desire to further investigate what might have changed since he was at high school here. His interest is a reminder that these artists are not anthropologists in the field, or impartial empirical analysts, but stakeholders with both rational and affective investments in the fortunes of this city.

Grace Gammage straddles the line between disinterested outsider and passionate advocate. Her practice has taken her from Perth to Istanbul to Hobart, Tasmania. In these places, she listens and watches, turning an anthropological eye towards the people of these cities. She has a keen sense of the injustices of the world – those destructive practices fuelled by short sightedness and greed.

Her work resolves the apparently conflicting objectives of dealing with questions of cultural politics on broad geographical scales and representing the local in careful and attentive detail. She both respects the local populace, and implicates it in a critique of society and culture. 

Pidgeon Workshop with Greg is a video tutorial on keeping homing pigeons for use in long-distance communication, which blends informational documentary, lo-fi oral history, poetry, social criticism and performance. It is at first glance a gentle interview with a genial “character”; however, as part of her series Skills for the Apocalypse it invites the viewer to cast a critical eye on those people preparing for the end of the world, as well as contemplate what might bring this about.  

More than any other work in this exhibition, Pidgeon Workshop with Greg has at its heart the creative negotiation of geographical displacement, which Nicolas Bourriaud endorses as a principle feature of contemporary art. Francis Alÿs spoke of the artist as “a passer-by, constantly trying to situate [him/herself] in a moving environment.” Like Alÿs, Gammage presents a fragment of a place: an impression of a person, a momentary connection across a fragile telephone line. Her work acknowledges how every detail of a place reflects and generates memory and knowledge about nature and culture, something Lucy Lippard calls “art of place”, rather than “art about place”.

Caroline J Dale’s work responds to the challenge to represent place in a more complex and more volitional way. Dale speaks of her youth in Bunbury as a time of storming, of boiling rage. “I hadn’t worked out how to write songs, or play guitar, or draw, or do any of the things that buy me a comfortable degree of sanity now”, she explains. Her work in this exhibition is an exercise in rehabilitation and restoration, an assertion of existence against the idea of a monolithically oppressive place. In her work, Dale makes reference to personal history, as well as some of the distinctive landmarks of Bunbury.  She weaves these familiar markers between and behind sea creatures in a way that seems to deny their implication in place.

A Drive In Cinema, centres around Bunbury’s port, with glimpses of the famed timber jetty and the grain silos, which were demolished in 1992 (Dale was one of many in the huge crowds who surrounded the Outer Harbour on that day to watch the event). The title promises a place of familiarity; however, Dale’s work does not provide easy entry to a commodified version of place. It first promises, then denies touristic access to outsiders. Her works are all figures and no ground: structures are impossibly melded with sea creatures, intertwined in the many strands of place that converge in these images. The morass asserts place as a complex matrix of voices, lives and experiences. 

Bunbury’s port is itself a kind of metonymy for the connections between the city and the rest of the world. Bunbury and its port lie at the original mouth of the Preston River and near the mouth of the Collie River at the southern end of the Leschenault Inlet.  These rivers wind their way north and east through towns like Donnybrook and Boyanup, Burekup and Collie. In the past, timber logs would be floated down the Collie River to be loaded aboard ships headed to the Northern Hemisphere or to South Africa where the hardwood timbers were used for railway sleepers.  In this sense the city is a portal, a point of connection rather than disconnection. In some ways this status continues by car and truck today, with Bunbury as the first town of any size drivers encounter as they head south from Perth. However, the evolution of this modern network of roadways shows the role of place in the operations of power. Disconnected from local concerns, people’s energies are channelled down the Forrest Highway, away from communities into a centralised “holiday region”. 

Danni McGrath’s work focuses on the passenger’s experience of networks and roads. It does not focus on the flowing Forrest Highway but rather is local and wandering, tracking her childhood journey between Busselton and Bunbury through local landmarks. By supplanting the idea of the road as single axis of motion with this more interconnected model, her work can again be read as challenge to the idea of place having an autonomous, essential character. Nostalgia Trip is in some senses a map, plotting the course between the artist’s mailbox and Bunbury Tower. However, like Michael de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, McGrath’s wandering is a resistant, elusive practice, and diametrically opposed to the scientific objective language of cartographers. McGrath’s road is like Foucault’s heterotopia: a space with more layers of meaning or relationships than immediately meet the eye. Her work rejects the idea of the linear, predictable city in favour of a landscape defined by personal moments. 

Dionne Hooyberg, like Dale and McGrath, seizes on recognizable landmarks of Bunbury in her work Light Entertainment, borrowing aspects of the interior decoration and architecture of The Lord Forrest Hotel and Bunbury Tower (or “The Milk Carton”). These buildings are typical images of Bunbury, regional stereotypes in the same manner as dolphins have come to be. Again, these typical icons can grow to occlude important cultural conflicts and political struggles that tie regional cities to a wider socio-political history. Hooyberg’s interest in the Milk Carton stems from her work on the iconography associated with Alan Bond. Bond, known for his high-profile business dealings, resulting in the biggest corporate collapse in Australian history and criminal conviction, was responsible for building the Milk Carton in 1983. Rising far above the other buildings of the CBD, it is obnoxious and optimistic – one of the clearest remnants of the excess of the 80s, which ended in recession and the slump of industry in Bunbury. It can be seen that the very images that delimit and disconnect places can be sites for local public discourse or self-reflection. In re-examining these places, we can discern the dynamic interconnections between Bunbury and the rest of Western Australia and the world. 

Hooyberg’s work is also personal. It speaks of the etymological roots of nostalgia: from the two Greek root words nostos (return home) and algos (pain). For Hooyberg, the landmarks of Bunbury are a symbol of a more hopeful time, and a sign on the horizon that marks the pain of returning home. Similarly, Gemma Weston’s work centres on a border-marker of sorts. Three Stories About Mixed Messages is a piece of writing that speaks in part about “an object that stands near my childhood home, and which had been on my mind– a two-man tall white steel tower topped by an orange triangle fitted at the centre with a bright fluorescent bulb, like a blind illuminati eye.” This tower represents a border-crossing into and out of Bunbury, limited though it is to one person’s family geography. It might be argued that Bunbury is a geographic reality, a location on the map with fixed borders, and its boundaries do not thus shift with the perspectives of subject. However, this would be a simplistic definition. It should not be forgotten that the land on which Weston’s tower stands was once underwater. Beneath those sands are sunken ships and graveyards which maps do not admit as a past or present reality.

Weston’s work has developed since she first wrote the text in 2012. It has become less about borders and boundaries, and more about relationships. This comes with the inclusion of a postcard from Weston to her mother, apologising for miscasting her mother’s role in the original story. Place can be expressed simply as the address on a postcard when you are away from home. That which opposes a sense of displacement is not so much place as it is family. That is to say, family is often the medium that constructs the experience of place. Weston makes apparent the complicated and ambivalent nature of family ties in her work. The networks of forces that interconnect to make a place for her in the world are made visible. This reinforces the primary thesis of this exhibition. Places are not things to be found out in the world, they are ideas about spaces that are constructed by people, in acts of observation and interpretation and making. A city is not a geographically bounded slice of terrain, but a way of describing relationships.