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Will French | Artist Statement

July 19, 2017

1917: THE GREAT STRIKE

Will French

Time marches on. It is one of the few certainties in life, ever present and ever changing.

The story of the Eveleigh Railway Workshops is one that is written on the walls, in the foundations, in the eaves, in the paint and under it. It is there in the remnants of its activity, its buildings and all that was produced within them. The Great Strike of 1917 was a sign of those times.

Looking at the history of the site and the story of Carriageworks, it is impossible not to read it in the text that is embedded in the textures of the site. The language of the manufacturing and the workers, the industry itself layered over and over as each new process, protocol and innovation replaced another, leaving indelible scars and traces. The language used during the strike of 1917 was critical to its success. The importance of spreading the news, and the strike’s intentions, and keeping the union unified, placed heavy significance on the written word.

Although it only lasted six weeks in total, the 1917 strike divided the railways and the communities of Sydney, leaving a vast chasm long after it had ended. This fracture was not restricted to working conditions. It was all-encompassing, a psychological rift that divided the Lily Whites and the Scabs for a long time after. These differing standpoints and ultimately the unions, the politics and even the pubs the workers patronised defined the people who participated in these actions. It continued to shape the men and women who were involved for the rest of their lives.

The work I have made for the exhibition speaks to this legacy and this time. Duration is, it seems, implicit in everything involved with the Eveleigh site. The gentle clack of the train as it ticks like a clock to its destination. The constant flow of trains into the station coming and going with expected punctuality. The repetition of these actions day after day, week after week, year after year, a certainty not to be questioned. Such as it was at the time of the strike, the workers marking their new work cards, which in turn manifested the industrial action, punctuating the work, shift and activity. The necessary stoking of the trains’ fires throughout each night to keep the steam engines ready to roll when needed. The ritual of work, rest and play, repeated from apprenticeship till death, with little question or quarrel. A kind of monotony manifested to many as reassurance. Commitment to the union and your fellow worker was as unwavering as the days of the week.

So- called “Progress” was the catalyst for the creation of Eveleigh, and was ultimately the cause of its demise. It was the call for its workforce initially and then, in turn, that which made them redundant. The artwork I have produced for 1917: The Great Strike articulates a state of mind that reacts to the mix of certainty and uncertainty in our lives. Control and chaos are imposed upon us by the structures and systems of society which we can find both restrictive and reassuring at varying times in our lives, day after day, week after week, year after year.

1917: The Great Strike – daily 10am-6pm, until 27 Aug
More information on the exhibition

1917: The Great Strike, Will French, Sign of the Times 2017, [installation view]. Image: Zan Wimberley