A small gold rush town in Western Australia had lost its mojo at the turn of the century. Until a British artist came along. He transformed the area, creating 51 surreal sculptures that stand tall on an ephemeral salt lake, bringing visitors into Lake Ballard from all over the globe.
Back in the heady gold rush days Menzies had been a thriving town with about 12,000 people (which was enough people for a good party back then), but a hundred years later it had been reduced to a dusty, hot, nothing much to do town with about 100 locals, and no reason to visit.
Until 2003, when Turner-prize winning British artist, Antony Gormley turned up. He’d been commissioned by the Perth International Arts Festival to create something monumental, local, and awesome.
Gormley had wanted somewhere flat for his epic work of art, with a 360-degree horizon. Lake Ballard, a vast salt lake 70 miles long and 30 miles wide with a sodium crust that makes ‘everything stand out clearly’ surrounded by red earth was the chosen spot.
Discovering the edge of the lake was an experience in itself and Gormley says it felt like being at the edge of endlessness – being on the lip of the edge of the world.
An added bonus was that the area’s thought to be between 300 and 350 million years old so the ground was steeped in ancient stories. “When I first went,” says Gormley, “you feel immediately like you are flying over a very ancient continent. It’s almost like your heart starts beating slower, everything slows down and you’re close to something that is close to the beginning of things.”
The next challenge was getting locals involved. Gormley wanted to create art that involved the people, not just the vast salty earth. He called up a town spokesperson, explained he wanted to make wrought iron sculptures by scanning locals’ bodies (uh-hum naked) and the spokesperson told him he was nuts – and suspected it was just another prank call from local kids.
Gormley tried the local police but when he told them his idea to have sculptures out on the lake the copper said, “people will “nick ’em”.
Undeterred, Gormley decided to attract Menzies locals with some Friday night drinks in the town hall but the only person to turn up was the hall caretaker.
Feeling frustrated he chatted to the caretaker about what would get the townsfolk keen on his ambitious project. And he suggested good old-fashioned FOMO! They convinced the two most gregarious males of the town they needed to come and be scanned for the project (and have their images forever immortalised on the salt lake), and they did. Shortly after, more men wanted to be immortalised on the lake forever, and turned up, got their kit off for the art project, and had a hoot laughing at each other’s naked bodies.
Next came the women, who are never short on FOMO, and they also laughed about getting naked together in front of a cyber looking scanner machine.
He got 85% of the population in the end.
Then Gormley had to reduce the body mass of each by a third and make sculptures that would survive the intense conditions out in the mud and dry earth.
Now, 51 km from Menzies, 51 sculptures stand silently in the hot desert wind, spaced 500 metres apart, capturing a moment in time. Gormley calls the sculptures, ‘Insiders’ and says they are his attempt to capture the essence of the human body and all the stuff that makes them – minerals, memories and history.
It’s also a nod to the fact he was very much an outsider trying to infiltrate this small remote town. But nothing like some FOMO to motivate everyone.
“I can accept that very deep sense of suspicion that somebody who is unfamiliar in a very, very real way with the territory should seek to interpret it. In a curious way, I don’t think I’m doing any interpreting. I’m trying to allow things that are already there to be seen more clearly. I hope what it represents is an open attitude as to what art can be.”
Well, he certainly cracked it. The Insiders is Gormley’s largest work to date and has been viewed by thousands and thousands of visitors. The locals also like to go out and find their shadow self on the lake.
Sir Ian Mckellan has been to the exhibition and said the sculptures changed his life a little bit. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful experience.
Gormley thinks art belongs in the world. He’s certainly done that.
Inside Australia was commissioned by the 2003 Perth International Arts Festival.
Nearby road trips where you could incorporate a vist to Lake Ballard are: