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 🙂
When I first met with Jon Dixon and Great South Coast Leadership Group representative and local arts advocate extraordinaire Gareth Colliton on the Port Fairy site we were greeted with lightning flashes and thunder claps. It seemed an auspicious welcoming. The night before we unveiled our completed work in March 2016 thunder again crackled through the sky. This time it was louder and the charged air felt alive. Not only alive but continuous with the life force in my own body as well as the creative life force which had guided our whole project. In the speech I prepared for our opening I decided to be courageous and share this sense of the living landscape with the audience. It was an important turning point within my practice which enabled something to gel.
The earth is alive.
And as Professor Tom Griffiths from the ANU Centre of Environmental History points out in his 2018 Australian Museum address, it has only been in the last 300 or so years that we have forgotten this.
CHARGED LANDSCAPE awakens in the evening sky. I have had the pleasure of guiding Grade Two School children on a night time exploration of the space as well as making numerous trips just for fun. On clear summer and autumn nights you can find the Dark Emu in the Sky looking over the Dark Emu imprinted in the ancient stone.
The Great South Coast Leadership Group enabled this amazing project to happen. Check out their site for more about the project and scroll down to the 2016 section of their photo gallery to see more images of the opening night.
If you want to find our more about Indigenous Australian Astronomy the following links are a good place to start: