Visual Art

For Geelong’s Ian Ballis, a life sifting through other people’s discards has led to an unlikely creative partnership with Shirin Abedinirad, an Iranian installation artist whose work is part of the Lorne Sculpture Biennale. By Gabriella Coslovich.

Scavenging art for Landfall: Lorne Sculpture Biennale

Ian Ballis and Shirin Abedinirad  in Lorne.
Ian Ballis and Shirin Abedinirad in Lorne.

In the bleak industrial backblocks of Corio, driving past derelict warehouses, scrappy vacant land, the jilted Ford casting plant, and desolate factories girded by cyclone-wire fences, I come to a dead end. Supposedly I’m in the right place – the GPS woman insists I “have arrived” – but where exactly? There’s no one about and I can’t see the place where I’m meant to meet him. I phone and tell him I’m close, but not quite there – he tells me to make like a moth and follow the flame. To my right, a gas flare surges from the top of a skyscraping pipeline at the Geelong refinery. I point the car towards the flame until he comes into view, tall and lanky, in paint-splattered workboots, black jeans, T-shirt and cap.

I roll down the window and he chuckles and grins as he waves me towards the “executive car park”, a rectangular bay bounded by tangles of scrap metal, timber, old gates, obsolete machinery, the detritus of industry and life. The refinery rises up before me, like a futuristic metropolis, an image of frightful beauty. I later read that it provides 55 per cent of Victoria’s fuel. Opposite this emblem of our energy-hooked lives, Ian Ballis runs his business, collecting, storing and selling other people’s castoffs from a huge red-brick building that was once the whisky warehouse of the Corio Distillery. Ballis moved his vintage stockpile here five months ago, and bought the neighbouring malt works just a week ago. He’s planning to turn it into an arts precinct, preserving its industrial aesthetic and inviting street artists in to redecorate, just as he once did at Geelong’s old power station. Ballis dreams big, and has floundered at times – he’s been bankrupt – but he’s a stayer.

His dual-cab ute is parked out front, unmissable with its rainbow-coloured paint job, Jimi Hendrix spray-painted on its perpetually raised back lid, a tiger on the bonnet (his late grandfather was a diehard Tigers fan). In his Holden Crewman, Ballis roams the streets of Geelong, fossicking through the graveyards of consumer dreams – tips, transfer stations, abandoned houses – and rescues once-coveted objects from the scrap heap. He releases them from landfill, resurrects them, finds them new homes, grants them new, sometimes more exciting, lives. He matches them with filmmakers, television producers, bargain-hunters, retro-lovers and artists. His current mission is tracking down old television sets and it’s turning out far harder than he had foreseen, harder than anyone might imagine given the number of flat screens one sees dumped on suburban kerbsides. But he doesn’t want flat screens, he needs curvy classics with big backsides.

“I don’t normally chase TVs,” he says. “I thought it would be really easy.”

Televisions are a hassle for tips and antique stores; the electrical testing that is required by law doesn’t warrant the small returns on the investment. Nobody wants old television sets these days, with their chunky control knobs and obsolete channels, they’re a decrepit technology, superseded by sleeker, smarter, stealthier machines. They’re of no use, except, in this case, to an artist on the other side of the world who plans to transform them into a conceptual art installation reflecting on a world attached to the illusory reality of its omnipresent screens. For Iranian artist Shirin Abedinirad the television is the ultimate symbol of our media-dominated lives; the distorting, narrow frame through which we view the world, view each other.

With the help of Ballis, who is on the ground in Geelong sourcing materials ahead of her arrival, the Tehran-based artist is conjuring a sculpture to be installed at the mouth of the Erskine River in Lorne, one of 40 artworks positioned along the shore for the Lorne Sculpture Biennale, which opens this weekend. Curated by the National Gallery of Australia’s Lara Nicholls, this year’s biennale is titled Landfall, a word that describes the place where ocean meets land, and also alludes to environmental doom. With its re-use of trashed TVs, Abedinirad’s work comments on both the environment and the selective nature of media narratives. Her televisions screens will be mirrored and stacked in a ziggurat formation, a motif that recurs in her work. Where the river meets the ocean, these mirrored TVs will reflect water, sky, nature and passers-by, becoming true windows on the world, offering an alternative view to their usual, questionable grabs of “reality”. The sculpture is one of the biennale’s four major projects, a commission worth $10,000.

“It’s an awesome concept,” Ballis says, although making it work is testing him. A fortnight before the biennale’s opening he’s still experimenting with ways to mirror the television screens – trying various products, such as mirror-effect spray-paint and reflective films.

So far, he has tracked down more than 50 televisions – mainly by advertising online and trawling through hard rubbish. In his warehouse, dusty old models are stacked on top of each other, or sit on chairs, ready for reincarnation.

Ballis had never heard of Abedinirad until Graeme Wilkie, vice-president of the Lorne Sculpture Biennale and director of Lorne’s Qdos gallery, had a lightbulb moment while having coffee with him and told him: “You’re the man; you’re going to find the TVs.”

Geelong born and bred, Ballis went to “Geelong Tech” and “majored in woodwork”. He’s been foraging for discarded objects and trading them since he was a kid, graduating from garage sales to stalls at the Camberwell market, to running Geelong’s famed Mill Markets.

He loves the scavenging life, it’s in his blood, a habit he picked up from his hoarder grandfather.

“I’ve got two kids,” the 53-year-old says, “I don’t want them ending up in a world that’s a tip.”

When I meet Ballis, his only contact with Abedinirad has been via email. Her visa has been delayed at the Australian end, putting pressure on him to work in her absence. “I put up my hand to find the TVs, but now I’m finding the paint, I’m finding the builder … I may as well do them myself,” he laughs. “I don’t care; I’ve got no ego at all.”

Born in Tabriz in 1986, Abedinirad moved with her family to Tehran aged two. Her father is a banker, her mother a housewife. Somewhat unusually, they encouraged their daughter’s artistic talents, even though she had different ideas.

“I was very good at mathematics and I wanted to be an electronic engineer,” she tells me via Skype from Tehran. Her long, dark hair is pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail, she wears black-rimmed spectacles, her face free of make-up. It comes as no surprise that she has worked as a model, although it’s a profession she has little interest in pursuing. She studied graphic design and later fashion design at Dr Shariaty Technical College in Tehran. But neither of these fields gripped her. Her life-changing moment came in 2010 when she was chosen as the face of the United Colors of Benetton’s fall/winter campaign, and invited to work at Benetton’s Fabrica communication research centre in Treviso, Italy. It was here, mixing with artists, that she decided she wanted to become one.

“I came back to Iran and started doing performance art, reading about conceptual art, and this process took me to land art,” she says. She also had the good fortune to study video art with the acclaimed Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami, who reignited her love for her country. She acknowledges that it’s hard being a female artist in Iran, but the challenge inspires her.

“Even though we have lots of limitations here, I believe also that limitations brings creativity for us,” she says. “We are finding a way to tackle this problem and restrictions … we have lots of women artists here, more than men … working hard, and maybe they are also more brave than me.” She adds: “But there are still a lot of things I can’t get used to, and I don’t want to get used to.”

Abedinirad first visited Australia in 2015, exhibiting a mirrored ziggurat on Cockatoo Island in Sydney for the Underbelly Arts Festival. Her mirrored works draw on the writings of Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz, and their concepts of light. Rumi, she tells me, writes of polishing one’s heart until it becomes as bright and pure as a mirror, a reflector of light.

I wonder whether there is an underlying spirituality or religious element to her work.

“I’m not religious at all,” she says. “Not me, not my family, not my friends. People are kind of tired of religion here.”

Back in Geelong, Ballis and I jump into his ute and head to the tip where a few everyday gleaners are lining up at the gate before 9am. When the gates open, Ballis is the image of calm concentration, masterfully scanning the waste, spying treasures among the trash. He picks up two chipped and dented enamel Victorian lightshades, a metal trolley, and a print of Melbourne, all for $60.

He reckons the two lightshades alone, which cost him $10 each, will resell for $220. No luck with old televisions, though.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 16, 2018 as "Trash as treasure".

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