In one of the many vacant shopfronts in Perth’s central shopping district, a sign exhorts passers-by to stop, come inside and revel in a mystery.
The information panel explains: While preparing to create an installation in the former shop, artist Sohan Arial Hayes was confronted with a crack in the foundations and water has been flowing up through the floor ever since.
Hayes’s original installation was abandoned.
Instead, the public is now invited to get a glimpse into what he says is the ancient Yarragadee aquifer, a body of water several kilometres below the surface of the Swan Coastal Plain which glows dimly in the floor of the old shop.
At first glance, it’s a plausible idea.
The Yarragadee aquifer is certainly real, and it is well known that Perth’s CBD sits on a low-lying area that was once very swampy; buildings have been known to shift and crack when the earth below is disturbed.
But — and this is a massive spoiler — despite the idea’s basis in scientific fact, Hayes has deliberately set out to confound the public with his latest work, Descent Into Yarragadee.
“The artwork might not be all it’s cracked up to be,” Hayes said, laughing.
“But the reality is that there is actually water from the Yarragadee aquifer filling up this crack in the shop.
“It may not have come directly up from the ground beneath but it has certainly come directly from the Yarragadee.”
The promotional material is deliberately ambiguous, with just the Perth Public Art Foundation logo.
Dave Kelly, in his role as Minister for Water and Science, was bemused to be asked to open the exhibit.
Meanwhile Nathan Giles, the executive director of the Perth Public Art Foundation, said he had fielded calls from curious geologists after the announcement about the installation went out.
“We have had quite a range of responses,” Hayes said.
“A couple from the mining sector who came in were really interested in the crack and came in to have a look and discovered that we had covered up the edges with builder’s film … they were really disappointed that we had taken this safety approach, because there was water leaking out around the concrete.
“It’s quite a compelling story and people actually really want there to be a crack there, which is sort of an intriguing thing.”
Art that explores a sense of place
Hayes’s work, which has common themes of place and landscapes, has previously been featured at the Perth International Arts Festival.
“My work is usually site-based; I’m interested in tapping into stories that connect us deeper to the places we live in,” he said.
The Yarragadee aquifer was created by an extraordinary geological shift on what is now the Swan Coastal Plain.
“It’s there because 300 million years ago the Perth basin dropped 15 kilometres down suddenly,” Hayes said.
“What we are standing on here today was actually a massive whole in the ground.
“Over the years it has filled up with all sorts of stuff, mostly sand and water, but possible also megafauna; dinosaurs have all fallen into the Perth basin at some time and lay buried there.
“The aquifer itself is estimated to be about 1,000 square kilometres of water, stretching from Bunbury in the south to Geraldton in the Midwest.
“That fascinated me, the idea of all this stuff that had fallen into this big hole over time, and that we were living on top of it without really thinking about it very much.”
Curiosity piqued amid Christmas rush
Over the past week, curious Christmas shoppers have been making their way off the mall and into the blacked-out shop to peer into the lights of the so-called “abyss”.
“We had a theatre director who thought it was a beautiful blend of science and poetics,” Hayes said.
“We have had kids on the very edge, crawling on their tummies looking down.
“And then yes, we have had some people who have been disappointed that there is not really a giant crack in the foundation.”