ODETTE MILLER: Alrighty. We'll begin this evening. Welcome, everyone. Thank you so much for coming to this discussion tonight. So tonight we're presenting an Artist Talk with the lovely Joel Spring here and it's hosted by myself and Matt. We are members of the National Gallery Youth Council for 2022. So, before we begin, I'd love to acknowledge and pay my respects to the traditional owners of the Kamberri region, known today as Canberra, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and all First Nations peoples across Australia. We recognise their continuing connections to Country and culture and we pay our respects to their Elders, leaders, artists past and present.
So if you would like to propose a question for our panel this evening, please pop onto slido.com. You don't need an app at all. If you just pop onto the website and you type in the code 644194, your questions will come through to us, so we'll just be answering those at the end of our session.
So my name is Odette Miller and, as I mentioned, I'm part of the National Gallery's Youth Council for 2022. I currently live on Nuenonne Country in Nipaluna, also known as Hobart. So just to describe visually describe myself for a moment, I'm a young Caucasian person of mixed settler heritage, with light skin and dark, dyed red hair. So tonight I'm wearing all black and I've got some round tortoise shell glasses. And I'd love to pass over now to another Youth Councillor who's joining me, Matt.
MATT HATTRICK: Hey, guys. As Odette has just introduced me, my name's Matt. I'm also part of this year's National Youth Council. I currently live in Naarm, in Melbourne, on Wurundjeri Country and I'm a Caucasian white male, brown hair and wearing all black as well.
I'm very excited today to be joined by Odette and Joel to talk about his practice and the National Indigenous Art Triennial. The Indigenous Art Triennial is the National Gallery's flagship exhibition of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. The National Indigenous Art Triennial is made possible through the continued generosity of the National Gallery's Indigenous Arts Partner, Wesfarmers, and key philanthropic supporters.
ODETTE: So tonight for Art IRL, we're very pleased to be interviewing Joel, who, as we mentioned, his work is currently displayed as part of Ceremony. So I'll pass over to Joel to introduce himself.
JOEL SPRING: Yeah, as well, I would like to acknowledge that I'm streaming to you from the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people on a place now commonly known as Canberra. I want to pay my respects to their Elders past, present and I also want to acknowledge their ancestors and ongoing Frontier Wars. It is on their land, which was never ceded, that the NGA sits and always was, always will be, Aboriginal land. I am Joel Sherwood-Spring. I am a white skinned man. I'm wearing a hat that says 'Proudly un Australian'. I'm wearing a brown leather harness and I'm holding a microphone and I have a pink wristband on. I'm a Wiradjuri man who was born and raised on Gadigal Country in Sydney and I am an artist who's participating in this exhibition of Ceremony, where I have some sculptures in the main hall as you enter in the space. Yeah, that's me.
MATT: Cool. So we'll get started with some questions. First of all, could you please visually describe your artwork 'winhangarra' and tell us where it's located?
JOEL: Yes, so the work is titled well, it's actually untitled, but if I was forced to title it, I would call it 'winhangarra', which is a Wiradjuri word. The works themselves are nine concrete sculptures that stand around 2.4m tall and about 1.2m wide. They are concrete slabs that have had the felled limbs or felled bodies of trees that were cleared off of Yuin and Ngunnawal Country as a part of Indigenous cultural practice and burning practices around cultural fire management, traditional cultural fire management, on those Countries. They are, I would say, the material precipitate of a process of taking trees from unhealthy Country that has burnt the bushfires that we have all in our memories from 2019/2020 and has had them laid into wet concrete where it was set and then, through the process of burning, we burnt the trees out of the slabs. And you can see them here on the screen. They look pretty good.
ODETTE: So they are really large works, as you say. They take up, I would say, the body of that gallery space. Can you tell us about where you made them and whether that location was important to you?
JOEL: Yeah, totally. So I thought about the work for a long time. As I said, it was sort of the end result of a process in which I was trying to work with communities who were actively trying to care for their Country after the bushfires. An interesting sort of part of that care is those bushfires happened. We can't just say that these bushfires are a freak event. These bushfires are the result of 250 years of neglect, 250 years of colonial violence, of which people were removed from their Country and were not able to practise traditional fire management and care. These fires are not just one event but the culmination of a particular set of extractive practices that we all exist within capitalism, colonialism and climate change. So they themselves we needed a space where I could, one, stockpile, I guess, for lack of a better word, the materials that were being collected and being brought to the site. At first I was like: maybe we could do it in Sydney, but then the logistics of the arts organisation that you exist within come into play. So freight is a huge boundary point for a lot of art. That's why international biennales are largely kind of unexciting because we can't ship big works across the world. So it was a process of finding a place that was close to the gallery. So it actually was set up on a site called Strathnairn, which is kind of near Belconnen, kind of on the north west outskirt of Canberra as a city, I guess you'd say, near the Murrumbidgee River. It was a really beautiful site. It was the old wood sheds and obviously, before that, traditional Ngunnawal Country. And I got to work on a site there. As you can see on the screen, a large part of the practice of the work was this process of once the construction of them was set, the process of burning them so we also needed a place where I could do that. And there's a lot of rules obviously around burning big fires in urban environments. So this is kind of just the sort of derivative of how close could I be to the gallery but also far enough to do big fires? So I got to go to Strathnairn, which is a really beautiful site, as you can see. It was a really nice day when we did some of the documentation and the weather showed up and it was really cute. But, yeah, it was not particularly relevant to the work outside of: it was the only place I could make them. But when you make big works, you need a big space and you need a big site, so it was a real privilege to have an opportunity which was supported by the NGA to go and do. So, yeah, that's where it is. So you can visit there. If you are a Canberra local, you can go Strathnairn, the artist studios there. It's pretty nice. There's a cafe. It's pretty cool.
MATT: So if we're talking about significance to your work, you do mention in your artist statement that the work of Kwatkwat artist Tommy McRae was a big inspiration and also the architecture of the National Gallery. Can you talk on that for us?
JOEL: Yeah. So, I mean, there's two parts of it and maybe I'll start from reverse. So there's obviously in the monumentality or the materiality of these objects, these big concrete slabs you get around Canberra there's a lot of institutional buildings built from off form concrete, like we're sitting in a room where the walls are themselves off form concrete. It's a part of the material language of this place. It is a part of the material identity of the colonial occupying structure like Parliament House, the institutional buildings that exist in the capital of this country that sits upon many Indigenous Countries whose sovereignties were never ceded. So I'm always interested I come from an architecture background. I actually studied architecture. I have never really fully identified as an artist. So also the construction relationship and that sort of reading of material is very key in my work in thinking about it. So I chose to use sort of I think that's how it references a relationship to Canberra in a particular way. You kind of see it in the space too. It sort of speaks in a material relationship and logic that is very legible to even the panels, the window size, right? Like, they're very standardised, uniform material shapes. And we could go much deeper in a critical place of like why I made those decisions about the work, but I think that's only really interesting to me so I'm not going to bore you guys. But I think on another level within if we're going to go from the architecture of this space and how I think the work is in reference to that and then how we might think about what is held within the architecture of this space ah, Tommy McRae's drawings so Tommy McRae is was an incredible artist. He was doing important cultural work I think, documenting a lot of the cultural practice of his people, so cultural practice of a lot of south east Indigenous mob, as you can see in these drawings. They're kind of incredible and a lot of these drawings now sit in the collection of this building, of the NGA. They're highly valuable art objects now but they're also depictions of cultural practice. I would say they're as close as possible within the means of what was happening at that time to a photograph, from his perspective, and who better to be able to portray the intricacies and the detail of the cultural practice of his mob than someone who was embedded within that? And so these are less so I don't know; they're not idealised. They're not drawings of a perfect present tense or some moment that is unachievable or some imaginary space. These are much more like photos. They're much more indicative of a thing that was actually happening, which is really amazing and really culturally relevant, and I think that that was a strategic goal from Tommy McRae's perspective. I think it's the strategic goal of a lot of Indigenous artists. And a lot of Indigenous artists in the past have seen the relationship of the commodities that they're making, the artistic objects that they're making, the threat that their own culture and their own material practices are under, and seen that actually making objects that are economically viable within the technology of the art world, within the technology of artistic practice, protecting them. But when they become financialised objects, they enter into these institutions and then they are protected in one way or another. It's not the best deal, obviously, but very rarely are people in a place or in a position because of you know, a number of reasons to really what's the word? really be able to argue for much else, which is really unfortunate. We can talk about the kind of practice of someone like Albert Namatjira as well. So not only are these amazing artistic objects, not only are they incredible for their cultural relevance and the fact that they hold within them a lot of cultural information; I think they're also politically strategic interventions made by the individuals who are doing them. I honestly believe that of these drawings, but I think that that's very true for almost all of the work in Ceremony, which is why I think a word like 'Ceremony', while being quite a simple and quite legible term, doesn't really encompass the strength and the depth of what everyone is doing there, but maybe through that quiet ramble around Tommy McRae's work, we can understand that documenting Ceremony is a political and strategic option, and so Ceremony is in one way one thing but it's also very political in our current context and in the historical context for Indigenous artists and Indigenous people more broadly.
ODETTE: Yes, certainly. And it sounds as though you've reflected a lot on what 'Ceremony' means and its expansion beyond just a theme. Is it something that you've considered throughout your practice or did you really just come to this in being brought into the exhibition and the triennial?
JOEL: I think it's sort of somewhere in the middle. I think it's a meeting of things. For the large extent of what I might call an artistic practice, I've only really been making work I mean, I haven't been working consistently ever, but I've only really ever made work that's been exhibited in galleries as early as maybe 2018, but a personal deep interest in terms of research and things that I find relevant to my own position as a Wiradjuri man who's engaged in learning more about Wiradjuri cultural practice, and sort of exploring that through artistic processes and other things is a relationship to certain things that I feel are also shared among other Indigenous people, a sense of, I would say and this is gonna sound maybe a little bit negative, but a sense of absence and loss in relationship to languages, culture practices, ceremonies themselves, family members, histories, Country. The object of colonialism was the removal of children and people off of their Country, and so Indigenous people, myself included, have felt the knock on effects of those kind of colonial violences. And so I think a kind of shared relationship to a lot of cultural knowledge is a sense of loss and absence, but how do we talk about that absence and how do we engage with that? So that's sort of been a throughline in my work for a long time. I've made many works. I think they kind of speak to this sense of absences. To put it simply, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence, right? So that evidence in and of itself I mean, absence in and of itself, from my perspective, speaks to not actually that there isn't anything but actually that there was something and that we're trying to re engage with that or figure out how to interpret that loss and engage with those things. So I think Ceremony sits really deeply within that. I think for me in the past, making predominantly work at a different scale because I'd never been supported in the way that I have here to make sculptures a lot of the work I have made in the past has been sonic work, thinking about silence and absence; how do we engage with that? Kind of cultural protocols around Ceremony also dictate a great deal of silence. You know, Indigenous cultural knowledge is not open to everyone. You have to be story ready before you learn the stories, and that's not a decision that you get to make. So in a lot of senses, Ceremony and silence and absence are kind of connected for me. And so the aims of this work I mean, in what I said before about the Tommy McRae thing, I'd rather talk about what I just spoke about than have to talk about Ceremony, even though 'Ceremony' is the legible term that kind of brings together these works, right? And that's necessary for the National Gallery to make a body of work legible to the greater public. But I'm kind of less concerned in talking about that because I think that that idea of Ceremony and the things that I've already expressed are kind of embedded in all my work and I think that's actually embedded in the lifestyles and the lives and the works of all the artists who are participating in this and it's not really the object or the aim of the works themselves. I think it's more an acknowledgement that to operate as sovereign Indigenous people, you are practising Ceremony, engaged in caring for Country as an ongoing thing. Yeah, I mean it's not that it's boring but it's like of course it's there and it's sort of the entryway into, I think, a much deeper set of conversations. So, yeah, it's about Ceremony but it's also about acknowledging loss. It's also about reflecting on a lot of things. And I don't want to overarticulate the work too much because it's also about your experience of it, right? I'd like to know more about that.
MATT: You just mentioned that a lot of your work is sonic based and sound based. You also work a lot in photography and video. This work is a sculpture. Of course, you're an architect by trade so you understand those concepts of concrete, which you mentioned the NGA is built upon. How do you intertwine these themes through the different mediums?
JOEL: I mean, for one, this was an opportunity to articulate this thing that I kind of was attempting to articulate just now. I don't know how well I did it. This contemplation, this engagement, with a sense of absence there's a material way that that can be achieved with these sculptures that I was very interested in. We lay the limbs of these trees that have come from a place where there was a deep sense of loss, like loss at the scale of Country, like an ecosystem, as bushfires rolled through a place, and all that's left in its wake is silence like, immense silence. The necessary process that needs to be enacted by cultural burning and by traditional owners on those Countries, which they are doing, which means that they have to clear those trees. That material comes to me because I'm connected in that process and I've hopefully been able to support that with some of the money from the material budget. And then that created an opportunity to sort of how do we make a material how do we make something that speaks to this sense of loss and absence but also retains that sense that this absence is also a thing and we need to engage with it and we need to recognise it? As much as we would like to forget the traumatic experience of these bushfires and the kind of ongoing traumas that we experienced over the last 250 years in this place, it's also important to acknowledge that and to engage with that. So it was really just like a lot of fun to be given the opportunity to talk about this thing that I've only been able to make maybe videos or sound works about in a material way and see if it stuck, see if it translated, see if it actually worked in a way too. Like, I knew it would, but it was like it was an opportunity to really express that. But it's also kind of like I said. These are the outcome of a process, and so the material objects are less important than the process itself, which was about instrumentalising the clearing of Country so that it could be cared for, yeah.
ODETTE: Well, thank you so much. I think you've given us all a lot to think about. So we're nearing the end of our time so we'll go to some audience questions.
ODETTE: We've got a question here. It says: interpreting artworks can be tricky, which we all know, especially when you come from a different cultural background to the artists. So do you have any tips, perhaps some visual analysis tips, on how you think you can go about engaging with this exhibition?
JOEL: I probably have a pretty annoying take on this but I think it's important to think about, and this comes from probably work that I've done I've worked for a while in public radio. Obviously when you're doing broadcast media, you think a lot about your audience. You think a lot about the people who are gonna listen to the work you make. And in some senses you realise that largely the kind of media game is about pitching things to, you know, the larger cultural frame, right? And for the last 200 years, I would say longer especially we still feel that that lens is that of a white man, right? And that's how most media is created. That's how most work is created, to be legible to that person. If you're not from that subject position, you have to learn to view things from that perspective. So just to enjoy it, right? And I think to answer the question about interpreting this work, it's OK if you don't get it. It's OK if you don't feel it. I think that works are offering you an opportunity to empathise with the person who made it, right? And that's your responsibility as a viewer, right? The person who made that work wants you to empathise with their position and they're actually doing a very caring thing by giving you the opportunity to empathise with them. So I'm not going to give anyone any advice on how to view the work, outside of it's reciprocal. Those people have put in effort for you to enjoy the work, to make the thing that sits in front of you, but it's also your responsibility to come to a place where you might be able to understand it, and that might be thinking about the person who made it. It might actually be about thinking about why that person was driven to make that work. And I think in that process, you will learn a lot not only about them but also about yourself, and that's the beauty of work and art in a lot of ways, that it can push you into a place of empathy and it can put you to a place where you can enjoy something from another perspective, hopefully. So I know that it's a sort of there's no tips on how to look at the work; more so that why do you think that people were driven to make this work? And if you can't understand that, then there's some work that you might need to do to try to understand them better.
MATT: Brilliant. Amazing. Just had a question come through: if you had to make or if you had made a sonic work for Ceremony, how would you have presented it or what would it have been?
JOEL: That's cool because we were just talking about this. Well, originally the work was a sonic work. When I was asked to be a part of the exhibition, it was originally commissioned to potentially go into the Sculpture Garden, so it would have been outdoors. I was quite interested. So it's hard to get here without explaining the sort of deeper narratives but this whole process that I'm speaking about in relation to this work, it comes from my own first hand experience spending time on Yuin Country just after the bushfires. So at the very beginning of 2020, I went down onto Yuin Country to a community well, to a town called Rosedale, which sits within Mogo Land Council, which is on Yuin Country. And that was one of the communities that around New Year's, when the fires were really, really roaring in that part of the world, a lot of photographs and films of people running into the ocean to get away from the fire were coming from. So this community was devastated by these bushfires largely a holiday community, largely older, professionalised white settler families who own houses on this Country, and their houses had been destroyed, and that's tragic. And I had gone there as a part of the university research group that I was with with some students to talk to the community about how we might rebuild or how we might think about living on that Country differently after that burning. And I spent a lot of time with Mogo Land Council, so the traditional owners and cultural authorities in some sense on that land, and that's where I learnt a lot about fire practice, from them, because that's where they're from. They know their shit. And they've been advocating for this for a long time, and that's where this process came to mind. But a large part of that, given my background, was also in terms of the time I spent there, was just doing sound recordings, like I was just doing field recordings. I was doing oral history stuff. I was recording stories from Aunties and Uncles and other people and just chatting to all sorts of people, and that's where this relationship to sound kind of in the evidence of what is lost became a really powerful mechanism, because when you're there, after those bushfires, dead silent. Drive 20Ks up the road where there's similar biome, same biodiversity, same kind of bush, unburnt, and you can hear it, right? You can hear that difference. I don't have, unfortunately, the visual representation to communicate that but I did do a lot of recordings. I am quite inclined to create visual representations of sound. We call them stereograms or spectrograms. And when you look at the spectrogram of these two recordings, it makes it very visual. I'm explaining something you can't see so I'll stop. But the difference in sound between burnt and unburnt Country just post the bushfires was 17dB. So the original work was going to be in this Sculpture Garden and it was going to be an array of speakers that created an inverse sound wave, the way that noise cancelling headphones work, so that when you entered the field so it would just be a circle of speakers sitting in the bush in the trees in the Sculpture Garden. When you'd enter that field, the volume was drop 17dB, so you would feel that absence, right? You'd hear that absence. And that would just be the work. Completely immaterial a sound work it's not a sound work, you know, but it's a work that deals with sound. And it was a really fun opportunity to sort of figure that out but, unfortunately, it didn't come together for this show. We'll see. Maybe there's another work down the track. It's kind of weird to talk about things that don't exist, right, but the question was kind of yeah, it was kind of too good not to talk about it.
MATT: Do you think that work will still be made?
JOEL: I don't know. I mean, if someone wants to pay for it, honestly. You know, you need the equipment, you know, and so it's quite intensive in terms of capital to get speakers that can do that and to get processing units that can process the algorithms that we wrote that would adaptively listen and then produce the inverse sound waves. So there's a little bit of hardware and stuff that you'd need to invest in to make that work happen. It'd be nice to. It could happen, if anyone's watching. But I don't know. It was a fun exercise, but that's the thing. I think as a practising studio artist, you make a lot of work that no one sees, and that's not a bad thing
ODETTE: Hopefully it's something we see from you in the future.
JOEL: Well, you don't see this work, right. It's a sound thing.
ODETTE: Well, experience. Well, that comes to the end of our discussion tonight. Thank you so much to everybody for joining us this evening in person and online, and I hope that you continue to engage with the Art IRL program that's happening this evening until 9pm, both in person here at the Gallery and online. So thank you so much.
JOEL: Thanks, guys. (Applause)