Sisyphus: Journey to Lake Hindmarsh

Everything in sight is a landmark of something beyond it.1

In December 2009, with one of the longest droughts on record at its peak,
Mitchell McAuley travelled with a group of artists to the Wimmera Mallee region
in north-western Victoria. Their destination was the evaporated water basin
known as Lake Hindmarsh, Victoria's largest, inland fresh-water catchment, their
objective to paint and record the climatic and environmental changes over a
twelve month period. Sixteen years ago, the lake had supported fourteen fulltime
fishermen and had been a thriving recreational attraction; on their arrival it
was an arid desert-scape.

At first McAuley responded aesthetically to the landscape as he has done on
previous painting expeditions by approaching it in a formal, representational or
impressionistic manner. He realised, however, that to penetrate psychologically
this harsh environment where distance, heat and the absence of water was
compounded by a spatial silence that reduced most landmarks, including
himself, to a shadow, another approach was necessary. The struggle for water is
at the heart of life; without it all is inert. The intense heat diffused reality and
mirages hovered above the horizon. The notion of illusion and emptiness was
overwhelming. It was a landscape fit for suffering, but it was also a paradox, a
lake that was a desert, in which ostensibly little moved or grew except at the
edges, where small birds flitted amongst brittle bushes and dead trees. Skeletal
remains of animals and the old 'wild dog fence' ran across the lake and were
testimony to other dry times and the present one. As McAuley walked to the
middle of the lake a concept of visual absurdity took shape. We see the
beginnings of this in his works on paper such as 'The Walk', 'Endless' and
'Sisyphean Time'.

Prehistory stalks the contemporary and over the course of time we have been
left with myths that retain a sense of relevance to our contemporary world.
Myths migrated with tribes or races and were adapted to environmental,
geographic changes or phenomena such as sunshine, storms, clouds, rain, wind
or fire. The laws of cause and effect or natural regulation were allegorically
animated so as to personify the universe. The myth of Sisyphus — the god
condemned to eternal labour by rolling a large boulder up a hill only to lose his
grip near the top and for it to roll backwards and to re-enact that labour
endlessly — represents an act of absurdity. Yet toiling towards an objective is as
fundamental as the sun rising and setting. In mythology, the large stone is a
metaphor for the sun as it rises before declining to the horizon, while a
Sisyphatic interpretation purports that when the stone [a meteor?] crashed back 1
to earth it awoke the dragon of drought and created such a terrible dust storm
that the land was robbed of light and rain, resulting in famine and death. 2

McAuley created a Sisyphean character who takes us to the middle of Lake
Hindmarsh carrying two buckets back and forth, emptying those full of water
into the sand, obsessively hoping to fill the lake. There is a subtle political agenda
associated with the promise of water and man's attempt to control its direction,
but as Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, the futile cycle of man's
expectations 'poses mortal problems, it sums itself up … as a lucid invitation to
live and to create in the very midst of the desert'.3 McAuley's Sisyphus may
represent an act of absurdity but it also refers to the spirit or will, not so much of
defeat or suffering, but of heroic intention and man's resignation to repetitive
labour, of never giving in or quitting. Just as Sisyphus obtains immortality
through eternal punishment, man is also condemned to a life of labour as part of
survival. The farmer must plough and sow in order to reap and eat. He is
subservient to the cycles of nature, waiting for rain, sun and a good harvest.
Similarly the metropolitan worker is born on a treadmill propelled by the
Sisyphatic boulder of materialism and capitalism.

This conceptual basis gave direction to McAuley's art, where he transposed the
spatial and textural conditions of the lake and desert landscape into prints,
paintings, sculptures and film. The liberty to experiment is evident in the filmic
approach where a Super 8 camera was used to film McAuley walking across the
cracked earth, or trudging through mud and eventually, when the rains came,
wading through water. The effect of the black and white film highlighted the
pathos of the solitary figure in the landscape, but it also created beautiful
chiaroscuro images, abstracted by a grainy cinematography. As McAuley's work
began to move away from the small colouristic paintings with which he had
begun the Lake Hindmarsh project, movement and sound became more
important. The reflected glare of sun-light sends a shimmering belt across the
water's surface and casts a long shadow of the figure as he wades towards his
goal; it is a scene reminiscent of the expressionistic silent films of the 1920s or
1930s. Taken in conjunction with John Thorn's Schönbergian-style tonal score
for string instruments, which was directly influenced by the Lake Hindmarsh
landscape and specifically composed for McAuley's film 'Sisyphus, An Act of
Absurdity', we experience an exquisite, melancholic interpretation of man as a
beacon of ambiguity, a Sisyphatic figure whose absurd attempts to control water
led to a heaviness of soul and a futile journey.

As the rains transformed the lake the physical experience of trudging through
mud became a trial. The film footage shows the deep, pitted footprints as the
Sisyphean character treads an endless path towards the taunting mirage and
illusory horizon. The decision to work three dimensionally and cast in bronze
provided another form to explore the rich Sisyphatic association of the figure in
the landscape or the lake. McAuley made three sculptural versions, one with the
slouch hat of the Anzac, the optimistic antipodean warrior; another 'Water
Minister', a crucified puppet figure that alludes to the politics of water; and the
third, a forlorn and piteously exhausted figure, a dead soul in the midst of a
psychological desert or a suicidal ecology. Again Camus's words chime, 'Those
waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines'.

Mitchell McAuley's printmaking was equally affected by the tonal and visual
qualities of film. His large woodcuts are exceptional for the immediacy of markmaking
and technical proficiency especially in his large-scale works, such as
'Sisyphean Walk', which measures 2.4 meters in length. An abstract linearism
hedges the solitary figure whose encrusted step cuts a track through the sandy
mud. We are led towards the horizon and into a maze of mirages, where the
heaviness of the sky is maximised by boulder-like clouds. In 'Sisyphus, The Long
Walk', the angular gauging into the matrix is offset with a clean middle ridge
above which a mesmerising pattern fills the sky as if inspired by a locust swarm.

These visual motifs are carried throughout McAuley's oeuvre and we see
Sisyphus's trials continue in his large acrylic paintings. In 'Sisyphus the
Bridgeman', the sky, clouds, water, the old Wimmera trestle bridge and the figure
of Sisyphus are united by a shadow play of clouds upon water. A palette of
subtle, low tone greys, blues and yellows recede or float in a surreal veil over the
structural forms of the figure and bridge. A formal balance and a strong narrative
exists in much of McAuleys art, and the dominant dark figure symbolically
represents the conflictual relationship between man and nature and bears a
mythical similarity to Sidney Nolan's Kelly series or Albert Tucker's desert
warriors. Caspar David Friedrich's paintings concern the metaphysical state of
man's ultimate aloneness with nature, of the search for what exists beyond the
knowable and 'everything in sight'. Sisyphus, for Mitchell McAuley is a dialogue, a
visual narrative and a means of incorporating the self into the Australian
landscape, an identity allegory. But Sisyphus is also a critique on the more
complex issues of freedom, illusion, futility, deceit, hope, stoic determination and
the eternal struggle between man, climate and nature.

 Dr Sheridan Palmer, January 2011.

Sheridan Palmer is an art historian, curator and Honorary Fellow of the
Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne.  

1 Gerald Murnane, The Plains, Melbourne, Penguin Books, 1982, p. 50.
2 See Guerber, H. A., the Myths of Greece and Rome, London, George G. Harrop & Co. 1921
3 Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Penguin Books, 1986, p. 7