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COLLECTIVE INSITES CATALOGUE ESSAY
Judy Barrass – Curator
In 2010 Gatakers Artspace in Maryborough received RADF funding for a project that sought to stimulate audience engagement and interest in local museums through innovative approaches to interpreting and examining their collections.
At a time when museums are moving away from being mere repositories of material objects, to a broader role of engagement and communication, creative approaches developed by artists can enliven experiences and develop new ways of reaching audiences. Artists are used to dealing in concepts and ideas, used to questioning, commenting and seeking fresh approaches.
Five artists were selected, each to work with one of five historical collections chosen to be part of the project. Each has developed a body of work as a response to this interaction. We deliberately chose artists with varying levels of experience who were working in a variety of mediums. Each has brought their own skills, biases, interpretations and personality to the project.
The collections chosen for the project were also a widely differing selection, from the traditional military museum to a scattered collection of objects and memorabilia relating to Maryborough’s industrial past.
Collaborations between historical collections and artists are not new, although very few have taken place in a regional context, where small museums often make a significant contribution to the cultural and economic fabric of the community.
While the primary focus of this project has been interaction between the artists and individual collections, it has also been about the forging of new relationships and repositioning the role of cultural institutions in the community. In this project Gatakers Artspace chose to redraw the boundaries between art, gallery, and heritage, museum, adding to and enriching the cultural mix in Maryborough.
There are many ways artists can work with collections and each of the five artists involved in Collective Insites has approached the project in a different way.
New media artist David Hodges’ reaction to Brennan and Geraghty’s store was immediate and enthusiastic. Rather than making comment on the collection he chose to augment and restate its existing message. David’s interactive, digital recreations of objects from the store offer a new way for audiences to engage with the museum. His objective was to work collaboratively with museum curator Ken Brooks to restate the museum message to reach a younger, more tech-savvy age group. The partnership that grew out of the project has produced a lasting resource for the store, which David has generously donated to the owners, the National Trust of Queensland.
In contrast to David’s approach, digitial artist Peta Duggan has used her own reactions to the Military Museum as the basis for her works.
Peta’s strong pacifist principles made interacting with this collection a personal journey that sometimes evoked strong emotions, uncertainties, and mixed feelings. At times the desire to respect and honor the museum and its custodians was at odds with her immediate reactions and long held beliefs. Peta’s richly layered digital imagery recontextualises the message of the museum, positioning it in a far less certain environment where truths are contested, assumptions are laid bare, and alternative points of view are allowed. The time capsule piece is safely positioned sometime in the distant future, allowing her to say what she wants about a possible future without offence to the past.
Christine Turner used her interaction with the collection at MavisBank to reiterate themes she has previously explored in her work. She uses household objects from the past to represent the role of the ‘domestic goddess’ or Mother figure.
The rich and eclectic Mavis Bank collection provided ample fodder for Christine to continue to explore the intersections between the public and private faces of women, between the relentless drudgery of household chores and the refinement of the parlour; between the reality and the romanticised goddess. Christine draws our attention to these unstated tensions and untold stories in the everyday objects in the collection.
Susan Hutton is acutely aware that what many perceive as the long history of Maryborough is but a moment in the story of an ancient land. Such perception heightens her awareness of the ephemeral nature of things. She sees objects in the museum as having only a fleeting ‘presence’ that fades with time, until meaning is lost and they become relics. Like old bones, her ceramic objects retain their shape but are bleached of colour and pattern suggesting a withdrawal from the procession of time.
In isolating, recreating and repositioning objects from the collection Susan makes reference to museum practices of chosing, collecting and displaying objects from the past, preserved on a pedestal but divorced from the life where they once played an active part as treasured or practical objects.
“For many of us, our families have been implanted into this land for only a few generations. We move house we exchange neighbours. Our sense of history has been pulled out from under us. The museum collection delivers us a tangible connection, a feeling of fraternity, a part ownership of history maybe.”
Niels Ellmoos has appropriated aspects of museum practice and discourse as a strategy in his work with the collection of wooden patterns from Walkers Foundry. A central concern of his art has been to show how time and images construct our relationship to the world around us.
Maryborough’s industrial history revealed rich imagery for Niels.Documentary photographs of men working in the foundries provided a reality of a particular place and time.
‘Images of harsh and dangerous working conditions of the foundry workers as bare handed and bare-chested ‘bronzed Aussies’ contrasted dramatically with the pristine wooden forms of the patterns, the material evidence remaining today. The inscriptions (the orders for production), written on the patterns reveal the human link to those dangerous situations’.
A mural sized charcoal drawing forms the centerpiece of Niels’ installation. Incorporating the drama of human intervention, it is interwoven with the energy of the foundry activities, reflecting an interplay of chaos and order.
The collection of moulds was stored in several locations and had recently been moved because of floods. This necessary portability provided a departure point for the notion of a portable or traveling museum. Rough timber transport palettes pose as a microcosm of museum space that theoretically can be moved from place to place and re-assembled in various ways.
The third element of his installation, a documentary digital movie loop of a 1950’s industrial training film, draws attention away from fascination with the sculptural and aesthetic qualities of the patterns by making direct reference to a utilitarian, industrial past.
Niels says it was his intention not only to re-interpret the collection but also to explore the tension between entertainment and education created by placing a museum collection in an art gallery space.
‘My intention was to inject a sense of history, disjuncture, humour and absence into a multi faceted installation of seemingly disparate elements of media.’
His use of several different mediums within the same installation explores the concept of collage in a new context. Each of the elements in the installation fits together to tell the whole story.
This project has been a major undertaking by a gallery that seeks to become an integral part of the Fraser Coast community. Gatakers Artspace is a relatively new community facility, being barely a year old when this exhibition opens. The gallery welcomed Niels Ellmoos as ‘artist in residence’ in the early part of the project giving visitors an insight into an artist’s practice and a taste of what was to come in the future. It also gave Niels the opportunity to come into contact with people who had memories of working at Walkers in the past.
Collective Insites positions local museums as a place of relevance to contemporary culture and local community. The project provides a model for collaborations between artists, galleries, and historical collections in regional areas, and gives an insight into how creative approaches can invigorate the interface between museums and their audience. This is of particular relevance in regional areas where small local museums often contribute significantly to the cultural and economic fabric of the community, and where partnerships between cultural institutions are of great importance.
Many have contributed to the success of the project. It would not have been possible without funding from RADF, without the assistance and support of Museums Development Officer, Fiona Mohr, and the direct involvement of staff and volunteers at the gallery. Downer EDI have sponsored the printing of this catalogue. The museums have been equal partners, opening their doors and their collections to the artists with great generosity. All deserve credit, but it is the artists who have made the project what it is. They have worked with great enthusiasm and commitment to bring to us their own creative interpretations and responses to the collections.
I hope you enjoy Collective Insites. It has been an interesting and rewarding experience for me to have been part of the project and I thank all involved.
Curator of Collective Insites