windwells: channeling + divining

pat hoffie and stefan purcell
State Library of Queensland Gallery, Brisbane
26 June - 17 October 2010

Pat Hoffie is interested in transformations. Like a magician, she invites her audiences to suspend prior beliefs as they engage with experiences that fold history into contemporary situations. This is evident in the revelatory installation she and Stefan Purcell (of Urban Art Projects) achieved for State Library of Queensland (SLQ) visitors in WindWells: Channeling + Divining. It had a robust energy that is rarely seen in exhibitions held at such venues and says a lot about how, since its dramatic revamp in 2006, the State Library of Queensland has expanded existing ideas of what is appropriate and possible for visual events.

Ironically, galleries tend to separate art from their viewers; even in the most enlightened contemporary venues security measures are enforced. However this was not overtly evident with WindWells, as some risk on the part of the artists and the institution was accepted as necessary for audience involvement in this project. Art as knowledge transfer, or as a portal into knowledge, has come to be a driving mandate of the contemporary library, and today it realises that the attention of the viewer has often to be grabbed with mischief, if not more confrontational ploys. Hence the darkened gallery space, projected film footage wrapped round two walls, a hologram vignette with a ghostly figure beckoning, water tanks cloaked with rows of de-accessioned books (their contents hidden), an old windmill linked to a serpentine pipe system sprouting gramophone speakers and painted International Klein Blue, and glass cylinders containing what looked like miniaturised electric lightening, all acted as mind-teasers for the WindWells narrative.

It is narrative in which not only the channeling of water by windmills (or rather ‘windpumps’) from the late 19th century came into the equation, but also Queensland’s experience at the time of the process of water divining and rainmaking by cloud seeding. It was only in the small adjoining resource space that one found the source material for the installation, which had been discovered in the John Oxley Library’s documentary collections, as well as hear about the project via a video interview with the artists. The installation proper was thus able to work its power independently through optical illusion, suggestion and sheer wizardry.

What emerged in the artists’ exploration, assisted by various collaborators, was not just an insight into the perennial theme of ‘water’ in this State, but the stories of two remarkable individuals (alongside evidence of several others) linked in the quest of finding and harvesting this essential resource. Prior to becoming immersed in this exhibition, the majority of us would have had little or no knowledge of George Griffiths and his family’s windmill construction business in Toowoomba (the largest supplier of windmills in Australia), nor of the audacious and talented English scientist Professor J.H. Pepper.

The latter gained notoriety by performing tricks on the stage in London at a time when Victorian interest in science and metaphysics was huge and his ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, an apparition created through mirrors, became particularly popular. Dismissed from his teaching position, Pepper migrated to Brisbane and tried his luck as a ‘rainmaker’. An account is recorded in the catalogue text to WindWells, by Ross Woodrow, that involves a giant kite being attached to 4.8 kilometres of steel wire sent up into the clouds with a landmine attached.1 Other outlandish (and equally dangerous) devices believed to enhance the chance of seeding when set off were included, but ultimately this public event at Eagle Farm in 1882 was a grand failure and a disappointment for the hundreds of paying spectators. While dynamite was exploded, the kite never left the ground and Pepper abandoned his cloud seeding experiment, returning to England a few years later, tail between his legs. Still active in Australia are the water diviners who with forked sticks or bent rods have the psychic ability to feel the pull of underground water. While there is no scientific rationale for the success of this practice, several early Queensland practitioners, such as J.G. Palethorpe, did prove the validity of their craft and this was indicated by various items of ephemera in the resource space.

While this engaging project was co-authored (so to speak), its concept fits into the raison d’être of Pat Hoffie’s art practice. Although she belongs to the academic world, she uses her art as an agent for opening up and extending dialogue with like-minded individuals (such as Purcell) and a range of communities for whom the university may seem ‘out of reach’ or inconsequential.2 To this end, the theatricality that masked serious intent in the SLQ show is not surprisingly echoed in the three Woodford Folk Festival events that she has been involved with along with post-graduate students from the Queensland College of Art (comprising both senior and emerging artists). Hoffie’s commitment to cross-cultural engagement and play—as triggers for fostering understanding through creative experiment—are as relevant for far-sighted librarians as they are for the crowds who flock to the Woodford Folk Festival each summer. The effects of the carnival-like art happenings at Woodford have the same multi-media and non-hierarchical temper as WindWells

notes: 

1. Ross Woodrow, ‘Art as Knowledge’, WindWells: Channeling + Divining, Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, and the State Library of Queensland, 2010.

2. Pat Hoffie is Professor, SECAP (Sustainable Environment through Culture, Asia Pacific) at Queensland College of Art and the UNESCO Orbicom Chair in Communications, Griffith University.