fine print

Temporarily Unavailable: a companion text that preemptively answers a common question

Article by:

Hannah Bertram, Temporarily Unavailable, 2022, Broken Hill City Art Gallery, installation view. Photo Alex Rosenblum

Play Audio

A friend visited my studio whilst I was working on this piece entitled Temporarily Unavailable. There, surrounded by stacked piles of floorboards, containers filled with dust and folds of industrial grade plastic sheeting they listened as I attempted to explain what I was doing. After a moment’s silence they asked a simple and perfectly reasonable question— “How did you come up with the idea?” It is, in some ways, a question I dread, an innocent enquiry that has, over the years, evoked in me a strangely disproportionate feeling of despair.

In trying to answer that practical question I firstly struggle with the notion that it was singularly me who had this idea. Secondly, I have to grapple with the again reasonable assumption that the idea came first, and was followed in turn, by the artwork now on show at Broken Hill City Art Gallery. But perhaps what panics me most is the assumption that I have the language to express clearly what creative insight and art making are.

There are two generalized views surrounding art making that do not apply to my practice. The first is the notion that a work begins with nothing; an empty page, canvas or space. The second is that inspiration is visited upon an artist by magical means; that a stunning, revelatory moment gave up a crystalline end point and that I simply followed a path along which emerged an artwork to illustrate an idea I had while lounging innocently in my studio.

Perhaps it would be easier for both of us if this were the case. We could stand together comfortably imagining the light bulb muse and bask in its enchanting, warm, creative glow. Sadly, or rather, joyfully, I can say that my process is much more like untangling a long-neglected box of strobing Christmas lights with faulty wiring.

The moment I have found the most difficult to articulate over the years of my art practice is the beginning. That moment when, rather than being invited in by a seductive blank nothing, I have invariably found myself overwhelmed by a bustling too much, a frenzy of stimuli from which a hundred ideas flash around my mind like crackling neon signs. And this work was no different.

When I was commissioned by the gallery to make this installation the building had been closed for several months whilst undergoing extensive renovations, the gallery director and his senior curator were enquiring deeply into the previous and future roles of the city’s collection and a newly appointed council was raising questions about the role of the arts in the city’s future. Into this heady mix of circumstances already well underway I arrived with my own deep interest in the ambiguity surrounding what we choose to value and in turn discard. It was “too much”.

To dim the glare, I took some time to look for the darkness—those formless spaces of not knowing that lie in-between the flash of the first lights, those familiar sparks that fire up my brain in recognition of what I already know. I don’t trust first lights; from experience I have learned that they will only guide me toward something I have made before. Instead, I work to concentrate on the darkness, on losing my way.

There are two types of being lost that are helpful in my practice. Firstly, the sense of being in an unfamiliar, foreign city. An experience that requires acute attention to the finest details as you search for clues that might assist in navigating a physical world that you have no experience of, one that is presented in a language that is alien to you.

The other is where the physical world is lost to me. That place we refer to as daydreaming, where our minds meander freely around an enlarged borderless expanse, where accidental thoughts brush up against random associations. And when I deliberately lose my way, what I’m hoping for is an oscillation between a hyper-awareness of the objects, forms and materials in front of me and an almost aimless interior reflection.

Which may sound like I’m just looking and thinking about stuff waiting for that golden haired muse to tap me on the shoulder but for me art-making is about thinking and observing through doing. So, I got to work. First photographing and drawing the gallery architecture then talking to the renovation team and gallery staff; looking at the artworks in the collection, rummaging through skip bins full of building debris and detritus, gathering up items such as tins and bottles found when the floorboards were removed.

And then I had to let go of any preconceived ideas. This somewhat clumsy and often time consuming first stage of my method demands that in order to exorcise those bright lights I have to make them tangible. I need to see them in the world, not my head, in order to be able to discard them.

Now I need to engage you in an aside that may well sound esoteric and may just result in your turning away from our conversation but one that is none-the-less essential.  

In the process of getting lost what I’m endeavoring to do is personally enquire about and deeply examine the particular materials, forms and context within the specific space in which I’m working.  I’m paying special attention to these elements because they are the same components that my artwork is made of. Material is the tangible matter, form is the shape and context the place and times in which the work is to be displayed and viewed. When creating site-responsive artworks, material, form and context precede you and they have underlying properties, functions and potentials. I see my role as a locator and collaborator with what already exists which is why it is not singularly ‘I’ that came up with the idea. End of aside.

Returning to the artwork, you can see it’s made of something—timber, dust, metal, plastic, a tin of sardines and an archive of dust virtually all of which was sourced from the gallery during the renovation. These elements are joined by a selection of artworks from the gallery’s collection which are in need of conservation.

Hannah Bertram, Temporarily Unavailable, 2022, Broken Hill City Art Gallery, installation view. Photo Alex Rosenblum

The work has several forms—timber platforms supported by aluminum structures covered in dust patterns and surrounded by plastic sheets tapped together. There are two shelves, one displaying a sardine tin the other a dust archive. Alongside them is an arrangement of pictures and objects. These elements came to be the artwork through a process of questioning and studio experimentation.

I know I have wandered too far from being lost and too close to those dreaded first lights, when I find my studio experiments are becoming boring. Boredom tells me that I already know it, that I’m trying to force the material to bend to my idea, instead of finding and responding to the what the materials are in and of themselves. Take for instance the shiny, hard plastic suspended from the ceiling. By measuring the lengths collected I found a logic for including it in the installation. It’s not completely opaque and initially I thought it had the potential to be transformed into a lace curtain, an art object which could be seen and seen through.

Days were spent cutting patterns out of the plastic and attempting to drape the sheets softly in the space. The result was subjectively unsuccessful because not only did the cuts increase the viewer’s ability to see through to the platforms, robbing the plastic of its capacity to obscure, I realised that it was an old idea, a process applied to previous materials in previous works. So rather than acting upon the plastic and using it as a means to an end I was obliged to ask the question, “What was its function in the context in which it was found?”

During the renovation these sheets covered the gallery collection in order to protect it from dust and debris. In doing so they ‘hid’ and preserved the collection for several months. It already had meaning and from this perspective it was inviting me into a collaboration, one that posed the further and for me equally interesting question, “How do I work with you in a way that allows you to continue to obscure and protect?”

Hannah Bertram, Temporarily Unavailable, 2022, Broken Hill City Art Gallery, installation view. Photo Alex Rosenblum

When the timber platforms emerged as a form, I returned again to look at the space. The architecture is such that the gallery has a light well in the center connecting the ground floor and first floor where the permanent collection is displayed. Whilst it’s never been incorporated into an artwork, when visitors climb the stairs to the first level they often wander over to the balustrade and peer down to the main gallery below. Considering the specifics of the architecture and the way visitors navigate it, that is to say the context in which the work will be seen, provided direction for the form of the work. And the plastic, my opaque collaborator, found its place.

Hanging the plastic delineates the artwork whilst partially obscuring it from view at ground level. The opening of the light well on the first floor however creates a frame through which the work can be more clearly seen. The height between the building’s floors also dictated a further collaborative decision. If I were to place the floorboards and dust works on the flat ground floor the subtly of the work could be lost. Hence the raising of the platforms which in turn provoked a metaphor.

In galleries the plinth upon which a sculpture is placed and the frames around paintings are used to direct your focus towards the artwork. By setting it apart in the space and protecting it from stray hands we are saying that this ‘thing’; this object, this artwork is important, it’s precious. In raising up the floor the dust is elevated in the space, lifted from insignificance and presented as something worthy of special consideration, protected and framed by the plastic. But why present dust, a seemingly worthless material, as worthy of your attention, when the gallery already owns hundreds of works for you to view?

I consider art collections through the concept of care. The artworks displayed and archived have been gathered because a community deems them to be of value. We care about the artists and what the artworks offer us and as a result we take care of them to ensure ongoing access. However, like our own accumulation of items in our homes, over time we can care a little less and become careless with them. Carelessness indicates that its importance has worn off.

This movement between care and careless speaks to my interest in the ambiguity of value. What we seek to collect and preserve because it’s important to us and equally what we discard because it’s no longer useful or significant, is subjective and will change. A shift occurs in our perception of them from worthy to worthless. When I work with dust I apply this process in reverse by transforming the worthless material into something precious.  

Our common experience of dust, particularly in a desert town like ours, is that dust is just a nuisance. It appears unbidden in our homes and despite our best efforts to sweep it away it simply returns the next day. Dust is the most ubiquitous worthless material. In order to transform it extensive labour and time are applied using a unique stenciling process to form the patterns into intricate decorative patterns. Decoration has a history in which it is added to functional objects in order to set them apart from everyday things, its presences states that this particular object is valuable, important or precious. If, as I’ve proposed, we seek to preserve that which is valuable this work may evoke in you a desire to have the work continue into perpetuity. But the ambiguity lies in the fact that in just a few weeks it will be swept up and the dust returned to the world of mere things.

So it was not just me that had an idea or two. They emerged from the materials, form and context already within the space and have been shaped in collaboration with the materials, the labour of studio assistants and the skills and knowledge of trades people assisting with the engineering and installation. All these elements are indebted to each other and brought about the emergence of this work.  

It is important that you do ask questions of this artwork. But perhaps not the one posed by my friend. If you are inclined, and I accept that you may not be, apply my method of making to your viewing. Consider these questions “what are these individual materials, objects, shapes and spaces and what are they collectively doing to me?” For like me, you have arrived into a set of circumstance which are already underway and one of these is that you are a unique individual with your own knowledge, experiences and perspectives that contribute to how and why you are viewing this work. Take all the time you need to contemplate what your answers will be, I don’t expect you to find a simple solution because in my experience, viewing art is just as complicated as making it.

Hannah Bertram, Temporarily Unavailable, 2022, Broken Hill City Art Gallery, installation view. Photo Alex Rosenblum