Last year, we issued a call out for a local artist to attend Artstate Lismore with us. Wagga Wagga painter Greg Carosi answered the call and responded to the following points in his reflection. Stay tuned for details on how you could be our guest at Artstate Bathurst later this year.
Car. Drive. (Sydney). Plane. Take off. Land (Grafton). Take off. Land (Lismore). Getting to Artstate was like that. Being there was far more interesting. The night I arrived, Scott Howie and I dropped in on ‘The Overtopping’, an art collective’s reflections on the effects of the Lismore floods. It took place in a generally disused corner of the CBD laneways – at least at that time of the evening – and included dance, live music, puppetry, projection, live storytelling and water art.
Performance art in public spaces can often be a lot of good intentions wrapped up in a fog of confusion, but the honesty of this show, devised for and performed directly to the people of Lismore, sidestepped all of that and made for a profound experience. Indeed, I could hardly see any of it for a quite a while, so numerous were the locals fanned out in front of me and filling this back-of-shop carpark in a ring around the performers. It didn’t matter – the sound was brilliant. Ambient, resonant blocks of music and song tunnelled out from the below-ground driveway where the band was placed, punctuated here and there by chanting, storytelling and the like. When I got closer to the front, the carry-on of performers was equally haphazard and equally arresting, as random artistic ‘actions’ jostled with more choreographed pieces. Such as the mud routine, where dancers emerged from the depths of murky household bathtubs covered in the silt that plagued the town and everything in it once the flood waters had receded. All the while, images of Lismore’s inundation, and the filmed recounts of those affected back in March, played benignly across the walls above and formed a grungy backdrop to proceedings.
Why was it so good? By acknowledging the extent of the flood’s disruption, and replying with some creative disruption – and fun – of their own, the arts community of Lismore showed us how we too can turn our drab public spaces into expressive and collaborative places of healing. Gee, it was good.
- The Relative Merits of Living Regionally
Not surprisingly, much was said at Artstate about the benefits of living regionally, but are regional artists as well-positioned as their city counterparts? The key points of difference seemed to be time and space. Quantum physics aside, living regionally dissolves many of the time-based dilemmas of city living. Traffic, and the higher cost of living, (which often requires artists to work more often, in turn placing them in more traffic!), keep city artists out of their studios, pushing artmaking hours to the margins of an increasingly busy day. On the other hand, regional artists often lack the readymade networks of art dealers, gallerists and media interest that inhere in the metropolis, travelling large distances in space and time in one hit in order to attend art fairs, festivals and conferences. Much was said about digital technologies closing these geographical gaps, but the real benefits for artists fleeing the cities seems to lie in the fact that regional contexts give you headspace. Karla Dickens, Cate McQuillen and a host of other commercially successfully artists spoke in unison about the ways in which the beauty, isolation and relative economic ease of their Northern Rivers contexts have been crucial in the development of their art; that the best life produces one’s best work. Moving to Wagga from Sydney has had the very same effect on me. It might just be that the city vs regional debate has shifted to one of lifestyle, in its most authentic and enriching sense.
- Karla Dickens – Serious Artist
When you visit Karla Dickens’ website, you find this excerpt from an essay by Djon Mundine OAM:
‘Karla is Wiradjuri, her parents are from Mascot, Sydney. Karla Dickens was born in Sydney in 1967; the Year of the Referendum, that gave Aboriginal people human status within the nation called Australia. A double dawn for Aboriginal people; a major national political and social shift, and an innocent new born seemingly as yet without any connection to her history and Aboriginal heritage. As she tells, the process of moving from childhood to the present was a colourful and, at times, destructive journey of self discovery. Ironically and literally a truly dark but noble ‘Dickensian’ life. Karla’s Aboriginality and sexuality … profoundly inform her work – yet her insight and breadth of artistic practice both embraces the notion of identity politics deeply and yet works with universal human experiences.’
And of course, he’s right. In listening to and speaking with Karla, two things are apparent. Firstly, she is an authentic and committed artist, in that she works hard, is critically engaged in the development of her work across her chosen media, and is unable to put on a brave face for interviews. Instead, she articulates the wry, challenging and often overwhelming burden of white history on Indigenous Australia, speaking, therefore, in the same way her art does. Karla’s work was well-represented at Lismore, included in two separate group exhibitions, and pointing us all towards another look, a deeper look, at the trauma that remains at the heart of Australian identity. The other thing that stands out is that she doesn’t claim to have all – or any – of the answers. Too often I feel I have written exhibition proposals that make overconfident claims for my work, thinking to myself as I do so that if I can just make it all work on the canvas, (or piece of wood, or unnecessarily large sheet of aluminium), then all will be forgiven. Karla’s intellectual thoughtfulness puts doubt front and centre; she is implicated in the struggles she represents, and the work is all the stronger for it.
One of the most heartening things to come out of Artstate Lismore came from the most bureaucratic – and therefore most unlikely – of sources. Namely, the Health Department. The afternoon presentation, ‘Emergency – Call the Arts!’, included a summary from the Director of Planning at Health Infrastructure, Bruno Zinghini, of the redevelopment process for hospital facilities large and small across the state of NSW. In it, he explained how it is now standard practice for all new facilities to include the commissioning and installation of significant, large-scale artwork. Times have changed. No longer vertical piles designed to keep germs in and emotion out, hospitals are now being conceived of as genuine community spaces sensitive to the ways in which the physical and emotional experiences of patients, staff and carers directly influence medical outcomes. This holistic approach has already led to increased community consultation, more ambitious and flexible hospital design, and some stunning artist-driven results in Blacktown, Dubbo and Byron Bay, to name a few. Artists and community members alike, I urge you to go forth and put your own mark on the spaces that look to heal our nearest and dearest. Seems you just might be listened to after all.
Much was said in favour of collaboration at Artstate Lismore, and very little of it was collaboration for its own sake. Keynote speaker Soumik Datta, award winning contemporary British musician and sarod
virtuoso, evoked the mystical unknown and extolled the virtues of Collaboration (capital ‘C’), but most others recounted very specific, very productive partnerships that spoke directly to the communities for which they were made. A sample: artists creating colourful letterboxes to offset the carnage of burnt down homes after devastating bushfires, so too the recording and playing of local birdcalls until the trees grew back. Elsewhere, hit ABC animation dirtgirlworld branding for the EPA, and Redfern Now
actor Kirk Page working with Indigenous youth through NORPA in the Northern Rivers. Amidst the bureaucratic swirl of Health Infrastructure development, the centrepiece installation of traditional Wiradjuri headbands and skirts. In all these instances, seemingly unlikely partnerships, when well-managed, produced – or look set to produce – mutually beneficial outcomes. Be done with collaboration for its own sake; the best results come from the fertile meetings of unlike minds and the development of strong ideas that gesture towards the greater good.
- Creative Spaces – The Success of Lismore Regional Art Gallery
The real highlight of Artstate for me was watching the stream of community members who felt compelled to interrupt my rambling conversation with Brett Adlington (Director, Lismore Regional Art Gallery) in order to thank him for what he had done. What he had done was spearhead the development, delivery and launch of Lismore’s new arts precinct, which was now in full swing on the final night of Artstate festivities and buzzing with locals, visitors and ne’er do wells, young and old. From sound stage performances in the newly branded Quad, to impromptu dancing and dogs chasing kids chasing dogs, it was already a pretty cruisy evening. But as we sat with our backs to the new art gallery building, its modesty and style a fitting counterpoint to the effusive scene, the community gratitude directed at Brett reaffirmed the absolute importance of active and ongoing cultural development, irrespective of context. People were happy. Really happy. I was happy, having walked the rooms of the gallery itself earlier that day. I’d admired the proportions of each one – linked to but separated from the next by an outward facing glassed corridor that reminds you where you are and why the building exists – and felt as if that moment of transition from one room to the next was like the taking of a breath, a pause before the plunge. Brett looked happy. And tired. No wonder. What a treasure he and everyone else involved in the project have gifted the people of Lismore.
All images by Greg Carosi: 1) Artstate, 2017; 2) Karla Dickens, Black and Blue Series, 2016; 3-4) Lismore Regional Art Gallery (installation views: Four Women), 2017