Atlantis Marine Park is an abandoned theme park and the centrepiece of the Yanchep Sun City development. It was built by notorious criminal entrepreneur Alan Bond in the small fishing community of Two Rocks in 1981, sixty-something kilometres north of Boorloo/Perth. Atlantis seems a curious name for a theme park in settler-colonial Australia — for Plato, the aggressive fictional island-state is repelled by Athens and so the name comes to signify the hubris of the banished aggressor. The story of Atlantis has become a central myth and a cautionary tale in the West, taken up in the works of Francis Bacon and Thomas More to suggest utopia and its demise. Atlantis tells a story of the pride and fall of empires that get washed away by tide and time. The story implies a type of amnesia too, so to name a theme park that celebrates monumentality over nature is to reveal a broader, structural desire to make leisure from acquisition, and to have fun in the violence of the frontier. That the theme park is now left
to wreck and ruin seems only fitting, a relic of the debris of settlement itself.
During its decade of operation, the park included daily dolphin performances, amusement rides and a series of sculptures by American artist and set designer Mark Le Buse. Many of the 45-plus large limestone sculptures by Le Buse were removed from Atlantis after it was closed in 1990 and placed in various sites around Perth. They were gathered by private collectors, retailers or city councils to add to the strange, alienated, unrooted language of public sculpture in the city. The sculptures that have remained at the original Two Rocks location are in various states of disrepair, including a central five-metre-high King Neptune (said to be rendered in Le Buse’s likeness) — since the park’s closure they have become a focus of local intrigue and pilgrimage. Over this time the boundaries of Atlantis have collapsed and merged with that of Perth, as the latter has continued to sprawl with housing and commercial developments along the length of the coast, both north and south.
The local government of Two Rocks, the City of Wanneroo, holds a small archive of the park but it remains a historical afterthought in popular and public imagination. Instead, Atlantis predominantly lives on in the hazy memory of the city and as a curiosity to a younger generation of artistic practitioners. Many of the latter remember the theme park as foundational in their youth and engage with Atlantis and its legacies with a sense of ironic play, resigned amusement and nostalgic satire. It also acts as a displaced logos of critical energy, standing in for contemporary concerns projected onto the past — a way of avoiding, or cryptically addressing, issues such as settlement, economics, sustainability, racism, parochialism and development. It is not uncommon to stumble across archival images or recent documentation of visits to the place, and Le Buse’s sculptures are scattered throughout the city, appearing here and there regardless of place. Because of these factors, there is a kind of vague aesthetic familiarity with Atlantis that has been created by the people of Perth, even if one has never ventured there. These fleeting sightings and mentions amount to a kind of shadowy history which hasn’t quite been incorporated into institutions. Atlantis is liminal, an in-between moment and place, just like its synonymous city; a real and unreal space, a simulacrum or a set made by movie decorators and designers, the fake ruins of sculptures that once attempted to approximate ruins themselves.
In the Two Rocks site, and scattered around the base of the theme park, there remain objects that might fit in with a water theme park — Neptune, dolphins, seals and maritime explorers. But, in an eccentric and idiosyncratic way, it also includes 1980s pop culture references: the Beatles, Dennis Lillee, John Wayne, Olivia Newton John, Alan Bond himself and Elvis. Local artist Kate Hulett’s photographs document the park in this state of ruin, framing Le Buse’s works in the context of what remains and as the centrepiece of it. Casting them as treasured mythical curiosities, Hulett’s 35mm images depict the sculptures as beautiful even as they are also tasteless, ridiculous and gaudy. Graffitied, partly broken and perhaps poorly constructed and rendered in the first place, they are pitiable in the overgrown scrub. Neptune’s ridiculous bloated Santa Claus face smirks over a hilltop. They depict a kind of fast, loose, easy living encapsulated by the icons of the space and the developer’s dream of unimpeded growth that inevitably falls to nature and time — the folly of egotistical rich men looking for homes on the empty streetscapes of new and abandoned suburban sprawl.
Atlantis is a monument that doesn’t want to be found, not now and maybe not then. It is an isolationist dream to build an amusement park far away from a very small, parochial and distant city. Perhaps there is precedence with Disneyland being in Anaheim rather than Los Angeles, but with Atlantis the proximity is to an extraction city during its halcyon days of the Boomtown ‘80s when corruption, mates rates and construction changed the built environment and skyline to what it is (roughly) today. Atlantis’ isolationism is seen in the choice of a doomed name, connected to a city lost to the sea many years ago. There may also be a self-deprecating irony, as with the naming of suburbs or towns like ‘Utopia’ or ‘Sunshine’ when they are far from it. Atlantis is related to these places all over Australia, as well as to lost monuments in history, white elephant theme parks of the twentieth century and the Big Icons of bananas and prawns and merinos.
Atlantis’ inevitable and fated failure is connected to its developer, Alan Bond, whose legacy in Perth is recognisable today in an outsized way given his rapid ascent and rapid decline. Bond made his name developing residential and commercial buildings throughout Western Australia. His first building was erected in 1967 and by the 1980s Bond dominated the city — from skyscrapers to yachts to horse racing to Van Gogh’s Irises (1889), all of which were connected to corruption and government in a thick network of relations. In a city crowded by dubious suited men, Bond looms as a kind of Icarus with white shoes, apricot jackets, perpetually tanned skin and an emperor’s mien who encouraged an unsustainable boom that people still recall as tied to Atlantis itself.
Perth’s history as well as its contemporary image is tied to individuals like Bond, with their outsized personalities and mixed legacies. In Emma Buswell’s Once Upon a Time in... (2021), recently exhibited at Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA) as part of the Love in Bright Landscapes (2021) exhibition, a giant hand-knitted scarf depicts a series of images drawn from Perth’s recent historical mythologies and folklores, including the rise and fall of Bond’s Sun City and many other moments from 1979 to 2000. Holding the scarf at the top is a stereotypically black-suited white papier-mâché male figure that mirrors the fleshy white cuffed hands common to making deals in the images below. Illustrated alongside the rise and fall of Atlantis are key events including the 1983 America’s Cup victory by the Royal Perth Yacht Club, the 1987 stock market crash, the 1990 Royal Commission into WA Inc., the 1992 and 1994 West Coast Eagle’s AFL Premiership wins, as well as the 1989 establishment of PICA. Drawn to these stories as a way of building connections to place, Buswell is part of a generation of artists born just before or after the closure of Atlantis. Growing up in the shadow of the unregulated speculation and corruption of Perth in the 1980s and ‘90s, the events of that era are part of these artists’ emergence, part of how their local consciousness has been formed. Once Upon a Time in... pieces together this local history of the city with its fast cars and mythic figures alongside more personal and familial anecdotes, all rendered in a cartoon style reminiscent of The Simpsons. Buswell is aware of how the scarf plays into and depicts this moment in time, which involved a kind of myth-making that is at once grand and domestic. The scarf is a way to interrogate this local historical imagination with humour and pathos, and to register the cycles of over-expansion and failure.
There are many reasons for the Atlantis Marine Park’s downfall — governmental change, a downturn in the economy and a city too small to sustain such a venture. But the final tipping point was more quotidian, namely a change in regulations around keeping wild animals in captivity. In 1990, the remaining dolphins of Atlantis were released into the Indian Ocean and the park was shut down. The release did not go well, and several dolphins wouldn’t or couldn’t rewild; some got sick and some others were killed in a mysterious event, which was heavily felt at the time and is still remembered through competing narratives and endings. With an interest in this tragedy, and the mythologising narratives at play, artists Kieron Broadhurst and Jack Wansbrough created ECCO (2021), a fictional office space that forms part of a secret society which attempts to communicate with dolphins through coincidences. The acronym stands for ‘Earth Coincidence Control Office’ and is a phrase used by American neuroscientist Jack Lilly, who was well known and influential among diverse and divergent fields — from the military to the film industry — for his research into humans and dolphins. Lilly used ECCO theory to describe the existence of a certain hierarchical group of cosmic entities who create coincidences on Earth. A once highly respected scientist, as Lilly became increasingly interested in psychedelic drugs and alternative therapies his reputation fell into disrepute. Broadhurst and Wansbrough recreated Lilly’s fictional office as headquarters for his ECCO network, exploring the individual’s role in making coincidental connections and engaging in human-dolphin language as a way to work through the trauma of the Atlantis dolphin incident as well as critique counter-cultural and pseudo-scientific connections to nature. Featured in the installation alongside items of dolphin kitsch (postcards, figurines, etc.) was a film by Wansbrough of a group of friends breaking into the Atlantis site and engaging in group laughter therapy.
While people outside of this place might consider it simply a curiosity, a local rendering of global forces, Atlantis and these recent artworks are also about creating myths from the absurd subjects, and objects, around us. Autofictions of the city in which these subjects speak to each other are a way for artists to both study and critique white settler culture on stolen and trashed land, no matter the latter’s resilience. To live in Perth is to be aware of boom and bust, to live somewhere at some point between feast and famine, to participate in conversations speculating on the rise of iron ore prices, to excite in it, and to wonder how all that dug up earth so close and yet so far away will change what one can do at home.
The semiotics and infrastructure of Atlantis appeal to contemporary artists who are interested in the disturbance between humans and nature, myth and contemporary reality, and maybe even a clash of civilisations. They reflect on its place as part of an unsustainable lifestyle in a city dominated by extractive capitalism, inviting analysis of ongoing and unfolding ecological catastrophe, the role of imagination in failed late-stage colonial leisure-making, and the energy and waste cycles of theme parks — all this as they are bound up in the site of Atlantis as a historic and memorial project. Whereas many of the figures of Atlantis seemed cursed by ego, puffing themselves up with vanity and hot air only to fall, this new generation of artists making work from their interpretation of the place offer a paradoxical and counter-intuitive hope — that we can create an intimate critique of the violence that is just below the surface.