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Unearthing Australian art? It’s a Minefield

In 1973, Tim Burns had an explosive idea for an experimental artwork, one that could really blow people away

1973. The Mildura Sculpture Triennial was showcasing new experimental art in Australia, dubbed “earthworks”. But at dawn on the first day a front-end loader ploughed up and destroyed the most provocative installation in the show in the interests of public safety. By mid-morning all that was left of a work that had occupied around 400 square metres was furrowed scars. What had been so dangerous?

Standing outside the unfenced field of softly undulating but otherwise featureless red soil that had been dumped and levelled like a makeshift gladiatorial arena, the young energetic curator, Tom McCullough, looked at a modest and blasé sign staked in the ground:

“Danger: Land Mines”.

“Surely not,” he is reported to have muttered.

Ground zero

McCullough was no stranger to new and vanguard fashions of art; in fact he was a strident advocate for them, but the circumstances and misgivings surrounding this work seemed exceptional. A member of the exhibition’s selection panel, loitering in conference with McCollough, threw a rock into the field. By chance, it hit and detonated one of the many explosives that artist Tim Burns had, virtually unnoticed or at least unchallenged, planted randomly over the previous days.

We see a tantalising glimpse of this momentous discovery among the staccato shots comprising four digressive minutes of grainy Super 8 footage, shot casually in the moment by fellow artist Bill Clements. This awkwardly amateur but hypnotic evidence, only recently unearthed, is as seductive as a cryptic, fetishistic relic.

The scant attention the work received in exhibition reviews at the time, as well as in subsequent critical study, is understandable. There was no work of art to see; only the empty place – a sort of “ground zero” – left by its demolition.

Still from Super 8 footage by Bill Clements shot in 1973, the only remaining documentation of the art work/event.

This minefield is a dark and obscure work. Even before its demolition and disappearance this work of art was hardly a visible or visual object. Indeed, it was not an object so much as a place, and as a place it was a deserted zone.

Its entire composition was founded on something that, while unfathomably concealed, was, paradoxically, not guarded or held secret. Contrary to the aesthetic and ecological principles of most earthworks, Burns displaced tonnes of red soil onto this location not to praise or elevate the site but to bury it.

Disremembering

If this suffocation could evoke a sense of place, it was not as a garden turned over with lush compost but as the stifling mantle of a grave. Burns buried this site’s genius loci alive. Think of this situation as akin to the late medieval dungeon known as an oubliette (forgotten place), in which consigned prisoners, meant to be ignored and unseen, would be lowered through a trapdoor in its roof, and then left to rot as the living dead.

The strategy of “disremembering” is an appropriately perverse way to account for the mechanism and the fate of Burns’ work of art. He deliberately did not keep a map while installing the landmines, interring them in the unconscious of the site as a malevolent, hidden plot – a contraption that was “live” but entombed and forgotten, and could only be excavated through its traumatic discharge.

Still from Super 8 footage by Bill Clements shot in 1973, the only remaining documentation of the art work/event.

That’s to say, the work of art could only form as an artefact – as something other than the bare, blank ground that concealed and masked it – when it erupted violently from the earth like an evil flower.

His was a work of art not only without any true, unique and identifiable or proper appearance (without a face), but also a work without a proper name: a work that was anonymous, indiscernible.

“Minefield” is an adopted descriptive – or deductive – title after the fact which, corresponding to the counterfeit warning notice, has become appended like a mask to the empty place the art occupies.

The minefield remains an unknowable work of art: incomprehensible. There is no point to “go over” this ground, treading lightly and warily as if it were a sacred site, access to which requires initiation or welcome and which offers some prospect to worship at it or some demand to honour it.

Nor is there any purpose to “go under” it, burrowing into its anatomy with archaeological and forensic scrutiny, exhuming and then deciphering significance to the historical debris left in its wake.

The minefield ridicules both these approaches: it has neither the whiff of sanctity nor the promise of sanctuary – it is a desacralised black “hole” (with neither extensive surface nor immersive depth); but it is also an exhausted well or mine, an empty tomb already robbed of its treasure or lode.

In the genealogy of the “expanded field” of sculpture in its time, this minefield is a plot hole – a breach, a trap and a discrepancy. Lawless, faceless, nameless, it is also groundless.

Ungrounded. More pyroclastic than iconoclastic. Inflammable. Untimely.

Banner image: Still from Super 8 footage by Bill Clements shot in 1973, the only remaining documentation of the art work/event.

Edward Colless is the editor of Minefield by Art + Australia Publishing, to be launched later this month. He also edits the journal Art + Australia, gifted to the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in 2015, which will relaunch this month with Issue Zero: Recomposite.

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