Beginning our Yeomans Adventure


Yeomans visit - June 2011 - Nevellan


Today Ian and I embarked on our first adventure into Yeomans-land.

I took the train to Penrith, where Ian picked me up in his macho ute (6 wheels!), and we headed north to Nevellan. We didn’t really know what we’d do when we got there – and in fact, we didn’t really end up doing much at all. Just nosy-ing around really.

As we drove north, Ian filled me in. Nevellan was one of Yeomans’ experimental properties, where he tried out some of his Keyline farming techniques.

The Yeomans family doesn’t own the land any more – and I’d heard somehow that it was slated for redevelopment. But when we got there, we could see that it was still recognisable as having been seriously Yeomans-ised. Here’s a large dam at the bottom of the hill along Yeomans Road:

Yeomans visit - June 2011 - Nevellan

And here you can see a string of trees, just above the line of the dam:

Yeomans visit - June 2011 - Nevellan

On Google satellite, these treelines look quite striking:

nevellan google maps

The whole landscape had a friendly feel. I don’t know why. Maybe something about the rolling hills, the groomed lines of trees, the cheerful cows. We decided to push on up and visit the homestead, see if we could find out more.

Yeomans visit - June 2011 - Nevellan

Up the top of the hill, we found an old farmhouse. Nobody was there but a barking, harmless pooch. We drove on to the yard – still nobody. And then on the way back, we saw a ute approaching. Ian hopped out, and had a ute-to-ute chat with the farmer. Both men were about the same vintage.

Ian explained our project (such as it is, having hardly begun) – that we’re doing some research on Yeomans and his ways of designing landscape, and we’re going around checking out the old properties he’d worked on.

The farmer replied, “Yeah well you know of course we don’t do things the same way here any more”. He explained that the labour costs of farming in the Yeomans fashion made it impossible these days. “I use pumps and pipes to move the water round now.” The farmer agreed to meet with us for a bit longer, in a few weeks time, and show us around the land, “as long as you indicate on your website that it’s a private place. I don’t want hordes of people tramping up here.” We reassured him that we would pass that message along. The farmer’s name was Bob.

Here’s the view from the yard where Ian and Bob had their ute-chat (note the meandering fenceline):

Yeomans visit - June 2011 - Nevellan

We drove around a bit, but we couldn’t find any better vantage points – that will have to wait til our official visit with Bob. So we went up to the little town of Kurrajong to have some lunch.

* * *

While we ate, Ian and I talked about our own histories, our own relationships to the art world, how we ended up where we are now. Besides chasing Mr Yeomans, this chatting-with-each-other is another “keyline” of our project.

I guess the idea is to look into the intergenerational stuff surrounding this oddball brand of “conceptual art” that we do. I was surprised to find out how young Ian was in the early 1970s, how he was already exhibiting in the Sydney art scene when he was still in highschool. Talk about precocious. Oh, and he didn’t actually study art, formally speaking, but learned a lot from hanging around with the older artists at the Central Street Gallery, a key independent artspace in Sydney in the late 1960s.

I love this photo, which shows a young Steve Mori in a poster for a guest lecture by Ian Milliss at East Sydney Tech art school c.1971 (Ian would only have been 21 years old at the time!):

mori milliss poster

These days, Ian has a particularly cranky way of looking at the artworld. It’s a bit strange, because, as he says, when he was a teenager he was very keen to be a part of it all. But it didn’t take long before the politics of polite avant-garde object-making, upon which careers are made, annoyed him too much, and he turned to other, more direct methods for making changes in the world: squat activism, union communications and graphics. (To be honest, I still don’t really understand how it could be possible to see through the artworld’s machinations so critically, at such a young age.)

As to Ian’s current slow journey back to the artworld. How to make sense of it? Selling out? Going soft in his old age? I think Ian realises that the problems he identified with systems of art making and distribution, way back then, are still with us. But there are two ways of dealing with it. One is to turn your back on the whole thing and have nothing to do with it. The other is to take what you’ve got and head into the Heart of Mordor. (And in this Yeomans Project, I guess I’ll be Sam to his Frodo…)

And as for why various figures in the artworld are all of a sudden interested in Ian again, after 35 years out in the cold? Ian’s explanation is as follows:

“Well, as my wife Wendy says, I’m the biggest unrenovated house on the block.”

And with that real estate metaphor I will leave it, for now…

6 responses to “Beginning our Yeomans Adventure”

  1. Ian Milliss Avatar
    Ian Milliss

    I suppose this means I’ll have to break a lifelong prejudice and read Tolkien to work out exactly how much I’m being satirised in this instance. Is Frodo the one with goat’s feet? That would explain it given Lucas’s unlikely interest in goats, he got very excited whenever we drove past any. But we had a very enjoyable wander around, it’s always fun showing a place you like to someone who appreciates it.

    One curious thing about this property is the name. Yeomans called it Nevallan after two of his sons, Neville and Allan, but it is now Nevellan – so everything evolves, not just the way the farm now operates but even the name.

    Lucas is right, there is something peculiarly comforting about it as a landscape, more than normal geometric farmland or even untouched bush the lush pasture and the mature tree belts curving around you give it a very comfortable feel, embracing almost. It really is a very beautiful property especially given that it is high up on the Blue Mountains eastern escarpment and has spectacular views to the east across the plains to Sydney. Or at least they were plains in Yeomans’ day and now they are endless suburbia which is beginning to surround the property on all sides.

    Oh and incidentally my birthday is October 29 so I was only twenty for most of 1971 but I had been hanging around the art world since my earliest teens and the first large shaped canvases I showed at Central Street and at the Blaxland Gallery in 1968 had been done when I was only sixteen. By the time my practice had inexorably developed into a sort of cultural activism in 1972 I had been exhibiting privately and publicly for five or six years so it’s not that surprising that I understood how the art world worked.

    The problem was that I really misunderstood how far it was prepared to change, ie not very much at all as it turned out over the next few decades, in fact if anything the late 70s were a high point and it went backwards again from there. My immaturity really showed then as I got more and more angry because of my frustration with its incredibly limiting notions of what artists could do and be and my increasing isolation as a commercialised version of conceptualism (that I despised) took hold. That institutionalised conceptualism retained the mannerisms of conceptualism while discarding the underlying radical intent. It has been exciting in recent years to see the appearance of younger artists with some of that original radicalism just when I thought all was lost.

  2. diego Avatar

    Loved the under-developed real estate reference! so apt, as real estate (and with it bubble economy) is the very reason why such a research project as this ‘adventure into Yeoman’s intents’ (indeed political and social as much as the ‘likeable’ conceptual artists you refer at Ian) is so important!
    uhmm convoluted sentence.
    What I mean is YAY, love this project, looking forward to see the results in years to come, as all good keyline systems, the benefits are best assessed in the future.
    Well done, I’ll be back

  3. Elizabeth Pulie Avatar
    Elizabeth Pulie

    Ian may be the biggest unrenovated house on the block, but perhaps it’s also true that ‘various figures in the artworld’ are looking for something more than most contemporary art is offering today, and are finding it in the ideas and actions of Ian’s practice? The time lag is admittedly lengthy, but sometimes things (and ideas) move slowly.

  4. Mel Avatar

    double yay
    engrossing read this blog

  5. Seeing Landscape

    […] have to say I agree with him about the difficulty in reading urban land. When Ian and I visited the Nevallan property, I could see (or least I imagined I could see) the contours of the land. (This perception was, of […]

  6. In the archives with Lucas

    […] is an illustration of his politeness which hasn’t however prevented him from suggesting that I’m selling out by dealing with the art world again, a question I will deal with later in the unlikely event that anyone else gives a rats. photo by […]

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