Navigating the Void
© Janet McKenzie 2018 All Rights Reserved
Navigating the Void presents the work of four artists: Victor Majzner and Hedy Ritterman from Australia, Anita Glesta from the US and Janet McKenzie from Scotland. They have all - for a significant period - explored loss, cultural dispossession and identity in a highly personal and powerful manner. Their works made in response to intensely challenging experiences and to personal loss embrace multifarious aspects of creativity and healing. The underlying premise is that the creative process, particularly that of drawing, can extract experiential phenomena and enable a more effective processing of grief and a redefinition of self.
The Personal as Political:
Navigating the Void interrogates aspects of life and death and the manner in which the creative process can play an important role in achieving acceptance and resolve.
Anita Glesta in New York uses her artwork to link two episodes of such magnitude and lasting devastation in the past 70 years: the bombing of Gernika, the Basque town on 26 April, in 1937, which killed 1,650 innocent people there; and the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, on September 11, 2001, which she witnessed. Both were seemingly random acts of violence in peacetime: the victims innocent people going about their daily lives.These shocking events form the nexus on which Glesta based an important body of work, that focus on aspects of urban life that are forgotten, invisible or obscured in the present. Her work explores the relationships between memory and memorialisation, survival and loss and the manner in which these issues have been expressed through art historically. More recently a health scare prompted an exploration of her inner being, literally through visceral drawn images of body organs - the mysterious void within her own body.
The work of Janet McKenzie and Hedy Ritterman addresses the experience of caring for their terminally ill husbands over an extended period and their deaths. Their disparate works reveal the necessity to negotiate the fear of loss through a visual language even though it was inscrutable at the time of making. The overwhelming nature of loss had to be contained for the sake of young children yet emotional survival required a creative outlet. The works can be seen with hindsight to be exploratory tentative works to aid the navigation of a fearful, unknowable future. Their works – drawings and photography respectively - were often made quickly between their requisite activities. The female roles of nurturer and mother that dominated almost 20 years, challenge feminist expectations as many women in the 21st-century, in the event of serious illness and death, are expected to revert to traditional female roles.
The disorientation and desolation that accompanies grief, has been assuaged by the artists’ respective creative processes. Working now with a renewed sense of purpose and as independent women with grown up families, Glesta, McKenzie and Ritterman are working with vision and determination. Ironically it is the fulfilment and wholeness that has been achieved through art practice precipitated by grief and loss that has been so enabling.
McKenzie’s chainsaw woodcuts (2013) made 16 years after her husband’s terminal diagnosis, confront impending death; the works made on Ardnamurchan Peninsula in 2015, draw on deeply embedded personal experience whilst referencing her forebears who migrated from the Isle of Skye (visible from Ardnamurchan) to Australia in 1861. Hedy Ritterman’s exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia, used her husband’s possessions in a labyrinthine form on the floor of the gallery space to refer to the minutiae of Henry’s life. A Man of His Time conflated traditional Jewish mourning with a personal tribute in an attempt to confront mortality, identity and loss, with memory.
Historic significance of the project:
The victims of the forced migration in Scotland became the European settlers of indigenous Aboriginal Australian territory. In both situations, historical memories of settlement have served to divide populations and heighten discussions of cultural authenticity and ownership of land through labour, contributing to sensitive discourses and practices of nationhood. The ‘Void’ is the focal point and the physical ‘space’ to navigate, it represents a loss that often cannot find expression and reconciliation.
Within larger processes of historical loss and present day political systems, the fate of the individual is often overlooked. The demands of nation building often silence alternative narratives. Some versions of history become taboo. History is erased. In individual lives in the present, the individual carer or widow or victim of terror can become the casualty of such an erasure, marginalised and devalued. Damage is done to children, to the family unit, suffering is internalised and is passed to future generations, with societal ramifications.
Victor Majzner’s art practice has long addressed historic loss and memorialisation. As part of the post war Jewish diaspora Majzner has identified with the plight of Australia’s First People and the dispossession that resulted from colonialism in the nineteenth century. Yet sanctuary for one dispossessed people displaced another from their land. Wounded – Land, Memory, Destiny addresses the dispossession of Aborigines, the reality of migration and anti-Semitism. He challenges the romanticised European nature of Australian art, its political ramifications, the unresolved issues in relation to our indigenous inhabitants, to new migrants.
Navigating the Void forms part of a larger investigation: The Portrayal of Loss a project that in connecting present-day individual isolation seeks to represent overlooked lives in history. The artists presented here use art to bear witness to tragedy in historic terms. Using collaborative drawing as methodology, the use of symbolic materials and Memento Mori will prompt an interaction between historic loss (community/societal) and personal grief. The very practice of art is conceived by this project as an integral tool in the healing process (art as prosthetic memory). It is expected to show how art can often reveal emotional content to a personal/political experience that verbal statements may not (art as political witness). The exhibitions of which Navigating the Void is the first, will seek to publicise momentous events on personal and societal levels (art as communication and outreach).
Poisoned Earth II 2013 chainsaw woodcut