The Influence

Artist and puppet-maker Bryony Anderson talks about the influence of Fiona Hall’s Paradisus Terrestris (1989-90) on her work and outlook.

By Kate Holden.

Bryony Anderson

Detail of Fiona Hall’s Paradisus Terrestris (1989-90)
Credit: National Gallery of Australia

Bryony Anderson is a puppet-maker, artist and community art facilitator. She’s currently working in Hobart on an installation for the front window of Fullers Bookshop in collaboration with cartoonist First Dog on the Moon, using salvaged materials to evoke the plight of the endangered swift parrot.

Anderson has worked in the arts for 25 years. She has three solo exhibitions under her belt and has produced puppets and works for theatre companies including Erth, Chamber Made Opera and Terrapin. She also made life-sized puppets of dinosaurs for Museums Victoria, Auckland Museum and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Anderson has run mentoring programs, working with school students, elders, general citizens and emerging artists on the practice of “frugal resources”: conserving and repurposing salvaged materials with an emphasis on innovation and respect. Her “One Off Makery” community project in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales involved 1100 people creating a work called “The Frugal Forest” entirely from recycled materials.

Anderson nominated Fiona Hall’s Paradisus Terrestris (1989-90) for The Influence.

You haven’t chosen a puppetry work as your influence piece. Tell me about Paradisus Terrestris.

It was an instant, hands-down choice. When I was at art school in Wollongong, probably first year, I was exposed to that work. It just blew my mind, really. It was probably 1995, a time when art schools were avoiding the teaching of skill: “narrative” was a dirty word, people were doing things like painting with their wrong hand to de-skill themselves on purpose.

The art and craft debate had been dragging on forever: if it was crafted, it couldn’t be art. I was in the sculpture studio. We’d been told in a lecture, “If you want to learn skills, you should go to TAFE; university is about concepts.” I was like, “Aargh, I’m in the wrong place!” The sculpture studio had no tools; they had one hammer, with one of its claws broken off. Then I saw this exquisitely crafted work projected on a wall in someone’s tutorial and it made so much more sense. To see Hall’s work come along, which is so finely crafted and full of story, was just extraordinary.

I was all of 19 and grieving for the world, thinking about waste a lot and seeing it everywhere. I was interested in re-use and resource-conscious material choices. But most of the artwork that was being generated in that area was essentially “junk art”, like bits of engine welded together or things woven out of plastic bags; a very particular aesthetic. So to see Fiona Hall give such a jeweller’s precision and attention to a sardine can was a revelation.

In retrospect, I’ve probably tried to follow a similar path in giving respect to everyday materials and finding what they’re capable of. It’s been a common thread all through the puppetry work and the visual art gallery work and it’s one of the reasons I have a career as a puppet-maker. People come to me because of the resource consciousness and it becomes a part of the story of the show … so, yeah, it’s become a strength.

I think another thing that was a stark contrast to what we were seeing in 1995 was the generosity of it. There was a lot of mean-minded art going on, where the artist is kind of contemptuous of the viewer or gives nothing. If you’re going to make public works, then you should be speaking to the people who view them. I guess respect goes in both directions: both to the audience and to the source.

Hall treats that aluminium so exquisitely, with such attentiveness.

Yes, and it becomes almost worshipful. In the act of doing that, and also in looking at it deeply, there becomes a bit of a cure for the grief of the world as well, because it’s a meditation. It’s so clear that she spent hundreds of meticulous hours on them. It has a deeply calming effect, I think.

Yes, the craft, and the art that I see in it, it’s a reverence for the nature that she’s replicating, and for the anatomies; but there’s also reverence for the material, its particular potential. Taking something on its own terms rather than forcing it: is that something that speaks to you?

There’s a trait that I look for in people who come to work with me: it’s kind of engineering but it’s more related to empathy, an empathy with inanimate objects. Being able to pick up a material, bend it and see that at this point it is nearly breaking, but if I ask it to do less than that, it will keep doing it for years.

There are so many properties of memory and rigidity that you can investigate by feeling and testing and then asking it for less than it can give, so the materials that you use are kind of happy to be there.

That means things last a long time.

Now a confession: I’ve never been wholly comfortable with puppets.

There’s a proportion of people who will always find it unnerving. If you can keep it under 5 per cent screamers in an audience, you’re probably doing fine. Sometimes it’s a subtle difference you need to do as a maker to avoid the uncanny: the way you paint the eyes.

It’s about expectations, isn’t it? And having them confounded. Looking at the Hall work, part of its enchantment is that you first see the trees, and then, what’s that? A vulva?

Before I looked it up prior to our chat I’d totally forgotten about the genitalia. It was the crafting that had stuck with me.

The human elements are enclosed, nested in the root of the plant.

I watched a Betty Churcher film about it last night and she said, “They’re all in their own little hidey-holes, aren’t they!” [Laughs]

All the tiny penises! Yes, it’s a piece of magic revelation. And then you begin to think: what does it signify, what’s happening here? With “The Frugal Forest” too, the experience was: ah look at this palm tree; then, oh, so it’s made of paint pots, old socks…

People were drawn to it because they’d get right into the riddle of it and crouch down, feel it and try and figure it out. It was disarming, and people were far more willing to talk about the issues of closed-loop systems and sustainable cycles with that kind of wonder at the beginning.

The botanical life and the human anatomy and the industrial material are all part of the same thing in Hall’s piece. It’s really good sometimes to remember that we’re in and of this world, not only destructive or extractive. It’s all part of the same world in the same way that an ecosystem modifies and swings and finds equilibrium; that will happen to us, and with us. So yes, I find it deeply thought-provoking.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 26, 2021 as "Bryony Jackson".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.