Image Credit: Zoë Bastin, milk with one please, in collaboration with Laura Albee Barton and Jess Brohier

milk with one please: Industrial Phantasms 

by Katie Paine

The bus from Melbourne to Werribee takes us farther and farther away from the suburban sprawl; within minutes the road turns to thick mud, paddocks stretch in all directions and beside a glade of trees sits a labyrinth of rusted detritus from the Werribee sewerage plant. Gargantuan ochre pipes are heaped next to concrete columns with surfaces so weathered, the scene resembles the most perplexing of natural rock formationsBy now the bus has slowed to a halt amidst a matrix of defunct infrastructure. Looking out from the bus expectantly, we scrutinise the landscape for movement, uncertain what it is we are here for.

A glimpse of flushed skin and stained fabric peeks out from the pipework. A body begins to leap from one arc of concrete to another. The bus tentatively inches closer, as if not to disturb the inhabitants of this strange acropolis. The subjects of our attention are two women swathed in loose fitting linen, that perhaps was once white, but over time has taken on the appearance of their surroundings: where grass stains and mottled rust corrupt pristine cream linen, giving the impression that perhaps the women have always resided here in this industrial panorama. There is an inherent grace to the two women’s movements as together they navigate the site. We see elbows arc in an arabesque pose, limbs melting into one another, moving as one organism – finding in each other a haven from the bleak mechanical wasteland in which they inhabit.

This performance, milk with one please, is the work of artist Zoë Bastin, whose practice often takes the form of improvised and unfolding sculptural events. Performing with collaborator, dancer Laura Albee, Bastin’s performance manifested a stark contrast between the body and built environments – the performers’ sinuous motion reactivating the stagnant scrapyard.  This work was created as a site-specific response to the Werribee Treatment Plant for Treatment: Flightlines curated by artist Cameron Bishop. Throughout her diverse practice, Bastin generates tableaux that speak to the histories of dance and theatre, through the juxtaposition of cyclical actions and the formation of sculptural assemblage. Bastin explores the networked relationships between the body, material, space and time in her sculptural and performance-based practice.

Following the first segment of milk with one please, audiences disembarked at a near-by site, traversing a small thicket and following a route delineated by artist Lyndall Jones. Following a guide in the form of a folded slip of paper, visitors read about the ecological and archaeological history of this land, which was once the township of Cocoroc, home to hundreds of plant workers, before their labour was surpassed by the introduction of industrial machinery in the 1970s. We draw to a clearing, the meditative space evoked by Jones is soon corrupted by faint chords of an electric guitar that grows louder with every step.  The erratic melodies, melancholic like some other-worldly requiem, emanate from a heritage bluestone and steel-panelled water tower (the distorted droning guitar is vaguely recognisable as ACDC’s Thunderstruck). It is with this bizarre music, part of a delegated performance by artist Fiona Hillary, ringing in our ears that we step into a modest weather-board building, that was once the town hall at Cocoroc. 

Image Credit: Zoë Bastin, milk with one please, in collaboration with Laura Albee Barton and Jess Brohier

Passing through the dilapidated kitchen of the hall, we are greeted with the musky, saccharine scent common to long-abandoned buildings. The kitchen has all the trappings of a 1960s home: linoleum floors and bench-tops, with the walls, sinks and radiator painted a now-faded taupe. Surprisingly, this dreary scene is punctuated with large framed photographs of azure skies, blades of long grass, and the contorted forms of Zoë Bastin and Laura Albee. Now static, they resemble deformed Grecian statues – an odd spectacle to be found in this sea of concrete pipes. Bastin has often made work revolving around a series of choreographed actions, creating visually striking tableaux that are then photographed and re-exhibited amongst further performances and assemblages, as seen in her work Not Discrete, exhibited during the 100 year anniversary of The Substation in which performers cavorted with a lycra sack filled with flour leaving faint echoes in the dust coating the floor. Within both this and milk with one please, we are drawn into a realm of expanded temporality. Presenting live actions, and simultaneously documentation of further performances, past and present mingle creating fractured narratives that eschew linear chronologies and ultimately collapses the relational space between performance and its documentation.

Passing through the kitchen, the hall opens: cedar panelled walls are covered in faded photographs depicting the plant when it was first built in 1897. This space was once the centre of a bustling community for the families of the hundreds that once worked at the farm. Peering into the hall, I half expect to see children in their Sunday best chattering beneath tables groaning under vast plates of sandwiches and buns, mugs and kettles, as women with aprons laugh and regale one another with the comings and goings of the town. Bastin’s title milk with one please references a domesticity long-forgotten, remembering this hall at a time when it was the bustling hub of the tight-knit Cocoroc community. Yet, this is not the scene visitors are greeted with: instead sculptures inhabit this space in an unlikely procession.

The rusted framework of long-idle industrial detritus has been liberated from their former purposes: now merely geometric structures become an assemblage, fused with Bastin’s creations. A string of bruise-toned fleshy orbs hang from a rusted apparatus that, while ostensibly flesh-like, reveal lycees: dyed and dipped in melted plasticine, still emitting an acrid stench. Step further inwards and steely tendrils of disused piping stretch in a serpetine arc across the floor, wrapped in the middle with majenta foam matting, creating a convoluted sprawling growth.

milk with one please: Cocoroc Town Hall

A substantial concrete duct has been reimagined as sculptural column, draped over its mouth a discheveled fur doused in lilac dye, and leaking putrid yellow sludge. A large rusted frame- reimagined as a geometric structure at home  in any Modernist exhibition- holds a fleshy sac, a protuberance pierced on one side where thick, creamy liquid bubbles and oozes from the tear. Bastin’s sculptural arrangements confront us, presenting us with our abject selves, bringing to light our visceral interior. The cellular microcosm within us that corrupts this once pristine pastoral space.

Within her broader practice which involves performance and installation Bastin explores the complexity of the lived experience of being a woman, by forming and reforming art works through material investigations that reflect her conceptual concerns. This is done through the creation of sculptural objects that approximate feelings of the physical body as material understandings through processes of assemblage. Skeins of filmy latex evoke planes of human skin, milky rubber cushions concrete rubble, a strand of pearls falls across a perspex screen.

Both Bastin’s performance and sculptural series acknowledges the female history of an industrial community long forgotten. Drawing attention away from the sanitised, heavily curated master narratives of local Australian history, Bastin engages with the site of the plant with a rigour and imagination that reveals a simultaneously alluring and confronting world. I hop back on the bus, with echoes of Bastin and Albee's mesmerising improvised sequence flashing before my eyes. Like a vast organism, the site of the plant stretches out behind us like a vast mechanical “metropolis”, as we speed down the highway…

You can see more of Bastin's practice here.

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