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Wednesday
Jul222015

Prof Sarah Miller - Speech for Island Opening

Good evening everyone. It’s a great pleasure to have been invited to open this lovely exhibition, Island, the work of two truly wonderful women, Liz Jeneid and Diana Wood Conroy, both academic alumni of the University of Wollongong, Liz being a Honorary Research Fellow, having taught in the Visual Arts program for 20 years, while Diana is Emeritus Professor of Visual Arts and someone I feel privileged to work with. In fact I can’t do without her! I am honoured to follow in both their footsteps.

 

Before I go onto talk briefly about the artists and the art, I do want to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands we stand on tonight, the Wodi Wodi people of the Dharawal nation, and to extend my respects to their Elders past and present, and to any Aboriginal people who may be here tonight. I’m grateful to have the privilege of living and working in this beautiful part of the country - known to European settlers as the garden of NSW – that was before deforestation and coal mines – when it must have been a paradise, but even now it’s a very special place.

 

As I’ve already suggested, Liz and Diana are not only both committed artists, but also educators, and lovers of knowledge, which feels unbelievably radical in these days of managerialist rhetoric and business knows best. Look at these exquisitely detailed works. Such close attention not only to the natural world, but also to the process of making, to domestic objects, and the traces of lives long gone, makes these works simultaneously poignant and compelling. There is a kind of abnegation of the ego in favour of a rigorous immersion in the processes of observing and making, or as John Cage, so famously influenced by the teachings of Zen Buddhism insisted, ‘art is not an attempt to bring order out of chaos, but simply a way of waking up the very life that we’re living’.  Endlessly curious, they travel, explore, investigate, undertake, learn and imagine. They are awake to the wonder of the world.

 

For both women, art and life are inextricably linked – like weaving itself – the warp and the weft  - the imbrication of art in life, of relationships formed and nurtured over extended periods of time. As Professor Amanda Lawson has written (please note I am surrounded by amazing women - it’s a terrible responsibility): they have worked in dialogue with each other for more than 30 years. They have shared journeys to extraordinary geographical and archaeological sites, sourced inspiration in the medium of textiles, and combined the documentary with the lyrical in their explorations” (2010).

 

Despite the exquisite and painstaking materiality of their respective practices, their work might be described in terms of an open-ended, ongoing and multi-faceted research project that is as much about learning to live in the world with all of its contradictions and paradoxes, as it is about developing a form of art practice that is both materially engaged and aesthetically pleasing. They work with ostensibly simple materials and traditional processes, and their work has a freshness that is to do with perception, attentiveness, of working without hubris.

 

In this exhibition, Diana has woven “lost patterns from Cyprus using ash from an excavation and pomegranate dye”, but beneath this apparent simplicity lies years of experience as an archaeologist and artist working between the classical worlds of western civilization – in the last 20 years primarily through her participation in in the archaeological dig at the Paphos theatre excavations in Cyprus - and that of Australia’s 1st nation peoples, but with a particular interest, history and experience with the people of Tiwi Island.  Islands as you can see, are a recurrent trope in her life and work.

 

Having training in the States as a weaver, Liz returned to Australia in 1977, firstly establishing a production-weaving studio in Sydney where she trained many apprentices, and then establishing the Barr St Weaving studio in the early 80s. Liz’s multi-faceted art practice also encompasses print-making, drawing and painting, and installation and sculpture. In Island, and I quote, Liz ‘expresses on paper and in artist books the poetry of place, plants and landscapes explored through her artist residencies in Costa Rica, Greece, Sicily and France.’ Of her artist’s books, she says that she thinks of them as a kind of haiku – something that allows for the essence of an idea to be expressed. 

 

At the moment, and because I have been faced with the need to respond to our Attorney General’s unanticipated hijacking of the Australia Council for the Arts, the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body, I have been reflecting on both the intrinsic and extrinsic values of the arts, and the importance of arguing for the arts on their own terms. To that end, I’ve been reading John Tusa’s 2014 publication, ‘Pain in the Arts’ and while of course his book is very British in its focus, he has a number of important messages for those of us interested and engaged in the arts in our various ways. One that seems particularly pertinent as I look at these two splendid women and all that they’ve achieved as artists and educators, is the incredibly advocacy they have undertaken on behalf of the arts inside the academy, and for the value of arts and education in the wider world. I am so grateful for everything that they do. They continue to be generous mentors and role models for emerging generations of artists, academics, and students. But I am particularly thrilled that Liz and Diana continue to make the beautiful, poignant and life-affirming work that they do; that that they bring not only their intellectual and emotional intelligence to the task of living and making art, but also their sense of wonder and deep appreciation for the world we share.

 

Welcome to Island. It’s a pleasure to declare this exhibition open.

 

 

 

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