Small-town Australia is not generally known for its artistic culture, least of all for cutting-edge contemporary art. With a few notable exceptions, it tends to be defined by a combination of local pub, Chinese restaurant, greasy spoon-café-bakery, newsagency-general store and, for slightly larger towns, an RSL Club and a large roadside sculpture depicting the fruits of local industry. Kandos boasts all of these except the last, unless you count the now-defunct and cordoned-off cement works, crouched on the hill like a monumental requiem.
Kandos is an industrial town, but in 2011, the defining local industry and primary employer, the cement works, was closed down. Artists Ann Finegan, Georgina Pollard and Alex Wisser all visited and subsequently moved to Kandos in the following years. It’s not hard to imagine the hold that the potential of this place took on the artists. Nestled at the foot of dark green mountains at the edge of the Capertee Valley, Kandos boasts a wide main street, a collection of lovely heritage buildings, and perhaps most enchanting of all, low overheads.
But why bring art here? Cultural tourism is a viable industry, but does it risk turning a town’s economic misfortune into a voyeuristic spectacle? And what of the original custodians of the land, whose much greater tragedy made way for the establishment of the town in the first place? On the Cementa website, their mission is explained in these terms: We believe that the presence of this industrial heritage in the rural heartland of NSW provides an ideal context for the demonstration of contemporary art’s capacity to describe, engage, critique, and celebrate both the world and our living in it.
It seems that a combination of creativity, curiosity, optimism and chutzpah led Finegan, Pollard and Wisser to imagine and produce the first Cementa festival, which took place in 2013. The sophomore iteration – described in the program as an ‘unreasonable adventure’ – took place from 9-12 April 2015, and notably involved more local artists than 2013 and significant contributions by Indigenous artists.
It’s hard to talk about a festival like Cementa – embedded as it is in the context of small-town internecine politics – without getting bogged down in the social implications of such an undertaking. However, the backbone of the festival is the artists and the art. Presented in a range of non-traditional venues, from the Scout Hall and the Men’s Shed to a disused tennis court and a former convent, the works ranged from small interventions to large-scale installations and daily performances.
One of the highlights was Jason Wing’s takeover of the local church, a small, gothic-style sandstone building, with his audio work In Syrinx. Small groups were ushered into the church by Wing himself and sat upright in church pews to be presented with an aural collage of birdsong recorded in Blacktown and Kandos. Tethered to Wing’s poignant introduction, the birdsong takes on the cautious, desperate and pained attempt of parents to communicate with their stolen children through fences and guards. The intensity of the audio and the context of the church – bastion of power and corruption, but also of absolution and deliverance – were powerfully resonant with unfathomable sadness and heavy with guilt.
There were many other works of note. Tina Havelock Stevens drummed a paean in the dark to local ‘lady bushranger’ legend Jessie Hickman – ironically at the Men’s Shed – dressed in white amidst makeshift projections of the local landscape. Christine McMillan’s installation in a small room at the Community Centre at first glance appeared to be a humble pile of firewood, but on closer inspection revealed itself as a tumble of sculptures: one side of each block was sanded and waxed to perfection. An exhibition of paintings by the self-taught local art group – made amidst friendship, camaraderie, gossip and tea – was on show at the Country Women’s Association. Djon Mundine gathered together descendants of local Aboriginal ancestors Jimmy Lambert and Peggy Lambert, who painted a permanent mural in honour of Jimmy and Peggy, using their hands to apply the paint – a slow and deliberate caress that connects them with their forebears.
Of the 60-plus projects, it’s inevitable that some will pull it off better than others, and in some cases, the architecture between designated festival venues was more engaging than the art itself. The careful hand-painted signage of the Kandos Design & Drafting Service; the labyrinthine warehouse of plants, scrap metal and ponies at McMaster’s; the abandoned house of S. Grudzien who made his own breezeblocks and mad sculptures with by-products siphoned from the cement works; the inexorable pull of the old cement works itself: locked, fenced off and shrouded by bush. Many of the historical displays at the Kandos Museum, with their handwritten descriptive plaques and dusty doilies and defunct machinery, were more compelling and revealing than the art projects dotted amongst them.
But perhaps that’s the point. Most of the festival-goers were drawn to Kandos by a handful of big name artists and the promise of never-to-be-seen-again artworks. What we found, if we were lucky, were moments of exquisite beauty latent within the town itself. Within the impromptu displays of old newspaper ads in windows, the peeling signage of long-closed tea houses, the beds of roses and giant dahlias at the old convent and the cries of “thank fuck for that!” from the back of the bar when the experimental music ends, and the golf club returns to its low level hum as beers are poured, stories are shared and local industry continues, business as usual. Sure, this may be a romanticised picture of a town that’s going through an immense and difficult period of economic readjustment. But if city folk who come for the art fall in love with the place instead, perhaps this represents a deeper kind of success than a small regional festival could reasonably hope for.
Rebecca Gallo stayed in Kandos courtesy of Cementa15.