Sensing time, space, and movement

LiddellWORKS artists recreate their experience

The Upper Hunter’s retired coal-fired Liddell Power Station helped to keep the lights on across NSW and sustained businesses for more than half a century until closure in April last year. The LiddellWORKS project – an innovative partnership between Arts Upper Hunter (AUH) and AGL – invited artists to mark the occasion.

A highly competitive process selected 16 artists from across the Hunter and beyond for a residency that allowed them to respond creatively to the process of Liddell’s decommissioning. The invite extended to the before-and-after of the site’s closure, and the artists created works across a range of artforms including sound installation, pottery, 3D video recording, portraiture, large-scale photography, sculpture, blacksmithing, and wearable art. The experience of five artists follows.

Will Maguire, a master blacksmith, sculptor, and artist, created two bodies of work as part of the program.

“The first time you get to Liddell, it’s huge, and it’s concrete and steel and bricks,” he says. “And you’re decked out in all the safety gear and thinking, righto, this is a bit much. But then you go in there and it has this weird liveliness about it.

“Our chaperone is telling us about the four-storey high furnaces, and the rows of crushers turning coal into powder, the systems to get rid of all the ash, the conveyors, the compressors, and the fans. And then of course there are the turbines.

“I’m thinking, holy mackerel, this place is really lively. There’s heaps going on here even though the building seems static. And then I noticed how tiny the people look in relation to this huge building. There’s someone turning a nut and someone else staring at a monitor and the juxtaposition between the minuscule humans and the size of the plant is hilarious. That humorous element and the liveliness of the plant has trickled into my work for this show.”

As a blacksmith, Will works mostly with steel to forge his artworks. For LiddellWORKS, he used flanges, hand tools, spanners, pressure pipes, and random pipe connections he found onsite.

“For some of my works, I forged them into a set of legs that do various things. It’s semi-humorous. It looks almost silly, but hopefully speaks to Liddell as a lively and active place of people and objects.”

Blacksmithing, or the use of fire and heat for industry, dates back to at least 1500BC and the Hittites. The industrial revolution took it to a new level and coal-fired power plants are a big expression of advances in technology. Will’s skill is to use heat to make art.

“It also pushes into the problem of climate change,” he says, “which is a background part of the whole project. One of the reasons the plant closed down was to reduce greenhouse emissions. But as a blacksmith I’m using a similar process.

“I don’t actually burn coal, but I use gas, which is a fossil fuel. I’m heating things up and hitting the same dilemmas as the whole electricity system running on fossil fuels. I can’t get heat for my forge without burning something.” (Will notes the recent availability of induction furnaces specifically for blacksmiths.)

“I didn’t find the moral dilemma overwhelming, but it does bother me, and LiddellWORKS has provided another angle to think about these issues and to question how a more sustainable future is possible,” he says. “My other body of work is more contemplative. It is quieter and maybe speaks more to that connection.”

Will used the different parts he found on site as brands.

“I heated them up to 1000°C, about the temperature the furnaces run at the plant, and then branded them onto big sheets of plywood. They’re wall-based works.

“I like materials and I always feel like they are underappreciated. I like to think of them as something beyond practical. We think bricks and steel bars are only good for the purpose at hand, such as building a shed. But I’m smithing to make artworks, collaborating with materials.

“I can’t do anything beautiful or interesting without material and the material I work with plays a big role in the success or otherwise of the work. It’s that aspect I enjoyed. I was using all these things that are now impractical, but the material they are made of is still critical for me. I want to appreciate the material for what it brings besides what we might want to do with it.

“I tried a whole bunch of things to make sculptures, but in the end, I settled on making these quite abstract images. They have depth, physically. It doesn’t take much for a 1000°C cog to burn quite deeply into a bit of fly wood.”

In a spectacular process, the timber virtually disappeared and left smoke tints.

“The black sooty smoke formed shadows, and they stayed there,” Will says. “I often propped them on a bit of an angle to allow the smoke to engage with the timber a bit more and it created this shadow effect.

“I felt it spoke to the plant. The plant existed. It had a past. Now it has stopped and is going to be knocked down. It will be a memory very shortly. These shadow burn works are ghostly. I ran with the non-object object. And that’s what I will display.” 

Rachel Milne is an oil painter with an appreciation for abandoned industrial spaces and unusual industrial buildings, especially ones that have played an important part in our lives but are not necessarily accessible to the public. Liddell, then, presented a fantastic opportunity to see a building that had powered the state for so many years.

“From a visual point of view, the shapes, the scale, and the light were really interesting to me,” Rachel says. “I could have spent months in there, but we didn’t have that luxury. Usually, I have to knock on doors to get access to something like Liddell, so to be invited in was really special. I’ve worked before at Maitland Gaol and the Victoria Theatre, which dates to the 1800s, but there is usually a long process of discussion before I can start work.”

Rachel appreciates the juxtaposition between Liddell, an industrial monolith, and a collection of artists with their creative ideas and ways of approaching the space.

“It was great to meet some of the other artists and see what they were doing,” she says. “For me, it was all about the light. Preservation also interests me. It’s probably why I’m drawn to big, abandoned spaces. I like to point my finger at these places that have given so much. I don’t have political or intellectual statements to make, but artists sometimes need to point at things and say, ‘look at this’.

“In terms of Liddell, it was helping power the state for so long, and people have all sorts of different views about it and where we should go in the future, but here it is, and isn’t it beautiful in its own way? Look at what it has done.”

Pre-industrial revolution, artists painted famous buildings, and now 300 years on they can paint the legacy of its era. Rachel’s oil paintings are incredible endowment pieces.

“There is definitely something about the legacy of that building and preserving that legacy and honouring what was. It marks the importance of the building and infrastructure and what it provided, but with a measure of respect. It also marks the respect of the people who worked there.”

Penny Dunstan (PhD) is a multimedia artist with a background in soils and agronomy.

Penny created a series of bowls to examine legacy issues with the ash left from burning coal. A set of 24 semitransparent bowls float above the gallery space projecting shadows on the floor. The bowls incorporate fly ash from the power station and on-site coal, all embedded in resin.

 “Bowls remind us of sustenance and feeding,” Penny says. “They are domestic objects for everyday use. Bowls that incorporate fly ash play with the cognitive dissonance around the poisonous legacies that the act of burning coal leaves for our descendants compared to the domestic nature of the vessels.”

The nurture and care normally associated with nourishment vibrates against the longer-term taint of a future pollution source.

“This work seeks to enact a transfiguration of what is poisonous into beauty, of what is an issue from which we turn away, to an issue we can gaze upon, in order to find lasting solutions,” she says.

Penny will also exhibit a giant multi-sheet drawing. The rice-paper medium provided her with an absorptive base on which to use graphite and ink to draw the inner workings of Liddell whilst it was still operational.

“The paper stinks of grease, coal dust and sulphur, reminding me of how uncomfortable it was to draw on the factory floor,” she says. “It also contains the footprints of other artists, a permanent record of the most amazing opportunity to be onsite in a working power station.”

For Penny, the visits to Liddell created a lasting impression. She incorporated the unease and discomfort of the factory environment in a speculative fiction story, Read before Operating. The Singleton opening of LiddellWORKS on 14 June will launch the publication of this short story with accompanying photographs of the dying factory.

Rebecca Rath is an en plein air artist working predominantly with landscapes. She produced a still life series for LiddellWORKS and for her it was the mother of all experiences.

“I’d often driven past the power station, but I’d never been in there,” she says. “When I attended the open day I went in with the preconceived idea that it would be quite soulless – everything you would expect a factory to be. But it was nothing like that at all. It was actually quite moving.

“All the staff were so passionate. They treated the plant as family. It wasn’t just a place to turn up and work. People had been working there for 40 years. Their commitment and passion were touching and they imbued a real sense of pride when they were working. There was also a sense of nostalgia. They were very sad about leaving. They were making cakes every day to celebrate people who had been working there for 40 years. And I left with a feeling of having been moved.”

Taking a cue from the term of endearment staff used for the plant, Rebecca titled her project Mother.

“They referred to her as ‘she’, and believed she was alive, that she was nurturing, and that she had moods,” Rebecca says.

“I’m a painter, but I also draw. I used my medium of charcoal, which represents the power station.

My project was to draw a still life, which for me was the readymade objects lying around the station, and to draw them big.

“Drawing them big emphasises the importance and provides a different narrative as well to the object I was drawing. I wanted to make the insignificant significant by drawing it big. I also wanted to show the nostalgic side and sensitivity and bring to life aspects that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily see or look at. It would be easy, for instance, to overlook the objects that were lying around. There was also the significance of drawing with coal, given everything that is happening right now.”

Rebecca “drew big” during her first onsite session and created energetic marks on the paper.

“There was this hum,” she says, “the hum of all the machines because it was still operating. I felt a real sense of energy at the site. The hum created a buzz. I didn’t touch the works I created on that day again. I was feeding off the energy, and I knew the works were complete. It was such a great experience.”

The second session was different, because by that stage the plant had been shut down.

 “The silence created a totally different mood,” she says. “It was melancholy. And the works I produced at the time, although successful to some extent, weren’t complete. I finished them in the studio.”

Rebecca used willow charcoal to complete six works and called them Mother numbered one to six. She appreciates people may view some of the works as incomplete, but felt it was best just to leave them.

“I was working on the ground, and I ended up with ‘rubbings’ of the surface,” she says. “It was a tactile experience. There is dust mixed in with that.”  

Is she interpreting the culmination of the industrial revolution with the product that powers it?

“It’s a fascinating connection and I really enjoyed that part of it,” she says. “I tried to use the actual coal, but you can’t draw with it. The beautiful thing about charcoal is that when you draw with it, you can’t then rub out sections that you don’t like. It creates a memory. It embeds in the tooth of the paper, and I worked with that. I used an eraser as a tool.”

In this way she has layers of work until she arrives at what she is trying to achieve. She builds a narrative on the paper.

“The completed work documents a journey,” she says. “I didn’t completely erase any sections because they were telling part of the story too. That’s the narrative and that’s the whole process of my work. I was giving new narratives to and creating significance for objects that were just lying around the power station.”

And this narrative encapsulates the experience of the power station itself.

“We were creating new narratives for it, and in many cases, they are not what people might expect,” she says. “People have preconceived ideas, just as I did the first time I walked in there. The narratives I created are different to the expectation.”

The “mother” aspect relates to nurturing.

“I am a mother,” she says. “I understand the process of being with the work, nurturing the work and being gentle with it sometimes but also being firm when necessary. There is a whole process of ‘the work’.

“The objects I chose were ‘everyday’ objects. Mothers nurture and not everything has to be on a grand scale. I didn’t choose a turbine, I chose the minor, everyday objects. As a mother, I know that sometimes the ‘everyday’ is overlooked. You have to keep ploughing away at things.”

And the process of using the layering effect?

“It is a process,” she says. “It’s not an end result. When I work, I just have to go with it. It’s a journey and you can’t have an idea that it will be perfect. I created marks as an emotional response. It’s not photorealistic. Viewers will see sections they may describe as ‘a mess’, yet other sections are realistic. It’s all part of the journey and it’s not about making it look perfect. That’s the process of the drawing aspect.

“There will be varying emotional responses when people look at the works. It’s worth emphasising that the drawing aspect is emotional. It’s just me and the charcoal and I’m a conduit. It’s different for a painter because the brush separates the effect from the user. For me, it was just charcoal, and it was an emotional experience.”

Fiona M Lee is a sculptor who also works as a campaigner for better outcomes for the climate and our communities.

“There was just so much to LiddellWORKS for me,” she says. “It wasn’t just about art. I’m deeply involved in the climate and energy space, so it was both fascinating and insightful to be part of. Stepping into a coal-fired power station felt like entering a mythological realm, surrounded by the loud machinery and the weight of its history.”

As an artist with a sculpture practice, Fiona has worked with cement and fly ash previously.

“I naturally gravitated towards using the by-products of coal combustion as I had done before,” she says. “The power station churned out plenty of fly ash, which I collected along with some coal. These substances are hazardous, both for me and the planet, as the mining and burning of coal contributes significantly to climate change.”

She captured her artworks inside concrete, noting the contradiction, because the production of concrete contributes 8% of global emissions. Still, she considers her Liddell coal and fly ash as now being safely embedded inside concrete and serving as cultural and material time capsules.

“As part of the residency, I had access to remarkable wooden patterns used for casting metal power station replacement parts,” she says. “Being able to replicate these parts inspired me to envision their potential in innovative, clean-energy technologies within speculative machines of the future.

“Liddell is a focal point for the energy transition, especially with AGL planning to install a large battery there,” she says. “I aimed to honour the power station’s legacy and the workers who contributed to the state’s energy for years while also embracing future possibilities.

Fiona concedes that irrespective of what it did, Liddell was an important piece of infrastructure, and we were all beneficiaries of the power it generated.

“But we’ve long understood that burning coal contributes to climate change,” she says. “Personally, and politically, I see the new path ahead. That’s why LiddellWORKS holds such significance for me. It offers a creative perspective on the crucial transition to alternative energy systems in a unique way – a perspective beyond politics.”

Fiona collected metal objects from the site to use for photographic experiments and as formwork to cast concrete textures. For her exhibition pieces, Fiona fabricated machinery parts out of concrete and gave them the title of the wooden pattern from which they were made. Her wall work is LD330.

“I also cast small canisters, nine of which are in LD330, which makes it look like a battery,” she says. “It’s intriguing considering the upcoming replacement of the power station with a large battery project. Unlike Tesla blocks, it has an antiquated appearance, with electrical cords sticking out. That’s my favourite piece. Another sculpture has a small motor and a spinning concrete piece embedded with coal.”

Another piece uses some kind of battery or circuitry and is also cast in concrete.

“It’s a peculiar object and I like its ambiguity,” she says. “It mirrors the current state of technological innovation and experimentation. We’re all exploring new avenues. By utilising remnants from the site, I’m honouring its legacy but shaping things a little differently and carrying the power station’s essence forward into the future.” 

The first thing Fiona noticed about Liddell was the incessant noise.

“I couldn’t have predicted how loud it would be,” she says. “Yet, I also found it surprisingly small. Having visited open-cut coal mines and working in climate and energy, I was aware of these massive, polluting coal-fired power stations and their mythical status, though they were off-limits.

“When I visited the power station, I realised it wasn’t as imposing as I expected,” she says. “I saw where the coal goes in, where it’s ground, and it’s not much larger than me. Despite the giant chimney nearby, it felt small, noisy, dirty, and aged, devoid of people. It was clear it was nearing the end of its life. It seemed like its time had come.”

The LiddellWORKS program is the brainchild of Arts Upper Hunter (AUH) in partnership with AGL, Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre, and Singleton Arts & Cultural Centre, with funding from the Department of Regional NSW.

AUH is the peak body for arts advocacy, promotion, and engagement across the local government areas of Muswellbrook, Singleton, Dungog, and Upper Hunter. For more than 20 years it has provided support, advice, and connection to the region’s creative communities.

LiddellWORKS culminates in a major exhibition of the completed and curated works running at Muswellbrook Regional Art Centre and the Singleton Arts & Cultural Centre from Saturday 8 June 2024.

AUH is the peak body for arts advocacy, promotion, and engagement across the local government areas of Muswellbrook, Singleton, Dungog, and Upper Hunter. For the past 20 years it has provided support, advice, and connection to the region’s creative communities.

For further information please contact:

Marina Lee-Warner, AHU project officer

M: 0498 742 731

LiddellWORKS is a joint project between Arts Upper Hunter, AGL Macquarie, Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre, and Singleton Arts & Cultural Centre. The Department of Regional NSW and the Stronger Country Communities Fund also provided support.