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the summoning spirit of a civic artist

ella mudie: interview, ruark lewis, survey shows


GADAWULKWULK means SHELTER, 2009, Barayuwa Mununggurr & Ruark Lewis, Yarrinya GADAWULKWULK means SHELTER, 2009, Barayuwa Mununggurr & Ruark Lewis, Yarrinya
photo Ruark Lewis
THERE’S A WORD THAT’S INCREASINGLY SURFACING IN DESCRIPTIONS OF RECENT WORKS BY RUARK LEWIS, ONE OF AUSTRALIA’S MOST ENDURING INTER-DISCIPLINARY ARTISTS WORKING WITHIN THE REALM OF CONCEPTUAL EXPLORATIONS OF LANGUAGE, AND THAT IS THE TERM “CIVIC.”

Whether referring to the artist’s signature agit-prop banners, collaborative illuminated Indigenous oral history installation, people’s poems or public art commissions, this expansion of Lewis’s practice into the civic realm is also a prominent feature of the artist’s first major mid-career survey. At Hazelhurst Regional Gallery in Sydney’s south, itself a uniquely modelled complex designed to maximise community engagement, Lewis is activating and inhabiting the space in ways that spill out beyond the architectural confines of the gallery’s white walls.

“I want to compose a certain formality within the gallery space itself,” Lewis explains. “Whereas I need a particular informality outside in the garden, interactive works that move and shift around, that kids can play with and audio in the garden as well as a people’s poem attached to the cottage.” Built in 1947 and later bequeathed to the local community (along with the surrounding 1.4 hectare estate), the Hazelhurst cottage is an early example of an architecturally designed house in the Sutherland Shire and certainly a resonant site for reprising Lewis’s striking black-and-white textual skin of aphoristic statements, Banalities for the Perfect House (2007).

When I meet Lewis in the lead-up to the survey, he is busy tending to the considerable administration that accompanies a survey across two locations (Macquarie University Art Gallery will host the second part early next year with some works shared between both galleries and others uniquely installed). Taking stock of the material output and the more ephemeral traces of three decades of a practice that spans painting, drawing and writing to performance, installation, sound art and live collaborative works and actions (see RT87), Lewis is also confronting the vagaries of time, inspecting old Polaroids retrieved from rusted canisters and discovering the freedom of studio space after pulling out some works for the first time in years. With a monograph publication also planned, Lewis cites finding an “advantage in bringing the larger works out and putting them in a new context and then having the chance of photographing them again. The book also demonstrates issues of mobility of objects. I’ve been interested in the opportunity to do things twice but the chance doesn’t really come up that regularly.”

Banalities for The Perfect House (2007), SLOT Gallery Banalities for The Perfect House (2007), SLOT Gallery
photo Alex Wisser
For audiences, the survey provides a rare opportunity to view a significant body of Lewis’s work in one space alongside newer pieces. These works continue to reflect the artist’s talent for devising idiosyncratic methods of translating longstanding concerns in unconventional, and often deeply personal, ways. An earlier engagement with the paintings of the Yirrkala region which led to a memorialising suite of transcription drawings, for example, has assumed a new direction since Lewis met Yolngu artist Barayuwa Mununggurr in Sydney. In 2009, the pair commenced a creative exchange which has seen Lewis twice make the long journey to Mununggurr’s ancestral country on the east coast of Arnhem Land. During a visit to Yarrinya, at a saltwater location at Blue Mud Bay, Lewis became immersed in subjects related to Mununggurr’s paintings.

Here, Lewis photographed the technique of the assembly of a lightly installed shade shelter, filmed the details of the water currents and wave formations, and also the clouds, and made audio recordings of the water at night as well as later observing the building of a traditional bark shelter at the settlement of Yirrkala. The Arnhem Land research belongs to Mununggurr and Lewis’ ongoing project, Transcriptions for the Perfect House (2009-2012), in which explorations of ‘home’ connect their practices. Mununggurr’s bark paintings represent “contemporary expressions of the custodial ideal of place” while Lewis responds with “coincidental sculptural processes and an environmental graphism,” explains writer James Paull in the exhibition room brochure. As Lewis describes it, the project is “a reference, quite an elaborate one, to what’s happening in the Northern Territory with the Intervention and the anti-homelands movement that the federal government implemented and maintains—the idea of bringing all the people from the homelands into the settlements where medical facilities, education and the like are streamlined and economically disbursed. As I understand it, the NT Intervention isn’t a system the Yolngu aspire to.”

Ruark Lewis & Rainer Linz, Banalities for The Perfect House, 2005 Ruark Lewis & Rainer Linz, Banalities for The Perfect House, 2005
photo Ryan Leech
For the survey exhibition, Lewis presents a set of newly constructed mobile shelters, functional yet ultimately sculptural works that visitors can test out for themselves in the Hazelhurst gardens. These nomadic architectural installations, titled Star Shelters (2012), stem both from Lewis’s concern for the thermal exposure crisis experienced by Sydney’s homeless people during wintertime and his desire to create a temporary housing solution for the Darwin homeless, the so-called “long-grassers,” Indigenous individuals and families who visit the city without a place to stay and who sleep rough outdoors. Lewis observed the long-grassers over a nine-week hospital stay in Darwin earlier this year. It was during his hospitalisation that he began the prismatic black-and-white graphite drawings, made to chance formulae but also responding to ideas of Aboriginal astronomy, which have since evolved into the shelter works.

“I took a set of my small drawings and began folding them to form three dimensional structures,” Lewis explains. “I scored along the lines and simply folded them like origami. These maquettes were scaled up and using plywood formed life-sized tent-like structures with openings on the side that permit people to get inside them.”

Site-specific works include two banners printed with the subtly ironic phrases GO HOME and HOMELESSNESS for one day at two major traffic entry and exit points at the threshold of the Shire. For Lewis, the introduction of elliptical text-based works into the civic realm allows the reader to “attach their own meaning to words, phrases and concepts. It’s a kind of esoteric form of public writing, a reductive form of writing expression, and one that percolates like salt or minerals rising up through the earth. These simple words signal and impart a social nutrient and I’ve found these ideas can easily flourish. It isn’t a bad thing if we can hold back from being singular authors some of the time and think more about the use of art in our society.”

If the chronological and classificatory logic of a survey reveals a tendency to freeze works as finite objects in space and time, Lewis is resisting this impulse toward stasis by using documentation to “bring into the audience’s perception that there’s also a lot of performance that goes on around the works.” Two live works in the gallery with dancers and choreographers Tess De Quincey and Alan Schacher are programmed, the latter involving Schacher’s response to Lewis speaking the 1943 version of the aphoristic text, Directions, by the largely forgotten Sydney poet of the PUSH movement, Harry Hooton. It’s this summoning spirit which similarly permeates so much of the art of Ruark Lewis. Recovering and illuminating the nuances of place, history and community without losing their critical force, Lewis skillfully translates enough of the strangeness in these manifold stories to keep their poetry alive.


Ruark Lewis: Survey 1982-2012, Hazelhurst Regional Gallery, Sept 29-Nov 11; Macquarie University Art Gallery, Jan 30-March 13 2013; Events at Hazelhurst: Oct 28, 11am artist talk with Ruark Lewis, 1pm performance, Tess De Quincey, Catscradleforsutherland; Nov 11, 1pm performance, Alan Schacher, Directions, www.hazelhurst.com.au

RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 52

© Ella Mudie; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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