Night light town
Night light town 2006
Beeswax, light bulbs, power cords
Created for the exhibition Social Capital curated by Lisa Byrne at Canberra Contemporary Art Space 2006
The work Night light town is inspired by my research into the history of the Tocumwal houses.
In January 1942 the Japanese forces were moving south at a frightening pace and the Australian Government was concerned that Japan was on the verge of invading Australia. In response to this perceived threat the Government developed a number of contingency plans. One of these was known as the Brisbane Line Strategy – it involved the drawing of an imaginary line between Brisbane and Melbourne. In the event of an invasion the efforts would be concentrated on saving the corner of Australia south and east of this line.
In order to defend this part of the country the Australian Allied Works Council and the USA Air Force built Australia’s largest air base – known as the McIntyre Field – near the town of Tocumwal on the Murray River in New South Wales. This was to be a ‘last ditch’ base from which heavy bombers would be able to defend the south-eastern part of the country and conduct reconnaissance flights into occupied enemy territory. (Nelmes, MV Tocumwal to Tarakan: Australians and the Consolidated B24 Liberator, Banner Books, 1994 p65) The base had a number of special features, it was designed with the threat of air attack in mind; all the facilities were spread over twenty square kilometres to reduce the risk of losing all the resources in one go. The fibro and weatherboard accommodation huts were designed to look like domestic houses and some of the roads were constructed as ‘continuous streets of Tocumwal’ (Nelmes p65) in order to disguise part of the road system and thus the base.
In May 1942 a series of contributing factors put a stop to the Japanese advance and the threat of invasion disappeared. The base was no longer needed for its original purpose.
As the Second World War came to an end the accommodation huts from the McIntyre field became sought after in the national housing shortage that followed. Many of them were pulled down and transported to a number of locations. One such destination was hundreds of kilometres away in the Canberra suburb of O’Connor.
My interest in the houses stems from several stories I heard that were situated somewhere between gossip, rumour and urban myth speculating on a range of possible pasts for the houses. The first story I heard confused the name of the town Tocumwal and referred to the houses as the ‘token war houses’.
In these stories the origins of the houses varied, they always came from somewhere far away, somewhere else – in outback NSW or near Darwin or Alice Springs. The consistent element being that the places, the points of origin for the houses were very different from Canberra. The accounts of why the houses existed also varied, in some they were decoys, lit up at night to attract the Japanese bombers away from civilisation and real targets. According to another version the houses had been part of an army resettling camp, intern accommodation where soldiers returning from the war stayed. Yet another account claimed that the houses were kit homes that had originally been brought here from Norway.
The first time I heard one of these stories it stayed with me for weeks, it sounded fantastic, too strange to be true and yet, there was something about it that niggled at me. In my mind’s eye I could see houses lining dusty roads – marooned in the middle of a dry plain, the only other points of reference, occasional trees amongst clumps of grey grass. I imagined their interiors as shelters for scuttling creatures, lights coming on as the day wore out, naked light bulbs illuminating the dust settled in the corners and spider webs arching from wall to ceiling. I also had a clear picture of the houses on the back of trucks becoming larger, encountering mountains and other towns, winding through wooded hills and across green farmland.
These stories interested me because they cast the houses as decoys and protective devices, as fictional/deceptive objects which play a role in the protection of the nation. They were also fascinating because they had travelled. There was something powerful in this idea of houses that could simply be picked up and moved, something unstable, tenuous. How could telling stories about these imaginary travelling houses be bound up in the claiming of space and creation of place, and understood in relation to notions of the tenuous settlement of Australia by migrants? I was interested in unravelling the relationship between individual houses as homes and the idea of houses as symbols, and devices that have a place in mythology and memorialisation of World War II. Hearing the stories of the Tocumwal houses made me begin to think about the process of story telling as part of a larger process of constructing and inhabiting the places we live in.
Working with beeswax and light I created an installation of wax houses, shaped like the actual Tocumwal houses. I was curious about the way we see houses as permanent fixtures – as stable and safe environments – as shelters. Yet if we don’t constantly work on and in them, they break down and begin to decay. The light bulbs inside the wax houses generate heat that softens and melts the wax over a period of weeks. As the wax melts the houses loose their shape, slowly collapsing in on themselves revealing the naked bulb inside.