ou worked for many years as a researcher and social activist. What made you decide to pursue a a career in visual art?
I had been alienated from viewing art for years – I felt excluded by a language I didn’t understand. While having lots of friends who were artists I couldn’t find a ‘way into’ art. On a long holiday in Europe I went to the Miro gallery in Barcelona which has works from across his life – representational early works, sculptures and his later symbolic and abstracted work. Somehow I saw the progression and from then started to linger longer in galleries (my average length of stay being 30 mins until then). This gave me the boost to go to a mosaic class for a weekend when I came home and from that I decided to make a life sized abstracted mosaic dog sculpture – this took a few years as it was done only in snatches of time. I recognised some change in my brain when I managed to focus on making – this in turn led to some drawing classes in the public programs at NAS and from there to Meadowbank TAFE. I took one year off work to go full time to be in ‘kindergarten’ as part of a Diploma in Visual Arts. By the end of the year I was hooked and realised I had to keep going – having little money this meant selling our house and downsizing- I did three years at TAFE then went to NAS.
While the above is the story about how I became an artist, the Confined Hearts project has its roots in my social activism. I helped to organise the Sea of Hands, a powerful installation for Australians to register their support for land rights and reconciliation. I had seen installations of the AIDS quilt; when I organised a protest in support of funding for child care in the early 1980’s I had made large soft child dolls to place on the Old Parliament House Steps. Making art was at first a way of going somewhere else, of seeing the world in different ways that escaped text and gave me a new language. But all of my work had a subject that came out of my understanding of the world that had been informed by social activism.
Tell us about your ‘Confined Hearts Project’. How did you come up with the idea and what does it involve?
The Confined Hearts Project began in March last year as I was just starting my MFA at NAS. I was working on a different project related to the environment when I woke up one morning with an image of a human heart being ripped apart. The image was so strong I felt I had to go to the studio and make a human heart in clay. I realised that it captured my feeling of despair as I took in the news each day, which at the time was full of the drownings in the Mediterranean and the cries of Stop the Boats here. I decided to make a heart for everyone on Manus and Nauru (a more manageable number than the millions of displaced people around the globe), which at the time was officially 1468. I realised I would need help and that I could run workshops to get volunteers to make the hearts.
I approached STARTTS, the torture and trauma counselling service and they invited some of their ongoing refugee groups to participate. At the same time I organised workshops at NAS and started promoting the project offering to travel to community sites to run workshops. Eventually I ran 45, 2.5 hour workshops over six months – Campbelltown, Bankstown, Lurnea, Fairfield, Coffs Harbour, Shoalhaven, Marrickville, Lindfield, Roseville, Coogee, Darlinghurst, Canberra. More than 450 people attended, with around 30 people coming multiple times. I quickly realised that a key part of what made the groups work was the introduction when people briefly reflected on their own connection with people seeking asylum. Most people expressed powerlessness and shame as well as gratitude for their own ability to be in Australia and their own/their parents/ their grandparents experiences of being welcomed.
The first installation of the hearts was part of the Chippendale New World Art Prize where it was shown as Open Hearts. The hearts were wrapped in muslin and placed in a skirl with a central area empty. A nearby cyclone fence was installed. Viewers were invited into the empty central circle to pick up a wrapped heart, to then unwrap it and place it back down, while taking the cloth to write a message and tie it on the fence – over the weeks of the exhibition the circle transformed from white wrapped objects to terracotta hearts and the empty fence became a wall of white. This installation was shown in a darkened space, so created dramatic shadows on the wall of the cloth hanging on the fence. Open Hearts was then shown as part of Seeking Refuge exhibition at Tuggeranong Art Centre in Canberra in October. A one day installation was held – Heart Awakening – as part of the NAS Open Day in which viewers were invited to pick up a heart lying in a bare patch of earth to wash it in one of seven large turquoise ceramic bowls before then wrapping it.
“Making art was at first a way of going somewhere else, of seeing the world in different ways that escaped text and gave me a new language.”
he large installation, Opening Hearts, was held on December 10 at Circular Quay in First Fleet park adjacent to the MCA. Opening Hearts had 1600 hearts wrapped in cloth placed in a double spiral formation on the grass. Over six hours it was up more than 1000 people walked the spiral, picked up a heart and unwrapped it, placed it back on the ground, completed the walk and then were invited to write a message and tie it to nearby cyclone fences. Around 750 messages were written, while around 65 people volunteered that day to assist.
A small version of this spiral with 400 hearts has been shown at the Masonic Centre, Sydney as part of an international Catholic social justice conference. Intent, a new work made up of 600 messages from previous installations, forms a tent that flimsily shelters hearts. I hope to show it later this year in Sydney. It is going to London in March 2018 as I do a continuation of the Confined Hearts Project in collaboration with Kings College and the Museum of Migration there.
Why in particular are you so drawn to the issue of Australia’s treatment of refugees?
I have a strong sense of history (I did a BA in history and worked as historian for a short time). I have lived through the shift from the White Australia Policy to an embracing of other cultures; I know about our inhumane rejection of Jewish refugees in the 1930s but I also know about our subsequent acceptance of more than 800,000 refugees since 1949 as a result of leadership that undercuts xenophobia and racism. How we treat each other, how we see the ‘other’ is at the basis of my social activism.
Some people question the aptitude of the arts to effect social change, citing that it is simply ‘preaching to the converted’. What is your take on this? Do you feel that the Confined Hearts Project has been effective in shifting perceptions?
An artwork in itself doesn’t change a policy. But it can shift the way people see. I agree with Jacques Ranciere, that the most effective ‘social change’ or political art works in a two-fold way; on the one hand enabling the politics to be read and on the other hand disrupting assumptions and voicing the uncanny. I also agree with Rebecca Solnit in her work Hope in the Dark, that we cannot know the impact that our actions or art make down the track.
In relation to the Confined Hearts Project, my aim is to create spaces that allow people to have their own response and to reflect on their connection to the issue. I am framing the work by drawing attention to our common humanity through the symbolic use of the human heart and by making one for each person in detention. This framing attempts to remove the tightly hemmed in narrative about refugees, which dehumanise and make anonymous these ‘others’. The creation of spaces – the workshops and the installations are constructed to have tactile connection to that symbol, to allow a more whole of body response. The spaces are time based and space based – they demand immersion over a different time scale to that of viewing an image or object in a gallery.
“An artwork in itself doesn’t change a policy. But it can shift the way people see. I agree with Jacques Ranciere, that the most effective ‘social change’ or political art works in a two-fold way; on the one hand enabling the politics to be read and on the other hand disrupting assumptions and voicing the uncanny.”
he Circular Quay installation was important for me – previous installations were shown in a gallery environment, limiting the diversity of people interacting with the work. Instead Opening Hearts was there for anyone walking along Circular Quay that day. What has impressed me throughout the project has been the overwhelmingly engaged response of people to the project – it has reached people’s emotions and senses in an immediate way, indicating to me that more people have good intention in this area than our political leaders and media allow to be seen. I have had only a small minority of people being outraged by the work – these are people who are critical of it being an artwork and not being a clear protest with a clear “you need to take action now in these ways” message. At Circular Quay we did have a small minority of people who clearly rejected the invitation to participate, but again I think that by seeing others taking up the offer, it disrupts the version being perpetuated by the government that everyone is behind the current policy.
What has been your proudest achievement in your art career to date?
I think this project – I feel as if I have integrated my life with my art and that I have become an artist.
Working so closely with the refugee community, you must’ve learnt a lot about Australia’s refugee policies and the current systems in place to process refugees. It is pretty clear that the system is not working. What steps do you feel the government needs to take to fix the system? Are there any countries who are doing it better than us who we could learn from?
We should do what we used to do – increase our foreign aid budget and our humanitarian intake; increase our funding to UNHCR so that they can assess more refugees in camps in key areas such as Turkey, Jordan etc so that people do not have to take hazardous journeys; immediately allow those on Nauru and Manus to be brought here if they want or for them to go to NZ (which has previously offered) if they prefer; stop having temporary protection visas and allow people to settle here; allow people arriving by boat to be in community detention while being assessed.We should look at Germany who has accepted so many refugees and Merkel’s leadership on this issue which interestingly has been politically successful; we should look to Canada which has speedily accepted Syrian refugees and developed a community sponsorship program where groups of people join together to support newly arrived refugees financially and socially.
Ultimately we need to address the refugee issue because global warming will pose enormous challenges with people being moved due to climate change – if we can’t respond now how will we do so in the future. This means leadership and conversations and a space to think beyond three word headlines.