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In Conversation with Artist Rosi Griffin

"Colour in my work has always played a big part and I am generally an optimistic person who looks forward to the future. I am also not opposed to change. But the destruction of beautiful and sometimes quite old buildings shows a lack of respect for these older outdated dwellings, which had a big impact on me."

When a home is bulldozed and flattened to be redeveloped, what happens to the memories that were created in that home? Rosi Griffin explores this question and others in her latest exhibition ‘Fractured Dwellings’. From planning approvals to housing for the homeless, we speak to Griffin to learn more about her exhibition ahead of a special artist Q&A at St Heliers Street Gallery on Saturday 24 June at 2pm.

Born in Germany but based in Melbourne for 30 plus years, what suburbs or areas of cities you’ve lived in have influenced your work on urban development?

Definitely German cities like Berlin and Munich but mainly Melbourne has been the major influence on my work. Berlin after re-unification in the 90s underwent a huge transformation. Munich, my birthplace, has been a permanent building site in the city center for decades. I have lived back in Munich early 2000 for a number of years and observed these changes also during regular visits to Berlin. It’s so interesting because in Berlin most of the construction sites were in East Berlin, which hadn’t been touched since WWII. A lot of consideration and respect was paid to preserve the old and integrate the most amazing contemporary architecture. In Melbourne we have seen some stunning developments in the city like Federation Square, but in the suburbs the demolition and construction of huge, square, uninteresting boxes is very depressing and uninspiring. How many replicas of Georgian villas can you have?

On the other hand the population growth and price increases is forcing more people into dense apartment living. As a European, we are used to it but for many Australians the dream of living on a quarter acre block is fast disappearing.

Are these images inspired by or based-on actual Melbourne dwellings, or are they representative of urban development more generally?

Yes, in my immediate neighbourhood I have documented the demolition of five houses. It started to influence my art practice when the house next door was demolished back in 2010. I documented the whole process and have video footage of the whole process. In my exhibition ‘Final Hours’ at Runt Space, Monash University in 2011, I projected the edited video onto an old door that I had rescued from the site.

I am also interested in documenting the vacated house before the demolishers do their job. Torn wallpaper ripped up carpets, exposed wires are the opposite of the glossed over images we see in the Domain Section of the Age every week. But these spaces have provided secure walls around many families for decades and the walls of our home are the pages on which our stories are written.

Recently when I took photos of a house before it was knocked over, I found children’s drawings on the walls or pinned to the wall. On the same site a huge new development is going up.

Photos play a major part in my working process; they are often collaged and manipulated until I find an interesting composition.

The abstraction of your images and the use of space make your structures more reminiscent of skyscrapers than homes. Was this distancing of the image from the traditional depiction of the home intentional?

The juxtaposition was intended to show the old and the new. The old house makes room for a modern apartment block with steel and glass. In these abstract works I wanted the viewer to become a voyeur and look at it from a heightened perspective. In the abstract works we no longer have identifiable walls, just the trace of walls that define a present space with no history and no story.

Is that also why you’ve not included people in any of your images? To remove the personal aspects associated with the home?

I had a major body of work in the 90’s that included the small back figure looking into the abyss, lost in a vaguely suggested landscape or standing on an obscure unstable structure. These works are still on my website In recent years I have been struggling to include the figure into an architectural space. But in ‘Fractured Dwellings’ the houses are empty or partly destroyed and the absence and memory is felt very strongly. So, I decided to leave the figure out and see what happens with the work. As Sophia Cai wrote in her essay about ‘Fractured Dwellings’ “…the absence of the human form is highly potent as the absence makes the impression of loss felt even more strongly”.

Building sites are usually mixes of grey concrete, red brick and soil. What lead to you use such a vibrant palate for ‘Fractured Dwellings’?

Colour in my work has always played a big part and I am generally an optimistic person who looks forward to the future. I am also not opposed to change. But the destruction of beautiful and sometimes quite old buildings shows a lack of respect for these older outdated dwellings, which had a big impact on me. But I couldn’t portray it in a totally negative and dark way because things always change. As Sophia put it in her essay, the paintings convey a picturesque sense of decay. We have to acknowledge that the actual house is gone but we always have the visual imprint and memory of this house in our head. Who can’t remember their grandparents’ home? Most of us have strong memories of these places including the house we grew up in. I refer to a few books, which influenced this body of work, ‘The Poetics of Space’ by Gaston Bachelard and ‘The Architectural Uncanny’ by Anthony Vidler. Currently I am reading ‘Art and the Home’ by Imogen Racz.

You’ll be taking part in a Q&A at St Heliers Street Gallery later this month. Is it important for you to share your artistic process and inspiration for people to understand and engage with your work?

In my studio I regularly listen to artist podcasts and find the creative process and work ethics of other artists fascinating. It’s been an invaluable learning process for me. One could argue that as visual artists, why use words when we express our ideas in pictures. But sometimes even a title can be a very powerful thing and change the meaning of a work significantly. In the Dokumenta, the major contemporary art fair held in Kassel, Germany every five years, text-based works feature strongly this year. Text in art of course is another topic altogether, but to me it is tightly connected.

What is it about changing landscapes and development that sparks such strong debate among the public?

The illegal demolition of historic heritage listed buildings; yet we travel to Europe to marvel at old buildings. The increasing costs of renovating forces people to build new. The lack of government planning and approval process considering the streetscape when these new monstrosities are built. Greedy developers. Lack of quality and safety regulations for new apartment buildings. Lack of housing provided to the homeless.

Have you used the issue of urban development as inspiration for other exhibitions and works?

During my Bachelor of Visual Arts at Monash University, my final work was a large installation of found objects obtained from building sites, hard rubbish collections and tip shops. It included old windows and doorframes, fly screens and old timbers. The installation was quite transparent and fragile. I wanted to remind the viewer how fragile the structure of a home could be and create a confusion of what is actually inside and outside. Weeks later we saw the shocking footage of whole houses floating away when the earthquake and tsunami happened in Japan in 2011.

Are there any other works or exhibitions we can expect to see from you in 2017?

I am so excited that I have been selected as a finalist in the SWELL Sculpture Festival at Currumbin Beach on the Gold Coast. My work is called ‘Bus Stop La Serena Chile’. The work is a bus stop built from found building materials, corrugated iron, tarpaulin etc. I will create a link to La Serena with visual material obtained from Google Maps and Street View and webcam data etc. so people can connect to life footage from the place on their phones. La Serena is directly across the Pacific from Southern Queensland. SWELL Sculpture Festival is on from 7-18 of September 2017.

Rosi Griffin’s ‘Fractured Dwellings’ is exhibiting at St Heliers Street Gallery until 4pm Saturday 24 June. Come along at 2pm that same day for a special Q&A with the artist.