Siri Hayes’s large-format photograph Lyric Theatre at Merri Creek shows an immense canopy of trees that dwarfs three tiny people standing on the banks of a creek in inner city Melbourne. Apart from sublime statements about Nature, the tangled branches metaphorically speak of the mess that the land is in. The images in Hayes’ series explore an ecosystem in a downward spiral, where the effluvia of modern life – the ubiquitous Coke cans, plastic bags and syringes – choke up waterways and spoil the picture-postcard view. Merri Creek is still a picturesque landscape under Hayes’ treatment, but an essentially troubled and deteriorated one. Her images rely on the tension between soiled and sublime views: think Claude Lorrain’s idyllic vistas reconfigured for a post Exxon Valdez generation.

Hayes’ photographs of Merri Creek represent the familiar sight of an Australian terrain where homesick Anglo settlers have replanted the area with English pastoral vegetation in an attempt to declare a corner of Australia ‘Forever England’. Decades on, the willows have gone feral, the water is greasy with toxic bile spewed up by the factories upstream, and the refuse of a thousand Safeway trips hangs from the boughs. There is something Chernobyl-esque about Lyric Theatre: small lonely figures trying to build lives on the banks of a murky river. Everything is derelict and, perhaps, everything is poisonous.

A referent for Hayes’ photographs is the classical tradition of landscape painting – such as Poussin – with its rules for framing the landscape and ordering it according to golden mean ratios and lofty ideals. Artists have sought to represent the sublime for centuries. In seeking to contain the vastness and magnitude of life, the symbols used to represent the ‘sublime’ were appropriately grand: the Power of Nature, the Solitude of the Mountains, the Fury of the Sea, and so on. Hayes’s artwork portrays a more down-home and dog-eared version of nature with the oiliness of the river, the omnipresence of plastic and the grime on the banks. Hayes recognises our need for a rose-coloured view of the world, but refuses the idealism of the sublime, and instead offers a reality check. In Untitled, the babbling brook is polluted, the frolicking faun has been replaced by a harried downcast figure and the Grecian ruins bathed in sunlight have become poo-brown 70s brick-veneer flats.

Lyric Theatre is a contemporary extrapolation of Poussin’s painterly exercise in melancholia Et in Arcadia Ego, in which toga clad figures huddle sadly around a country tomb. The title can be translated to mean the regretful ‘And I too once lived in Arcadia’ as well as the more haunting ‘And I, Death, am also in Arcadia’. This cuts straight to the heart of Lyric Theatre, only Hayes has the contemporary overlay of ecological devastation. For we too were granted Arcadia but we botched it.

Hayes has sought out natural amphitheatres at Merri Creek in which to stage her narratives and has arranged her figures with overt theatricality. These are not relaxed snapshots or images comprising ‘the decisive moment’; these are rigidly arranged tableaux in which the character’s poses are overstated. The acting is meant to be wooden. Lyric Theatre is a quasi-Greek tragedy in which the female figure plays the role of a contemporary Cassandra, one suffering under her ‘gift’ of prophesy. Holding her wad of office paper and oriented towards us ready to deliver her speech, this oracle’s announcement might only be spooky in an ‘I see dead people, they’re everywhere’ kind of way.

The scenes at Merri Creek borrow from this Sixth Sense cinematic genre of spooky-suburbia: images of city outskirts that, post-David Lynch and The X-Files, are easily loaded with eerie portent. Landscapes where, if you look closely enough amongst the tangled branches, you expect to see Laura Palmer, wrapped in plastic. Lyric Theatre also reminds me of Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma in which characters glibly trade stories of childhoods imbued by dread of when the nuclear ‘Flash’ would happen. I can relate. It’s the fear that the world is sliding into a toxic quagmire. Maybe the river is clogged with belly-up poisoned fish; maybe the air is carcinogenic; maybe some malevolent force hangs, Blair Witch-style, in that net of trees. Something is out there.

Phip MurrayThis article was first published in edition three of un Magazine