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Over His Head | Alex Wisser's Hill End Hole

“The more he thought, the less he understood. And so the boy stopped thinking and put all his energy into digging the hole.”  

– ‘The Wind-Up Bird’ by Haruki Murakami

Bathurst Regional Art Gallery (BRAG) run an Artist in Residence program at Haefligers Cottage, in Hill End, 84 kilometres from Bathurst, since 1994. The cottage has been the dwelling of artists since 1947, and is filled with works of art, books and furnishings that echo the presence of the artists including John Olsen, Brett Whitely, Margaret Olley and a host of others who have visited, lived and worked there over the last half century.

Most recently, Alex Wisser was the artist in resident in the Cottage, paying homage to the gold rush history of the town. During his time there he dug a deep hole in the grounds of the property. Richard Perram, BRAG director, spoke to RANSW about inviting Alex to take part in the program. “Alex is a performance artist and one of the founders of the contemporary art festival, Cementa,” he said. “When he came to us with his proposal, it fitted in with our strategy for the Hill End residency, which is to open the opportunity to the widest possible kinds of artists and to show support for local artists.”

Like a character in a Marakami novel, Wisser wrestled with demons in the depths of his hole, during his time at Hill End.  He chronicled the experience on his blog which attracted praise and pondering about his project. Says Richard Perram, “We had a vacancy in the residency program for a month and his idea was fantastic. His concept reflected the historical aspect of Hill End, in a sense symbolising the mining heritage where they dug up the landscape and then filled it in again when the gold rush was over. We were delighted to have Alex participate in the residency program and we plan to offer two residencies to artists in 2015 who will be participating in Cementa 2015.”

Here, Estelle Pigot, talks to Wisser about his residency, and time down in the Hill End hole.

So… what’s with the hole?

This project is my attempt to relate to Hill End in a way that I find honest.  A place like this is difficult for an artist because it is overwritten by so many preconceptions.  First there is the gold mining history and then there is the artist colony history.  Both have been written about and imagined so many times that it is difficult to interact with the place without first encountering these layers of mythology.  I suppose my project was an attempt to cut past this discursive surface and interact more directly with the place and the things that have happened in its past.

 

How was the Hill End residency organised?

The Bathurst Regional Gallery runs two residencies monthly in Hill End.  BRAG director Richard Perram and curator Robina Booth invited me take November at Haeflinger’s Cottage.  I am very grateful for the opportunity, and while I found it very challenging, it has provided me with a great opportunity to make a work I am very proud of.

 

Your mum asked the question on your blog “Is it art?” Is she the only one who has been left scratching her head trying to understand the artistic merit of this project?

I leave it to everyone else to decide for themselves or collectively whether they wish to call it art or not.  Personally, I think that the whole question of what is and what is not art is coming to an end.

 

What has some of the feedback from locals been?

I didn’t meet many locals because I was either digging or exhausted.  I did meet one woman on the first day of digging.  She noticed I had been working and struck up a conversation.  When she asked me what I was doing, I prevaricated, being too tired to enter into the long conversation around art.  But as the conversation continued, I realised that I wasn’t going to get away with it so easily, so I explained my project.  Her reply was something like, “oh, so you do constructions?”  I guess the locals at Hill End must have some experience with the crazy things artists get up to.

 

 Have you had any thoughts about what will happen to the hole after you finish the residency in Hill End?

I will fill it in.  I don’t want any visible trace of it, so that in 20 years perhaps an academic, having heard of the hole, will have to work very hard trying to figure out where it is.  I think of the hole as a kind of inverted or negative monument.   Instead of something that juts up from the ground to pronounce itself as a symbol or marker of this or that meaning, my monument is completely hidden to the human eye but still we know it is there.  I love the fact that by digging the hole and filling it in I have changed the composition of Hill End.  This is after all what happened during the gold rush.

 

You write about having had some personal difficulty during your residency, and the way that has impacted your thought and feelings ‘in the hole’; has this experience been therapeutic, as an antidote for some of the trials of modern life?

I was going through something very difficult emotionally for me at the time.  So here I had something very personal, emotional, and coming completely from outside the hole, impacting my experience in the ground in a profound way.  This became an integral part of what I was doing.

Whether or not the isolation of the hole was ‘therapeutic’ or at all helpful to my situation, I cannot say, but it certainly amplified it for me.  All of the arguments, anxieties, and self-recrimination that cycle through a person’s head when they are in emotional distress echoed off the walls of the hole.  It certainly intensified the whole experience and made it more painful.  I feel that I have now reached a much more solid place though.  I am more sure of who I am, and feel less threatened by external circumstances.  Whether this was because of the hole or because I have grown up a little, I cannot say.  I did think, at one point; dig yourself a hole and you might just find yourself at the bottom of it, wondering who you are.

There was one other unexpected consequence.  I had a great difficulty deciding how long I should dig for or how deep the hole should be.  Traditionally in this kind of art, the artist seeks an index or rule that is objective to the process.  This gives the work a structure that cannot be reduced to the unfettered subjectivity of the artist.  I had originally thought I would base it on the standard work week: 8 hour days, five days a week would mean 20 days digging in a month.  Sadly, I had to go to Sydney for paid work for an extended period, which made this impossible.  I was struggling to come up with another index which would mean that I wasn’t just arbitrarily ending the work and not having any luck.  On what turned out to be the last day of digging, I went into the hole, particularly affected by my situation, and as I dug, I realised that it was over.  All of the joy of what I was doing, the optimism and good humour, was gone.  To continue digging would only be to torture myself.  The artwork had finished.  I don’t think of this as giving up or a failure in any way.  I found my external index, my reason for finishing.

 

What’s next?

I am talking to some friends about digging my own personal Cross Sydney Tunnel in Sydney.