OUT OF THE SHADOWS (i), collaboration with michael baartz, 1993 gold coast city gallerY
The unexpected and disturbing discovery revealing further information about the death of her maternal grandparents in the Holocaust was for Bombach, a first generation Australian Jew, a catalyst for a new personal and creative enquiry. Simultaneously, a two-year quest to engage in a creative collaboration came to fruition when her friend and highly regarded artist Michael Baartz, of non-Jewish, German extraction, chose to embark on this project with her.
In this collaboration, underpinned by necessity, by mutual trust and respect, Baartz and Bombach worked simultaneously on three wall-sized central images and a series of sculptural pieces, which would become two installations. Independently they have responded to their shared subject matter, each producing a suite of six works on paper.
Working collaboratively, for them involved confronting conceptual and methodological questions, which generated a creative energy both exhilarating and exhausting.
They have attempted to move beyond the personal to confront notions of destruction/renewal, history/memory and of relationship to self and others.
Our daily news observes to remind us of the universal relevance of an event such as the Holocaust fifty years after its occurrence and the necessity to be ever vigilant in the face of intolerance, hatred and violence, to affirm hope and love in the name of life itself.
Out of the Shadows (i)-(iii), oil stick on paper on board, each 200 x 300cm ,& Pit of Hands with Spirit Figures
Ink and Gouache on Paper
LINE OF SHADOWS
OUT OF THE SHADOWS (ii) 1994, LISMORE REGIONAL GALLERY
This exhibition expands upon Out of the Shadows (1) collaboration with Michael Baartz. I was not done with the subject I was investigating. The past still haunted and the shadow life it had assumed needed to come to life.
‘The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’.’
Fleeing Nazi Europe, my parents arrived in Australia in 1938 grateful for the .refuge it offered, determined to build a new life. The subsequent death of my mother’s parents in the Holocaust was shrouded in silence and assumed a shadow life, which nonetheless pulsed tangibly within me, unaddressed, waiting.
Information received in 1991 from an aunt in USA pertaining to their deaths was a catalyst for a disturbing yet ultimately liberating personal and creative journey that I was now ready to embark upon.
The enormity of the subject touches on many recurring themes in my work and adds a plethora of new ones, which shift between personal and broader social, political and philosophical issues. These include notions about oppression, destruction, transformation as well as dislocation, translocation and identity. The images and ideas shift freely across time, place and culture.
The working process reflects the content, is often layered and involves a mix of printmaking and drawing as well as processes of inversion, effacement and partial obscuring of image and text. This is particularly evident in the series Journey Toward the Light (below). Here the first layer consists of partially obscured images of my mother and my maternal grandparents and text lifted from documents pertaining to their failed efforts to escape from Europe. On these, I have overlaid images and text reflecting my experiences and feelings as well as a visual record of places visited during a two-month journey through Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in 1994. As such, the works are not only a record of a geographic journey but also serve as a means of healing and a spiritual journey in which I seek to share life with my dead grandparents.
JOURNEY TOWARDS THE LIGHT
OTHER TRANSFORMATIONAL IMAGES
TRANSCRIPT-INTERVIEW WITH FILM MAKER-JENNI KENDALL, 1993
Q: Tell me a little about your background as an artist before this project?
BONNEY: Well I’ve been at it for about probably 17 or 18 years now and I relatively speaking started late because unlike most artists, I wasn’t one of those people who had always painted and drawn, in fact I thought of myself as someone who didn’t have any visual creative ability at all. So I came to it when I was approaching thirty through living my life vicariously through other people. I had lots of friends who were painters and writers and by the time I hit my late twenties people started nagging me that I should give it a go. So that was the background to it. And I did that while I was living in England during my first marriage and finally set off to enrol in an Adult Education Class in pottery whilst what I really wanted to do was sculpture. I was very interested in sculpture at the time and looking at a lot of it including Henry Moore, who of course was very big in the seventies in England. And we trotted up to enrol in the ceramics class because basically I was too afraid to take the plunge into something I knew was totally creative. But ‘God’ took over.
The class was full and rather than going home not having done anything, I decided to go for the sculpture. Actually, that started to change my life right there because it was a clay modelling class and we had live models and I found that I had great ease and an unexpected facility for it almost immediately which completely altered the way I thought about myself.
So that became a very impassioned hobby with a one-night pw class that went on a year and the following year the same teacher, who was a perfect teacher for me actually, a very gentle, middle-aged Hungarian man, who just gave a lot of support and encouragement. My work was figurative, but even within weeks of starting, it seemed to have my ‘thumb print’ on it. They were small works, but they had a big feeling about them. They were very sensual. He said to me after working with me for a year, that these figures would look wonderful in stone and had I considered the possibility of stone carving and I said no I hadn’t, but that sounded great and yes, I would do that with him. Then I spent a lot of my spare time at it. I was very passionate about it right from the very start. So that is the lead into it. I did that for two years and then we decided to return to Australia, and I made a commitment to myself that this was so thrilling and exciting that I would keep going. I was a social worker and a student counsellor, and I decided to look for part time work, instead of full-time work, and set aside the rest of the time in my life to pursue this creative thing.
And then the next amazing thing that happened was that while I was in England, the Colleges of Advanced Education were developed in Australia and I got a job setting up a counselling service at one of them in Melbourne. It was a three day a week job and it happened to havea wonderful art school that was considered the most Avant Garde in the era. As a staff member, I had access to the facilities and I worked three days as a counsellor and the other two days I came in and went down to the sculpture studios and continued chipping away at stone in that same mode, but of course the teachers who I knew as colleagues also started encouraging me to take it further. And so the following year I enrolled and then it was a series of pretty terrifying steps.
My whole vision of sculpture changed, and I started doing quite different sort of work – much more environmental really and that was really wonderful. Then each year I had to take on another area. So the second year I had to move into drawing and I had never ever drawn since unsuccessfully in the first few years of high school. That’s where I encountered my first major mentor who to this day remains a very close friend and a very special person in my life, an artist named David Tolley. And that was quite different, moving from a three-dimensional work to two-dimensional work was quite extraordinary because it was hugely difficult for me. What took me four evening sessions in sculpture classes to produce something satisfying, now took four months of equivalent time. That was a terrible struggle. But I was just compelled, I had to do it. And the environment was incredibly nourishing to me, but the work was terribly difficult. Then once I cracked it, there was again an amazing sense of revelation. And I didn’t know where it came from, it was as though it was something right outside of myself.
Q:Why do you think you were open to revelation at that particular time of your life?
BONNEY: I’ve never had to think about that before. In a way I suppose it was like something waiting in the wings. I grew up in a family that was very culturally orientated. So I always listened to classical music and was taken to concerts as a young child. My parents came from Vienna, very cultured, they always looked at art and I was taken to galleries. I read good books and so it was all there. Was that the catalyst? I don’t know. I’d been given all the wrong cues at school, and maybe now I feel I have something to say. Then I didn’t. I just had this desire to do. And I just found that with a lot of work, what I did seemed to be interesting to other people before it was interesting to me. My teachers all picked up that there was something, but I didn’t know what that was. It might have just been the weird dedication of a person with seemingly no talent who insisted on being there. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I know that the very first painting I did in the painting class -, Dale Hickey, who was my very first painting -teacher, loved it and asked for it and still has it in his house. So there was something there, but I didn’t see it. I didn’t know what it was.
Q: And so how did you discover that there was something there for yourself? Was it feedback, or people buying your work or what?
BONNEY: Well for a long time I didn’t believe the feedback. I thought people were just being exceptionally kind to me. I had a huge amount of love both from a few colleagues who were a lot younger than me because I was a mature-aged student, and from a lot of teachers. In fact, all the teachers. And that was very hard, because for a long time I didn’t see it. But then once the corner was turned – like that four months in life drawing class, then I could see there was something very idiosyncratic and odd in my work that interested me. But I had no sense of where that would lead me. I had no idea that I would ever call myself a painter or an artist or anything. Many, many years. And I had no idea that that would become my life. A major part of my life.
Q: And so how did it become a major part of your life?
BONNEY: As soon as I finished my time at art school, I weaned myself completely off doing counselling. The more I got into my creative life, the less I was able to go on doing counselling. Although I was very good at that and had felt called to do that from childhood, I started to understand that it seemed to be at odds with understanding and exploring myself. You spend all this time exploring and being there for other people, but not turning to yourself at all. And this was like the other side of the coin, I guess. So as soon as I finished art school, I stopped working in that other area. I got some jobs in adult education and community arts organisations teaching life drawing which. David Tolley’s teaching, had made me feel I really had things to offer in that area. And it was also the area I had worked in the longest through those three years. And then I started exhibiting straight away. Dale Hickey suggested that I really should approach some galleries and that struck me, I thought: ”Oh, this is serious that they would say this to me”, and so I went to the first gallery that he suggested which was a gallery in Melbourne called Pinacotheca, a very well regarded, Avant Garde kind of gallery still in existence. The Director, Bruce Pollard, came to my studio, (which has never happened to me since) and took one look at the work-small pieces, mostly works on paper. Content and theme- wise they were all over the place. But he took one look at it and said: ”I’d be very happy to show you, you’d have enough here already wouldn’t you?” One, two, three and he counted twenty works and said he’d give me the small room. So it went from there. And I was shown in the small space. It was a huge gallery, and in the big space was a showing of one of my teachers, Dom de Clario. So that’s how it went. And I continued approaching galleries and approaching people and in the meantime we moved up here to the farm and that set everything back in terms of city contacts and everything.
Q: What made you come up here?
BONNEY: Well I’d met Jon and had had a feeling about wanting to live in the country since I was a young woman and first went to Europe and spent some time living in a Greek village with other (artist) friends. And there I saw for the first time rural and village life and artists at work, but it was before the beginning of my creative journey and I was smart enough to realize that I wasn’t self-contained enough to lead that life. But I was very attracted to it. I was too dependent to other people, not self-contained enough. It was when I went into my creative life that I became self-contained for the first time. And although I still have a good connection with people and love people and am quite a sociable person, I absolutely need a lot of time on my own as well. So that was also a whole change in my being. And I think that feeling stayed with me. And then I met Jon and we were both in a midlife thing and we had both come independently to feel that what we wanted to do was to move to the country and change our lifestyles. He wanted to stop being an academic-he felt he’d gone as far as he could with that, and that is how it happened.
Q: Why Nimbin?
BONNEY: Well we did quite a lot of researching. We went up as far as Gympie and as far south as Tasmania, and a combination of what we liked the best and what was affordable, resulted in us being here and we have never looked back since.
Q: So how have you got on as an artist living so to speak in relative isolation?
BONNEY: Well I work in a very isolated way anyway. This collaboration is the first time I’ve changed this mode. But the distance from the city seemed to present a bit of a problem too – at first. Because, although I had my first exhibition in Melbourne, he wasn’t offering me an ongoing commitment once I said I was leaving Melbourne. So for maybe the first three years I was here I actually did very little of my own work, relatively speaking, because you know how it is- we were pioneers, the house was falling down around us and so when I started up again, I established a connection immediately with the Lismore Regional Gallery, which has become better now than it was then, and with the regional gallery in Murwillumbah. And I started putting work out in a number of small galleries in the broader area. I sold a moderate amount. My work isn’t easily saleable but I did sell some work. And then I went through the struggle of trying to establish myself back in city galleries and found a gallery in Melbourne which was great, Reconnaissance, but unfortunately, that gallery ran into terrible financial difficulties. There was 18 months between being accepted by the gallery and the actual exhibition. And in that intervening time, apparently things went wrong for the gallery which, in my isolation here, I didn’t hear about. I was just lucky because my show was the last one in that gallery’s history. I got great feedback and so on but I was left without a gallery, which meant I had to start all over again.
So I did and I tried Sydney galleries on and off and nothing really fell into place there. I made a couple of attempts in Brisbane where the galleries, especially back then, were small and difficult. There was nothing much in the offering that interested me. Eventually another in Melbourne gallery, MCA, took me on. In the meantime, I actually also, had a show in a gallery in Canberra, Agog, and so it went on and on like that.
Q: So you’ve never really thought you’ve stagnated here and become a bit out of sight out of mind. That hasn’t happened in fact.
BONNEY: No. I think it may have been different had I remained in Melbourne but I have quite a substantial regional reputation, but certainly not a national reputation. And reputation building is something I am really not good at, most artists aren’t. And unfortunately, that is part of the game if a high degree of recognition and success is what you are after. So I’ve sort of neglected that side a bit. But I’ve done the best I can without feeling I’m comprising myself or feeling I’m spending undue amounts of time on that. I’m now represented by a small, but good and well-regarded Melbourne gallery that has very good contacts. I’ve had pieces purchased by a number of public collections – regional galleries and shire councils’ collections, some of them good galleries with good collections like Stanthorpe Regional Gallery. And most of them were selected by judges which included some very well-regarded people, become a friend of mine, a such as Brisbane artist, Pat Hoffie who then become a friend of mine, and Doug Hall, Director of the Queensland Art Gallery. So that’s another way that you start to get known. And with the show I had in Melbourne, I had two works purchased for Artbank, a Federal Government body. So it’s just a series of little steps I suppose, but even if I lived in Melbourne I’m not the sort of person who’d be running around socializing at exhibition openings, ‘being seen’ with the right sort of people, which is also part of the game, but I’m not interested in that.
Q: And so how would you describe your style of painting?
BONNEY: It has always been really difficult for me because it doesn’t fit neatly into any category…
Q: Just for you…
BONNEY: It’s largely figurative, semi-abstracted, it’s got a very expressionistic edge to it. That’s really a way of saying it’s got figurative elements but goes beyond that and it’s got a raw kind of unpretty edge to it. It’s come very much from a heart place in the past and now I think as I’m moving towards what you’d call mid-career and obviously a greater maturity, I mean I’m nearly fifty now, so I think now, especially in the past few years and especially in this collaboration, it’s got a strong balance of intellect and feeling going through it. And that’s really gratifying and feels like a big step.
Q: So now moving to your latest work. How did you come to be involved with a subject like this? It’s very removed from Nimbin, in a way – it’s removed from where you are living and the sort of people who are your friends. There wouldn’t have been a lot of help from like-minded people to share this with. Can you tell me how did you come up with this idea and desire to do this work?
BONNEY: I’d like to preface this by just commenting on something you just said. I’ve always worked in isolation, and because of the nature of my work, it’s only some people who relate to it. So that, really wasn’t any different. I did spend a few years when I first came up here homing in on my version of my response to this landscape because I never had considered myself a landscape artist before that, although there were always some landscapes through my mixed repertoire. But the first really consistent body of work I did was about landscape and that was only three years ago. But this work has come out of my family history. As you know, my darling mother sitting here with us, lost both her parents in the Holocaust. And so that’s been a cloud over the family and also a subject not really dealt with in the family. It’s interesting that my Mum is choosing to sit here with us now, isn’t it? But anyway, it was sort of a taboo subject and children are very sensitive as you know to taboo subjects and so it was something that we really didn’t talk about.
Q:Did you always know about this in your family?
BONNEY: Oh yes. It wasn’t that mum wasn’t able to say this is what happened, but she didn’t want to dwell upon it. And I don’t know how much she thinks about it or doesn’t think about it. It was not talked about. Her parents were talked about in the normal way that any person talks about their deceased parents and brings them to life, yes, that came up in the normal course of events. But not anything about their history, or even anything about my parents first coming to Australia, or anything like that except in very externalized terms somehow.
Q: When did they come here?
BONNEY: They came here in 1938, just before the war and just in time. But both her parents and other relatives, didn’t make it. The rest of the surviving family, some cousins and my mother’s only other sibling, a brother, went to America. So my mother and father were the only branch of either side of the family who came here. And I was born here just after the war.
Q: So it was all quite distant to you in a way?
BONNEY: Well it was, and it wasn’t. It was genetically embedded in me I believe; I don’t think it was distant at all, no. But it wasn’t foremost and upfront. In a way in not being able to acknowledge that, I think fed into a ”denial of my Jewishness”. That’s too strong a phrase, I never disowned my Jewishness, I never was shy to. say I was Jewish, except when I was very young. If I was ever confronted by anything remotely anti-Semitic, which hardly ever happened in my life, but for instance when I was in my late teens there was an incident and I didn’t acknowledge my Jewishness because I just went into terror. But other than that, all my friends knew I was Jewish and so on, so it wasn’t a denial, but a certain lack of identification with it and discomfort. I didn’t grow up with any kind of Jewish education or join any Jewish youth groups and that became an issue between my parents who had differing views on it. But the wife of my mother’s now dead brother, my aunt in America, continued, after his death, to investigate the death of mum’s and her brother’s parents. They had been apparently been trying for years through various organisations, some of them in Israel, some in Vienna, because it took a very long time after the war to collate all that information. And when she finally received a bunch of information about it, she sent it to our family, addressed to my father, so that mum could have a choice whether to learn more about this horribly painful subject or not. She chose not to read the material. My father took the line, as he always had, that it is best not to stir things up and mum went along with that and that’s how it was.
However, when my father told me about it, suddenly I wanted to know. Now that’s to do with mid-life. Because what I haven’t said is that in my earlier life, I took on my mother’s fears or disturbance, I’m not sure what is the right word. For instance, I could never look at or read any books that had anything to do with the Holocaust, Nazis. I couldn’t go to any films that portrayed Nazis except for the Anne Frank film which my mother and I saw together.
MOTHER: I still don’t. I just can’t face it. Anything, film or television, anything that’s got anything to do with Nazis, I can’t face it. It brings too many bitter memories. I’ll die with this feeling that my parents have been sort of made soap out of. They made soap out of my parents in the concentrations camp. I just can’t relieve myself of these feelings and I don’t want to. It is buried so deeply in my soul; I don’t want to dig it out. It’s too difficult to bear.
BONNEY: But the funny thing is that she is sitting here now, and I’ve been involved in this work now for 18 months and I see my parents four times a year and we always talk about it and she has been in the studio and she has seen the works, so it’s sort of one step removed and safe.
MOTHER: Yes, I don’t quite identify it with my family. This is outside. I just couldn’t identify these pictures with my parents. I just couldn’t.
Q: So how did this subject matter take on the form of a painting you wanted to do?
BONNEY: What the aunt presented me with was a number of different things, information, old documents, some letters and a variety of things. Via my father, some of it. So I had something physical and tangible in my hand that I could hang on to. And what it did, was not to bring up new feeling that I hadn’t encountered before, but more intensely, but I was now ready, able and capable of looking at it and dealing with the issue. It was time. And so that felt very good. So, simultaneously with this, and everything it stirred up, but also separately, I had two other streams of interest going with reference to my work. One of them was that I had a desire to go back to sculpture which I hadn’t been involved with for seventeen years. And the other was a feeling that I wanted to explore the idea of working in collaboration with another artist. I have known a couple of people who have done it, it’s not so common, and I was very attracted to that idea. And that’s difficult because that involves just exactly the right person being there. And there were actually only two people who were ever under consideration at that stage. One was a young German sculptress that I met through my work with the Australian Flying Arts School, but she went back to Germany and that didn’t eventuate. And the other was with Michael Baartz who I’ve known for a couple of years or so and we related very strongly to each other’s work. We seemed to really like each other. So somewhere along the line, after this was going on in my mind, I put the idea about collaboration to him, and he was very responsive to it. It took us a few months before we set the date and had our first meeting. At that meeting neither of us came with any specific ideas about what we could do-it was an open brain storming session, but in fact, I came with my head full of all this personal investigation, which I shared with him, and the idea about sculpture and I took him out to Jon’s wood pile which I’d been to in anticipation of his visit. I’d been struck with all the resources in the environment at hand, just out in the paddocks, that I could use but hadn’t. So I took him out to the wood pile and pulled up a big section of tree trunk and told him that when I looked at it, I ‘saw’ a group of constrained, oppressed, thin figures (because it was about seven foot tall, very old and deeply striated). And we laughed about it and talked about it.
Michael had an accident, a fall, sometime about six months or a year before this and nearly died. It was very serious. His wife thought it was his end. He came out of it having gone through a ‘death’ experience. And for the next few months that subject matter just took over his life and his painting. So really the work isn’t just about the Holocaust, that’s just the jumping off point. But doing something that is so confronting obviously requires a particular sort of person who is not going to be daunted, or frightened by it, and that’s why I think it worked with Michael and me. Aside from our great respect for one and liking of one another, there was an affinity in our mode of work and the emotional and psychological framework was right for it. And also, as an ex-catholic who almost became a priest, he has strong moral views, so many levels of affinity. We decided to take it on.
That funny piece of wood I described to you, turned into those wooden figures.
Q: So what was the end result of your brain storm with Michael. What was it you envisaged you were taking on?
BONNEY: I actually started my work on this theme before Michael and I began. I made four works. One of them was a triptych on paper, not very big, that was actually a beautiful work that sold immediately. It came from a very deep, unconscious place and the three parts of the triptych had a kind of metaphor running through it.
What started as a ‘pit’ in the ground in the first image, by the second image had a suggestion of a boat with a mast. There were horrible industrial-concentration-camp-type buildings in the background and there were heads floating through it and by the third image it had transformed into a boat. It was still the same shape, but the buildings now joined to the mast and became sails. And this was without any conscious intent. So it was a really clear message about separation, pain, death and transcendence. Then, in my next body of work I made another image on raw canvas. This dealt with part of what I’ve just described to you. So I’d done those few things.
There were several brain storms which Michael, I think we had three or four meetings before we started working and the mode we decided to work in, was that we would meet once a week in my studio, his studio was too small. And after two or three talking discussions, we then met and had no idea where we were really going to start. He he pulled out a roll of metre- wide paper and put it horizontally along my studio wall and we also did a verbal brainstorm writing down words and such. I pinned the triptych I described to you on the wall and we started to talk about that too. And then we started playing around with some of the images and I remember those. There was the pit in the ground, that was a really strong image to me. That came out of information that I had been given via my aunt, so that was one thing I drew. And clawing hands, reaching up also found its way into the finished work. Michael drew, hands were connecting to one another, some became mere dotted lines. It was a pretty crappy thing but just a visual brainstorm. But all the central concepts were there. The next week we used the same paper, but we inverted it and this time we put it vertically. Covered a whole wall with vertical strips of it and just started playing around and in fact that was the beginning of the first of three panels. The first panel was about oppression, with an oppressive, red, constrictive wedge getting smaller and tighter running all the way through it and all the figures. The second one is about death and destruction with the fascist, Nazi figure and the poor bodies falling into the ground. And then one figure that arises from it, which is pale blue, the colour of the spirit. And the third panel is about transcendence, transformation, in which the figures seem to be floating heavenward, even though I/we don’t have a fixed religious ideas or beliefs. I have a strong spirituality, but it isn’t about that, but funnily enough, there were ‘angelic’ references. towards particularly a couple of the figures in the work.
And we just went on like that. We started with the image of the oppression and we kept that up for week after week after week until it was almost finished, working simultaneously on it. In between our sessions I did more work on it, partly because it was in my studio, partly because Michael was encouraging me to, and partly because I wasn’t doing any of my own independent work at that stage. Michael was in mid-stream with his independent work when we started this work and never stopped it.
We then went onto the second panel and worked out the basic structure to it, worked that through to near completion and so on till we’d done the three. In between that, lots of other things happened, I started the wooden figures. I was the one that was much more interested in sculpture than Michael. I did a little bit and then left them for a long time. Then I suggested that Michael should do at least a couple of them.
What happened when we worked together was that for both of us, our respective styles shifted a bit. from what we normally do. And in a way, I think it is very powerful, but perhaps not perhaps as powerful as what we do independently.
In the meantime we had some very expansive times. For instance, at Michael’s suggestion we were talking about dance, and before we knew it, we were talking about a performance piece and had chosen three dancers to do it with us and we spent quite a lot of time choreographing that and playing with a lot of ideas. I spent a lot of time collating appropriate music for it and that was another diversion but most interesting. But in the end, we dropped the whole thing for a variety of reasons, which I think was appropriate, because I think it was taking off much more than we could manage at that stage. I mean, we had already had collaboration and sculpture which were completely new to us, painting – well although we used oil paint stick, Michael was not very used to that as he is basically a drawer and a printmaker. So he had that to contend with. So we did the figurative elements and then we made the other sculpture, the pit with the hands and that was done collectively. He continued on with his independent work which, of course, immediately started reflecting our theme. So his work became more pertinent to what we were doing, even more so that before. And I struggled trying to get on with my own independent work, which was difficult for me. It took me quite a long time. But once I started it went well and it was obviously a hiatus that I needed. And what you saw in the collaborative show, included six of Michael’s independent works hung as a Suite of six, almost as though they were one work, and the same thing with mine. Now we have both done a lot more, but we didn’t include them. Although our collaboration has officially finished, we are both still working on in the same stream.
Q: What would you like to see happen with the work now?
BONNEY: The existing work? It went to the Gold Coast Regional Gallery and should have already been at the Lismore Regional Gallery. So it will be shown there and in the meantime, we are going to see if we can get one of two further venues and the ideas we are playing around with is that rather than art galleries, we are thinking of approaching sources like the Jewish Museum, or the Holocaust Museum.
I haven’t started investigating that yet. I don’t know if they have shows like this. And Michael is going to investigate showing it in a cathedral. There is a cathedral in Brisbane that used to house relevant works of art.
But I do have to say that while the Holocaust and my personal family history was the catalyst for the whole thing, the work isn’t just about that, it is about mans’ relationship to himself and others and it is aimed to be as universal as possible. And all we have to do is open today’s newspaper and we are reminded of not just neo-fascist activities but also events that have happened in Cambodia and with the Kurds and so on and so it is a very pertinent theme. I was pleased to hear that people seem to take it that way. One of my artist colleagues that I haven’t seen for a number of years and who hasn’t seen my work in all that time, said that when he received the invitation he was quite expecting that it might be restricted in its comment and he was delighted to see that it wasn’t. So I felt that made a good point to me really.
Q: And in terms of your own family events that started it all, do you feel you’ve worked things through by completing this work?
BONNEY: Yes. I’ve worked lots of things through, but they were different than I expected. I didn’t know what I thought it might be, but for instance, some people have said to me that this doesn’t change the past, it doesn’t make anyone come alive and it doesn’t make the potential for feeling pain about it any less, not that that has been centrally troubling in my life, it has been there, and maybe I’ll be just as capable as crying as before, but maybe not quite.
Maybe not quite. The biggest thing for me is that it has made me own that, so that I can sit here and talk with you about it, even in front of my mother, which I would never had been able to do even eighteen months ago, or to anyone else. If eighteen months ago you’d have asked me about it, I would have been umming and ahhing and spluttering about it, I would have got it out and it’s not that I would have cried, I don’t have any issue about crying or not, that’s not an issue to me, it’s just that I would have found it terribly awkward because of Mum’s taboo. Because I guess I felt that if it is so taboo that she can’t talk about it to me, then how can I talk about it to anyone else. Who wants to know about horror? But of course, we have to face horror as much as we have to face beauty and joy. It is part of the nature of Life. So it has resettled in a much more philosophical and balanced way. That’s about the best way of describing it and that’s really good for me and it’s been an important thing for me to do personally, in my life.
Q: So you’ve been able to give it expression.
BONNEY: Yes absolutely. absolutely.
Q: And for Michael?
BONNEY: I can’t talk about how he would feel because it wasn’t a personal problem for him. Clearly, he’s a man like everyone I would know and love, who had the same feelings or horror and disbelief. How do such things happen in the context of humanity? That’s not at stake. The collaboration was very significant for him, although probably a bit less enjoyable than for me; he certainly got a lot out of that and I let him talk to that. His wife told me that there is nobody else he knows on this earth that would have actually considered collaborating with as he’s a very private man. So I think just having that intimacy, and it did require a deep degree of intimacy, not because we had to cry together or anything, in fact we never did, I always do that stuff on my own, but because it involved certain philosophical and ideological issues about what this character represented, or whatever came up that we had to tackle that was sometimes quite awkward. Here we were standing in front of a two metre by three metre canvas if you like. At first, we pussy footed around and were terribly terribly polite because how do you obliterate the mark of another artist whose work you love?
So over the weeks and months, we gave each other permission that we were in fact able to do anything we wanted to it. We still used to talk about it before we did it, but we did do it and I do remember that there was one interesting point about half way through where I came into the studio one morning and had this incredible revelation about what was in front of me, because I thought it was just a load of shit. Now that has happened with my own work in the past, but to feel that about some of the figures Michael did, was really hard for me to deal with, and having felt it, what did I do with it. And so in fact I did change things and then I had to confess to him that this is how I felt. And so that took a lot of doing for me because I’m very gentle in that way. But of course, he had no problem with it actually. So there was all that level of stuff to deal with that was confronting and interesting. And I got to know him a lot better and really discovered what a really marvellous man he is and how really – open he is. He is different to me; in some ways he is more like Jon than I am. He is very open about the real issues, but he is not as comfortable about warmth or affection as I am. He is much more reserved in his nature than I am. So, doing something as intimate as working like that and being together in the space and having to dredge up all that – that level of intimacy, would lead me to think that this was someone I would kiss and cuddle and hug and all that stuff. Even having to face his reluctance, seeing him walk in each week with a kind of a sense of the effort that was involved just getting himself here. I had to make sure I didn’t buy into that and it was a very good exercise in intimacy and autonomy.
Q: Sounds like you used some of your old work skills there too.
BONNEY: Actually, it’s not just in my past life, all that is just as much in me as my painting, it’s just that I don’t want to spend my life’s energy on it. It is an enormously useful tool in every aspect of my life. It doesn’t feel like a tool it just feels like me.
Q: Do you feel like you have really been able to lay your grandparents to rest with this work?
BONNEY: Oh yes, I do feel that. And because of my access to the letters that were written before their death, which I didn’t see till fairly recently, that was quite wonderful. Very, very sad on one hand, but marvellous on another.
They were written by my grandmother, not my grandfather and that really brought her to life for me for the first time. And that was wonderful. And one of the things I learnt about that, was she was just like my mum. And in regard to that I don’t think I am finished with the work, but I’m finished with that phase of it. And I think what’s happening now is that that work has given me the background for where I want to go now. Even in the work as it stands, the smaller works on paper I did were drawing on sources that already went beyond the Jewish Holocaust because there was an image from Hiroshima that really struck me as a wonderful Holocaustic symbol, that started to appear in that work.
What I’m going to do now is more located in this time frame. I’m pulling up some images that incorporate my mum, who by chance was in the studio talking to me some six months ago with one of these big paintings behind her and I took some photos because I’m always trying to catch her unaware with the camera. And really, I didn’t take much notice of the poignancy of what it was she was sitting in front of.
And when I saw the photos and showed Michael, or someone else, we said ”wow”. So I’ve actually used some of that image.
I did a lot of research during this project and started a file which incorporated newspaper cuttings and articles and in amongst them were some marvellous images. And they also included articles and images on the rise of racism and neo fascist marches in Germany. So some of those quite overt political ideas and images are starting to come into the work. I never would have guessed, even five years ago that, I would be doing work that was political. I don’t think of myself as a political animal at all, and I’ve had to come to it in my own odd way. But I now see that it is socio-political, and I see that since hitting fortyish, mid-life, I started to realize that I did want to speak about things that were much broader than my personal experience or my idiosyncratic visual response to the world. That actually I had a lot more going for me than that, but I didn’t know it would become overtly political in this particular way. I do feel it is like a blessing. Anything to do with this has been like a blessing in my grandparents’ memory. And that’s all I can do. I can’t bring them back. I can’t give myself the grandparents I never had or bring back the parents that my mother should never have lost that way. But it’s honouring them certainly.
Q: Do you think that this work and your intended works are confronting to audiences?
BONNEY: I think so. Thankfully my friends are honest enough to be able to say things like “I love the show…Oh no, I can’t use the word love” they have to correct themselves. In fact, Lucia told me the other day that she found it so confronting that she had to keep going out of the room to cry. I don’t know, people will have different responses to it, but everyone does feel it is impactful. But as an artist, I have to say, that it is never good enough. You can only do the best you are capable of at the given time and I think that in another few years I’ll be able to do better. I mean had I really wanted to convey the horror of it, those works would have had to be very different, and I think my six smaller works are actually less powerful because of their size, they are small, but the content of the imagery, to me, is coming from a deeper place. So I’m quite curious to see where all that will lead me and I suppose it is confronting. But you never know, every viewer sees it differently you see and that’s something I love about putting work out to be seen because the comments I hear back from people are quite extraordinary. And they don’t have to be art-educated people at all. And things that I had intended may not be seen or understood by all, some of them are put in intentionally in an ambiguous way, and some things that people read into the work are things that I never intended. And very often ring true immediately. For instance, the most interesting example of this is in my small works. Do you remember those dynamic broken, black, broad brush marks? Well that for me was an abstraction of a set of steps upon which someone was sitting in Hiroshima, at the time the atom bomb went off, and they left the famous shadowy image of a person sitting on steps. And yet, lots of people looked at those images and thought it the was a broken-up swastika. Well it does look like that, but it wasn’t my intention, even though there are actual representations swastikas hidden in a number of places. So it is really appropriate. And someone else saw it as barbed wire. And they are all absolutely pertinent interpretations. So I think the viewer brings a lot to the work too.
I feel very passionately about it and I would really like this work to be seen by a lot more people. And I’ve never really been brave enough to say that before. Because that gets tied up with how you get exposure and all that sort of thing. It is not really about ambition; it’s about wanting it to be seen. Although the cathedral idea, or Jewish museum idea appeals, I would also like it to be in a neutral environment where everyone can see it. I’d love to see a work like ours in an appropriate group exhibition. I do feel very strongly about it.