Watertable by James Geurts: the St Arnaud Street Museum

Low on the shiny window of the Independent Grocer’s opposite the St Arnaud Town Hall, a slender line of gold begins and then extends across several other shopfronts. If you follow it with your finger, you track its slow rise up, up, upwards, until you’re straining to be able to reach it at all. In 1924, this was the height reached by the great flood that overwhelmed the town when hapless goldminers hit a vast watertable. Today, each shopfront exhibits a work by James Geurts that inaugurates the St Arnaud Street Museum.

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“I wanted to create a suspension,” remarks Geurts, “to reflect how present water is in people’s minds. A psychological presence.” To begin to sense that presence, Geurts undertook a residency in St Arnaud and spent a lot of time talking to people. As the idea for the work began to form, he invited people to show him an object that evoked what water meant to them. Some of these objects Geurtz has photographed; others, he has cast in crisp white plaster, contrasted starkly with a brilliantly tarnished gold where the object dips below the waterline. Each suspended object – whether contemporary artefact or historical memory – becomes both the flotsam and the marker of this new watertable rising above the ground.

A plastic water bottle, a battered windmill, a feeding trough, an irrigator, a pump, a tap, a pipe, a reservoir. Each reflected in gold below, each refracted by its own reflection.

Floodwaters sweep away the order of a street, recreating its culture as a suspended disarray. They move fast; they rest slow and dank and dangerous; they recede, leaving an uncanny filth that distresses recovery efforts. Floodwaters filled with both gold and arsenic swept St Arnaud, creating a temporary suspension above ground and a permanent one below.

Geurts’ suspensions are given further depth by the streetscape reflections that fill the large shopfront windows, made deeper yet by the considered choice of an intense black against which the work is set. Each passer-by, each building and parked car, each object before the work becomes a part of the work, suspended above and below the line of gold.

Water resets our expectations. Reflection offers a perspective on difference, while refraction changes that perspective. Above the surface we see a small and often misleading proportion of the floating object; we can only see its true form below the surface if we immerse ourselves. Refraction casts a different shape, and that immersion was key to the artist’s approach. Geurts identifies two “pivot points” for his process: the flood mark and the shaft lines. Watertable’s biggest work is a drawing of overwhelming scale that depicts the structure of the eleven mineshafts against the topography of the region. Geurts made his drawings onsite, working at the mines’ locations as both a research and an imagining. He then expresses that license in the monochrome’s sinews that arrests the eye: the clarity of purpose in the built shafts interrupting the landscape; the meandering parallels of the groundforms; the subtle use of colour and gold that invites and rewards the extended focus.

Water is gold, but floodwaters are perilous. For any Wimmera town, water is precious – more precious than the gold beneath their feet, which is now too cost-ineffective to mine. A street museum proposes something new for both the street and the museum: for the street as familiar space, and for the museum as cultural institution. A museum is an exercise in custodianship, collection and curation. Its work is the identification of cultural artefacts reinterpreted and re-presented. The main street of a small town plays an equally vital custodial role as a central place for encounter and exchange. This too is an active citizenship, a responsibility to a changing public. St Arnaud locals talk readily about identity, about the town’s desire to known for something current, ambitious, audacious. Contemporary art animates our discussions up and down the street all evening and again the next morning. Clunes, Daylesford and Ballarat enter the conversation. Regional communities large and small are thinking more and more creatively about how their collective passions sustain one another. The St Arnaud Street Museum reflects and suspends us together in that exploration.

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The St Arnaud Street Museum is curated by Maudie Palmer AO. It is central to the St Arnaud Civic Precinct Plan commissioned by the Northern Grampians Shire Council and developed by MvS Architects with SGS Economics & Planning and Maudie Palmer.