Frames of Authenticity

Alison Bennett The Hingstonbrook Hb logo H H b b

The cottage

The front of the cottage leans forward at an improbable angle-collapsing, frozen like a museum diorama in a decadent state of recreated nostalgia. There are no straight lines or right angles here, nothing perpendicular about it. Beyond the act of time, there appears to be a great weight, perhaps a burden, upon the small cottage.

Ruth Hingston and Tim Brook came to Haefliger Cottage just prior to New Year in December 2001. They stayed for six weeks as part of Bathurst Regional Art Gallery's Hill End Artist-in-Residence program, a partnership with the National Parks and Wildlife Service of NSW who own the site.

Hill End

Hill End is a small village in the mountains between Bathurst, Mudgee and Orange in Central West NSW. When commercial photographer Beaufoy Merlin documented the town in 1872, at the height of the gold mining boom, it boasted a population of around 8 000 (and 28 pubs). When Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend discovered the village in 1947, Friend wrote (in)famously now there is only a handful of rather sordid, jovial mad peasants who live by fossicking and rabbiting. Hill End has a formidable place in Australian art history as the subject of paintings such as Drysdale’s The Cricketers and the home of Donald Friend for much of the 1950s. The cottage now known as Haefliger was purchased by their friends Paul Haefliger and Jean Bellette in the late 1940s and used as a base by their circle of friends and associates. Hill End is listed on the register of the National Estate as a relatively intact gold boom townscape and has been managed by NPWS as a site of national significance since 1968. Haefliger Cottage and its contents were bequeathed to the NPWS for inclusion in the historic site in 1991.

Today the village of around 120 residents have turned their economy from fossicking, shearing and rabbiting to cultural tourism. Apart from overwhelmingly powerful aesthetics—it is just so damn pretty—for me, the fascination of Hill End lies in the overlaying of contested meanings. Historians, architectural conservators, archeologists, art historians, and cultural heritage administrators have all been inadvertently co-opted into a powerful oral tradition of repeating and elaborating the intangible stories associated with the site. The lines between historical fact and apocrypha are constantly and delightfully obscured.

detail - Warped Wall II

Collaboration

During their brief residency, Ruth and Tim engaged with the site with remarkable intellectual intensity and concentration resulting in a rare eloquent and resolved visual statement about the elusive forces-the institutions, beliefs, attitudes and desires-that invisibly form our experience of such a complex and resonant site. While they have produced two separate bodies of work, the residency was an intellectual collaboration.

The mixed media works

Ruth Hingston’s three-dimensional and twisted frames have found an effective focus for these impulses-window frames constructed of corrugated cardboard mediate the interior and exterior spaces. Her warped walls mimic the mud and lime of the wattle and daub buildings, with her delicate muddied imprints of embroidered linen disrupting the replica. Indeed, a piece of lace representing the ironwork of a verandah detail inverts the tension between internal and external spaces. Ruth placed glimpses of her well-drafted pencil drawing of the bed-head and Haefliger’s chair behind the openings. She wanted to capture the desire of the outsider, the tourist, to peer into these private closed spaces-to experience some kind of interior authenticity. As an aside, my experience as a relative insider, as a resident of the town, is that the tourists have as much presence as the cows that wander the main street, part of the background to town life. But the residents also share the unburdened curiosity about the inside of each other’s houses, and lives. In a small town one is a little protective of ones privacy.

For me the small six-paned windows not only express a historical practical imperative-in the 1870s it was too expensive and difficult to get glass up the Bridle Track-but maybe it was also a cultural expression of wanting to shut out a foreign and violated landscape.

Perhaps less successful is the series based on chimneys. It seems an unnecessary masculine juxtaposition to the window frames and is too easily confused with Nolan’s Ned Kelly.

Originally a textile artist, this body of work follows Hingston’s masters thesis work on an imagined miner’s cottage in Kalgoorlie where a deranged widow had stitched herself and her life into the very fabric of the building. Warped Walls differs in that the work is resolved as a discrete frame, perhaps an extension of the window, while the Kalgoorlie work was exhibited as an installation.

The photographs

Photographer Tim Brook also focused his lens on the windows of Haefliger Cottage but found a metaphor in the reflection and distortion of the images of objects and forms. Photography is a particularly potent contemporary medium for this subject that walks an ambiguous line betweendocumentary and manipulationall faithful, none true. The images captured in the aged rippled glass, liquid with time, are distorted and multi-layered. Through a highly ordered and rigorous intellectual process, Tim appears to have uncovered the notion that so much of Hill End is fiction, a result of storytelling on both a local, institutional and theoretical level.

However, the genuine affection and thoughtfulness with which he engaged with the house was also recognised by Peter Mitchell, who purchased one of the works. Peter and his partner Ross have an intimate knowledge of the house as one of the circle allowed use of the house by the Haefligers. They have now retired to the A-Frame on the outskirts of Hill End. He seems to have captured something essential about the house. So many of the artists-in-residence simply use it as a base to continue what they were already doing at home. Peter and Ross then proceeded to identify the objects within the images that were original and those introduced for the artist-in-residence program.

The residency

It is refreshing to find work resulting from the Hill End artist-in-residence program that intelligently engages with and illuminates the site, recognising but undaunted by the imposing shadows of Drysdale, Friend, Olsen, Smart and Whiteley, to make a contemporary interpretation of a rich, complex and rewarding subject.