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In Conversation with Artist Joanna Buckley

We speak with artist Joanna Buckley about her vision for the building, her inspiration from the Convent’s past and the impermanency of her bold undertaking for her artwork, ‘The Light and the Ground’.

One of your last major installations, ‘Meet me in the Field’ 2014, used recycled plastics, pipe and solar powered LED. Switching to gold is about as big a change in medium as there comes. Why gold and why the Providence building?

‘Meet me in the Field’ did use a different medium, although both works make sense within the themes of my practice, and both emerged as response to context. The choice of gold and the Providence building emerged from my experience of and research into the Abbotsford Convent site, and in response to the theme of the Convent’s brief for ‘Alchemy’ – a program of commissioned works.

Gold is a reference to alchemy, with its attempt to physically and metaphorically produce ‘gold’ through transformative processes, purification and maturation. It is also symbolic of the spiritual processes of the women of the Order of the Good Shepherd, who lived and worked at the Convent for more than 100 years, as well as the community they supported through their laundry and lacemaking services (cleansing and refinement), and the Providence building itself (with its historic role as a finishing school). The contemporary uses of Convent spaces for creative arts, cultural and wellness activities continue this legacy of transformation with great sensitivity to maintaining the site’s heritage.

The imperfectly applied golden Dutch metal leaf relates to the patinas on many of the Convent surfaces in various states of transformation and decay and is semiotically connected to the gold leaf in the architecture, artwork and craftsmanship of Catholicism. From its traditional interior use in places of worship, and as the gilded ground of religious icons, this work transitions the reference of gold to the building’s exterior. Its manifestation in the outside world offers the internal treasure symbolically to the community, where the value belongs to all, like the beauty found in nature and everyday experiences.

Gold’s associations with light, awareness and transformation are significant to the memory of the Abbotsford Convent site. I hope that this new creative development may inspire a transformed awareness of the presently unfolding community and space.

Austerity and sustainability are often major guiding forces in contemporary art, for financial, practical and ideological reasons. Do you feel that you’ve moved away from those principles with this piece?

I do feel that ‘The Light and the Ground’ is still aligned with these principles, which support the idea of sustainability indirectly by cultivating emotional value for connection with environment. The delicate sensibility of my work and interest in materials that contain layers of history or embedded memory also mean that it is generally low impact environmentally. In fact, the materials for this installation comprise only 4kgs of Dutch metal leaf (brass), 7kgs of cornstarch and four tins of lacquer. As the Providence building is heritage-listed, there were also formal approval procedures to ensure preservation of the building and site. I believe that it is our shared social and ecological responsibility to support ethical practices and material sourcing wherever possible, in art practice as in all other aspects of life.

You have collaborators on this project – a team of five experts from Sydney who will be working with you over the next two to three weeks. What will they be bringing to the project and how did the collaboration come about?

This installation has been made possible by a team of people working collaboratively on different aspects of the project. Master gilders Karl and Brigitte Eggert of Art Gilding, Sydney, have collaborated on the design development and installation process, contributing the value of their extensive experience working with these materials at scale, and their familiarity with the unique challenges of art projects. They were able to offer invaluable insights from their profession, to help tackle the technical and logistical challenges of realising a vision that has never been attempted before in this way.

Installation collaborators also include Krissie Kalteis, who is a graduate of Art Gilding’s Master Gilding course, local Chilean born performance artist and puppeteer Astrid Mendez, and Darwin-based arts practitioner Catherine Buckley. As the project progressed, many others including volunteers became involved to support the project’s successful realisation, including people from the Convent, gilding and Melbourne arts community, as well as family and friends. Kristian Laemmle-Ruff and Giovanni Lorusso contributed to the work through a photographic response, and I am also grateful to Robert Owen, Marina Breit and Jeph Neale for their advice and inspiration throughout the creative process.

On a broader level, ‘The Light and the Ground’ is intrinsically collaborative, much like the compositional relationships of the wall’s golden background with activities and other elements in the space that embody the work. I hope to see this collaborative nature extend into the arts community, and that it might become a platform to trigger creative dialogue and responses.

Is this your first time working with metal leaf?

I often work with materials that are reactive to light. I have worked with silver leaf before in studio work, and aluminium leaf, tape, foil and stainless steel in public installations. Ideas revolving around immersive sensations of colour and light have also been developing in my studio and installation practice for some time, although ‘The Light and the Ground’ is the first large-scale realisation of this idea.

What has been the most difficult aspect of the project to execute?

The biggest challenge has been predicting how the materials will behave at full scale in context. Some things can be worked out in advance through trials and with planning and experience, but problem solving is inevitably part of the process. The weather was challenging, as all of the materials behaved differently with changes in temperature and moisture, and wind and rain are a problem for handling the delicate leaf. The varnish behaved differently to the way I had hoped, so there was a change mid-installation to a previously researched and trialed lacquer, re-gilding and overlaying our initial work. However with every challenge there has been enough preparation and support to find resolution towards the positive growth of the work. I am happy that the layering of history in this process has been able to evolve in a way that seems may be capable of embodying the intended spirit of the idea.

What effects will the elements have on the installation? Do you know how long the work will live?

The Providence building is heritage-listed and therefore needs to eventually be reinstated to its original condition. Impermanence is inherent to the concept of the installation, and the materials used will all wear or deteriorate in time. The lacquer that gives the golden Dutch metal leaf tarnish resistance will eventually be broken down by UV, and the metal will begin to tarnish, transforming the patina and potentially weathering the starch glue beneath. The lacquer is usually expected to last 18 months to two years before potential recoating, however there are many variable factors at play, and it will be an organic process. It is hoped that the course of its transformation will last for approximately three years, or otherwise for as long as the work continues to express its intent.

Is ‘The Light in the Ground’ as much about the process as the final result?

For me the final result, which is itself about a state of process, is ‘the work’, however it has been so valuable to have the community involved in its coming into being, with many magical moments. Installing has been a process of gradual evolution; there have been glimpses of the vision manifesting, and the public engagement has brought it to life in shared consciousness, with the community’s responses integrating back into the creative process. In a sense I don’t distinguish between process and the work, as it seems to me to be a permeable scale merging with moments of life as art; but still, the intent of ‘The Light and the Ground’ is more closely associated with its post install state, and its existence as a subtle transformation of space that affects the perception of the community and its activities.

Do you usually expose your artistic process like this?

I have not exposed my artistic process to this degree before. Usually in the past I have worked in more abandoned spaces where there is a sense of privacy within one’s creative process, even in public space, or otherwise I have presented work that has been developed in the studio. I was pleasantly surprised with the experience of working in the Abbotsford Convent forecourt. The Convent’s signage communication, and the separation of our working space seemed to create a comfortable level of welcoming engagement that still enabled us to focus on producing the work. The community has been very supportive and inspiring, and the feedback has provided an expansive insight that has informed the direction of the work.

Are there any other major projects you’re developing this year?

After this project I am travelling to Europe to visit the Venice Biennale, Documenta and the Skulptur Projekte Münster, then onwards to America and perhaps elsewhere. I don’t have further projects planned at this stage, but will be immersed in research and development, and hope for another project to emerge along my travels or when I return to Melbourne.

This project was proudly commissioned by the Abbotsford Convent Foundation.

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.