Artist to watch
For Tarryn Gill, the ability to communicate through making is an important aspect of creative life. It runs in the family, many of her forebears making a living with their hands, as seamstresses, knitters, carpenters and leather-smiths. Her grandfather was profoundly deaf, and Gill grew up using sign language to converse with him so, unsurprisingly, hands and hand work have particular significance for her. It is, however, only recently that she has established a studio-based practice, the end product of which is wonderfully tactile objects.
While at art school, she began a long and fruitful collaboration with Pilar Mata Dupont, and together they created an international reputation for their intellectually engaging and well-crafted videos. They successfully combined their interest in dance and music theatre with their search for identity as young women from different backgrounds, living and working in twenty-first century Australia.
“An advantage of the collaboration was being able to manage large-scale projects more easily, because we could delegate tasks,” Gill explains. “It’s also
nice to share the artistic responsibility with someone and to always have someone else to bounce around ideas with.” Gill’s responsibility was often to make the costumes, sets and props, and this physical and intellectual engagement with making has been a catalyst for her new body of work.
The Finnish theorist Juhani Pallasmaa describes how making is a process of thinking with the hands, and the notion of the ‘thinking hand’ is one that has resonance when considering Gill’s work because it develops from a process that is dynamic, evolving and responsive to the materials available. “It made sense when working solo to make that hands-on process more of my focus,” Gill says. “The tactility is certainly what excites me about this work, and it is key to the way in which I’m developing, so I guess it must also be key to the way in which I communicate.”
Of course, there are continuing threads that link her collaborative video projects to her current sculptural forms, which are also narrative-driven and often created out of a desire to make immersive, theatrical environments or experiences. Consequently, in the installation of her new works, she employs theatrical sound and lighting to heighten the atmosphere in the gallery space and connect with her audience, engaging them in her self-reflexive interrogations. “I have realised that my work is actually a great deal about negotiating my own identity,” she says. “I’m attempting to figure out what’s important to me and maybe about where I fit in the great scheme of things.”
These larger themes of death, memory and consumption were explored in her immersive installation You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead, at Moana Project Space in October last year. She combined autobiographical memories with characters drawn from mythology and funerary art to generate a liminal space between the earthly and otherworldly where we could re-examine, rethink and reimagine.
Her selection for next year’s Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art will enable Gill to regenerate this project and develop those narrative threads that have connected her practice over the past decade. During the coming year, she is also undertaking short residencies in Marble Bar and Kalgoorlie for a project called Bedazzle, and developing work for Chinoiserie, a project curated by Andrew Nicholls.
SODA15: DEPARTMENT OF ART
Each year, we have an opportunity to glimpse the future, when the state’s leading art school presents its latest crop of graduating postgrads. Since 2000, Curtin University’s School of Design and Art has offered these students the opportunity to work with the professional staff of the John Curtin Gallery to showcase their work. Every show is a surprising revelation and, fifteen years on, it has established a reputation as the launching pad for many prestigious careers.
In 2015, established artists with a strong exhibition history, such as Shannon Lyons and Michael Wise, are presenting the outcome of their studio research alongside David Attwood, Peng Lui, Peter Eadie, Karen Ann Donnachie and Lauren McCartney. The latter’s body-based works take the female body as an instrument for painting to undermine the macho tradition of American 1950s Action Painting. In her work, she explores feminine implications for a process of making artworks that also embraces failure, chance and repetition.
David Attwood examines our assumptions about Non-Objective art (hard-edged, abstract painting) by incorporating contextual references in his documentation of works made in situ in urban settings, while Peng Lui uses traditional oil painting techniques to represent the Forbidden City in Beijing as a place to examine Confucian values and culture meanings. All the artists are showing the consolidated effort of years of focused research and studio practice to establish their credentials and launch their professional careers.
John Curtin Gallery, Curtin University, November 27-December 13.
UNFOLDING: NEW INDIAN TEXTILES
Maggie Baxter has had an intimate engagement with India for the past quarter-century. She has visited regularly, undertaking workshops, collaborating and documenting the extraordinary skills of local textile makers. This knowledge has now been collated into a new book, Unfolding: Contemporary Indian Textiles, which is being launched with an exhibition at the Fremantle Arts Centre.
Well known for her own textile practice that often involves collaborations with skilled makers in India, Baxter’s first-hand knowledge of the tradition and its contemporary manifestations provides us with a rare and wondrous introduction to the opulence of everyday life in India, and its long and colourful history.
The exhibition features handmade, finely crafted saris, superb uncut cloth, and streetwear by 24 contemporary Indian designers. “Unfolding showcases an exquisite array of handcrafted textiles that stunningly reimagine traditional techniques within a contemporary context,” Baxter explains. “When people come to this exhibition, they will be bowled over by the colour and the range. I think they are going to be surprised when they realise nearly everything in this exhibition has been handmade.”
Fremantle Arts Centre, until September 19.
FUNDING THE ARTS
How should governments fund the arts? This question has been given a good workout recently since the Australia Council’s announcement that funds allocated to support artists and small to medium arts organisations will be redirected toward the establishment of a National Program for Excellence in the Arts.
Fortunately the focus has changed from ‘should’ to ‘how’, with the myriad arguments supporting the benefit of the arts now well established. However, with the arts offering such a rich cache of social benefits, is it unsurprising that government might wish to propose a more focused allocation of available resources to ensure the maximum return on their investment? After so much work undertaken by the arts lobby to convince funding authorities that art is an agent of instrumental benefit across multiple areas of human engagement, it is understandable that governments might argue they should be able to allocate funds with greater efficacy to meet those goals.
However, the objectives of the proposed National Program for Excellence in the Arts are very similar to those that direct funding through the Australia Council. Their stated aim in the newly published guidelines is to “deliver a wide range of quality arts and cultural experiences that grow arts audiences; strengthen Australia’s reputation as a sophisticated and artistic nation; encourage greater private-sector partnership, and support collaborations to develop arts and culture initiatives including in specific regions or priority areas.” While this is congruent with current Australia Council policies, it does add a level of flexibility and aspirational achievement that is to be celebrated. The great disappointment is that this is not new money, and it will be allocated in a very different way.
The Government is now proposing that the arms-length policy it established through the Australia Council, by employing peer assessment as a mechanism to ensure equity and quality, is to be replaced by a ministerial decision-making process. According to the Minister for the Arts, George Brandis, “Arts funding has until now been limited almost exclusively to projects favoured by the Australia Council. The National Program for Excellence in the Arts will make funding available to a wider range of arts companies and arts practitioners, while at the same time respecting the preferences and tastes of Australia’s audiences.”
That criticism suggests a bias that favoured a few and wilfully dismissed public opinion. However, under the existing Australia Council peer assessment process, recommendations based on panel deliberations were sent to the Minister for approval. At that final step, the minister of the day had the power to accept or reject those recommendations, and many ministers did use their authority to modify allocations. The difference was that they were protected from any claims of bias or interference by that process.
With this reallocation of funds through the minister’s office to “a wider range of arts companies” and those that reflect “the tastes of Australian audiences”, it is difficult to see how any decisions made under this new regime will not be contaminated by the spectre of pork-barrelling, personal prejudice or undue influence. More importantly, it is impossible to imagine how it will not be thrown back to the minister, who will be directly involved.
The significance of this proposed change in government policy is reflected in the huge number of submissions to the Senate Inquiry into the impact of the 2014 and 2015 Commonwealth Budget decisions on the arts. With more than 2260 submissions from around the country and overseas, this is an exceptional response that indicates widespread concern. It also identifies a large and attentive audience ready to scrutinise every decision, and to make their opinions known to as many as possible. This may be the worst outcome for the arts. Peer-assessment kept decisions at arms-length from Government, however, under the new policy it is likely to become a battleground, with all the collateral damage we expect from such skirmishes.
SUSAN STARCKEN, CURATOR, EDITH COWAN ART COLLECTION
Since their establishment more than 150 years ago, universities in Australia have commissioned and collected art to enrich their cultural milieu and ensure graduates develop as fully rounded individuals. Providing students with a balanced education that includes a knowledge of the arts, through contact with their own and other cultures, has been an essential part of the philosophy of the amalgamated Western Australian Teachers Colleges that become Edith Cowan University (ECU) in 1991.
Acknowledging its role as an agent in building civic responsibility and social capital, and to help surrounding communities better understand and celebrate their cultural heritage, ECU has embraced its two-fold mission of providing a centre for teaching and research, while enriching community life by building on its substantial collection. Most recently, the university announced the establishment of a new gallery on its Mt Lawley campus.
Working with Professor Clive Barstow as head of the School of Communications and Arts, curator Susan Starcken is responsible for managing the collection and programming this new gallery in Building 10. Comprising more than 3000 works (more than half are on display around the University’s various campuses), the collection provides a wonderful resource to showcase the rich holdings of Australian and, in particular, WA art and artists.
Starcken began her professional education in the arts with an arts degree at the University of Western Australia. Switching to Fine Art at Edith Cowan University to study printmaking, she then completed a Masters degree in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at UWA before taking on the role of manager, and then curator of the Edith Cowan University Collection.
She is well equipped for the task, and keen to facilitate access to its riches. “It is a ‘public’ collection after all,” she explains. “Being out there and providing new contexts for artists in Western Australia is my aspiration.” She also relishes the opportunity to enrich community life. “Collections need to be active,” she insists, and, to ensure the new gallery achieves this goal, Starcken has already developed plans that will attract students and the wider community while providing opportunities for locally based emerging and established artists. Plans for ‘internationalising’ the program are also included in her long-term vision.
The strengths of the collection will enable major projects that examine WA painting, print media and three-dimensional works, as well as ceramics, portraiture, and the work of Aboriginal artists from the state’s southwest. Hosted on Nyoongar land, the University acknowledges its debt to the original owners and custodians of country through an ongoing collection policy and the commissioning of new work. Since 2009, the University has purchased and commissioned works by Nyoongar artists through its Kurongkurl Katitjin Centre, as part of the Vice Chancellor’s commission for NAIDOC week celebrations. Last year, Troy Bennell collaborated with ECU’s Elder-in-Residence and Cultural Ambassador Dr Noel Nannup to create a work, Bennell Songline, documenting a Nyoongar landscape with its associated songlines.
The focus on Aboriginal art from WA also enables ECU to provide access to the cultural life of Indigenous Australians through loans to Parliament House, where the works on show are viewed by 16,000 students a year, and many other local, national and international visitors.
Overseeing the collection and planning an exhibition program is a significant responsibility, one Starcken is fulfilling with care, consideration and flair.