In November 2016 I spent a weekend in my academic cradle, ANU in Canberra for “Thesis Bootcamp.” This critical moment pushed me to reckon with the beautiful beast of my research project. From 3pm Friday until 6pm Sunday my time was scheduled by this writing workshop. One of the coolest things about studying through ANU has been coming into close contact with some of the most brilliant minds in the country- in this case it was Inger Mewburn aka “The Thesis Whisperer” who ran the tight ship of this boot camp.
During that weekend we had to write as much as possible. It didn’t have to be the best writing, it just had to be about our research: no pressure, no pretence, just get it out. Each 5,000 words got you a little foam lego block. I churned out just over 10,000 words. My foam trophies would later sit as icons of compulsion and promise under my monitor.
All this writing crystallised the realisation that I was incredibly far from having a coherent exegesis. In spite of this, it did begin the transformation of the mass of ideas, partially formed paragraphs, and threads of meaning and concepts congesting my neural pathways since at least 2012 into an external document. Sitting next to neuroscientists and social researchers and their numerical data in the boot camp left me feeling like my visual arts research was a soft blob of fuzzy subjective conjecture. On the other hand, putting my hard fought observations into writing forced me to commit to the positions that had formed through my research. It was the beginning of making things solid, of choosing a narrative structure in spite of the inevitable partial perspective it would be.
Another reason this account starts with this weekend is because of the definition of “exegesis” provided by Inger Mewburn during that time. With a creative practice doctorate the thesis is the completed artwork which is presented for the final examination. The exegesis is the body of writing that accompanies the thesis. The function of the “exegesis” can be best understood by understanding its origins in the work of translating scripture. Translating from one language to another is not a one-to-one transaction, there are shifts and gaps that occur between language systems which displace or alter meaning. An exegesis acts as a critical account and interpretation of this process, it is an accompaniment that attempts to bridge that gap.
Without doubt the biggest cognitive burden of my research process was the exegesis that lived, breathed, and convulsed within my brain.
I do not say this with resentment. I am one of those artists who loves the theoretical (namely written) dimensions of the creative process as much as I thrive within studio.
No doubt it was in part the institutional weight of the PhD candidature and its rigorous conventions that made the unborn exegesis a mental and emotional burden. Upon reflection I can also see how the very fundamental process of translating embodied experience- felt knowledge and observation- into the particular rules of language demanded mental endurance. As a scholarly practice a scaffold needed to be generated between my own critical account of the meaning produced in my research and the ideas, theories, histories, and meanings pre-existing within culture relative to my research concerns. This sounds massive. It was. The mental space it consumed was massive too.
Ultimately the only way to expel the beast was to commit to a process of writing. Simple, right?
It took from January 2017 to February 2018 to pull it off, or out. It was a hideously long year.
There were moments of pure horror and chaos as Christmas, family visits, and school holidays coincided with the business end of writing. In the final stages I sought refuge in a friend’s vacant home for two weekends in a row. It was this uninterrupted focus that finally enabled me to complete the critical account of six years of close examination of my intersection with my environment, my intertwining with the landscape and my home.
That final period of writing was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I’d rather give birth than ever do that again. Yet just like giving birth, I would not exchange that time or the way it sculpted me anew for all the lazy Sundays in the world. The eruptions of euphoria as key ideas, observations, and concepts were finally synthesised were the richest reward.
My sister’s 40th birthday was scheduled for the weekend just after my exegesis was due. After a late night formatting the whole document I had it printed and bound in time for us to hit the road for the eight hour drive to the campground were her 40th would be held- I mean, who wouldn’t make that drive in the wake a week like that!?? (Clearly most people, but I am not most people)
The plan was post the four copies of my document to ANU from the border town of Wodonga, a day or so less in the post to make up time I’d lost in the final week.
Of course our car blew a tyre about an hour an a half from there. I don’t think I’ve ever worried less, I was on such a mental high my husband and I just giggled our way through changing the tyre like a pair of pit-lane pros on the side of the Hume Freeway. I had finally broken the enchantment that bound me to my computer and the massive piles of paper surrounding it for years, you could not bring me down.
I posted it from Benalla instead, sayonara…
By the following afternoon I was at a campground in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains with my extended family. For a brief 10 minutes I paddled my sister’s kayak out to the middle of the Snowy Hydro era lake and savoured my place in the world.
That such a critical component of my research was recognising the way we had turned the landscape inwards through our damming of such waterways to make electricity and provide clean drinking water for our homes was front of mind as I sat on the black waters of that lake.
That really cool, quiet moment in time will feed my soul forever.
Now, I was finally on the other side.
It was time to figure out how to put the river that ran through my research into material form…
I had about six weeks to have a resolved artwork reassembled at the ANU School of Art Gallery in Canberra.
Knowing where to start was tricky.
Following from my installation test at the Warrnambool Art Gallery in early February I knew that I would be somehow weaving my collection of little “warm safe houses” into a matrix of PVC pipe built to fit the mathematical dimensions- read: metaphor for the material/physical conditions of my research site- from my kitchen sink to my ensuit.
Art making is problem solving through materials. And it’s the little, very material things about materials that sit at the nub of this: which specific PVC pipe materials would I need? How many lengths of pipe? How many fittings? What kind of fittings? How would I adhere my boxes to these pipes? How would I manage the construction of this form in the central walkway of my home?
If I was a different kind of person I could have perhaps extrapolated the answers to these questions abstractly by measuring the space, imagining and precisely drawing the ideal “river” form to occupy that space and then methodically working out exactly which PVC bits would be required. This would no doubt be more efficient.
But if I was that kind of person I would be doing a PhD in Engineering not Visual Art. I think with my hands in response to things as they exist in space. The only way to figure this one out was to begin to play.
I went on-line to scope out the types of fittings that were out there. Ideas began to form.
I went to Bunnings to see what I could source immediately. I returned with small 45o & 90o elbows and a few T-joins. Using pipes from my earlier art gallery test I “drew” the linear form of a breaking wave at my ensuite and bedroom entry, a river mouth opening out. This gave me a sense of how things might go.
Following this I prepared a bulk order with an online plumbing supplier. I also dropped back out to Bunnings and bought the makings of the central “spine” (which an ANU Lecturer, upon seeing the whole exhibited work in Canberra later that month, aptly referred to as “That Big Mother-Fucker”) which would house the sound system on which the sample of my dying washing machine would be played.
I played with the remaining bits I had on hand as I waited, and waited, for my on-line order to arrive.
During this wait I completed the final stages of my “warm safe house” series. These boxes combined fabric, painted town planning maps, and photographs taken during my examination of my domestic space. I printed some of these photographs onto transparent sheet and layered them across the acrylic windows on a number of the boxes.
The last step was painting a series of icons onto about 25 of the boxes. The rationale behind incorporating these images was to document the effects of “habitual perception” witnessed throughout my research. I had observed how repeated and predictable encounters with particular facets of the everyday obscure the world’s “phenomenological depth”- i.e. we don’t need to see objects like the milk carton or sites like the shower or the concrete gutter outside our homes for anymore than what they serve in the given moment of our interaction. This is one of the ways that our everyday world’s become ordinary- and yep, this is why there is an exegesis accompanying this work…
I chose milk cartons, washing baskets, shopping bags, the kitchen tap, and the gas meter as the icons of habitual perception that intersect our gaze and adhere it to the surface of life.
As I finished painting the last of these I began to freak out that three weeks on from placing my on-line order it was still yet to arrive.
I really had attempted to not leave this all to the last minute.
With just ten days until I was due to leave for Canberra, and after about 400 distressed phone calls and emails, my missing freight was located.
At last I could properly begin.
Could I pull this off?
I “knew” what kind of form I needed to create. I knew it had to be really, really special. I was terrified that it might be almost great. I realised that pushing it beyond “almost” great would require non-stop effort, an incredible amount of materials, and the patience of my family within whose home this form would finally emerge.
The process of creating Oikos was an all absorbing dance. An interaction of making and responding through which the final form grew organically in response to the myriad parameters of its creation. A wonderful synchrony emerged between my body and the forming artwork, between my hands, eyes, materials, my home, and my ideas.
I began by placing “The Spine”- “The Big Mother-Fucker” drain pipe – in its central position and then created an outer boundary on either side using a combination of 40mm & 50mm pipes. This create a sturdy, thick framework which would allow the whole conglomeration to stand unsupported once it was in the gallery space. From here I built in sections which allowed me to only partially block the epi-centre of my home over the course of the week.
I created a solution for mounting the boxes by screwing PVC plumbing caps to them so the pipes could be plugged into them. Bless my husband’s cotton socks, he graciously helped with this time consuming job…. and bless the cordless drill who, with the right drill bit, sped the process up considerably.
Oikos took over my house. Given that this was the final stage in a long research process centred in my home it was fitting that the material form of my research should spill out and consume the domain of my family life.
Little by little, night by night, day by day (9am-3:30pm) it grew….
The best accompaniment to these photographs is the words from the final chapter of my exegesis:
“Constructing Oikos to my home’s dimensions will require me to transiently block the entrances between my kitchen, lounge, bedroom, and bathroom. This will disrupt the metabolism of this domestic organism by restricting movement of the embodied subjects whose aesthetic entanglements in this space regulate entropy and order within it. This intervention will briefly collapse the distinction between art and the everyday critiqued through this research while enabling deliberation on these objectified practices within the ordinary space in which they operate.”
“Even as energy and food circulate continuously through an ecosystem some energy always dissipates in the form of warmth. Heat is directly tied to entropy. Heat indicates the amount of disorder and net energy loss within a system. As warmth emanates from a given system or object it is as though it becomes fused with temporal-space. Perhaps the transient warmth I observed within the home is a product of the entropy we seek to delay. Perhaps warmth stretches out and fuses our subjectivities to the world like the webbing that Shiota weaves through space. The final form that Oikos takes within the School of Art Gallery will attempt to make tangible these processes through which entropy and renewal entwine in and activate materials to generate the embodied warmth and transient stability our of internal worlds.”
 Capra, F. (1997). The Web of Life. Glasgow: Flamingo: 48
 Baker, J. (2007). 50 Physics Ideas you really need to know. London: Quercus Publishing Plc: 36-39
And then, one Friday afternoon, just before school pick-up the day before I was meant to leave for Canberra, it was finished.
The dance between shapes, and lines, and angles, and textures, and ideas was done. She was done. Oikos was made.
Sometimes you get the sense of synchronicity pulling things together. There were many times during my PhD research project in which that sense was absent, thankfully during the final months a shift occurred and it felt like the universe was back on my side. In late November last year I caught the train to Melbourne for some R&R after completing drafts of what I thought were the second and third chapters of my exegesis. I sat, quite fortuitously, next to another artist Kim Sargent-Wishart. I had heard of Kim but we’d not yet met. This was a very happy accident. During our conversation she suggested that I talk to Ren Gregoric at the Warrnambool Art Gallery about testing some of my installation ideas publically. At this stage in my creative practice-led research I knew what my final artwork needed to be however I was not sure what its final form would look like in the physical world. I needed to play with the work out in the open.
I met with Ren in early January. It was clear that he was pragmatic. Ren’s approach was very much based around “how can we make that happen”, he is an enabler in the very best sense of the word and exactly the person that I needed at that point in my project. By the end of that week Ren had a date proposed for me to come in and test out some ideas in conversation with him, and a second date booked for me to publically test these along with presenting a floor talk about my research.
Over the course of my research I had worked toward refining the multiple tangents of my studio based research into a singular, cohesive installation that communicated the complexity of the body’s connection with the environment. For much of my research the pathway for doing this was illusive, however I trusted that the creative process would yield the beautiful and transformative aesthetic culmination that it always does.
Water had become an important metaphor for capturing the many different forms and layers of the body’s connection with its environment. In particular, the quote from Marily Cintra (CraftACT, 2012) “do we realise that when turn on a tap in Canberra we are diverting the river into our homes” became a crucial catalyst. Through making artworks and observing my domestic space and its relationships to the surrounding landscape and urban infrastructure it became clear that we continually draw resources into our homes to furnish the comfort and stability of their interiors. These processes of domestic space making enable us to manage the continual entropy which all things are subject to: through cleaning, mending, restocking, and tidying we delay the appearance of decay and generate order; this constant movement generates the comforting sense of the home’s internal stability.
Over the course of my research I came to represent this domestic space making in a series of small boxes covered with textures and images relative to the experience of the home’s interior.
There is a long story attached to the process of developing these boxes into the final installation… the short story is that in conjunction with reading Yuriko Saito’s everyday aesthetics one evening the image of a river comprised of these small boxes emerged in my mind. Concurrent with the modernisation of Australian homes and family life through new hygiene and cleaning practices, among other things, was the development of the landscape – in particular the Australian dam building project which saw rivers and wetlands dammed to provide the clean water that could service the needs of our growing urbanisation. A river comprised of my little handmade domestic worlds would enable me to describe that inversion of the natural environment required to make the interior worlds of our homes.
I had attempted a few approaches for creating this river which included suspending these boxes from fishing line as well as projecting video through them…
I couldn’t quite get a buzz off these approaches though. This was where talking things through with Ren and testing my ideas in the Warrnambool Art Gallery was crucial. I laid the little boxes out on the gallery floor and Ren asked what it was that I most wanted people to see, my answer: a river. Ren suggested that bringing the boxes up to eye level whilst anchoring them to floor rather than suspending them. He prompted me to really think about what any new material would bring to the reading of the work. I had three days to work out a solution. I wandered through the hardware store puzzling over the different approaches I could take, finally I came upon PVC plumbing pipe and I felt a click in my imagination. I bought several lengths and began to experiment in my back yard.
It was really important that I create a sense of fluidity through the boxes as I arranged them on the PVC stilts which would form the base of my river.
The next step was to bring this into the gallery space. A lovely little crowd turned up for my artist talk. My good friend and photographer Brendan Kelly recorded the work for me. It was really nice to share the story of my research project, the loveliest moment was hearing an audience member say “that makes sense!” as I concluded – there are possibly no greater words to hear when you are in the final stages of writing your exegesis.
The installation was accompanied by the sound of my washing machine. I had first used this sound recording in my video installation work Inside Out (2014). The sound had come to represent the flow of water through the house along with the cleaning practices through which the space is maintained. The particular recording I captured included the sound of the washing machine spinning out of balance- the presence of entropy emerging within the very processes used to keep entropy at bay.
I finally felt like the work was close. As I packed my work up Ren prompted me to think about the PVC Pipes and the way they connected to the work- how might I use them to bring more fluidity into the work? How might I build on that notion of “truth to materials”.
At this stage in my PhD I was in the final stage of writing my exegesis. Returning home from my writing refuge late one evening the final form crystallised in my imagination.
The idea that the work should be a river had persisted since early 2017. During that time I had wondered which river it should replicate- the Gellibrand River from wherein Warrnambool takes its water supply? the Mitta Mitta or Murray Rivers from my childhood terrains? Perhaps the Merri River that flows through my neighbourhood?
Considering these questions as I sat on my coffee table and I became aware of “the river” that had sat within my research and my imagination since I had first began thinking about domesticated water in 2013. This “river” had sat off to the right of my minds eye throughout the research and not until that point actually moved into my focal awareness. In a subtle way I had always imagined the river diverted through my home beginning at my kitchen tap exiting through my bathroom ensuite. I realised that this was the river that I needed to make, one that followed these dimensions.
I began with a very loose draft mapped out in the materials I had at hand. I felt excited by the potential of the work that needed to be made. I also felt terrified by the prospect of attempting to complete it to the full potential of what it needed to be.
The completed form would be created almost a month later after the exegesis was submitted and I had amassed the armoury of PVC pipes and attachments required. The process was a particular kind of magic.
I began my PhD in February 2012. My idea was to use creative practice to investigate the idea of aesthetic subjectivity. My hypothesis was that the aesthetic dimension of our experience acted as a conduit between the body and the world. I felt that aesthetic languages developed through exploring my body’s connection to its environment and making art could enable me to trace this connection. I began by examining my relationship to a number of key landscapes and then narrowed my research focus to the domain of my family home. Over time my home became a lens through which to look at the landscape and through this process I came to understand how the body overlaps with its environment.
In May 2017 I presented my Exit Paper at the ANU School of Art Graduate Conference. It was a big step towards bringing my research project to its conclusion. This paper provides a good summary of my research and includes images of work completed through this inquiry. You’ll find the link here:
My paper refers to a short film made during this research. The film is called Inside Out and you can watch it below.
Oceanarium was invited to tour to the Colac Otway Performing Arts and Cultural Centre for world environment day in June 2017. Oceanarium was built with the idea of touring in mind and this was our first opportunity to test the water.
COPACC is an amazing venue and the two techs, Nic & Nick, are an absolute dream to work with. We got Oceanarium up over the course of three and half days- not bad considering what an epic construction it is; and all packed away and back into its container in a little over a day. We recorded the whole process on our Facebook page as we went.
We opened to the public on World Environment Day. Julie Mondon from Deakin University was able to join me in presenting speeches during the opening. It was wonderful to see our beautiful Oceanarium World come back to life. Colleen Hughson recorded the opening in the series of photos just below.
We offered an education program to primary schools over the following week. I was joined by Marine Science Graduates Mia Fallon and Emmalee Storm- veterans from Oceanarium at Fun4Kids- in the delivery of these programs. We had around 600 attendees over the course of the week from numerous primary schools, the home school network, families and daycare mums with young children, and a special needs day activity group. Watching the many different levels of interaction and joy was wonderful.
The versatility of the venue, the theatre scale projectors, and the deep dark curtains allowed Oceanarium to truly sing in the space- it was magic! The high ceilings allowed Sue Ferrari’s and Karen Richards Deep Dark Other World to be suspended much higher. This created the sense that you really were down quite deep looking back up through a dark, mysterious ocean. The venue also allowed for a reconfiguration of Deborah Saunder’s Woven Forest Whale Sanctuary in relation to Colleen Hughson video work- you can get a sense of it in the video below.
In late 2016 I was commissioned by Mercy Place Aged Care Warrnambool to create a mural for their high care ward. The brief was to address two spaces within the ward. The first was the entrance hall which looked primarily like a hospital corridor. It was white and sterile. The second space was a twelve meter long wall within the dining room. Staff and management had expressed a desire to create a more warm and welcoming space within this wing of the facility which cared especially for those with dementia.
The design I created for the entrance hall sought to replicate a living room. I created a wall paper pattern and stencil to bring some domesticity to the hospice space. A fire place was painted at toward the end of the hall to draw attention away from the ward’s main doors. A plant stand was painted on the main doors in an effort to disguise the door handles.
The design for the dining room was a lot of fun. I needed to work around a number of fixtures such as the kitchen service roller door and a metal radiator. These provide the seeds for ideas- the roller door became a centre piece in the “Great Ocean Road Diner” food cart, and the radiator became part of a steel fence around a beach shack. The scene that I created was comprised of a number a smaller scenes inspired by the Warrnambool and district landscape. This was done quite deliberately to reference settings familiar to the wards residents.
I began work on the project in August and completed it in November. Locale painter and decorator Rik Fox got the walls primed with coloured base coats – soothing green in the entrance hall, warm ocher in the dining room. Rik was a gem to work with. It was a massive undertaking but a pleasure at the same time- I became an artists in residence of sorts and found myself performing the role of painter as much as I actually painted.
I met some wonderful staff, residents, and volunteers during my time working on the mural. I was often given suggestions for things to add as I painted, and often I took these up- the chickens are among these.
I had joyful conversations with residents for whom the painting stirred their own recollections of farm life, childhood, or whatever. There were so many characters. I am happy to report that the vast amount of people for whom that ward was now home were content, if not happy- and I watched how the artwork I created added to that. It was a lovely place to be a fly on the wall.
Oceanarium was created in response to an EOI advertised by Warrnambool’s Fun4Kids Festival in late 2013. My response to that EOI was the beginning of a long and valuable relationship with the festival which sadly called it a day after 19 wonderful years last month.
Oceanarium took two years to develop before being funded by Festivals Australia, Creative Victoria, and the Isobel & David Jones Foundation in 2016. I worked closely with Fun4Kids Program Coordinator extraordinaire Rebecca Elmes through that development period.
Oceanarium was presented over 7 days at the 2016 Fun4Kids Festival. Film maker and photographer Distan Bach captured the story of this amazing world.
The concept emerged from the idea of letting visitors to the winter festival experience the wonder of our local rock pool environment in the warmth and safety of an indoor art space. I initiated a relationship with Marine Biologists from Deakin University and began to research the idea. Rebecca and I met with Marine Scientist Julie Mondon and were captivated by the marine worlds, known as biomes, she described. As she described the deep dark ocean environment in which sea creatures often emit their own light- I thought of local artist Karen Richards and the intricate worlds she makes using iridescent embroidery. Julie described the many hundreds of hours of film footage collected by Deakin researchers and I thought that local film maker Colleen Hughson could be the right person to interpret these for the space. It became clear that Oceanarium needed to extend from the rock pool world I had first imagined and become an intersection of multiple marine biomes imagined through art. One final artist completed the collaboration- the beautiful hanging textile sculptures made by Narrawong artist Deborah Saunders provided a way to recreate the under water kelp forests that grow along our coasts.
The best thing about my job is getting to work with brilliant people. Thankfully Deborah, Colleen, and Karen jumped on board enthusiastically. Fellow textile artist Sue Ferrari was enlisted by Karen to collaborate, together they create the art biome “Deep Dark Other World.”
Oceanarium’s evolution was captured and shared through our Oceanarium Facebook Page– it was a massive adventure!
Not only did Oceanarium create an incredible multi-sensory world for children and families to explore, it also presented a program of activities which enabled more than 700 people to contribute to its creation. This included the crowd sourcing of footage from marine lovers by Colleen Hughson as well as video editing workshops through which school children and community members created short films for the final installation.
Together Deb Saunders and Becky Nevin Berger (aided Becky’s children and Deb’s grandchildren) taught people how to arm knit and finger knit using recycled t-shirt fabric at the Port Fairy Folk Festival, Flagstaff Hill’s Day on the Hill, and the Warrnambool Art Gallery. With the help of fellow artists Julie Poi Kelly, Becky continued this program through primary schools in Warrnambool, Port Fairy, Koroit, and Dennington. This provided an opportunity to teach students about the wondrous kelp forests that provide food and habitat to sea birds, seals, sea urchins, whales, star fish, and other creatures.
After months and months of hard work, late nights, and weekends in our respective studios, Oceanarium was installed in the Warrnambool Art Gallery for the Fun4Kids Festival. Through our partnership with Deakin University third and forth year marine biology students and education students worked as invigilators within the space` enriching the children’s interaction with the artworks.
Deborah Saunders created the Woven Forest Whale Sanctuary, a series of seven hanging textile sculptures hand dyed and lit with coloured lights to create the sense of an underwater forest.
Colleen Hughson created the Open Ocean Video Sphere which included video projections throughout and almost twenty individual films on screens embedded within the installation space.
Karen Richards and Sue Ferrari created the Deep Dark Other Work in which visitors put on head torches as they “dove” into the deep dark ocean discovering new and strange creatures as they moved through the space.
And I created the Rocky Shore Wonder Space, a large network of wooden sculptures able to be climbed on and through. Inspired by the Pickering Point rock pools in Warrnambool these rock pools were animated by coloured lights, hand engraved Perspex, “rock flaps”, hand made shells, and an assorted of texture fabrics and reclaimed materials.
I even managed to squeeze a little “rock” pool tribute in for these couple of creative geniuses who left the world as Oceanarium came to life- Prince, Lemmy, & Bowie 🙂