Exploring the Dark Side of art

LYN DI CIERO

Ted Snell at the Dark Side exhibition at Gallery 25, Edith Cowan University. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

The positive effects of art are supported in numerous published studies around the world. Cognitive scientists have shown exposure to art alleviates anxiety, depression and stress, but what of the artists who create challenging artworks addressing their own trauma and fear? Funded by the Minderoo Foundation, the National School of Art in Sydney joins forces with Edith Cowan University in Perth to explore this question with three exhibition locations and a symposium as part of a national conversation on mental health and wellbeing. The symposium, featuring artists and experts from both WA and NSW, will be live streamed, and offers the prospect of a cross-pollination of ideas from the west to the east coast of Australia. NAS will feature the exhibition John Olsen: Goya’s Dog, while on show at both Gallery 25 at ECU’s Mt Lawley campus, and at There Is in Northbridge, is Dark Side, curated by Ted Snell. 
 
One in five Australians aged between 16 and 85 have experienced some form of mental illness, exacerbated by unprecedented isolation and dislocation caused by the recent pandemic. Nicola Forrest AO, co-chair of the Minderoo Foundation, says we must ensure we listen to artists to understand the unique challenges they face. “COVID-19 has been a stark remunder of how critical artists are to our community, and how their work connects us during times of isolation.” 
 
Snell says he believes all artists use their ‘dark side’ as a way of ruminating on their mental health and wellness. “Artists in the Dark Side exhibition have all found ways of making sense of their world and making a space for themselves by confronting their fears through making art. In the process they have offered their communities insight, reassurance and a safe space for confronting these concerns.”
 
He says the work of Nyoongar artist Sharyn Egan in the show brought tears to his eyes. “It’s such a moving work,” he says. Egan’s Our Babies 1, consists of approximately 50 sardine cans, acting as beds for tiny fabric ‘babies.’ As one of the Stolen Generation, Egan spent her childhood wishing for a better life. She says she was taken away from her parents and “treated like a dog. Then we’d watch the Brady Bunch on television and it was so perfect while our lives were like hell. Somehow that made it worse – knowing what we were missing out on. Although we didn’t have role models about how to love, we had love to give, and we expressed that in the great pleasure we had in making dolls. It was like the thing we didn’t have we were putting into the making of our own babies. We used the materials we had at hand, sardine cans and bits of fabric. I’ve incorporated gravel from all around Noongar land as a way of representing a connection to Country which we never lost. So art for me is a way of making sense, of compensating, and taking control.”
 
For Tarryn Gill, her Trickster series became a way of expunging the terrifying swarm of shape-shifting figures appearing in recurring dreams. Presented as soft, pillow-like, hand-stitched animals, with the figures morphing into self-portraits, Gill says she identified them as Jung’s archetype of the Trickster – a character fond of malicious pranks who can also appear as a saviour. “The making process was an attempt to confront my fear, making the figures visible and defined in a way I could further understand them and their message,” she says. 
 
There’s something of Cecily from Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play, The Importance of Being Earnest in Carla Adams’ Harrison (You are what’s wrong with today’s society). Cecily, without having met Ernest, announces her engagement to him in her diary, and writes letters of love on his behalf. Fast forward 120-odd years, and the game of love has moved online, and for many, it isn’t a pretty experience. Adams’ work is a carefully woven representation of a person encountered on Tinder, the slow process of weaving allowing time for a narrative to take shape in her mind – a  direct contrast to her fleeting, and often vicious and jarring online encounters. During the making process she imagines the life of her protagonist – whether he might play tennis, or even have a collection of cactuses. Ultimately, the work become a kind of ‘Dear John’ letter, revealed in this excerpt of her artist statement: “I know we never really knew each other but I want you to know that I’m over you. I forgive you.” 
 
The image of the tormented artist is familiar though history – a well worn assumption it somehow equals genius. Yet despite this cliché, there is much more to examine and learn through artists’ experiences of creating while delving into the dark recesses of their minds. Snell says there is an enormous bravery and courage in artists who confront their own fears in their work. “We’re not saying art can solve all people’s problems, but there’s a potential for the arts to be a therapeutic aid for the community – not only for the people who look at the work, but therapy through creative practice, which is really such a powerful way of working. In this sense, confronting dark subject matter is actually a positive – it’s a generator of content for so many artists, while at the same time dealing with some really tough personal stuff, but created in the safe place of the studio, where artists feel in control.” 
 
Artist’s in the Dark Side include Tarryn Gill, Carla Adams, Nicola Kaye/Stephen Terry + Lyndall Adams + Marcella Polain, Paul Uhlmann, Roderick Sprigg, Mary Moore, Sharyn Egan, Anna Nazzari, Stormie Mills, D’Arcy Coad, and Tyrown Waigana.
 
John Olsen: Goya’s Dog, is on show at the National Art School from 11 June until 7 August. 
 
Dark Side is on show at Gallery 25 and There Is until 17 June. 
 
Free one day symposium 11 June: Making Sense of the World through Art, Lecture Theatre, Edith Cowan University. Limited spaces available, register at https://www.trybooking.com/BRFHJ   

Our Babies 1, 2019, sardine cans, gravel, fabric and mixed media by Sharyn Egan. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

Harrison (You are what’s wrong with today’s society), 2017, 66 x 104cm, paracord, polyester rope, acrylic yarn, cotton and pendant, by Carla Adams. 

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