Resilience in times of adversity – Exhibition essay by Anthony Bond

Resilience in Times of Adversity: Contemporary Responses to WW2 in the Blue Mountains runs from 17 August – 29 September at the  Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, 30 Parke Street Katoomba NSW.

Anne Graham – Detail from Keeping the Wolf From the Door, 2019

This exhibition is based on the experiences of residents living in the Blue Mountains and the surrounding areas during the Second World War and the years immediately after the war. All the artists have diligently researched aspects of life under the influence of the conflict however it is by no means a documentary project. Each artist brings their own visual history and personal language to bear on the people affected at that time. Art has ways of representing life that does more than inform. It may use differing creative strategies to bring the reality of events and their effect on everyday people into sharp focus by creating the potential for enhanced affective engagement. In some ways this can be as simple as “showing not telling” as a heuristic strategy. In the process of researching history and the society which lived through it, artists come across objects, places and images that bring us into close contact with what is already a distant and partly occluded reality.

Each of the artists in this exhibition engages this kind of artistic expression. Artistic expression that may reveal something of the artists’ personal connection to the stories they unearth but most importantly the value of the art is not inherent in their personal experience. It is primarily about the way a creative person conveys that story to a viewer through a powerful physical exchange with the traces (materials and narratives) of history and peoples’ lives. Research may sound academic but when a good artist does the research it becomes a process in which they become enmeshed in the history or the subject. Many artists have spoken about becoming ‘at one’ with the object of their study in order to be able to deliver it through art to the viewer. I think for example of Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon and even ancient Chan Monks who meditated on a bamboo grove or a mountain till they became as one with it before making the decisive stroke of the brush which returns the experience of the thing to the viewer.

Traces: in previous centuries, collectors have created assemblages of fascinating traces from the world and those combine natural objects: bones, stones, skins, man-made objects including weapons, ceramics, scientific instruments, love tokens. Some of these collectors arranged such objects in display cases as Wunderkammer or assemblages of wonderful objects. Such displays could at times be shown to guests and stories could be conjured from the things and the relationship between the things. The use of found objects came into mainstream artistic practice in the early twentieth century with experiments by artists including Picasso and Dada artists such as Kurt Schwitters and Surrealists Max Ernst, Roland Penrose, and Joyce Agee. Probably most strategically this was done by Marcel Duchamp, who notably added verbal and visual puns to the repertoire of wonderful found objects.

Chris Tobin – Rivers of Blood #1-2, 2019

In the post war period, one of the most striking exponents of these strategies was Joseph Beuys. I turn to Beuys here not only because of his exemplary use of materials but also because in the same period as this exhibition addresses, he was deeply affected by the events of the time and set out to manage his memories through art. Beuys was traumatised by coming to terms with the Holocaust, not least because as an adolescent he was co-opted into the Hitler youth and saw some horrible events in that context. He was also shot down five times when he was flying with the Luftwaffe, having a near death experience from which he was famously rescued by nomadic people in Crimea whose culture included strong shamanistic practices. He was smeared with animal fat and wrapped in felt (compacted animal fur) to help him recover from his burns and exposure in the icy wastes where he fell. These Shamanistic practices and specifically these materials became his trademark tools in making art in the early part of his career as an artist.

Beuys grew up in the marshy country around Cleves in the far North West of Germany. His experiences of a childhood spent wandering round this wild country had a big impact on the way his art was to evolve.

“Then came the interest in plants and botany that has stayed with me all my life. It started as a kind of cataloguing of everything that grew in that area, all noted in exercise books. Our games became more elaborate. We would go off hunting for anything we could find, and then we build tents from rags and bits of material so we could show our collections. There was everything from beetles, mice, rats, frogs, fish and flies to old farmyard machines or anything technical we could get our hands on. Then we had our underground spaces too: dens and caves in a labyrinth we tunnelled under the earth.”

An important early work in the collection of the Hessiches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt is Stag Hunt, an accumulation of objects collected by Beuys over the years that continues this childhood practice into his later work including stags’ horns, bones, scientific equipment and chemicals. The bundles of newspapers are thought of by Beuys as ‘batteries of stored cultural matter’.

Art is always somewhat subjective, which might seem to dilute accurate communication but the payload is the affective shock it can deliver precisely because of being felt internally. The use of everyday objects to bring on such shocks is a particularly powerful tool. Memory is the key to this effect. One of the artists in this exhibition spent some time working with elderly women in a home. Many of them had dementia, often having little or no recollection of their own stories. However, each of them was allowed to bring some object from home that had some special meaning for them. In the artist’s conversations with the women, the past seemed a remote place and yet when they were given the special object to hold their stories flooded out. However true or accurate these stories proved to be they were directly linked to important moments in their lives and loves. From these recollections, the artist was able to assemble the story of their life specifically relating to the objects that prompted them and created portraits using attributes rather than simply likenesses.

Vivienne Dadour – Snapshots, 2019 seen through Fiona Davies – Coughing up Blood, 2019

Vivienne Dadour has long been researching and documenting lives in the Blue Mountains and the effects of warfare here and elsewhere in the world. The ideas for this installation were prompted by her friendship with Lilly Lynn who migrated to the Mountains in 1950 after growing up in Shanghai and living in Germany during the war. Dadour is also the descendant of migrants and has begun seeking out archives personal and public of families who have settled here from that time immediately after the war. The families have been enthusiastic and contributed generously to the archive and exhibition. Dadour assembled the imagery in albums that allow the viewer to engage with these material objects and literal traces of the past and come to identify with the history they reveal. In earlier work that she showed at the Woodford Academy, she assembled documentary evidence using original images from journals and archives held at the Academy including letters sent to locals from soldiers and relatives overseas  thereby making a tangible connection between Blue Mountain families and events across the globe.

Sean O’Keefe worked for several years in Lithgow teaching art and has involved his students in projects including film and audio records. While researching the fascinating local story of Hoaxville in Marangaroo his students introduced him to another layer of history that has been veiled in secrecy since the war. Although known to some in local communities it has remained a dark and hidden part of the legacy of the war and those who know tend to put it out of sight and out of mind. Hoaxville was a military base and research facility during and after the war. To protect it during the war it was disguised as a village complete with shops and even fake cows and chickens to fool potential Japanese bombers. Part of O’Keefe’s research was into Chemical weapons, including mustard gas and even more damaging chemicals. At the end of the hostilities these lethal materials were stored in Marangaroo and it was not until relatively recently that some attempt was made to remove or bury them. The initial storage in mines and bunkers involved young soldiers, often unprotected, moving the materials from the base to nearby storage. As a result there were significant health outcomes for the soldiers who had little or no understanding of what they were exposed to. It remained secret as far as the wider community has been concerned till the present. One local has told us that people did not believe that if it was that dangerous the government would have allowed it to continue. However, a release of very large quantities of deadly phosgene gas would have had devastating effects on the Blue Mountains community. O’Keefe has made a transparent structure to house objects that relate to this story and the affect will be enhanced by the lingering aroma of mustard, lilac, and fresh cut grass.

Vivienne Dadour – Snapshots, 2019; Sean O’Keeffe – Hoaxville, 2019 and Anne Graham – Keeping the Wolf From the Door, 2019

Darug artist Chris Tobin tells us about a traditional creation story that brought the Waratah into existence. In the distant past two neighbouring clans in the district became involved in a conflict that turned very destructive so that the valley known as The Gully in Katoomba ran with rivers of blood. The spirit creator was dismayed by this destruction and as a memorial to human folly created the waratah flower symbolising the blood of the victims. Chris uses this as a base for the narrative of Indigenous men being induced to serve in the European wars offering their lives for the country that had been taken from them by colonial powers. On their return as we know many of these warriors were ignored and left to find their own way unsupported by the systems being put in place to support returned soldiers. The photo-works presented in this exhibition layer contemporary imagery of The Gully with Indigenous images of the original catastrophe.

Fiona Davies has been making a series of works dealing with the liminal spaces between life and death, illness and suffering and the isolation this can bring. During the war servicemen who had contracted contagious diseases such as Tuberculosis were brought to the mountains for treatment and to be isolated from the wider community. There is something particularly tragic about this quarantining of returned soldiers. After the horrors of war returning home must have been in their imagination about return to community and family not to exclusion from society.

In this installation Davies recreates the scenario of isolation but also the lack of privacy experienced by these soldiers. Her use of translucent materials invokes ephemerality possibly also of disappearance while an ex-ray of a tubercular chest also has that translucent other worldliness between life and death. Anne Graham Has been researching the history of the Small Arms Factory in Lithgow. During the war as the men were dispatched to the front their work was handed over to the women left behind. In the beginning the women worked creating weapons for the war effort. They came to Lithgow often with their children but there was insufficient accommodation for them in the town and they were compelled to camp out in the bush. After the hostilities the women continued to work in the factory but now their output was a more creative peacetime product, Pinnock sewing machines.

The installation has been framed by a pyramidal structure in memory of these tents in the forest. Graham has previously worked with tent structures in a series of street installations that popped up in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. In each manifestation the tent forms related to different stories. In Sydney the structure was an enclosure created by calico under the railway overpass in Woolloomooloo. In Brisbane and Melbourne the tents were stand-alone tents based on the refugee accommodation we all saw on television from the war in Bosnia and Iraq. In Canberra and Adelaide the form of the installation was based on military tents and also the makeshift tents used by early railway workers. This simple linear structure reflects the various forms of adversity and resilience referred to by this exhibition.

Within this tent sewing machines are raised on stacked stools that are covered in brass shell casings from 303 bullets like those used in the war. On the wall are photographs of the women camping in the woods and working in the factory making shell casings and later Pinnock machines.

 – Anthony Bond



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