Restless, at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne, exhibits recent works by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists as a counterpoint to the "welt" paintings by Gordon Bennett (1955–2014). Bennett's chilling imagery can be understood as a declaration of new possibilities, responsibilities and sensitivities for Australian artists and curators. The following transcript is from an interview between Ashley Perry, Honours Fine Arts (Visual Arts) student at the Victorian College of the Arts and Dr David Sequeira, Curator, Restless.
David Sequeira: I remember the opening of Gordon Bennett’s exhibition A Black History in 1993 as an intense and unsettling experience. That Saturday afternoon, on the way to the exhibition, I saw a man lying in the middle of one of the backstreets of Fitzroy. He looked drunk and barely conscious, and there was no-one else in the street. I stopped the car to help him – to at least get him onto the footpath.
Gagging from the stench of alcohol, cigarettes, urine and body odour, I lifted him up and the blood from his head-wound smeared on my shirt and hands. He had just enough energy to call me a filthy black cunt before he passed out in my arms. I sat on the footpath with him, stressed and shaken by the fragility and ugliness that I had experienced.
Finally, a police patrol van stopped and took him away. Restless, I bought a new shirt and went on to the opening. I had never seen works of art that challenged the privilege of white history so uncompromisingly. As I looked down at the room sheet, I noticed that some of the stranger’s blood remained on my hands.
Ashley Perry: What interested you in Gordon Bennett’s exhibition A Black History at Sutton Gallery in 1993?
Not only did A Black History highlight the cruelties of Australia’s colonial values – more importantly for me, the work pointed towards contemporary manifestations of these values. These manifestations seemed everywhere – in our schools, museums and galleries. Until this exhibition I had never seen contemporary art that had been so critical of dominant histories. Bennett’s work seemed to interrogate my understanding of art history and expose its weaknesses – that it was relatively unquestioned and that it had been constructed from "white" values.
What was it about this show and these works that resonated in your mind until now?
I was especially interested in a suite of small works on canvas, some of which are included in Restless. Uniform in size and painted mostly in black and blue, these works were hung in a small room separate from the larger paintings. Parts of each canvas were painted in relief, in which cuts reveal a red interior. Bennett referred to these works as "welt" paintings, and I was struck by his symbolic use of the canvas as a scarred and unhealed skin. Across the floor of this entire room, Bennett had written the words "a black history" repeatedly. I became aware of myself engaged in the process of erasing "a black history" as I walked across the room to look at each of these works.
From that, why now? Why re-address or revisit this work today, almost 25 years on from the initial exhibition?
In 2017 the welt paintings still articulate both personal and shared experiences, and shine a light on the processes of revealing and concealing the past. My assertion is that Bennett’s work (particularly from this period) made a profound contribution to museology and curatorship in Australia. Through these works I learnt to question the hierarchies within museums and examine their role in the construction of identity and history.
I became aware of how the placement of art objects within museums impacted my understandings of them. In addition to Bennett’s unpacking of the complexities of history, his chilling imagery was a declaration of new possibilities and responsibilities for Australian artists and curators. Restless can be considered an exploration of those possibilities.
You have drawn together a range of practices for this exhibition. Could you talk about the context in which the artists produced their works, compared to when Bennett made his show?
None of the works by other artists in Restless reference Bennett – it is unlikely that these artists would be overly familiar with his work. This is not the focus of the exhibition. The main point of Restless is to highlight the types of art and curatorship that can emerge from the ideas that Bennett so powerfully articulated.
In the early 1990s it was mostly Indigenous artists who claimed the issues that Bennett brought to light. Now, issues around race, history, representation and colonisation are central to a broad range of Australian artists. There seems to be a shared responsibility about being an Australian artist that I find deeply moving.
Artist information for Restless
Implicit in Nick Devlin’s series of altered Australian flags is a critique of the fabric of Australian-ness. Exploiting the traditional emblematic use of the national flag, Devlin’s alterations question the type of Australia that the flag represents. These works suggest those Australian values recently identified by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull such as mutual-respect, democracy, freedom, rule of law and a-fair-go are not experienced by all Australians.
Karla Dickens assemblages refer to the rarely discussed sexual violence associated with colonisation. Her haunting imagery, which incorporates branding irons, stockman’s whips, bullock horns and Akubra hats, shatters the romance of the outback as a place of tranquility. Dickens’ work addresses the rape and massacre of Indigenous Australians that remains largely eclipsed by the mythology around the colonial pioneer.
Megan Evans' work results from over 30 years of investigation into what displaces a sense of belonging in Australia. Although her Scottish family history in Australia can be traced back to the early 1800's, her late husband’s Aboriginal culture is far more ancient. Evans’ "bleeding" sculptures – original 19th-century heritage objects that she has beaded and embroidered – can be understood as articulations of acute awareness that the establishment of her family in Australia took place at the expense of his.
The dark humorous quality of Jordan Marani’s work points to the absurdity and offensiveness of Australia’s recent history. His White Horse Trailer Policy (a pun on White Australia Policy) mocks the arrogance of Australia’s first parliament who promoted a homogenous population of northern European descent. The 1901 policy that was not completely dismantled until 1973 was designed with the assumption that someone with white skin was superior to someone with dark skin.
Restless runs until 19 June 2017 at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery. Event details.
Find out more about the Margaret Lawrence Gallery at the Victorian College of the Arts.
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Banner image: Megan Evans, Fox, found taxidermy fox, glass beads, cotton, steel star pickets; and Hero, found antique ship in case, glass beads, cotton, steel star pickets. Photo: Vicki Jones.
Masters students from the Victorian College of the Arts recently took part in a fieldwork intensive in the Bass Coast region of South Gippsland. Their aim? To explore how how indigenous knowledge sensitises us to the historical and contemporary complexities of regional sites.
By Dr Danny Butt, Lecturer (Master of Arts and Community Practice), Victorian College of the Arts
How can art help us understand a place? If that place is somewhere new to us, how can we go about orienting ourselves to it? And how can indigenous knowledge sensitise us to the historical and contemporary complexities of regional sites?
These were some of the questions explored by Masters students from the Victorian College of the Arts in a fieldwork intensive I coordinated in the Bass Coast region of South Gippsland in April 2017. The four-day visit was centred on the event Luminous Streets, a component of the Regional Arts Victoria Small Town Transformations initiative The Edge of Us, which links artistic works in five small towns along Westernport Bay.
With only a short period of time to get to know the area, students used a range of strategies to engage the event – some artists, such as Rich Keville, produced their own artistic response to the site in the form of luminous "graffiti" attached to the pier; while James Howard composed audio works based on field recordings taken at the site.
Other students took a more documentary approach, with Jared Kuvent taking long-exposure still photography, while Cath Rutten used interview techniques to generate data that produced a musical score – making a creative response to the typical evaluation strategies used in her work as a cultural planner.
The idea of “fieldwork” is best known in anthropology, and so the question of indigenous knowledge was central to student learning of both the site and the opportunities that fieldwork methods might present. I invited renowned Māori artist, curator and academic Dr Huhana Smith, Head of the School of Art at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand, to act as guest faculty for the site visit.
Dr Smith presented her community-based action research project Manaaki Taha Moana: Enhancing Coastal Ecosystems for Mäori in a seminar at the Faculty of VCA & MCM's Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development before joining the students out on the fieldwork site, where they were welcomed to country by Boon Wurrung artist Steve Parker and participated in a smoking ceremony.
Working with my colleagues in the arts collective Local Time, who also joined the intensive, I’ve spent the last ten years researching how artists can engage questions of indigenous knowledge and political struggles for self-determination in a respectful fashion, to enhance our sensitivity to intergenerational local knowledge of habitat and the ecosystem.
Across the world, local communities and indigenous researchers such as Dr Smith are actively working to undo the impact of colonisation on customary methods of caring for the land. Indigenous knowledge now has urgent relevance as we seek sustainable ways of life in an era of widespread environmental degradation and climate change.
While a short visit to a regional arts project could only begin to point at the potential openings for artists into these questions, the experience highlighted for students the value of place-based learning and the benefits of a holistic approach to research and community engagement.
In the words of VCA student Cath Rutten: “It was a great field trip ... such great conversations and insights from everybody. It really reminds me of how important it is to work in proximity with others."
This wasn’t just a one-way flow of information, but a real exchange. Outside of their own learning, the students contributed significantly to the Luminous Streets event with their presence and engagement. They gained first-hand insight into how a large-scale community arts project works and I’m really excited to share their findings with the organisers.
The students are currently finalising their research reports and responses, and I will be sharing them with the Regional Arts Victoria project team to feed into the next iteration of the project in 2018.
Image: Boon Wurrung artist Steve Parker introducing the class to the material history of the Westernport area. Photo: Jared Kuvent.
The ongoing Love: Art of Emotion 1400–1800 exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria was produced in collaboration with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and The University of Melbourne. Whether you’ve seen it or not, your views could help our researchers.
By Dr Amanda E Krause, Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.
While popular conceptions of love tend to focus upon romantic love, the National Gallery of Victoria’s Love: Art of Emotion 1400–1800 exhibition presents depictions of love in its many variations, in painting, sculpture, prints and drawings, as well as non-representational and functional objects such as costume, furniture and religious artefacts.
Curated by Postdoctoral Research Fellow Angela Hesson of the University of Melbourne’s ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE), it features more than 200 items from the NGV’s International Collection, some of which have never been displayed before.
But what does it teach us? What do you, as a gallery-goer, get out of visiting an exhibition of this kind?
Though the artworks in Love: Art of Emotion 1400–1800 concern historical expressions of love, we are interested in how people experience those emotions today. With that aim, we are undertaking an audience-response research project, and would love – yes, love – you to get involved.
If you haven’t already, you can visit the exhibition at the NGV until 18 June, 2017. It’s located on the ground floor, free to enter, and the NGV is open 10am–5pm daily.
But even without visiting the NGV, you can assist us. Our online survey contains questions about visiting art galleries, and about yourself, and to respond to eight key works that are part of the Love exhibition. You can access it here – many thanks in advance!
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Image: The Garden of Love (c.1465–1470), Antonio Vivarini (studio of). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
The work of VCA Art alumna Penelope Davis blends art and science to form a commentary on the impact of climate change.
By Kate Stanton, University of Melbourne
The collective noun for a group of jellyfish is a smack or a fluther. But when the creatures come together in large groups, often in small areas, it’s called a bloom.
These blooms drift on the current, forming strange and ghostly clusters that can stretch kilometres through the ocean.
Artist Penelope Davis spotted her first bloom several years ago, when she was walking along the beach near her bayside home in Melbourne. Hundreds of jellyfish spent the summer in Port Phillip Bay and, after investigating further, she discovered the creatures were uniquely suited to the warmer, oxygen-deprived waters caused by climate change.
Sea-change (detail) by Penelope Davis made with silicon, nylon thread and plastic. Photo: Simon Strong/Artist supplied
“It was quite terrifying”, says Ms Davis, who studied at the University of Melbourne.
But she felt an aesthetic attraction to the other-wordly sea creatures.
“They were intriguing. I like their semi-transparency and how they capture light.”
A bloom of jellyfish is a natural occurrence, the result of changing ocean currents, seasons or the availability of prey. In recent years, however, some scientists have wondered whether jellyfish numbers are growing – and whether a warmer planet means more jellyfish.
Scientists are still unsure, but Ms Davis was struck by the imagery of a bloom as an evocative illustration of what oceans could look like on a planet ravaged by climate change: bodies of water congested with ethereally beautiful but poisonous animals.
That is the inspiration for Sea-change, Ms Davis’ latest work, which debuted last month at the MARS Gallery in Melbourne as part of the continuing festival Art+Climate=Change 2017. The festival was convened by the not-for-profit organisation CLIMARTE, which aims to use art to spark discussions about climate change, bringing together artistic and scientific communities for exhibitions, talks and other public programs.
For Sea-change, Ms Davis collected discarded plastics and other ephemera, cast them in silicon moulds and hand-sewed the pieces together into 46 creations designed to resemble jellyfish. Suspended from the ceiling, they look just like a bloom, delicate and eerie, floating beneath the surface of the ocean.
Look closer, however, and you will recognise the shapes of the components: tap heads, plastic tops off tomato sauce bottles, mobile phone chargers, camera lenses, fishing lines and other castoffs that recall consumption, consumerism and waste.
Ms Davis says she did not set out to explore climate science in her work, but it was the natural by-product of her three-month artists’ residency last year at LAB-14, a hub of studios and working spaces for creatives, engineers, researchers and start-ups in the Carlton Connect innovation precinct which is anchored by the University of Melbourne.
Ms Davis says LAB-14 had a buzzing, purposeful atmosphere that was an inspiring contrast to her artists collaborative in St Kilda.
“I’m usually surrounded by a bunch of other artists and we talk a lot about the Melbourne art world. To go somewhere where that’s totally irrelevant and there’s all these enormous issues that people are working on, it really made me step up,” she says.
Sea-change at the MARS Art Gallery in Melbourne. Photo: Simon Strong
Ms Davis says she would meet with the building’s other residents to explain her jellyfish, and to engage with them on the issues underpinning the work. She even asked for some of them to contribute their scraps to her project.
Carlton Connect was designed to produce such interactions, says Dr Renee Beale, the precinct’s Creative Community Animator.
Dr Beale sees herself as the bridge between people of different and often segregated disciplines, such as art and science, in the hope of forcing new conversations about the world’s biggest problems. She connects scientists with artists who might need research to inform their art.
The people behind the Carlton Connect project believe that real innovation and solutions come from these interactions. A new Science Gallery, set to open there in 2018, will regularly host exhibitions that use art to help visitors engage with science.
Dr Beale also curates exhibitions, such as last year’s Absolutely Famished, which brought scientists, food experts and artists together to talk about future food trends, including robotic farming and 3D food printing.
“We recognise the importance of the creative arts in opening up new ways of thinking,” she says.
Dr Beale says many scientists are interested the emotional power of art to prompt action on research and data that isn’t always inspiring in its raw form.
Dr Peter Christoff, a CLIMARTE board member, has spent much of his career communicating the intricacies of scientific data – to politicians when he worked on the Victorian Ministerial Reference Council on Climate Change Adaptation and to students as an Associate Professor of Climate Politics and Policy at the University of Melbourne.
“The challenge has been trying to represent the information and also the arguments behind climate change in ways that are extremely accessible,” he says. “Not only accessible intellectually but also accessible emotionally.
“I think a lot of people have realised there’s only so far you can go with facts.”
Dr Christoff says the public is tiring of conversations about climate change if the same facts and images are repeated over and over. It’s important, he says, for artists such as Penelope Davis to think of new ways to connect people to the dangers of climate change.
Penelope Davis’ work in progress at Carlton Connect, LAB-14. Photo: Artist supplied
“She’s created this extraordinarily beautiful and menacing future world that is the product of all our misdemeanours,” he says of the artist’s jellyfish bloom.
“That’s one of the ambiguities of this sort of art,” he says. “It can almost entice you with that future.”
Ms Davis says she started to think about ways artists could work with scientists during her residency at LAB-14, noting that a lot of their research goes unnoticed by the public.
“I think science has this problem, they’ve known all this calamitous information for an awfully long time. But it’s very hard for them to communicate it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm people and make them shut off,” she says.
A good communications strategy is an imperative for climate scientists, who are alarmed by apathetic attitudes to a warming planet.
“Climate change is not really a scientific issue any more, it’s a public issue,” says Professor Ary Hoffman, leader of the Hoffman Group at the University’s Bio21 Molecular Science and BioTechnology Institute. He studies the ways organisms adapt to environmental change.
“How do we convince the public to take it seriously?” he says. “How do you make it meaningful for people so they take action, and at the moment, we are not seeing action being taken.
“It’s clear that we are making very slow progress.”
Professor Hoffman, who uses works of art to emphasise points in his lectures, does believe that good art has a place in the scientific community.
Dr Beale, of Carlton Connect, believes art and science should inform one another, a connection she hopes to encourage at LAB-14. It is there that a sculpturist might work alongside a 3D printing company, or a virtual reality designer alongside a painter.
“The idea of having artists juxtaposed with scientists means you have two very different ways of thinking coming together and when you have that, often new ideas spring from that,” she says.
“In a sense they’re similar,” says Dr Beale. “Both artists and scientists are very experimental, they’re open to new ideas, they work on creating things.”
Banner image: Sea-change. Photo: Simon Strong/Artist supplied
Prudence Flint graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 1989. Since then she has held solo exhibitions across Australia. She was a finalist in the Archibald Portrait Prize in 2015 and 2016, won the Len Fox Painting Award 2016, the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2004, and the Portia Geach Memorial Award in 2010.
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