Symbolic Fragment: The Point of Departure

Albury Regional Art Gallery, Albury, NSW

by Lyn Plummer

Symbolic Fragment, The point of departure is a concept for an exhibition of visual art works, which was formulated to fuse the crucial sentiments about Australia, of a group of disparate migrants, with the visually interpretative sensibilities of a number of artists. The fragment with symbolic consequence, which would hopefully be identified from this process of communication and exploration, would become the point of departure for the artwork and could be read too as a symbol for the commencement of the journey of the contemporary Australian citizen. Each, a symbolic fragment of the reinvention of modern Australia.

The project was conceived as a response to the call for involvement in the Bonegilla’97 Reunion Festival. The Fiftieth Anniversary of the establishment of the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre. Some 320,000 voluntary immigrants, refugees and displaced persons were accommodated for varying periods here, on the shores of Lake Hume. Many had traded their skills and labour for two years in order to escape the chaos of Europe after the Second World War.
It was envisaged that it would be possible to create a connection and a communication between an artist and a migrant by way of an object which held, or had gained over the years, a symbolic significance for the person whose migratory route had led them to this country. It was hoped too, that through discussions and the resultant resurfacing of recollections, that the lasting impressions of the new environment and the recurring longings for the old, accustomed milieu, would eventually emerge in a number of potent and individual, visual art works. The symbolic implication which the chosen artefact provoked for its owner, would be the content of the works; and further, through this process, the object itself would become more ‘charged’ than it had been before.

Twelve artists were invited to participate. Some have relations who were residents at Bonegilla and some lived there themselves. All of the artists have been in some way, involved with the Charles Sturt University’s BA Visual Art Course. During its fifteen years existence in Albury it had always maintained a close association with its community and this project seemed a good opportunity to celebrate this association.

In the first instance two things were to be conveyed. The first was that art can capture the symbolic ambience of objects and recollections that have gained some substantiality through personal experience. The second was that the object/recollection itself becomes the point of departure for the journey into the memories and identity of the person who treasures it; and for the artist, it becomes the point of departure for the pilgrimage into the realm of visual reference and metaphoric imagery.

The migrants were chosen from people who had been resident at the Bonegilla Centre when they arrived in Australia. A series of interviews was wet up. The memories and references that seemed important from that time in this strange, isolated country were explored and discussed.

It was envisaged that the exhibition would consist of a collection of small tow dimensional stretchers. All components would be of the same dimensions, square, (30centimetres) and rectangular, (30x60centimentres). Each artist was asked to utilize four of these stretchers (two square and two rectangular). However they could be installed in any formation desired, which may include three dimensional constructions. Neither was any stipulation placed on the mediums chosen. The finished works therefore include painting, photography, collage and mixed media.

One of the practical reasons why small works of a set size was chosen was because they could be easily packed into suitcases, transported and installed, in the same manner as the migrant population was called on to reduce their lives, memories and aspirations to the confinement and transience of a suitcase. It is intended that in the future, the exhibition will travel in come of these Bonegilla-type suitcases and they are stacked in the middle of this exhibition space as part of the installation. One opened suitcase reveals the initial raw material of a set of four stretchers. This could be read as a symbol for the superficial similarity in bureaucratic terms, which blanketed the hundreds of thousands of migrants who were enticed here to develop Australia’s infant industries and its natural potential. Each individual set of stretchers, ostensibly similar at the outset, could be understood to have the potential to restructure itself into a great number of formations. Many varied, individual and original visions for this country’s present and its future.

The concept for the exhibition was based on the power of objects to accumulate symbolic meaning and to evoke private and public responses. The diversity of stories relates closely to the diversity of styles and methods of visual expression employed by the artists.
The artists are very grateful to the sponsors as listed, whose generosity supported the production of this souvenir catalogue. In particular thanks go to the Department of Land and Water Conservation, (whose association with the Bonegilla residents during the construction of the Hume dam is well known); and Charles Sturt University’s Art Supply Store on the Murray Campus.

On behalf of the artists I would like to thank the Bonegilla residents who have given of their time and energy so generously. Such communication has had a profound effect on us, the artists. Your statements reveal a succinct insight and the poignancy of the time. You have contributed to the creation of original, contemporary Australian visions with which, I am sure all Australians will identify.

Lyn Plummer ©
Installation Artist
Curator, Symbolic Fragment
15 September 1997