Australia is a road-trip dream, with its big, bleached skies and wide, open stretches of tarmac. Until now, however, one route through rural Victoria’s wheatbelt has been a road less travelled – not so much off the beaten track as off the tourist radar entirely.
Careering north from Melbourne to Mildura and the mighty Murray river, travellers have often passed the one-horse towns, parched plains and pink lakes (it’s the algae) of the Wimmera Mallee, Victoria’s wild west, without a backward glance. A shame: they’ve missed treats such as Warracknabeal, the birthplace of Nick Cave, and Minyip, where the classic 80s TV series The Flying Doctors was filmed. Now, though, they’re slowing down in Yarriambiack Shire and following signs for the Silo Art Trail, a jaw-dropping tourist attraction.
Where others see rural decay and rusty railway tracks lined with disused grain silos, street artists see huge concrete canvases. These agricultural giants date to the 1930s. Until 1916, transporting grain in hessian sacks from the wheatbelt to the coast and cities had been an arduous business. The development of massive grain-handling systems along the railways changed that. During harvest they were a hive of activity, with farmers delivering grain by horse-and-cart, then truck. Fast-forward to railway closures and abandoned silos, no longer “fit for purpose”. Australian company GrainCorp now stores mountains of wheat and barley under tarpaulins instead, while the silos littering the landscape were sentinels of an economic decline.
Until Guido van Helten arrived. The first of the pioneer painters, van Helten is an artist who has created large-scale photorealist murals, from the US to the Ukraine. It had been his dream to paint one of these silos. Travelling from Brisbane (population 2.4 million) to Brim (population 171) at the end of 2015, he spent a month completing his epic art work: four figures, across six silos, rising 30m out of the sun-baked earth.