Front and Center

“The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a purpose of unity for our nation.”

The bombs have fallen. The plagues have been released. Peak oil has passed, the bees are all dead, the ravening zombie hordes have swept through. (And there’s no plucky band of waifs and strays and sheriffs wandering across this wasteland in search of a safe haven.)

Jamie Holcombe’s photographs in Civic Malaise reveal a landscape that is deserted and desolate. The people who built these structures and strung fences around to protect them from marauders or vandals have vanished. The tarmac may still be freshly laid in Coffin Bay; the solar panels, just installed, may still be gleaming in East Meets West; and the wire fences may still march crisply across the barren earth of Wave Rock. But elsewhere the paint is peeling in Outdoor Australia, and the gravestones are crumbling in South Bowenfels Cemetery.

These are glimpses into a country where the booms and busts of the extractive economy have come and gone. Waves of exploitation over two centuries have left their marks, relics of attempts to tame and control the land, its resources and its inhabitants – fences, chains, and the ubiquitous power lines strung out across every horizon.

The long tradition of the romantic idealisation of the outback, and the myth of the idyllic rural landscape as pristine and wholesome, have been challenged by artists and writers for decades. But these legends retain their grasp on our collective imaginings: Jamie Holcombe reminds us again that the picture is more complicated. We need, it seems, constantly to be reminded or else we automatically crop the cables from the skyline, or Photoshop the rusting, abandoned buses from the picturesque valley scene of Last Stop Sofala.

To keep the damage and the litter in the frame, as Jamie Holcombe has done, does not, as we have been falsely trained to assume, eradicate the beauty of the scene. In fact, the very contrast between the harsh or crumbling man-made structures and the environment into which they have been unceremoniously, even brutally, deposited can, Jamie proves, heighten our appreciation for the landscape as a whole. Even the most savage degradation, the white scars of salinisation at Lake Mulwala or the bare stripped hillsides of Wave Rock can offer aesthetic pleasures.

Such pleasures do not excuse the pillage: Jamie Holcombe is not an apologist for the international mining corporations or the energy barons, despite the heroic pylon in pride of place, glowing in the sunset in Warkworth Coal Mine. By drawing our attention to the beauty of these scenes, encouraging us to actually look closely and immerse ourselves in these environments, he is counteracting that training we have received to look away, to ignore and then forget.

“In 2000, the average attention span was 12 seconds, but this has now fallen to just eight. The goldfish is believed to maintain a solid nine.”

Ironic jokes abound in Jamie Holcombe’s work. His tongue is kept firmly in its cheek. Sometimes the joke is front and centre – the Nullarbor Whale perched above a pond that is barely the length of the sculpture, the scrawny sheep cropping the barren soil in front of the blue and white banner of Milawa Perfection. But you’ll need to spend a bit more than eight seconds examining these images to spot the pigeon perched on its ledge, free of the bars in Caged Care; or to realise the incongruous placement of a pedestrian crossing sign barely a hundred metres before the highway itself runs out at Coffin Bay.

Crucially, none of these jokes are hidden, and almost none of these photographs have been taken on private property (with the exception of East Meets West, in a domestic garden setting). Despite the ever-present fences and locks, Jamie has committed no trespass in capturing these images. Every scene of Civic Malaise could have been shot at any time by any passerby – albeit certainly without the same level of expertise.

These scenes contain omens and warnings that all of us walk past every day: but they have remained unheeded, invisible, while our eyes and minds are transfixed by a ceaseless barrage of images and information, pouring from the same devices that, apparently, have reduced our attention span below that of the exemplary goldfish. Stop, Revive, Survive is not just an exhortation for safer driving, or an advertisement for an outback roadhouse. All the works in Civic Malaise are reminders to step back, to tear ourselves away from our glowing screens and look long and hard at our environments, to discover the humour and the irony, the beauty – but also the damage.

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”

When we do look at these scenes of Civic Malaise, we see signs of fear – fear of losing control, fear of the loss of property or of missing out on potential gain, fear of chaos and anarchy. The Corner Store is closed, but there is still a chain to prevent marauders from taking off with the two remaining vending machines. The Cootamundra Gate is still locked, even though the fences either side have long since been removed. In Firefly, the wheelie bins have been neatly lined up against the picket fence, a safe distance from the smoldering remains of the burnt-out car next door.

One confronting image, Nazis in the Night, evokes our fears of skinheads and thugs. The swastika and the slogan of “W.P” (“white power”) are themselves the rallying signs of those who fear the foreign and fear the loss of their privileged racial status, even more than they fear the economic upheaval fomented by the same disrupting corporations who stoke their fears through jingoism and witch-hunts.

But there are greater losses to be feared that are documented in Civic Malaise. There is the loss of ecosystems that haunts the dying salt-bleached shores Lake Mulwala. There is the loss of real community that is implied by the derelict state of South Bowenfels Cemetery, where graves are overgrown and abandoned by the descendants of those here interred. And there is the most personal loss, of a loved one, a friend or a family member, commemorated in the (sadly familiar but always poignant) roadside tribute to Emily.

“There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.”

To call these works “Civic” may initially strike us as out of place, when the subjects stretch across the entire southern half of mainland Australia and only a third are recognisably located in a town or suburb. But with these images Jamie Holcombe is speaking as a citizen, to citizens; and he is striving to remind us of yet another truth that we are conditioned to ignore, that the resources and the energy that we draw upon every day to maintain our civilized daily life are extracted from every region of the country, and at great cost.

But although these scenes are empty of human life, they are a warning, a forecast of bad weather brewing like the Mandurama Storm. Jamie Holcombe has diagnosed a “malaise”, not a disease or an incurable cancerous growth. The discomfort we sense every day that Jamie captures in his works is a symptom of our unconscious acceptance of responsibility for the environmental and social tolls that we have imposed on the landscapes and communities around us. This damage will leave scars that cannot be mended – but if the warning signs that Jamie Holcombe has recorded and assembled in Civic Malaise are heeded, if we stop, if we pay attention, and if we truly recognise the gravity of our situation, there may be time to save it.

We may not be doomed just yet.

Stephen Payne
Manager, Wagga Wagga Art Gallery
June 2015