Persistence of Vision

Exhibition essay by Dr Michelle Frantom

‘Even in a settler society that feels perpetually new, there is a need to unpick recent history…. to synthesise…. and communicate it at home and abroad, to continue listening and thinking, to realise that culture is a work in progress, not something that stopped 100 or 50 or ten years ago’.[1]

The title of Kirsten Sivyer’s solo exhibition Persistence of Vision hints at the motivations and methods behind this series of artworks. Inspired by a fascination for Fremantle’s heritage architecture, Kirsten set out to uncover and re-vision both historical and ‘conjectured’ narratives hidden within these buildings because even though “history isn’t always visible”, it is always present.

Fremantle’s architectural aesthetic has been guided by practical necessity – many of these old structures were originally built as storage repositories. Although they have now been repurposed they still hold memories and histories – heritage facades are one of the most visible reminders of the past but they only tell part of the story. As Kirsten continued to photograph them she became curious about what had happened behind the facades – imagining scenarios involving the original residents, their voyages to Fremantle, what they had brought with them and how they had occupied these buildings. “I feel that this ‘unseen’ history is, in a way, imbued in the buildings themselves, hence the layering of images, movement through time and ghosting effects”.

One of Kirsten’s observations about her work suggests a natural alignment between the theme of the exhibition and her methodology: “Many works began photographically as a series of what I like to call, modern ‘daguerreotypes’. They suggest history in motion, that one day this too will be history”. The first daguerreotype was taken in Australia in 1841[2], claiming the first photographic record of colonisation in this country.[3] Daguerreotypes have made a significant contribution to the evolution of our national identity but they have also been complicit in the manipulation of cultural histories. Like their traditional antecedents, Kirsten’s modern daguerreotypes add another layer of history through which these stories can be retold.

There is also a confluence between the way these images are made and what compels Kirsten to make them. Although the work is “somewhat conceptual” she responds directly and with feeling to what she encounters in the real world. In another serendipitous link between past and present, Kirsten mixes traditional with contemporary methods: photography, painting, drawing and digital processes. Her interest in the relationship between old and new, inside and outside, is expressed through the process of art-making which, as we see in the final work, has the ability to deliver complex visual narratives.

Using a combination of media and techniques Kirsten simulates the actions of erosion and reconstruction over time as she submits her photographs to a process akin to ‘restoration’ – sanding, revealing hidden layers through “reductive drawing”, scratching through photographic ink and applying paint – adding new information and personal meaning. This decision-making process reflects Kirsten’s interest in “human adaptation, time and change, what we hold onto and what we let go of”.

Judy Annear asks: ‘did photography invent modern Australia?’[4]  Her question begs another: if photography did invent Australia, does it continue to re-invent it? A stroll around this exhibition must elicit an affirmative response because this is precisely what contemporary visual artists like Kirsten are doing – finding the links between past and present to envision a single “distilled moment” – repurposing history to ensure that it persists as a vibrant visual memory. For an artist who keenly observes that “history isn’t always visible”, what more rewarding undertaking could there be than to make it so?

Dr Michelle Frantom 2015

[1] Prof. Julianne Schultz, A hybrid Australia, where identity has a multi-layered crunch, conference at Deakin University, November 27 2014

[2] Geoff Barker, Portrait by Thomas Bock, 1848, September 2009, Powerhouse Museum

[3] Judy Annear & Professor Jane Lydon, Lecture series: The photograph and Australia: How photography made modern Australia, 8 March 2015

[4] Ibid.