It is a mild, mellow morning in April and a cosy blanket of stillness envelops the tiny hamlet of Corindhap. The distant warbling of magpies drifts on the breeze above the rustle of long grass in the paddocks. Gentle rolling hills of farmland stretch to the horizon and cypress trees whisper their secrets to the wind. Corindhap, located about 70kms northwest of Geelong, has been languishing since its heyday during the gold rush. These days it has little to distinguish it from most other country towns – a few houses, a pub, a church and an oval. But like many towns around rural Victoria, it boasts a cultural tradition peculiar to Australia – the Avenue of Honour, and Corindhap’s avenue is one with a difference!
The Avenue of Honour is a memorial avenue of trees planted in remembrance of those who fought or died in war, especially in World War I. During WWI, nearly 40% of the Australian male population aged from 18 to 44 were enlisted, and sadly, the casualty rate was well over half – 65% according the Australian War Memorial. The high number of casualties meant that most Australians knew someone who was killed or maimed in the war and many communities decided to commemorate their soldiers with the planting of a tree for each soldier in an Avenue of Honour.
The Corindhap avenue was planted with Cypress and Radiata pine trees back in 1917, and was one of 128 avenues of honour planted in Victoria during WWI. Over the last few years some of these majestic trees have reached the end of their life but rather than chopping them down for firewood, the Corindhap community decided to keep the lower trunks intact and commissioned local artist Viktor Cebergs to fashion sculptures that would reflect the commemorative spirit of the site. The result is that the old trees have been transformed into sculptures depicting imagery of war.
The project was one of the first large scale wooden installations Cebergs attempted. “I was cutting my teeth on it. I had to figure out how to carve these large scale things.” he says. “The time I spent there was a lovely experience in itself. It was humbling in a way. You can be very insular in your professional practice so it is good to go into a community and develop working relationships.”
Viktor believes that by collaborating with the community in all stages of the design process, it fosters public ownership of the art. He encourages communities to find relevance in the history of the places in which they live, and the people and culture that came before them.
“The most important thing about these community projects is the artist has to let go a bit. It really is about the community. They teach me more than I teach them.”
He worked with the people in the district to discover their stories and research Corindhap’s history in relation to the experience of war. With the first sculpture, The Wounded Light Horseman, Cebergs worked in collaboration with Angela Polglaze, who did some of the initial carving. It portrays an injured soldier slumped on his horse, referencing the Battle of Beersheba and reminding us of the full horror of combat. Cebergs continued with the project to create three more sculptures which he based on the tales and photos of local identities. The installation includes a Lancaster bomber pilot from WW2, a dignified soldier standing to attention (when I was there, someone had deliberately placed an unopened stubbie of VB next to the old digger!), and a mother and child receiving the dreaded letter from the war office which bore news of a soldier’s fate.
The cypress trees were carved where they grew so Cebergs worked on the sculptures several days at a time, sleeping onsite in a swag under the stars. Each sculpture took about seven days, starting with large chainsaws to block the shape off and finishing with small chainsaws and chisels. Finally they were sealed in decking oil, twenty coats in all. Cebergs has one more sculpture left to complete with plans for a submarine turret to be carved from one of the stumps.
The Corindhap Avenue of Honour has been replanted with new trees, and with these gruff but poignant sculptures, the tradition of commemorating our soldiers not only assumes a new relevance but also prompts us to consider the awful futility of war.