Just as the dying days of the campaign trail revealed the environment as a key topic of differentiation between Australia's major political parties, the environment has also been at the forefront of Siri Hayes' mind. Her subject for this current exhibition, Merri Creek, located not far from where she lives and works, is a natural source of pleasure and beauty at the edge of the city of Melbourne. The creek flows from the foothills of the Great Dividing Range north of Wallan on the Hume Highway. The upper and middle sections are mostly rural, dotted with small townships as well as the growing outer suburbs like Craigieburn. The lower sections wind their way through Melbourne's northern light industrial suburbs, between the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers.
Hayes’ large, colour landscape photographs of this site share an impulse with two of the best known contemporary photographers working in the genre, Jeff Wall and Jem Southam. Thinking about their approach to photographing the world around them creates a context for Hayes’ similar, though layered concerns. These artists use their surrounding natural environment as the backdrop for dramas of modern life (Wall) or as the catalyst for a catalogue of the effects of time, climate and people on the land (Southam), key interests for Hayes. Southam explores sites around Britain and plays with the idea of the ‘spell’ cast by the act of acute observation with a camera on the land, while the carefully scouted-out sites around Vancouver for Wall’s ‘near-documentary’ photographs leverage off the conventions of cinema for emotional depth, lighting and characterisation. Here, photography's transformation of nature makes it spectre of and spectator to human activity.
Hayes’ photographs sit somewhere in the middle of these two modes of working, as two broadly outlined approaches to photographing the outdoors. The camera is used both as a device to document the world and one that is able to capture events or situations that are simply photo-fictions. In Hayes' images, soft peaks of white bubbling water form in the creek, while alongside are willow and poplar-lined banks. Sunlight breaks through a jungle of branches, the grassy and leafy undergrowth beneath is fresh and vital. Buildings peek through but are held back by the thickness of the trees. At times, Hayes’ camera flies above the scene or looks under shrubbery, while traditional pictorial devices like bridges and empty benches become invitations to move in past the edges of the image.Puncturing this best of all possible worlds are two things. One is the sediment of civilisation which Hayes deliberately emphasises: plastic bags, drink cans, polystyrene cups, paint tins and household junk choke the waterway and the surrounding vegetation. The creek is an unstable site, not quite a wilderness but nevertheless a natural space at the fringe of the city. According to Friends Groups, the area has been in a state of deterioration for more than 100 years. Local businesses and volunteers are involved in trying to clean up the site and remove most of the introduced English trees, like the willow, that grow in an out-of-control state.
The second is Hayes’ inclusion of people in the naturally-formed amphitheatres at the banks of Merri Creek. Most exhibit seemingly casual, suspended gestures that look staged because they have been caught on film. These tableaux of forced stillness make the relationship between the figures and the landscape abstract and intensifies the fictionalisation and dramatisation in each scene. In Lyric Theatre at Merri Creek, for example, a woman holding a manuscript is caught as if ready to recite a speech or launch into the next stage of an operatic drama. Other images seem accidental, perhaps more natural, as if Hayes snapped her camera while the scene was still under way.
Amphitheatres, whether natural or built, are internal spaces in the external world. Hayes makes them into private rooms without walls. It’s unclear what the real relationships are between Hayes’ subjects or what their purpose for being there is, but most seem comfortable there. The trees surround, lessening the exposure to wind and rain and so fulfil some of their potential as a primary housing material. In one image, however, a man standing between stepping stones in the creek, his duffle coat collar pulled up to his neck against the elements, evokes nomadism or homelessness. Hayes’ use of enclosed and protective spaces in the environment remind us of the sometimes cruel differences between private and public spaces and the related issues of border crossing and the trauma of displacement.
Our cultural and social connection to landscape has been an ongoing concern in Hayes’ work. As with the plastic bags and tin cans in Merri Creek, the presence of people on this setting is also felt via signs such as a crooked path: a semi-permanent human carving into the environment. Processes of destruction and construction are co-dependent and necessary for a future world, however, as we see in Hayes’ work, sometimes the equilibrium is out of kilter. The problem of rubbish in utopia is an eternal one: who gets rid of it, where to store it, how to get everyone to do the ‘right thing’. The solution is a balancing act so as to find a way for these things to co-exist, but in a way that we can still define them. Although a truism, there is no production without waste and no beauty without ugliness.
Kate Rhodes 2004