Siri Hayes | Robert Nelson

Review of Lyric theatre in The Age by Robert Nelson

Siri Hayes
Reviewer Robert Nelson
June 15, 2005

Lyric theatre, Centre for Contemporary Photography404 George Street, Fitzroy, until July 16

One of the treasures of the NGV International is Salvator Rosa's Mercury and Argus from the 17th century. It shows a moist but rocky landscape, full of ragged trees and shrubs. Their deep shadows disrupt the precipitous ravine with morbid hollows that were known in Italian poetry of the period as "horrors". In the corner, Mercury plays the recorder to lull Argus to a fatal sleep. This baroque depiction of the sacred woods of Mycenae might almost have been inspiration for Musician by Siri Hayes.

From high up, we look down upon a violinist on a grassy bank by rippling waters, haunted by dense and shady thickets. A white-headed sage looks on. Musician and solitary audience are stationed in the landscape with the kind of ascetic dignity that you associate with old masters.

This scene, like all of Hayes' series Lyric theatre, shows the banks of the Merri Creek, which altogether lacks the prestige of the hallowed groves of Arcady.

In Australia, the forest is sacred but only when virgin bush; and sadly no part of the metropolitan Merri Creek qualifies. It's sullied by garbage and slime, and its deciduous trees are defined by environmentalists as weeds.

Cat's cradle includes shopping debris dangling from the web of branches. The site isn't barren; on the contrary, the grasses enjoy exaggerated fertility. The murky creek is lush with excess garden products, as the gully receives run-off in untoward volumes, gushing with rich slime, the abject scum of suburban lawns.

The Merri Creek is a kind of non-space. Compared to the city around it, this marginal watercourse could also be seen as an open drain, an ecological freak.

What was once a prime network of landmarks (for the Wurundjeri) is now derelict, not a part of infrastructure but not dignified as nature, either.

The sites are strewn with downtrodden vegetation, having been shared by people who have come for the stillness. Though sometimes picturesque, the banks are unsettled by urban pressure. They aren't part of the built environment, but are besieged by them. Nature is neither assimilated as a park nor quarantined as wilderness: it's a prolific easement, a scruffy gorge left behind in the history of urban development.

Hayes' pictures are sharp and evenly lit in a sweet and wintry mood. They explore the chaotic tumble of the scenes rather than glamorise their once-noble topography. Visitors to the places depicted are lovers of a kind, attracted by the unorthodox appeal of neglected public land that lies between an idyll and a piddle, a grotto and a dump.

With their aesthetic combination of lyricism, urban vacancy and private sublimity, the pictures achieve a metaphoric value beyond the spectacle. They express the inner majesty of people outside the mainstream, so to speak, the couples and individuals who contemplate a rapport with new nature and probably reflect on the marvel that the spot remains.

They're locals who walk to a place of quiet, but possibly enjoy it under the menacing premonition that their privilege cannot last - for the site is sure to be colonised by people who arrive in cars. But, for this moment, no one beyond the parish bothers to share the oxymoronic bliss: a distressed haven, a degraded asylum, a sanctuary of corrupted nature and a somewhat threatening refuge.

Perhaps a bit like bike paths and art galleries, the lacklustre haunts haven't yet been mass-marketed and we're secretly grateful that we share them with only a few serious people of sympathetic interests.

Hayes' paean to the noble weed might be compared to Simon Disler's One to One, also at the CCP. These are sumptuous fields of blackberries, seen from close to the ground, in lyrical arrangements. The fruit is in season and so presents a wonderful, baroque allegory of fecundity at the expense of a thousand cuts.

The light is warmer than in Hayes, but the elevated yet slightly lurid moods of 17th-century painting also prevail. The brambles and earth are captured in a sensual light that makes them almost pornographic. The photographs are perversely sexy, perhaps evoking a dangerous assignation in a thorny backblock, where bastard nature receives hasty lovers with cruel protection.