Susan Norrie by Kelly Gellatly

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Rather than using film as passive consumption I am interested in making it into a state of active discussion. The autonomy of art and its connection to social history is a contradiction, a tension that runs through the discipline of visual culture like a fault line.(1)

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to see that the motivations and concerns of Susan Norrie’s first major film undertow 2002 have both threaded through and amplified across her subsequent moving image works. Together, they become a sustained and meditative rumination on the impact of man‑made and natural disasters on the environment, on structures of power and the dispossessed, on the fine line between exploration and exploitation, and, perhaps most importantly, on the extraordinary resilience of humankind.

While initially known for her painting and installation, since the creation of undertow Norrie has become increasingly renowned within Australia and internationally for her work in film, although her engagement with both painting and the moving image continue to influence each other and intersect across her practice. The disjointed, looping narratives of undertow’s six channels, for example, unfold at almost glacial speed in muted palettes of green, blue and sepia; evoking a sense of history and the archive, while at times resembling surveillance footage shot unobserved and in low light. On viewing, the combination of otherworldly footage—scientists with hydrogen balloons measuring the atmosphere; mud pools in Rotorua; dust storms in Melbourne’s Flinders Street; scenes from the 1962 Orson Welles film The trial (based on Kafka’s novel of the same name); and an oil‑soaked bird, victim of ecological disaster—build collectively in mood and intensity, creating an atmosphere that is at once dystopic and overwhelming. However, the pace of this cumulative immersive experience also produces a dreamlike glimmer of hope and possibility for the viewer, embodied in the image of the little girl on her father’s shoulders, shot by the artist at Ueno Gardens in Tokyo when the cherry blossom had come out prematurely.

Magnificent and fleeting, the cherry blossom continues to symbolise the impermanence of beauty embodied in the Japanese concept of mono no aware, which signifies ‘the deep feeling or pathos of things … often associated with a poignant feeling of transience, a beautiful sadness in the passing of lives and objects’.(2) Believing her role as an artist is to ‘consider the disenchantment and possible re‑enchantment of the world’(3), Norrie uses her belief in ‘the potency and metaphoric power of the moving image’(4) to inspire agency and action, and to hopefully encourage empathy and change. As she said of undertow at the time it was made:

The world should be coming together collectively to deal with real issues … around the environment, health and education and humanitarian concerns. I’m hoping that people will leave this installation thinking about where we are at this point in time, and where we are going.(5)

(1) Susan Norrie, Daniel von Sturmer, Callum Morton, 52nd International Biennale of Art, Venice, Melbourne University Publishing Limited, Carlton, 2007, p17.

(2) ‘Mono no aware’, The book of life, at -no aware/, accessed 12 December 2019.

(3) Susan Norrie conversation with Olivia Meehan and Kelly Gellatly via email, 15 December 2015.

(4) ‘An interview with Susan Norrie’, in Kelly Gellatly, Fieldwork 2006–2016, Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2016, p38.

(5) Gabriella Coslovich, ‘Of gods and monsters’, The Age, 1 November 2002, at au/sites/default/files/2002_Susan%20Norrie_ Nov%201_The%20Age_Of%20gods%20and%20 monsters.pdf, accessed 12 December 2019.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Gellatly, Kelly. "Susan Norrie" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 278–279.

KELLY GELLATLY is Director, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne.

Susan Norrie appears in