Rural Utopias brings together the work of artists who participated in a series of residencies in remote and regional Western Australia from 2019-2023. In collaboration with their host communities, artists developed context-responsive and socially engaged projects responding to the theme of Rural Utopias.
Rural and remote locations have historically attracted visionaries and dreamers in pursuit of utopian goals, including alternative lifestyle or spiritual communities and economic development projects. These ventures are cast as alternatives to the dystopian urban lifestyle, which is seen as detached from nature and deprived of community bonds. In colonial nation states such as Australia, this notion of utopia is challenged by the realities of a society living on unceded First Nations territory and the absolute necessity of recognising their continuing connection to Country and generations of storytelling.
Artists developed their projects in consultation with communities to respond to, challenge or question the idea of ‘rural utopias’. The projects take many different approaches to the question of what utopia might look like, mean, or feel like in Australia within the context of a regional or remote community. This context needed to respond to the specificity of each location — its unique stories, landscape and perspectives.
These community activities and reflections on utopia are as broad as a community harvest ball, a peer-to-peer knowledge sharing weekend, collaborations with community choirs, working in a skimpy bar, or volunteering at a radio station, to name just a few of the activities undertaken during the residencies.
These activities are not limited by the theme or a search for utopia, but encompass some of the passions, priorities and experiences of people living in regional and remote communities who can guide and shape the artist’s experience of their residency as well as the artistic outcome. A network of community organisations from each location generously host the artist, facilitate introductions and connections with community members, and present workshops, exhibitions, and other events or activities presented by the artist throughout the course of the residency. This process allows relationships and connections to unfold over time, inviting a considered and reflective response to the idea of utopia within each local context.
Common narratives or themes arise across the projects, creating links between places and people. These include environmental destruction brought about by farming, extractive or development projects, the importance of First Nations cultures including stories of survival and displacement, mining and resources as a source of both wealth and destruction, practices of giving and sharing, and the importance of making spaces for community activity.
Working in collaboration with The Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA), the exhibition is accompanied by artist-selected works from the State Art Collection. The invitation from AGWA for artists to consider this collective hoard of cultural wealth was both an exciting and daunting challenge — with a collection of over 18,000 works of art, where should one begin to look? In a state as large and sparsely populated as WA, what relevance does a collection housed in a gallery in Perth hold for the people of Kununurra, Carnamah, Esperance, or Roebourne? What stories are held within the collection that might resonate or sit alongside the stories learned through conversation, workshops, and time spent with local communities?
These questions arose in different ways through discussion with each artist during their project, and conversations about the collection, and its role in the cultural life of regional communities shaped many of the residency projects. The process of sifting through the collection to find points of connection, synergy, or a spark of interest is in many ways similar to the approach taken by the artists in learning the stories and forming relationships in the community, and the challenge of distilling the multitudes of experiences and stories of their residencies into a final outcome can be as daunting as finding the perfect artwork from the vast collection to sit alongside it.
Some artists chose to use collection works to geographically locate or visually represent their works, to present a cohesive narrative across their installation or add emphasis to the focus of their project. Alana Hunt’s choice to include Elizabeth Durack’s landscape illustrations of the East Kimberley provides a historical punch to Hunt’s portrayal of the ongoing violence of colonial developments and the destruction of Aboriginal sacred sites, legalised through bureaucratic means, while Georgie Mattingley’s inclusion of a Gold Rush-era brooch, intricately decorated and designed in art deco style, is a visual representation of the excesses — and inequalities — of both past and present Kalgoorlie.
While some artists worked with the collection to add weight and context to their own works, others used the chosen work as contrast or counterpoint to their experience. Bennett Miller’s inclusion of Landscape (1882), the work of Louis Buvelot, a 19th century Swiss artist from Victoria, speaks to the ‘wrongness’ of European approaches to representing Australian landscapes, as well as the destruction of the landscape over time as a result of ongoing environmental destruction. Elizabeth Pedler’s installation departs from the detailed copperplate engravings of plant specimens collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander to celebrate the messy entangling of lives, both human and non-human, that sit alongside each other and are less easily categorised and documented.
Other artists found personal and family connections within the collection. Nathan Gray’s recorded stories of Yindjibarndi ghost tales is accompanied by the rich visuals of two works by Wendy Hubert, a Yindjibarndi artist working with Juluwarlu Aboriginal Corporation who worked with Nathan during his residency. Jo Darbyshire and collaborator Andrea Williams were moved and excited to find two works from Andrea’s uncle Ronald ‘Womber’ Williams painted in 2011, the last year of his life. These deeply personal and familial connections are testament to the living nature of collections and the role they play in forming and sustaining connections between artists, those living and those who have passed, and telling stories of families, cultures and practices that can be passed onto future generations of artists.
Both Sarah Rodigari and Jacky Cheng approached the collection by finding resonances in artistic practice, selecting artists with similar approaches or interests. Rodigari’s discovery of a number of works by Ian Hamilton Finlay, a Scottish poet, chimed with her approach to making work by collaging text, image and sound, inviting audiences to take the time — and make the effort — to engage with the work. Jacky Cheng’s materially-focused practice draws our attention to the creases, cracks and patterns in old buildings, and their transformation over time as their materials are reclaimed and reused, while Jane Whiteley’s collection work Sides to the Middle (1992) does the same with fabric, reminding us of the imprints and creases left by bodies upon everyday materials, the visual remnants of living.
The question of ‘responding to the collection’ is conceptually challenged by artists Ana Tiquia and Tina Stefanou. Both artists consider the contradictions of a collection based in Perth for the people of WA, but the forms each work take diverge from there. Ana’s work takes the collection outside the gallery walls, invoking the practices of giving and sharing she witnessed in Esperance to reimagine a different way in which the State Art Collection can be enjoyed, shared, and even interacted with, through increased digitisation and peer-to-peer networking. Tina’s work breaches the collection stores, bringing the work inside to perform alongside the quiet — and secure — spaces where artworks rest and are restored. She takes footage from her time in Carnamah — shearing sheep, performing with the community, and presenting the first harvest ball in over a hundred years — within the walls of the gallery, to give equal weight to ephemeral and organic (in more than one sense) activities and practices and remind us of the importance of preservation, both of community activity and of the environment and resources that support and sustain us.
At the core of SPACED’s residency programs over the past 25 years has been the challenge to artists to consider perspectives, contexts and viewpoints other than their own, which can sometimes be unfamiliar, conflicting or perplexing. Rural Utopias extends this challenge to also locate their work alongside those of other artistic practices expanding across time, media and culture.
Capturing the richness of residency experiences across the state and the relationships formed and sustained is as challenging as capturing the richness of the collective cultural wealth of the State Art Collection. The process of placing the works of the artists selected for Rural Utopias alongside their choices from AGWA’s collection invites the creation of exciting new connections and while celebrating the depth of community experiences, stories and arts practices that continue to flourish across the state.