Art as diplomacy in the Asia Pacific region


An ongoing aim in Australian diplomacy is to deepen the nation’s engagement with the dynamism and diversity of the Asia Pacific region. Through cultural exchanges like the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art artists can engage in and extend the diplomatic endeavour, helping us to celebrate our differences and contemplate shared futures.

In 1995, just two years after the Queensland Art Gallery launched the first edition of its flagship exhibition series, the Asia Pacific Triennial for Contemporary Art (APT), former foreign minister Gareth Evans spoke of Australia’s turn towards its neighbours:

We looked in the mirror in the early 1980s and began to see ourselves as others had seen us: politically and militarily depend on others half a world away; culturally and economically insular; not understanding of, or responsive to, the richness and opportunity unfolding around us [. . .] What we have found is [a region] more responsive to us, more capable of enriching our experience and more alike us than we could have ever previously dreamed.1

Evans’s words reflect a time of optimistic neighbourliness in a less turbulent, more certain world. Decades on, COVID-19 has exacerbated a contemporary sense of regional and global flux, testing the resilience of established institutions, pulling at the fabric of social and economic cohesion, and bringing old and new fault lines to the fore. With divergence in interests, values and systems increasingly apparent, countries across the globe face new challenges in managing their international relations. New research published by the British Council underscores the enduring significance of cultural engagement in maintaining essential channels of dialogue and cooperation between people and nations — especially through times of political tension.2 Good-faith cultural exchange highlights the unique potential of cultural institutions to deliver intentional and sustained engagement, underscored by participatory and inclusive values. Ultimately, cultural engagement builds mutually beneficial resilience into broader bilateral and regional relationships.

When looking to examples of Australian cultural engagement in the Asia Pacific region, one cannot look past the APT. In her review of APT9 (2018–19), Australian journalist Miriam Cosic made the point that, as one of the nation’s most significant regional cultural engagements, the Triennial also offers ‘a crash course in political and social developments in the region’.3

Seleka International Art Society Initiative / Hifo ki ‘Olunga 2021 / Synthetic polymer paint, recycled fabrics, barkcloth, wood, coconut shells, dried pandanus, mixed media / Commissioned for ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10) / Purchased 2021 with funds from Tim Fairfax AC through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane / © The Artists / Photograph: K Bennett © QAGOMA
QAGOMA Curatorial Assistant, Pacific Art, Ruha Fifita (centre) with members of the Brisbane Tongan Community Mele Ngauamo and Siale Molitika who assisted in the coconut frond weaving of fale walls for the Seleka International Art Society Initiative project Hifo ki ‘Olunga 2021 for ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10) through APT10’s Australian Centre of Asia Pacific Art (ACAPA) Community Engagement Project / Photograph: J Ruckli © QAGOMA

Artists play a central role in this diplomatic endeavour. Unlike traditional diplomats, they are neither constrained by official talking points nor required to subdue or smooth over the rough edges of human experience and interaction. Their role is one of exploration and provocation. Over the decades, APT artists have actively engaged with challenging themes of significance for the region, teasing out key tensions within notions of possession and dispossession, identity and indigeneity, power, influence and wealth, as well as through our problematic relationships with each other and the planet. The subtle connections — between artists, their institutions and broader audiences — cultivated and sustained through the APT over some 30 years, offer powerful conduits of conversation, critique, understanding and trust. Through this deep engagement, we are provoked into deeper contemplation of ourselves and our place in the world.

Further to this, QAGOMA itself plays a key role in providing space for these conversations to take place with the intent of drawing out shared meaning. The fact that the QAGOMA has acquired ‘so much era-defining art’,4 presented through the Triennial since 1993, demonstrates a deep commitment to the underpinning philosophy of cultural engagement as partnership. Investing in the artistic talent and reputation of the Asia Pacific region in this way sets QAGOMA apart as a world-leading institution when it comes to contemporary cultural engagement.

Despite the dynamics of flux and turmoil in our contemporary world, and the myopic tendencies these might generate — particularly with travel limited by the present pandemic — it is critical that we find ways to embrace the diversity and energy of our region. Now in its tenth iteration, the Asia Pacific Triennial offers us that chance. It picks up on the challenge set out by Gareth Evans some 25 years ago: to celebrate our different perspectives, to enrich one another’s experiences, and to contemplate together the shared challenges that lie ahead.

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Caitlin Byrne is Director, Griffith Asia Institute
Griffith Asia Institute is an internationally recognised research centre within Griffith Business School, Griffith University.

1 Gareth Evans, ‘Australia in East Asia and the Asia Pacific: Beyond the looking glass’, Fourteenth Asia Lecture, Asia- Australia Institute, Sydney, 20 March 1995, <>, viewed 20 September 2021.
2 British Council and International Cultural Relations, Cultural Relations Dialogue and Cooperation in an Era of Competition, British Council, London, 2021, <>, viewed 20 September 2021.
3 Miriam Cosic, ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at QAGOMA’, Monthly, February 2019, <>, viewed 20 September 2021.
4 Chris Saines, ‘Message’, Artlines, no.1, 2019, p.5.

Tribal Experiences perform during ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10) Artist Welcome and Cultural Warming / Photograph: J Ruckli © QAGOMA

Watch or Read about Asia Pacific artists / Know Brisbane through the QAGOMA Collection / Delve into our Queensland Stories / Read about Australian Art / Subscribe to QAGOMA YouTube to go behind-the-scenes

‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10) / Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane / 4 December 2021 to 26 April 2022.

Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution First Australians make to the art and culture of this country.

Featured image: Tribal Experiences perform during ‘The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT10) Artist Welcome and Cultural Warming / Photograph: J Ruckli © QAGOMA

The jewellery in The Fortune-Teller c.1630s


European jewellery of the Renaissance was colourful, opulent and intricate. It was also widely popular, as the portraiture of this time shows the often extraordinary amount a wealthy man or woman might wear.

Many great artists of the Renaissance started their careers in goldsmiths workshops — resulting in a familiarity of styles and techniques in the detailed depiction of jewellery in portraits of this time. These depictions provide valuable insight for us today into what was produced — given that few pieces of the time have survived.

The youth wears a very long chain of gold bars connected with shorter sections of oval gold links to suspend a large gold medallion. Although we can’t see the design on this medallion it might likely be of a classical and mythological content, such themes provided the link with the ancient world so central to Renaissance art.

LIST OF WORKS: Discover the artworks

DELVE DEEPER: More about the exhibition

THE STUDIO: Artworks come to life

WATCH: The Met Curators highlight their favourite works

Looking closely we can see the longer bars of the chain are coloured white and embellished with tiny black dots. The technique of enamelling, which is effectively a type of glass fused at high temperature on to the surface of precious metals, had improved greatly in later medieval times such that Renaissance goldsmiths could apply brightly coloured enamel in thin layers over intricate gold surfaces. White and black as seen here were often used in conjunction with coloured gems.

I have seen similar gold and enamelled chains from the Cheapside Hoard, a spectacular find of 17th Century jewellery held today in the collection of the Museum of London. From this collection stylistic and technical parallels are made to the Ottoman Empire in what is now Turkey and Greece. It was common for goldsmiths to travel to centres of production across Europe and the international availability of printed jewelry designs caused a blend of jewelry styles to occur all over Europe.

The trading of gemstones was at the very core of this exchange of ideas and technologies, exotic and desirable materials entering northern Europe; emeralds from Brazil, diamonds from India, sapphires from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and rubies from Borneo (Myanmar).

Our young man, likely a beneficiary of the Renaissance ancilliary mercantile bonanza is soon to be cleverly divested of his coin purse with its tassel pull tie, and long chain of gold bars.

Barbara Heath is a Brisbane-based jewellery designer

Georges de La Tour, France 1593–1653 / The Fortune-Teller c.1630s / Oil on canvas / 101.9 x 123.5cm / Rogers Fund, 1960 / 60.30 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Fortune-Teller

In The Fortune-Teller c.1630s, Georges de La Tour celebrates the theatre of the street. The richly attired young man has a wary eye on the old woman offering to read his fortune for a price. But it is her three beautiful companions who are robbing him blind — unobtrusively lifting treasure from his pocket and detaching a gold medallion from the long chain slung across his shoulder.

The luminous beauty of the man and woman to his left contrast with the drama and intrigue of the scene, in which the four ‘fortune-tellers’ are as lavishly dressed as their well-to-do mark. La Tour places contrasting colours and textures joyously against one another: pink against camel, orange against gold and a glistening hint of turquoise. The Fortune-Teller, which was discovered in the mid-twentieth century, is a moral tale at heart and has become one of La Tour’s most celebrated works.

This Australian-exclusive exhibition was at the Gallery of Modern Art from 12 June until 17 October 2021 and organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art and Art Exhibitions Australia.


European Masterpieces digitally enhanced


An exhibition of 65 artworks representing the achievements of the greatest painters in the Western tradition from one of the world’s leading art museums is undoubtedly a drawcard. Add to this The Studio — a QAGOMA initiative developed with QUT’s Dr Kate Thompson (Associate Professor of Digital Pedagogies in the Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice Faculty) and the VISER team — and you have an inspired twenty‑first‑century exhibition experience that both honours the past and celebrates the capabilities of new technologies, writes Tonya Turner.

LIST OF WORKS: Discover the artworks

THE STUDIO: Artworks come to life

DELVE DEEPER: Read more about the exhibition

WATCH: The Met Curators highlight their favourite works

Between the two main exhibition spaces of ‘European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’ at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), The Studio includes multimedia interactives, drawing materials, clever animations based on selected works in the show, still-life displays, live artwork re-creations by costumed models, and live music performances by musicians from the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. Within this space, visitors also have the opportunity to learn about the artists whose works feature in the exhibition via a major digital interactive presented on large touchscreens, developed by Queensland University of Technology’s Visualisation and Interactive Solutions for Engagement and Research (VISER) team in collaboration with Dr Kate Thompson and supported by QAGOMA staff.

(left) Costumed model recreates the scene from Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes (died 1868) / (right) Marie Denise Villers, France 1774–1821 / Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes (died 1868) 1801 / Oil on canvas / 161.3 x 128.6cm / Mr and Mrs Isaac D Fletcher Collection, Bequest of Isaac D Fletcher, 1917 / 17.120.204 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Paris Opera is activated daily in ‘European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Photograph: B Wagner © QAGOMA

The Studio in ‘European Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Photographs: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

QAGOMA’s Head of Learning, Terry Deen, says the Gallery worked with the QUT VISER team to develop an engaging user experience for visitors, incorporating portraits of the artists (where available), dot points of information about their life and relationships, an animated, interactive map of the exhibition that visualises the connections between the artists in the exhibition, and images of the artist’s work.

The multidisciplinary QUT VISER team combines the talents of programmers, 3D modellers, digital artists, designers and technology specialists. VISER Manager, Gavin Winter, describes recent projects including the Snowy Hydro Discovery Centre in New South Wales, QUT’s The Cube and The Sphere, the Edmonton Public Library in Canada and more. Dr Thompson says the artist wall interactive in The Studio is innovative in that it explicitly connects information about the artist with an interactive map, within which visitors can see a painting’s location, investigate artists’ influences and influence, and visually connect related paintings in the gallery space. And, she adds, visitors undertake these activities ‘in an environment designed to immerse them in the sounds, practices and colours of the time in which the art was created’.

Visitor to ‘European Masterpieces’ explores The Studio, with interactives developed by QAGOMA in partnership with QUT

Initial discussions between the Gallery and QUT VISER team began in 2020. Soon, QAGOMA invited Dr Thompson and the VISER team to contribute not only to the ‘European Masterpieces’ exhibition with the artist wall interactive, but also in the form of a research partnership. ‘On one level,’ Deen notes, ‘the artist wall interactive is a project that has presented tremendous opportunity to explore new ways of presenting educational information to audiences’.

At a deeper level, sitting beyond this distinct project, we are establishing a strategy through which to evaluate the effectiveness of our digital interactives in terms of digital pedagogy. Galleries and museums invest considerable resources into providing engaging digital experiences without having the ability to study the user experience.

For Thompson, discovering how people learn about art and artists is one of the most significant parts of the project:

The creation of something that can support research and is beautiful enough to be in an exhibition in an art gallery with paintings that are hundreds of years old is the part of this project that makes me smile the most.

Tonya Turner is a freelance journalist. She spoke with Terry Deen, Kate Thompson and Gavin Winter in June 2021.

This Australian-exclusive exhibition was at the Gallery of Modern Art from 12 June until 17 October 2021 and organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art and Art Exhibitions Australia.

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The jewellery of Selvaggia Sassetti (born 1470)


The coral of Selvaggia Sassetti’s necklace would not have travelled far from its once plentiful source in the Mediterranean sea. Precious red coral grows in a characteristic branching plant like form from the rocky sea bed, preferring the darkness of deeper water or underwater caves — for hundreds of years its main trade centre has been Torre del Greco, south of Naples.

In Greek mythology the story of the hero Perseus who slayed the Gorgon Medusa, having placed her severed head on the water’s edge while he washed his hands, saw that her blood had turned the seaweed into red coral.

Since ancient times, the population surrounding the Mediterranean has used coral decoratively, medicinally, and spiritually. Branches of coral were commonly hung around children’s necks to protect them from harm.

Relatively soft and one of the few organic gems, coral can be worked with saw and file into carvings, cabochons and beads. As today, Selvaggia’s coral beads would have been simply strung on knotted silk thread. Perhaps a gift upon reaching maturity, her necklace is enhanced with a gold pendant set with an oval faceted ruby and a smaller dark square cut gem. Further embellished with white enamelled rosettes and three precious white pearls each set to swinging freely, adding playful movement to the jewel.

Barbara Heath is a Brisbane-based jewellery designer

LIST OF WORKS: Discover the artworks

DELVE DEEPER: Read more about the exhibition

THE STUDIO: Artworks come to life

WATCH: The Met Curators highlight their favourite works

Davide Ghirlandaio (David Bigordi), Italy 1452–1525 / Selvaggia Sassetti (born 1470) c.1487–88 / Tempera on wood / The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 / 32.100.71 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Davide Ghirlandaio (David Bigordi), Italy 1452–1525 / Selvaggia Sassetti (born 1470) c.1487–88 / Tempera on wood / The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 / 32.100.71 / Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Who is Selvaggia Sassetti

This elegant portrait depicts eighteen-year-old Selvaggia Sassetti, the fifth of seven daughters to Francesco Sassetti, director of the Medici bank in Florence. It beautifully captures the promise and potential of a young woman immediately before her marriage.

Simply yet richly dressed in apple-green silk, Selvaggia wears a striking necklace of red coral — a symbol of virtue, consistent with the painting’s role as a wedding portrait. The artist repeats this palette more subtly in the tones of the young woman’s skin. Looking closely, we see long strokes of a warm blush pink, interlaced with areas of pale green and cream.

The slanting direction of the fine brushstrokes indicate that the work was painted by the left-handed Davide Ghirlandaio, younger brother of the more widely known Domenico. Three years prior, Domenico had painted Selvaggia and many of her family members gathered together in a mural commissioned for the family chapel.

This Australian-exclusive exhibition was at the Gallery of Modern Art from 12 June until 17 October 2021 and organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in collaboration with the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art and Art Exhibitions Australia.


The Rave scene: Its connection to film and pop culture


Following on from the Rave film program that recently screened at the Australian Cinémathèque and in time for Record Store Day on 12 June, Brisbane-based musician and DJ, Phil Smart reflects on his experience of the rave scene and its connection to film and pop culture.

When you’re part of a subculture, it’s not often that you get to see it depicted on the big screen, so it’s great to see how many films dedicated to rave culture have been made. The diverse selection of international films is a testament to the long lasting and far-reaching legacy of a movement that continues to have a global impact.

Raves provided people with somewhere to escape from the everyday for a few hours. It was also a place for those looking for community and acceptance in an environment that lived by a credo of peace, love, unity and respect where individuals could unite on the dancefloor. It was an optimistic time when we thought we could change the world, and in some ways we did.

It was also inherently political, in part a reaction to the neo-conservatism and economic realities of Thatcherite Britain as well as a continuation of the punk movement’s DIY attitude and democratisation of culture creation. We were setting up temporary autonomous zones, where we could be free to enjoy and express ourselves.

The origins of the rave scene were a uniquely British phenomenon as shown in the film Everybody In The Place 2018 directed by Jeremy Deller and were a result of the weaving together of numerous cultural threads. The musical philosophy was originally inspired by the discotheques of Ibiza and became increasingly infused with house and techno music from the underground scenes in Chicago, New York, Detroit and Germany. This led to the eventual spawning of countless genres and sub-genres, including drum and bass, dubstep and tech house.

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Everybody in the Place 2018 / Director: Jeremy Deller

Once established, the scene quickly began to spread and take hold around the globe. It’s not widely known that Sydney was one of the first genuine rave scenes to establish itself outside the UK, with thousands of British backpackers arriving in the city every year, importing the culture in a direct lineage from the streets and fields of England to the empty warehouses of Alexandria.

Another place that had an early rave scene heavily influenced by British ex-pats, and somewhere I also spent a lot of time DJing, was San Francisco, wonderfully and authentically portrayed in the film Groove 2000, directed by Greg Harrison. Here, the rave scene absorbed elements of the city’s history as the epicentre of the psychedelic revolution of the late 60s, in some ways completing a cultural circle as demonstrated in the film A Life In Waves 2017, directed by Brett Whitcomb.

Groove 2000 / Director: Greg Harrison

A Life in Waves 2017 / Director: Brett Whitcomb

Fast forward to now, and the culture has evolved into a global nightclub and festival scene. Films such as Raving Iran 2016 directed by Sue Meures, demonstrate that the desire to dance, listen to music and find community with other like-minded people is universal and powerful.

As a DJ, whose job it is to make people dance, it’s been interesting to watch and listen to how people have dealt with the bans on dancing and gatherings over the past year. Playing in Sydney on the last weekend before the lifting of the ban on dancing, the security guards were having a hard time stopping people from busting moves on the dancefloor; the urge to dance was close to unstoppable. The spirit of rave is still with us, and it’s resilient and adaptive.

Phil Smart has been a fixture on the Australian electronic music scene for over 30 years.

Raving Iran 2016 / Director: Sue Meures

Dip into our Cinema blogs / View the ongoing Australian Cinémathèque program

The Rave cinema program (30 January until 10 March 2021) explored the rave scene as a site of connection, release and transformation. Born out of Chicago’s post-disco underground club scene in the late 1980s, rave counterculture continues to be a significant global movement, providing a space of liberation for repressed and marginalised communities. In periods of radical social, political and economic change, raves are energy-filled zones of autonomy that offer alternative spaces of freedom, hope and unity.

QAGOMA is the only Australian art gallery with purpose-built facilities dedicated to film and the moving image. The Australian Cinémathèque at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) provides an ongoing program of film and video that you’re unlikely to see elsewhere, offering a rich and diverse experience of the moving image, showcasing the work of influential filmmakers and international cinema, rare 35mm prints, recent restorations and silent films with live musical accompaniment on the Gallery’s Wurlitzer organ originally installed in Brisbane’s Regent Theatre in November 1929.

Featured images: Phil Smart

Conserving Gordon Bennett’s diptych ‘Number three’


Unconventional types of damage require unconventional treatment strategies. This is certainly true for the collaborative major treatment QAGOMA’s paintings conservation team completed on Gordon Bennett’s (1955 – 2014) Number three 2004, a significant diptych painted in acrylic on Belgian linen.

Bennett is well-known for his highly figurative narrative-driven commentaries on Australian colonial history and contemporary race relations. Number three, however, belongs to Bennett’s ‘Stripe’ series — a group of non-representational works made from 2003-2008 where the artist explored Western Abstractionism.

Gordon Bennett, Australia 1955-2014 / Number three 2004 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Diptych: 152 x 182.5cm (each); 152 x 365cm (overall) / Gift of Leanne Bennett through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2020. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The Estate of Gordon Bennett

Gordon Bennett’s ‘Stripe’ series in progress, 2003 / Photograph and © Simon Wright

Condition before treatment

In 2014, the left panel of Number three was unlucky to sustain significant termite damage. The painting was housed in a secure, temperature controlled steel and concrete storage facility in Brisbane. The stealthy termites entered the building through a concrete flooring expansion joint on the hunt for food and penetrated through the painting’s fully enclosed bubble wrapping to feast on the wooden stretcher and any paint in their way. This tale proves that even when stored safely and securely, no artwork is immune to the threat of infestation. However this is also a tale of good luck, as it was through the care and vigilance of collection managers that this infestation was promptly discovered and the painting was able to be recovered.

The termites very efficiently ate their way through the painting’s timber stretcher and continued tunnelling right through the perimeter linen and paint. Damage to the stretcher, including collapsed stretcher members, had resulted in dimensional change and structural instability. Termites had also eaten holes in the painted linen canvas and left metres of resistant mud deposited on the front and back surfaces. All of these issues were complicated by the unique sensitivities of unvarnished modern acrylic paintings which can make them incompatible with more traditional conservation materials and techniques.

With the support of the artist’s partner, Leanne Bennett, the paintings conservation team took on the challenge of recovering the damaged work and returning it to a state where it could be exhibited beside its accompanying panel.


RELATED: Browse through our ART CONSERVATION projects

Detail of termite damage before treatment / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

Curled canvas, gaping holes and mud deposits before treatment / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

Surface distortions from wet mud trapped behind the canvas, raking light / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

The weakened canvas edge / Photograph: Madeleine Ewing

Termite tunnels on the wooden stretcher / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

Treatment outline

Work began by removing deposited layers of termite mud that covered the entire length of the painting’s right side and thickly encrusted the holes visible from the front. A tailored cleaning solution was used to soften the mud which was then scraped away with fine surgical tools. Termite mud is an extremely durable material by nature – almost like cement. So given the extent of damage this was a painstaking task that took several weeks to complete.

Carefully scraping layers of mud from the right side edge / Photograph: Anne Carter © QAGOMA

Detail of mud layers during cleaning / Photograph: Madeleine Ewing

Once the mud was removed from the paint surface, the perimeter of the work was faced with Japanese tissue. This protective layer was used to support the damaged edges and hold insecure areas of paint and canvas in position during treatment.

Next, the work was turned face down to continue cleaning on the back. Dried mud packed between the stretcher and canvas had fused the two supports together at the edges. Once they were carefully separated with palette knives and staples were removed, the damaged stretcher was lifted away.

Turning the work face down after cleaning / Photograph: Kate Wilson © QAGOMA

Separating the canvas from the stretcher / Photograph: Madeleine Ewing

Mud packed between the canvas and stretcher / Photograph: Madeleine Ewing

Removing the damaged stretcher / Photograph: Kate Wilson © QAGOMA

The amount of mud on the back of the work was significant. Unlike the front, using moisture did not assist removal as wet mud only sank further into the porous canvas fibres. The mud on the back of the work had to be removed mechanically while dry using blunt scalpels. Some staining was still visible around the mud-lines.

Over time, wet termite mud trapped behind the work acted as a poultice, which distorted the canvas and caused corresponding areas of paint to appear mottled and irregular. Working from the back, gentle humidification and dry weights were used to slowly flatten these areas. This had to be done very gradually working in small sections as the application of too much moisture can lead to disastrous shrinkage in untensioned canvas.

Mud layers on the back of the canvas before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right) / Photograph: Madeleine Ewing

Surface distortion detail before treatment (left) and after treatment (right) raking light / Photograph: Madeleine Ewing

When it came to filling voids and replacing areas of lost canvas, numerous experiments were conducted to trial a range of potential approaches. Invaluable to this process was a scaled mock-up of the damaged panel produced using original paints made available from Bennett’s studio.

Many of the canvas losses were quite large, up to 10cm2 in some areas. Conservators would normally fill these voids in two stages — first by replacing the missing canvas with a fabric insert, and then by applying a filling putty from the front to compensate for lost image layers. The latter step generally requires a certain amount of overfilling followed by levelling off, shaping and texturing to best match the original surface. Number three’s unvarnished acrylic surface was too sensitive for this more traditional approach. There were also many areas where the termites had eaten the cellulose-rich canvas but had left the paint layers intact. What remained were incredibly vulnerable fragments of original paint requiring reinforcement from behind.

Making a scaled mock-up for experiments / Photograph: Anne Carter © QAGOMA

Detail of damage from the back including areas where termites had eaten the canvas but left the paint layers intact / Photograph: Madeleine Ewing

Consequently, filling from the front was not a viable option. So the conservators developed an innovative ‘back-filling’ technique. Here, the facing tissue would act as a barrier creating a three-dimensional space in which filling material could be applied and levelled from the reverse. Losses in canvas and paint layers could be filled with a single application and a neat and level fill achieved without disturbing the sensitive surface on the front.

Back-filling had to be done before the painting was restretched, both to provide critical structure to the perimeter margins of the canvas and in order to access losses which would be subsequently blocked by the stretcher members. Many of the filling materials conservators would normally use are too brittle to withstand subsequent stretching so a more flexible material was required. This posed a significant challenge but after extensive testing, a suitable conservation-grade filling putty was developed using cellulose fibres and a synthetic co-polymer binder.

The back-fills were applied in small sections and dried under weight to limit shrinkage which provided the opportunity to impart fill texture through impression. A sample of original studio linen canvas supplied by Leanne Bennett that closely matched Number three was placed underneath the work during filling. Horizontal and vertical threads from the impression canvas and the original canvas were lined up as closely as possible for a seamless effect.

Applying the back-fills with impression canvas beneath / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

Fill texture on the front after weighted drying before facing removal, raking light / Photograph: Madeleine Ewing

In preparation for restretching the painting, a strip-lining of fine polyester fabric was heat-set onto the perimeter margins of the canvas to support the fills and weakened edges of the work. With this approach the original canvas and artist inscriptions remain visible.

The painting’s original damaged stretcher was well beyond repair, but the conservators were lucky enough to source an unused stretcher of the same size from Bennett’s studio. This allowed consistency to be maintained across both diptych panels. With help from QAGOMA’s Conservation Framing Technician, the bottom member of the new stretcher was substituted with a custom-shaped replacement to allow for careful alignment of the distorted perimeter enabling original fold lines to be retained. This was crucial because the fold lines represented the limit of the painted image.

After restretching, areas of loss were inpainted to match the original surface as closely as possible. In this way, the damaged passages visually recede and the diptych can once again be viewed as the artist intended. All inpainting was done with dry pigments and a reversible water-soluble medium.

Restretching / left – tracing the distorted fold line to enable custom-shaping of the bottom replacement member / right – pinning the work to the stretcher before stapling / Photographs: Anne Carter © QAGOMA

Inpainting detail: before treatment (left) raking light; after filling (middle); and after inpainting (right) / Photographs: Madeleine Ewing

After treatment

It took only two weeks for the termites to inflict their damage to Number three. Thankfully, the infestation was quickly detected and damage was confined to one panel only, illustrating the importance of vigilance and regular monitoring of artwork storage areas.

Following its conservation treatment, Number three was acquired as a gift of Leanne Bennett through the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2020, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. You can see the diptych on display in ‘Unfinished Business: The Art of Gordon Bennett’.

Madeleine Ewing is Graduate Paintings Conservation intern, QAGOMA, working with QAGOMA paintings Conservators Anne Carter and Gillian Osmond.

Number twelve 2007 with Number three (right) on display after conservation treatment / Gordon Bennett, Australia 1955-2014 / Number three 2004 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Diptych: 152 x 182.5cm (each); 152 x 365cm (overall) / Gift of Leanne Bennett through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2020. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © The Estate of Gordon Bennett / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

Gordon Bennett

In his lifetime, Gordon Bennett was widely regarded as one of Queensland’s, and indeed one of Australia’s, most perceptive and inventive contemporary artists. Queensland-born, Bennett (1955–2014) was deeply engaged with questions of identity, perception and the construction of history, and made a profound and ongoing contribution to contemporary art in Australia and internationally.

Bennett voraciously consumed art history, current affairs, rap music and fiction, and processed it all into an unflinching critique of how identities are constituted and how history shapes individual and shared cultural conditions. Working closely with the artist’s estate, the exhibition gives a new sense of Bennett’s aims, ideals and objectives, offering insights through a focus on the serial nature of his practice.

Number three 2004 on display in ‘Unfinished Business: The Art of Gordon Bennett’ / © The Estate of Gordon Bennett / Photograph: Natasha Harth © QAGOMA

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Number three 2004  was on display in ‘Unfinished Business’ at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) from 7 November 2020 until 21 March 2021
Featured image: Madeleine Ewing, Graduate Paintings Conservation intern inpainting areas of loss on Gordon Bennett’s Number three 2004
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