We were half-way, half-way between the two main towns in Tasmania and half-way between a lopsided game linking the two major national news corporations in the local sphere – (Hobart and Launceston; Murdoch and Fairfax). And in her nod to 1919, Maddie Leach, had designated a moment near enough to half-way between now and a time when an unsavoury citizenry was ruled by a Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (northern half) and a Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (unspecified, but based in the south). Clear as hell then, but less clear now, the artist has set up the conditions to unravel something of the district loyalties and idiosyncrasies fermented under the originating governing culture, and to bring into playful relief contemporary attitudes retained under the veiled civility and parochial politics on the island today.
It was around 7.30am at Antill Ponds and the plane was late. The small, obedient audience were marshalled in a designated safe area – acclimatised to galleries, they bantered and fidgeted against the chill. In view was an unusually verdant scene typical of a colonial era landscape painting – a gentleman’s park surrounded by hills peppered with native shrubs; bright sunlight threatened remnant fog and pretty cirrus clouds, while a refrigerated breeze stirred the magpies, ancient cherry trees and two semaphore flags. At full mast, the flags’ synthetic colours and immaculate patterns secreted their mysterious codes while offering up the wind direction and, had we been thinking, revealing the flight path of the unpunctual Cesna.
Finally, and amid mounting anticipation, the Cesna droned in from the South West to pass near the drop zone. Following an unhurried circle it then crawled back through a useful headwind, low and purposeful. When almost overhead, a bundle of neatly strapped and wrapped newspapers arced away from the plane, rotating on a barely perceptible trajectory earthward. At some point in those few seconds, the quasi-historical spectacle shifted into a sharp moment of awkward fear – the apparent danger was then rapidly switched to concern for those who were closer to the line of the fall. A winded-sounding thump of wood pulp returning to earth was quickly followed with the hollering of excited relief – art and prank were laconically and momentarily conflated. The bundle was then inspected, patted, documented and, finally, left where it landed – close-by to the artist, photographer and the stone remains of the original Half-Way House – to await connection with future iterations.
All that day, under a set of immodestly bright semaphore flags identical to those at Anthill Ponds, the façade of the Mercury building in Hobart was observed to announce its active participation, albeit enigmatically, with ‘Let us keep together,’ Monday, September 19, 2011’. Not without some irony, that message boldly faced away to the south.
I’m saturated from the knees down and it’s freezing. Last week’s grass has turned out to be very damp, fast-growing, newspaper-eating millet – or wheat. The Cesna did an encore pass-over and I waved, unconvinced about where the bundle had landed. But I clearly saw it leave the plane – size of a new lamb – and fall in an easy and curiously animate tumble. The impact was surprisingly loud too; organic matter (wood fibre) displacing organic matter (muddy earth) displacing air through inorganic matter (plastic wrapping) – a decidedly woodwind thump reverberated through the paddock. Like space junk, its first pervasive message was as an ominous warning to the rabbits, wallabies and assorted macropods resident in the area. Just the one definite sound, the epicentre of the artwork, and a few sheep looked about.
I alone had just witnessed the first repeat of a dramatic gesture. (The sheep had merely heard a noise). Drawn-out months of negotiations and applications eventually gave up the suite of permissions (mostly from men who control farms, corporations, clubs and the airspace of the birds) to ejaculate 9 kilograms of newsprint from a plane on multiple occasions and in the middle of nowhere. The compliance of this first audience, those men, is testament to the artist’s prowess in putting together a story – or part thereof – in which they knowingly, yet unwittingly, were part. Warm and dry in New Zealand, Maddie Leach kept up her frenetic texting throughout, living vicariously through her ‘plan’. Prior, and on cue, news media had dutifully disseminated their self-interest with a few other misconstrued facts – segueing often into a potential for ovine sacrifice. Through them Leach’s germ had been dispersed – for when the Mercury and the Examiner newspapers are so deliberately coupled, islanders are then want to consider their tribal stances and inherited prejudices, before again politely relegating such thoughts with other disavowed histories long buried in Van Dieman’s Land.
But Leach’s strategies also reach far beyond the hoe-down drama of the falling newspapers. Nearby in the paddock, her flaccid signal flags effect an intermittent and intangible broadcast that is echoed on the day bills posted in their brass-bound cases around 80 kilometres to the south and in their wire frames, equidistant to the north. Her message infiltrates through radios and permeates random conversations, it rides through the web and pops up in blogs, it gets muttered in bars where newsprint workers or aero-buffs drink, and it resonates in the minds of distracted commuters and passers-by. Gently plaintive and equally hopeful, her open-ended appeal is not incessant, it is simply repeated each Monday, and from there it builds a register of familiarity, along with another invitation for misinterpretation. Together, us, let, keep: the gist forms curiously towards a well-meant offer, a pledge perhaps, or then again, it just may be unrequited mockery.
The third iteration and the plane is devilishly late (a crook magneto), a perfect day, the package tumbles rapidly and lands in a cushioning plant in full flower located in the remains of one of the larger rooms of the original house. Nice one lads. Three days earlier, on impeccable schedule, the Mercury building flew the signal flags and day bills. I was surprised by their emphatic presence.
Later, back in the paddock, I am drawn to the flags signifying a central point for the work. Starkly visible from the highway (I’ve passed en route on other occasions), they are in fact around 70 kilometres east of the Surveyor’s Monument (the supposed centre of the island) at Bronte Lagoon. Up close, Leach’s deep connection to the sculptural object is revealed by a ‘truth to materials’ in her components: the signal flags – pattern-cut from dyed linen and immaculately double stitched in Lithuania – are supported on marine-grade ropes and guides; the flagpole was professionally crafted from Tasmanian Oak; the newspaper are industrially bundled, while the authenticity of the day bills is clearly evident as they are genuine Mercury day bills. Nothing is simulacra and the dense materiality would allow the commissioned articles to shift back into the world as functioning objects. The groaning authenticity is as reassuring as it is unsettling, but to view these few objects as the sculptural residue of a project over 200 kilometres in width, reveals that it is really very, very minimal indeed.
Nothing, also, is chanced. At least nothing that can be managed. Or is it? Unable to gauge its public relevance beyond immediate connection, to overhear a local politician refer to the work (with excited approval of it being art, no less) allows me to experience its integral extension into the population, out there in the spectral public realm. The composition orchestrated by Leach exists here in its true form – a kind of discursive vapour occupying an elusive and fluid social space. Triggered by media placements, nourished by history and sustained by hearsay, innuendo and the reiterative structure in play, the work’s viral form as a mutable narrative will find receptive hosts throughout the population. There is neither cure nor a known end-play.
I have received a message – a day bill has been sighted in Launceston – and another lingering doubt subsides.
The final drop, and I know the artist is above me in the plane as the newspaper bundle gets despatched with such force that it starts on a 40 degree angle before disappearing in front of the blinding sun, only to reappear momentarily and then disappear again into the waiting wheat-grass. The angle and the grass diffused the anticipated sound and as my anticipation dispersed, I considered it one too many repeats for an observant person, while it was probably just right for the less so. Familiarity had rendered it normal.
Months earlier, Maddie Leach traversed the north-south axis of the island, bouncing along in an over-sprung ute through the ancient agrarian landscape, a landscape falsely recognised as the labour of the colonial forefathers. Looking for signs, she eventually found the subtle discrepancies and divisions that permeate this land; sifting conversations, dredging archives and trawling through the relic systems of communication revealed that the original codes and ideologies in the regions were different and incompatible. The artist visualised two trucks setting off at the same time and on the same journey – each starting from the opposing towns, loaded with trade goods and information – and she wondered where en route they would cross.
Antill Ponds. Not 20 metres from the newspaper bundles an old headstone remembers William Hawkins. A good man by accounts of the time (1861), but he trusted his mare too much. We can assume the rein-less horse was as indifferent to the effect of the dray’s wheels on his chest and throat as he is to the slow rain of newsprint over recent consecutive Mondays. Four times the Hobart Mercury courted attention from her northern counterpart, the Examiner; sending newspapers, day-bills and hoisting signal flags sourced from the 1916 Brown’s Signalling code: ‘I for India’ over ‘N for November’, black circle on yellow background over a blue and white check – Let us keep together (or in company) for mutual support (or protection). The offers were each ignored. The frisson of their 1919 exchange – when they raced their papers by aeroplane and lorry to jostle in a fledgling marketplace unearthed by then-new transportation technology – simply could not be reignited. As daily papers begin to go the way of the semaphore, the telegraph and other redundant technologies, perhaps there just isn’t the will.
Applied to Leach’s oeuvre, the term ‘romantic conceptualism’ initially caused me to snigger, but I’ve come to learn that her site-based propositions frequently cover vast areas, plumb earlier eras and rouse odd beliefs and economic forces. As the works filter through local understandings of space, time and incumbent social dimensions, they probe, tease and often induce a faint, ineffable yearning; un-locatable and unknowable as anything other than a benign and playful phantom.
After travelling 640 kilometres to experience the mechanics of Let us keep together, I think about Maddie Leach’s imaginary trucks. I need one of the drivers to be a retired seaman who understands the 1969 International Code of Signals in use today. As he passes the other truck, he glimpses some sheep marooned in a landlocked paddock. Below the line of the highway and a backdrop of dry sclerophyll hills, these sheep stand beside a flag signal that he understands clearly, a black circle on yellow background over a blue and white check – he reaches for his iPhone – they require a diver.
Michael Edwards, 2011