The Influence

Award-winning documentary and digital installation artist Lynette Wallworth describes a work that influenced her. By Kate Holden.

Lynette Wallworth

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (circa 1558), Circle of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; and Lynette Wallworth (below).
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (circa 1558), Circle of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; and Lynette Wallworth (below).
Credit: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium / J. Geleyns – Art Photography

Lynette Wallworth is an established artist in the field of documentary and digital installation, working mostly with virtual reality technologies and presenting acclaimed works that evoke connections and storytelling. Her VR mixed-reality narrative Collisions (2016) won an Emmy Award for Outstanding New Approaches to Documentary, and her television documentary Tender (2014), portraying the development of a community funeral enterprise, won an AACTA award, a Grand Jury FIFO Prize in Tahiti and was nominated for a Grierson award in Britain. The relationships between humans and nature, the past, and their emotions play out in her installations, which are shown across the world in galleries, planetariums, festivals, museums and cinemas. A new work, How to Live, will premier at Rising festival in Melbourne next week.

For this column, which asks artists to describe a work that influenced them, she nominated the 1560s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, thought to be a copy of an original by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Lynette, how does the Icarus painting fit into your world?

I discovered it at high school, through art or English class, and the Auden poem about being in the Brussels museum, walking through and coming upon that Bruegel. His first line, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position”. This most extraordinary event has just happened and no one is noticing. That is the case of life, right? Intense and powerful things are happening but life is very busy, we all focus on what is right in front of us, our known world, what is happening in our day. So I love the poem and I love the painting. Honestly, the combination of those two is an instruction manual to me.

The painting is so beautiful. The scale is weird: the ship is tiny compared with the boy, but the centre is dominated by the back of a ploughman and there’s intricately drawn vegetation, the ship’s fine rigging, then the sea and the sky aren’t detailed; there are different fields being built here to be engaged by.

Everyone is looking up, or down, or away. No one is watching the boy.

Even the sheep are facing away. But there’s a figure in the middle, looking up. We see his face. Is he the role of the artist? 

For me it’s a palette of characters who are all attending to what’s important to them in their own world. There’s this activity of life going by, and the boy’s legs will slip and soon disappear, so it’s like the turning of a page: a major page in the story of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, but for everyone else it’s just the passing of time. The sun is going to set. That’s the power of art, of writing, storytelling: to mark something that has happened so that it isn’t lost.

There’s the internal world – for Icarus this event is everything – and then here’s the outer world, composed of other internally involved people. Is there any parallel with your own work, which is personal and individual but sent out into the larger world?

A lot of people feel virtual reality can be an isolating experience. But I love VR for its intense intimacy. What can happen in a VR headset that doesn’t happen in a cinema screening is that people who are in the work can address you directly. Even their eye gaze, looking directly at you, you will feel it when you have the headset on and you’re in that world. So it’s expanding your world view, to go in there with that headset and to be present inside the world of a work instead of a parallel world standing outside of it watching it unfold.

With the painting, I’m interested in what it’s saying. So this extraordinary thing has happened: this boy was trying to escape. Instead of making him the focus of the painting Bruegel has put him on the periphery, these little tiny legs. Then there’s Auden’s commentary about the “expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing”. He’s not saying everything went unnoticed. But, he says, that ship “Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” All of that always affects me. There’s this tension in our world around suffering, who is suffering and what we’re prepared to notice. My work is around this form of documentary, so the question I ask myself all the time is, How can I draw attention? It’s why I love this painting. It’s telling us something about how we act as other humans around the tragedies that continually unfold.

In Bruegel’s day there was no end to suffering and strife, but people weren’t also alerted constantly to suffering and strife in other places. Now we’re exposed to it all. We are expected to attend to so much.

Bruegel has placed this inside the landscape of these people. They are attached there. It was in their vicinity. You could take that as meaningful as well: something in my world that is happening, how can I attend to that?

Something occurs in the periphery of my vision and I think: this is something I could contribute to. I could shape this. I’m placing something in front of us all to contemplate and discuss. That’s what I’m hoping to do.

In fact, I made a work in Melbourne many years ago called Invisible by Night. If you placed your hand on a screen, which seemed covered in condensation, a grieving woman would begin wiping away this small section of the condensation so you could see her eyes, and she could see you. I was trying to make a connection through the fog of grief. The window would mist up again and she’d return to pacing. And I had the quote from the Auden poem there: “About suffering they were never wrong…” I would go there at night and a woman said to me, I know exactly what she is going through. She talked to me about the suicide of her grandson. And I thought, that poem is right, that painting is right; we can’t stop the world, but we can pay attention.

And no one in the painting is watching the boy be lost, but we are. We complete the moment. We notice and register the tragedy.

Yes! And that’s confirmation of the power of art. The artist has made us, the viewer, notice the moment. That’s the role of the artist: I appreciate the opportunity to place something in front of the community I’m in, and say, Just for a moment, can we look at this?

This is a painting you could just pass by and not see. You could see the landscape, and not see the unfolding other narrative. Many times in my life I’ve seen a moment happen, when it would be easy to keep reading a book, or just slightly turn in the other direction. But if you turn in that direction, if you can, what unfolds has been some of the most meaningful moments of my life: if you can take that moment to turn towards that human drama that’s unfolding just beside you.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 29, 2021 as "Lynette Wallworth".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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