I recently visited the River on the Brink: Inside the Murray-Darling Basin exhibition at the S.H. Ervin Gallery on Observatory Hill, Sydney. The exhibition space is an historic building, a place from another time. A faint musty, not unpleasant smell pervades the building and there is a stately woman in a hand-knitted cardigan at the front desk.
I was invited by a friend and, while interested in the topic of the exhibition, I went as much to spend time with her as to visit the exhibition. Now I find its images accompanying me: a massive red gum stump – its roots exposed with many metres between them and the now dry river bed below; one small fish its mouth open, gasping, frozen in death; skeleton men carrying an old boat full of holes up a dry river bank, juxtaposed with a grainy photograph of early settlers eagerly making their way up river from the new settlement, Sydney; shadows of black birds skimming dry river beds, and six photographs from a dying town near the Darling or Barka River.
The accompanying text speaks of the distress that the Barkindji or people of the Barka River suffer, for the water is their blood and it is leaking out of them.
Before the exhibition I had been aware of the devastation of the Murray-Darling, of the death of river red gums, of small towns by the river running out of water, and the horror of the recent mass fish kill, but it wasn’t until this exhibition that I really felt the existential angst of a river system running dry. Because water is life and, for the Barkindji people, it is literally their blood.
Some might say “get real”, move to a new place, but when you really feel the shock of a river running dry, of your life blood leaking out of you, that practical suggestion – be it correct or not – makes no sense, it’s unthinkable.
Some of the images in the exhibition describe the unthinkable but they don’t provide solace because what is more unthinkable is that bleeding this land dry isn’t a result of a natural disaster. This is man-made, as it says in the exhibition catalogue, it is a man-made catastrophe “driven by an entrenched culture of greed”.
There is a short video in the exhibition; an animated version of the misty drawings of birds’ shadows passing over the sandy bottom of an empty river. It is as though the echo of those wings beating is a cycling call: “wake up” “wake up” the culture of greed bleeding the rivers of the Murry-Darling is spreading, has spread, through all aspects of our lives.
The River on the Brink: Inside the Murray-Darling Basin exhibition isn’t an easy exhibition to view but it is certainly a very powerful and extremely important one.
The River on the Brink: Inside the Murray-Darling Basin exhibition runs until November 17. See www.shervingallery.com.au