Wendy Stavrianos: ‘I have always aimed for my work to be more akin to visual poetry’
The artist talks about her concern with environmental degradation and mass migration, and her aim to share her sadness and memories in her latest works
by JANET McKENZIE
Wendy Stavrianos (b1941) lives near Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, and has recently produced a haunting body of work that she refers to as her “old-woman paintings”. In her overtly political works, such as Rape of a Northern Land (1976-78), she was a strident voice against the pollution created by mining. Drawing on a large scale with the immediacy of the drawn line enables her to amplify her inner voice, to embark on a journey that uncovers previously taboo areas of experience in art, the unknown and the unexpected.
Janet McKenzie: Your recent body of work reminds me of the superb work Rape of a Northern Land (1976-78), which you made after Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin, where you were living, in 1974. The work was a sculpture made of fabric, and the drawn lines were sewn. Can you recall your preoccupations then?
Wendy Stavrianos: My preoccupations are the same now as they were in Darwin in the 70s: a sense of land being sacred, and the need to see that respected. I can still feel the sadness I felt then, when visiting an old uranium-mining site called Rum Jungle. I wandered into the abandoned site and was shocked by the warning signs saying: “Do not touch”, “Do not swim here.” That pristine site was polluted in a deadly way, and I believe it remains so today, as a “wounded landscape”, which, I have just learned, was originally an important Aboriginal sacred women’s site. When making my work Rape of a Northern Land, long ago, I may have been hearing those ancient women’s cries for the return of the land to its original state of wholeness. I became aware then of how land can be abused and become a politically charged issue. The neglect of that place took away an innocence I had managed to cling on to until that time. I was charged with anger and outrage, as I am today, when it comes to the degradation and destruction of what is precious. Rape of a Northern Land was a response to that site of devastation; hence, the bleached-out landscape and the bleeding split palms that I depicted in the work. It was as if a rape had taken place there. I moulded the cloth into 3D form to echo the folds in the land, using the fragility of the cloth and the incongruity of fine pen and ink to match the fragility of that wounded place. The works of that time were like giant diaries recording, internally and externally, what was a landscape of incredible beauty, but also a landscape of terror. In Darwin, at that time, my connections and identification with land became more intense and highly charged. It was about the beauty and the terror, at that time, as it is today in 2016.
JMcK: Your new work in the exhibition Silent Rooms and Portals to Uncertain Shores has bowled me over. It is intensely personal, yet universal; muted, yet full of life. It addresses the biggest issue of humanity – death – something we spend our lifetimes facing up to. Can you explain it?
WS: In my artist’s statement about the exhibition in July at the Langford 120 Gallery in Melbourne, I said: “The paintings hover between stillness and movement, between image and abstraction, inner world and outer, personal and universal.” I tried to disconnect from a definite narrative. Instead, I have removed clues to try to reach deeper into the mystery in the work. This feeling was highly charged, yet slow-burning with the important issues of our time. These include the impact of climate change and mass migration from the extremes of violence. My response to this overwhelming turmoil is the attempt to distil the sense of powerlessness into visual poetic form, raw and urgent as the current state of things.
The poetic form takes place within the room, or through the portals, bridges or gateways, which implies journeys from one place to another, from one reality to another. The rooms we carry with us in our minds and memory are suspended in time, never to be erased. Our lives can be summed up as a series of exits and entrances that define who we are and what we stand for. Nature ultimately wins over all our desires and strivings.
The idea of the abandoned room, of nature’s takeover of order and structure – burying human traces, transforming the elements into unrecognised forms – makes our shelters vulnerable spaces and reduces our historic monuments to landscapes of rubble. In the body of work Silent Rooms and Portals to Uncertain Shores, I have tried to make sense of things through the matter of the medium, to search for my own territory of meaning within the mystery itself.
JMcK: You use the abandoned room as the place and metaphysical space for your large paintings and smaller works on paper to inhabit, which prompts a discussion of Gaston Bachelard’s 1992 book The Poetics of Space, which has appealed to numerous artists?
WS: I have been using the idea of the room in many exhibitions, Room of Landscape, Memory and Desire, The Gathering Room, The Metaphysical Rooms, The Forgotten Room, to name a few. It was years ago that I was given that wonderful book of Bachelard’s, which had a profound impact on my direction. It strengthened who I was inside as an artist and focused my energies on the metaphysical spaces I inhabited, and this made possible the more integrated use of landscapes that could flow in and out of the memory rooms. When I read his book in the 80s, I connected with the places I had inhabited since childhood. They were known spaces and very familiar. I felt that I was reading about my own imaginative world, my own dreaming. Having always believed that there was something seriously wrong with the way I experienced the world, it made me connect at last to a world that was sympathetic to my own poetic imagination.
JMcK: Nature has taken over the abandoned room and is jungle-like and threatening. How do you assuage this fearful construct?
WS: I assuage the fearful construct by allowing the light to flow through entrances or exits. While the places I depict are wounded and threatening, they are not without a passage or bridge or portal to pass through, even if some must journey through into darkness. These images are metaphors for life’s passages.
Some notes I made about the symbols I have used in the work were as follows: vines symbolise nature’s takeover of man-made structures, and also time changing the face of things. Nets symbolise what is gathered up, what is lost, unravelled, in a human sense and environmentally. Examples of this are seen in the works Entrance, Traces of a Room, Portal to Uncertain Shores 1, Portal to Uncertain Shores 2 and Surrendered to Last Light.
JMcK: How does the Australian landscape inform your work and your everyday way of life?
WS: Until my move to Darwin, before Cyclone Tracy, I had been living a childhood of a suburban existence and later lived in city hotels where my father was a publican. That period was a dark and confusing time, with the sound of the boozers in the bar as background music, along with cigarette smoke drifting up to the rooms we lived in. Landscape was seen only on train trips in holidays. Viewing the Australian landscape from the train window was wondrous for me, coming from that hotel environment. At a very early age, I was given a toy sewing machine and my response to the trips to New South Wales for holidays was to make pieces of sewn cloth into abstract landscapes. I remember how it felt to make the folds of the land echo the folds of my own body, the seams becoming lines. Of course, at that time, I would not have been aware of abstraction. What mattered to me was to sew and mould the fragments in response to the dry summer landscape that I was seeing from the train window. Later, when I was in my 30s, the move to Darwin had an explosive impact: I saw for the first time the sensuous tropical growth, burgeoning almost before my eyes. Lake Mungo was another Aboriginal sacred site important for me, and, as with all the land I have loved and walked on, its influence still persists, as in this new body of work. Living in central Victoria, I am living on the slopes of Mount Gaspard, surrounded by undulating hills with golden dry grasses in summer and cold winter grey frosts. The landscape invades the rooms, enriching every aspect of my life here.
I feel there is a timeline of experiences of the land from Darwin, to New South Wales, to Lake Mungo, and to the country around my shearing-shed studio. These different terrains are connected in a physical and a spiritual sense; so powerful, that a distance must be kept, in order to distil the essence of place.
JMcK: Archways or portals are tremendously evocative forms. What do they signify in your work?
WS: I did not consciously choose a portal as a symbol. I was searching for something that could convey the deep feeling I had concerning all the issues I was disturbed about, environmentally and concerning mass movements of people fleeing conflict. I wrote rough notes at the time: “‘Portal’: The existential choice to ‘Entrance ‘or to ‘Exit’. Quest for renewal, hope, purification. Journey: an implied spiritual symbol of an internal state. As in Japan, passing through a portal is an act of purification. This act of passing through, crossing a bridge, suggests a journey, a psychological journey of the self.” The painting Bridge 1: Disjunction looks back to my childhood city landscape of the railway bridge near the hotel I lived in, yet, in a timeline, it is connected to an architecture of these troubled times. “A wasteland”, of a kind, as in the last lines in TS Eliot’s poem: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
As in the forlorn blowing paper in Bridge 2 Relic, the symbol of the bridge or portal connects the eroded dunes of Lake Mungo with the bridge of childhood. The dualities here carry the tensions of the organic form with the manmade architectural structure. It is the struggle we see when sacred places are desecrated or diminished by global warming, and, often, it is the reverse, when all those silent rooms that are abandoned [fallen ruins] are overtaken with nature’s immense power of regeneration. All traces of manmade structures are buried in time and memory. What occurred in this body of work I called “my old-woman paintings” was a complete letting go of being too conscious, of knowing, and allowing another wise voice to guide the work. Being empty at last, the symbols came as if of their own accord.
JMcK: Your work resonates with the imagery of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, and you have adopted the role of a female archetype, a wise sage. Are you comfortable with such an interpretation?
WS: I am very comfortable with the relationship of my work to poetry, as that is what I have always aimed for in my exhibitions, to make them more akin to visual poetry. Many times I have had comments suggesting that my works resonate with the imagery of William Blake. Earlier works are closer to that idea, with more figurative elements. However, I believe that it is the desire I have in me always to reach out to a spiritual dimension, through the paintings, that may connect me in some way to that marvellous artist and poet.
The role of female archetype or wise sage could never ring true in any sense for me. I am still struggling to make any sense of what is occurring in this complex world. A sense of powerlessness still haunts me. Only when I am facing the work can I feel empowered, yet only in a very tremulous way.
JMcK: Are there actual places that you have used as a visual reference point for these works – decaying structures, overgrown rooms?
WS: There are elements of places I have been to and explored, and made studies of. The Bridge 1: Disjunction image was an actual bridge that was outside my bedroom window when I was a child; it was associated with some dark experiences at that time. There also were the huts I made as a child and the ruins of the hut in Rum Jungle there. The work called Fragments of a Room had elements of that place of devastation. When it appeared in the work, I was surprised, as it must have been lying there in wait for a very long time. In the painting, it was joined to other images, to form sites of meaning. This was true of most of the works in the show. They are mostly imagined spaces with elements and fragments of actual places that I have walked on and gathered at. As I worked in the studio, I was aware of all the decaying structures, all the overgrown rooms abandoned to the elements, because of ongoing conflicts and devastating environmental events. All those rooms, holding the memories in minds and hearts across all the uncertain shores, took me on a journey with them.
JMcK: It is a very generous thing to share your deepest vulnerability, your experience of grief through your painting process with the wider world. What in your view is the role of the artist in today’s commercial world?
WS: I am not sure it is a generosity in sharing my deepest vulnerability and grief through my paintings. I have never really known any other way to be. I am certain there may have been easier paths. I was told once: “You have to learn to play the game, Wendy.” I was never very good when it came to games. It was essential to share truths in the work. I have always been aware as a teacher to many young people over the years, who were in my care, that helping them search for what is true inside them is what was important. Students were always switched on to any falseness. I really cared about them deeply: therefore, it was important to be real. The artist should stay close to their own truth and not buy into forces that lead them to produce commodities.
JMcK: Your exhibition of this work at Langford 120 had an extraordinary response. Did that surprise you?
WS: I was definitely surprised by the reaction to the show. The positive response to the Langford 120 exhibition was, I felt, linked to a universal deep level of sadness about the state of things on this troubled planet. We all share the anger and the outrage of the devastation caused by loss on a large scale, either environmentally or in human terms. A winter visual dark poem of bleached bone whites, silver greys and blacks had no expectations to be loved. I was prepared for that. In a sense, the paintings were like an elephants’ graveyard, in that they contained discarded matter, abandoned rooms and portals to the unknown and uncertain. Yet it was a shared sadness that may have needed to be exposed to the light, to be seen and felt, in order to fear it less. We all inhabit those spaces and places in our minds at some stage on our journey. I did feel a sense of peace after the show that I have never experienced before, not to have just approval. I have always been suspicious of that, although that was good to experience, but more about the joy of being able to draw together all the threads of the nerve ends that matter to me, joining the different terrains of place and memory. Silent Rooms and Portals to Uncertain Shores was an offering to all those who journey into unknown territories.