Is “Inner Australia” the world’s most remote public art work?

Footprints lead to one of the Antony Gormley sculptures at Lake Ballard, Western Australia. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

Footprints lead to one of the Antony Gormley sculptures at Lake Ballard, Western Australia. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

It’s all about space. And distance.

It is where the horizon plays a key role, but where everyone has a part once there.

It talks of a sense of belonging and a connection between people and the environment  – in this case a vast, flat land in the West Australian outback.

Inner Australia, by renowned English sculptor Antony Gormley, consists of 51 sculptures based on scans of the inhabitants of Menzies and placed in a section of the salt lake, Lake Ballard.

Menzies, the nearest town, is about 50km away. Menzies is in turn about 140km or so north of Kalgoorlie, the goldmining town about 600km east of Perth, the most isolated city in the world.

That all makes Inner Australia a challenge for most to get to. But in a way, the journey is part of the experience, and once there, the viewers of the artwork become a part of it, their footprints painting lines of connection between the individual sculptures in the dry salt lake.

I had planned to go to Lake Ballard to see the sculptures for years. Little did I realise that making the trip does not guarantee success in capturing the photographs you have previsualised. Amid the factors in play here is the weather. In fact, it is crucial.

I was aware of a low pressure system having passed through the area in the days before my trip. When a friend and I arrived in the goldmining town of Leonora, our last resting place before making the trip to the lake, I was horrified to be told that the usually dry salt lake had water in it and we would not be able to go out on it. That would spoil everything, as I only had wide-angle lenses. As well, the blue skies of previous days had been replaced by a layer of high, grey cloud. I wanted a sunset … and a sunrise the next morning.

An Antony Gormley sculpture at Lake Ballard with the salt lake island and nice wispy clouds in the background. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

An Antony Gormley sculpture at Lake Ballard with the salt lake island and nice wispy clouds in the background. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

Worried by undaunted, we drove south to Menzies, where we were reassured by the local tourist bureau that the lake, while perhaps a little soggy in parts, was open. Relief.

We drove the 50km dirt road to the lake and, while the cloud was quickly breaking up and the sun was still high overhead, we set up our tents in the carpark. Fortunately, there were only two or three other cars. This experience was all about remoteness and space. It was not about crowds, peace signs and selfies next to the sculptures.

Late in the afternoon we hopped in the car and drove to the nearby Snake Hill lookout,  a few kilometres west of the lake from where you could reportedly get a good view of the lake. Wrong. We quickly discovered that we were a fair way from the lake, with zero photo opportunities, and as the sun threatened to soon disappear we high-tailed it back to the lake.

So at least I was to have a sunset. That was assured, with the only clouds now in the sky high and wispy, which added to the scene. I decided to put my 50mm lens on the camera, then slip slop slapped sunscrean, insect repellent, put on a fly net (the flies here are bad, seriously bad), grabbed my tripod and headed out on to the lake.

There is a small, quite steep island in the salt lake near the carpark that provides a nice backdrop, while there are less visited sculptures further out in the lake that require a bit of a hike and offer a more minimal landscape look. The hour or so after sundown provided some beautiful blue light out here, ideal for photographs using a tripod. I had a fast 50mm prime lens on my camera at sundown as I wanted to try snapping the sculptures with a blurred background. However, these photographs didn’t work for me, as out here it is all about distance, so it is best that the horizon is in focus as well.

A close-up of one of the Antony Gormley sculptures at Lake Ballard in the early morning sunshine. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

A close-up of one of the Antony Gormley sculptures at Lake Ballard in the early morning sunshine. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

A cold but peaceful night later, and out we trekked to climb the island as the sun approached the eastern horizon the next day. Then, having watched an amazing sunrise wash the whole scene in pink, I headed back down the hill and out on to the lake with camera, tripod and wide-angle zoom lens for more photos. This time I walked further out to view the more distant sculptures, and was rewarded with some nice shots of the works reflected in surface water, as well as what proved my favourite shot (the one at the top of this post), with footprints in the foreground leading to a distant sculpture. I loved the idea that Gormley wanted the artwork’s viewers to interact and become part of the work with their footprints, so the best photographs had these footprints as a feature.

Having been worried about the weather and water, it all turned out perfectly. The ankle-deep water that was in the lake was only further out, but provided a nice reflection in some of the photographs when I splished and splashed my way into the distance. The cloud had broken up to allow the sun to shine at sunset and at sunrise. And shortly after I had walked back to camp after 90 minutes or so of taking photographs in the early morning light, and satisfied with what I had seen, a bank of clouds came up from the east. By the time we had packed up our tents, the sky was a dull grey once again.

What you will need to take photographs of Antony Gormley’s Inner Australia artwork at Lake Ballard:

  • A camera, obviously. I shot with a Canon 5D Mark III and a 50mm prime lens and 18-35mm zoom. You don’t need a fast lens, as the place cries out for deep depth of field.
  • A tripod. This is required for photos post-sunset (blue hour) and in the early morning. A sturdy tripod, too. I used a Manfrotto 190CXPro3.
  • Camping gear, including food and water. The only facilities out here are a carpark and camping area, a toilet block and bins.
  • A hat and sunscreen. It can get hot out here, and there is no shade away from the camping area.
  • A fly net. This isn’t compulsory, but the flies are incredibly bad. They will drive you mad. A fly net allows you to concentrate on your photography rather than swatting them away constantly.
  • An alarm clock. You travelled a long way. You don’t want to miss the sunrise.
  • Luck. It worked out perfectly for me, but if those clouds had arrived an hour or two earlier, I would have been majorly disappointed. As well, it’s a good idea to check weather conditions before you head out. The lake is usually dry, but not always. And roads can be closed due to flooding.
An Antony Gormley sculpture is reflected in water at Lake Ballard in Western Australia. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

An Antony Gormley sculpture is reflected in water at Lake Ballard in Western Australia. Picture: CHRIS MANNOLINI

Have you been out to Lake Ballard? Do you have any other tips? I would love to hear what you think.

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