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The small embroideries that open Raquel Ormella’s twenty year survey might seem like a quiet introduction to a practice known for grand, glittering banners and deconstructed Australian flags. Each one is not much bigger than a hand, with tiny stitches that build into fields of colour and fragments of text. They jut from the wall in perspex cases that show the knots and workings on the back. Ormella has always made a point of showing how she does things: the construction is part of the point. Or, maybe, the construction makes the point.
This new body of work, called All these small intensities (2017–18), is a compelling and surprising starting point for the survey—not least because Ormella began them after Shepparton Art Museum (SAM) started planning this major exhibition, which tours five more museums over the next two years. This inclusion says something about the trust of curators Rebecca Coates and Anna Briers, and their willingness to allow new conversations to develop. And this is perhaps the reason why the survey is so worthwhile: the spaces it allows for connections to develop between what can appear to be very different mediums and concerns.
After the embroideries, the survey moves onto a room of Ormella’s drawing. Two pen on paper works reproduce newspaper coverage of environmental campaigning in the early 2000s. Then there are her drawings on whiteboards, a once cutting-edge technology that is now obsolete. The boards face each other as though in a team meeting, with a pile of print-outs curling on the floor beneath them. Ormella has said the drawings have held up well in the decade since she made the work, though the same cannot be said for the technology.1 These Wild rivers: Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney (2008) drawings relate to the imagery used in environmental campaigns: iconic photographs of pristine nature. But Ormella also layers in the messy, real-world offices behind these campaigns, to show the manufactured nature of such symbols and how they are not as pristine as we would like to think.
The back two rooms draw out the performative element of Ormella’s practice, particularly through her interest in birdwatching. City without crows (2018) responds to her experiences in a Yogyakarta market where trapped birds, many of them endangered species, are sold as pets. An animation of a caged crow accompanies photocopied pages from bird guides, which are marked with the species she saw in the market. Ormella is more distant here than in her drawings and embroideries, hidden behind the photocopier and the glass of the TV screen, but the imagination of her experience in the market is central to the work. By following her into the market and its emotional and moral challenges, we enter a space where we can reconsider our own personal and collective relationship to what Ormella has called the more-than-human world.2
The rear of the exhibition takes up this idea of the more-than-human world, presenting ceramic bird figurines from SAM’s extensive collection with two of Ormella’s animations about birds and birdwatching. (Like the whiteboards, these ceramics will only be exhibited at Shepparton.) In one of these animations, birds descend on the crumbs offered by some takeaway containers, until finally, a broom comes to sweep them off the road. The other sees Ormella performing her birdwatching, holding binoculars to her eyes and moving her head in a quick-beat, avian sort of way.
It is at this point that labour and performance start to emerge as the bones of Ormella’s practice. The thread is there in the early banners in I’m worried this will become a slogan (1999–2009), which lean against the gallery walls as though waiting to be picked up. It is there, too, in the holes burned into the flag in Poetic possibility #1, which open up the poetic space to reimagine this national symbol. And it is there in the slow and steady mark-making that builds up into her embroideries and drawings.
Ormella’s work has often been tied to the political and environmental but in this survey, these issues start to look more like starting points—the reasons we need to try—than ends in themselves. Rather than campaigning, her labour is set towards figuratively and materially unpicking the symbols and languages we use in these conversations—about national identity, borders, the natural world and even, in the new embroideries, our personal histories and sense of self.
The artist’s presence in these works, as a labourer and performer, both traps her within these systems of meaning and offers the hope that we can create new ways or spaces for thinking about our place in the world. Ormella shows us how her work is made in the hope that we, too, can see ourselves in these acts.
Raquel Ormella, I hope you get this installation view: Wealth for toil #1, 2014 nylon, acrylic and glitter on hessian 325 x 260 cm, QUT Art Collection. Purchased 2017; Poetic possibility #1, 2012 reworked flag, cotton, metal 200 x 240 cm, Campbelltown City Council Collection. Photograph Christian Capurro.
Raquel Ormella, Wild Rivers: Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney, 2008. 4 whiteboards, thermal paper, Texta marker pens, 200 x 240 x 70cm (whiteboard). Installation view, 2008 Biennale of Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Collection Monash University, Melbourne. Courtesy Milani Gallery, Brisbane. ©The artist.
Raquel Ormella, All these small intensities, 2017. Detail. Silk and cotton embroidery thread on linen. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. © The artist. Photograph David Patterson.
Raquel Ormella, I hope you get this installation view: Wealth for toil #5, 2017–18. Charcoal, acrylic paint, hessian 220 x 270 cm. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane; Wealth for toil #1, 2014. Nylon, acrylic and glitter on hessian, 325 x 260 cm. QUT Art Collection. Purchased 2017. Photo: Christian Capurro.
1. Artist talk, Shepparton Art Museum, 25 May 2018.
2. Interview with the artist, 25 May 2018.
I hope you get this: Raquel Ormella is touring to Horsham Regional Art Gallery, Horsham, Victoria, 13 October – 9 December 2018; Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery, Launceston, Tasmania, 19 January – 24 March 2019; Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra, 12 April – 9 June 2019; Noosa Regional Gallery, Noosa, Queensland, 22 June – 28 July 2019; Penrith Regional Gallery & The Lewers Bequest, Emu Plains, New South Wales, 30 November 2019 – 2 February 2020.