This artist asks questions by using burnt flags and restitched work wear. Anne-Marie Jean reports.
Showing at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery to June, I hope you get this: Raquel Ormella, is the first touring exhibition for this nationally prominent artist.
Sometimes poetic imagining also creates potential and energy for actual social change.
Dr Ormella teaches undergraduate painting at the ANU School of Art and Design and is the Honours Convener.
Her work gives the viewer insight into the possibilities of academic research through the visual arts and ranges across a wide variety of media, including video, painting, installation, drawing, textiles and zine production. With experimental use of textiles and edgy manipulation of the written word, her artworks have won her sustained critical attention.
Ormella’s artwork can create a feeling of warm intimacy as you connect with the details of her hand-stitched phrases, and self-questioning or deeper anxiety as you consider its content. Conveying her messages through the likes of perforated flags, restitched work wear, projected film and, beyond the gallery, through the recent medium of Instagram, she intertwines the communal, the activist, the political and the environmental.
Her multimedia, multitextual works encourage us to ask questions about issues such as colonial history, contemporary politics, immigration and patriotism, and the choices we make as a society and as individuals.
The questions she poses are tough ones, but when we read them in the silken embroidery strands of a tapestry no bigger than our hands or on a banner made of wool and felt, they soften just enough to invite our speculation without berating us.
In fact, Ormella’s linguistic and visual mastery lies in this interweaving of materials that we feel familiar with and want to touch, and a request for social awareness. We can engage with the works visually, sensorially, nostalgically, intellectually, with a wry sense of humour, and even morally, should we be willing.
In describing the development of works such as Poetic Possibility #1 2012, Omella says: “For 10 years I have been working with the form of fabric banners and flags, which borrow their aesthetics from sporting, fan and protest banners. These works often commented directly on political events and situations. Poetic Possibility marks a shift away from this work towards a more open-ended speculation on what kind of discussion or comment art can offer to social situations. Sometimes poetic imagining also creates potential and energy for actual social change.”
Kyla McFarlene’s exhibition catalogue essay looks at the societal relevance of Ormella’s work on a national level: “The conceptual and physical ramifications of the artist’s process of simultaneous making and unmaking … recognising where we – as a nation, as individuals – might be unravelling, positions us on shaky ground. Ormella’s attention to the frayed edges of our national psyche, its places of shame, ambiguity and failure, suggests that this is exactly where we should be standing. And from here, we might make new and abiding futures.”
Reminiscent of protest rally statements held aloft by passionate advocates, the giant double-sided felt and wool banners in the exhibition display a gossipy irony.
I’m worried this will become a slogan (Paul Kelleher) presents in thick yellow uppercase the text:
PAUL KELLERHAR LOPPED THE HEAD OFF THE MARGARET THATCHER STATUE BECAUSE HE DIDN’T WANT IT TO ENTER THE HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT WITHOUT THE MARK OF THE PEOPLE
And in light blue on the other side the self-conscious:
I’M WORRIED I’M NOT RADICAL ENOUGH
There is no clarity as to whether Ormella’s statement is about her own inner critic or if she is prompting viewers to self-assess. The soft tactility of the quilted words carry echoes of the comfort of winter evenings and personal aspiration. The statement in itself is self-conscious but the altruism behind the act of making is that it takes courage to ask questions of ourselves, even more than to ask questions of others. And perhaps that if we can’t ask the questions without judgment, we cannot change. Somehow, the chance to read and ask questions in a clumsily written, comforting, quilted, ad hoc upper case gives a viewer the agency to engage.
Ormella’s series of reconfigured Australian flags carry messages of hope and rebellion. Altering the symbology of the flag by removing all but its structural edges, the fabric spells out pithy slogans such as NEW CONSTELLATION and RETURN TO THE BEGINNING. The larger flag in the work Return to the Beginning 2013 sees an emptied-out frame with a constellation of tumbling nylon stars clinging to its bottom border.
Kyla McFarlene writes: “Traditional emptying out of symbolic space offers up an existential blank slate.”
She responds to the flags with questions such as: “What if we dismantled the existing constructs and imagined a nation built by means other than these?
What if we abandoned the idea of nation altogether? Whose dreams might be realised in this imaginative, utopic space of possibility?”
Through reconfiguring the flag and emptying out its rectangular frame, Ormella asks questions about nationhood. In parallel to this is the critique she is engaged in with Western painting itself, and a rewriting of its possibilities. In abandoning materials of paint and the structure of canvas, sometimes even degrading the rectangular frame itself, Ormella addresses what it is to paint. Using materials and skills such as embroidery, traditionally relegated to the realm of women and domestics, she calls out the traditional masculine domination of fields of painting and fine art.
The exhibition I hope you get this ventures an ironic comment on the fragility and slippery un-decidability of language and communication. The message and the medium, the intention and reception of a work can be not just at odds, but in a state of utter contradiction.Ormella’s work cannily accepts these uncomfortable uncertainties of communication with the proviso that an intelligent and well-intentioned viewer will almost certainly meet her work halfway. It is a seriously demanding and seriously fun exhibition.
For information on public programs during the exhibition, including activist-style community workshops you can participate in, see dhg.anu.edu.au
ANU Drill Hall Gallery to 9 June 2019. I hope you get this: Raquel Ormella, is a NETS Victoria and Shepparton Art Museum touring exhibition.