A walk through works curated by Bianca Hester and the Open Spatial Workshop team at the Monash University Museum of Art. By Romy Ash.

Bianca Hester and the Open Spatial Workshop

In a large room, in the gallery space of the Monash University Museum of Art, is a 23-million-year-old partially fossilised kauri log from the Loy Yang coalmine in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. It’s huge and still looks like the trunk of a tree, but it’s a deep black, rust colour. Bianca Hester tells me it was on the way to becoming coal, before being removed from the ground. There’s a weightiness to looking at it that’s hard to describe, a striking grandeur that verges on the sublime. On the wall opposite, part of the plaster is disturbed and there’s a bright orange-and-yellow plastic cart in front of it. The cart has cleaning products in it, small tools, a plastic dustpan and broom. The contrast between this and the 23-million-year-old partially fossilised log makes me smile.

“I like this little cleaning section,” I say to Hester, who is taking me through the exhibition, still undergoing installation, the day before opening. The exhibition has been developed by the Open Spatial Workshop, a collective of three artists, of which she is one.

“Oh no no,” she says seriously, worried, shaking her bleached fringe. “We’re making a sculpture —”

I cut her off, “I’m teasing you.”

She gives me a look. “I’m way too earnest for that,” she says and laughs.

This earnestness is accompanied by a passion for the work she creates both as a solo artist and as part of the Open Spatial Workshop team, who have been making art together since 2003. They have been working on a three-year research project with the Geosciences collection at Museum Victoria, and as we walk back through the gallery we pass a collection of the other precious specimens on loan. Glass-blown vessels hang from the ceiling and within them fluorescent-looking rock.

“Here we have saleeite, which is a secondary uranium mineral, which has been dug from the Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory. Yeah, so it is radioactive, but we’ve been told that you don’t get any more radiation other than what you would receive every day from the urban environment. But you don’t want to be standing here all day with your mouth open, you know?” she says.

As we leave the exhibition, I ask her about the collaborative process. She has known Scott Mitchell and Terri Bird, the other members of OSW, for more than a decade, since RMIT art school in the late ’90s, where Bird was Hester’s teacher and Mitchell a fellow student.

Hester says: “This project comes out of a family of thinking, and the work is based on a very long-term dialogue and a deep understanding – we’re very different people and that complements. Thirteen, 14 years is a very long time to work together and it can be complex, like a family. We could not do the work you see at MUMA separately; it would not be possible to produce this kind of work with a singular mind. Together we enjoy an amplified brain, and it’s not you, you and me – it’s us as an entity.”

We sit down at a table, in among the construction site that is Monash University, and surrounding us is the noise of machines and the beep of vehicles reversing. “My mum’s family is Hungarian,” Hester tells me. “The Hungarian grandmother had a major impact on me and her influence has indirectly contributed to me becoming an artist, particularly in relationship to her engagement with making. She seemed to be able to make anything. She could sew anything. She cut her own hair. She made clothes, all the most amazing foods, grew vegies and raised poultry, which made its way into the enormous pots of soup simmering in the house daily. Together with my grandfather and mother, they arrived in Melbourne in 1956 as refugees fleeing the Soviets. After witnessing the hanging of intellectuals in their town, they left immediately, the same night. I think about them a lot, especially about their resilience – but she is really pivotal, she made her world through her hands, she was so dexterous at production, handmade production. That had a huge influence.”

As a sculptor, Hester’s work usually involves some sort of object, something handmade, or cast or found. But thinking of her work in this way is one-dimensional, because her work is strongly interconnected with environment and community and performance.

“My practice has a social/relational element to it, a community element,” says Hester. “It’s become layered and interested in history, in the early stages it used to be much more sculptural, and process-driven and based primarily in the studio and now I’m more concerned with being out in the world and interfacing with other institutions and people and meshing with broader concerns. For example, I’ve worked with soil scientists, geologists and historians – I find engaging with these people much more interesting than working exclusively in the studio.”

She speaks about a project from 2014 where a section of earth was excavated from Hyde Park in Sydney. “The guys who helped to dig up this clay are the same team who always dig up the park, to lay pipes and fix sprinkler systems for example, and while excavating for this project they were like, ‘Whoa, this is so beautiful.’ The surface was mind-blowing, beautiful, full of unexpected colours, pinks and purples. The lusciousness of that clay – and the deep time in that clay. It’s composed of Wianamatta shale lens, which has been sitting there for about 220 million years, just under that particular section of Sydney.”

She continues: “When working across disciplines you get to meet fascinating people, exchange knowledge and experience, and from that other kinds of knowing emerges from the process. I love being in the studio but now I like to generate work mostly out in the world. I love the world, as troubling as it is. It comes out of a community of thinking. It’s never a solo enterprise ever, for me.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 25, 2017 as "Fossil fuelled".

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Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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