Sunday, November 22, 2009

Art is open spaces

from w
Sometimes outdoor art or sculpture is more interesting than framed pictures in a gallery. Glenn Romanis, born in Geelong is a community artist who does very interesting work with large-scale installations working in textile design, mosaic tiling, paving, murals and painting. His Aboriginal heritage informs his work which has a strong environmental focus and he often works with groups of children.

On Saturday the Age ran a story about Glenn, particularly about an outdoor work he made at the Buddhist Centre in Melbourne.

My space Glenn Romanis
November 21, 2009
The Maribynong snakes its way through a valley in Braybrook, far below where Glenn Romanis has created his own rocky replica. In an installation rich with cultural and topographical meaning, Romanis has crafted a river-shaped dragon from rocks and stones at the Quang Minh Buddhist Temple. Laid out near the construction site of a huge new temple, the installation uses Vietnamese and indigenous imagery to tell a story of belonging.

What is the story being told here? Everything I do is about trying to communicate someone else's story. This contains all of the (Vietnamese) symbolism — the dragon and the lotus flower — but I've tried to create it in a site-specific format so that the lotus flower points directly to where the temple is in relation to the Maribyrnong. You've got the Maribyrnong running through, the dragon holding the myrnong, which is like an indigenous yam daisy that was quite prolific around here. It is created in basalt because this is basalt country. In the larger basalt rock, there is engraved water, which represents the sea and how they (the Vietnamese) have travelled to get to here. It was conceptualised through the community, and the kids (from the Vietnamese youth group) came down on Sundays and put in their two bob. The whole community got behind it, especially the women in the (temple) kitchen. It was fantastic having lunch every day with them and having workers stop by and have a yack.

What have you learnt here? How strong the community is, especially working here on a Sunday and seeing the preparation that goes into every Sunday's feast. I think that's the centre of any community, to get together and have a meal and a yack.

Have you found parallels between their sense of place and your own? From what I've grasped from the conversations I've had, it's very important to respect their culture but still have an understanding of where they're residing, sitting within the Maribyrnong and its surroundings, and to respect that.

What was your impression when you first saw the site? It's very much a work site; a lot of the tradies were just as interested as the community in what was happening. I've had a lot of questions asked along the journey. It's not until the last couple of days that it starts to come together, so a lot of people weren't quite understanding what the heck was going on. Down below, it doesn't really read as a dragon. I want it to read as topography, as basalt and river, so you get a sense of the place. It's not until you get up above it that you read it as a map. Topography is important in your work.

Where do you think that comes from? Probably from doing a lot of community art and everyone wanting to tell a story but wanting something that's different to the next town. A lot of the work I do is in smaller towns, and I've found it a good way of creating something unique because every bend in the river is different . . . people know that this is their area on the river. It doesn't matter whether you've been here for a million years or if you just got here yesterday, topography's always going to be here, so it's a really good tool to use as a starting point and then tell the community's story through that. I'm slowly creating my own little version of the Melway . . . they can be read as individual works and also as one larger installation that covers the whole of south-eastern Australia.

Does your indigenous background give you a particular perspective on that? Unless I'm working with a particular mob from that specific area, I wouldn't say it has too much cultural relevance. It has more relevance to the topography and the land. It's inspired by place, and I'll bring particular stories from whatever individuals I'm working with within that space, whether it's the Vietnamese or Sudanese, trying to tell their story.

Have you had a sense of being part of the community during the project? I don't think you can ever be part of it, but the more you get a sense of their stories, the stronger your work will be. In a lot of communities, people can be wary. It's like, "who's this clown coming in, and what's he about?" You have to build some rapport.

What do you hope the local kids who worked on the project will take from it? Like any kid between 12 and 15, at first it's "what the heck are we doing here?" And secondly, I'm saying each rock has its place and you've got to get the levels right. It's a hard thing to communicate. They were very interested in learning, but they're like any kids . . . I'd be standing over each rock and they'd be like, "just bloody put it there", you know?

How difficult was it to keep a sense of the work from down on the ground? It wasn't until it was nearly finished that I got to come up here (the temple's top level). I'm saying, "oh yeah, I'm happy with that", but see (the dragon's) arse there? He's real skinny. One of the tradies pointed out, gee he's a skinny-arsed bugger, isn't he?

Glenn Romanis' installation is one of a series of projects exploring home, migration and dispossession in the Big West Festival, running until November 29. The temple is at 18 Burke Street, Braybrook.

A multi-media presentation on Glenn Romanis appears at on Monday.

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