A new, intimate documentary by the ABC in association with the National Gallery of Australia and directed by Catherine Hunter with a gentle touch had us completely absorbed, inspired, saddened and then inspired again this week.
Top: Bronwyn Oliver, image by Greg Weight / above: Bronwyn Oliver, image Sonia Payes
‘When they succeed (my sculptures), I think people can get lost in seeing them, just as I got lost in making them’ – Bronwyn Oliver, The Shadows Within
You can watch it now on iView and it’s so, so worth the delve. In fact, it almost feels wrong not to watch and experience the work of this incredible artist who is finally considered one of Australia’s greatest conceptual sculptors. She’s an artist whose magical hands found ways to embroider parts of her intellectual and emotional self into the very fabric of her work.
Having followed Oliver’s career for many years (she was 10 years ahead of us at art school) it is beyond touching to see such a thoughtful, insightful and honest portrait of this prolific artist, an artist who succeeded through her unwavering and shimmering vision and passion.
Curlicue, 1991, Bronwyn Oliver, artwork © The Estate of Bronwyn Oliver
A working-class girl from Inverell, we will always remember first seeing her piece Eddy back in 1994 when it won the Moët & Chandon Fellowship (in the first year that the prize included sculpture) and being completely captured by the poetry and the mystery of it. Floating as it did on a gallery wall, it seemed somehow to bob in and on an invisible sea-like current. Unforgettable.
Oliver herself used the term ‘poetic logic’ when describing her processes and creative outcomes, the two aspects of which – the making of and the work itself, seem intrinsically and intuitively bonded. For Oliver, the connectedness of ideas, inspirations, human and other worldly sensibilities and the construction-phase of making, are all souped together in one beautiful and dark tangle of startling artistry.
Palm (1999), Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, Brownyn Oliver, artwork © The Estate of Bronwyn Oliver
Only 47 when she died in 2006, Oliver’s stunning metal sculptures live on, energetic in their organic formations as public art works in many Australian and international sites and in the collections of many galleries both here and overseas. Her work is impossibly intricate and as the documentary shows, incredibly time consuming to create as well as physically dangerous to produce. Her use of fiberglass as a medium early on in her practice and later copper wire (which she soldered without masks and gloves) for much of her career, contributed to the distressing decline in her physical health.
Overlaying the sadness of Oliver’s early death is the passion and intelligence permeating through her almost 30 years of artistic practice. Oliver was in love with the making of ideas and concepts and the sculpture that evolved from her careful thinking and encrusted meanings was powerful, elegant and alive. A story early in the doco tells of Oliver’s conceptual intentions not matching her ‘end product’ – the materials used did not quite match the initial vision, and even though the sculpture was still a beautifully successful piece – she was left pondering on whether or not she was ‘allowed’ to call it her work. The story is so illuminating, with its telling insight into the importance for her, of a robust and authentic underpin.
In many ways Oliver redefined what sculpture can be, describing her own work as ‘an interaction between my ideas and the materials – that’s where the fragility comes from’. Conceptual at its core, her evolving practice has always been contemporary, and way ahead of the game. Not that she would see her art making as a game, for Oliver the opposite was true, playful sure, but always serious in intent and weightiness.
Vine, 2005, Bronwyn Oliver. Installed in the Sydney Hilton Hotel, artwork © The Estate of Bronwyn Oliver
Oliver attended what was then Alexander Mackie College in Paddington (later City Art Institute and now College of Fine Arts) in the late 70s straight from school. It was so interesting to learn that her high school and Saturday art class art teacher Ian Howard (who himself was a recent graduate of art school) ended up also being her mentor at art college years later. Serendipitous indeed. This small detail buoys our belief that pairing real artists with artistic children can be life changing.
In 1981 Oliver won the prestigious NSW Travelling Arts Scholarship which took her to Chelsea College in London for a two-year career shaping residency. And what a time to be in London! Just pre-Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin et al, conceptual art was at the forefront of ‘Britart’ and London’s avant-garde scene and it was here that her practice blossomed and her confidence as an artist grew. Importantly she learnt that art could be a valid pursuit, a bona fide career. When we were studying visual arts in the late 80s in Sydney, there was still an undercurrent of an attitude that prioritised male artists….grrrr…….so it’s possible that London saved her!
Returning to Australia, Oliver went on to have numerous solo exhibitions, she was included in A New Generation 1983-1988: the Philip Morris Arts Grant purchases at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1988; the Australian Sculpture Triennial, Melbourne, 1990; Australian Perspecta, Sydney, 1991; the Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Brisbane, 1993; and Systems End: Contemporary art in Australia, which toured to Japan and Korea in 1996.
A wire sculpture shaped like a bird feather, silhouetted against the sky. Oliver's Big Feathers (1999) in Queen Street Mall, Brisbane, artwork © The Estate of Bronwyn Oliver
Last year we revisited Oliver’s work in the Know My Name exhibition at the National Gallery in Canberra and this time, seeing her work curated so beautifully amongst the work of other amazing Australian women artists, we were struck not only by the innovation and the inventiveness in her work but by the simplicity within the complexity. As the curator Julie Ewington so eloquently put it ‘The shapes are simple but the way they come into the world is infinitely complex’
In Know My Name we saw it again, the way she used empty space, energising it despite the painstaking hard yakka of working with the inflexibility of metal. Funny that Oliver chose such a strong metal for her delicate, organic shapings and her curling linework.
‘If creating a unique language of form is the mark of a great sculptor, there is no question that, along with Robert Klippel and Clement Meadmore, Bronwyn Oliver is one of Australia’s greatest sculptors. That she has not been heralded as such is strange, and one can only deduce that, ‘despite one’s disbelief that it could be so – it is because her work is so resolutely female.’*
Oliver’s arts practice and her beguiling trajectory of ideas and finished works show an intrinsic knowledge – that media should always follow concept, and this emerged as a kind of innate understanding. For Oliver, this was core knowledge to her being, from a young age! She was already an expert knitter and dressmaker as a teen, having learnt the maker’s language from her grandmother.
‘All that boofy bloke stuff,’ she once said, referring to soldering and welding and brazing, ‘is just stitching and sewing’ – interview with Hannah Fink
We would have said she was an environmental artist, but Oliver did not want to be defined in these terms – it’s too simplistic and in fact she saw nature as more of a starting point for her broader ideas and fascinations. For and within her forms, structures, energies and artistic ripples, the viewer feels very much like they are holding (through her) a handful of our universe’s mysteries.
‘I try to draw attention to the inside space in my work. I try to energise the emptiness. The outside of the work is a description of the potential in the emptiness inside them. The shadow compresses the emptiness.’ – interview with Max Cullen, Sunday, ABC TV, 1993
Exciting to discover that Oliver worked as an art teacher for many years alongside young children, and the interview with a past student, now an artist in his own right, sharing his memories of his early year’s art teacher are so powerful, so poignant. Again, we are captured by this idea of flowing, connections and life’s interwovenness and the importance of intergenerational artistic mentorship.
Globe (2002), Bronwyn Oliver. A three-metre-diameter globe-shaped bronze sculpture fabricated out of brazed copper alloy wire at the University of New South Wales, artwork © The Estate of Bronwyn Oliver
Heartbreaking to learn more in The Shadows Within, of Oliver’s struggles within personal relationships and within her obsessive tendencies. An outlier at her core, she seemed to not quite be able to find a way to exist in this world. And although we hate to join in this annoying cliche of talking about artists as ‘special geniuses’, in Oliver’s case the title rings true. How’s this for a mind-bending Oliver quote?
‘It is possible that spiders think through their webs, that their silk geometries operate as sentient extensions of their bodies....’, – Oliver quoted in Felicity Fenner’s Bronwyn Oliver, Moet & Chandon, Epernay, 1995.
The Shadows Within will leave you feeling so sad for the loss of Oliver’s unique perspective and for those magic hands and we couldn’t help thinking as we watched, about all that she still could have achieved within her rare and artistic language. What could have been still makes us sad.
‘I like to think of the inside space of the work and energise the emptiness, potential emptiness inside’ – Bronwyn Oliver, The Shadows Within
Watch now on iView
Read Know My Name
The Know My Name book celebrates art by women from across Australia. With more than 150 artists profiled and texts written by more than 115 women writers, the book aims to highlight the artists and their work and shift assumptions that the histories of art are male dominated.
* Know My Name (2020)