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Australian beauty

April 26, 2010

The Tree of Man, Flinders Ranges

The wild landscapes of Australia are routinely described as desolate and forbidding… [yet] for all the talk of hostility and harshness, there is nothing so bleak and forbidding in country Australia as the places humans have built there…
Tim Winton, 2009

So begins the introduction to the Smalltown exhibition of 2009, a collaboration between photographer Martin Mischkulnig and writer and small town dweller Tim Winton, hosted by the Historic Houses Trust of NSW. Smalltown is, by and large, a study of rural ugliness. While the fine art of photography lends a kind of beauty to its subjects, we are asked to consider the shortcomings of the built environment in the outback, from ugliness borne of hardship to ‘rough as guts gimcrack’.

This exhibition and its accompanying monograph is part of a recent resurgence of uniquely Australian fear and loathing. Smalltown, along with the fiftieth anniversary edition of architect Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness and the recent re-release of Ted Kotcheff’s dystopian masterpiece Wake in Fright have lately brought the ugliness to be found in both urban and rural Australia to the fore.

Still from Ted Kotcheff's 1971 film Wake in Fright

I have experienced enough of rural Australia to know that the land of Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright was, and is, terrifyingly real. But I have also seen another side of the outback outpost; a beauty which remains elusive in the art and literature which has contributed to the emergence of an Australian identity.

I recently took a mini-break in the Flinders Ranges. We stayed in a small cottage on a sheep station just out of Hawker, a country town in the central Flinders with a permanent population of about 300. It is situated on the plains, dusty, dry and spare, planned as if a miniature version of Adelaide: four blocks by four, surrounded by parklands.

While it is self-promoted as the ‘Gateway to the Flinders’, it bares no traces of the infiltration of tree-changers, a phenomenon which has transformed so many small towns on the fringes of urban centres and tourist destinations. There are no artisan bakeries, gastropubs, purveyors of carefully selected ‘fabulous things’, or cafes offering single-origin espresso and all-day breakfasts.

While the main object of our trip was to admire the grand beauty of the Flinders, as a passionate historian and curious observer of the lives of others, I can spend only so much time admiring natural landscapes, no matter how awe-inspiring they are. I therefore insisted on a short exploration of Hawker. Our first stop was Hawker Motors, the most charming service station one is ever likely to encounter, also being the town’s tourist information centre, a museum and seismographic station!

Hawker 5434, old post office

The change in my pocket purchased me a copy of the Hawker Heritage Walk. A format which would be familiar to most people, it contained a brief history of the town and a list of the town’s heritage items, mostly buildings of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Churches, the grand residences of mill-owners, the railway, pubs, boarding houses; all typical of Australian country towns, bearing the unique vernacular of their location.

Church, Hawker

As we began our walk following the suggested route, it was easy to pick these buildings, well cared for and obviously a source of community pride. As we moved through the town however, something far more startling caught my eye. Specifically, ordinary front yards.

Aside from the grand residences I previously mentioned, which largely retained evidence of their original landscaping, the residents of Hawker revealed themselves as creative decorators making the best of a dry and unyielding landscape, cultivating plants and decorating their yards with everything from bronze sculptures to industrial debris.

Celebrated Australian artists such as Rosalie Gascoigne and Robert Klippel have forged international careers celebrating the beauty of found objects such as road signs, wooden crates, industrial patterns and machinery, the detritus of life and work on the land.

The dusty front yard of a railway worker in Hawker is as metaphorically and geographically remote from the Venice Biennale as it is possible to get. What binds these rural dwellers to these great fine artists is a recognition that the ordinary, the Australian, can be beautiful. As a result, lives are enriched. We should embrace this pride in the ordinary and sometimes eccentric, a foil to the fearsome, desperate picture of outback living which characterises so much of our great art and writing. I will let my hastily captured pictures speak for themselves.

Happy are those who see beauty in modest spots where others see nothing. Everything is beautiful, the whole secret lies in knowing how to interpret it.
Camille Pissaro, 1893

The happy couple, Hawker

Phyllophallic? Ceramic insulators, Hawker

Plumbing and electricity, Hawker

Out of proportion, Hawker

Water feature, Hawker

Living sculpture, Hawker

Stealers wheel, Hawker

Rockery, Hawker

Out front, Hawker

International floral display

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2010 11:03

    I think you’ve written a fine piece here – critical and appreciative in equal measure. It’s heartening to read something where someone tries to look for the good and the beautiful in things. And appreciates the effort taken. The achievements may sometimes seem modest, but the heart put into them is to be admired.

    What you say often seems to me valid in the urban environment too. Some houses I see seem ugly to me – but to their owners I’m sure they are often a home which has had loving effort expended upon them. Australia may be ugly and beautiful in different measures – but it ain’t boring.

  2. May 7, 2010 21:37

    Beauty is always to be found, we have to remind ourselves to keep looking! Thanks

  3. June 24, 2010 07:24

    Hey Felicity. Love it. You should get your hands on a copy of a book called Colonial Earth, by Tim Bonyhady, I think you’d like it… oh yes, and the fibro frontier, I think that’s a Powerhouse Museum publication. Also Google Glen(N) Sloggett(?sp), a photographer of suburban landscapes in Melbourne.
    CU Soon,



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