John A. Douglas, Strange Land Vol. 1, 2010
Courtesy of Bianca Willoughby

‘There was once civilisation here?’
‘Yeah, it used to be a mining town, just something went wrong’.

The Chain Reaction (1980)

Glen Davis is a small forgotten ghost town located in the Capertee Valley, near Lithgow in the Blue Mountains. Nestled alongside an ominous escarpment, the valley’s history of industry and capital are embodied in the ruins of what was once a successful shale oil mining enterprise that opened in 1938, with some 2,500 miners and their families populating the area. For a time the site was a flourishing contribution to the heroic battler ethos of Australian working class determination. But its legacy was ultimately short-lived as then PM Robert Menzies decreed the local production of shale oil an unviable option in a post-war economy. Thus, the mine was closed in 1952 and auctioned off to private interests.

The miners and their womenfolk left as quickly as they had arrived, the local shops ceased trading and decay settled on the town. Today the ruins are still there—heritage listed, in fact—evoking an Australian modernity born from colonial triumph but grappling with a vast range of competing ideological forces and imperatives. The soldiers may (or may not) have come home when World War II ended, but the insidious Cold War era of the Menzies regime dictated that communism posed as much a threat as nuclear terror. Catholic priests joined politicians in sermonising anti-commie propaganda, effectively splitting the union movement and the Australian Labor Party in two. A strong union culture motivated the Glen Davis miners, their blood, sweat and tears shaping Australian myths of the miner who battles against the odds of such perilous, transient labour.

Fast-forward to 1980 and Glen Davis re-entered history through the popular imagination of Australian cinema. Ian Barry’s feature film The Chain Reaction used Glen Davis as the setting for a thriller about nuclear contamination, car chases and gratuitous nudity. Considering its decline during Cold War era rhetoric around nuclear threat, Glen Davis seemed the perfect locale through which to make sense of geopolitical tensions embedded in the Australian psyche. The Chain Reaction appeared at the end of the 1970s renaissance of Australian cinema, among them: Wake in Fright (1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Devil’s Playground (1976), The Last Wave (1977), Long Weekend (1979) and Mad Max (1979). Each film spoke to Australia’s preoccupation with defining itself through various postcolonial anxieties and was often set against Australia’s harsh and foreboding landscape.

John A. Douglas revisits and reimagines various social histories of Glen Davis in Strange Land Vol. 1 (2010) through the prism of Australian cinema. To date Douglas has amassed a striking body of video and photomedia work that examines how Australiana has been constructed through visual culture, particularly from the 1960s and seventies until now. Screen Test (Australiana) (2007) reinvented the suicide scenes from Walkabout (1971) and Wake in Fright—two iconic Australian films made by imported directors with imported but no less compelling visions of what constituted the Australian outback. His work, Ask Noeline… (not the ogre) (2009) channelled Noeline Donaher, the matriarch of early ‘reality TV’ series Sylvania Waters (1992), also produced by imported talent. As an Aussie kid from the suburbs, Douglas was reared on a solid diet of movies and TV produced on these shores. It comes as no surprise that his practice today is hell-bent on reclaiming the screen media of our past through counter-narratives that are as critically smart as they are fondly nostalgic.

For Strange Land, Douglas collaborates with performance artists Sari T.M. Kivinen and Liam Benson to create a series of symbolic characters that, in referencing the town’s history, conjure the ghosts of a lost time and place. Realised as an ambitious three-channel video installation, Douglas has fashioned a compelling universe that uses the road as a literal and metaphoric device. Tracing the road going in and out of the abandoned mine site, Douglas plays with fictional meanings mapped onto the land in the guise of a national identity that is constructed, ideological and narrative based.

The ghosts evoked by Douglas, Kivinen and Benson materialise as a miner, priest, housewife, waitress and pioneer. Less obvious archetypes are a Hazmat suited worker testing radiation levels with a Geiger counter. In a surreal twist, this character resurfaces in sci-fi terms as a gold alien figure surveying the site, perhaps seeking cryptic interplanetary knowledge amidst an ancient city’s ruins. Episodic in structure, these characters draw out stories about the area told by Leonie Knapman, a miner’s daughter who grew up to be the town historian. Douglas takes advantage of the unreliable, romanticised nostalgia of such oral histories by responding through interpretive rather than literal means. In doing so, Strange Land refers primarily to the way post-settlement Australian culture cannot seem to shake its view of the land as something we can’t quite conquer or tame no matter how hard we try.

Implied by this anxiety is an unknowable spirituality associated with the land’s original Indigenous owners, the Wiradjuri people. Even though Douglas shirks overt reference to its Aboriginal past or present, the land’s strangeness seems as much connected to contemporary cinematic or literary archetypes as it is to the sense that the land harbours deep, unimaginable wounds (some unverified accounts claim that whites colonised the land through the massacre of its occupying Aboriginals). Tracey Moffatt’s revisionist outback in Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) inevitably emerges as a reference point—not just in relation to the Indigenous poetics/politics it brilliantly and wordlessly conveyed, but also in the way Strange Land’s soundtrack composer, Debra Petrovitch, samples the chilling sonic template of her Night Cries score.

When the terrain is this troubled with contested, uncertain signs, the obvious trail of navigation is the road. It may lead you in but do not assume it will lead you out. Roads help us make sense of the landscape, they offer pathways to shelter and navigable means of traversing what can be difficult psychogeographic terrain. Like a trail of breadcrumbs scattered by a child to safely guide the passage home, Douglas underscores the circuitous unreliability of roads that lead to a terrifying nowhere-land for no-place-people.

John A. Douglas, Strange Land Vol. 1, 2010
Courtesy of Bianca Willoughby

Starella is one such person. Named after one of Kivinen’s established performance personas, Starella the waitress loiters around an abandoned milk bar drinking red wine straight from the bottle (this character is also a reference to The Chain Reaction’s blousy waitress Gloria). As the sun beats down on Starella, her alcoholic delirium and paranoia accelerates and she runs onto the road. An unseen paranormal force could be chasing her, causing intense fear and terror. But the road offers no solace or escape. We’ve seen this before in Long Weekend or Wolf Creek (2005), where the doomed find the road just when they need saving from impending death. But instead, the road conspires with their captor, closing in for the kill. During production the working title for The Chain Reaction was The Man at the Edge of the Freeway, which evokes an image of human vulnerability when sidelined against the edge of the ominous road.

Ultimately the characters of Strange Land are haunted by the ghosts they become. Riddled with historic traces of failure and trauma, the ghost town is a holding cell for restless spectres whose presence ascribes to the place a ‘badland’ status. According to author Ross Gibson a ‘badland’ is ‘originally a tract of land that would not succumb to colonial ambition’. What remains are the ruins and ghosts of history, which through the accumulative force of time make some lands incapable of mastery. ‘By calling a place ominous and bad,’ says Gibson, ‘citizens can admit that a pre-colonial kind of “savagery” lingers inside the colony even though even though most of the country has been tamed for husbandry and profit’.

These ‘badlands’ are so figured within a dominant conception of Australian national identity that cinema produced during the seventies obsessively returned to these tropes around a haunted, terrifying terrain. The Chain Reaction was released a year after Mad Max, which according to the film’s producers ‘made people feel we didn’t have to embrace our history and outback’ but rather adopt films about road culture and nuclear contamination [cited in a making-of featurette for The Chain Reaction, Umbrella Entertainment DVD release in 2005]. The disavowal of the role played by the landscape in either of these films is strange considering how the whole point of road culture is that it fulfils the macho desire to conquer and penetrate a difficult land, in the same way narratives of nuclear contamination speak to an overarching extinction anxiety or fantasy.

In a sense, Douglas recognises how these cultural and social panics are encoded in the fragile economies/ecologies of a modern civilisation. If citizens aren’t busy stressing about their annual subscription renewal to nationhood, other fraught factors to stock-take include gender, class and religion. Kivinen’s good Christian housewife persona busily orders civilisation amidst the bush, while preparing tea and cakes for a guest that never comes. Ants attack the cakes, recalling the hypnotic ‘luncheon on the grass’ of Picnic at Hanging Rock. In contrast, Benson’s priest sits alone outside the chapel, drinking beer in the oppressive heat, while reading the scriptures and waiting for a God that never comes. A deep sadness permeates his facial expressions, distilling through gesture and nuance an irresolvable crisis of identity. A beer is his last supper as he proceeds to the mine to hang himself. In creating this character, the conflicted beer-drinking priests of The Devil’s Playground are called to mind. So too is the historical context of Glen Davis’s pub being converted into a chapel in the mid-1950s after the mine closed down. Apparently a priest suicided not long before the priesthood abandoned the Glen Davis seminary, leaving their possessions behind without explanation. Suicide is a recurring theme in Douglas’s work, having figured prominently in his earlier work Screen Test (Australiana). The manner in which suicide is played out in the landscape is a metaphor for what Douglas refers to as the ‘sadness that lies at the centre of the male psyche’ and the fragility of a human condition that turns us all into ghosts in the end.

Adding another spooky layer to the visual culture of Glen Davis is a music video that obscure rock band Wildland shot there in the 1990s. When interviewed for a trashy US cable program about ghosts, the band claim that a ghost appeared on the tape; to this day it is believed to be either the priest or a miner who died in a fatal accident. Douglas plays this miner emerging from the earth all bloodied and bruised. As he dies, the miner transforms into a ghost that patrols the site as a one-man marching band, beating a drum as his blood turns to oil. The strong union culture class struggles of mining in Australia have a long history of which Glen Davis is part. Once it was announced the mine was to close, the strike that ensued saw 52 men stay underground for 26 days, while the community rallied support with a neighbouring soup kitchen and marching band demonstrations. Douglas’s performative invocation of the ghost miner foretells the fate of a town destined for ruins.

A common thread in Indigenous culture is the belief that ghosts are best found in the mountains at dawn. John A. Douglas shot some of the ghost sequences at dawn, paying homage to this belief while also forging an atmosphere founded on the trickery of light. Ultimately, Strange Land Vol. 1 amplifies the role light plays in granting visibility: the light of cinema and photography; the light of religion (‘the light of the world’); the light illuminating the spectral whiteness of the lonely woman in the bush; the light manifest as a coalmine furnace blasting; the light that summons ghosts. It is a light that is not only directed toward the living or dead amongst us, but to the perilous fictions cultivated over time, over place, under mine.

  1. Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland, (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 2002) 14, p.15.
  2. ‘Stay-down Strike at Glen Davis Ends After 26 Days’, The Sunday Herald, 29 June 1952, p.3

Essay for Runway.

With permission, Bianca Willoughby has kindly allowed this work to be re-published acknowledging her former identity as John A. Douglas.

Published by Runway, issue 17 in 2010.