Review: Searching for the vanishing subject in portraits of dementia

PHOTO: University of Wollongong

PHOTO: University of Wollongong

Artist Xi Hsu’s exhibition is made up over two hundred portraits. Together, they provide a balanced view of dementia. They are not only portraits of sufferers, but also portraits of how we may be seen, through their eyes.

The exhibition, Searching for the Vanishing Subject in Portraits of Dementia forms part of Xi’s research project for his Doctor of Creative Arts, which he is undertaking a the University of Wollongong.

Since 2011, he has been making weekly visits to the Boronia Hostel in the UnitingCare Mayflower Village in Gerringong, as a volunteer artist. Being connected with these residents for a three year period has enabled Xi to capture the progressive nature of dementia in the exhibition.

Part of the exhibition is a series of instant photographs, which are in rows along the hallway. Alan, a resident at Boronia and Xi took photos of each other and they are displayed next to each other. As you walk further down the hallway, you’ll notice the absence of Xi. As Alan’s condition worsened he could no longer press the shutter button and take his photo.

Down the hallway is a room filled with painted portraits. Each of the 32 portraits was painted live and is of a different resident. Xi had to work quickly to capture their expression, as residents with dementia can be unpredictable; they may move away, fall asleep or lapse into a trance-like condition. The results are fragmented faces, of different states of being.

The next group of portraits have a completely different feeling to the rest: anxiety, grief and anger is unmistakable in these chaotic, self-portraits. The layers of oil paint, and shapes makes the image within the painting unclear. The paintings represent how we may be perceived, through the eyes of people with dementia.

Through a series of portraits, Xi has managed to portray the facets and stages of dementia, in an interesting and insightful way. Most of the individual portraits of the residents will be given to their families at the end of the doctoral process.

The exhibition is on show until the 23rd of May, at the University of Wollongong’s FCA Gallery.

By Janai Velez

Preview: Poster Art Exhibtion

Passionate about a particular political, environmental or social issue? Have some artistic talent? Studio 19 Art Gallery is now taking submissions for their poster exhibition, Put Your Art Where Your Mouth Is.

They say on their website that they “will use this exhibition as a platform for activism and political protest and show the ways in which it can encourage community participation in creating issues-based design… It is our time to speak out about things that affect us.”

Posters are a powerful means of communication, and have been used in times of revolution. In Celebrate People’s History : The Graphic Book of Resistance and Revolution, edited by Josh MacPhee and foreword by Rebecca Solnit, Mr MacPhee writes,“if we make art that speaks to people’s interests, history, and desires, and bring it into public spaces, people might actually engage with it. The streets aren’t dead to political dialogue. They are a place where powerful conversations can begin, and art can play an important role in making that happen.”

You need to register your interest for the poster exhibition by the 13th May, and the poster must be in by the 4th June.

By Janai Velez

Meet the artist: Sarah Willard Gray

Sarah Willard Gray with The River Wingecarribee Triptych

Sarah Willard Gray with her artwork, The River Wingecarribee Triptych

“One thing that I read when I first started to paint was, ‘when you go into a room to paint you leave yourself outside’. Makes sense, doesn’t it? You can’t consciously do an artwork; you’ve got to let something else take over. And when it’s right, you’ll know, because it will go ‘ding’”. Artist, Sarah Willard Gray’s philosophy has helped her create the 33 abstract landscape paintings which make up her exhibition.

Cartographic Concepts Of Ownership, Belonging And Place was on show at the University of Wollongong‘s FCA Gallery. The exhibition ties in with her PhD thesis.

Sarah uses cartographic mapping and draws on the landscape and history of the Bong Bong Common, located in the Southern Highlands, in her artworks.

“In these artworks I’m not only painting the landscape but I’m also reacting to individual experiences that took place within the history of a specified cultural landscape,” says Sarah.

She even uses natural elements from the area to create the artworks. “The grains of red ground soil from the Bong Bong Common, is mixed in to all of the paintings. Ground up very finely,” she says.

Sarah says that “abstraction allows the mind to increase in size” and she invites viewers to find someting meaningful to them in her artworks.

“If you see something in it, that’s wonderful, but it’s not in it. If you see it I’m very happy, because it could be anything, couldn’t it?” she says.

By Janai Velez


Colouring the City

Janai Velez chats with Wollongong City Council’s Community and Cultural Development Manager, Sue Savage about role of public art in the city.

Why do we have public art?

Public art, including graffiti, adds amenity to a city. We do have a public art policy and a budget for public art, and we utilise that every year. Public art provides employment for local artists and it adds experience to both our community and visitors; it gives the city a feel and a look. Public art tells a story of the city.

It’s not always, well hopefully it is always, something good to look at, but that is not always its purpose. We’ve used it with historical photos along the walkway near the library, we’ve got all the panel projects around our art gallery and along the lane way near Lee and Me we’ve got the light boxes.

With the mall, it gave us the opportunity to do some panel projects that helped out the mall in this really hard time, because all those hoardings are pretty ugly. We’ve run a few projects to decorate them and try and give people something better to look at. We’ve had people try and steal them because they are so nice, but we’ve also had people offer to buy them. They’ve been very popular.

As well as creating new public art pieces, you also need to remove and update old ones?

Some people who have participated in public art projects think it is going to stay there forever. But often when we commission or engage with artists, we generally put how long we estimate the life of the artwork to be. Because some artists have been very distressed when their artwork has been taken down.

A six million dollar piece of public art is going to stay there for a long time. But when you’ve got small pieces, not all of them can. Panels are the ideal example, even though people love them, you can’t leave the same one up all the time. We have succumbed to public voice occasionally, for example, we had a panel in the Arts Precinct of a big rose. It got an extra year because so many people said they loved it. But it too has come down, and a different one has to go up. It gives different artists the opportunity to demonstrate their work.

Does public art need to be functional as well?

We’ve got seating that is public art, we’ve got signage, we’ve got pathways; public art fulfils a lot of those functions. It’s not just about how it looks, but what it contributes. We’re trying to establish a committee that will look at all those aspects when we consider what we fund and what we don’t.

Does it encourage more people to be out in the city?

The goal for public art is to make our city beautiful and interesting, so people want to come out and see it.

Does public art help tell the unique story of Wollongong?

Considering public art in terms of place is very important. We try not to have our public art clash in terms of the story it’s telling. So that it all complements the same story; incorporating indigenous culture, heritage, everyday life, our future and our industry.

Is all the public art commissioned?

No, they are all different. Some we commission, so we just say, “we want you to do this, show us what it is, go and make it happen”. We have artists that work with the community to develop something. So you start not having any idea what it is going to be. We work with the community, sometimes it’s with young people, sometimes it’s if you live in a certain suburb. Sometimes we have things specifically made around a theme. For example, we are currently developing a migration project which will go down on Cliff Road. That’s telling the story about migration to Wollongong, all the different backgrounds of people that have come and made this their home. Sometimes we have a spot that’s a problem and we think how can we reduce the risk, it might be related to crime, safety or graffiti. And sometimes it’s just well, we have this great idea, where can we put it? We come from lots of different directions, and that’s what makes it difficult sometimes, because if it was just us doing what we wanted, often that’s easy, but we do try and engage with as many other people as we can. So people have a bit of ownership over the city as well.

Meet the artist: Christine Hill

Christine Hill with her artwork, The Wreck of the Brig ‘Amy’

Christine Hill with her artwork, The Wreck of the Brig ‘Amy’

When artist Christine Hill decided to capture a historic event that happened in Thirroul over a hundred years ago, she paid a visit the library first, before she picked up a paintbrush.

The day was Sunday 13th of February, 1898. A sailing ship loaded with coal left Wollongong harbour in the morning. A storm hit, and by midday the ship was lying broadside in the surf at Thirroul. There were no survivors. Christine’s artwork, The Wreck of the Brig ‘Amy’ shows the moment when the mast fell. The ship is amongst the crashing waves and a crowd is watching from the shoreline and there is a small group attempting to save the passengers.

Christine did some investigative research, as there is only one known illustration of this event, and nobody knows who it was done by. “No matter who I ask; the libraries, the state library, nobody knows where it came from. It may have been a newspaper illustrator’s version taken from the reported stories or it could have been someone in town who was on the cliff watching, we don’t know,” she says.

She compared the illustration to all the newspaper stories she’s been able to track down, and has discovered that it is an accurate illustration of the event. Using the descriptions of the ship from reports, her knowledge of sailing ships and what happens when there a storm in the area; she has created her own depiction, as an oil painting.

She enlisted the help of her marine artist friends to ensure the technical aspects were correct. This attention to detail gives the artwork a professional look. The artwork was awarded the Don and Lenore Gray Remembrance Award at the Thirroul Seaside and Arts Festival exhibition. The award is given to a painting which best captures the ambience of Thirroul. Don Gray was the founder of the Thirroul Seaside and Arts Festival and he passed away last year.

Christine is a member of the Australian Society of Marine Artists. “A lot of my work does involve sketching in the open. I’ll go to places like the Wooden Boat Festival up in Sydney and I’ll be on the wharf sketching the boats and the people.”

Christine revealed that she always keeps a sketch book in her handbag. She says that “people and just quiet happenings are a nice subject too.” While she’s sitting at a cafe having a coffee, she’ll sometimes start sketching people when they’re not looking.

By Janai Velez

An Artist’s Haven

“The northern suburbs is an enclave of creativity. I think the environment and history of the place lends itself to that,” says Lynne Jones, one of the founding members of the Thirroul Seaside and Arts Festival. The festival was on earlier this month, and Thirroul came alive with artistic and musical activities. There was everything from the Sculptures on the Shore exhibition, art stalls, competitions and life drawing.

Lynne says that it is a community based festival and was originally started because it involved everybody; schools, the university, TAFE, shops and artists. “It was a community celebration,” she said.

The festival begins with an art prize and exhibition. Liz Humphrys, the coordinator of the art prize has been involved in the festival since 1998. “When I first started, we probably got 60-70 entries. One year we got 280, this year about 230. We’re still doing well,” she said.

The region seems to attract creative people. Actor, Kelton Pell told Spectrum; “I rejuvenate my soul by spending time at Austinmer in the company of friend and fellow actor David Field, his wonderful wife and their two daughters. I can spend two days there, on the beach or in the bush, and it feels like a week.”

There was even a celebrity entry at the art exhibition. Comedian and author, Anh Do, submitted a striking portrait called, Wombat Man.

However, to get festivals like this up and running, artists as well as administrators are needed. “Neither Lynne nor I have an artistic bone in our bodies. We’re organisers,” says Liz, laughing.

By Janai Velez

Aspiring artists learn from experts

JV Beyogmos Workshop_ Years 9 and 10

Students with their finished creations. PHOTO: Mai Nguyen-Long

“Five minutes to go!” announces artist Mai Nguyen-Long. With this, it’s like someone has hit the fast forward button; the students cut and stick pieces of tape, fabric, straw, yarn and coloured papers with an increased sense of urgency. The group of 14, year nine and 10 students are placing the finishing touches on their sculpture.

The students are at Wollongong Art Gallery as part of the gallery’s Enrichment Program. The program was introduced almost three years ago, by Education Officer, Julie Danilov. “It’s to get students of the Illawarra engaged in the current exhibitions through full day workshops,” she said.

Both primary and high school students have turns coming in for the program. Only four students are nominated from each school and there are five different schools that attend on the one day. “It’s for students that are either excelling at visual arts or students that need some encouragement,” she said.

At the workshop students do tasks related to the type of art making that’s being shown in the current exhibition or tasks that involve the concepts being shown. The workshops are often run by the artist whose work is being featured at the gallery.

Last Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday students had the opportunity to learn from the artist, Mai Nguyen-Long, whose exhibition, Beyogmos is in Gallery 1. In the first exercise, an image of a heart was cut into four pieces and students had to upscale and copy it. The heart was then put back together and displayed.

They then pulled apart a calico toy bear each and transformed it into a mongrel creature, by reshaping the body parts and putting it back together and then decorating it with craft materials. “That exercise was about structure and using recycled materials, but it was also about the idea of hidden identities. I might look at one of those creatures and say, ‘yep, that’s definitely a dog’, I’m not absolutely correct because there is a bear hidden in there,” said Ms Nguyen-Long.

Ms Danilov hopes to add some technological elements to the program in the future. “Maybe set up some computers and printing stations where students can print out their work,” she said. And why is it called the Enrichment Program? “It’s to enrich their love or their interest in the visual arts,” she said.

By Janai Velez

Meet the artist: Mai Nguyen-Long

Artist Mai Nguyen-Long. Photo: William Yang

Artist Mai Nguyen-Long with her artwork, Specimen. Photo: William Yang

Walking into Mai Nguyen-Long‘s exhibition is almost like entering a surgical ward. Intricate paintings, drawings and x-ray images of hearts, bones and other body parts cover the walls, there is a display of glass jars filled with broken dolls, puzzle pieces and other curiosities and in the centre of the room there is a papier mache dog like creature which has been cut down the middle. The jewel like tones of the artworks- from deep ruby red to radiant amethyst, give the entire space a warm glow.

“It’s playful, it’s about body parts in a way, but it’s also about locating place: psychological, emotional, spiritual, biological place… the layered complexities of identity” says artist Mai about her exhibition Beyogmos, which is on showcase at Wollongong Art Gallery.

The artworks encourage observers to look beneath the surface, literally and metaphorically. “We’re only reading the outside [of people] a lot of the time and they have all these hidden stories beneath the surface,” says Mai.

This idea is especially evident in Vessel, the papier mache dog cut down the middle. “Out of its belly is not spilling guts and organs but rather there are mirrors; pretty little round mirrors as well as broken mirrors, for me it’s about self-reflection, other broader forms of reflection, as well as being suggestive of transcendence and catharsis” says Mai. She says the artwork is about looking beneath the skin of the dog and trying to find some essence of meaning about life and the things in it.

Part of Mai’s research for the exhibition involved looking at anatomy books, watching online dissection videos, attending a veterinary lecture at the University of Sydney, observing museum collections, and slicing random text from books: self-help, philosophy, genetics and religion. She also set herself the challenge of not buying anything new for it.

“My mum collects a lot of stuff, and she ends up giving them to me. The inability to throw things out (such as the wire spiral from a used notebook) has a legacy in frugality, but can also become a pathological burden. As a hoarder, I’m looking for a healthy re-consideration of objects,” says Mai. She has also put her archaeological hat on while she and her partner have been renovating their house and has uncovered a few things of interest: old bottles, a red toy car, tinsel, layers of clay and a mummified mouse.

Mai hopes people might find a little of themselves in the exhibition, “even though my inspiration is deeply personal, I’m trying to connect with other people, to find grounding in a shared environment. Beyogmos is a kind of cultural laboratory, trying to go beyond the distraction of assumed meanings…Specimen ponders labelling systems, and The Camellia Vase queries domestic ritual, the Myopic Macro and Spirit Map drawings play with body/land dichotomies. All the works in the show explore layered meanings and dis/connection.”

Beyogmos is on at Wollongong Art Gallery until the 25th of May.

By Janai Velez


Review: Convergence- An Evolution

Artwork on poster by Genevieve Rounsley

Upon entering Wollongong’s Project Contemporary Artspace you’ll be greeted by what looks to be an interpretation of the head of a giant unicorn; made out of newspaper, cellophane, bubble wrap with black and yellow hazard ribbon tangled around it. Beside it is a sign which says “Hands on! Feel free to evolve me!” inviting the public to move, add to and rearrange the sculpture. This piece of interactive art could be the evolution part of the Convergence- An Evolution exhibition, on until the sixth of April- by then the sculpture will look like something completely different.

What keeps this exhibition fresh and fun is not only this creative way of engaging viewers but the eclectic mix of artworks from eight different artists, each showcasing their unique styles and use of different mediums and techniques. The convergence element of the exhibition is the union of these artists and artworks. There is everything from sweet watercolour paintings of flowers, birds and butterflies by artist Kerry Haywood to surreal photographs of landscapes with UFOS in the sky by artist Laura Crichton in her U.F.Otobomb series. Around every corner there is something different, even up on the ceiling you’ll notice an installation of foil, cellophane and strands of wool hang. With all the variety of art, there is a good chance you’ll find something that interests you The purpose of the exhibition was to also show the potential of Project Contemporary Artspace as a dynamic hub for creativity in Wollongong.

By Janai Velez