This year marks the 100th anniversary of a watershed moment in Australian history known as the Great Strike of 1917.
The building that today hosts one of Sydney’s best-loved contemporary art centres, Carriageworks, was originally part of the Eveleigh Railway Workshops, built in 1889. Employees at Eveleigh built and maintained locomotives and carriages for the state’s expanding rail networks. The former workshops, including Carriageworks, are regarded as one of the best examples of railway heritage in Australia.
This year marks the centenary of the Great Strike of 1917. It started when around 5,790 railway and tramway employees, most from the Eveleigh and the nearby Randwick Tramsheds, downed tools to protest the introduction of a new way of monitoring worker productivity. Although the strike officially lasted just over six weeks, its consequences lingered for decades, galvanising local community networks, shaping political consciousness; and creating a highly politicised workforce.
The exhibition 1917: The Great Strike brings together historical objects alongside commissioned artworks by 5 contemporary artists. These are the artists’ responses to this historical event and its aftermath:
1. Sarah Contos
Contos’ work is conceived around the idea that working at the Eveleigh Railway Workshops in the 1900s meant a position of prestige. The artist writes, “employees would arrive at the sooty factory dressed in three-piece suits.” The workers’ craftsmanship and involvement in a greater cause induced a sense of pride.
Contos investigates the vital contribution made by women to the Great Strike, both through public protest and on the home front, and acknowledges this in an elaborate patchwork quilt made for the exhibition.
2. Will French
French examines the concept of time, as the introduction of timecards was the key cause of The Great Strike, through an old-fashioned train schedule board, whose hand-crafted form speaks to the skill and artisanship of the Eveleigh railway workers.
‘Duration is, it seems, implicit in everything involved with the Eveleigh site. The constant flow of trains into the station coming and going with expected punctuality. The repetition of these actions day after day, week after week, year after year, a certainty not to be questioned,’ says French.
3. Franck Gohier
Political action protecting the rights of workers is in Gohier’s family history. The artist’s mother was pregnant with him in Paris of 1968 (there were revolutions in Paris at this time) and political discussions were common at the dinner table throughout his life.
Gohier is drawn to visual ephemera, so for this work, he was inspired by hand painted banners in the Sydney Trades Hall collection. His work Snakes and ladders is handprinted using antique wood-type and fonts from the 1800s to 1915.
4. Tom Nicholson and Andrew Byrne
The project continues a collaboration between Melbourne-based artist Tom Nicholson and New York-based Australian composer Andrew Byrne.
Their work for 1917: The Great Strike is a set of plaques at two strange vent forms overlooking The Domain. It takes its cue from a historical image in which railway workers gather at Eveleigh for the unveiling of an honour board during World War 1.
It will be launched by a large-scale brass band performance on 5 August. The plaques are ‘imagined monuments’ that draw on a range of associations, including the extraordinary gatherings that occurred at The Domain during the Great Strike and the ethos of the (then-criminalised) Industrial Workers of the World in the strike. It also touches on the importance of music in the workers’ expression of shared commitment to political ideals.
5. Raquel Ormella
One of Ormella’s influences was the working day of the drivers and firemen working out of the Eveleigh Depot, who often began their shift at 4am. They were awoken by apprentice boys cycling the route of the men on the first shift. Each boy had to learn the streets and house numbers and the series of personalised knocks or whistles used to wake each worker in time to start.
Ormella will place small, personalised banners at some of the workers cottages that still survive in the area. “Each banner will pull the past through to the present, gathering with it many stories that again will be lost to time,” says Ormella.