Joan Brassil – still a leading contemporary artist

1-IMG_3388Strangers: A Retrospective of Joan Brassil opened at Campbelltown Arts Centre, on Saturday June 6, the tenth anniversary year of her death. In about 1958, Joan had moved to Campbelltown as the widowed mother of two young sons and not long after, became Campbelltown High School’s first visual arts teacher. A much loved and inspiring teacher, artist and collaborator, her life and practice were celebrated by the large gathering of family members, former students, friends and colleagues. On her early retirement at the age of 50, Joan was invited by Barbara Romalis to become one of the founding members of the artist community at Wedderburn, where the surrounding bushland became one of her endless sources of inspiration. It was from this point that Joan’s professional development as a contemporary artist took off. Her academic studies ultimately included a doctorate of creative arts from University of Wollongong. In 1999, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by UNSW. Above, Strangers in the Landscape (sculpture) located in the cafe courtyard.

1-IMG_3385Assembling Strangers: A Retrospective of Joan Brassil was a major undertaking for the project curatorial committee (curatorium) – Michael Dagostino (director of Campbelltown Arts Centre), Ruth Banfield, Susan Best, Greg Brassil, Liam Brassil, Tony Bond, Marsha Meskimmon and Megan Monte. Joan was an installation and media artist, whose early embrace of technology and video led her into collaborations with scientists, researchers, and artists from other disciplines. She participated in major national and international art exhibitions and disposed of few of the materials she had ever used. In fact, one part of the exhibition includes objects created for one purpose and then changed or re-used in another role. Joan was always experimenting and learning. A selection of pages of research commentary and critical reviews are reproduced to enhance the experience of the object room. Above, Astral Potatoes, located in the object room.

1-IMG_3372Why Stranger in the title? Stranger is a recurring theme in much of Joan’s work. In her catalogue essay, Marsha Meskimmon writes: “It is difficult to look at Joan Brassil’s work without embracing unpredictability, the possibility of change and a profound sense of contingency. Moving easily between the dust of the ground and the light of the stars, the stranger (gazing) engages all that lies between, seen or unseen, heard or beyond hearing. Brassil’s aesthetic tactics were not to fix meaning, but to allow it space from which to emerge.” She was deeply interested in Aboriginal thinking and practice and their closeness to the natural world. Above, Joan as she appears in the film (see below), describes her sense of wonderment.

1-IMG_3366In opening the exhibition, Tony Bond described elements she utilised in her work – randomness, chance, curiosity, interrogation, an intense engagement with the nature of being in the world, a manifestation of wonder. The 20 minute film made with Joan during her lifetime and which screens on continuous loop, reveals these characteristics and the way in which she used technology as an instrument of wonder, light and contemplation. Her style of work was generous, inclusive and collaborative. Astrophysicist Dr Brian Robinson was a friend and collaborator whose knowledge deepened her understanding of science. Her use of recordings such as the movement of electrical energy and pulsar registrations, helped him communicate science to a wider audience and gave a broader dimension to his work. Above, Randomly – Now and Then, 1990, microphone stand, computer, diorite mining cores, gravel rock, pavement, speakers and tuning forks.

1-IMG_3397While the technology may have changed, Joan’s approach to her work remains entirely contemporary. The challenge for the curatorium was to assemble her installations in ways she might have done, since each space was different and she responded intuitively to them. Her warmth and whimsical humour are also evident in some of her work. I was fortunate enough to have time with her on at least two occasions, when it always seemed she had a quality of stillness about her. Joan’s son, Greg, says her advice when all around seemed to be chaos was to “sit still”. Her work is deeply contemplative. Left is one of two panels which stand alongside her sculpture of giant tuning forks Tether of Time in Campbelltown Arts Centre’s sculpture garden. The forks stand over a pool of reflection and a perpetual small flow of water. The panel is inscribed with poetic observations about Tether of Time (with apologies for the layout) –

Wind harps on a busy corner tuned randomly
by natural forces sonipally declare the advent of air
NNE or SE find sound among strings
placing the ear against wood on masts
currents of air may be throbbing through wires
as a sonic harmonic searching for a song

Strangers: A Retrospective of Joan Brassil continues at Campbelltown Arts Centre to August 2. Go prepared to listen carefully. Delicate and diverse sounds are a constant among the installations. The catalogue helps illuminate the experience.


Campbelltown Arts Centre aims at local engagement and participation

The List Install Documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Megan MonteThe opening night party for The List, Campbelltown Arts Centre‘s latest exhibition, was fairly jumping with energy. Milling among the hundreds present were lots of young people taking part in performances or coming to see the results of their own part in the multidisciplinary  project addressing youth culture in Campbelltown. Their enthusiasm alone seemed an important indicator of success. Under the directorship of Michael Dagostino, the centre aims to engage with new audiences, especially local audiences. A high proportion of Campbelltown’s population is aged under 26.

Installation photos supplied by Campbelltown Arts Centre are included in this post.

The exhibition was the culmination of 12 newly commissioned works developed by artists working with different groups of young people. Among them were Abdul and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah who worked with a group of teenage boys of Pacific Islander background from Eagle Vale High School – see photo above. Working together revealed a shared experience of frustration about cultural and economic marginalisation, vilification and a broad sense of displacement.

The List Install Documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Megan MonteMarvin Gaye Chetwynd worked with students from Campbelltown Performing Arts High School on a highly theatrical performance and video – YOLO – combining narratives from two texts they were studying.The local legend of Fisher’s Ghost is the central focus of Uji Handoko Eko Saputro (a.k.a Hahan’s) work with young people. The result is a large scale graphic mural – above, exploring multiple uses of image and story.

Zanny Begg worked with Aboriginal teenage boys in the Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre to create a collaborative video reflecting on their current circumstances, dreams and possibilities. Kate Blackmore worked with 14 and 15 year old girls at the Claymore Mission Australia community centre. The results of their conversations led to their collaboration on a video recording their thoughts and ideas, and reflections on their everyday environment.

1-Shaun GladwellIn her notes about the project, Kate described its focus on “the significance of the moment – how it can hold the power  to change young lives”. Perhaps that summarises the philosophy guiding the projects – not proceeding to a preconceived outcome, but jointly investigating present experience and considering meanings, options and opportunities. Artist Shaun Gladwell adapted the “hearts and minds” strategy he had observed in the Afghanistan conflict to create a theatrical intervention among young riders at Campbelltown Skate Park – see left. Performers dressed in camouflage fashion approached local skaters offering to swap new wheels for old.

Megan Monte is curator of contemporary art at the centre and responsible for managing The List. She says, “A commonality across the projects is the exploration of utopia, identity, culture, technology, dreams and aspirations.” Combining social engagement and contemporary arts practice, The List aims to address the issues young people face today, while empowering them to engage in a creative hub encouraging participation and involvement.

The List Install Documentation, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Megan MonteWhat is community and how do you measure vibrancy in community engagement? These are questions director of Campbelltown Arts Centre Michael Dagostino says they grapple with all the time. The centre aims “to engage, inspire and respond to the issues of the region’s communities through the production of contemporary, multidisciplinary cultural programs”. Great care is taken in the selection of artists to work on projects. Through informal conversations, the centre tries to assess the sincerity of an artist’s proposal – why would you want to work with the centre and why would the centre want to work with you?

Above is the first of five billboards, part of The List, seen west of the rail line between Minto and Ingleburn. Using another approach, artist Tom Polo has distilled an essence from young people’s conversations overheard on the train. ALL I KNOW – IS THAT – WE – JUST KEEP – DOUBTING OURSELVES.

Prescribed outcomes are deeply unsatisfactory. Strong community relevance and artistic excellence are both important, engagement needs to be honest and ethical and the process authentic and humanistic in character. While the project has clear goals, the process needs to be flexible in response to the needs and ideas that emerge.

The List continues to Sunday, October 12. If you can make it to Campbelltown on Saturday, October 4 or 11, you could experience the culmination of another Campbelltown Arts Centre project Temporary Democracies, within the framework of the Airds Bradbury public housing renewal project. Click here and here for more information.

David Capra discusses – What was it like having a water birth with all those people watching?

David Capra, Water Birth, Campbelltown Arts CentreIn a recent conversation with Campbelltown Arts Centre director, Michael Dagostino, artist David Capra laughingly compared himself to Kermit the Frog.

“Kermit just wants to sing, dance and make people happy,” he said, “and that’s what I want to do.”

David and Michael were talking about a project David undertook with members of the Active Over 50s Fitness Group that works out regularly at Eagle Vale Central swimming pool. Birthing Things in the Spirit: The Water Birth was presented at the pool on Saturday, November 30, 2013.

Present with David in the conversation were Jenny Blackburn who leads the fitness group and another member Gwen Prohm. From their comfortable exchanges it was clear that a warm and relaxed friendship had grown up between them as they worked with David to bring his ideas to fruition.

David explained that even in childhood, he was birthing things, walking around the living room with a pillow for his belly, practising his pregnant wobble. In developing Birthing Things in the Spirit, he consulted a midwife, who proved to be former dancer. He learned “there is a reason for pain and it’s worth it”.

He was inspired by the work of Australian-born actor and swimmer Annette Kellerman in the early 1900s and by the Hollywood swimming star Esther Williams from the 1940s and 50s. Moving through water, discussing water births and sharing their pleasure in movies and soundtracks were all part of the project’s development and the group’s bonding.

David Capra, Water Birth, Campbelltown Arts CentreDavid acknowledges that there are three distinguishing characteristics to much of his performance work – his belly, which “carries the weight of responsibility”, the hand of friendship inspired by the Campbelltown train passenger Elizabeth and the white clothing he wears to “become the gallery wall”.

When asked if he becomes a different character when performing, he said no, he becomes a “heightened David with purpose”. Although there was passionate intent in his performance, with his own powerful chanting and the carefully rehearsed choreography, there was an undeniable sense of fun pervading the entire event.

Fitness group members enjoyed the experience enormously and many really “came out of their shells”, they said. For David, it was similarly great fun, but very important that he continues to be engaged with the community.

Birthing Things in the Spirit: The Water Birth was undertaken for David’s Master’s degree, but he rejects any suggestion that his involvement might cease, once he graduates. The focus of much of his work is community engagement and sharing. His little dachshund dog Teena, who features in a lot of his work is far from a gimmick, but an important way of drawing people into participation.

In Susannah Wimberley’s photos David, top, is surrounded by Fitness Group members assisting the birth and below, flourishes his Ministry of Handshakes as they celebrate the birthing.