Since its definition as ‘community art’ in this country in the 1960s and 1970s, there has been a remarkable change in fortune for art practice aimed at engaging the wider community in cultural production. From being perceived as a radical and anti-institutional movement, the practice of involving the community through visual art has become part of ‘core business’ for some larger cultural institutions.
Taking its cue from the Vic Health Access Gallery at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, the newly re-opened State Library of Queensland has put artistic community engagement and presentation front and centre within its program.
‘I Cherish This’ is the opening exhibition in the State Library of Queensland’s ground level Studio space and it has been designed to connect the experiences of the general public with a national blockbuster travelling exhibition of precious items, ‘National Treasures from Australia’s Great Libraries’. If ‘national treasures’ are those items that Australians should be able to identify as precious to all of us, ‘I Cherish This’ has been designed and created with the central idea that the precious items, memories and stories of ‘ordinary’ Australians are also deserving of public attention.
The exhibition is made up of two sections: a children’s exhibition created by young students from Brisbane’s Junction Park State School and the AEIOU (Autism Early Intervention Outcomes Unit), and a ‘grown up’ component where individuals with remarkable stories to tell have contributed their cherished memories in an installation format with the assistance of a team of artists and designers.
The Studio offers very particular challenges as an exhibition venue. Firstly, it is flooded with natural light, making illuminated works and projections difficult to negotiate. Secondly, the gallery does not offer the climate control required of a conservation-standard space. The exhibition’s designers have found interesting strategies for getting around these limitations; particularly the use of replicas for both objects and images. This strategy of the interpretative replica also has been useful when dealing with the question of children’s precious items, which clearly could not be taken away from the participating children for the duration of the exhibition without risking a permanent aversion to libraries and/or artists.
The children’s works reflected the treasured memories and artefacts of the young—their toys, pets and families. Students were asked to represent their treasures through the use of text experiments, clay sculptures, vitrine collections and self-portraits. This segment of the exhibition had its genesis in a workshop run as part of the Out of the Box Festival where children were asked to make ceramic representations of those things close to their hearts. These small sculptures had a simplicity and charm that was irresistible. Many of the children’s works showed evidence of a sophisticated aesthetic sensibility and this may reflect both the emphasis on art in contemporary primary education and the work of the supervising artists, Jonathon Oxlade, Caro Toledo and Ky Curran. The AEIOU children contributed a display of meticulously sorted objects reminiscent of Damien Hirst at his more benign. It is always hard not to enjoy the artwork of children but the artists and designers involved in this component had to walk a fine line between respecting the individual children as makers and the particularity of their work and collating the works in ways that allowed them to function visually as a cohesive whole. This tension was well illustrated by a sound work designed by Guy Webster where sensors under a patchwork carpet triggered soundbites of the participating children speaking. Their voices were unidentified and fragmented, but also clearly unique.
The other half of the ‘Cherish’ exhibition avoided this conundrum as the contributing individuals were identified and represented by discrete artworks, using very different means to convey unique stories. These individuals (Cara Fanning, Anne Robbie, Maria Starr, John Myers and Patricia Moody) were contacted through the Queensland library network and live in different locations throughout the state. Visual artist, Dhana Merritt, sound artist, Guy Webster, and filmmaker, Daniel Marsden worked with them to create representative displays talking about their cherished items and the background stories attached. The results range from Wunderkammer-like collections of household items to sophisticated multi-media displays. In these pieces it became clear that the presence of the actual items was not necessary in order to convey the significance of the material to their owners.
By largely leaving the ‘originals’ in private possession, while putting the usually private backstories on display, ‘I Cherish This’ performed an interesting inversion of the generally material logic of the Museum. The story-telling at the heart of the project made explicit the connection with the Library’s contents. The participants in this project were enthusiastic visitors, bringing with them their friends, families and communities.
The old fusty and intimidating reputation of major libraries (generally not assisted by their previously colourless environments) is being countered by an embrace of visual display and interdisciplinary arts. Libraries are using exhibitions and displays as strategies for luring in the sceptical. The connection with ‘community art’ in particular is essential here. It is highly doubtful that non-library attendees would be won over by exhibitions they saw simply as extensions of contemporary Art Gallery business.
Sandy Kirby, when talking about the history of the community arts movement in Australia, documented the radical working class complaint in the 19th Century that libraries (like art galleries) were the bastion of ‘privilege, monopoly and aristocracy’.1 At the beginning of the 21st Century, the State Library of Queensland seems quite determined to leave that lingering perception behind.
Maria Starr, Installation from 'I Cherish This', 2006. State Library of Queensland. Photograph Reina Irma.
1. Kirby, S. (1991) ‘An Historical Perspective on the Community Arts Movement’ in ed. V. Binns, Community and the Arts, Sydney: Pluto Press p24.