Australian War Memorial curator Dr Anthea Gunn and visual artist Angela Tiatia, 30 October 2017
SUZANNE BRAVERY: I thought we’d start a minute early, as you’ve been such fantastic time-people. Give us another minute for questions afterwards. I’m introducing the final session. Dr Anthea Gunn has been Curator of Art at the Australian War Memorial since 2014, and previously worked here as a social history curator for five years. Anthea has worked on numerous exhibitions and written for publications including the Journal of Australian Studies, the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, Museum and Eyeline magazines. She’s also managed numerous contemporary commissions for the Memorial.
Angela Tiatia – I hope I’ve pronounced that correctly – is a visual artist who lives and works in Sydney. She explores contemporary culture, drawing attention to its relationship to representation, gender, neo-colonialism and the commodification of the body and place, often through the lenses of history and pop culture. Angela has exhibited internationally and her works are held by institutions including the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Museum. Angela was joint artist-in-residence at the Australian War Memorial and the National Museum of Singapore in 2017. Anthea and Angela are coming to present ‘After the fall: commissioning and creating contemporary art in response to historic events’. Please welcome them.
ANTHEA GUNN: Thank you so much for having me. I’m going to speak for about 15 minutes about the context for this commission and why we decided to commission to contemporary art in response to these events. And then I’ll hand over to Angela who is going to give us a very special treat, which is the first preview in Australia of her work, The Fall, that she created in response to collections both in Singapore and at the Australian War Memorial. The Memorial has a long history of commissioning contemporary art as part of its historic collections, but this is the first project that we did that’s actually a joint international residency. So working with the National Museum of Singapore, and I’d really like to acknowledge Kathleen Ditzig, the curator of the National Museum who we were working with on this, whose expertise was greatly appreciated by our team. The National Museum selected a Singaporean artist, Debbie Ding. The Memorial selected Australian artist Angela Tiatia.
And each artist spent a month in the other country, with – overlapping that period of time, with the commission to create a work in response to the legacy of the Second World War in the Asian Pacific, so not at all a broad brief. So this project was also supported by the Singaporean government’s Department of Culture, Community and Youth, and the Australian government’s Anzac Centenary Culture Fund. So we’d like to also just like to acknowledge their support, which without whom this project wouldn’t have been possible. So as you can see from this slide here, which of course is the Memorial Second World War Galleries, you get a sense of the collections there, very much a historic display focusing there on the Singapore Surrender table. Mixed collections, cross photographs, objects, film sound, artworks – but amongst that has always featured, starting with the official War Arts Scheme in the First World War. From late 1916, artists were sent into the field to witness first hand conflict, create works in the field, but then also create large commissions after the fact.
Very consciously creating records of what was seen as Australia’s history, notably here, Gallipoli, which at the time was being referred to as the birth of the nation. Charles Bean referred to this picture as the national picture, which gives a sense of how these commissions were understood within this memorial and the significance of the Memorial in telling Australia’s history. The official War Arts Scheme was continued in the Second World War, so I’m going to look a little bit at these, some of the works by Murray Griffin in particular, to give a sense of the representation of Singapore that currently exists in the collection. This portrait of Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, created in Changi by Murray Griffin currently on display in the Witness to War exhibition in Singapore, so just dash across if you want to see it. It’ll be back after that though. So Griffin was sent to Singapore, attached to the 8th Division and tasked with recording and interpreting their activities during the war. Of course, thinking he’d be there for about six months, he found himself there for three-and-a-half years, quite a remarkable period of service.
We have about 200 of his works in the National Collection. While in Changi, he set about fulfilling the original part of his commission which was to document the warfare, and so after that battle had been lost, he was painting leading up to that defeat, which I think must have been a really interesting space to be in, creating those artworks. And then while in Changi, he dedicated himself to recording that experience, and so works like this, Spinning Thread from Hemp Twine, were partly intended to accompany written pieces that other prisoners were writing for intended publication called The Changi Book, recently published by the Memorial in 2015. Unfortunately all these documents and hand-written pieces from the soldiers and the prisoners went into an archive awaiting publication. The immediate aftermath of the Second World War, with paper shortages and all the difficulties of backlogged publications from the War, lost momentum and didn’t happen. My colleague Lachlan Grant, who has already been mentioned today, he uncovered that as part of his ongoing research into the POW experience in the Second World War, and the Memorial published them.
So it really is a stunning book, I don’t just mention that because it is on sale at the Memorial shop, but amongst that you can see some of Griffin’s work alongside the published pieces that these were intended for. And so the point I’m really trying to make here, is that the soldiers were very aware of how they would be commemorated, that people would be interested in these experiences, and they wanted to tell their own stories. And so Griffin was helping them do that, as well as recording, obviously their ingenuity and how they were passing time, and making do with what they had, and just the extraordinary level of creativity, I think, that went into just using everything that you had and turning it into other things. Along with that of course, was the significant amount of entertainment and all the ways they kept themselves occupied and kept morale up, which of itself is of strategic importance when you’re in that situation. Griffin was an honorary officer by appointment, so he was preserved from being sent to the Thai-Burma Railway, as we’ve already heard today, due to that rank.
Not all artists were as fortunate, so Jack Chalker, who was a British soldier and an artist, did experience the full horror of the Thai-Burma Railway. This painting was created after the war, as a tribute to Weary Dunlop and Jacob Markowitz, both doctors who saved many lives, and were that incredibly brave, often point of contact between the Japanese prison guards and the Australian prisoners, protecting them from being sent to the front lines and having to make those awful decisions about these terribly ill men – who could actually bear another day on the front line and who you could actually keep back. Markowitz and Dunlop didn’t actually serve together, they were in different camps, so this painting is a joint tribute to what they did, and in so doing, if you look at all those details of everything that’s being used – by bamboo, those big ceramic pots – basically everything you can see in that painting is an example of what the soldiers created in order to take care of one another. And just stealing water and trying to make things sanitary for the surgery.
Dunlop also saw the value of artists’ records such as Chalker’s and was preserving them in the underside of his surgery bed, so that he could smuggle them out. So he took great personal risk to ensure that records such as this would actually be seen beyond the camp, because he knew they would be really important records of what the Japanese did, and indeed quite a number of Chalker’s drawings were used as part of the War Crimes Tribunal investigating what the Japanese did. So that’s a kind of sense of how the Singapore and POW experience is currently recorded in the collection. Seventy-five years on, it’s sort of an opportunity for the Memorial to commission other works that look a bit beyond that experience. I think we’ve heard a lot today about how the Changi story is so at the centre of Australia’s Second World War experience, sometimes I think to the exclusion of all others. Certainly for me growing up, Changi was probably what I heard about, exactly what Joan was talking about this morning, where for me the Changi kind of meant the Thai-Burma Railway.
It was just extrapolated beyond that – it’s only in recent years that I’ve appreciate a far more, you know – the complexity of the whole situation. And for us it was looking at works about the international significance, opening up that framework for works that consider the full, sort of gamut of experience if you like. It’s a different task to ask an artist, because you are inviting them create work in response to a very open-ended brief, with something that will be quite scrutinising – Angela’s nodding because I think every artist we work with has a moment of, ‘Oh, what do I do now?’ And this project was great, because with Debbie working alongside each other, she had someone going through the same experience. And so when we came to consider what we were looking for from artists – and we’re talking about that with the National Museum, ’cause we wanted to have two artists that weren’t the same in their practise at all, but had a sort of – we could see a complementarity in the way they approached their work, the kind of point they’re at in their careers, and that they would get along.
Because they were going to be spending quite a lot of time together. And we were hoping introducing each other to their kind of different artistic networks in each country. ’Cause very much this project was also relationship-building between curators, between artists, between the two countries, which as Mat Trinca was saying this morning, is a huge value of projects like this. So when we came to Angela’s work, we could see that her career has really interrogating representations of people in the Asia Pacific and Asia particularly. This work here, Material Culture, exhibited in numerous museums around the world, based on Angela’s several years collecting via eBay of all different representations of Pacific men and women from the ethnographic to souvenirs, the way that identity has been projected onto those people. And you can see using – interrogating historical objects, putting them into a different context, a museum environment – you can probably pick up why we could see the sympathy between her practice and approaching the Memorial and Singapore’s historic collections.
Another one of my favourite works by Angela is Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis – I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing that anywhere near right – which takes the traditional representation of women in the Pacific using a Hibiscus flower on the right or the left ear to indicate their sexual availability. Here Angela takes that power back, she’s not a passive object to be looked at. Instead she’s put the flower in the centre of her face, in her mouth, refusing to indicate her status. And she slowly looks directly at you and consumes the flower, which rejects the idea that you can project your fantasies on to her; rather, she’s in control of herself and her own destiny. I mention that work particularly because it will come up later, so just bear that one in mind. The National Museum selected Debbie Ding. Debbie works with history and combining that through incredibly innovative digital technological interrogations of heritage and collections. She arrived in Canberra on the 24th of April this year. So the first time she saw the War Memorial was at dawn on Anzac Day, which is kind of archetypal.
If you happened to be awake at that time this year, you may recall that it was pouring with rain, and so we turned up at the Memorial and there was about 50,000 people there, and Debbie was somewhat blown away by that. She commented along the lines of, ‘People in Singapore would only come to these types of things if you have to’. The fact that it was entirely voluntary really struck her. And that was a kind of repeated theme of her residency at the Memorial and it was something that I found really interesting to talk about. And the real part of the value of these projects isn’t just the resulting work, but it’s the conversations you have along the way and seeing something through other people’s eyes. So she talked a lot about – It was just immediately apparent to her how crucial Australia’s military history is to its sense of itself as a nation and how people are quite independently taking part in that.
So they do turn up to a dawn service, so they’re getting out of bed at three in the morning and going somewhere in the pouring rain to sit outside for two hours, entirely of their own volition. It’s not something that you’re expected to do. Plenty of people don’t, obviously. So that really kind of struck a chord with her, and then when we went and visited the Changi Chapel at Duntroon, you know there was a sense that Australia got to the end of the war and appreciated that this chapel that they built was going to be important, historically. And so they dismantled it and took it back, and eventually, after it had spent some time in storage it got rebuilt in the 1980s at Duntroon. And Debbie was also conscious that she and Angela had recently visited the Changi Chapel Museum in Singapore, where there’s the reconstructed Changi Chapel. So there was all these layers and connections between the two countries. The Singapore Surrender table, which I started on at the Ford factory, there’s a replica Surrender table, but with the original chairs.
So there’s a strange, one kind of boardroom setting connects the two countries, aside from anything else. As you can see, Angela and Debbie do get along extremely well, that relationship was fantastic. Angela was present for some of the visits to the seniors who rather generously shared their stories and was able to explore the historic collections there in Singapore – that our partners there just couldn’t have been more generous with their time and organising access for Angela to see their collections. So I won’t talk too much about her resulting work, which is The Fall, a duel channel video piece, because she’s about to do that, but I did just want to say – she kind of approached it through empathy with survivors’ stories and tries to explore those in her resulting work. By contrast, Debbie took approach through science, and communication, and technology. So quite different, but both pieces and both artists just pulled out all the stops, they really went above and beyond, producing works of complexity and breadth that we couldn’t have expected in the timeframe. This project started in January of this year.
So while Angela was busy organising her cast and crew of 50 people on an enormously complex film shoot, Debbie was going to Lithuania to meet with one of the final producers in holograms. So she was really interested, before she arrived, in optical technologies. Canberra was a lead producer of optical munitions – which is a phrase I learned from Debbie. And so that was one of the things she was interested in, so Mount Stromlo as a site, during the Second World War. And she’s had an interest in holograms and the way that scientificism in particular – So if you think about CSIRO or Scienceworks in Melbourne, use holograms as a way – presenting what the future might be like. But it’s now quite a dated technology in and of itself. So there’s a sort of inaccessibility, or a kind of time loop if you like.
And one of the things that really struck Debbie was this idea that in Singapore, the war history is positioned as national history, but it’s before the nation of Singapore exists, so she really kind of couldn’t think about Singapore at that time because to her, it’s not her Singapore. It’s not the obvious kind of connection. And so holograms have this sort of accessibility where you can see a 3D image, but you can’t actually go inside them. Her works are extraordinary complex, three archetypal scenes. So this one is Bunker, there’s also Beach, and Jungle, as the three scenes that are sort of archetypal of the experience of conflict in Singapore. She – as you can see here on the right, she found a lot of source imagery, used that to identify the sort of key aspects of a bunker, what it means to be a bunker, what it looks like, and so on. And then create a digital, three dimensional landscapes that are fully kind of navigable if you like – so it’s almost like if you – if it’s a video and you could explore every aspect of that scene, send them off to a render farm, because to create three dimensional landscapes, it’s a huge computing job – so render farms are another terminology I learned. And then sent them off to Lithuania to be rendered on a two-dimensional surface. So when you view these works, you’re peering into a three-dimensional image and it feels like you can go in there and explore that bunker – but in fact you can’t, ’cause it’s a flat surface, and you have to walk around them to actually see them. You know how with a hologram you walk past it and you can see someone move or something else is revealed. And as soon as you see them, the first thing you want to do is go up close and peer into it. But as soon as you get anywhere close to it – aside from a Museum docent just bodily stopping you because they’re really worried you’re going to break the glass panel – it just, it stops and all you can see is a black glass slab.
So it’s this idea of history both revealing itself to you in all its detail, but also preventing you from actually experiencing it, and actually knowing that experience of what it is to have actually have gone through it. And I should – with so many family members in the room, of people who have lived through this history at a distance, you probably have a different take on that experience – of some aspects of this history is so immediate and so first person and then other bits of it you’re prevented from knowing because people don’t want to speak about it. Or even when they do, you just can’t relate it to your own experience. I think that’s one of the aspects that both Angela and Debbie’s work comes across, is that with Debbie’s work you have to physically move to see it; Angela’s, it’s video, so you have to sit there and give it time to actually see it. And so it both engages the viewers and opens up a space for them to reflect, but also ultimately reminds us that we weren’t there, we can’t know what it’s like.
Angela’s work in particular, looking at the moment of the fall, for those of us who have never experienced any conflict and have only ever known peace, it’s such a reminder of just how many options there are in the range of human experience, that presents us with the range of challenges and complexities therein. And I think that’s where art plays a real role in projects like this, opening up these spaces for history, rather than it being solely about what’s sort of met today with national memory – Well, you know, pure historic research, this is where I think it can open up a space for empathy and complexity that’s hard to appreciate in other ways necessarily. And with that I’ll hand over to Angela. [LONG PAUSE] ANGELA TIATIA: Thank you so much for attending today. I’m so excited to show you this work. It’s the first preview in Australia. It was a great honour to work with Anthea and to be selected, so thank you very much. And thank you to the National Museum for holding this space.
So I’ve spent a whole month in Singapore, first artist-in-residence with the National Museum of Singapore. And I got to work with Priscilla a lot, so that was amazing, such a fantastic experience. And so, like Anthea mentioned, the brief was so open and Debbie and I spent a lot of times looking and grabbing onto each other going, ‘Ahhh!’ Just felt so overwhelmed with – because we saw so many memorial sites and so many historical documents and archives and we just felt so overwhelmed that there were so many pathways that we could take to create a work.
And so the thing that really captured me was the oral histories – was going to the museums and to the archives, and as soon as I would listen to the voices that were being played back to me or reading the words, that I immediately made these visual images in my head. And then time and time again, there were these common themes that came through, and one of them was this eerie silence that fell over the city on the day of the fall of Singapore. And so there was an eerie silence that fell over Singapore and we knew that something was wrong.
So time and time again, people would say this over and over again – so that’s just a close-up shot of the installation that’s currently on. And so I’ll just show you quickly my process. So I went through virtually all of the oral archives that related to, all of the oral history accounts that related to the day of the fall of Singapore. And then just picked out the most captivating images that went through my head, the most captivating and moving stories. And then I just went through and made drawings, which then got condensed into a 3D drawing.
So if we play this – and so I wanted to make a 30m, unbroken, moving image, a 30m set. And so because I only had one day and one shot at capturing and shooting this work that the 3D image like this was a really good way of testing what the camera would behave like, and what it would capture as the camera ran past each story or each set design.
And so it was filmed at Carriageworks in Sydney. That’s my car there. And my lounge suite. You’ll see the green lounge suite and a lot of my objects – a lot of the objects were pulled out of my home. It was a lot of fun making this set. This was the day before the filming, sitting down with the cast. There were about 30 cast members. It was really important for me to explain with them, in detail, what each design element or object in the set meant, and the oral history that was attached to that particular set design, so that they could go home over the evening and process the story and attach their meaning to it.
So I’ll just play the work. I’ll play it for you twice. So, it has no sound, and I’m showing you the horizontal version. There’s also the second screen, which is vertical, which you saw previously, and that is close-up shots, it’s moving into the objects and the people, capturing them really close up. And it’s very choppy, but I’ll just show you the unbroken work.
And then it just loops to the beginning again. So if I talk you through the oral histories, the personal stories, there are accounts of Australian, British, and Singaporean women escaping into the jungle, out of fear. Whole groups of families escaping into the jungle to hide. It was the very first point of entry into this work was an oral account of men in the tiny prison who were really worried about their virility after suffering starvation and then one of the doctors said that if you consume hibiscus flowers, then that will ensure your virility will remain intact after when you go home. And so the men were like, ‘Nah, that can’t be true’. But they went to bed, and then the story goes that when everyone woke up in the morning, all the flowers of the hibiscus flowers that were surrounding the prison, they were all gone.
And then because of my hibiscus work, I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is so great’. I could really see a relationship between that story and my work. And it was also important for me to somehow insert the national flower of Singapore. So I swapped out the hibiscus flower, which is really temperamental. Once you pick at it, it almost dies within five minutes; whereas, the orchid is a much more, sturdier flower. But because we were in Sydney, it’s not the exact species that is the national flower of Singapore, so I just used what I had. Oops.
It was really important for me to collapse time and space, which is why I went for the unbroken 30m camera track and to collapse the space of authority so you only see people dressed in their normal, day-to-day clothes, and it’s in contemporary times. And I did this to highlight how much we take our safety for granted in the modern era. And then – so my brief to the actors on the day was, ‘Imagine today – just suspend your belief that today is the fall of Sydney’.
That’s my husband on the stack of cardboard, for insurance purposes; if he fell over I would not be liable. This is Tony Albert; Garth brought him up before as a war artist with the Australian War Memorial. There were lots of accounts of looting, gorging on food – soldiers gorging on food because they were in fear of not being able to feed themselves once they become Prisoners of War. Japanese soldiers went crazy for white sugar. They would go into homes and just ask for white sugar and just gorge on that. And then SPAM, you see SPAM. Water, like really important staples that were raided and also flour was an important staple. Rice, you saw in the beginning.
And then there are accounts of piles and piles of soldier uniforms in the streets, as they abandoned them in fear of being caught. Portraits being burnt in family homes, in fear of being associated with the anti-Japanese movement. Looting of money, the destroying of money, the burying of money. White powder being poured onto young females’ hair by their mothers to age them, to prevent them from being raped by the Japanese soldiers.
The pig was a really gentle way of referencing death. In the background there, with the silver foil, that refers to the Alexandra Hospital Massacre the day before, Garth referred to that. There was an account of a big group of Australian nurses and doctors that were locked in a room and they were so jammed and tight that they had to all raise their hands up like this. And they were kept in there over 24 hours with accounts of them fainting, urinating and defecating on themselves. So again, that was a really gentle way of bringing that, highlighting that story.
There was accounts of Japanese soldiers on the back of trucks and utes showing off their loot of – there were accounts of Japanese soldiers with wristwatches all the way up their arms and jewellery. So here, you got the Australian national flower, the Golden Wattle. There we have the Japanese flag, the symbol against the white backdrop. And the brothels were still operating on the day of fall of Singapore, so I’ve got [inaudible] in the background there representing that. We’ve got looting in homes and lots of accounts of civilians saying that after each loot, they would tidy up, but then it would get looted again, so there was this repeated cycle and in the end, they figured out that it was easier just to leave it and not to tidy up afterwards, which seemed to deter the further looting.
Surrender sheets, white sheets being waved out of windows. This particular scene represents the Japanese General, General Yamashita, who went in on the day of the Fall of Singapore to Alexandra Hospital and he went in with a massive load of cans of peaches and he opened these up with his bayonet and personally fed the survivors from the massacre the day before, in apology, to the massacre that was not under his direction. And he also ordered that the soldiers responsible for the massacre the day before were to be executed.
I also wanted to reflect representation in current times and so I wanted the black male body to still be gazing at the camera, to refuse the stereotype of this sporting body, or the violent body in motion. You can see in the background there there’s a bathtub with two girls holding up two orchids to their faces. In the vertical screen, there’s a very close-up shot of Eugene, who’s in the blue if we go back. She’s in the blue, an extreme close-up shot of her with orchids in the bath, with a pink orchid in her mouth, which refers to all the massacres, the Sook Ching massacres that happened in the waterways.
Then we have the chandelier that goes out, symbolising the waiting faith in the British Empire. We’ve got loads of oral histories of mattresses being placed on top of dining room tables as homemade bomb shelters, to protect families from debris from bombs.
And there were oral accounts of – this was a really gentle, poetic way of addressing of oil being poured over dead bodies in the streets on the day of the fall of Singapore to preserve them for a little bit longer to stop them from putrefying and also there was mass praying in homes across the city, with families and strangers gathered together to pray.
And then we’ve got – there was an account of a young man who was a bagpiper and he bagpiped his way to Changi prison on the day of the fall of Singapore. But because this was a silent work, I couldn’t have a bagpiper, so I went for the leader of the band. And also, back again to contemporary times, this young man is from the Scots College and they’ve got a really strong tradition of leading the Anzac Parade, which is why I chose them. And also, my son is a bagpiper, so he was really great for contacts. Contacts! And I love – watch the scene – I love how my afro blends into his hat. Watch this. Magic!
And then we go into the circus mirror, the clown mirror, which represents my – represents the presence of media and photographers on the day of the Fall of Singapore, capturing these events as passive observers, but also my own distorted view and retelling of these histories that are not mine. And then we go back into the jungle.
And so if you’re interested, I have this catalogue, which is produced by the National Museum of Singapore and I’ve got a few copies at the front there, so you’re welcome to grab a copy. It goes through Debbie’s work and how holograms work. She’s so smart. And then it goes through the context and the background and my work. And a lot of detail in the quotes where the quotes and oral histories come from. It has the date and the accession number if you’re interested in listening more, and lots of beautiful close-up images. Thank you.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Thanks, Angela. You can stay on the stage. Well done. You have a choice of chairs and Anthea, if you’d like to come up. And so we have quite a nice time for questions. Thomas has the microphone. Who’d like to ask a question? Okay.
QUESTION: Thank you both. That was fantastic. I really enjoyed that. Can you just tell me a little bit about what context you give for your viewers, presumably in a gallery setting, what information do you give your viewers to help them really appreciate the depth you put into that artwork?
ANGELA TIATIA: I wanted an element of surprise and confusion when the viewer approached the work that they didn’t quite know what they were seeing. And then – but there’s wall text to the left of the work that explains a little bit of where the work comes from – but in great detail, this is underneath the wall text. I wanted that initial feeling that it was not real, but then once the viewer realised that it had come from oral histories that then it became more relatable to them. That the possibility of being put in that situation, especially being dressed in contemporary clothing.
QUESTION: I’d like to ask a question. Deliberate decision for no sound because of the previous quote?
ANGELA TIATIA: Yes. I just find that you don’t get distracted by the sound and also it’s almost impossible to choose a sound to go with that. I think sound would have wrecked it.
QUESTION: That’s fantastic. I really enjoyed that. There were so many things happening on that day and the day leading up to it. How did you choose what you showed, as opposed to, in an infinite world – you have to make choices. How did you make those choices?
ANGELA TIATIA: I chose the most compelling to me, that if I had a really strong guttural feeling to reading that particular story, if I had really strong vision in my head, I went for the ones that I could play with visually. So the looting in the supermarket, I just had visions of the absurdity of food being poured on their faces and I just had immediate visions of piles of food and people crouched down and gorging on it. And it was only real one or two sentences in the oral histories, but it provided so much playfulness, invited so much playfulness that I wanted to introduce a type of absurdity and surrealism that invited, enticed the viewer and also repelled them. So I wanted that pull and that kind of ‘oomph’ factor, so that’s how I chose.
QUESTION: Thank you. I found that very powerful and really very intriguing approach to the subject, and I think you really captured brilliantly the sort of chaos of that situation. But as you doubtless know, in the literature about the memory of all this, lots of debates about the impact of war on cultural imagination and where we particularly in commemoration where people draw their ideas from. You probably know the work of Jay Winter, but I was wondering were there any particular filmic references or cultural antecedents that you were bringing into your own work in this project? Were there particular, ethnicity, cultural forms, whatever?
ANGELA TIATIA: No, I just purely – well I read a lot of history books that related to the fall of Singapore. But it was really important for me to approach it fresh. I didn’t really watch films on the fall of Singapore or war films. I did watch Dunkirk. Who watched that? What an amazing film. I thought it really changed the genre of war film, just incredibly beautiful, that opening sequence when it was an unbroken ten minutes. I was like, ‘I’m doing five minutes. This person did ten minutes with so many more people.’ It was a really amazing film. But I just really wanted to approach it in a really fresh way. But it was really important for me to approach it sensitively because I knew it was the last thing that people would be exiting the remembering the Fall of Singapore exhibition. Just before people exited, there was a space of contemplation and for people to – how would you say –
QUESTION: Collect their emotions. ANGELA TIATIA: And to debrief and to collect their emotions before they entered the world. And then my work and Debbie’s work would be the first work that you’d exit that space. So I was really aware of not upsetting the audience or conjuring up or triggering. So it was a really challenging concept to make something that was remembering war, but not to trigger.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: [The microphone is] coming to you.
QUESTION: Was the soldier the Cameron Highlander, maybe? Showing the demise of Empire maybe?
ANGELA TIATIA: The demise of the Empire? With the chandelier?
QUESTION: No, there was the soldier walking.
ANGELA TIATIA: Oh. So you read into it the demise of the Empire. Ah, that’s really interesting! I didn’t think about that. So that’s a nice flow on from the chandelier. Thank you for that.
QUESTION: And being in his uniform is sort of pretence of honour and order and tradition in the midst of both the chaos; that was how I read it in part.
ANGELA TIATIA: Yeah. And also his youthfulness. He’s such on the cusp of being on that – eighteen years old – just seeing how young he is and then just linking that back to how young the men and women would have been.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Okay, Elizabeth.
QUESTION: Sorry to take it away from this conversation. It’s been a really good example of an international partnership. But going back to Anthea and the role of Murray Griffin. It really struck me as the daughter of a prisoner of war who had been through Changi, how like those Murray Griffin images, do you know Borneo Burlesque? It’s a book by the prisoners who passed through Changi and went to other camps of the theatre that they did in their camps. And the portraits are amazingly similar to the one you showed us. So that’s why I was wondering if you had that and –
ANTHEA GUNN: No, I haven’t seen that. I’ll have to look that up. There is a lot of similarity between different artists that we have in the collection – Sir Ray Park and Jack Chalker, Murray Griffin. Obviously the subject matter, both in sort of some of the horror they capture, is also kind of inventions. A lot of them draw wounds and a lot of them draw entertainment and theatre in a lot of detail, partly because that’s what’s going on, so you’d expect that. But also stylistically, which I think partly is the academic training of the day, but I do wonder sometimes whether some of them may have had contact and artists like Griffin may have helped train some of the others, but that’s just pure supposition on my part. I don’t know whether that’s actually true. I suspect it’s more about the academic training of the day, having certain common ground there.
QUESTION: Just to comment on Griffin, it was always surprised me when I connected that he wasn’t actually at Hellfire Pass, and yet his image of Hellfire Pass is endlessly reproduced. Now that’s not necessarily a criticism. It just shows the power of aesthetic imagination to capture something because he did that entirely on the stories, presuming on the power of the stories of those who returned and wasn’t an eyewitness himself of the events.
ANTHEA GUNN: Yeah and I think that in itself is a huge part of this experience of the guys at Changi when the guys from the Thai-Burma Railway got back, particularly one of the accounts I was reading in the Changi Book that I was talking about before was that one of the authors of a piece there talked about how when the first batch of guys went off to the Thai-Burma Railway, they had been told that they were being sent home because the Australian government had done a deal with the Japanese government to exchange groups of soldiers for bales of wool. And so they were going to exchange wool for soldiers and they were going to get home. So all these guys were like, ‘Pull me a beer, send me a postcard’. They were super jealous of the guys that were specially selected to back to Australia, but instead, it turns out that was a rumour, possibly spread deliberately so people would go peaceably and they went off to, as we know, the hellish circumstances and 30 per cent of them were never seen again.
So I think that may have been part of why – obviously when they saw the inmates in that condition and heard about how many of them had been lost – but I think that was also possibly part of why it was so horrific to hear what had actually happened to them because they had gone off thinking they were having this wonderful early escape.
QUESTION: Without reading too much into it, so the guilt of the survivor, too, I mean, Black Jack Galleghan wept when he saw them coming into the camp, saying, ‘What’s happened to my boys?’ So the sense of having spent those nine to twelve months in Changi safe and secure while these men were dying in their hoards must have afflicted Griffin and others who had survived.
ANTHEA GUNN: Yeah, and certainly in growing up in Changi, it was used as a symbol for the whole experience, whereas when you actually read a lot of the survivors, even though they were emaciated and terrible, they sort of talk about Changi as being a holiday camp by comparison. And obviously that’s not lessening the suffering of Changi, but that was their words too – that survivor guilt was very much a part of it.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Angela, what sort of response have you had to your installation at the Museum?
ANGELA TIATIA: It’s been really positive. I’ve had personal feedback from friends of friends who live in Singapore and they really enjoy the work and they think that – they enjoy the sensitivity in approaching the subject matter.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: And Anthea, given that it was a joint commission, how does the War Memorial go forward with this?
ANTHEA GUNN: So the Memorial has purchased both works by Angela and Debbie, so they’re both in the collection. They’ll both be on display here in Canberra at the Memorial sometime next year, so that’ll be their public debut, and be on display for a period of time. We are looking at doing other of these sort of joint exchange residencies with other countries in the region, so this was very much seen as being a first starting point for a project like this. We’d really like to keep having that kind of expanded focus, looking back at these conflicts that have been so important to Australia, but other countries in the region that exchange with artists from those countries is really valuable for us as well.
SUZANNE BRAVERY: Any further questions? Okay. Well look, I’d like to thank everybody involved with today. I’d like to thank all the speakers and I’d like to thank all the audience as well because I think with this level of engagement, it makes a very rich day, a day to remember the past, in the present and sort of move into the future. So thank you very much.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018