Australia owes a lot to the international fashion for installation and site-specific art. Under the influence of artists such as Joseph Beuys and Richard Long, this country moved from the representational sculpture characteristic of the 19th century directly into the 1970s international avant-garde. But the new art forms have also received infusion from something unique to Australia—the uninhabited scale and symbolism of the landscape. Marea Gazzard, Janet Laurence, and Joan Brassil have quite different relationships and responses to that landscape, evident in their varied influences and artistic practices.
Marea Gazzard’s lofty apartment gives the visitor a sense of entering a private museum of modern antiquities. Displayed on ledges and on the floor, totemic shafts reminiscent of Giacometti figures, sculpted earth mounds, and solid pillows provide contrast to the whiteness of the room and the expanse of windows overlooking inner-city Sydney.
Gazzard came to sculpture from ceramics, and she retains a very emotional relationship to the earth and to the clay that she typically uses. Her interest in and affinity for clay are apparent in early, small-scale ceramics as well as in later, scale-transforming pieces. According to Christine France, Gazzard’s work is about “a pursuit of excellence [intended to] further encourage reciprocity of ideas on an international scale. This internationalism was based…on a belief in a common language of creativity which recognizes differences within cultural systems and traditions.”1
Of Greek extraction, Gazzard trained at the National Art School in Sydney and then went to the London Central School of Arts and Crafts where she emerged as one of England’s most important ceramists in the 1950s. She then returned to Australia in 1960, setting up a studio in the family home. She and her architect-husband built a strikingly modern house in the Victorian suburb of Paddington, which was on the verge of demolition. The Gazzards started the first urban action group in Sydney and helped save this unique area.
In 1973, together with fiber artist Mona Hessing, she became one of the first craftspeople invited to exhibit at the Victorian Art Gallery. Their show was integral to the 1970s discussions about whether craft was art; perhaps a dated topic now, it was significant at the time, indicative of changing attitudes toward craft and greater acceptance of women artists. The collaborative installation created by Gazzard and Hessing, Clay and Fibre, extended recognition of these materials beyond their functional roles and demonstrated Gazzard’s interest in “the existence of ideas and the success of their execution in whatever medium is adopted.”2
This was a pivotal time for her developing interest “in the earliest expressions of form in both nature and art,” an interest that led her to examine fossils and Maltese idols (c. 2500 BC).3 Gazzard, like many others, also became fascinated with the “dreamings” and the monumental rocks of central Australia, including Uluru and the Olgas. The inspiration of these natural forms eventually led to her “Uluru” series and “Pindarri” series, the latter works created while working at the World Crafts Secretariat in a freezing New York winter in 1982.
The “Pindarri” series became the basis of her first public sculpture, for the National Gallery of Victoria and the new Parliament House in Canberra. She was selected from a national survey of sculptors by the public art consultant and art advisory committee tocollaborate with architects Mitchell, Giurglar, and Thorp and chief architect, Romaldo Giurgola, on the central Executive Courtyard for Mingarri: the Little Olgas. This work represents her belief in combining nature with the creative idea of the artist. She recalls that the Parliament House project was a “superb collaboration and a great success.”
More recently, during a Japanese residency, she discovered an affinity with the work ethic of young Japanese artists, a code based on hard work and the belief that results come from discipline. Zabuton, a series of clay Tatami pillows shown at SOFA 1998, derived from this experience. The pillows draw from Gazzard’s own rigorous process as well as from the Japanese influence; they are explorations of vertical objects with holes that become horizontal ones by a process of developing endless possibilities with wax maquettes until the final clay works emerge.
Speaking about her process and approach, Gazzard says that “it is much harder to develop something from nothing rather than simply assembling something.” She also refers to Herbert Read, who wrote that sculptures “must persist as objects of contemplation.” In her smaller objects as well as her public pieces, Gazzard tries to connect people to place while also striving to incorporate a contemplative, emotional dimension that will be communicated without self-consciousness.
Going beyond her own work, she comments that Australia is a very two-dimensionally oriented society, where there is a preference for putting a picture on a wall rather than committing to an object that takes up space. This attitude extends to sculpture in public places. There is little understanding of the contemplative objects that Gazzard is most interested in. Perhaps this fact can be attributed to the wealth of contemplative landscapes in this country.
Janet Laurence’s studio is located in a brick warehouse, up a flight of stairs. The studio features narrow, straight corridors and numerous partitions. On one side, the overwhelming impression is one of glass—bright yellow panels, panels dripping with a range of test colors, vertical glass poles with colored soils and oxides—fragments of possibilities that conjure memories of familiar public art works, such as the totemic poles in the courtyard of the Sydney Museum or the new windows for the Central Synagogue in Bondi, Sydney.
In a monograph about Laurence’s work, Peter Emmett writes: “The alchemical metaphor allows her to liberate the painter’s traditional palette from confinement of frame and surface: ‘the force of gravity, evaporation, sedimentation, crystallization, patination, abrasion and erosion.’ Memory and matter could be gathered into the alchemy of the installation…This is the way she works, like alchemy yearns for a metamorphosis.”4
Laurence’s various influences have freed her in ways expressed in her site-specific installations. One can trace the alchemical to Joseph Beuys’s Green work, for which he planted trees in the city of Kassel, and especially in his use of materials as symbols of healing and transformation. These are constants in all of her work. With each experiment, she takes on another element to transform. She has spent a lot of time in Japan over the years, where the intimate and symbolic relationship between architecture and landscape has assisted her understanding of space.
As her installations have moved out of the gallery, the meaning and expression in this space between architecture and landscape is critical. “Public art also embodies a social responsibility, and this changes the way of working, the engagement with the archive of history and the poetics of space as urban design.”5
In Forensic (1991) at the Wharf, Sydney, and in other recent pieces, she has explored the evocative language of materials as a means for engaging with place. She looks at the symbolic and psychological power of materials to transform a place and exploits their impact on perception and experience via the memories they evoke.
The power of placing one material against another for an alchemical effect is evident in Edge of the Trees on the site of the original Government House at the forecourt to the Sydney Museum. In collaboration with aboriginal artist Fiona Foley, Laurence created a forest of 29 pillars of wood, steel, and Sydney’s sandstone, a work that deaks with the memory of the site—the botanical memory, the tribal memory of the Eora people of the area, and the colonial memory. Text, windows, and sound element, provided by Koori (aboriginal) voices naming places of occupation around Sydney, create a sculptured place.
In Trace Elements, from her recent “Memory and Matter” series, shown at the S.H. Irvin Gallery of the National Trust in Sydney, Laurence engaged the “ruin” in her vocabulary of materials by using stones from the New South Wales Government’s Public Works stonemason’s yard. The names of extinct plants and animals are engraved on the piled blocks of stone from demolished buildings. Formally, the work is reminiscent of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s concrete poetry at Little Sparta, England, but Trace Elements is concerned with the memory of the site, as in the Sydney museum piece, and the artist’s role in the healing of the landscape. Following the example of Beuys’s and Anselm Kiefer’s concerns with healing postwar wounds, many artists are attempting to heal the scars of former acts of violence against the Australian landscape and recognizing the unique biological inheritance of this continent.
The 1991 “Synthesis” show at the Bond Store, coordinated by Davina Jackson, was a catalyst that galvanized architects, artists, and landscape architects. Laurence collaborated with architect Richard Johnson for this exhibition, and then participted in the Homebush Bay Charette, organized by Linda Gregoriou in 1994. These collaborative experiences led Laurence toward In the shadow, her work in the site for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
In the shadow is an anti-monument for the Olympics. It evolves and grows as the site develops. Laurence is not proposing a grand statement but a poetic interplay with an environmental concept. She says that her concern is with “creation of a place, a shadow space, that invites one into an intimate experience with Boundary Creek, as a vital and fluid living site within Olympic Park.”
In her concept, several art bridges are set in a strong ribbon of trees that express different experiences of art as an “x-ray” of this very built-up site. Laurence sees the whole site as being about remediation; she felt a need to create an alchemical space where a positive situation can come out of a negative one. To express this new alchemical relationship, the insertion of laboratory measuring instruments between the different bridges will refer to the former monitoring of water quality in the remediation processes.
While training in America, she was interested in earthworks but found that in Australia there was little opportunity, and no institutional support, for such projects. Her vocabulary has developed instead via other materials to transform and express a political conscience about our relationship to the landscape.
When entering Joan Brassil’s house in a back street of a dense inner-city suburb of Sydney, the visitor is first struck by a sense of timeless calm and then by her works, collections of objects put together somehow like words in a poem. Brassil’s sculptural installations, notably Sine Waves/Harbour Waves (1995) in Melbourne as well as newer works such as Where Yesterday may be Tomorrow (1997), draw viewers into an interactive space using sound to produce an overarching sculptural environment. Drawing on her background as an art teacher and having raised children herself, she says that women are constantly making environments, have to spread themselves, and make constant decisions which make them open to “hybrid art.”
Brassil’s work is based on installation, performance, and concept. In poetry she finds a space for words to reverberate and to resonate, and her installations are poetic in structure (the works are always accompanied by poetic texts). For her, installations provide a kind of complete viewing experience that static sculpture does not—she wants someone to enter a space and become part of the work, along with the objects, the space, and the narrative. “The body is not in space like things—our body inhabits space.”
While this approach is conceptually based, she considers a lot of conceptual work to be unnecessarily academic and intellectual. In contrast, Brassil makes her work, “essential.” In creating her installations, she consciously uses sensuality and aesthetics to make her work relevant to people. The selection of materials becomes critical as each material speaks in a different artistic way.
She started her installation career after visiting sites related to astronomy. An early work, Space Item: how far between potatoes and planets (1976), was based on the potato, chosen as a readily recognizable symbol of survival. The earthbound potatoes, placed on plough disks, are imagined as space probes: pomme de terre made of earthenware, pomme de lune in cast aluminum, pomme de Venus carved from wood, and pomme de soleil constructed of melting wax. This piece was the first installation in a trilogy, Energy, which also includes Time: have you metamorphosed lately? (1977), based on metamorphosis in insects, and Energy: can it be that everlasting is everchanging? (1978). All these works raise open-ended questions, designed to stimulate thinking rather than to state conclusions.
Her interest in cosmic rays began with the installation of astronomical devices, intervrinometers, in Can it be everlasting, shown at Sydney University in 1978. A physicist made an apparatus from Geiger tubes and circuitry that would respond to radiation at a particular time in space, and sparks would randomly appear, responding to spark chambers in a created forest. The forest was made from saplings with ochre markings, making an aboriginal reference. The construction implies that science in one culture is the equivalent of the “dreaming” in another.
Where Yesterday may be Tomorrow was created for the 1997 show “Between Art and Nature” at Campbelltown, Sydney. Campbelltown is an area in which primal forests have been transformed into coal, the residue of the energy of the forest. It is also where Brassil has her bush studio. By taking sound from a lightening strike and processing it, Brassil creates a sound sculpture that inscribes space at the entry to the installation. Here she uses sound sculpture as a means to see and consider the landscape.
Sound is also an important element in dead stars singing. In this work, Brassil recorded the throbbing sounds of pulsars and collaborated with astronomers, who wrote a program for the random circuit to record the radiation from dead stars as information. Pulsars are the spinning residue of the energy of exploding stars; the residue transforms into radio waves which were registered at the Parkes Radioscope, New South Wales.
Brassil also incorporates symbols of local political issues, such as a burnt cricket bat from recent bush fires or a bush airplane named The Gipsy Moth; a crystal wireless conjures earth, air, energy and water and the prototype of the radio telescope which was used to discover pulsars in 1968. A familiar brick pathway makes walkers aware of every step, drawing them into a room full of coal that symbolizes Gondwana Land. People’s response to the piece varied, from a priest who said that Brassil had “made a sacred place” to “an empty space with so much meaning”; music students came to improvise with dead stars singing.
Brassil is motivated by a “desire to face the wonder of it all; the sheer love of the projects and the beautiful collaborations such as the ones with the scientists—who enjoy the poetics and don’t often get the opportunity to play with their expertise.” She is concerned with people’s location in space and time, encouraging people to look at the stars to find their own universal space.
These three women exemplify the transition Rosalind Krauss describes in her comment that sculpture is evolving “from a static, idealized medium to a temporal and material one.”6 These artists demonstrate that sculpture can be a catalyst in a passionate and evolving relationship between people and their landscape.
Tempe McGowan is an artist and writer living in Sydney, Australia.
1 Christine France, Marea Gazzard—Form and Clay. Sydney: G + B Arts International, 1994.
2 Ibid. p. 75.
3 Ibid. p. 65.
4 Peter Emmett, Janet Laurence. Sydney: Craftsman House, 1998, p. 15.
5 Ibid. p. 18.
6 Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981. Introduction.