Lake Ballard: Sculpture and Stars

Lake Ballard glimmers pinkly at the sky. For most of the year, the surface of the lake is not water, but salt. It’s just one of a series of relict water features dating back to the Cretaceous, when Australia was part of Gondwana. The drainage ran south-east through Lake Marmion and Lake Rebecca, and then towards the Eucla Basin, once an inland sea. Now, after millions of years of declining rainfall, the water evaporates before it runs away, leaving behind the salts from aeons upon aeons of rain.

The lake is Wongatha country, and part of the Seven Sisters dreaming. This ancient tale has epic implications, being told across a large swathe of Australia. The seven young women escape unwanted male attention by launching themselves up into the sky to join the stars.

Now the lake is peopled with the art of another culture. In 2003 British artist Anthony Gormley created a stunning installation by scattering statues across the lake. At the core of the artscape is a small conical outcrop, the eldest of the Seven Sisters in local lore.

Rather than being an imposition on the landscape, the sculptures seem to enhance our awareness of the sanctity of cultural space. This was just Gormley’s intention:

“… they stand still and isolated in a remote and silent place; they have links, in the mind’s eye, with peoples and places hundreds of miles and thousands of years away. But between them, Aboriginal and European together – they stand on many kinds of land, in all kinds of history, with various and rival stories. As you look at them and imagine their voices, perhaps you will hear both conflict and reconciliation”

lake ballard sculptures

I was lucky. There just happened to be a conjunction of the full Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn on the night I camped at Lake Ballard. The brightness of the stars was dimmed by the lunar light, but the three planets beaming out from Capricorn more than made up for that. The night exalted itself with light, and the sense of my own small, human experience grew to fit the amphitheatre of time and space. While standing on the lake with all that salt gleaming back at the sky, it didn’t feel like such an impossibility to fly up and join the stars.

But I couldn’t help feel saddened by the jarring note of visitor impact. There’s undeniable wear and tear on the fabric of the hill from so many admirers climbing to the summit. Some even tear away her cloak of rocks to graffiti their names upon the salty surface of the lake’s skin.

Prior to the creation of the statues, Paddy Walker, a senior custodian, met with Gormley. He shared the story of the Seven Sisters in his own Ngulutjara language and gave his permission for the sculptures to be placed on the lake, but made this request:

‘… everything had to be the same when it was all over as it is now. Nothing can be changed or damaged.’

Walker and Gormley have both invited us in to share the spiritualising experience of Lake Ballard: please tread lightly upon its beautiful starscape dreamings.

“Stillness and silence. And what we have to do is make stillness and silence count. Make a body that in a way is like death; willingly go to the place of death and inertia, and then be released into the other side. That’s what I’m interested in.”

sculptures feet in the salt

Quotes from Hugh Brody’s 2005 article ‘Inside Lake Ballard.’ Available on Gormley’s website.