The Affective ‘Art of Response’

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‘The Art of Response: Recording and Collecting Black Saturday’ opened on the weekend (Saturday March 8) at the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum in Lilydale.  The exhibition, which runs until June 15, is a thoughtfully arranged collection of artistic responses to the catastrophic fires of Black Saturday.  

The exhibits are eclectic and the contributors from all walks of life.  Some of the artists are children, others are community members and still others are art therapists.  The collection embraces the mixed responses that are evoked by a traumatic event, with some pieces exploring feelings of loss and vulnerability and others celebrating heroism, survival and renewal.  While some artworks make dramatic use of colour to capture the bushfire’s intensity, others are more melancholy.  The thoughtful arrangement of this exhibition respects these different reactions, while also celebrating the great beauty of a number of ‘found’ objects, including an ironically singed ‘Day of Total Fire Ban’ warning sign from Yarra Glen.

Highlights of this excellent exhibition include a phoenix quilt, designed and stitched by a group of women to remember the dead of the Steels Creek Community.  Other objects on view include melted bottles and fused glass, along with a surprisingly attractive charred vase from Marysville.  Art by children is an important part of ‘The Art of Response’ and the Dax Collection (which will mount its own bushfire exhibition in 2015) is represented through several colourful drawings by primary school pupils.

One of the most moving artworks from my perspective was a diorama and painting by Sam Beecroft, who made the work as part of a school program.  A vibrant picture of Sam’s house as it was before the fires hangs next to what looks from a distance like a nativity scene.  Close up, the scene is in fact a sculpture of the devastation that Sam and her family found on returning to the site of their home on the morning after the fire.  This scene was created with some objects that Sam salvaged from the remains of her house and includes a tiny, heart-rending miniature fireplace and chimney that is made from tiny blocks of burned wood.

Memory and family are key to Sam Beecroft’s work, as they are for Ali Griffin, who has fashioned two nests which she describes as being made from ‘barbed wire, burnt objects, paper and memories’.  The nests are formed from strips of paper, printed with childhood memories of a piano, which Griffin recorded as a source of comfort in the immediate aftermath of February 7.  The effect is striking, as it brings together both happy and sad recollections, shaped into a representation of a natural form of home.  Sitting behind glass, the two nests look exposed and displaced, effectively conveying the experience of a life that is touched by a bushfire.

Art therapist Tina Tasiopoulos has two pieces on display.  One is a bright and beautiful collage, which represents generations of migrants connecting to the Australian land, celebrating the Australian diaspora, connecting to indigenous culture, yet also thinking of human frailty.  The words ‘protect’, ‘fragile’ and ‘vulnerable’ appear in smoky newsprint, casting a shadow on the work’s otherwise brilliant colours, as a reminder of how exposed humans can be in the face of natural disaster.  Tasiopoulos has worked with bushfire-affected children and families since 2009 and her second piece, a gorgeous acrylic painting of flames on black fabric, entitled ‘Black Saturday’, is an imposing one,  overhung with branches and a foreboding mask.  Tasiopoulos explains the wok’s huge emotional resonance in the detailed commentary that accompanies the exhibit:

Exposed to the stories, I initially experienced vicarious trauma and started to question how safe I felt in the world.  Sharing in survivors’ stories was emotionally exhausting.  To make sense of this experience I felt the need to create experientially.  Not only was the creation of the art pieces therapeutic, it also enabled me to express in art form the grief, horror and rage that were circling my thoughts.

Tasiopoulos offers here an incisive insight into how trauma can reverberate beyond survivors and into the broader community, offering important insights into how we can form emotional emotional connections to events that we may not directly have experienced.  The experience of trauma at one remove does not make it any less real to those who suffer from it, and this exhibition provides space for those whose grief and devastation may not have been evoked by direct exposure to the events of February 7, 2009.

Perhaps the most haunting of all the works on display is a trio of paintings by Amanda Ruck, who writes of her initial resistance to creating art that responded to Black Saturday.  ‘The Clearing (If You Go Down to the Woods, Today’), ‘Try Not to Worry So Much’ and ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?’ were all painted in 2010 and Ruck comments, ‘I kept avoiding the theme ‘fire paintings’, but these three poured out of me.  Painting these landscapes allows me to breathe into the experience.  Each of the three pieces is an acrylic on canvas, showing prominent, blackened tree trunks against skylines that are both eerie and mesmeric.  The contrast between the darkness of the trees and the unmistakable lighting of a bushfire’s skyscape is remarkable, and Ruck encapsulates the sense of the unheimlich that overhangs a fire-devastated forest.  Wonderfully minimalist, Ruck’s charred trees evoke the strong sense that all is not right with the world that is so often pervasive during fire season.

Distressing, moving, beautiful and haunting, ‘The Art of Response’ is overwhelming at times, yet it is also a triumph of human creativity when faced with bleakness and destruction.  The collection’s diversity is one of its many strengths, as it gently guides us through the emotional maelstrom evoked within fire-affected communities and beyond.

Posted by Grace Moore

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