Antony Gormley

The hole is one kilometre deep and the trucks moving around inside it look like ants. Western Australia’s Super Pit is a huge, open cast gold mine, which runs non-stop day and night. For years mining companies have been digging up great swathes of the country and loading their findings onto ships bound for China and Japan to be turned into cars and stereos. The industry is vital to Australia’s economic prosperity. The Super Pit is the most visible example of the state’s mineral boom. Visible, that is, if you happen to be in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, a mining town almost 600km inland from Perth, itself one of the most isolated cities in the world.

To reach Perth from the east of the country, you must cross the Nullabor plain, a journey which often makes it onto lists of the world’s greatest drives but for different reasons than the rest. Everything about the trip is epic, including the boredom. The Nullabor is a vast, treeless slab of limestone, which sheers off into a dark and churning sea called the Great Australian Bight. The waters are teeming with whales and seals and great white sharks. Unsurprisingly the region is sparsely populated. A few roadhouses providing food and fuel are dotted along the road.

One of them - the Yalata Community - is where the Maralinga peoples ended up after they were cleared off their land to the north in the 1950s so the British could test atom bombs. We pulled in to fill up with fuel, but the place was deserted. Rubbish and broken glass were strewn on the ground. The main building had been haphazardly boarded up. It felt as if something bad had happened, but perhaps everyone just decided it was time to move on.

From Adelaide to Kalgoorlie-Boulder it is over 2,000km. Tedium not distance is the real challenge. The horizon is empty and unchanging. The most exciting event of the day is watching the fuel gauge slowly dwindle to empty. After driving for two days, I was relieved to hit the conurbation of Kalgoorlie-Boulder and see the gaudy neon lights guiding me to its centre. Fortunately, the Super Pit is not the area’s only spectacle. In 2002 the Perth International Art Festival commissioned the British sculptor Antony Gormley to create an installation called Inside Australia.

Gormley is renowned for using interesting methods in quirky locations. In the mid-1980s, he created 35,000 ceramic figures modelled on villagers in Mexico. In 1998 he forged the Angel of the North, a magnificent 20m statue with arms like aeroplane wings. He placed it on top of a hill in Gateshead in England for around 90,000 motorists to gaze at on their way to work each day. A few years ago I remember visiting the Royal Academy in London and being surprised to see dark, life-size figures dangling headlong from ropes into the courtyard. It was as if Gormley’s sculptures had plotted an escape from the stuffy confines of the Academy and were making a break for it out from the windows.

His current project - One and Other - involves giving a diverse range of volunteers an hour each on the empty, fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square. The project runs for 100 days and nights, until October 14. By opening up a zone usually reserved for kings and generals to the public, the sculptor hopes to create a snapshot of British society. In all these cases, Gormley is seeking to liberate art from the museum. Inside Australia is no exception.

Lake Ballard is a large salt lake about 187km from Kalgoorlie-Boulder. It sits in the Yilgarn crater and forms part of an ancient dry river valley. The sculptor was attracted to the apparent endlessness of the lake and the stillness of this ancient land. “You feel immediately here you are flying over a very ancient continent,” he says in a film about the project. “It’s almost like your heart starts beating slower. Everything slows down and you’re close to something that is close to the beginning of things.”

The nearest town to the lake is Menzies, about 132km north of Kalgoorlie-Boulder and 726km east of Perth. It is little more than a sprinkling of galvanised steel, wooden and brick buildings. Mainly it is a parking stop for road trains - massive two-truck vehicles - that cruise up and down the Great Northern Highway. Gormley came here for his subjects. Of the town’s population of 120, 72 agreed to model for him. Each person was digitally scanned to create a three-dimensional representation made up of 30,000 co-ordinates. Life-size in height, but shrunk by two-thirds in width, casts were made from these scans in an alloy of iron, molybdenum, iridium, vanadium and titanium - metals found within the region. The aim was to represent the subject’s innards using elements from the land. The result is part Giacometti, part extraterrestrial.

The drive to Lake Ballard is along a bumpy dirt track. It is about 55km from Menzies and takes about an hour. In the past, Gormley has achieved big things with his art: the Angel of the North may not have been responsible for dragging Gateshead from its postindustrial doldrums, but it did become a symbol of the area’s regeneration. No such luck here. Inside Australia has made negligible difference to the town of Menzies, which seems to have changed very little over the years. The visitors’ book, kept behind the counter at the town’s petrol station, shows an average of five visitors per week. Not bad considering the vast distances involved, but not a lot either. Still, the project was intended to be removed in 2003, but has been kept open for many years since, thanks to continued funding from a wide range of sources.

It is late afternoon by the time we arrive at the lake. Nobody else is around. The sun is low and the light has lost some of its harsh glare. The sign marking the entrance is peppered with bullet holes. Someone seems to have used it for target practice. Looking around, the horizon is flat, except for a large mound about 36.5m high. It looks like a semi-submerged whale with a few trees sprouting from its back. The sculptures are installed on the western end of Lake Ballard. Only 51 figures made it onto the shimmering, salt canvas, apparently because finances for the project grew tight.

The sculptures are barely visible from the car park. They look like tiny shards and blend in to their surroundings. It is only once you join them on the lake that the sculptures become much more prominent. The lake’s surface is made of a layer of thick, white salt crystals on top of muddy, reddish sand. Each footfall makes a loud crunch and leaves a deep and clear imprint behind. The sculptures are positioned about 750m apart. As I walk between them, the footprints left by other visitors give the impression of the figures walking to meet each other. The effect is eerie, particularly because there is no one else around.

The sun goes down as I move from one sculpture to the next. The changing light refracts off the salty surface. First deep oranges and yellows, then indigos and violets: the colours shift through the spectrum as the light fades. I stay out on the lake until it is almost dark. It is said that Gormley’s work here is best viewed at dawn or dusk. The sculptures perform one of the functions of great art. They work in perfect sympathy with the landscape. They do not blight or mar this wonderful place. Rather they provide an accent to their surroundings and draw people to this remote region. Certainly I would not have made it here without them.

Back at the edge of the lake, the light goes and the figures vanish into the darkness. Inside Australia is closed for the night, but will open again at sunrise the next morning.

Published in The National on 5 September 2009.