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Aqua Profunda: art in the deep end

Keith Gallasch: Lyndal Jones, Venice Biennale

Lyndal Jones, Aqua Profunda Deep Water, Australia Council, Australian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Italy, June 10-Nov 4

Lyndal Jones Lyndal Jones
photo Greg Barrett
Lyndal Jones is a leading multi-disciplinary Australian artist who has produced performance works, installations, site-specific and video works and impressive permutations of all of these. Jones was selected to be Australia’s sole representative at the Venice Biennale in 2001. For this event, the Australia Council commissioned a new site-specific, video installation, Deep Water/Aqua Profunda. The exhibit’s curator is John Barrett-Lennard and the commissioner is Leon Paroissien. The handsome catalogue includes essays by Barrett-Lennard, Margaret Plant and Lesley Stern (“Let ‘Lyndal Jones’ be the name that we give to a body of work, a body that mutates as it traverses”). At the Australia Council’s Sydney launch, after which we interviewed Jones, we noted the number of times the speakers stressed the weight of responsibility which attaches to participation in such a prestigious event.

The power of buzz

If it’s a failure, then I’m on my own really. Who’s responsible but me? If it’s a success, then it could have a lot of ramifications for artists. But we’re all used to that, aren’t we? If you start to think bigger than that, then you fry. The Venice Biennale is a big event, but lots of little countries show work there, and big countries. Everyone makes sure they see the American pavilion and then it really does depend on how the work is picked up. Some works are of-the-moment and no-one can predict what they will be.

There’s a sort of a buzz that goes around the Biennale that a work should be seen. It’s the same as the Biennale here. That’s how (American video artist) Doug Aitken became really well-known. His work, From one side of an Island to another was shown at the last Biennale—it’s kind of about alienation really, very hip, dark, wonderful piece. It was the work in a sense. And what was fantastic was that, unlike a lot of video work, it wasn’t just a single ‘action.’ As artists we watch other artists and identify or not with a single, potent action—that’s kind of the rule for making video. People don’t necessarily have the confidence to just see that some of us work in a different way until someone like Doug gets the stamp of approval for making a much more narrative work. And suddenly it all opens up.

I work with video from a subjective, experiential position for the viewer. Consequently, a certain type of critic has difficulty with it because they can’t stand outside and analyse it. But for a lot of people just watching it, it’s quite straightforward. They’re just in it.

Make me wait

There’s a particular state in making work that is really exciting, whatever it is. And for me it has to respond to things that are important at the time. And they’ve usually been political things. From the Darwin Translations (1994-98) is really about an erotic voice. What really drove that was that whole feminist debate about pornography. There was the anti-pornography group. Then there was the group who basically, like myself, thought well, what are you trying to say, we can’t have thoughts and fantasies? And so it was about trying to find a woman’s very vocal fantasies. So this work is a kind of shift from that, I’m not sure where to...

Desire’s there at an emotional level. And the erotic, putting off the pleasure. At one point in Aqua Profunda the woman on the screen says, “Make me wait.” It’s based on the refrain of her counting to 10, sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian. And it’s about the way we count. As a kid I used to sit in the bath and Mum would tell me to get out and I’d count to 10 and when I got to 7, I’d go 7 and a half, 7 and three quarters...I’ve since discovered just how prevalent it is. Another line in it is, “It’s about restraint.” So she’s saying “Make me wait” and the narrator/gallery guide is saying to the audience, on the soundtrack, “She’s waiting, wouldn’t you say?” “She’s practising restraint.” It’s my voice. The gallery guide is just a voice. It’s a discussion about the image. The woman’s face is increasingly close-up, sometimes she’s looking at her audience, sometimes just waiting, in a sense, and counting.

All my work implicates the audience. And that’s to refuse being an object. So people can’t just simply, safely watch her. So in a sense it starts with us safely watching her and, in fact, discussing and analysing her and she turns around and says, “No, I’m not doing that. I’m waiting.”

Immersive

The images are floor to ceiling. And basically the size of the space is pretty much the size of Wharf 4 (Sydney). It’s a little bit narrower. So where the cameras were placed is in fact where the images will be placed in the room in Venice, 3 along one side and 1 at the end. And that looks across water to those 50s Sydney buildings. And you can see similar ones in Venice. There’s a line of flats. Then on either side, there are close-ups of the sides of ferries and sometimes bits of people depending on how close the ferries are. They’re like screens really or curtains, so you can see the other wharf and it’s almost continuous, because it’s the farthest away that we focused on. Then the Manly ferry will come in, a great big green curtain with a stripe. And you see it from the end one. It’s beautiful. Then there are little ferries that come in front, backwards and forward, faster. There you see bits of people. It’s simple.

I love the ferries. There are ferries in Melbourne too but they’re not everyday working ferries. They’re not ordinary, they’re not about transporting people to work. So in both cities, Sydney and Venice, it’s the ordinariness of the ferries that’s important.

Site specifics

I knew the site. I made the work for what I knew. I had footage—shot on an earlier visit by hanging over the water from the back of a gondola. I also had footage of Howard Arkley’s show. Then John Barrett-Lennard and I went back to Venice a couple of months ago to measure everything so that all the walls could be built before we got back—saving a lot of money. And I was really pleased that I was right about the space, that it wasn’t just a fantasy. I had to do a complete breakdown and a floor plan for the application and I submitted a video showing some of the footage and I talked. Because there’s talk in the piece, it seemed appropriate. And I showed bits of other works. If you really want it, you treat it seriously.

We’re building some extra walls, mostly to make the spaces discrete. They’re only sections of walls—there’s one space up high and there are steps down to the lower space. I’m building a wall around the upstairs space to cut that off, so that it’s like a square room. I don’t want the viewer to have any analytic possibilities. Yes, the associations become aural rather than visual.

Water and sound

I grew up on the Murrumbidgee and my perspective was always water on the edge of a desert. It makes sense. Otherwise I don’t understand why I work on such a big scale. And I’ve always worked with the idea of a field of events so that you can have a choice about where you look.

And sound has always played a part. In From the Darwin Translations, on one side is Freud and on the other side is Darwin, and of course, the intellectual debate surrounding those 2 men is so completely fierce. And I was intrigued that in art you could be watching the finches (live and caged at one end of the installation), being a naturalist in a sense, but you had to hear the confessions to an analyst. And on the other side (in an adjoining room), you could be listening and watching and being a voyeur, as an analyst is, but you had to hear the finches. So art creates a synthesis that you can’t possibly do intellectually.

Fitzroy Pool Fitzroy Pool
photo Lyndal Jones
Aqua Profonda in Fitzroy

There’s a sign in the Fitzroy Swimming Pool: “Danger. Deep Water. Aqua Profonda.” It’s so big at the end of the pool on a blue ground. It’s fabulous. It just dominates the pool, the atmosphere. It’s right near Carlton (Melbourne) which is the area where all the Italian immigrants were housed when they arrived. It would have been written in the 40s or 50s and has been kept I suppose because it’s so iconic. In the pool you sense that you could really be in Italy. You look up and see the writing and you hear people speaking Italian and you’re in Australia. It’s ordinary. That’s what’s intensely pleasurable.

The other thing is that they wrote the sign as “Aqua” which is Latin, not the Italian “Acqua.” And “Profonda” is Italian and not the Latin “Profunda.” And I thought, to be truthful, I really should keep this but I can’t do it. I’ll just look like a drip. I went with the Latin because I wanted the association across languages a bit and because of the way contemporary Italian writers are using Latin as a language.

Shooting

You mostly see the water in Venice when you’re on the vaporetto. It’s a single viewpoint looking down. And that starts on one screen and moves to the next. Whereas the Sydney wharf material is on 5 screens, so it’s a complete experience of being there at the time. But, as I said, not all that representational, it’s like closeups. It’s just extraordinary. Sometimes it looks like paper...it’s really abstract. There are moments in the first two thirds of it where you see a boat go past and you think, oh, water. It suddenly becomes three dimensional. After that it becomes much more abstract. It becomes like marble paper and like this flat, grey surface. Absolutely not manipulated.

The Venice stuff I shot myself. The Sydney stuff was a 5 camera shoot Garry Warner organised. Basically we just turned the cameras on and I ran around and lined them all up and people minded a camera and we let them run for the half hour. And we did that twice.

The upstairs footage I had a cinematographer do, Patrick Byrne, with a sound recordist. It was Patrick’s idea to use a mixture of blue gels just behind the performer (Tanja Bulatovic). It’s so closeup and the first two thirds of it just with a locked off camera and she does the work. She can find the lens. It’s fantastic. Then there’s a whole section in which I used real closeups, like a mouth or an ear and you see some of the wildness of the colour, all out of focus, just this bright background, kind of like a painting. We spent a whole day shooting and there’s this one continuous take which I repeated I liked it so much. It has a voiceover as well as her speaking and counting. Then there’s an intercut section that I’ve dissolved of the really closeup stuff. Then I’ve re-used this piece but with a different story. So there are chance relations between the language and the images.

Writing

It took a long time. I found it very hard. It’s taken me months and it’s only 4 pages. I don’t know how I wrote it. It went through a stage of being highly embarrassing. I read it to a friend and he looked at me and you know how when you read something aloud you think, oh my God, this is really…You have to be able to do that, of course. So I went back and pulled it in and I was very happy with it in the end. I think it could sit quite nicely almost as a sort of poetic piece with some images.

Cycles

It’s basically me talking to the viewers about the image, the narrator, not me. The narrator becomes more and more implicated in a sense. And the counting is the basis of it. And each piece is cyclic rather than narrative. It’s a scene rather than a narrative. It’s a moment or 2 moments.

The downstairs piece is 30 minutes and upstairs is 20. So they’ll cycle differently against each other. So I’ll never be able to control it fully. But again what we do is work within a field of constraints that allow it to have meaning, otherwise it would be arbitrary.

The counting is important. Tanja counts in a teasing way or with a sense of desolation. In the end she’s just sobbing, snot running from her nose. It’s very simple, not acted.

It’s cyclic—people have to be able to come in at any point. And you have to be able to enter a meditative state.

How it all happened

Before the Keating Fellowship I was doing a mixture of performance and video work. And when I got the fellowship, I thought, here I had an amount of money to work full time but, in fact, it was an amount that a writer or a painter or a person working by themselves could use but certainly not someone working with performance. You couldn’t live and make performances on it. I made one performance, Spitfire 1 2 3 (1996), but that’s when I really started to focus on video. My work now, for all that everyone says about it, is actually much smaller in scale than some of those performance things I did.

At the same time I made Spitfire 1 2 3 as a film. Lynn Cook wanted the installation version for the 1996 Sydney Biennale. But that was all cut back because of equipment. So she ended up showing the film, which was also shown at the Ian Potter Gallery (Melbourne) at the end of that year. Then it was picked up for Video Positive 9 in Liverpool, UK. And it was a huge hit there. As a result of that, within 6 months it was invited to show at the 15th World Wide Video Festival in Amsterdam in 1997. It was in Fotofeis, an international photography festival in Scotland where quite a lot of Australian art was shown. I was invited to work as artist in residence for 6 months in Ayr, just outside Glasgow. I was invited to show other work in Coil, a film/text magazine in London. I was also invited to a Belgian festival but in the end I just couldn’t do it. And the work was already going to Berlin in an Australian show, selected by a German curator. That was the only Australian show I was in. All the rest came out of showing the film.

Liz Anne Macgregor had wanted me to show Spitfire at the Ikon Gallery when she was there, but, again, I couldn’t because it was already being shown somewhere else. So we talked about showing other work and I said I’d like to show the new work Demonstrations and Details (2000). So it was shown there and in a regional tour—just a few weeks ago it was shown at the Newland Gallery in Cornwall. You see how it works. They just kind of come off one another once you start.

Life

I haven’t had one. It’s been quite hard. I was running the sculpture course at RMIT for the last couple of years while Robert Owen was away. He was away again this year but I couldn’t even contemplate doing it. So I’ve got no idea what happens to my life at the end of June. None whatsoever. And that’s looming very fast. I just have to have faith and know I can pick up my Feldenkrais work, but it takes a while to get a clientele going again, a couple of years usually. So, we’ll see.

It’s very hard. With a partner, that’s fine. But for me to be away for 5 months from friends and family and by myself...You live very sparely. It’s too hard. On the Ayr residency I had a cottage way out in the Scottish countryside. I bought an old Zephyr that had been used in a Ken Loach film. I’d drive for 35 minutes to get into the school at Ayr, then another 1 and a half hours to Glasgow. And once a month to London. It was winter and bitterly cold. I’ve been invited by this place up outside Dundee. By the sounds of it they do fantastic projects. They want to show the Spitfire piece too, because there’s an airforce base there. It’s so apposite to show that work all through Britain and Holland and Germany. It makes sense there. Whereas in America, I don’t think I’d bother showing it. There’s no point. And there’d be the censorship. It’s just a romantic piece.

Wish

A lot of my work was enabled by the Keating Fellowship. There are 2 things that I’d really like. One is for the reinstitution of something like that for artists. And the second thing is to have an equipment (DVD, video, computer) source for artists and galleries in Australia. They’re 2 things that I think would be significant contributions, that I’ve had the benefit of, or difficulties with in the latter case.

It feels wonderful doing the Venice Biennale. It’s a big moment for anybody. It was the same when I got the Keating Fellowship. I’ve been very privileged.

Lyndal Jones, Aqua Profunda Deep Water, Australia Council, Australian Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Italy, June 10-Nov 4

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 6-7

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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