“Sitting beside a waterhole, amidst the lush greens of the semi-tropics, Azure Kingfishers feeding, knowing that surrounding this abundance are vast stretches of dry and dusty country with perhaps no other person within hours of reach.”
This is the way artist Alison Binks begins to describe the process of painting the works for her current exhibition, From the Long Road. And the word she uses to describe the experience is privilege, followed, not far behind, by fragility.
The latest exhibition by Binks is the powerful record of a two-month odyssey in a specially equipped 1995 Land Rover towing an ex-army off-road trailer that travelled from south to north up the centre of the Australian continent, with the resulting pictures arranged chronologically.
Apart from anything else, it is wonderful to see the paintings presented as a kind of epic sequence in landscape before the works are dispersed as per the red dots.
Accompanied by her partner and their small son, Binks describes travelling from Victoria to Arnhem Land, and back, “mostly on dusty 4WD byways, on rattling corrugated gravel roads and climbing slowly over boulder covered hillside tracks, finally reaching the soft white sand tracks of the north, where the river crossings would scoop water up to the bonnet.”
Binks painted the landscape all along the way, storing each completed work in a purpose-built sealed box built into the Land Rover. The resulting collection of 31 plein air oil paintings, each on 25 x 25cm boards are exhibited alongside several larger pieces on linen canvas that she produced in her studio based on memories of the journey.
Binks speaks of the collection as an archive of the places she visited, many very remote. “It is impossible to look on the group of paintings and not wonder at the resilience of this land despite all we’ve put it through, but also ultimately the fragility.” Binks laments that “grubbying human handprints [are] slowly but surely covering more and more.”
She says she hopes that her collection will not be a record of what we’re losing, though that’s a fear, but more hopefully “offerings from the land, to share around, and ensure we remember her.”
The subtle colour palette, applied with a knife with amazing skill, shifts as the viewer moves around the room following the changes in climate and landscape as the artist and her family travelled their long road, rarely encountering backpacker vans or grey nomads.
The larger works are an immersive experience as the viewer is taken into the fathomless depths of rockpool reflections rather more than the land itself. Binks speaks of her studio work in general as intending to “hold a somewhat mysterious or evolving quality, so that the work is not static, but to be lived with and seen differently over time.”
She talks of the vastness of much of the desert country she travelled through, and the overriding sense of space she felt on the road.“Not just the physical space but also the mental space as a contrast to the frenetic nature of many of our lives in the cities. The physical space is exemplified by the desert horizon, a 360-degree vastness that is sometimes uninterrupted by trees.”
“It takes some time on the road before the weight of everyday existence lifts and lightness seeps into me”, she says. “But after a while it’s like breathing out, and you can let go of so much that seems important back in our regular life. Far from being monotonous the desert country changes all the time, once you start to observe it. But always in the back of my mind is the question of how much humans have shaped it, what was it before the cattle arrived? What was it before the wheat, and how far back should we ponder its shifts, and what do we see looking forward? Only the sky seems to be reliably constant, but even here we know we are making invisible changes.”
Coming home to Melbourne, Alison describes the sense of space as what she most misses. Now she’s back to “the emails, the school drop offs, the bring-a-plate days, the lists of things that need attention and amidst these the hurry-up-and-get-your-shoes-on-or-we’ll-be-late-for-soccer-training again.”
She describes the contrast of city life from being on the road as “the ability to begin a thought, and follow it, for a long time”.
Binks says that one major aim of her work is “to attempt to bring some of the mental space and stillness that nature tends to offer us, back to the cities, to our cluttered homes and busy lives. I want to offer an opening for a meditative experience, much as gazing out to the horizon of an ocean can create, or looking up at the unfathomable space between star and star on a night uncluttered by bright lights that surround us on the ground.”
Certainly, this exhibition provides a chance to dig into something that is primal within us: our connection to the land, our life-and-death reliance on it. Just to get to this point, even vicariously through Binks’s art, seems a worthwhile start.
As Binks points out, with characteristic thoughtfulness: “Where we take our deep knowledge, and our moment of pause, is in our hands.”
(Main image above Reflecting #2)