Transcript of Joan Ross – Pushing the limits


JOAN ROSS: My name's Joan Ross. I'm an artist who works in every medium you can possibly find.


From an early age I was always questioning things. I knew not to follow things mindlessly. It wasn't really encouraged by anyone, but it was supported because actually I did have a different way of thinking about things. So this continued on into art school where I questioned why work on canvas? What is art? What is painting? What is drawing? And just always tried to push the limits on materials. And conceptually what are all these things? And I didn't stick with anyone's ideas about it. I really looked myself to see what the answers were.


My video works are completely layered. There are so many things going on all at once, and I think if we look at "Colonial Grab," we see we've got a woman playing a poker machine. We understand gambling as a metaphor. We understand chance, but what really strikes me in that work more than anything in terms of the layers and the symbolism is where the colonial woman makes ikebana, which is Japanese flower arranging, out of the Glover's trees which still have the Aboriginal people in them from the original paintings. And she does this in an act of total disregard for indigenous history and culture. And again it's pretty much a metaphor for the greed and ignorance and insensitivity of the colonials.

Look, I think a lot of those early colonial works are very beautiful. I have a love-hate relationship. I actually find them both wonderful and disgusting at the same time.


Landscape is actually a way to engage with a wider audience, and so with the works that I've made, particularly the video works, I've really wanted to engage not just with the art world but with the general public who love landscapes. All of these early colonial works have a type of invested meaning, and I feel that very strongly. And I want to use the traces of that because I have a very strong message that I want to get across. And I want to do it in the lightest way possible.


I initially didn't like the idea of trying to make art work in virtual reality, but I think it's incredibly important to use new technologies to stay relevant for a start. But also to experiment and experience it. So I did a week workshop with a professional VR person, and when we finished and people came around to look, I noticed that they were just obsessed with how big the flowers were growing. They weren't interested in the concept, they had a real me, me, me attitude. And actually, I didn't enjoy it. I thought, this isn't a place for art.

And, if we fast forward, I was in the middle of an interview about this. We were discussing it, and someone asked a question. It was just like a light bulb went off. And I said to my friend, when is this ACMI commission due, and he said, tonight at midnight. I said, I've got a great idea. Do you think we can do it? And he said, let's try. Anyway, so we actually did do it, and we received the ACMI Mordant commission to make a really big VR work.

So my idea was, if we look at people's me, me, me attitude, we can help them, we can show them how that attitude actually destroys the world. So within that work, you embody the colonial woman, and you can do all sorts of things. And almost everything you do, as you grab and grab for more things and try more things out, you actually destroy that the whole environment that you're in. And really very much a description of what's happening in the world right now.

I think it's really important not to be scared by new technologies and not to think you can't do it. So if you came up with a really good idea, you might be able to facilitate someone helping you to do it. You don't need to think all the time that you need to do it fully yourself. There is not any hope that I could have made a virtual reality work without an incredibly great technician. We often are asking other people to help us with what we're making. It all doesn't have to be your own hands on.

Which also brings me to one of the things that I find really interesting is that the ability to draw realistically is no determination of a creative person. If you are a film maker, for example, there is no way you need to draw anything other than stick figures. And, if it was up to me, this would be changed in kindergarten at schools, and people would start to learn that creativity is about imagination and about expanding your mind and the way you think. It's not to do with being able to draw a vase.


So in my most recent video, I give you a mountain. Really, initially comes from the work that I won the Sulman Prize with, which was looking into a museum. And that work was called, "oh history, you lied to me." And it talks about the retelling of history from a certain point of view, not often being the actual truth. And that again, we must question what actually happened.

I used Sarah Stone's image of the Leverian Museum to start this work. So when we come into this work, we're at a flooded museum, so there's water. We see a bird fly into the next room, so we start to follow this bird. And as the bird goes in, for example, it loses its head. So in this next room, there's a lot of headless birds, and the headless birds talk about our future in terms of the environment. If we're not careful, we are actually going to lose complete species, and we already have.

But on the other side of this room is colonials with their heads in jars. And again, a lot of these things don't need to be described, so you need to actually watch it. And you start to feel the vibe of it. I have Watkin Tench. He made diaries in 1788. And I've had a voiceover man use his words to tell part of a story about how their attitude to birds in those days--

PRESENTER: --call of a roman sea eagle. This rare recording could be gone in a heartbeat, so call 1-800 birdsong to get your copy before it disappears.

JOAN ROSS: This moves all the way through a whole lot of different rooms. There's another image that I've appropriated which has an Aboriginal man mowing the lawn while a colonial couple hold balloons. And again, it's just wrong, and anyway, you move through there. And then you see a colonial man try to hand another man a mountain, and as he does, it crumbles. Because people don't own land, believe it or not. And so eventually, actually all the mountains crumble, and these men crumble as well. And all that's left is their heads on the ground. It's a very, very layered video.


When I'm working, I allow my subconscious to be really involved, and actually that's where a lot of my ideas come from as well. It's during times of not thinking and observing, so I spend a lot of time observing the natural world and watching people. And I never go into ideas with I must come up with a new idea. I just see it as a progression, so there's always something in play in the background just looking for what might happen next.



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