published Thu 22 September 2011
The Palmer Project is now a decade old and a look back, as well as a look forward, is timely.
In 2001 Adelaide sculptor Greg Johns purchased a 163-hectare property just north of Palmer, about 70 km east of Adelaide. Greg had two aims in acquiring the former sheep grazing property: the display of a collection of sculpture (his own and a range of other contemporary sculpture); and long-term ecological rehabilitation. I offered to give him a hand, I originally come from Cambrai, a small Mallee town just north of Palmer, and this dry mallee country is part of my growing up.
The Palmer Project activities have been, and still are, a microcosm of the sustainability challenges facing all of humanity; of the broad range of issues pertinent to the relationship between art and sustainability, both ecological and cultural. The place is also a microcosm of broader topographical and cultural landscapes, including thee roles and responsibilities of arts practice in this sustainability endeavour. The small township of Palmer sits in the rain shadow of the Mount Lofty Ranges, from where the land slopes towards the River Murray, about 18km to the east. This is edge country; between hills and plains, between high and low rainfall, between reliable and marginal country. The area is used for mixed farming, cropping and grazing, and the indigenous bush of the area has been almost entirely cleared since European settlement. The Aboriginal people and traditional custodians of Country are the Peramangk. The area has a rich Aboriginal history and there are surviving rock paintings nearby. The property is hilly to undulating with a spectacular rock escarpment and three small creek lines, part of the Reedy Creek Catchment flowing to the River Murray. There is scattered remnant vegetation, the main species are the Rock Grass Tree (Xanthorrhorea quadrangulata), the Drooping Sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata), the Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha) and the River Redgum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis), as well as numerous native grasses and bulbs.
The first step has been to change the land management from agricultural production to cultural production (or what can be understood as the production of social and ecological capital). Under the guidance of Andrew Allanson from Palmer, one of the founders of the Bush for Life program, the property is being revegetated. It is a 20-year project to make a noticeable impact. About 6000 plants have been direct seeded and 1500 hand planted; mainly wattles, sheoak, River Redgum and lower storey shrubs. However survival rates have been moderate as there is no supplementary watering, the plants depending on the quality of the seasons for their survival. Long-term natural regeneration is also vital as tens of thousands of plants are required to mimic, but not replicate, pre-clearance vegetation patterns; to reflect the landscape memory. Natural regeneration of grasslands has been abundant and native pines, golden wattles, grass trees and small shrubs are re-appearing, some in abundance. The rainy seasons of the last few years have given the regrowth a huge boost. Around one hundred species of trees, shrubs, grasses, sedges and bulbs (not all endemic) have been recorded on the property. The endemic species will serve as a seed bank in the future. A rabbit and fox eradication program has been implemented and indigenous fauna is returning in larger numbers; reptiles, small rodents and kangaroos. More and more birds have been returning too with the regeneration of the grasslands.
In 2007 the Palmer Project received Australian government Bush Bids funding which provides financial support for ecological restoration over a ten year period. This is a significant contribution. It also led to Greg entering into a Heritage Agreement which provides a conservation covenant on the property title for inter-generational protection. Greg has now placed about 20 of his own works on the property, including new works developed in response to the place. The range of work includes a symbolic reading of the landscape, responding not only to the physical but also the mythical and the spiritual senses of the Australian landscape. His sculptures are placed in the landscape; it is not a ‘sculpture park’ as such. He is also developing a collection of other artists’ work; David Kerr, Ian Hamilton, Gavin Malone, Deb Sleeman and Evette Sunset are represented to date. In addition to the sculpture open days Greg hosts, there is an exhibition program through the Palmer Sculptural Biennial and participation in the Murray Darling Palimpsest. The inaugural Biennial was held in 2004 (under the title Palmer Sculptural and Environmental Landscape) and the fifth approaches in March 2012. Local, intrastate, interstate and international artists have participated in this event, displaying a broad church of contemporary sculpture. This artist-run event has become well recognised as a premier sculptural event in South Australia, if not Australia. The project has received minimal external funding and that has been a deliberate strategy: to operate on a sustainable energy (resource) base–a grant may come along one year and be gone the next. The number of participants is capped to ease the management load and the environmental impact. One intent of particular importance in the exhibition program is the visitor’s exposure to not only the sculpture but also the ecological landscape, they are symbiotic and interconnected. Several thousand visitors or ‘expeditioners’ have now made the journey to Palmer. They have walked the hilly and demanding landscape on wet, misty days or in simmering heat, on days when the joys of balmy weather are abundant and the sun says good-bye with a delicious twinkle of red hues. On evenings when the moon conveys our connection to our outer and inner worlds; worlds which follow rhythms and cycles and help us marvel at life’s mysteries and death’s eternity. The expeditioners talk and muse with each other, they labour over artworks, distance and elevation, they picnic and enjoy an experience that engages the senses and the emotions. This is paramount for Palmer, an attempt at reducing the separation between humans as individuals and the ecological systems that support our very being. It is part of us, as individuals or as societies, negotiating our own relationships with landscapes, or as I prefer to call them, habitats.
The ecological and sculptural programs are well established and recognised. As with any ongoing project there are issues which arise and new things to be considered. Could visitor numbers get too big, what are the ecological impacts, what is the carbon footprint, how can the events evolve, how is the regeneration going? These considerations don’t all have immediate answers but are part of being aware of and adapting to contemporary sustainability issues. The bush regeneration is being seen as providing a long-term ecological asset for the locality and the project is well accepted by the local community, as is the sculptural program. In the front bar of the local pub there is a great mixing of ‘arties and cockies’. One of the considerations is the status of the artworks or artefacts. Part of the way we understand ancient and existing cultures is through the artefacts they produce and the status the artefacts are given. With Palmer there is no curatorial intent to dictate what the artefacts will be, that is the choice of the participating artists. Because of this Palmer, over time, encapsulates our reflection of self through the making of cultural artefacts. It will be for posterity to adjudicate the value of this. In essence the Palmer Project explores and hopefully influences our ways of thinking about our broad cultural practices and intergenerational sustainability. The second half of the twentieth century, my life, was far too much about the me and the now. It is increasingly important for us now to act on behalf of the generations to come.
Further information and images of Palmer artworks are available on the website palmersculpturebiennial.org.