ART AND SOUL
Barry Oliver checks into an unusual holiday house near Byron Bay
WE’VE been warned that John and Rago Dahlsen’s Cape Heritage home is far from your average country retreat. Cows graze in nearby fields and the house is partly hidden behind trees. We could be light years from NSW’s laidback Byron Bay, just 2.5km away, but it’s the plastic bottles that grab my attention.
There must be hundreds of them, contained in an old fishing net hanging from a fence. Nearby there’s a totem pole arrangement of old brown and white foam. I ask John, a leading environmental artist and Wynne prize winner in 2000, what it’s called: ‘‘ Brown and White Foam Totem.’’ Silly question.
His works have fairly literal titles, John says. He’s rather taken with the colours: they’re a good match for the house, he suggests, as if the arrangement itself is nothing out of the ordinary. Here, as I am about to discover, it isn’t.
Another environmental art totem nearly 1m tall is stacked with flippers (totems, we discover, are all over the place, made from anything from buoys, rope and plastic to driftwood, thongs and Coke bottles).
There’s an air of anticipation as we open the front door. A first look takes in a sofa John has built from driftwood; there’s a matching coffee table, two striking abstract paintings on a wall and an environmental art assemblage of found objects: bottle tops, bits of plastic, old rope, discarded toothbrushes, glowsticks, even lighters carefully arranged and framed under a perspex screen.
There’s even a driftwood base for the flatscreen TV and DVD (a copy of The Sketchbook of Picasso lies nearby).
Another totem is topped with what appears to be a plastic workman’s hat, which has seen better days.
John and Rago have spent many hours scouring beaches from Victoria to northern NSW in search of junk (or ‘‘ treasures’’ as John puts it): driftwood, bottles, netting and discarded plastic. It’s John who does most of the collecting: ‘‘ I just lie back and sunbake,’’ says Dutch-born Rago, who runs a spa on their 0.8ha property.
The couple live in a cottage on the grounds but we have Cape Heritage, its four bedrooms and unusual art, to ourselves. It’s a little like staying at a gallery (with beds) — John says that’s the way he uses the house — and I get a strange buzz from being surrounded by such curious and engaging pieces.
I’m tempted to take an assemblage off the wall (just to see if it has been signed on the back, you understand) but I’m worried it might set off a hidden alarm (many of the works fetch five-figure prices).
All are for sale, but not the furniture. It’s a moveable feast. Some pieces are bought by guests while others are moved temporarily for exhibitions. When we stay, some are hanging in the Big Brother house on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
But back to basics. This is a holiday home, after all. We are warned not to worry about noises on the roof in the night. It will just be possums. Or maybe a koala. Oh, and the pythons are harmless. ‘‘ On the whole the wildlife’s pretty friendly,’’ says John cheerily.
We have a choice of where to eat: there is a large dining table (more driftwood) in the well-appointed kitchen and another in the sunken sunroom, which more than lives up to its name with shafts of light spearing through the glass. There are also outside areas that are perfect for breakfast on a sunny morning.
The main bedroom is downstairs (even the bed is made of driftwood) and the ensuite is home to yet more assemblages. Towels hang from a driftwood rack.
On the second level there’s a small bedroom and bathroom with claw bath, shower and assorted driftwood. A narrow staircase leads to two more bedrooms that
ZebraPlastics share a balcony looking out across paddocks on the other side of the road. In one of the rooms, two double beds are invitingly strewn with cushions.
Needless to say, there aren’t many bare walls. As we examine one assemblage, John delights in pointing out some of the found items: a tiny child’s toy, glowsticks, a battered pair of sunglasses, a plastic fork. ‘‘ It’s like a time capsule,’’ he says with delight. ‘‘ Every piece has its own story.’’
What do visitors make of his work? John says some are surprised; some, like us, are intrigued. Others, strangely, don’t say a word or venture near Rago’s spa (guests receive a 10 per cent discount).
The house is normally rented on a weekly basis — food isn’t supplied — and the Dahlsens also plan to move into wedding receptions: ‘‘ Nothing big, just intimate gatherings of up to 30 people’’, says John.
Outside, the pool fails to tempt us — it’s a little chilly for a dip and it’s not heated — but we’re grateful for the lounge room combustion fire and stash of nearby wood as evening approaches and the temperature dips.
We find ourselves sitting in front of the installations trying to identify what’s inside. It’s hard to believe the colours, or that there could be such beauty in junk thrown on to a beach by the tide.
In the morning our whooping children delight in swinging on a Tarzan rope hanging from an old tree. Dangling from another limb is a huge ball of netting containing found objects. John says it grew organically over 15 months and ended up ‘‘ a bit like a beehive’’.
After demonstrating his technique on the rope, John tells us about his latest passion, which has involved a return to painting after a long break. He wants to record the local coastline while it’s still relatively intact. ‘‘ I’m not an alarmist but I am super concerned about global warming.’’
We’re treated to a private viewing in his studio on the property. He is building a body of work before considering an exhibition but there is no shortage of examples. One after another John and Rago produce paintings to hang on the walls. When there’s no more space others are propped on the floor against the sides. Some are easily recognisable as the Byron Bay coast. Others are of so-called purged objects (the plastic blob created when a moulding machine is cleaned at the end of a production run). It’s hard to comprehend.
‘‘ On the eighth day God created Byron Bay,’’ says the bumper sticker as we head out. We’ve been so wrapped up in Cape Heritage we’ve almost forgotten about the town. I’m half tempted to scour the beaches to see what the tide has thrown up. Instead, we make do with a spot of whale-watching. Best leave the art to the experts. Barry Oliver was a guest of Cape Heritage.
Cape Heritage is available from $1600 a week; shorter stays are sometimes possible. Phone (02) 6685 5325; www.capeheritage.com.au; www.johndahlsen.com.
Treasure trove: Works made from found objects, such as
, far left, and
, top right, by artist John Dahlsen, grace the rooms of Cape Heritage, the house he owns with his wife Rago; from centre, the living room, the sunken sunroom and master bedroom
by John Dahlsen