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HomeCultureArt‘Aurora-like play of light in glass’ – an interview with Bernadette Smith

‘Aurora-like play of light in glass’ – an interview with Bernadette Smith

Your new show is called Light Interactions. What most interests you about photographing light as your subject?
Light for me offers a myriad of transient forms to explore that never fail to surprise me especially when I look closely at the result on the screen and become drawn into this miniature world. As I enlarge the view I find more and more hidden facets that normally can’t be seen with the naked eye offering a unique perspective that only close up photography can provide.

You first discovered the unique properties of 1880s industrially produced glass while undertaking postgraduate research at Sydney College of the Arts then sited in the old mental hospital at Callan Park. What about the glass initially caught your intention and why did you feel impelled to explore it?
Usually when in my studio I would have the windows wide open to see a great view of Iron Cove in the distance but then one day in shock I just stared at the closed windowpanes. It had just been announced that my art school campus was to close and I felt a terrible sense of loss when I returned to my studio and experienced it for the first time in an emotional way. After staring blankly at the closed window for ages I started to notice the sensation of flickering shadows moving across the glass while tree branches gently swayed in the breeze beyond. As the sun went down there was an aurora-like display happening within the western facing windowpane which impelled me to investigate further and led to two years of observation and recording with a high definition camera.

What is so unique about this kind of glass?
Callan Park was built in 1882 with windows produced with a superseded manufacturing process which changed from the 1900s onwards to become a more uniform industrialised product. Because of its unique qualities my studio glazing has a range of minor imperfections and permutations such as minute bubbles and textural changes that amplify sunlight refractions.

The photos in your show are of light waves interacting within heritage glass at close range revealing an “aurora-like display” within your (then) 19th Century studio window pane at the former Callan Park asylum – and the park/asylum is a context numerous artists have used to inspire and create work. What was it like to produce this work in this place?
This heritage complex certainly had an ambiance and sense of place that was like no other I have experienced. The sandstone walls were like a skin that seemed to exude a living presence with layers of history etched into its fabric. I felt privileged to have been able to work in this place and believe it added a certain gravitas to much of what I produced however I am also glad that I was situated in the north wing as other parts were rumoured to be haunted by restless spirits.

You describe the glass itself as “an active partner in this project as if it also has something to say”. How did this “partnership” frustrate or augment your creative process?
In many ways the glass is the performer and I was merely documenting the sun’s interaction happening before my eyes. There was however a certain selection process involved on my part with choosing angles and timing but also a receptiveness to being open to what this inanimate object was saying. Perhaps a better way to describe it would be to say that the glass is revealing its secrets – its topography and materiality shaping the sunlight as it travels through the glass while fracturing and reintegrating on its path within. The main challenge to my creative process was controlling the amount of light that reached the camera’s sensor without blinding myself in the process achieved mainly by stopping down the aperture and shutter speed to a tiny fraction of what it would normally be for an average scene.

You also say the works show “the viscerality of light to emphasise non-human agency” – can you tell us a little more about what this means?
The viscerality of light refers to its undeniable physical presence which asserts itself despite the prevailing world view of so-called human “progress” and omnicidal extractivism that has led to climate crisis. The focus on objects rather than humans therefore helps to offset an overly dominant anthropocentrism de-emphasising human agency. My shock discovery of an aurora-like play of light within the miniature non-human world of the glass happening almost daily regardless of whether humans are there to witness it, metaphorically illustrates the way the planet will continue on even without humans if the Anthropocene era causes mass species extinction.

Bernadette Smith with ‘Dark Sun’. Photo: Supplied by the artist

You have worked with video installation and photography for more than 30 years – areas that have changed a lot over these three decades. What changes have been most beneficial to you in your work? What is one thing about video or photography that has passed into history that you now miss?
Perhaps being able to get instant results from the camera without having to wait for film to be processed has been a boon but I do miss the physical nature of film and being able to hold and handle the material. Sometimes being in the darkroom felt like magic waiting as an image slowly formed in the darkness. There was also more time to think about what you were doing and taking care when composing photos rather than the way people just snap away without understanding the content of the image. Personally because of dyscalculia I took a long time to cross the digital divide and switched to painting for many years to avoid computers but still include painting in my art practice.

In 2017, you wrote a chapter called “Beyond Drains” for A Speculative Field Guide to Blackwattle Bay (edited by Dr Kate Johnston and Dr Susanne Pratt) for the Sustaining the Seas Conference and you have an ongoing interest in water sustainability. The Glebe and Blackwattle area is in the paper’s catchment area, I’m interested in what you think is most precious or most at threat in this beautiful waterway?
Blackwattle is a beautiful recreational area with many layers of social history and use, but is under imminent threat from inappropriate and unsustainable massive overdevelopment. The problem of rainwater run-off with existing housing has not been adequately addressed, so further expansion will only compound water quality issues with storm water drains leading straight into the bay without natural filtration ponds or biological solutions. Fish from around Blackwattle are not safe for human consumption because toxicity levels are already too high. What we are seeing – and not just in Blackwattle – is the commodification for private benefit of the last remaining communal lands that are publicly owned yet the ratio of parkland to population is already one of the lowest in Australia particularly in the Inner West and South Sydney. Decision makers are squandering our future and must be made accountable, anticorruption laws must be monitored and enforced with a well-resourced independent agency.

Your photomedia and installation work explores environmental sustainability and the non-human world – work informed by your background in environmental activism. What has your environmental activism entailed?
My previous exhibition at Chrissie Cotter Gallery called Aqueous Moments looked at coastal habitats under threat in Sydney and beyond from extraction and overdevelopment. Part of the show included archival photographic prints from reversal film that documented sand mining in southern Stockton Bight near where I lived. Much of it was on public land carried out without development consent. At the time I was involved with environmental campaigns to fight it and even challenged BHP in the Land and Environment Court but it was a David and Goliath struggle without divine intervention I’m afraid. We managed to stop them for over six months before the state government intervened on the side of the miners. Now I concentrate on more subtle approaches to imaging sustainability and raising public awareness of the need to protect our water supply through my art in a more subliminal way. I often use images of water in public spaces such as the Newtown Art Seat or Art on the Greenway and even created water-inspired costumes for water quality protests against coal mining in Sydney a few years back.

Does your work in Light Interactions have a direct link to the environment or environmentalism?
My Light Interactions exhibition has a link to the environment in that it gives primacy to the natural element of the sun and highlights supposedly inanimate objects such as glass as being of equal significance and interest as humans offsetting a dominant anthropocentric view of the universe.

In 2020, on the back of coronavirus lockdowns and isolation, you took part in an artists’ residency for creatives living with disability organised by the Bundanon Trust. What was enriching about this opportunity?
The residency was great to meet and socialise with other artists living with invisible disabilities in an environment of acceptance and emotional support. The natural environment at Bundanon was also inspirational and fed into my later bodies of work such as art shown in Aqueous Moments. After enduring lockdown in Sydney, it was also a healing experience to be in a natural landscape wandering and taking photos along the riverside made so famous by the esteemed painter Arthur Boyd.

What barriers do artists living with a disability encounter within the arts?
There are varieties of disabilities so I won’t try to speak for everyone but often one can be less able to fit in or connect with the right networks or be accepted within influential art circles. A higher number of people with disabilities, through no fault of their own, also have lower than average economic status so class disadvantage is often intensified. There is also a lack of art curators and art administrators with lived experience of disability so that can make it harder to find opportunities and encouragement in the art world.

What do you most love about Alexandria / Erskineville and working in your studio?
I have been working in a studio in Alexandria, not far from Erskineville, for many years, but because of rising land values and personal circumstances I am looking for a studio further out west. It would be good if local and state governments made more provision for local artists who aren’t yet established particularly disabled artists who are often ignored. I love grabbing a coffee or lunch in Erko and really enjoy the village vibe. It’s a great place to unwind and catch up with friends, so I won’t stray too far for long.

As well as at the Light Interactions exhibition, where can people view and purchase your work?
My artwork can be seen in Sydney at Soho Galleries in Woollahra and Sydneyside Furniture in Alexandria.

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Light Interactions is at Ironbark gallery in Strathfield from October 20 to December 19, 2022.

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