Not unlike the myth, ‘Narcissus garden’ mesmerises

 

Future Collective member Rosemary Willink shares some thoughts on her Collection favourite — Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus garden 1966/2002.

Yayoi Kusama is everywhere right now. By this I mean she is the subject of large retrospective exhibitions worldwide and her work is captured, circulated and seen by millions of people every day on social media. So why choose a work from the Collection that has most likely already been ‘liked’ by everyone?

For three years I had the pleasure of working in the Queensland Art Gallery building, designed by architect Robin Gibson, AO (1930–2014), and recently placed on the Queensland Heritage Register. From my vantage point, I could peer down into the Watermall, a particularly challenging space to exhibit artworks. More than the logistics of installing precious works of art over water, the space itself — its visual logic of filtered light and coarse concrete surfaces — places its own demands on the works displayed.

Huang Yong Ping’s Ressort 2012, the serpent spiral, faced this challenge head on through its menacing scale and sense of movement, while Ai Weiwei’s chandelier sculpture Boomerang 2006 emanated an incandescent glow that, on its own terms, measured up to the Watermall.

Huang Yong Ping, China b.1954 / Ressort 2012 / Aluminium, stainless steel / 53m (length) / Commissioned 2012 with funds from Tim Fairfax, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist / Photograph: Mark Sherwood © QAGOMA
Ai Weiwei, China b.1957 / Boomerang 2006 / Glass lustres, plated steel, electric cables, incandescent lamps / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2007 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

For this reason, I’ve selected Kusama’s Narcissus garden 1966/2002 as my favourite Collection work. Narcissus, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a beautiful youth who rejected the nymph Echo and fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. He pined away and was changed into the flower that bears his name’. Comprised of approximately 2000 mirrored balls, the work is shaped by both the currents and the limits of the water. Clusters and constellations are formed, reflecting the building’s architecture back onto itself from an infinite number of angles. Not unlike the myth, there is a dreamy yet sinister aspect to the work — it mesmerises at the same time that it forces one to look away. Narcissus garden has appeared in other gallery spaces, but the challenge and metaphor of the iteration in water make it my favourite.

So I admire this work from a safe distance — a distance that allows me to consider and reflect on the expanding role of architecture in art or, indeed, architecture as art.

Rosemary Willink is a PhD candidate at the School of Architecture, University of Queensland, and has been a member of the QAGOMA Foundation’s Future Collective since 2016.
Feature image: Yayoi Kusama, Japan b.1929 / Narcissus garden 1966/2002 / Stainless steel balls / 2000 balls (approx.) / Gift of the artist through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2002 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc / Photograph: Ray Fulton © QAGOMA

Investing in the development of QAGOMA’s Collection

 

Now in its third year, QAGOMA’s youngest supporter group, the Future Collective are putting their combined might behind Australian artists and investing in the development of the Gallery’s Collection. The group met at GOMA last month to discuss all things commissioning and hear from the artist they voted to commission two new works by in 2016, Helen Johnson. We asked Future Collective member, Kamillea Aghtan to reflect on the event.

The Future Collective members on tour with Geraldine Barlow, Curatorial Manager, International Art viewing Pinaree Sanpitak’s Noon-nom 2016 / Photograph: Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA

On our way into GOMA we pass the fibrous form of Judy Watson’s Tow Row, which weaves a silent reminder in bronze of the Kurilpa Point’s history as a sacred meeting site along the banks of the Brisbane River. A short moment later Geraldine Barlow, Curatorial Manager, International Art, takes us on a journey: past Carsten Höller’s interactive helices of steel, Left/Right Slide 2010; through the slicing sheets of light which inhabit Anthony McCall’s Crossing 2016; down a sugary forest of Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir’s rainbow-bright Nervescape V 2016; and over eighty voluptuous ‘breaststupas’ composing Noon-nom 2016 by Pinaree Sanpitak. And finally, we settled attentive at our destination for the evening: a conversation with the artist of the Future Collective’s nominated project, Helen Johnson.

Future Collective Artist In-Conversation Helen Johnson with with Dr Kyla McFarlane, Acting Curatorial Manager, Australian Art / Photograph: Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA

The thread that ties all these artists together at QAGOMA is commission. Each has been asked to consider a particular space and time at the Gallery, and to produce a work that intimately interrelates with it. Helen Johnson’s artwork, yet to be realised, is only the second project to be supported by the pooled funds of the Gallery’s newest supporter group, the QAGOMA Future Collective. It promises to open up a unique conversation – one which carefully considers QAGOMA’s Collection as well as its own place in it, and which responds to two much-loved works owned by the Gallery: Vida Lahey’s iconic Monday Morning 1912 and A M E Bale’s Leisure moment 1902.

Vida Lahey, Australia 1882-1968 / Monday morning 1912 / Oil on canvas / Gift of Madame Emily Coungeau through the Queensland Art Society 1912 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
A.M.E. Bale, Australia 1875-1955 / Leisure moments 1902 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1973 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Helen cuts a modest figure under the auditorium lights but she fills the room with her subject matter. She has spent days carefully researching QAGOMA’s Collection in the Gallery’s Research Library narrowing the scope of her endeavour down to these two works and investigating their unspoken contexts. In conversation with Dr Kyla McFarlane, Acting Curatorial Manager, Australian Art, Helen helps us approach some of the beautifully detailed works which feature in her most recent exhibition at the Institution of Contemporary Arts, London and in The National: new Australian art, at  the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Her paintings there, a mélange of images often inspired from archival sources, are juxtaposed, layered and mapped in order to expose different narratives of colonisation, politics and society barely hidden under the glossy surface of sanctioned history.

In 2015, the QAGOMA Future Collective voted to support the Gallery’s purchase of five compelling and challenging photographs from emerging  Perth artist Abdul Abdullah’s ‘Coming to terms’ series 2015, which were displayed in ‘The 8th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT8), an exhibition viewed by over 600,000 visitors. The Future Collective’s 2016 decision to support a commission of Johnson’s work was no less daring. We don’t know what forms will be depicted in the two large-scale, double-sided hanging canvases that the artist will produce, or what messages or stories. It is like a test of faith between us, and a thrum of excitement grows in the room, redoubling between artist and Future Collective members, as we realise the depth of influence and inspiration that can emerge between works in the Gallery’s Collection and Helen’s practice.

Our decision to fund a project by the Melbourne-based female artist was also very much in line with one of the group’s driving motivations – to support exciting contemporary Australian art and artists as they gain their footing and momentum, and hopefully to provide a midway launching platform during their ascendancy. Before the close of the conversation, Helen thanked the Future Collective for enabling her the opportunity to create works for QAGOMA and explained what it means to her as an artist at this point in her career. By this time, of course, we feel equally privileged to be right there with her – sharing her ambitions, hopes and creative futures. This may have been a daring Future Collective investment, but its pay-off in artistic passion and possibility feels nothing short of immediate.

Kamillea Aghtan is the Director, Finance & Operations, Westan Australia Pty Ltd and a member of the Future Collective. She also works as an independent scholar in Brisbane and has published on regulatory and sensual ethics in a variety of platforms including academic journals, books and blogs.

Feature image: Geraldine Barlow, Curatorial Manager, International Art takes a tour past  Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir’s Nervescape V 2016 / Photograph:  Joe Ruckli © QAGOMA

A cultural centre for Queensland

 

Since the Queensland Art Gallery opened in 1982, the Cultural Centre has evolved into the arts and culture centrepiece of the state. The Gallery and the Cultural Centre is architecturally significant and demonstrates the evolution of modern landscape architecture in Queensland. Having recently entered the Queensland Heritage Register, we look at the many proposals to get to where we are today.

Throughout the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the major Queensland cultural institutions were accommodated in a range of facilities throughout Brisbane: the Queensland Museum and the Queensland Art Gallery in the Exhibition Building on Gregory Terrace, the State Library in William Street while performing arts companies utilised a variety of venues including the concert hall in the Exhibition Building, Her Majesty’s Theatre, and the City Hall (from 1928).

Queensland Art Gallery, 1982
Architectural drawing, Queensland Art Gallery, 1982

PROPOSALS FOR A CULTURAL CENTRE: 1800s – 1960s

The idea to amalgamate two or more of the key cultural institutions in Brisbane was first proposed in 1889 when, the Queensland Department of Works held a competition for the design of a museum, art gallery and library. The competition was won by Charles McLay who proposed an imposing neoclassical building on a site in Wickham Terrace above Central Railway Station. Tenders were called for the project in March 1891 just as the government was facing a financial crisis and construction did not proceed.1

Plan of proposed Museum, Wickham Terrace by Charles McLay, 1891 (QSA Item ID108156)
Plan of proposed Museum, Wickham Terrace by Charles McLay, 1891 / QSA Item ID108156

The idea of a cultural centre was again canvassed in 1927 when Raymond Nowland, architect and town planner, addressed the Town Planning Association of Queensland on the development and beautification of North Quay. Nowland proposed an ambitious scheme that involved removing unhappy structures fronting the Brisbane River and replacing them with an enlarged public library and an art gallery.2 Nothing eventuated but in 1934, Nowland re-visited the concept when working as a senior architect in the Department of Works. He was responsible for a scheme involving the redevelopment of Wickham Park fronting Turbot Street. Nowland proposed an ambitious project of three new public buildings: a dental hospital, art gallery and public library. The Courier Mail enthused about this ‘Civic Cultural Centre’, claiming that ‘at last a Queensland Government has been brought to recognise the State’s need of a national public library and a national art gallery worthy to bear those names, and to admit, also, some responsibility for repairing a long neglect of public cultural facilities in Queensland ‘s capital’.

Wickham Park aerial view with proposed Dental Hospital, Art Gallery and Public Library, 1938 / QSA Item ID328720
Wickham Park aerial view with proposed Dental Hospital, Art Gallery and Public Library, 1938 / QSA Item ID328720

The Dental Hospital was built (completed in 1941) but not the art gallery or library. They would have to wait.

Brisbane Dental Hospital and College, June 1940 / Courtesy: State Library of Queensland #54384
Brisbane Dental Hospital and College, June 1940 / Photograph: State Library of Queensland #54384

As Brisbane emerged from war-time restrictions on construction and public works projects in the later part of the 1940s, attention turned to major civic improvement schemes including beautifying the city and cultural facilities. In 1948 a scheme was proposed to move the Supreme Court buildings further east along George Street and create a square with an art gallery and new state library.4 In the following years, the Lord Mayor, Alderman Chandler, proposed a scheme of creating a wider tree-lined Albert Street from the City Hall to the Brisbane Botanic Gardens and that ‘the Art Gallery and Conservatorium should be housed near the gardens, as well as an opera house and library’.5 Again, these schemes remained but dreams.

The idea of locating the art gallery near the Botanic Gardens continued to be canvassed in the 1950s. To celebrate Queensland’s centenary in 1959, a proposal was submitted to Cabinet for the construction of a new gallery on a site near Government House at Gardens Point. The government responded enthusiastically and the Premier announced that a world-wide competition would be conducted for the design of the complex. The scheme quickly expanded into not only an art gallery but also a multi-purpose hall with seating for 1500 patrons for use for musical and dramatic presentations.6 This building was to be known as ‘Pioneers’ Hall’. The complex would be funded by a mix of public donations and government assistance. A committee was established comprising prominent identities associated with the arts and chaired by the Premier. Problems, however, soon emerged with the proposal. First, the Brisbane City Council announced in April 1959 that it was considering extending George Street through to the river for a new bridge at Gardens Point. Consequently, the area of land for the proposed Cultural Centre would be curtailed. Secondly, potential art-loving benefactors were concerned that their contributions would be devoted to the ‘Pioneers Hall’ and not a new art gallery. After the euphoria surrounding centenary celebrations had subsided in 1959, the scheme was eventually abandoned.

Another site in the Brisbane CBD soon emerged as the possible location for a Cultural Centre. The Brisbane Municipal Markets had operated from a site fronting Roma Street since 1881 and in 1960, the Market Authority decided to relocate to a new site at Rocklea. A range of uses for such a prime site were soon forthcoming, including a proposal by the Brisbane Women’s Club that it be reserved for a ‘Cultural Centre, together with a self-governing Art Gallery with adequate car parking facilities provided’.7 The State government commissioned the architectural firm, Bligh Jessup Bretnall and Partners, to prepare a master plan of the Roma Street precinct. The plan included a new State Gallery and Centre for Allied Arts located on the market site.8 While the government endorsed the plan and the location of an art gallery on Roma Street, the Brisbane City Council, who by this time had responsibility for the former market reserve, opted for a park.9 The council’s view was that a cultural centre was best suited in the Botanic Gardens as it had aspirations of developing a new botanic gardens at Mount Coot-tha.10 So like all previous proposals for a cultural centre, the Roma Street site had been abandoned by the end of 1968.

Within the Department of Works, however, the concept was still alive. The need for a new art gallery was a priority, but in late 1968, Roman Pavlyshyn, senior architect in the Works Department wrote to David Longland, the Director-General of the Works Department suggesting that the gallery ‘should be part of a complex of buildings dedicated to cultural purposes, including an opera and drama theatre and the Queensland Museum’.11 Longland pursued the idea with his Minister, Max Hodges, who then raised the matter with the Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Hodges urged that a Select Committee be established to examine the need for a cultural centre, investigate the most appropriate site, and recommend methods of financing.12 The Premier then referred the matter to the Treasurer, Gordon Chalk. Although in general agreement with the concept, Chalk maintained that a new art gallery was a ‘matter of urgency’.13 Chalk was concerned that establishing such a committee would potentially delay for several years a new art gallery.

A NEW ART GALLERY

From its beginnings in 1895, the Queensland National Art Gallery had occupied a succession of spaces in various public buildings. From 1930, it had been accommodated in the former Concert Hall in the Exhibition Building on Gregory Terrace. These facilities were less than adequate and the Board of Trustees lobbied the Queensland government over an extended period for a purpose-built gallery. Finally in November 1968, the Board convinced the government to act.

The Gallery opened in 1895 in the now demolished Brisbane Town Hall building in a large upper room placed at the disposal of the Trustees by the Municipal Council / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane
The  Queensland National Art Gallery opened in 1895 in the now demolished Brisbane Town Hall building in a large upper room placed at the disposal of the Trustees by the Municipal Council / Photograph: State Library of Queensland

In November 1968, prominent Australian art critic and historian Professor Bernard Smith visited the Gallery and told the Courier Mail that ‘one only has to be inside this gallery— even for 24 hours—to see that art in this institution is in a pretty sorry position’.14 The Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Sir Leon Trout, agreed. He asserted ‘the gallery is hopeless’ and publicly supported Smith’s claims that art in Queensland was ‘weedy and malnourished, and in a sense, suffering from cultural rickets’.15 These very public disparaging comments prompted an immediate response from the Government. Within two days, the acting Premier, Gordon Chalk, announced an investigation into the future of the Queensland Art Gallery.16 In January 1969, Cabinet approved the establishment of the Queensland Art Gallery Site Committee.17

SITE SELECTION AND PLANNING – A NEW ART GALLERY

Overlooking South Brisbane, site of the future Queensland Art Gallery, 1950s
Overlooking South Brisbane, site of the future Queensland Art Gallery, 1950s

The committee examined twelve possible sites, and then reduced the number to three for more detailed consideration: Holy Name Cathedral site, Fortitude Valley; Brisbane City Council Transport depot, Coronation Drive; and Riverside Drive, South Brisbane.18 The committee agreed that the site at South Brisbane bounded by Melbourne and Grey Streets and the Brisbane River was the most suitable and in every way it appeared to be the most viable:

It was the Architecturally-preferred site;
The Brisbane City Council would be making a valuable contribution;
It was the site which would do most for the City of Brisbane;
There was potential for use of a similar block on the other side of Melbourne Street for cultural facilities.19

Some of the land was already in public ownership—State and Brisbane City Council—but a substantial number of privately owned allotments had to be acquired for the project. This became a lengthy process and some owners objected to the valuations.

Aerial view of South Brisbane c.1969
Aerial view of South Brisbane c.1969

Not until most of the land had been acquired did the government appoint a Steering Committee to provide a comprehensive report on the various requirements of the new Art Gallery, ‘sufficient to form the basis for the preparation of the design and for the development of planning and construction documents for the new building’.20 The committee was appointed in July 1971 and was chaired by Roman Pavlyshyn, Assistant Under Secretary in the Department of Works.21 Pavlyshyn was the principal author of the report and went on to play an influential role not only in the development of the Art Gallery but also the Cultural Centre.22

Site for the new Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank, 16 March 1976 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
Site for the new Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank, 16 March 1976 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

The report was comprehensive and included recommendations on space requirements, costs, method of planning and construction and a detailed planning brief. The committee concluded a building of 140 000 sq feet (13 000 m²) at an estimated cost of $4.5 million was required.23 The report alluded to the possibility that the site could be used to accommodate other cultural activities. The committee recommended that a two-stage architectural competition be held to select an architect for the design of the new gallery.

The planning brief was concise but thorough. It emphasised ‘that the gallery should be an active and human place to which the visiting public will be attracted to participate in the enjoyment of the facilities provided by the gallery’. The brief, also noted, rather presciently, ‘that it is possible that the future activities and requirements of the gallery may call for facilities which cannot be foreseen at present’.24 Significantly, the Planning Brief not only addressed issues such as functional requirements, the site and town planning issues, but also focused on desired design criteria. They included the following principles:

It is desirable that the building itself should be of the highest possible standard of architectural design. This does not mean that it should be either monumental or pretentious in character. It should be a building of its time incorporating the best techniques and materials available within the economic limits of the project.

A public gallery is a symbol of artistic and cultural development. It should have human qualities and attractions of a kind which encourage people to visit the collection, and to take pleasure in being in a place where the artistic achievements of the community are effectively but unostentatiously displayed for their enjoyment.

More informality should be the keynote which should also take advantage of the subtropical climatic conditions which prevail in Brisbane. The site on the Brisbane River selected for the building, suggests that it should be outward looking to take advantage of the views of the tree-clad hills which form the setting for the city of Brisbane. The gallery will be seen to great advantage in views from across the river and from other vantage points in the city.

The fine, Mediterranean-like quality of the Brisbane climate is such that a building, light in colour, but carefully modelled to give interesting effects of light and shade might be most suitable…

The landscaping proposals for the site should be an integral part of the total design. Courts for the display of sculpture and shaded areas for rest and relaxation should be included. The paving, lighting and furnishing of these areas to the relationship of the building and its setting to the river are all matters of particular design importance.25

The design principles also addressed issues of space, volume and scale. The planning brief stressed that the ‘relationship of the exhibition spaces or galleries to each other is of great importance’ and that ‘areas linking the display galleries should be attractively arranged, where possible, with views outside the building to provide contrast and to avoid museum fatigue’. The brief highlighted the importance of access and circulation, stressing that ‘it is of the greatest importance that a major public building of this kind should have an appropriate address’ and that ‘the main public entrance should be clearly identifiable and attractively designed’.26

The planning brief submitted in March 1972 was a key document in the successful design and development of the art gallery, due to its clarity, vision and understanding of the context and requirements for a modern art gallery. It was accepted by Cabinet and approval given to proceed with the project.27

THE COMPETITION

As recommended by the Steering Committee, a two-stage design competition was conducted. The assessors panel consisted of Sir Leon Trout, Chairman of the Queensland Art Gallery Board of Trustees, Roman Pavlyshyn, Assistant Under Secretary, Department of Works, and Stanley Marquis- Kyle, representing the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. The first stage was to invite ten firms on the register for Queensland government work with the Works Department to participate in the competition. These firms were all well respected Brisbane-based architectural firms.28 The first stage closed in November 1972 and the names of the three firms proceeding to the second stage were announced in the following month. They were:

Bligh Jessup Bretnall and Partners; Robin Gibson and Partners; and Lund, Hutton, Newell Paulsen. The second stage closed on 1 March 1973 and the winner of the competition, Robin Gibson and Partners, announced on 16 April 1973.29 The assessors concluded that the ‘winning design exhibits great clarity and simplicity of concept and relates admirably to the environment and site’.30 Gibson later commented to the Steering Committee for the new Art Gallery that in ‘developing the design to final completion it was necessary to keep in mind the original basic design philosophy’ that had been articulated in the Planning Brief.31 Gibson began working on the detailed design for the art gallery but the program was delayed when the question of a cultural centre re-surfaced as a definite project.

RE-EMERGENCE OF A CULTURAL CENTRE SCHEME

While the art gallery project had been the focus of the government’s attention, the plans for a cultural centre were not entirely abandoned. In March 1971, Allan Fletcher, Minister for Education and Cultural Activities submitted a proposal to Cabinet for the acquisition of two blocks at South Brisbane for the State Library and Museum. Fletcher had the support of the Brisbane City Council, but the proposal was rejected.32 By early 1974, the emergence of a range of issues coalesced to bring the need for a cultural centre at South Brisbane to the government’s attention.

G H M Addison, Australia 1858-1922 / (Architect’s drawing of Exhibition Building, Gregory Terrace) c.1890 / Pen, ink and gouache on light-brown heavy smooth paper / Gift of Herbert S. Macdonald 1958 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
G H M Addison, Australia 1858-1922 / (Architect’s drawing of Exhibition Building, Gregory Terrace) c.1890 / Pen, ink and gouache on light-brown heavy smooth paper / Gift of Herbert S. Macdonald 1958 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

Just as much as a new art gallery was a priority, it had become increasingly clear that a new museum, state library and a state-of-the-art performing arts centre was also needed. In 1973, the Board of Trustees of the Queensland Museum had commissioned a feasibility study on the re-development of the Queensland Museum as the conditions in the Exhibition Building were less than adequate.33 The study investigated a range of sites and recommended a site within Albert Park with a building of 216 000 sq feet (19 565 m²) floor area.34 This study provided a compelling argument for a new museum. Similarly, the State Library, occupying a building erected in 1879 with extensions in 1959, was in urgent need of additional space, not only for the collections but also for users. The Works Department commissioned Robin Gibson and Partners to undertake a feasibility study to demonstrate how the existing building in William Street could be extended.35

Although the state government did not own or operate a major performing arts venue, the sale of Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1973 was cause for grave concern about the future of the performing arts in Brisbane. The building had been the main venue for opera, ballet and dramatic performances since 1888. The new owners intended to demolish the building and re-develop the site.36

Model, Queensland Art Gallery 1973 / Photograph: Richard Stringer
Model, Queensland Art Gallery, 1973 / Photograph: Richard Stringer

In February 1974, Alan Fletcher the Minister for Education and Cultural Activities, submitted to Cabinet a proposal for the acquisition of a site for a performing arts centre. Unlike the previous occasion when he sought Cabinet approval for land for a new library and museum, on this occasion approval in principle was given to investigate the question.37 The suggested site was at South Brisbane to the north-west of the Art Gallery site. Two months later, the Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen announced that ‘Brisbane may get an Arts Centre’. In a media release he said the centre could incorporate the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, a concert hall and facilities for live theatre, ballet and other performing arts. The Premier said he had asked the Coordinator General to undertake a feasibility study into the planning and financing of the centre.38

The member for Chatsworth, WD Hewitt, expressed his concerns in a speech in the Legislative Assembly in September 1974. He commented:

It is obvious that Brisbane needs a cultural centre and that urgent attention must be given to this matter…Recognising that Her Majesty’s Theatre is presently under the threat of the wrecker’s hammer, I submit that some action must be taken to fill the vacuum that its closure would cause.39

Hewitt surprisingly would not wait long for an answer, the Treasurer, Gordon Chalk, had engaged Robin Gibson and Partners to assist in the development of a brief and prepare sketch plans and a physical scale model Cultural Centre at South Brisbane.

Model of the Cultural Centre prepared in 1974 / Courtesy: Richard Stringer QPACA
Model of the Cultural Centre prepared in 1974 / Photograph: Richard Stringer QPACA

Chalk announced his presented scheme to the public on 14 November 1974 as part of the Liberal Party policy launch for the State election in the following month. Chalk said the complex would comprise a museum equal to any in Australia; an outstanding art gallery; a performing arts centre; a new public library; and restaurant’.40 On the day of the announcement, Chalk unveiled in his office a model of the complex prepared by Robin Gibson and Partners. The Courier Mail declared that leading figures in the arts community were unanimous that this was an ‘imaginative and exciting project.’41

Cultural Centre model 1975/ Photograph: Richard Stringer QPACA
Cultural Centre model, 1975/ Photograph: Richard Stringer QPACA

The initial plans and scale model of the Cultural Centre differed in some key elements from what ultimately eventuated on the site. The general location of the principal four buildings was as finally determined. However, the 1974 model was distinguished by triangular and trapezoidal building forms, unlike the later simpler rectangular expressions. The gallery was diagonally aligned to face Melbourne Street and the river and stepped to a plaza. An overhead walkway over Melbourne Street linked the two parts of site.

Model of the Cultural Centre c. 1977 with more detail than shown in the 1975 model / Photograph: Richard Stringer QPACA
Model of the Cultural Centre, c. 1977 with more detail than shown in the 1975 model / Photograph: Richard Stringer QPACA

Chalk presented his proposal for a Cultural Centre at South Brisbane to Cabinet on 18 November 1974.42 The submission outlined the current needs of the various cultural institutions and the advantages of an integrated and coordinated complex. Co-locating an art gallery, museum, library and performing arts centre would mean the sharing of car parking facilities, restaurants, mechanical services and some staff resources. In addition, the close proximity of the institutions had the ‘potential for much needed interaction’. The total cost for the Cultural Centre including land acquisition, car parking and site works was $45.4 million.43 

Aerial view of the Cultural Centre, 1978
Aerial view of the Cultural Centre, 1978

Cabinet agreed to the project and the following immediate action:

(i) Acquire the necessary land as urgently as possible
(ii) Establish a body for the Performing Arts Centre
(iii) Establish a coordinating and planning management body for the overall cultural complex.

Queensland Art Gallery
Queensland Art Gallery, 1982

The question remained—would this be the scheme that came to fruition? The Courier Mail editorialised that ‘Queenslanders understandably have become cynical after 79 years of promises…[and] there is nothing like an election to get things moving’.44 But in this case they did.

Queensland Cultural Centre, 1982
Queensland Cultural Centre featuring the Queensland Art Gallery, 1982

This is an extract from the Queensland Cultural Centre Conservation Management Plan (published 2017), prepared by Conrad Gargett in association with Thom Blake, Historian and heritage consultant. Thom Blake researched and wrote the chapters on the history of the Cultural Centre and revised statement of significance. The individual building’s architecture, the site’s setting, landscape and fabric were investigated by Luke Pendergast with principal support by Robert Riddel. Alan Kirkwood and Peter Roy assisted with advice on the design approach and history of the planning and construction of the Cultural Centre.

Endnotes
1  Brisbane Courier, 2 October 1889, 7 November 1889, 25 March 1891.
2 Brisbane Courier, 27 February 1927.
3  Courier Mail, 13 November 1934.
4  The Sunday Mail, 14 March 1948.
5  The Sunday Mail, 30 October 1949.
6  Australian Institute of Architects, ‘Application for entry of a State Heritage Place, Queensland Cultural Centre,4 August 2014’ww, p. 22.
7  Proposed use of former Municipal Markets Reserve, 15 January 1969, QSA Item ID961644.
8  Bligh Jessup Bretnall and Partners, Plan for Redevelopment of Roma Street Area City of Brisbane, Department of the Co-ordinator General of Public Works, Brisbane, 1967; Courier Mail, 11 January 1967.
9  Courier Mail, 16 November 1968.
10  Australian Institute of Architects, Application, p. 23.
11  Pavlyshyn Memoirs.
12  Minister for Works and Housing to Hon. Joh Bjelke-Petersen, 10 January 1969, QSA Item ID957244.
13  Gordon Chalk to Hon. Joh Bjelke-Petersen, 21 February 1969, QSA Item ID957244.
14  Courier Mail, 14 November 1968.
15  Ibid.
16  Courier Mail, 16 November 1968.
17  Cabinet decision No 12536, 14 January 1969, QSA Item ID541022.
18  Queensland Art Gallery Site Committee, ‘Proposed Art Centre Site Investigation’, March 1969, QSA Item ID 961664. The initial sites considered were: Exhibition building site; Albert Park, Old Markets Roma Street, Botanic Gardens, Central Railway Station, block bounded by Wharf, Adelaide and Ann Streets, Holy Name Cathedral, Isles Lane, Treasury Building, Lower Edward Street, Riverside Drive near Victoria Bridge, Brisbane City Council Transport depot Coronation Drive.
19  Ibid., p. 2.
20  New Queensland Art Gallery Steering Committee, ‘Queensland Art Gallery Report’, March 1972, QSA Item ID961664.
21  The other committee members were: AE Guymer, Director General of Education; Sir Leon Trout, Chairman of the Board of Trustees; AJ Stratigos, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Trustees, James Weineke, Director of the Queensland Art Gallery, Professor GE Roberts, Professor of Architecture, University of Queensland; Peter Prystupa, Supervising Architect, Department of Works. (New Queensland Art Gallery Steering Committee, ‘Queensland Art Gallery Report’, March 1972, QSA Item ID961664. p. 2).
22  Although Pavlyshyn is not specifically identified as the author, it is clear from other reports he wrote and also the minutes of the Steering Committee on 26 October 1971, that he was responsible for drafting the text on which the committee then provided comment (Minutes of Steering Committee, 26 October 1917, QSA Item ID601046).
23  Land acquisition, site works and a car park were estimated at $2.5 million, Ibid, p. 6.
24  New Queensland Art Gallery Steering Committee, ‘Queensland Art Gallery Report’, March 1972, QSA Item ID961664, Appendix C, p. 4.
25  Ibid., pp. 7-8.
26  Ibid., p. 9.
27  Cabinet decision No 16829, 21 March 1969 QSA Item ID601046.
28  These firms were: James Birrell and Partners; Bligh, Jessup, Bretnall and Partners; Consortium of Codd, Hopgood and Associates, HJ Parkinson and Associates, Blair M Wilson; Conrad, Gargett and Partners; Cullen, Fagg, Hargraves, Mooney and Cullen; Fulton, Collin, Boys, Gilmour, Trotter and Partners; Robin Gibson and Partners; Hall, Phillips and Wilson; Lund, Hutton, Newell, Paulsen;and Prangley and Crofts (Under Secretary, Department of Works, 15 August 1972, QSA Item ID601046).
29  Courier Mail, 17 April 1973.
30  The Australian, 17 April 1973.
31  Minutes of the Steering Committee for the new Queensland Art Gallery, 10 January 1974, QSA Item ID601046.
32  Architects Institute of Australia, Submission, p. 24.
33  Fulton, Collin, Boys, Gilmour, Trotter & Partners, Feasibility Survey Re-Development of Queensland Museum, 1973, QSA Item ID315623.
34  A total of 17 sites were considered and three short-listed: Albert Park, Woolloongabba Rail Yards and Toowong East (currently bush-land between Old Mount Coot-tha Road and Birdwood Terrace).
35  Plans, State Public Library feasibility study, QSA Item ID121879.
36  Courier Mail, 28 June 1973. Her Majesty’s Theatre was finally demolished in 1983 and the Hilton Hotel and Wintergarden Shopping Centre built on the site.
37  Cabinet decision No 20057, 5 February 1974, QSA Item ID569765.
38  Media release, 28 April 1974, QSA Item ID569765.
39  Queensland Parliamentary Debates, 11 September 1974, p. 720.
40  Courier Mail, 15 November 1974.
41  Ibid.
42  Cabinet decision No 21481, QSA Item ID541022.
43  Ibid.
44 Courier Mail, 16 November 1974.

Galvanised into action: The transformation of the Queensland Art Gallery

 

When the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) opened in a new building at South Brisbane in 1982, the contrast with the first art gallery established in Queensland could not have been more marked.

The Queensland National Art Gallery was established in 1895, occupying a room on the first floor in the Brisbane Town Hall.1 It was truly a modest space and the gallery’s collection comprised a mere ‘twenty-four pictures, one marble bust, seventy engravings, [and] twenty-seven pieces of Doulton ware’.2

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The Gallery opened in 1895 in the now demolished Brisbane Town Hall building in a large upper room placed at the disposal of the Trustees by the Municipal Council / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane
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The opening display in the Queenslander, 13 April 1895 / Lagging well behind Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales, Queensland’s National Art Gallery opened more or less permanently to the public for the first time on Friday afternoon, 29 March 1895. The modesty of this exhibition makes an interesting comparison to the opening of Brisbane’s lavish new Cultural Centre on the city’s South Bank. Hung not in a costly new building complex but given temporary quarters in the upstairs room of the Town Hall, the Collection consisted of a curious mixture of Old Masters and contemporary works and included both copies and originals / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

This room quickly became cramped and in 1905, the Queensland Government offered the Gallery a large room on the third floor in the recently completed Lands and Survey Offices (later Lands Administration building) in George Street. Although it provided more space than the room in the Town Hall, it still had limitations as an art gallery. The room was not easily accessible by the public and soon became cramped as the collection expanded.

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On 18 December 1905, the Gallery reopened in a purpose-designed room the length of the third floor above George Street in the recently completed Executive Building where it remained until 1930. During construction it was known as the New Lands and Survey Offices. The renamed Lands Administration building is a four-story building occupying a site bounded by George Street, Stephens Lane, William Street and Queens Gardens. The building currently forms part of the Conrad Treasury Casino and houses a five star hotel. The form and scale of the building complement the former Treasury Building and the former State Library located nearby. The building was designed by the Queensland Government’s chief architect Thomas Pye in the Edwardian Baroque style. The building was initially intended as offices for the Queensland Government’s Lands and Survey Departments, when finished and occupied in 1905 as the Executive Building, accommodating both the Lands and Survey Departments and offices of the Premier and Executive Council / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
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‘The Queensland National Art Gallery — Entertaining the visiting Premiers and their friends’. The Queensland Art Gallery Collection in the former Queensland Government Executive Building, 1907 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
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The Queensland Art Gallery Collection in the former Queensland Government Executive Building, 1916 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

The Gallery moved again in 1930 when the Concert Hall in the Exhibition Building on Gregory Terrace was renovated for use as an art gallery. The Brisbane Courier noted that

the new gallery is symmetrical in form, and adequate provision has been made for modern methods of lighting. There is a great amount of wall space, and, perhaps, for the first time, all the State’s art treasures will simultaneously be open for public inspection.3

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Queensland Art Gallery in the Exhibition building, Gregory Terrace (Department of Works Annual Report, 1931)
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The Exhibition Building’s Concert Hall provided the Gallery’s premises from 1930 to 1974. The Old Museum was originally called the Exhibition Building and Concert Hall. It was built in 1891 for the Queensland National Agricultural and Industrial Association after Brisbane’s first exhibition building, which had occupied the land, was destroyed by fire on 13 June 1888. The new exhibition building was designed by the architect George Henry Male Addison (1857–1922). The style of the building may best be described as progressive eclecticism. In 1899, the Exhibition Hall became home to the Queensland Museum, with the museum remaining in the building until the museum’s relocation to the Queensland Cultural Centre in 1986 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
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G H M Addison, Australia 1858-1922 |(Architect’s drawing of Exhibition Building, Gregory Terrace) c.1890 / Pen, ink and gouache on light-brown heavy smooth paper / Gift of Herbert S. Macdonald 1958 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
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The Exhibition Building when it was occupied by the Queensland Art Gallery from 1930 / Reproduced courtesy: John Oxley Library, Brisbane
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The Exhibition Building was occupied by the Queensland Art Gallery until 1974 | Reproduced courtesy: The Courier Mail / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

The Brisbane Courier also claimed, rather optimistically, that the Exhibition Building provided an ‘almost ideal home’ for the Gallery.4 It may have been suitable for a period, but the limitations and inadequacies soon became apparent. Within a decade the government decided to move the Art Gallery to the Supreme Court buildings when new courts were built. World War II intervened and planning was put on hold.

Criticism of the suitability of the Exhibition Building for an art gallery were continually expressed by art critics and connoisseurs.5 In 1947 art critic Clive Turnball complained ‘the glaring light is wholly unsuitable for the display of pictures, and the drab walls induce an atmosphere of despair’. He despaired that ‘obviously nothing can be done with this lamentable place’.6 The Queensland Government was aware of problems and throughout the 1950s and 1960s considered sites for a new gallery. 7 Yet no firm decisions were forthcoming.

The government was finally galvanised into action when art critic and historian Professor Bernard Smith visited the Gallery and told the Courier Mail that ‘one only has to be inside this gallery—even for 24 hours—to see that art in this institution is in a pretty sorry position’.8 These very public disparaging comments prompted an immediate response from the government. Within two days, the acting Premier, Gordon Chalk, announced an investigation into the future of QAG.9 In January 1969, Cabinet approved the establishment of the QAG Site Committee.

A site at South Brisbane was selected but acquisition of the land took more than three years to finalise. A planning brief was prepared by a committee appointed in July 1971, and was chaired by Roman Pavlyshyn, Assistant Under Secretary in the Department of Works.10 The report was comprehensive and included recommendations on space requirements, costs, method of planning and construction and a detailed planning brief. The committee concluded a building of 140 000 sq feet (13 000 m²) for an estimated cost of $4.5 million was required.11

A competition was held to select an architect for the design of the new gallery. The winner of the competition, Robin Gibson and Partners, was announced on 16 April 1973.12

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Model, Art Gallery 1973 / Courtesy: Richard Stringer

While progress on the design and development of the art gallery continued, in the early 1970s, conditions in space occupied by the art gallery in the Exhibition Building were rapidly deteriorating. In March 1974, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Leon Trout, wrote to the Minister for Education and Cultural Activities about major problems with water leaks during the floods in January 1974, and also fire hazards due to faulty wiring.13

Following a report from the Department of Works, the Government decided to act and close the gallery. Temporary premises were obtained on the fifth and sixth floor of the MIM building, Ann Street. The Art Gallery remained there until the opening of the new gallery in 1982.

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Postcard highlighting the Australian School Galleries, Queensland Art Gallery, M.I.M. building / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

Gibson began working on the detailed design for the art gallery but the program was delayed when the Queensland Government announced in November 1974 that the project was to be significantly enlarged to a Cultural Centre incorporating as well as the art gallery, a performing arts centre, museum and library. In the expanded scheme, the art gallery was still the first stage to be constructed. Stage 1 was divided into four components.

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Site for the new Queensland Art Gallery, South Bank, 16 March 1976 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
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Construction of the Queensland Art Gallery at South Bank began August 1978, this photo taken 11 June 1979 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

Construction proceeded according to schedule and the Art Gallery took possession of the building in March 1982.

The design and planning of the Art Gallery followed closely the original principles enunciated in the Planning Brief of 1972.

The main entrance is located on the south-eastern corner and is readily identifiable from the main plaza and the Victoria Bridge. From the main foyer, the most prominent and striking aspect of the interior is immediately apparent—the Water Mall. The Water Mall functions as the main orientation element both externally and internally and assists in making the organisation of the gallery comprehensible to the visitor, as well as giving a special Queensland sub-tropical character to the building. The Water Mall also serves as a parallel reflection of the river. The main foyer also provides visual connectivity to the multi-level galleries.

Robyn Gibson and Raoul Mellish at the Queensland Art Gallery construction site
Raoul Mellish (Director 1974-1987) with Queensland Art Gallery architect Robin Gibson. Construction of the Queensland Art Gallery on South Bank, South Brisbane began in 1977 / Photography: Richard Stringer / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
Robyn Gibson and Raoul Mellish at the Queensland Art Gallery construction site
Raoul Mellish (Director 1974-1987) with Queensland Art Gallery architect Robin Gibson. Construction of the Queensland Art Gallery on South Bank, South Brisbane began in 1977 / Photography: Richard Stringer / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

Architect Robin Gibson described the design intent for the Art Gallery.

It is a place where the walls and barriers of the gallery are broken down, where there is a constant source of interchanges between the art world and the public—a living gallery—a place of subtle and changing light values where the ultimate experience of the confrontation between the viewer and the art work can be realised.

To create this, walls, have been placed to promote the flow or change the course of the viewer’s itinerary so that, as one traverses the gallery, spaces will reveal the subtle variations of the display.14

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Peter Paul Rubens, Flanders 1577-1640 / Young woman in a fur wrap (after Titian) c.1629-30 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1980. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

The Art Gallery was opened by the Premier of Queensland, the Honourable Joh Bjelke- Petersen on 21 June 1982. As part of the opening function, the Deputy Premier, the Hon. Llew Edwards unveiled an acquisition Young woman in a fur wrap by Peter Paul Rubens, made possible through a gift by the Foundation. As part of the opening celebrations five international exhibitions were opened at the gallery which attracted more than 50 000 visitors in the first ten days.16

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Queensland Art Gallery, June 1982 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
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Queensland Art Gallery, June 1982 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library
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Queensland Art Gallery, June 1982 / Collection: QAGOMA Research Library

The success of the Art Gallery was not only evident in the public reaction but in the acclaim by art critics. In 1983, the Art Gallery won the Sir Zelman Cowan Award for Public Buildings, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects’ highest award for public buildings.

The building unquestionably transformed QAG. It contained all the prerequisite facilities for a modern art gallery with proper storage facilities, offices and laboratories. Importantly, the building provided a significantly increased capacity to exhibit more of the permanent Collection and also temporary exhibitions which was the catalyst for major changes in the Gallery and its reputation as a State Gallery. From the outset, the Gallery began actively expanding its permanent Collection and also established a program of a wide range of exhibitions. The new building allowed QAG to enter into loans of highly important and valuable work, which brought pride and international cultural exemplars to Queensland.

This is an extract from the Queensland Cultural Centre Conservation Management Plan (published 2017), prepared by Conrad Gargett in association with Thom Blake, Historian and heritage consultant. Thom Blake researched and wrote the chapters on the history of the Cultural Centre and revised statement of significance. The individual building’s architecture, the site’s setting, landscape and fabric were investigated by Luke Pendergast with principal support by Robert Riddel. Alan Kirkwood and Peter Roy assisted with advice on the design approach and history of the planning and construction of the Cultural Centre.

Endnotes
1  Brisbane Courier, 30 March 1895.
2  Brisbane Courier, 21 August 1896.
3  Brisbane Courier, 30 October 1930.
4  Brisbane Courier, 30 October 1930.
5  Sunday Mail, 27 October, 1946.
6  Quoted in Peter Marquis-Kyle, Old Museum Building conservation management Plan, 2000, p. 27
7  Cabinet Decision No 2145, 12 January 1960, QSA ID 961664.
8  Courier Mail, 14 November 1968.
9  Courier Mail, 16 November 1968.
10  The other committee members were: AE Guymer, Director General of Education; Sir Leon Trout, Chairman of the Board of Trustees; AJ Stratigos, Deputy Chairman of the Board of Trustees, James Weineke, Director of the Queensland Art Gallery, Professor GE Roberts, Professor of Architecture, University of Queensland; Peter Prystupa, Supervising Architect, Department of Works. (New Queensland Art Gallery Steering Committee, ‘Queensland Art Gallery Report’, March 1972, QSA Item ID 961664. p. 2)
11  Land acquisition, site works and a car park were estimated at 2.5 million, Ibid, p 6.
12  Courier Mail, 17 April 1977.
13  Courier Mail, 2 April 1974
14  Courier Mail, 21 June 1982.
15  QCCT Annual Report, 1982, p. 9.
16  QAG Annual Report,1981-2, p 7.

How culture binds Australia and Papua New Guinea

 

Yesterday marked the close of ‘No. 1 Neighbour: Art in Papua New Guinea 1966-2016‘. This was a landmark exhibition, the first in Australia to exclusively explore contemporary Papua New Guinean art. The exhibition showcased Papua New Guinea’s vibrant art world for new audiences in Australia who are not often exposed to the rich artistic traditions just across the Torres Strait.

At the end of last year, the Lowy Institute hosted the fourth annual Australia-Papua New Guinea Emerging Leaders Dialogue at the Queensland Art Gallery to coincide with the exhibition. The dialogue is the flagship event of the Aus-PNG Network, an initiative run by the Lowy Institute’s Melanesia Program with the support of DFAT, designed to deepen the people-to-people links between the younger generation of Australians and Papua New Guineans.

The dialogue brought together 20 young Australians and Papua New Guineans from a variety of sectors for a multi-disciplinary conversation on priority issues in each country and across the bilateral relationship. The themes around art and culture were selected to take advantage of hosting the event alongside ‘No. 1 Neighbour’, and a number of the participants were artists, arts professionals and curators. They were joined by young professionals from a range of other fields including the law, development, sport, civil society and business. The diversity of the group made for rich conversation, with each participant bringing their own perspective to the issues.  The dialogue focused on four key themes; the role of young people in leadership, alternative routes to economic empowerment, art and advocacy, and contemporary PNG-Australia relations.

Lisa Hilli installing Middi / Photograph: Mark Sherwood © QAGOMA
Installation view of No 1 Neighbour with Middi installed / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA
Tolai singer and musician George Telek wearing a traditional Middi (shell collar) / Photograph: Courtesy David Bridie

Artists present included Papua New Guinean Jeffry Feeger, well-known for his performance painting, and Elisa Jane Carmichael, an Indigenous Australian artist whose work is inspired by her cultural identity and heritage. We were also joined by one of the artists featured in the exhibition – Lisa Hilli, of mixed Australian and Papua New Guinean heritage – who recreated a traditional necklace-style decorative piece of the Tolai, called the Middi, which is no longer worn. Legendary Papua New Guinean musician George Telek, also of Tolai background, wore the Middi she made for the exhibition at his performance on the opening weekend. Their contributions added weight and real-world insight to discussions around viable careers in the creative industries and how to enhance the people-to-people links between Australia and Papua New Guinea through the arts.

Simon Gende, Papua New Guinea b.1969 / Leadership tussle in Australia: Rudd v Gillard 2012 / Synthetic polymer paint on cloth / 101 x 125cm / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2013 with funds from Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

The arts provide a unique avenue for Australians to engage with and learn more about Papua New Guinea. Many of the works featured in ‘No. 1 Neighbour’ shed light on the complex relationship between Papua New Guinea and its former colonial ruler. Ruth McDougall, the Gallery’s Pacific Curator and the driving force behind the exhibition explored this element of the exhibition. Referencing a painting by Papua New Guinean artist Simon Gende of two figures engaged in battle with shield and spear, Leadership Tussle in Australia Rudd V Gillard 27.2.2012 demonstrates the strong knowledge of Australia in Papua New Guinea. Dialogue participants discussed the fact that the understanding of Papua New Guinea in Australia is not nearly as nuanced, lamenting the mainstream media’s often negative and stereotypical portrayal of Papua New Guinea.

Esteemed journalist and long-time PNG commentator Sean Dorney argued the same in his 2016 Lowy Institute Paper The Embarrassed Colonialist, writing that the relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea has deteriorated in the 41 years since independence. Although our countries’ colonial pasts still colour the bilateral relationship, dialogue participants emphasised that we cannot shy away from these kind of complex themes. This may lead to uncomfortable conversations, but will enable a stronger and more honest relationship between our two nations. These dynamics demonstrate the importance of fostering and maintaining strong people-to-people links to ensure a mutual understanding, but in particular understanding of Papua New Guinea in Australia, does not deteriorate in the years ahead.

You can find a summary of the discussion and the recommendations from the dialogue in the Outcomes Report. The Lowy Institute would like to thank DFAT for its continued support of the Aus-PNG Network and GE for coming on board as the principal sponsor of the Emerging Leaders Dialogue for a second year.

Jonathan Pryke | Research Fellow and Director of the PNG Network, Melanesia Program Lowy Institute
Anna Kirk | Research Associate, Melanesia Program Lowy Institute

No. 1 Neighbour: How culture binds Australia and Papua New Guinea‘ has been reproduced with permission of the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Re/discover an inspirational icon

 

Camille Serisier is a visual artist, her practice centres around her playful tableau of vibrant photographs, idea drawings, films and interactive installations. Through these ambitious and elaborate works Serisier uses the veil of playful absurdity to enact positive social change through storytelling. We asked Serisier to tell us how Cindy Sherman influenced her practice.

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Cindy Sherman / Untitled #568 2016 / Dye sublimation print on aluminium / Courtesy: The artist and Metro Pictures

I first became aware of Cindy Sherman’s work when I was at high school. Alongside amazing artists like Tracy Moffatt, she was one of few females amidst a sea of male makers taught out of art history books. Since that time many important female artists from the past have thankfully been ‘rediscovered’ and ‘rewritten’ into art history, but for me and perhaps my generation, Cindy Sherman was one of few female artists accepted, recorded and promoted during her lifetime.

It was important to me to have works like Sherman’s to grow up with. I recently sat down with Paolo Magnanoli to discuss ways in which Sherman’s practice have influenced my own. Researching for the event I was reminded how much I have admired and referred to Sherman’s work over time. Right from the early film stills series to the present day society portraits her works have been a point of continual reference and reassurance. However, the engagement was not always conscious, sometimes just unavoidable. Her works are part of a powerful narrative within art history. They have become a prominent cultural reference, such that an image would pop up in a magazine or be cited in a text and I would have the opportunity to consider it in an easy, almost natural way. An all too rare circumstance.

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Installation views of ‘Cindy Sherman’, Gallery of Modern Art, 2016 / Photography: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

There are a number of lessons I have learnt from Sherman. Foremost is that art by women doesn’t just have to be for women. Although there is content that is concerned with the feminine, or feminism, Sherman’s work transcends these issues. Her practice offers a broader access point for discussions about popular culture, in particular film, that frame concerns about gendered representation in society at large. In some ways, particularly in her violent centrefold series, her works seem to target a male audience.

I find this liberating. As a result, I have tried to speak to broader audiences in my work, even when that might seem unlikely given the subject matter. For example, I have been making a series about my experience of pregnancy (Venus of Brisbane, 2015-2016). Through these works I attempt to communicate with women who have been pregnant, as well as anyone who hasn’t, in order to initiate healthy discussions about female reproduction that have sometimes been shamed and silenced. The responses to these works have been intriguing. People of both genders have been repulsed by the premise of pregnancy as a subject for visual art. Many women that have experienced pregnancy voiced pleasure at being able to visualise a shared experience. Others have been outwardly curious about what they perceive as a taboo subject.

That some people found my pregnancy works grotesque is particularly interesting when thinking about the influence of Sherman’s work. Sherman’s work is masterful, but not always ‘pretty’. Her work with prosthetics and clowns, for example, is grotesque and disturbing. I feel this opened up avenues for female artists not only to depict unattractive subject matter, but also to be unattractive subject matter.

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Installation views of ‘Cindy Sherman’, Gallery of Modern Art, 2016 / Photography: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA

When I take photographs on my own, of myself, I am alone with the camera to explore the dimensions and potential of my representational and performative capacity. In my current series of works (Ladies of Oz, 2015-2016), I am making portraits of women from Australian history. I dress up and play out scenes from their lives amidst hand made scenery and props. The series explores ways in which women have contributed to Australian life, as well as the difficulties of representing women and history. I pose for the camera in ridiculous outfits and fake scenery, and generally embarrass myself for the sake of the narrative.

Unlike Sherman ‘grotesque’ is not a word I have often encountered when people describe my work. I have traditionally used a pastel palette and doused my subjects in humour as a way of easing the viewer into sticky territory they may not otherwise be comfortable enough to address (The Wonderful Land of Oz, 2012-2016). When I make interactive gallery installations, I attempt to engage all ages and genders in playful theatrical sets that question gendered narrative assumptions, for example, that a pastel landscape could appeal to any gender entertain a male or that a female could be a ship’s captain (Swan Song #7, 2015). Play and humour have always been elements I have admired about Sherman’s work. Even images that deal with sexual violence against women contain absurdity or black humour that make consideration of the subject somehow more bearable.

In this way artifice and illusion have been important tools for drawing out narrative for the viewer. I could ask for no better role model than Sherman, whose images often dance between believability and blatant deception. Sherman rifts off film, I analyse theatre in its various forms. Both mediums work with the basic premise that the viewer needs to accept the lie and get lost in the narrative. But like Sherman, I don’t want people to submit easily without asking whether the stories, the old black and white ones, the ones that repeat in various guises, wearing different attire, are the stories we agree with and want to perpetuate.

It is important to have people to look up to. Sherman’s work is being shown at GOMA, making it is an excellent time to visit the gallery and re/discover an inspirational icon.

Camille Serisier is a visual artist based in Brisbane, Australia. See her solo show Ladies of Oz at Spiro Grace Art Rooms during September 2016. Camille is represented by Spiro Grace Art Rooms.

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