Garry Trinh: Within Walking Distance

Photographs by Garry Trinh

Commissioned by Western Sydney Parklands Trust and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia through its C3West program (2012)

Reviewed by Lyndal Irons

Photographer Garry Trinh’s working method is simple: he walks.

On a September Friday I am walking too, looking for a burnt snake. We’ve arrived in a section of Western Sydney Parklands in Doonside. It’s one of the more developed regions of the little known park. There’s a place for cars, a place to walk dogs, and some people flying model planes in the distance. Trinh hopes the snake is still around. Some people saw him photographing it during his last visit and he fears the interest he afforded the animal might increase its value. It might’ve been moved or taken as a souvenir. It’s still there – or something is. A long orange something, dead straight, not alive. Trinh even admits some uncertainty. It looks a fair bit like a pole.

Neither of us have seen a burnt snake before to have a truly informed opinion. But Trinh tells me he turned it over last time he was here and it definitely had a mouth.

Out on a shoot with Trinh you have an enhanced version of the feeling you get from looking at his pictures — an appreciation of the kicks in life available to everyone. The fact that you don’t need much — just whatever is around you and the small mysteries in life. Is it a pole or a snake? Is it a snake that crawled into a pole and burned to death? Why would a snake do that?

The series he is shooting, Within Walking Distance, is his biggest to date. A combined initiative of the Western Sydney Parklands Trust and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia through its C3West program, Trinh’s images will end up on billboards throughout Western Sydney around the perimeters of the park from November into January 2013.

The title for his project was chosen because it echoed Trinh’s artistic practice as well as the project’s concept: fifteen site-specific, large-scale photographic images all shot within walking distance of the billboards in which the images will be displayed.

He’s uncertain that the other parties involved will want to put a giant, burned, pole snake up for the public display on a billboard but he photographs it anyway to add to the collection.

Around forty years ago the State Government acquired almost 5,500 hectares of what used to be mainly agricultural land in Western Sydney. Today, a team of 12 manage the transition to fully active land used for long-term, public purposes.

Western Sydney Parklands is around 25 times the size of Centennial Park but, despite its size, not many people know it is there. The Parklands Trust is hoping to shake off their status as a secret garden and pique public interest by giving artists access totheir billboards. The land does not always look or act like a conventional park. Its expanse is interrupted by fences, private business, industry, inhospitable bush land, snakes and major motorways. Its majority still has the feeling of land merely put aside rather than given to the public for enjoyment.

It’s an odd place to be invaded by a Circular Quay art institution. Yet it does have the makings of a great art project: it’s kind of magic that a space so massive should be largely unseen, the possibilities of how to reveal it are enticing, and, against all odds, they’ve chosen an artist rather than an advertising firm to do the job.

The private enterprises within the Parklands offer plenty of fodder for a photographer to work with: a shooting range (“You get nervous. You’ve got a camera, they’ve got guns”), one of Sydney’s last remaining drive in theatres, a raceway, a tip, a brick factory. But Trinh chooses not to photograph them. When he first arrived in the park it was described to him as a place for solo pursuits, a concept that appealed to him as someone who spends much time walking alone with a camera.

“There is a huge amount of activity in this park,” he explains.“But that has been covered already. A professional photographer has documented people playing and doing activities. They don’t need me to show that and it’s not my specialty.”

Trinh’s specialty is noticing: moments available to all that not many actually see, the strange things humans do in and to their environment. He enjoys the challenge of finding images where there is very little happening – the places most photographers would dismiss as infertile and un-intriguing; too hard.

Trinh does not believe in short cuts and “work” comes up time and again in conversations about photography.

He recently presented at a university where a photography class was discussing where to go to shoot for an assignment about capturing excitement.

In one example students were encouraged to photograph a football match. The lecturer told his students to keep an eye out for characters such as the tattooed, toothless granny who could make for an interesting image. It was the opposite of what Trinh would look for.

“I was thinking, there’s no creativity in those kinds of images from the photographer because the grandmother is doing all the work for you,” says Trinh.“She’s dressing for you, she’s making the photo interesting. All you are doing is pressing the shutter. There’s no creativity involved – you’re not doing any work.”

Along that rationale, the parklands project is classic Trinh territory. On the other hand, his past images featuring trees more typically draw attention to what people have done to them, like in his Bonsai series which showed the contortions nature makes to accommodate electricity poles. He tends to work with the man-made, watching for relationships and decisive moments that form. It is the location of these moments that have gotten Trinh this far up the art world ladder — but he admits to finding few of those moments in the parklands.

The next area we visit doesn’t resemble a park at all. It’s a passageway where powerlines live and houses turn their backs, a place where suburban youth can be bored. We enter following a drain surrounded by grass that makes an unsettling popping sound like rain.There are dark clouds and dead grass. The things humans have left behind create endless minor mysteries. A broken pole someone may have used to cross the drain, rubbish heaps piled up as if ready for a bonfire. It’s common but it’s interesting — even post-apocalyptic looking — but not a scene that you’d normally find on a billboard.

Trinh likes that the park hasn’t been gentrified, but do the Parklands Trust see it that way? Are they really looking for an artist to look hard at what is there? Or are they actually hoping for an advertisement that will set up, distort or conjure what they aspire to be?


My second visit to the Parklands was on a bus trip to launch the project. I’m sitting alongside MCA and Parklands staffers, friends, interested public and journalists. The bus sets off in the morning from Circular Quay heading away from the districts in which most people seek out art.

We pass the first billboard while we are still on the M4. It is a vertical picture of what looks to be congested traffic but is actually a close up of a market stall at the drive in that sells toy cars. It resonates with the experience people have driving past on the motorway.

The second billboard we come to is at the opening to Plough & Harrow Park in Abbotsbury, where they’ve chosen to put two images: one of backlit reeds at the end of the day and a cloudscape that showcases the unexpected city skyline views you can find in this part of the park. Passengers say they are “gorgeous” and “beautiful” — words that aren’t usually trotted out in relation to a Trinh work.

Our next stop shows a more typical Trinh subject: dense housing and mowed lawns in contrast to the untamed park, separated only by fences.

“I chose these two because they talk about in-between spaces, spaces that are not really used,” he says.“I’m interested in in-between spaces that are not public but they’re not really private.”

There are no snakes on the billboards, but, as we turn off the highway onto Elizabeth Drive I spot a black snake caught on the concrete. It struggles and eventually returns to the thick grass as we round a final corner before the launch.

The parklands are a ripe art project but not the type of problem that would usually be handed to an artist to solve. And that is the point, says MCA Director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor in her opening speech. Artists bring different ways of looking at issues than advertising firms. She had doubts about “public art” and how artists can work in this context to produce something that isn’t simply a transaction, a quick sell of the parklands to those passing by.

Trinh, she continues, has managed just that, by showing a space where the stretches of the imagination are limitless.

The fifteen images chosen for the billboards are mostly beautiful. Seven reasonably direct landscapes that show the land’s capacity for beauty and its current rough edges. Two prominently feature clouds that Trinh has found to be a particularly striking feature of land that stands at times high above Sydney.

The final work lacks the trademark humour of a Trinh but it was one of his humourless images that first made people think that he should be invited to pitch for the project. That particular image was found while walking along the Georges River. He peered over the fence to discover a secret garden of sorts, a backyard complete with children’s play equipment almost completely overgrown with weeds. A place unloved by humans, recaptured by nature in the kind of way that makes them want it again.

His hope for Within Walking Distance is that, this time noticing it for the first time, the public will recognise over 5,000 hectares and its possibilities as their own.