Artist Richard Thomas took this photo (above and the following two) almost 17 years ago at the sewage treatment plant on Queens Street, Altona.
He was documenting the installation of Agnes Denes’ art work, ‘A Forest for Australia’, a sculpture made from 6000 native trees planted in five intersecting spirals on a 400-metre x 80-metre site. As you can see, it was flat and barren; just a paddock of dried up grass and weak soil near a lagoon filled with waste. Thirteen million litres of sewage is treated here each day.
It’s hard to think of a site more removed from the white cube of the contemporary art gallery. The place was abject, toxic, fenced off, concealed, denuded yet Agnes Denes and some volunteers saw the potential. This soil could be a canvas. Why not?
Here is Agnes Denes herself, aged 67. She’s standing in front of the forest she imagined. Each peg would be a tree. She’s watered the soil, furrowed it. The gleam of silver in the background is the sewage treatment pond. You’d never know to look at it.
The lagoon is empty now; the sewage is treated in a massive tank instead. Gulls flap over the thick brown soup that comes from 20,000 houses, shops, offices and factories in Point Cook, Altona and Laverton. The surface of the tank is criss-crossed with silver walkways.
Engineers do the dirty work for us. Some of the shit is recycled. It waters the Kooringal golf course just next door and the one down at Sanctuary Lakes. The rest is treated and goes out into the bay.I have so much respect for the people who work at this plant. They face the deep shit that the rest of us don’t want to think about.
Perhaps this is what artists do too.
Look at what Agnes Denes has made here (I took this photo and the ones below). Look at these trees. They have survived a drought. Many have died but a surprising number are doing well; the paper barks are a solid green outer circle on all five of the spirals. The red gums and she oaks are less resilient but many are now well established and so beautiful.
I have been researching this art work for the past few months. You can read my article about it in The Age here.
I’ve been lucky to visit the forest three times and it has transformed the way I see this part of Melbourne – my neighbourhood – but it has also challenged me to think very differently about all sorts of shit, including trees, public art, gardening, memory, climate change and more.
I’m hopeful that this year City West Water may provide some public access to the site so that others can also enjoy this astonishing piece of land art. Watch this space!
Meanwhile, a friend alerted me to Fiona Hall’s spiral fern garden at the National Gallery of Australia. It was made in 1998, the same year Denes planted her forest in Altona. Hall planted 58 mature Dicksonia antarcticatree ferns 2.6 metres tall in the gallery’s sculpture garden. This spiral is rather better maintained than the one in Melbourne.