Eat your heart out Venice Biennale, we rural Aussie arts makers have an Australian Pavilion here in Wirksworth, England, too. Ours is in the Derbyshire Ecocentre, a solar powered architectural masterpiece built from local gritstone, limestone and European Larch, with a living roof of locally endemic native plants. Locals are very proud of this building, the first in Derbyshire to meet the highest design and performance ratings of Britain’s Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEM).
For the duration of the the 2013 Wirksworth Arts Festival the Ecocentre/Australian Pavilion will be exhibiting works by eight visual artists from Central Western New South Wales, all of them very present in Wirksworth as Festival guests: Ken Hutchinson, Christine McMillan, Harrie Fasher, Ngari Reynolds, Lanny Mackenzie, Christine Sweeny, Alesha Lonsdale and Tony Lonsdale (Guubbay).
But it is not only Australian visual artists who are making their presence felt in Wirksworth. Scattered around the town are posters advertising an Australian Theatre Double Bill in the Town Hall, a contemporary dance-theatre work, Right Behind You, by Alison Plavey and Adam Deusien of the Bathurst-based company Lingua Franca, and Kim Deacon’s one woman show, Home Sweet Home: Henry Lawson and His Loves. These productions by very accomplished performers are extraordinary.
Even before visitors enter our Australian Pavilion up at the Ecocentre, they’re greeted by a now-permanent stone feature, the Alchemy Stone, carved by Ken Hutchinson and English stone mason Richard Hickton during their month long collaboration.
We’ve adopted the concept of alchemy as the theme for our collaborative exchange, an idea which emerged from discussions with some of our English collaborators after we realised that, like many of our own communities in Central Western NSW, Wirksworth owed its existence to the mining industry. In Wirksworth miners dug for lead: in our part of the world it was gold. For centuries alchemists tried to transmute lead into gold, and, like those ancient experimenters, we creatives also seek to transform base materials into something more precious. Alchemy thus seemed a very apt theme for the transmutations we were now participating in. Ken Hutchinson and Richard Hickton’s Alchemy Stone commemorates this experience.
Ken and Richard appropriated an iconic local image if a lead miner, the T’owd Man, as their project’s motif, This image dates from Saxon times and was found on a slab of stone in the village of Bonsall. It is now cemented into one of the walls of Wirksworth’s Church of St Mary the Virgin. This perky little chap is dressed in a Saxon tunic, and carries a lead basket in one hand and a pick in the other. Ken has replicated him in triplicate on the Alchemy Stone. In the first iteration T’owd Man wears his familiar Saxon tunic and lugs his pick and lead basket just as he does on St Mary’s wall. In the second, he is dressed as a British Redcoat and has swapped his basket for a cross and his pick for a lead-firing musket, the instrument the Empire used to procure colonial gold. (To add an extra edginess to this visual retelling of the T’owd Man story, Ken and Richard have translated the word Alchemy into Braille on the Stone using 45-calibre lead bullets!) In the third image, T’owd Man is wearing what might be a protective helmet, and his tunic is marked with a nuclear symbol. Instead of a musket he is carrying what could be either a fuel rod made from Australian uranium or a magic nuclear wand. Ken links this nuclear T’owd Man to the British nuclear weapons tests in Australia in the 1950s in his artist’s statement, and accuses the Brits of leaving parts of Australia uninhabitable and displacing hundreds of indigenous desert people.
But peeping over the top of the Alchemy Stone is an even older British icon: the foliated head of the mythic Green Man who also gazes from the heights of many medieval cathedrals. Stone carvers like Richard Hickton have been carving his head in sacred places on this island since pagan times. Are the sculptors suggesting that this enigmatic Green Man is judging us, as he peeks over the Alchemy Stone, or that his spirit will help us reverse the damage from our pasts, perhaps?
This work is as open to many interpretations as are the T’owd Man and the Green Man themselves. There is more on the back side of the Alchemy Stone, and more of Ken Hutchinson’s provocative T’owd Men on exhibition inside the Australian Pavilion, but we’ll return to these intriguing works (and local people’s reactions to them) in a future post. [Video of Ken talking about his work >>]
Hutchison’s bas reliefs on sandstone blocks share the front part of the Australian Pavilion with works by Ngari Reynolds, Tirikee Alesha Lonsdale, Guubbay Tony Lonsdale and Lanny Mackenzie. This space is dominated by a large woven celebratory installation, Mancing Ide, created by fibre artist Lanny Mackenzie and her co-weavers. Lanny is of Chinese Indonesian descent. She migrated to Australia in her early twenties, and returns to Bali regularly to visit her extended family. Her work reflects this complex family heritage, plus her debt to her Wiradjuri teacher, fibre artist Bev Coe from Condobolin. Mancing Ide, or Fishing for Ideas, is inspired by the fish traps used by indigenous peoples in Indonesia, Australia and ancient Britain. It is constructed from processed English willow, vegetation collected from around Wirksworth and from natural textiles. For Lanny, “the sculpture symbolises how Arts OutWest had gathered all of us Australian artists for this project, and the curved willows show how each of us, normally quite singular in our art practices, have come together and work collaboratively with each other and with our UK counterparts,” she writes in her artist’s statement. But “instead of the closed bottom to catch the fish, this shape shows the opening where all artists can continue on afterwards to pursue their own interests.” Lanny and her co-creators attached 14 different mixed media constructions to the open “fish trap” to represent the Australian artists who are part of this cultural exchange because, in her words, “it is their moment to be noticed, to flourish, to shine.”
Gamilaraay descendant Ngari (Nyree) Reynold’s works in acrylic, natural ochre and sand represent Aboriginal children, all of them faceless and semi-transparent against brightly coloured landscapes. One painting entitled Children Are Coming Home, for example, foregrounds four transparent and faceless little girls with dark curly hair, wearing identical white dresses. Dozens more similarly transparent and faceless little girls in the same white dresses follow them in a long conga line stretching off to the horizon. A barren orange and yellow landscape burns right through them. The artist’s statement accompanying this image is as stark as this painting’s background: The children of the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children are coming home after the Australian government Apology on February 13th, 2008. The apology was a long time coming. Four of Wiradjuri descendant Tirikee Alesha Lonsdale’s acrylic paintings hang over the folding doors between the inner and outer galleries of the Australian Pavilion. Each are colourful interpretations of traditional Aboriginal themes painted, it seems to me, for a generation of young people still seeking comforting affirmations of their indigenous identities. Guubbay Tony Lonsdale’s seductively coloured semi-abstract encaustic wax works are similarly bright and non-confrontational. One image of elongated black ancestral figures against a swirling blue background is especially engaging.
Five artists’s work is on show in the back gallery of the Pavilion: Christine McMillan, Harrie Fasher, Christine Sweeney, Guubbay Tony Lonsdale and Lanny Mackenzie. Christine McMillan, a very experienced older artist, is showing two conceptually sophisticated works, Response and Dry Stone Wall Studies, and, in a secluded nook outside, a third work, Grass Seeds, a projected animation of long tailed grass seeds moving like sperm across white gauze. Response, a mixed media work, features clay objects, altered lino prints and drawings, although the drawings have been omitted from this exhibition because of lack of space. This work is a visceral and visual investigation of the properties of clay as a material. Christine dropped cubes of wet clay onto a bench, turned them, dropped them, turned them, dropped them and repeated the process in a very controlled way again and again, possibly up to forty times, until the clay was stretched almost beyond its capacity to stand by itself. The outcomes of this violent process are a series of delicate boat shaped objects quite unlike the initial lump of material they emerged from. Four visually strong black and white framed lino print images, each of them cut up and reassembled, explore and interpret this process further. Christine McMillan’s second work, Dry Stone Wall Studies, is a response to the hundreds of miles of stone walling around Wirksworth. As with the clay project, she focussed on materials, the countless stones in their diversely myriad forms from which the walls are constructed. Her fine charcoal line work traces individual stones, or the gaps between the stones, or the routes of the walls follow. These abstracted charcoal drawings are presented as a series of postcards. Gallery visitors are invited to take some of the cards, alter them in some way, photograph them with their smart phones or tablets, then email them back to Christine to post on her project web site at [URL]. Derbyshire’s former poet laureate, River Wolton, took a bundle of the postcards for one of her creative writing classes and has now returned them to Christine by email. The results will soon be appear on the web site.
Sculptor Harrie Fasher’s two metal works, Black Cockatoo, a cast bronze piece, and her cast bronze and steel work Dry Argument, sit on two tall plinths in the centre of this gallery. Despite their small size they have a very strong, even haunting presence. Black Cockatoo is a cast skull of a species which is relatively rare around Oberon where Harrie lives. Her Dry Argument includes another cast cockatoo skull, this one chained to a pedestal constructed from found steel objects. The name Dry Argument is a reference to the long drought during which birds and other native wildlife, livestock too, suffered extreme thirst and hunger in the Central West. Bronze is a relatively new medium for Harrie, so we can expect many more such works from her in the future. She also brought two of her welded steel horses to the Wirksworth Festival. They were exhibited in the Saddler’s Cottage during the Art & Architecture Trail weekend.
The back gallery of the Australian Pavilion is visually dominated not by either Christine McMillan’s works or by Harrie Fasher’s delicate sculptures however, but by an ensemble of giant photographic prints (1189 mm x 841mm) from a community music video project by Christine Sweeney, and a similarly large photographic print of Lanny Mackenzie’s dragon, a recent work called Ju Hong – Henny. Christine Sweeney’s images show musicians and choristers associated with Mitchell Conservatorium of Music, which serves much of Central Western New South Wales. She has lit her subjects beautifully so they glow from the Pavilion wall. Her Mitchell Young Voices Choir, for example, is a captivating shot showing nine glowing children struggling into spotted vests behind their music stands just before a performance. In Fiona –Viola, another still from Christine Sweeney’s video production, the conservatorium’s director, Fiona Thompson, clutches her viola and bow and stares at us with a furrowed brow. In another image a much younger musician, a little boy with glasses, similarly gazes at us from behind his instrument in a print labelled Callum – Xylophone.
An image of Ju Hong Henny, Lanny Mackenzie’s dragon, sprawls across another wall. Henny was designed by Lanny’s daughter Katie Mackenzie and is named after Lanny’s sister who was born in the Year of the Dragon. In Chinese astrology the dragon “symbolises new beginnings, bright futures, youthful energies,” Lanny writes in her artist’s statement. The fresh non-traditional colours she and Katie have chosen for the family dragon reflect these values. Henny is constructed from a wire frame, willow branches, recycled shopping bags wrapped with dyed raffia, and glass beads. Unfortunately the actual dragon had to be left in Australia because the airline would not carry it as personal luggage … even though sports people can book through their equally large surfboards and golf clubs as luggage! This was a great disappointment and, from our perspectives, very discriminatory. The airline company is likely to hear more about Henny the Dragon when we return to Australia! Some of Lanny Mackenzie’s other works made from naturally dyed raffia, gumnuts, quangdong seeds, glass beads, New Zealand flax leaves, sedge grass and other fibres over recycled plastic shopping bag cores hang from the Pavilion’s ceiling.
The Australian crew has been engaging with the Derbyshire community in workshops and in other ways during our sojourn in Wirksworth. We’ve left many traces of our visit. Most of us have presented workshops with community groups and worked collaboratively with local practitioners. Christine McMillan, for example, conducted belly casting workshops with teenage mums-to-be, and Ngari Reynolds has visited schools and preschools teaching children about indigenous Australian arts. We’ll look at some of these workshops in future posts, and at some of the opportunities for future collaborations that are now arising from our visit.
Meanwhile, listen to Christine Sweeney’s “musical postcard” from Derbyshire on ABC Central West, http://pavilionproject.com/2013/09/17/100-mile-music-visits-derbyshire/
See Alastair Clark’s blog post (at Don’t Get Lost: Promoting Sustainable Enjoyment of the Outdoors) on the very first Australian-UK artists outing, that walk on Cromford Moor.
More on our Australian Pavilion Project at http://pavilionproject.com/
And more about the Wirksworth Arts Festival on http://www.wirksworthfestival.co.uk/
Revised 26 September 2013,