Electric Graffiti: Art and Light take over power station
After bracing myself against wind and sand, I see the massive, hulking shell of a building. Its white walls are crumbling, its great glass windows long broken. Perched right on the shoreline, the only way to enter the abandoned South Fremantle Power Station is through empty coastline and a hole in the fence, ignoring signs warning against trespassing. The power station, located in isolation outside of Fremantle, Western Australia, started producing electricity from coal in 1951. In the 1980’s, it had become outdated and expensive and was gradually phased out by more up-to-date power stations that were closer to the coal source. In 1985, it shut down permanently. Its chimney stacks were demolished, and the South Fremantle Power Station was left to the sea and the wind.
Walking around the exterior gives me clues as to what lies inside- every few feet of wall exhibits a graffiti tag, even hundreds of feet high where it seems impossible to reach. And then I come upon a door and I’m inside.
Maybe it’s the knowledge that I’m intruding, maybe it’s the sheer size of the place, but I have the distinct feeling that I’m walking into some ancient cathedral. Some hallowed space long forgotten. Or maybe this is what it feels like to discover an Egyptian tomb. It’s quiet and still and left to the elements. I can feel the sea breeze through the empty windows and glass crunches under my foot with each step.
Then there are the colors. The ocean sunset hitting the painted walls produces a beautiful stained-glass effect. Every inch of the derelict industrial walls is covered in graffiti of all colors- neon pink and alien-cactus green and that sea blue always in the corner of your eye. A car lies decomposing in the center of the space decorated in paint.
I’m following Edwin Janes, who spends almost as much time photographing the power station as he does at home. In his sixties, with a wry British sense of humor and a chunky cable-knit sweater, he seems like the last person you’d expect to see climbing through windows and chatting with graffiti artists. But he knows this place better than anyone and his photos are incredible.
Who comes to the power station? “Adventurous souls who want to look, photograph, film, paint, chill out, party, or shelter,” Ed says. “Some also come to climb… I now know how to get onto the highest part of the roof but may wait until I have first scaled the North Face of the Eiger which looks marginally less dangerous.”
South Fremantle, and the greater Perth area, are not typical centers for street art. As one of the most isolated metropolitan areas in the world, Perth can feel very sleepy. It just does not have the same inner-city, diverse population as cities like New York and Sao Paulo do. Most of the artists at South Fremantle Power Station are white and many are teenagers. Everyone comes to the power station for love of the art, and the sense of community is palpable. Ed asks some boys if they would mind having their photo taken as long as their faces aren’t showing. We get a great shot of the process. We clamber through a window and up a beautiful but dangerously crumbling flight of stairs to the second floor. On the way we pass a room with a mattress and a burned out fire, careful not to disturb anyone’s shelter. A group is filming a project up on the dangerous second floor mezzanine and is happy to take a picture of us with Ed’s camera. It’s a friendly atmosphere, one of respect. We are almost like confidantes sharing some great secret.
The West Australian government has recognized the power station as a heritage site and its value as a piece of Art Deco industrial architecture. Some added recognition has come from its use in a few music videos and stunt shoots. It’s beloved by the people who visit, make art, and live there. However, the station’s been largely ignored by its owners, Verve Energy. Their spokesman responded to inquiries about the station’s future by stressing that “property development is not Verve’s core business- Verve Energy generates electricity”. Currently, police are making arrests and working to combat graffiti and trespassing in the station. Several plans have been made to develop the area, with the station turned into a recreational center, a hotel, an art gallery, a residential area, or a performing arts center. Ed believes these plans will be too expensive.
“I would like to see it made safe – a relatively inexpensive and non-architectural approach – and thrown wide open to [anyone]. No more climbing and generally no need for security. At the same time it would make a brilliant venue for concerts. The best way to design a footpath is to wait to see where people walk and then pave it.”
It would be a shame to see the art painted over, the quiet stillness of the place disrupted. Ed believes the station is special for its art, its location, its heritage, and its “inherent nobility”. Perth, in its Australian isolation, has so few sites like this, and we treasure it for what it is.
At sunset, the Indian Ocean reflects bright orange light onto the walls and, as Ed puts it as we climb up a ladder to the roof, “the place just glows”. In its beautiful destruction, who turned this place into what it is? It is as much a work of the elements as of the hand, of the artist and of some kid with a spray can. Who threw color onto the walls?
I believe it was the sea.
Photo credit: Edwin Janes. All photos are property of Edwin Janes and are protected under a creative commons license:
South Fremantle Power Station South Fremantle Power Station by Edwin Janes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.flickr.com.
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