By KIERAN FINNANE
The first thing you experience is a sense of sanctuary: a long deep space that draws you in, low light except for the luminous colour in a long band around three walls; two luminous squares in the low ceiling; the sound of birds. A row of flip-back chairs from another era if you want to sit, rest, contemplate.
This is the art space transforming long vacant office space on Todd Mall, where artist photographer Mike Gillam is presenting Maximo of Mparntwe. A song of praise to the natural world of Mparntwe – central Arrernte country – and its creatures all around us, to its beauty, drama, resilience, vulnerability and lessons.
The title image, a stark silhouette, is mysterious at first glance. It sets the terms of Gillam’s invitation: look closely, think, feel, imagine. You move to the next panel. As if through a veil of water, girls, again in silhouette, stepping along a path. They are the only human figures represented. Quiet, soft as spirits, setting out on a revelatory journey.
By now the sounds you are registering may be the hum of cars, occasional voices, barking. This journey is not far from home. A few deft traces of the urban, an apple core, red bucket, clothesline, tin roof, confirm this. Around two thirds of the images on show were taken right here, in Alice Springs and at its edges. They are drawn from a two-decade archive of this most attentive of watchers.
The images printed on transparencies are assembled in light-box panels. This mode of presentation together with the artful juxtaposition of several images within each panel suits Gillam’s work, heightens the sense of revelation of not only the phenomena, micro to macro, but of their connection.
As the title suggests, there is a character in this show, Maximo. You meet him about five panels in, a budgerigar, an aviary escapee, taking a drink from a birdbath, registering his own reflection. But you soon realise he is not the only character. The show is remarkable for this, the many moments observed where birds mainly, but also in the later panels, dingos and kangaroos, are in interaction with each other, playful, curious, loving, concerned, aggressive; the many observations too of individual personality. The panel focussed on the distinct ‘styling’, from chic to punk, of crested pigeons is hilarious and fascinating.
A strength of Gillam’s work is the way it peels back the blind of familiarity, allowing you to see not only the personality and sociality of commonplace birds like crested pigeons and galahs, but their beauty. You gain an entirely new appreciation of the crest, the wing design and plumage of the pigeons; of the lyrical beauty of the flock of galahs.
Just when the flock’s pink and grey swirl might have you thinking ballet, Tchaikovksy, the soundscape, created by Adrian Warburton, suddenly makes you jump: a burst of loud barking and the beating of wings as the flock rises in fright. The soundscape does important work in the show, grounding the beauty in the every day of the living landscape and townscape.
There are a few snatches of text on the wall that fill in the major lines of the narrative that Gillam has built around what happens to Maximo. His intention is to develop the exhibition as a book, with children particularly in mind. The exhibition too prioritises the child viewer: the light boxes are at a comfortable height for them, and the selection of images is inherently story-like, with or without the text.
You see just enough of Maximo for the rest to fall into place as the wild and wonderful world he encounters beyond the aviary. You see him finally able to sleep; you see him getting to know the wild birds around him, enough to have hope of his survival. Then you don’t see him again after the series of marvellous images of wild budgerigar migrations, vast flocks in the air or resting in trees. He has found his ‘people’.
Yet the story doesn’t end there. For the flocks will come back in another season and what will they find? By the last images, you will have realised that this is a pointed question, one for humans to answer.
This exhibition is presented as part of the Alice Desert Festival program. It is also part of a flurry of pop ups in the mall over the last few weeks, coinciding with the festival and Desert Mob. Some 70 to 90 people are coming through the door each day: many tourists, delighted to stumble across it, locals drawn by word of mouth. I’ve seen children entranced; adults moved to tears. I’ve heard a top-ranking scientist describe it as worthy of a national museum. It is an astonishing gift to the community, and a challenge at the same time. It sets the bar very high in the way we think about and present what this place we share with plants and animals has to offer, if only we stop to see. In some iteration it should find a permanent home, for it’s too important to forget.
It will show for at least another week in the former premises of Mall Medical, next to Talapi gallery. Oh, and don’t forget to look up!