The Salt People: Lake Ballard’s Stunning Statues

Crunch, squelch, crunch, squelch, crunch, squelch! This is the sound of me making my way slowly, ever so slowly, across Lake Ballard. The crunch is the salt on this vast saltpan. The squelch is the red, red mud that lies below the surface and is soft enough to collapse every time you take a step.

Why wander out onto a salt lake in the middle of the outback? Well, Lake Ballard is home to sculptures created by British sculptor Sir Antony Gormley, who strategically placed them across the blindingly white saltpan.

Internationally acclaimed, Gormley is probably most famous for his huge and beautiful Angel of the North statue in Gateshead, in Tyne and Wear, England. He was commissioned by the Perth International Arts Festival to generate a work for its 50th anniversary in 2003. To create Inside Australia, he travelled to the tiny hamlet of Menzies and persuaded 51 locals (and a few drop-ins) to strip naked. He then digitally scanned their bodies, made life-size moulds and then cast them in stainless-steel alloy.

The tiny town – one pub, a general store, handsome town hall, police station and about 100 residents – is 130km north of Kalgoorlie. In its gold-boom heyday in the late 1890s, it had a population of more than 10,000.

Travelling to Menzies on the dead-flat, straight road where, if you’re lucky, you’ll pass a road train every half-hour, seems a small distance when confronted with the grandeur of the vision and the beauty of the isolated figures on this vast flat, intensely white, salt lake.

To get there, you head west out of town on a 50km dirt road until you reach a sign that simply says “Lake Ballard”. A few kilometres from the turn-off and you are at the edge of a saltpan which stretches to the horizon. There, dotted across the surface, are 51 figures disappearing into the distance.

Lake Ballard

I grab my camera and confidently head off towards the closest figure. Just beyond the first sculpture lies a small hillock, and the prospect of a panoramic view across the lake is too tempting, so I make the easy climb. Gazing across the vast, shimmering whiteness, I can see red paths (mud exposed by walking) connecting each of the statues like a delicate spider’s web. This was part of Gormley’s grand vision: that the works would eventually become linked by well-worn paths made by the visitors.

I descend from the hillock and head across to another statue. I can see another beyond it, then another, and one in the distance. I will simply follow the paths.

But as I progress, the walk – which looked so easy from the top of the hill – becomes more challenging. I start to sink as the salt cracks under my weight and the soft mud squelches up around my shoes. With each step, I move more slowly and more carefully.

Lake Ballard

It is not always easy, but the statues of Lake Ballard are worth the effort: they are an essential, almost mythical artistic experience. The figures are reminiscent of ancient Aboriginal images – I think of the Quinkan Galleries and Bradley drawings in the Kimberley.

Not surprisingly few people will visit all the sculptures. This doesn’t really matter because the sight of a single figure shimmering in the heat haze on the horizon is, in itself, something poetic and beautiful.

Before I travelled to the lake, I bought a DVD about the project at the Kalgoorlie Visitor Centre. In the fascinating hour-long documentary, Gormley recalls his first experience of the lake: “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.” Of the project itself, he says: “I think that what I am trying to do is unite a notion of the interior of this continent with the notion of an interior of the population.”

After I have walked the landscape, I return to the car in the early afternoon and wait, knowing that there is always a special kind of magic produced by the warm light of late afternoon. I’m not disappointed. As the sun sets over the lake, each of the sculptures creates a long shadow which stretches across the salt. Then, as the light turns golden and fades into twilight, Gormley’s stunning creations seem to dissolve into the landscape.

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