Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Tanks

In 1940s northern Australia, the World War was probably seen as a distant disaster that became decidedly neighbourly once the Japanese started bombing. I think Singapore and then Timor were the stepping stones. The settlements of Darwin and then Broome were next. As a teenager, I walked out across the tidal mudflats at Broome to toe the barnacled carcasses of the Dutch seaplanes that tried to escape and failed, during the bombing in 1942.

A young Aboriginal man stood on the engine block with nylon fishing line threaded between his toes, waiting for the returning tide and the mulloway. I thought he was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen. (I was 12, maybe 13 ... and perhaps it was also the setting ... but my visual memory still agrees). When the tide turned, I had to jog across the flats to Roebuck Bay to beat the rushing, incoming king tide that threatened to drown me.

Anyway ... the deep south was not considered immune from Japanese attack and this fear is historically backed up with stories about Southern Ocean submarines off the Nullabor and midget subs in Sydney Harbour etc etc. In Albany, the forts were fortified for a second time and gun placements cemented in. But some of the best WWII artifacts in Albany are several kilomtres from the heads: the fuel tanks. They are straight down the hill from where I live, huge concrete tanks that were once used to store fuel (well away from foreshore war targets), with iron pipes that travelled to refuel the allied ships. The pipes are now rusting under railway lines, the new entertainment centre and the woodchip berths.

Some of the tanks have their own eco-systems going on now. Gum trees sprout and lurch for the light. Bullrushes ask the frogs to join them in chorus with tiger snakes, gotu kola and bangaras. In the winters, some of the tanks fill with water and turn into swamps.

A some stage a scrap metal merchant tried to strip the concrete walls of their iron cladding.

The tanks have been ignored by the general population over decades but are these days closely guarded by agents of the fertiliser company owner, whose harbourside toiletries were responsible for a Princess Royal F*ck Up of environmental disasters in the 1980s.

The tanks are still revered by a small minority. This minority are the street artists of Albany. The circular walls ('whispering walls', as a friend noted, when he realised he could stand half way around these massive circles and whisper naughty things to anyone fifty metres away on the arc) host the psychedelic illustrations of those folk. If you are a regular WineDark Sea visitor, you will recognise these pics:

So, a product of World War II engineering turns into a subversive, ever evolving art gallery and - like the shattered sea plane beds of Roebuck Bay with the dreamy man who knew well enough to fish there - a place of beauty, space and peace.


  1. I can't remember them Sarah. Where are they.. towards the woolen mills?

  2. Your graffiti is a fuck sight better than ours...

  3. Opposite the old woolstores, Ciaran. Gee thanks, Tom!

  4. Wow. Hidden gems. Love the artwork and the photos - especially the first and last. Multi-talented Sarah.

  5. Wonderful. My Aboriginal students got really excited when we made a stop there on a bus trip. I suspect that some of the work was done by my past Graphics students (and possibly one current one!) Excellent how ugly destructive things get turned into art and beauty - as you observed.