A journey into the Goldfields’ mesmerising Gormley statues of Lake Ballard

On if Sir Antony Gormley's 51 sculptures in Lake Ballard
On if Sir Antony Gormley's 51 sculptures in Lake Ballard

We sat, with a handful of strangers, and gazed in silent, tearful awe at the sun going down on 51 Gormley sculptures dotted around Lake Ballard – a dry salt lake millions of years old and light years away from suburbia.

The spindly metal statuettes were haunting, they were eerie and they were every bit as mesmerising as we knew they would be. They were there. Then they weren’t there. They shimmered in the mirage. Some looked twice the size as they were reflected on the water. But it wasn’t water. Occasionally one moved. Oh, and then we realised that was just one of the intrigued people wandering amongst them trying to make sense of it all. Were they communicating with us? Were they communicating with each other?

As we watched in silent contemplation, thoughts turned to the Menzies residents who modelled for Sir Antony Gormley, the so-called eccentric British artist who was commissioned in 2003 to create the installation Inside Australia for the 50th anniversary of the Perth International Arts Festival.

Where now, is the skinny, athletic teenage boy? What happened to the child of the pregnant woman? Surely the old man is not still alive? How had their lives panned out since 2003 when they played their part in putting the historic isolated mining town of Menzies – 135km north of Kalgoorlie – on the map as the gateway to Lake Ballard with its silence, peace, white sand and dreamlike beauty.

We couldn’t help but wonder, too, at those who made a similar journey to this, the largest outdoor gallery on earth, and described the experience as underwhelming.

It is the exact opposite – overwhelming – on so many levels. But the journey to get to that awesome space is best done slowly. As with many of life’s special moments it is getting there that makes the impact of the final reveal even more profound. Forget flying into Kalgoorlie and hiring a car to dash off to Lake Ballard.

Winding your way through a slowly-changing landscape of wildflowers, canola, rolling hills, wheat fields, granite woodlands, historic railway dams and wild west gold mining towns in a six day journey in a rattling motor home is the way to go.

It not only offers a chance to appreciate the vastness of our country but ensures a healthy respect and appreciation for those who eked out an existence on this land for thousands of years and empathy for the later ones who pushed wheelbarrows along the same route in search of gold.

Our constant companion for most of the way – along with the rattle, jingle jangle and bumpety bump of kitchen utensils, crockery and bottles (Chardonnay, of course) was the Big Boy.

That’s CY O’Connor’s pipeline – the legacy and constant reminder of his incredible engineering feat to supply water to the goldfields. It was there every time we looked out the window, occasionally disappearing and then surfacing reassuringly again.

Gail Williams visits CY O'Connor's pipeline
Gail Williams visits CY O’Connor’s pipeline

We needed that reassurance as we learnt to live in a two-person Jayco motor home with each day posing a new problem to sort out. So many questions. How does the wastewater tank hose work? Why is the wastewater tank still showing full on the electronic panel when it has been emptied? How could the gas bottle have run out so quickly? How do you even clean your teeth in that tiny washbasin? Who invented the foot-operated lever that releases the table to turn into a bed? And why would they position it so far under the table you can’t reach it with your foot? Oops, there goes the back again.

What sort of sadistic mind would design a motor home where you bang your head every time you try to enter the passenger seat from the cabin?

How do people larger than us – only a tiny bit larger, mind you – manoeuvre themselves round a two sleeper? And don’t even begin to ponder the thought of them in the shower.

But, over six days we warmed to our pocket-sized space, finally getting just the right technique to convert the bed into the table and vice versa, learning to push and pull the table to one side so the other person could squeeze in and working out how to wash the dishes while the other person sat at the table and dried.

See what I mean about the journey?

By the time we reached Menzies, standing like a ghost town monument to its gold mining past we were intrigued, as to Gormley’s choice of location – a stark environment miles from nowhere.

We had seen his famous works at Crosby Beach in Merseyside, where 100 cast-iron figures, modelled on his own naked body, face towards the sea. We’d also seen his work in Cambridge, where he studied archaeology, anthropology and the history of art at Trinity College.

The answer comes from one of Menzies 108 residents who remain undeniably proud of the hamlet’s colourful past and tends its remaining buildings including the general store, the visitor centre and a café on the tidy main strip. 

Gormley apparently visited the region in the early 2000s, and was captivated, saying: “You come to the edge … and it’s absolutely magic. A feeling of being at the edge of endlessness. It’s like being on the lip of the edge of the world.”

“I am trying to … unite a notion of the interior of this continent with the notion of an interior of the population.” 

From Menzies it’s a 54km trip – 16km of it unsealed – along the Sandstone-Menzies Road to a free campground looking over the dry lake bed. There is no drinking water and most campers stay for just one night, spending a few hours wandering around the statues which spread over 10km2 of the lake bed dotted with seven islands.

We spent a couple of hours wandering, then watching the sun go down and the statues disappeared into darkness but the sky was, by then, filled with stars. Watching the marvel unfold was a gentle reminder of our tiny place in the scheme of things.

Everything – including our by now beloved motor home with its idiosyncrasies and jingle jangles – was all right with the world.

When someone finally spoke – they said. It is definitely overwhelming.

And it is a journey definitely worth taking.