‘It’s a funeral march’: French artist JR’s powerful eulogy for Australia’s Murray-Darling | NGV Triennial

The temper round Lake Cawndilla in north-west New South Wales on Saturday is funereal however defiant, as a procession of round 60 locals parade by scrub and sand round its banks.

They carry between them a sequence of 30m-long fabric figures: three native citrus farmers and outstanding Baakandji artist William Badger Bates.

The fates of all 4 are tied to the well being of the Darling/Baaka River, however just like the embattled waterway there are nonetheless indicators of life, and struggle, in all of them.

“It appears to be like like a burial however it’s not,” French avenue artist JR explains the evening earlier than, by way of Zoom. “It’s a funeral march for what’s occurring slowly in entrance of our eyes.”


JR, an internationally famend artist – whose previous initiatives have commandeered websites starting from the Louvre’s glass pyramid to an abandoned Ellis Island hospital – knew little concerning the Murray-Darling again in February 2020, when he flew into a nation nonetheless choked with the smoke and trauma of that summer time’s bushfire disaster.

However then he stepped on to Baakandji Nation with Bates.

“The entire river’s empty, and all of the locals let you know they’ve by no means seen it this manner. I used to be actually humbled in some ways as a result of I’m on his land, and he’s an artist additionally,” he says of Bates. “Who am I as a French individual to inform the story higher than anybody there?”

JR quickly discovered frequent threads between the plight of communities in regional Australia and the wrestle of farmers on Italy’s Alfina plateau who had been on the centre of Omelia Contadina, his 2020 collaboration with Italian film-maker Alice Rohrwacher. His multi-part NGV Triennial work, Homily to Country, once more makes use of images, portraiture and other people to carry a human face to ecological and moral questions that usually show too massive, too advanced or too summary to seize the general public’s creativeness.

JR’s Homily to Country (above and right), which is on display in NGV Triennial until 18 April 2021 at NGV International, Melbourne.
JR’s Homily to Nation (above and proper), which is on show as a part of the NGV Triennial till 18 April 2021 at NGV Worldwide, Melbourne. {Photograph}: Tom Ross
Installation view of JR’s work Homily to Country 2020 on display in NGV Triennial 2020 from 19 December 2020 – 18 April 2021 at NGV International, Melbourne © JR. Photo: Tom Ross
{Photograph}: Tom Ross/JR

The primary a part of the work is on show within the NGV’s backyard: JR’s pictures of Bates and Rachel Strachan, Alan Whyte and Wayne Smith – farmers compelled to all however abandon their orchards – invite reverence and reflection as stained-glass home windows in a makeshift, open-air chapel.

The second half consists of the procession at Lake Cawndilla, and a everlasting, filmed report of the second which might be added to the exhibition. Incorporating aerial drone images that captures the dimensions of the material portraits set towards the panorama, it’s sluggish, meditative artwork that courts on-line virality as a part of its mission.

Baakandji artist William Badger Bates
Baakandji artist William Badger Bates {Photograph}: JR

“You hear about agriculture and the dilemmas; the farmers killing themselves. And but there aren’t any robust and powerful photos that make you mirror on that. In Italy for instance, whenever you undergo the areas which might be devastated by the monoculture of nuts … for somebody who’s a non-farmer like me, it simply appears to be like inexperienced.”

The color inexperienced hits in another way round Menindee: current studies of recent poisonous algal blooms have imperilled locals’ consuming water and raised contemporary questions on why the river continues to languish regardless of years of presidency initiatives and billions of {dollars} meant to revive it to well being. That ongoing illness was vividly illustrated in 2019, when the oxygen-starved waters round Menindee grew to become blanketed with as much as a million lifeless fish.

To Bates, these are existential questions: “I say the Baaka is my ngamaka – meaning my mom. I’ve three moms: my mum, my grandma and the Baaka. It’s fed us, and taken care of us, and we actually respect it.”

‘It’s fed us, and looked after us, and we really respect it,’ says Badger Bates of the Darling river.
‘It’s fed us, and taken care of us, and we actually respect it,’ says artist William Badger Bates of the Darling River. {Photograph}: Dean Lewins/AAP
Photograph of dead fish.
Useless fish float on the Darling River in Menindee in January 2019. {Photograph}: Robert Gregory/AFP/Getty Pictures

Baakandji individuals and their river have tailored and thrived by an ice age and 1000’s of years of gradual change, however Bates says the upheaval introduced by local weather change and upstream irrigation is one thing else totally. “We’re not serving to nature, we’re making nature change its course. Us people are doing it – we predict we’re good, however we’re outsmarting ourselves, and the proof is within the pudding at Menindee.”

Two years on from the fish kills, what might have been a galvanising second has left Bates and his neighborhood feeling exasperated and disempowered by but extra enquiries, compromises and photograph ops with out sufficient follow-through.


“You return two months in the past, Gladys [Berejiklian] got here out and let a lot of fish go,” he says of the NSW’ premier’s recent release of 60,000 Murray Cod bred from a handful of survivors rescued from the 2019 fish kills. “We allow them to go, however now these fish are nearly able to die as a result of the decrease Menindee, the place we put them in, there’s no water to maintain [them] going.”

Drone shot of the Homily to Country (2020-2021) procession by JR.
A drone shot of the Homily to Nation procession. {Photograph}: JR

Journey restrictions prevented JR returning to see his portraits make their pilgrimage again to the Darling/Baaka the place they had been taken – however, he says, it’s for the most effective.

“I sort of like the truth that the march will occur with solely locals. As a result of why do you want a world artist in the course of it? My half was assembly the individuals, enlarging the photographs, working with the museum. After all I might have cherished to be there to stroll with everybody, however … it’s their undertaking, it’s their struggle, it’s their tales.”

For Bates, a man who speaks with the beleaguered willpower of somebody who has tried every part and heard each excuse, the prospect of such an artist lending their worldwide profile to his “darling Baaka” means a lot.

“It’s the most effective factor that’s ever occurred to us. He’s world-renowned, plus he’s placing one thing on the market that we – that’s black individuals and white people who stay on the Baaka – haven’t acquired a likelihood to do. That is giving us a likelihood. To me and everybody, he’s a godsend to us.”

The Triennial is open until 18 April on the Nationwide Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

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