Just outside of Dardanup, a tiny town about two hours south of Perth, you'll find Gnomesville. It's exactly what it sounds like: a shit tonne of gnomes. Literally thousands of the things—spreading from a nondescript roundabout, through a grove of winding creeks, and up into scrubby bushland.
The origins of Gnomesville can be traced back to, of all things, local objection to the construction of a new t-intersection outside Dardanup. Accounts vary, but according to the official website, a gnome mysteriously appeared where the intersection was meant to be built, which is known as "the gnome of legend." This single gnome was followed by more gnomes, all deposited by locals. Somehow, the whole thing snowballed into a weird form of protest art.
The council finally caved and abandoned the t-intersection in favour of a roundabout. But the gnome population continued to grow. In the late 1990s the gnomes were "evicted" from the roundabout and into nearby public land, which was looked after by locals Vicki and Kevin Campbell. When Kevin passed away recently, a small plaque immortalising him was placed among the gnomes.
Today, Gnomesville is an ever-expanding oddity, with people from all over the world donating gnomes, and transforming a homespun novelty into a sprawling ceramic vista. In 2007, the gnomes were decimated by flash flooding, but have since made a startling, rapid comeback.
"Fuck, this is a lot of gnomes." For a long while, that's the only thing I can think to say. One of the many Grey Nomads skulking about turns to me and says, "Oh this is nothing! This is just the gift shop! They go on forever."
She's not kidding. It's like Rivendell meets the Calais refugee camp—a mythic vista of Yowie-esque bushland and dead-eyed little faces. I'm uneasy around dolls and ventriloquist dummies. These garden gnomes bring up memories of late night Goosebumps readings, followed by the sleepless nights of a hyper imaginative child.
But there's something overwhelmingly passive about seeing so many gnomes en-masse. Anaesthetising. I think of Stalin—one gnome is a tragedy, a million are a statistic. Tragedy is me stubbing my toe, comedy is garden gnomes as far as the eye can see.
Once you lean in, you realise the gnomes spark mini-narratives of self-discovery and identity quests. Married couples have left handholding garden ornaments. One grabs my attention with "FIONA AND JACK 2013 & 4 EVA" scrawled over their peaked hats.
Rugby groups, tour buses, RSLs, biker gangs, cricket clubs, girl scouts, families—people have all set up gnomic shrines to grab at immorality. But to me, making a gnome bungalow and leaving in the woods with a sign that reads, "GNOME ON THE RANGE" is a strange reaction to mortality. Do not go quietly into that gnome night.
The puns and messages are unending. There's more bad poetry than a spoken word art collective's GoFundMe page. Corkers include:
When I see your smiling face it
Makes me smile through the tears
Your smile is addictive and I am
Just another Sticky junkie
We get so caught up in the tsunami of gnomes that any variance in design, style, or decay excites us wildly. A fat Cartman-shaped gnome, whose beard is the same colour as his skin, looks like a colostomy bag-toting madman with a swollen neck goitre. One gnome stares up with a half melted face, born without a skull, an elephant man begging to be shattered. One flashes a flaccid little gnome dick at us from across the stream. One has the shape and texture of an off-brand butt plug.
I start to think about gnome politics and ordeals. A Minion gnome floating face down in the murky water stinks of mob justice. A "gnome detention centre" is a grim reminder of people's priorities. Somewhere in a parallel universe for gnomes, A Current Affairs says they don't have it that bad, and that they've smashed their hoods and faces for attention.
As I squatted for a photo with gnome Nauru, a pair of dog-like cats approached. They belong to Hannah and Grace, two young girls who live on the property overlooking Gnomesville. Hannah, the older sister, roughly 12, is frank with me on what it's like to live nearby. "People do their business on our lawn," she says, echoing frustrations from her parents. "They have driven into our fences and set off our alarms. There's always cars here, sometimes until late at night. The visitors don't have much respect for private property."
But Hannah and her younger sister Grace aren't immune to the charm of Gnomesville. She knows not many kids grow up across the road from a village of garden gnomes. Her and her sister play here, riding their bikes through the idyllic micro-village. Even without the countless statues, the creeks and hanging branches make for a hidden kingdom that would appeal to any kid's sense of play. "When people ask me where I live I say, 'do you know Gnomesville? I live across the road,'" Hannah says. "Sometimes school friends visit and call out to me from the roundabout. It can be a bit embarrassing."
Walking the balance of silliness and sincerity, Hannah and Grace take the magic and bullshit of Gnomesville in equal measure. This is the most whimsical burden that could be hoisted onto a family. If it was in a Murakami novel, you'd call it contrived.
As we were leaving, a golden light dappled the fixed faces of the tiny bearded sentinels. The scene was less primary school book week RL Stine, and more garage sale Cezanne. It's kitsch. It's harmless. It's oddly serene.
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All photos by Jess Cockerill