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Where He Stands | Michael O'Dwyer's Menindee

Menindee is the oldest European settlement in Western NSW and served as the site of a base camp for the historic Burke and Wills expedition. It was while in this desert town, where temperatures regularly soar into the road-shimmering forties, that the doomed expedition team splintered, and “the Cup” referred to in Banjo Patterson’s perennial poem, The Man From Snowy River, historically took place. These lands are Paakantji and Ngiyaampaa country, and bordered by a chain of lakes that has called to artists and fortune-seekers for centuries.

During October until December last year, Michael O’Dwyer, was the resident artist in Menindee with the support of West Darling Arts. The experience took the photographer, sound artist and woodworker 1000 kilometers away from his family, in a bid to discover something of the psycho-geography of these lands. He spoke to Estelle Pigot about his journey.

 

Why were you interested in exploring this part of the world through your practice?

I had completed a Masters in Public Art, titled, Reverie, Identity and Place: How I Explored the Murray River (in 2011) and felt that after focusing on the Murray, I needed to take the next step over the river. I wanted to get past the river red gums to the Cooba and Gidgee of the desert plains and better understand the Darling River and its people.

I am interested in psycho-geography and the use of emotional intelligence to understand and explore a place. Something was drawing me to Menindee, and without analysing this feeling too much, I decided to act on my intuition. After a little research I contacted, James Giddey, Executive Officer at West Darling Arts. Over the course of almost a year and a half, we built on a relationship and began working on a program for me to work in the Central Darling area. James was key to putting me in contact with other community leaders and gave me the time to educate myself on the area. Together we forged a program that would best suit the needs of both the community and my arts practice.

What was your intention for the “Where I Stand” project?

My intention was to undergo a ten-week residency in Menindee. I sought to utilise my skills in woodwork, sound, still and moving image to work solo, collaboratively and at community capacities. I discussed with community how my skills may best benefit them and devised a program to suit. I intended on building relationships that would last beyond the ten-weeks and make artworks of a higher standard than I had achieved before. My hope was to better understand the people and the place.

Who and how did you collaborate with the local community?

During my residency,West Darling Arts had me assisting with preparations for National Sound and Film Archives Big Screen Film Festival.  The locals and I started a camera club which met weekly at different locations to practice and share knowledge on photography. Also, in collaboration with locals, I devised a plan to conduct remedial works on the totem public art sculpture in Menindee.

I ran box-making workshops and assisted in projects that were underway by shed members of the Menindee Men’s Shed. We made a dining table from timber we salvaged from Menindee Tip and raffled it off to raise money for the Men’s Shed. The raffle raised $700.00 and went to a local community member.

I collaborated with the students at Menindee Central School on a stop animation project and ran a music/sound workshop using the Federation Bells which I had borrowed from the Melbourne Museum.

I initiated a project called Menindee Video Portraits exploring the human condition. Based at the Menindee Rural Transaction Centre, I conducted interviews in silence with locals. Participants watched a video which prompted memories of their life and other instructions. They were asked to not respond verbally, but rather just to think and feel their responses. The result was 30 interviews capturing the essence of those that participated, it is a creative exploration that garners empathy and a common ground.

What outcomes were you hoping for, and did you achieve them?

I placed a lot of pressure on myself to create significant outcomes and achieved more than I had planned. Understanding my time as precious I worked around the clock, creating a huge body of work. I had hoped that an outcome of this residency would be to establish new relationships that would benefit long after my residency was over. This was achieved with many friends made. I look forward to returning to the Central Darling area again soon.

What was the biggest surprise of the residency?

Three corner jacks, the biting midday sun and the relentlessness of mosquitos.

I developed a different way of walking whilst in Menindee. I became lighter on my feet. As the days becamehotter towards the end of the year I began to wear no shoes. Wearing shoes became uncomfortable. I realised I was experiencing my surrounds differently. I walked slower and had to pay extra attention on where I was going. I looked at where I was more often.

The lightness in my walk I owe to the Three Corner Jack. Imagine three rose thorns stuck together, these things would puncture bike tyres and the ground was littered with them. Three Corner Jacks have a particular feel as they pierce the skin.

But over the weeks, I worked out how to avoid injury. I got a feel for them.

I developed a technique where – just as its thorn pricked the sole of my foot – I stopped, pulled them out and put them in the bin before the thorn had a chance to go all the way in. They hurt heaps more if they go all the way in.

What was your favourite discovery of “Where I Stand”?

Through the Menindee Video Portraits Project I discovered just how similar humans can be. Often we remark on the differences between city and country people, but at our core there are many similarities. It is the construct of our environments which is the difference and creates the difference in people, but if we understand the similarities the differences are much easily shared. I enjoyed discovering the characters of Central Darling. I met so many people that live and have lived amazing lives.

What was the hardest thing about living and working as an artist in the outback, and how did you cope with the challenge?

The hardest thing was being away from my partner and two children (aged five and ten.) We managed by frequent Skype sessions. I am proud of how we cared for each other during our time away. It helped to have them come to Menindee for the last few weeks of my residency and share in the things I had experienced. They learnt a lot from the experience. It has added rich insight to my children’s lives.

I also found it hard to be part of a community where everyone knew each other except me. This was hardest at the start of my residency, but subsided after two or three weeks. To overcome this I invested much of my time getting to know people whilst remaining active in the community.

What do you think the locals gained from your being there? What did you take away from the experience, creatively speaking?

Locals commented that my presence brought a positive energy to the area. People were more active whilst I was around and enjoyed the activities and workshops I provided, sparking conversation and skills-exchange. I would have liked to have stayed longer and am working on ways to come back.

For me, the themes around my work have strengthened due to the experience. I understand better what my work is about and am creating work of higher standard. My residency in Central Darling will be remembered as a key part of my creative development.

What are your thoughts on the creative scene in the Central Darling region?

Creativity is thriving in Central Darling, but unfortunately there is little opportunity to exhibit work. I was met with and noted a strong fine arts scene, whilst finding an undercurrent of new media practices building. Although there are few gallery spaces available there are many underutilised, vacant and abandoned spaces that could be reimagined as alternatives. Central Darling is a unique area that could benefit from the activation of these spaces; considering so much of the work in the area revolves around themes of place, using these spaces would complement the work created.

 

The residency was realised through the financial support of West Darling Arts and in-kind support from Broken Hill Regional Gallery and the Menindee Rural Transaction Centre.

Read more about Michael O’Dwyer’s observations and work in Menindee in this piece for ABCOpen.