Callous or cathartic? Art rises from bushfire ashes

  Callous or cathartic? Art rises from bushfire ashes

28 March 2009

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Australia — They were the symbols of unimaginable horror: twisted car bodies, burnt children’s toys, memories melted beyond recognition. Seven weeks after the February 7 bushfires, the debris of the worst natural disaster in Australian history is already deemed worthy of artistic display. Resurrected, an exhibition of 50 fire-damaged objects, opened last night at the Three Stories Artspace in Healesville.

Some might think the idea confronting — even insensitive — but curator Ali Griffin lost her home near Yarra Glen on Black Saturday and wanted to offer survivors, as well as those who were far away from the fires, a sense of what really happened. The pieces had a sense of history and poignancy, she said.

“When I returned home that Sunday there was almost nothing left, but sifting through the rubble I was struck by some crystal glass which had melted and moulded with copper from the display cabinet it was in,” she said.

“The fusion produced something that was really quite beautiful and it gave us something positive and new, when before the discovery there was only negativity.”

There is a children’s tricycle and the twisted metal frame from inside a piano, both of which came from Griffin’s home. There is the wreckage of a vintage Holden FX, a pensioner’s restoration project destroyed in his garage. There is an installation made up of aluminium from melted car engines, a diary of a woman who lost her home, and a series of photos of a Kinglake home taken before and after Black Saturday.

Healesville goldsmith and artist Tim Peel made a collage from newspaper coverage.

“Almost immediately after the fire these utilitarian everyday objects suddenly become a form of fine art. They are no longer mundane items but they take on a life and power of their own.

“Out of this terrible destruction comes something which has a special beauty and meaning.”

But Robyn Sloggett, the director of Melbourne University’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, said that “materials like glass and metal, which change so much physically in the heat, will produce some really interesting shapes and structures but I would question whether this makes them ‘art’ “.

“Perhaps they would better be described as historical artefacts, as I really believe that there has to be some artistic intent behind a creation for it to be considered a work of art.”

The death toll from Victoria’s bushfires stands at 210, a tragedy so recent that some may find its artistic representation in bad taste.

In the days following the September 11 attacks in 2001, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen called the terrorists’ strikes on New York’s twin towers “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos”. His comments caused outrage, and he apologised for the upset they caused, saying he had been misinterpreted.

Other attempts have been more successful, such as Picasso’s Guernica, Associate Professor Sloggett said. “Artists respond to their environment and national events which shape the world they live in, and part of being an artist is defining that culture.

“I’m sure for some people, perhaps those who lost relatives or their properties in the fires, this exhibition might be too traumatic and too soon but for others it will be a cathartic experience. It’s certainly an interesting concept.”

For Tim Peel, it is natural for artists to respond to disaster.

“I began sketching and drawing in the days after the fire and it became a way of dealing with what was going on, a way for me to get out what I couldn’t say,” he said.

Griffin hopes that rather than being controversial, Resurrected may help those who have suffered to heal.

“I spoke to a lot of people about the idea for the exhibition, including to those who had lost relatives or friends, and I only received positive feedback. Nobody said that we shouldn’t be doing it, or that it would seem insensitive.

“I think it will provide an opportunity for those affected by the fires to document what happened to them, to share their experiences and, hopefully, to deal with their loss.

“For those who live in other areas it will provide a chance to look at the effect of the fires, to get a sense of its effects without feeling like they’re prying.”

The exhibition is open on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout autumn from 11am-4pm.


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