Thoughts on Flight from Silence
Lisa Sewards and Anna Taylor
I begin with the title Flight from Silence, rich with associations emblematic of the themes that flow between these two bodies of work.
Sewards has suspended several small drop parachutes from the ceiling, juxtaposed on the left with atmospheric prints of the forest and on the right with an enormous diptych of paintings that depict both parachutes and birds falling through the night. We pause in the silence of a parachute drifting down between trees, generally a symbol of hope, bringing supplies of food, mail and medicine or occasionally a cylinder containing a carrier pigeon that would then be fitted with a new message and set to fly home to its loft.
The silence of the pigeons delivering their crucial messages; their inability to communicate their experience of the treacherous skies of wartime (or our inability to hear it) resonates with the layers of silence born by peoples on all sides of conflict. Absolute silence of course, rests with the dead, but Taylor and Sewards concern themselves with restorative commemoration in the more fluid space of the living.
Sewards has gathered together an evocative collection of objects and memorabilia that recalls the life saving flights of the 32 pigeons awarded the Dickin Medal for gallantry after the Second World War. She travelled to Canberra and ‘met’ two of those birds whose bodies have been preserved by taxidermists, and she re-animates them through drawings and paintings made in situ, and later developed into larger etchings. Small works are combined with relief prints of the parachute strings and hung in the circular form of a medal. This project brings together her longstanding interest in birds, with her continuing work on war time experience that began with the exhibition White Parachute, a meditation on a moment in her mother’s life as a child refugee living in a displaced persons camp, when the silk from a fallen parachute in the forest was used to make clothes, including white ribbons for the little girl’s hair.
Working long term in the difficult territory of wartime memory, both artists have started with their family history and moved out from that point, engaging the great power of peace time story telling to bring new understandings of the trauma of the past. The practice of making follows the moment of telling, honouring and settling memory into shared history for both narrator and listener. Comprehension, healing and forgiveness may follow. The images and objects made and assembled by the artists both memorialise this process and invite the viewer to enter their own stories.
In undertaking the Memorial Home Sweet Home (a title with a faintly ironic ring) Anna Taylor wades bravely into weighty territory; the stories and experiences of the families who lived with loved ones who, in the aftermath of conflicts, were no longer the people they knew. The stigma laden, less heroic injuries wrought by what is now termed PTSD, reverberate through the generations, mushrooming into disorders such as alcoholism, phobias and depression.
Taylor draws on her background working in the community sector to take up residencies at two Vasey RSL homes, inviting people to reflect on their experiences of family life. Frequently exhibiting the Memorial at the Austin Repat Hospital commemorative events and at legacy groups has continually drawn more participants. People are welcomed not only to tell their stories but to be actively involved in the process of stitching and making the books that honour what they have to say. Where the opportunity presents itself such as with Tapscott family, Taylor has documented five generations of wartime service into a single book. Iraq veteran Sarah Tapscott Archibald, the youngest Tapscott to serve, spoke of her post war experience alongside Taylor at the artist talk, and so the connections grow.
This is artist as conduit and the art as gift; as the object is made so a corrosive silence is undone. Stories are told and heard. The slowness of the making creates a space in time around the memory and with this, a new awareness of the continuing effect of the wartime experience.
Alongside the memorial Taylor made aerial paintings of sites of war mentioned by participants. Particularly poignant is a diptych depicting Hiroshima before and after the bomb, a fertile inhabited landscape laid waste in the space of a day. We come up to the conflicts of the present through an image of Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan. Beneath it a view of coastal Australia signals Taylor’s next phase of research for the Memorial; into the Frontier Wars fought between white settlers and indigenous peoples in this country.
Whilst rich with emotional punch, Flight from Silence is not a sentimental journey. Sewards is an accomplished printmaker and Taylor has honed her visual language of painting land and water from the air over many years. Both artists engage the tropes of installation to create a tactile world for the viewer to enter. Beneath the play of shadows created by the suspended parachutes Sewards enshrines a collection of letters and parachute fragments in a glass dome. All the individual books, boxes and scrolls of Taylor’s Memorial come together as a monument in an iconic red tower arranged above the viewer. On the wall, projected larger than life size, a silent film plays representing those affected by the legacy of war. Initially each person appears in a white space and then the camera pans slowly back creating a very simple and powerful encounter between viewer and narrator. We see people of all generations appear and move quietly back in the frame. We see ourselves and close others in all of our human-ness. The hesitations and catches of breath in the process of remembering become universal. This is everybody’s story, then and now.
“In the reciprocity that is story telling, both teller and listener inhabit the space of the story. Telling stories connects us and allows us to care, to be: it fosters collaboration; it aggregates knowledge and generates new ideas; it ignites change, and, ultimately, builds community.”
Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster, p49, Catalogue 18th Biennale of Sydney.