The blurb for Lars Heldmann’s fascinating ouThere photography exhibition at the South Coast Regional Art Gallery (Old Goolwa Police Station) of the mining towns and landscapes in and around Roxby Downs , Andamooka and Cooper Pedy in northern South Australia says that the images in the exhibition “give us access to the remote and vast interior, which is in contrast to our living environment along the coast and interior waters.” It is an interesting attempt to uncover the missing narratives of our regional pastas well as a search for things that many of us in Adelaide did not know existed. The art works of this region are few and far between. I know of no reclamation art that has been produced by the visual arts community, or any rehabilitation work done by landscape architects.
The ouThere exhibition reminded me of my images of Andamooka. So I went back to the archive and had a look at the images that were probably made around the beginning of the 21st century. We spent several days at Andamooka, but we never took the opportunity to go on to explore Lake Torrens National Park to the east, nor drive north to Marree, which is at the junction of the Oodnadatta Track and the Birdsville Track. The reason was that we were tourists, travelling in a little Ford Laser, without access to a 4 wheel drive.
I didn’t see this part of South Australia as the unknown or the Australian Outback. People live and work here. For instance, the nearby town of Woomera was a military town, whilst Roxby Downs and Andamooka are mining landscapes and towns –industrial and pre-industrial. Andamooka, at that time, was more or less, a declining shanty town with abandoned mining shafts, since the opal field was mined out during the 1970’s. There was little sign of the Aboriginal people who would have had a long-standing connection with the area.
The impact of mining has been particularly significant in Australia as it has always been part of its history. Post-colonial Australia continues its push towards strengthening its mining industry and there must be hundreds of operating mines in Australia. Mining plays an immense importance for the economy of such resource-rich Australia. It is a boom bust industry and what was so noticeable about this region was the way that the mining industry continues to both alter landscapes and to impact on communities through the extraction of natural resources.
The landscape around Andamooka is a post-mining landscape: a wounded one with a degree of unsettledness, hard luck stories, and a sense of the uncanny that is associated with estrangement, isolation, and the fear of violence and death.
The post mining landscape is not being rehabilitated, despite the growing public awareness since the 1970s, of the mining industry’s huge footprint on the landscape and the detrimental effects on the environment. It is unlikely that there will be any mine site rehabilitation here in either the ecological or social sense.
These post-mined landscapes will be left to recover or heal on their own as reclamation (minimising the negative impacts that the site may have on the surrounding environment) or rehabilitation (returning the altered landscapes to an original state) is not being considered.
Andamooka is a non-place with no memory in the South Australian imaginary. What happened to the Indigenous Australian’s– the Kokatha people?— who belonged to this landscape. Was the establishment of pastoralism based on a brutal subjugation of Indigenous people and a violent appropriation of Indigenous land? Does it have future that is different from being a shanty town? Will it evolve from an opal mining and tourism town into a residential base for people employed in the mine or in service industries in Roxby Downs?
Pastoralism, which turns the leased land into paddocks for sheep and cattle farms is still the residual in the outback or rural spaces of the nation. This pastoralism is often premised around white inhabitants’ desires to belong to the country–their home— and the allusive signs of something the nation has lost. Non-Aboriginal belonging to these pastoral properties is usually figured in terms of alienation and loss, turning narratives of origins and settlement into questions about destinations, haunting and ghosts. Non-Aboriginal belonging to deemed to be fraught and unsettling, especially in spaces where there are unsettled, contested native title claims to place.