After returning to university and completing a masters degree in visual arts in 2006, I looked at the demolition of part of the State Library of Queensland to make way for the construction of the new Gallery of Modern Art. The state library was constructed in the “brutalist” style, the monumental modern architectural style popular around the world 1950–70 that incorporated the then-new developments in concrete tilt slab construction.
Through the generosity of a large demolition company, Rosenlund, I was able to embed myself within the project and gain unparalleled access to the work being undertaken. Although armed with ear plugs, it was a very noisy experience with often only a few feet separating me from the machines.
Being so close to the actual work over some months allowed me to look closely at the surfaces of the environment, including the machinery. I saw an environment of opposites: brightly coloured machines contrasting with the rusty digger heads; fluorescent crosses of pink spray, indicating imminent removal, standing out in a pale dusty landscape; areas of blank exterior surface that until broken denied the fact that its full and busy interior contained pipes, electrical cords, ducting and insulation all hidden between the visible surfaces.
Again I was struck by how quiet the world seemed once the machines
were switched off for the day. It was also a revelation to closely study the machinery of the project and the skill required to operate it. It was impossible not to liken the machines to some strange type of mechanical dinosaur as they crashed through walls in one moment and, in the next, daintily picked out select morsels from piles of rubble.
Through the generosity of a large demolition company…
I was able to embed myself
within the project and gain unparalleled access to the
work being undertaken.
Something dawned on me after seeing a wildlife documentary about the elephants in the jungles of Africa that emphasised the important role they played in the life cycle of the jungle. As a herd of elephants move through the jungle they uproot, trample and break anything in their path. Without understanding their role in the cycle of things you would assume they are purely a destructive force. The point was made that the jungle is actually dependant on the elephants crashing through and stripping it, so it is able to renew itself and stay in balance. Without the elephants’ apparently “brutal” intervention, the jungle runs a real risk of becoming unhealthy and dying.
I then made a connection with the idea of urban jungle as landscape. When
looking at notions of the urban jungle it seemed logical to parody the machines as a kind of urban elephant. The demolition men and their machines, like the elephants in the jungle, seem to pre-empt the process of renewal and bypass the process of decay.
A dominant visual strategy for these paintings was to give them a restrained, faint, faded and even damaged look that steps back from the noise and colour of the immediate. With this strategy I found it was possible to treat partly demolished buildings with as much tenderness, kindness and respect as I would a beautiful ruin in the landscape. I titled the resulting exhibition Momenti Mori, “remember you must die”.12
“All things human hang by a slender thread; and that which seemed to stand strong suddenly falls and sinks in ruins.” (Ovid, 43 BCE–17/18 CE)
This recent series of works features the old house next door to me, its occupants, and its history of use. Until recently it was home to its original owner–builder, his son, and Maggie the magpie. In my portraits of the owners, I have tried to capture the dignity and pride of being able to stand in your own doorway.
The house is now in disrepair and is derelict. It is currently awaiting
demolition or redevelopment. It is still recognisable as an old, distinctly Brisbane house – albeit fallen on hard times. After nearly eighty years of being a family house, raising thirteen children and sheltering three generations of births and deaths (and pets), it has outlived its usefulness.
I found it was possible to treat partly demolished buildings with as much tenderness, kindness and respect as I would a beautiful ruin in the landscape.
As I want these works to relate to the iconic Brisbane house, I have looked at uniquely local features such as a closed-in wooden verandah, louvre windows, wooden stairs, and peeling paint on weatherboard. There is evidence of an ’80s Ikea kitchen, now stripped out; home-made “mosaicked” retaining walls in the garden; and the loss of the handrail from the front stairs. I worked to portray the depth and variety of textures that become part of the patina of age, as opposed to the smoothness of youth and the modern.
I am also very interested in the strange beauty that emerges as the layers of a house disintegrate. I wanted to show the quiet old age that comes with a lifetime of use and occupancy, and the poignancy of knowing that things can’t stay the same for much longer. Ultimately, the fragility of what we have constructed is revealed.