Australian Pastoral


Susan Gibb


Taking its name from the road that links Sydney with the township of Camden, Kenzee Patterson’s The Camden Valley Waysimilarly traverses the geography between these places. Originally a part of the old Hume Highway, the Camden Valley Way is steeped in Australia’s free settler history, with its movement of colonial interest from Sydney’s harbour to inland fertile grounds. Within this history Camden assumes an important role, as the site where the Macarthurs forged the nation’s wealth on the back of the merino sheep. These agricultural successes became central to the imagining of Australia as it moved towards Federation. In song, prose and picture the European tradition of the pastoral was re-interpreted to capture the longed-for ground between Australia’s burgeoning cities and the unforgiving aridness of its centre, providing much needed affirmation of the colonial project.


Hanging in my childhood home in Camden was a reproduction of one such image, Tom Robert’s The Breakaway (1891), which captured a pioneer on horseback attempting to bring order to a straying flock. This picture oversaw my growth from a child of the eighties to a teenager of the nineties, a coming of age that was matched by one of this country. The bicentennial provided a time to both celebrate and reflect upon ‘Australia’. By ‘88 the History Wars were well and truly being waged. The cultural revolutions of the 60s and 70s, recognition of Aboriginal people as the original owners of this land and waves of migration, had fractured any sense of cultural hegemony. An idea that struggled to be controlled by “multicultural” catch phrasing.  In this light the nationalist sentiment behind Robert’s pastoral image hung out of fashion. The flock well and truly fled.


Though the farmland that lined the Camden Valley Way was steadily being eaten by the sprawl of Sydney’s western suburbs, Camden remained the first stop to somewhere else, or the last frontier, a heritage signpost. Camden was not Sydney, and it was definitely not Campbelltown. With many families still holding land and the names of their forefathers, and the town being somewhat protected from development by natural floodplains and historical import, it held on to a sense of rural character. Cleverly punning Camden Valley Way, Patterson’s selection of objects and names bestowed upon them, capture something of the vernacular of this place. Linked to his own memories of south-west Sydney - things glanced from a car window, places visited and objects found in relative’s homes – Patterson establishes important tensions between these objects’ histories, their past and present, personal and social resonances.


Standing at the entrance of the exhibition, the totemic White guy (2011) acts as a catalyst. Refashioned from a power pole, refashioned from a eucalypt, the work speaks to the polemics of “indigeneity”. Looking at White guy one can ask, how do third, fourth, fifth generation Australians negotiate their relationship to this land with their histories of colonialism and migration? What is our ownership of these connections, of our sense of self in place? White guy’s gaze triggers another work, El Caballo Blanco (2011) to turn. Made from tyres, the work references both the great symbol of modernity - the car – and markers found along the Camden Valley Way to identify the entry point to people’s property – that “Australian dream”, a deeply embedded settler mentality. Ironically named after a failed theme park, the tyres spin on their own axis, suspending progress to critique its claims. In Macarthur Square (2011), Patterson memorialises a transition in time. Cast in aluminium from polystyrene framing used to protect an LCD screen the work marks the superseding of technology to embody the pull between nostalgia for the past and a longing for the future. In its evocation of the screen, Macarthur Square also references the tradition of picture making and the implications of what is presented within the frame.


Recently Camden made international news for the fierce community opposition to a proposal to build an Islamic school on the townships outskirt. The conflict revealed the politically charged reality of the area, a place under pressure, constant change and negotiation.  In Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, he recounts the story of Swede Levov. A quintessential American, Levov’s pastoral dream in the hamlet of Old Rimrock is shattered by an act of political terrorism committed by his daughter in the hotbed year of 1968.  In his description of this, Roth refers to Levov entering “the indigenous American berserk.” In thinking about Australia, a “new world” like America, one can consider the violence of our own indigenous berserk - of the complicated relationship between place, produced by the multiple histories this country carries. In his work Patterson explores the complexity of out engagements with places, both as individuals and communities, and how we form identities around them. In consideringThe Camden Valley Way one can ask what it means to come of age in such a place and how the weight of history comes to bear on the objects and names used to define it.


Susan Gibb is a curator based in Sydney, Australia. She grew up in Camden.