Current Issue #488

The Strange Road Signs Providing Advice to Travellers

The Strange Road Signs Providing Advice to Travellers

John Neylon examines the curious road signs contained in Mark Thomson’s Advice to Traveller at West Thebarton Gallery.

Travelling on past Port Augusta, Ceduna or Yunta the world expands into a limitless zone defined by the road ahead, the sky above and the land below. Throw in a heat mirage for a wibbly-wobbly horizon and the traveller is cast into a great zone of uncertainty that no amount of Siri assurances can adequately address.

You could be Charles Sturt in search of an inland sea or someone simply humping a bluey in the form of an Avida Emerald Multi Terrain Explorer caravan hoping to make Coober by sundown — or if heading east — Hay while the sun shines. The vastness of South Australia’s inland collapses time and binds colonial and contemporary imaginations in its inexorable grip.

Mark Thomson, Dark Matter on Road

In such a zone, the seeds of myth and legend are easily sown and flourish. Here there be flights of fancy and here there be artists like Antony Hamilton who in the 1990s was compelled to revisit the story of the ‘Nullabor Nymph’ and ‘discover’ evidence in the form of rusted car parts and discarded clothing that put some narrative ‘truth’ on the bones of what city-folk had come to regard as a prank that refused to die. The bush does that to artists – gives them a space in which to speculate – even become someone else.

The artist Mark Thomson knows what it is like to pit one’s wits against the suspension of reality that comes from the long-haul inland experience. Buoyed by his discovery of that backyard Renaissance man Henry Hokes, Thomson was certain that other stories were out there. How he encountered the extraordinary figure of Wayne Sartre is not recorded. But the encounter has sent shock waves through Australia’s literary and artistic communities. Was Thomson’s chance discovery of a dog-eared Penguin edition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, behind a Port Augusta Foodland dumpster the catalyst that led to his Wayne Sartre scoop? Thomson, with the hard-nosed attitude of an investigative reporter, is protective of his sources.

Mark Thomson, Space Earth

Here’s all you’ll need to know before seeing the show. It’s a little known fact that the famous French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre came to Australia in 1962. A booking mix up had him on a plane to Darwin, Australia, not Vienna, Austria. Easily done. Before leaving he apparently had an affair. Wayne resulted. While Jean-Paul never returned to Australia he stayed in contact with Wayne and when the lad was of an age, sent him reading material like the Classics Comics Guide to Existentialism, to shape his education. Wayne eventually settled for the life of a council grader driver in the outback.

As far as Thomson understands, Wayne, fired by his father’s views on life as holding meaning only in the moment  on the road. At night he stole into the council workshop and made road signs that were eventually sited alongside various outback roads in South Australia’s north. Thomson tracked these down, took photographs on site then eventually arranged to have the ‘real signs’ brought back to Adelaide. These signs, along with the corroborating photographs, are now on display in the West Gallery Thebarton.

Something of Wayne’s enabling advice struck a chord with Thomson. If the idea of Australia as a natural-born Existentialist paradise wasn’t apparent before, it now stood revealed in such koans as ‘The Remains of Grand Endeavours Come to Nothing. You have Just Missed the Turnoff’ and ‘We Are Here. It Is Now. The Rest Is Guesswork’. Thomson remains very close to his subject, perhaps too close to appreciate its relationship to wider fields of speculative and creative endeavour involving heavy machinery.

Exhibition view of Advice to Traveller

In this context it would not seem inappropriate to investigate the possibility of a ‘sister sculpture’ status between these signs and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah. It is no secret that Thomson is a passionate believer in the ‘self-regulating story’, the one that develops a life of its own. In this regard he is in on the same page as Jean-Paul who said that, “For an occurrence to become an adventure, it is necessary and sufficient for one to recount it”.

Missing from this speculative narrative at the moment is the value-add of Wayne as mark-maker. Is it hoping too much that one day Thomson will solve the riddle of Wayne’s graffito, the questing blade scrapes invested with the author’s subconscious desires to make each moment meaningful? After all, as Jean- Paul once advised, “No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point”. If Adelaide ever goes down the crazy-brave path of a ‘gate way sculpture’ for the city, Mark Thomson (or should that be Wayne Sartre?) has my vote.

Mark Thomson
Advice to Travellers
West Gallery Thebarton
Until Saturday, July 15

Header image: Mark Thomson, Here & Now

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