Canberra may have a soul. It certainly has a history, which is a pre-requisite for having a soul. But many of the most important parts of this history, humanly speaking, are forgotten or at least unrecorded. It is precisely one of the great services of art to humanity to recover forgotten histories and to imagine or re-imagine not only the past but the present and possible futures of a site or place. This service was rendered memorably by an exhibition growing out of research by academic staff of the University of Canberra’s Faculty of Arts and Design and held at the Belconnen Arts Centre from 21 June to 7 July 2013. The exhibition was thus conceived as both research and as creative practice.
The title does inevitably raise the question of whether it is possible to ‘imagine’ a city that already exists and, if so, in what sense? When one thinks of many cities, characteristic traditional images come readily to mind. But Canberra is still very much a work in progress, ‘a disconnected city that is more kangaroo-friendly than people-friendly’, in the opinion of Peter Collins, a Canberra architect.1 It is still on the drawing board.
Paul Hetherington and Jen Webb observe in the artist statement for their evocative joint work in the exhibition: ‘Canberra is a city that, as Australians, “we all” know’ and they go on to say that: ‘In making this work, we have attempted to reflect on what is popularly imagined to be the “truth” of Canberra and attempted to produce our own imagined Canberra(s)’.2 Their installation Circles and Intersections consisting of poetry (both are highly regarded poets) and photographs grows out of research into how poetry and images intersect to produce ‘new ways of seeing’. Perhaps the most present and typical image of Canberra would be its weird system of circles, evoked with humour by Hetherington and Webb in this work. Round cheese or biscuit containers contain photographs (taken by Webb) of what are described as ‘places that locals know well, but that are not obvious icons of the city’, accompanied by poems (by Hetherington).
This peculiarly Canberran theme of circles is expanded further in an audio production by a group of artists (Stephen Barrass with Celia Rogue, Sebastien Chen, Steph Outerridge, Andrew Davis, Warren Derwent, Clark D’Arcy, Daniel Pazarkoski) in Canberra Full Circle, a ‘collection of sonic stories about Canberra in 2012’, including ‘the culture shock for international students, suburban cultures, romance of ACTION buses, the joys of driving around (and around) the nation’s capital …’
The loss of previously existing elements of Canberra that were destroyed to make way for new construction is perfectly expressed by urban studio: ingrained presented by Ann Cleary and Solastalgia: Re-imagining Canberra by Sandra Burr. Cleary describes her work as ‘an exploratory project: mapping a line drawn through the back lots of Civic capturing the vestiges of … its prosaic built fabric’, such as laneways, ventilation shafts, outhouses and the general architectural underworld of a city that one tends to pass by without reflection. But this underworld is precisely what gives a city personality and a certain poetry, and passing by means too often that one never notices when it has vanished. Cleary’s installation reminds one that what has vanished includes much that might have been preserved, and also much of historical significance, such as the vanished Murdoch building, constructed by the media mogul to house his national newspaper, The Australian, and conceived in order, some commentators have argued, to pre-empt any plans by The Canberra Times to establish itself in that role.
The term ‘solastalgia’ was apparently invented by Glenn Albrecht to convey ‘the deep sense of loss and melancholy caused by unwelcome environmental change.’ Sandra Burr’s sense of loss derives from the fact that the terrain over which she and other equestrians used to view the site of Canberra on horseback has been destroyed, first by the catastrophic bushfires of 2003, and then by the operations of developers who swooped to convert the ravaged landscape to prime real estate. The sense of loss was made the more acute for Burr and her fellow riders by the fact that none of them had imagined that this could ever happen. Her sorrow for past experiences never to be repeated is expressed beautifully by text and photographs of horses and the transformed terrain, interleaved with old maps to identify the location of an ‘equestrian Canberra’ now gone forever.
Not without some element of humour but with far more an element of wonder and poignancy is Katie Hayne’s very specific evocation of things lost, The Lost Glove Project, simply a collection of very beautifully photographed lost gloves, mainly observed around Canberra. The artist describes her intention as being ‘to communicate the everyday phenomenon of losing things and shared experiences of place.’ But its effect derives especially from the particular quality of the objects concerned to arouse curiosity as to the circumstances in which they were lost and the hands that once wore them.
Dianne Firth conveys a sense of the connections between nature and site in her very elegant textile art work Urban Forest: Avenue which depicts ‘a formal planting of Eucalyptus mannifera’ trees that in nature would grow freely with many more branches but in an urban setting have branches removed to accommodate traffic. Carlos Alberto Montana Hoyos reflects on Canberra as a designed city by creating a Green Architecture Trophy to link design and nature. Ana Sanchez Laws (with Kamilla Bergsnev, Stephen Barrass, Geoff Hinchcliffe and Stephen O’Connor) in Energy Efficiency Canberra, built a sculpture from data on energy consumption in the city and using high-tech materials to ‘raise awareness about the interplay between built and natural environment …’ Mitchell Whitelaw created an art work from Canberra’s daily temperatures for the period 1940–2012 which becomes in his words ’a framework for personal and cultural memory and experience’. Shane Strange in his installation asked visitors to the exhibition what they would keep and what they would change about Canberra—asking us all to share in imagining Canberra!
This was a fascinating exhibition which deserved longer exposure and a larger space. The forum with exhibiting artists provided much needed insights into a future Canberra envisaged with sensitivity to the past and to what Canberra could become and created out of everyday experience in the present. Artists, architects, designers and humanities scholars have a vital role in bringing meaning and a fresh perspective through their research and creativity to shaping a place like Canberra. Their insights need to be based on what cultural historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has referred to as ‘intergeneration ethics’, a concept that infers what we do in the present affects future generations and the world more generally. This exhibition contributes imaginatively to such a purpose.
- 1. The Canberra Times, 7 July, 2013 http://www.canberratimes.com.au/comment/architect-says-country-canberra-needs-a-makeover-to-lift-standards-20130706-2pirt.html (accessed 10 August 2013)
- 2. This quotation and all quotations from the artists in Jen Webb, Katie Hayne, Sandra Burr, Shane Strange (eds), Imagine Canberra Catalogue of the University of Canberra Faculty of Arts and Design staff exhibition held at the Belconnen Arts Centre, June 21–July 7, 2013, University of Canberra, 2013.