Joan Brassil by Susan Best

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Joan Brassil described her sound installation Randomly—now and then 1990 as allowing the beholder to ‘listen

to the sounds of a million years singing’.(1) This joyful evocation of the work is typical of Brassil’s way of expressing herself. It also shows her keen interest in animating the natural world, giving it a voice, so to speak.

Randomly—now and then is an unusually stripped back installation for Brassil; it is elegant, spare, almost austere. It consists of eight diorite mining cores—slender cylinders of rock—suspended from microphone stands. Transducers translate the non‑perceptible frequency of the rocks into perceptible sound. Below the microphone stands is a pale gravel floor; pavers form a path through or beside the work, depending on the configuration. They scrape together underfoot drawing the viewer’s attention downwards, while also setting the space of the installation apart from its institutional setting. The unearthly sounds of the different diorite cores randomly fill the exhibition space—the sounds of a million years singing. The idea of rocks gradually filled with song is a poetic way of thinking about both the composition of the earth and the nature of time.

Brassil’s work has been described by curator Sally Couacaud as consisting of two strands: ‘the first deals with unseen phenomena and processes of science and the natural world, such as time and energy, and the second with European perception and memory in the primal Australian landscape.’(2) In this schema, Randomly—now and then belongs to the first category.

The installation is one of the few surviving works by Brassil. More often, her works were site‑specific; she would work directly in and on the gallery space, and thus most of her installations can only be repeated with great difficulty. Moreover, she also cannibalised the components of one work to reuse in another, so that the works themselves are not entirely discrete. Another notable exception is her wind harp, The tether of time 2001, a permanent public sculpture located in the sculpture garden at Campbelltown Arts Centre, west of Sydney.

In an era of ecological crisis, Brassil’s work has become even more pertinent: one of her central aims was to encourage the audience to attend carefully to the wonders of nature. In her characteristically gentle manner, she invites us to share her sense of wonder at the cosmos and our unique place within it. ‘Wonder’ was a word Brassil consistently used. Her artist’s statement for her first retrospective at Campbelltown Arts Centre in 1991 began: ‘In the wonder of existence …’(3) Her practice is also important on a number of other scores: for her pioneering use of video, her embrace of technology and multimedia, as well as her investigations of site‑specificity.

(1) Joan Brassil, artist’s statement in Joan Brassil: The resonant image: A retrospective exhibition, Campbelltown City Bicentennial Art Gallery, 1991, np.

(2) Sally Couacaud quoted in Joan Brassil: The resonant image.

(3) Brassil artist’s statement in Joan Brassil: The resonant image.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Best, Susan. "Joan Brassil" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 54–55.

SUSAN BEST FAHA is Professor of Art Theory and Fine Art, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Brisbane.

Joan Brassil appears in

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    With more than 150 artists profiled, the Know My Name book celebrates art by women from across Australia.