An extraordinary art trail is hidden in the southern forests of WA.

Story + Photos Ken Eastwood

Charcoal faces peer from the trunks of trees. They’re haunting at first, but gradually become familiar and more welcoming the more you see them. A huge steel and wooden halo, 17m off the ground, surrounds the pale trunk of a giant karri tree. Nearby, an old, burnt tree trunk stands alone, resplendent in its 24-carat gold-leaf coat. 

Over a flat 1.2km walk through flowering heathland and towering forest beside the small town of Northcliffe, 4 hours’ drive south-east of Perth, some 90 extraordinary artworks are tucked behind trees or hidden under and in the canopy. No rag-tag collection of second-rate sculptures, they make up an incredible collection of pieces from 50 local, national and international artists, who have travelled to this place to design a work that celebrates and appreciates WA’s southern forests. “We describe it as a love letter that we wrote together. We want to share that love we have with other people,” says Fiona Sinclair, artistic director and general manager of Southern Forest Arts, which curates and looks after the Understory Art and Nature Trail.

As well as the physical artworks, there are QR codes in the handy pocket guide (playfully called a ‘treasure map’, helping you locate all the artworks) that link you to music that has been written for the forest, as well as poems and stories. But even in the forest itself, some of the artworks are not necessarily 100% there anymore, as they have been broken down by the fungi, mosses, insects and weather in the forest. For example, there’s a giant hand constructed of towers of 20,000 pages of government reports on how to manage forests, that the artist claims were mostly unread. All the pages are gradually decomposing and returning to the forest.

“Every year we add new works to the Understory,” Fiona says. “Some are ephemeral – they have a shelf life of a year. We call them ‘collaborations with nature’ and gradually nature takes over.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #155

Outback Magazine: June/July 2024