The Spaces Between: Curating Helen Britton Interstices

Helen Britton with brooches, 2016 , Copyright and courtesy of the artist. Photo concept, Helen Britton; styling, Corrina Brix; photo, Dirk Eisel

As a teacher, it is fulfilling when your students succeed. Of course, you like to imagine you have played some small part in their success — no matter how delusional that may be — but mostly your pleasure is generated by the knowledge that it’s not easy to succeed in the arts. It takes extraordinary dedication, focus and commitment and a sense of unbridled optimism to overcome the barricades encountered at every turn. So, you rejoice in their perseverance, their enthusiasm, their single-mindedness, their pursuit of excellence, their belief in themselves and most importantly in their commitment to being an artist, because having something to say and developing the skills to say it eloquently is the quintessential hallmark of our humanity.

For all those reasons it has been thrilling to see Helen Britton succeed so spectacularly. In 2010 Helen asked me to contribute an essay to the second volume of an ongoing series of publications she initiated to document her practice. Compiled every seven years, this set of books chronicles her activities and provides a record of her achievements. My research for that essay made me realise how celebrated she is around the world, and how under-acknowledged she is back home.

I felt it was time Australia showed her the respect we offer artists from elsewhere, but which we seem to have difficulty affording to our homegrown talent. So, for an artist who has gained significant international success and critical approbation, nothing short of a full-scale survey exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, within the University of Western Australia, during the Perth International Arts Festival, would, I thought, provide appropriate local recognition.

And the University of Western Australia is a very appropriate venue to showcase Helen’s work because since its establishment it has provided a much-needed haven for artists and served as a hub of creative experimentation where ideas can be expressed openly, where conventions can be challenged, and new work presented. The campus is attuned to the low rumble of creative energy emanating from its local community and keenly promotes the edgy, gritty, subversive undercurrent of artistic inquiry. That long history continues through our programming at the Cultural Precinct, and since 2012 the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery has hosted HERE&NOW, an annual survey of local contemporary practice. Over its quarter century of operations, the gallery has also showcased the work of many locally based artists. Last year we held a major survey of the work of Miriam Stannage and in 2015 an exhibition of the work of Elise Blumann. In planning Helen’s show it was clear that a detailed analysis of her practice over the past 20 years would contribute to that significant cultural legacy.

Fortunately, in 2015 Janet Holmes à Court offered Helen the opportunity to be an artist-in-residence at Vasse Felix winery in Margaret River, which enabled our planning for the exhibition to begin in earnest. On her regular visits to Australia Helen has created a body of personal work, in the space between her professional practice and her engagement with the world around her. Shells and flotsam found on beaches along Western Australia’s coastline, together with bones from fish caught and eaten have all been accommodated into wondrous necklaces. Sharon Tassicker, the curator of Helen’s exhibition at Vasse Felix, included several of these fabulous objects in her show and one day in October 2015, over an excellent lunch and several glasses of chardonnay, the concept of interstices, of the spaces between, arose while discussing these works. It immediately began to resonate with so many other aspects of Helen’s practice and as we talked further that concept set a framework for shaping the exhibition. For example; the beach as space between the land and the sea; Helen working in the historically and culturally charged space between Australia and Germany; her interest in the small objects overlooked by those moving quickly between one place and the next; each individual work she makes acting as a machine for capturing the ideas uncovered in those spaces between, a synthesis of memory, history, meaning and revelation, all these and so many more.

Over the next 18 months, the format for the exhibition developed from that conversation, through visits to her studio in Munich, Skype exchanges, and emails. Concurrently, I approached Margaret Moore, then Visual Arts Program Manager of the Perth International Arts Festival and Helen applied to the Australia Council for a grant to realise the exhibition and publish the third in her seven-yearly series of publications to coincide with the show. The project was taking shape.

At that point, the extraordinary team at the LWAG took over. Kate Hamersley, Lee Kinsella and Anthony Kelly and his team ensured the works were shipped and received, prepared and installed. Caine Chennatt, John McCarten, and Clare McFarlane generated the digital support material, the invitations, catalogues, and banners and began to activate the publicity.

Helen Britton, Ghost train (installation view) 2014–2016, installation work including jewellery objects, model trains, wood, Styropor, 350 h x 450 w cm Copyright and courtesy of the artist. Photo: Ilkka Kadala

Then late in January 2017 Helen arrived with her colleague Takayoshi Terajima and began to build her Ghost Train within the gallery, apply the stencils, populate the archive and finalise the installation of her works in the two main galleries. John Muller and Dieter Hurrlein provided expert advice on managing the operations of the Märklin model train and colleagues from around the University made their invaluable contributions to the project.

Helen Britton, Ghost train (detail) 2014–2016, installation work including jewellery objects, model trains, wood, Styropor, 350 h x 450 w cm Copyright and courtesy of the artist. Photo: Ilkka Kadala

On the eve of opening the exhibition, we both had a moment of calm when it was possible to contemplate all that had transpired during its germination. From a comment about interstices to a full-scale survey of two decades of practice it took a year and a half of focused work by many people to realise. All those people contributed their expertise and labour with great largesse and enthusiasm. Filmmakers re-edited, copyright clearances were negotiated, articles were written, preparations for the opening event were finalised, and the exhibition in all its fascinating detail, spectacular lighting, and innovative installation was ready.

Exhibition opening. Photo by Ilkka Kadala.

When the huge opening night audience of over 700 people entered the gallery and poured into the exhibition it was a moment of revelation as each object was re-activated by their gaze and the scope of Helen’s ambition and achievement was made clear in the context of the gallery, and framed by the ideas that were its catalyst.

Ted Snell
February 2017