Rewind: Susan Norrie: Undertow

Susan Norrie, Blossom, 2002. Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

By Juliana Engberg

ACCA’s large gallery hall still seems generous of scale and offers amazing opportunities for commissioned artists.  But when the new ACCA was first unveiled, the shift in volumetric space from the domestic size of the cottage to the magnificence of the Sturt Street building appeared dramatic and ground- breaking for an Australian gallery concentrating on contemporary art.

The architecture of ACCA’s main hall is that of a tapering viewing box: the end of the room being taller and broader than the front – a perspective trick.  In my mind an architecturally occurring, cinematically organised gesture.  For the inaugural commission it seemed important to select an artist to claim the back wall and bring attention to the room’s longitude and towering terminating point.

To me it was critical that the first commission for this operatically scaled hall should be undertaken by an Australian artist so as to mark the transition from constrained to ambitious art making on behalf of local practitioners.  It also struck me as necessary that the artist would need to be someone with maturity and poise of practice to meet the challenge of the space and occasion.  I invited acclaimed artist, Susan Norrie, to undertake the task of breaking in the new ACCA.  Associate curator, Rebecca Coates worked as the project manager.

Susan Norrie, Dust Storm, 2002. Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

When Susan made her site visit, like many after her, she said WOW!  The room was instantly impressive – and just a bit daunting – as it is, even now.  Susan went away and commenced her plans which eventuated in her iconic work UNDERTOW – a brilliant, atmospheric video piece incorporating film footage of man-made and natural disasters – a work bringing attention to, and foretelling the calamities of climate change and corporate negligence.

The work built a mood of dark sublimity, anchored by a hypnotic sound track designed by Robert Hindley with a bell tolling.  Melbourne’s historic dust storm of 1983 – an event of apocalyptic character – was recast as an eerie, surreal occurrence and earth and water were torched and smoldering.  Elsewhere in the space, smaller video vignettes showed oil-soaked birds – victims of the Exxon Valdez disaster, white-clad environmental scientists attempting a clean up, and hot mud bubbles.  These motifs would continue to re-surface in Susan’s works throughout the 2000s as a message about the world in geological distress.  At the front of the space, a redemptive message was conveyed with a video of a child being carried aloft through cherry blossom.

Walking into Susan’s work for the very first time when we activated the long beam video projector was a thrill.  An image some 8 meters high and 14 meters across seemed to double the size of the space.  It was clear we had an international scaled gallery for local as well as international work.

Susan Norrie, Balloon, 2002. Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

Susan’s work registered a major shift in the possibility of practice in the new ACCA.  Since that time we have commissioned 15 major works for the ACCA Kunsthalle including those of Callum Morton, Daniel von Sturmer, David Rosetzky, Jim Lambie, Berlinde de Bruykere, David Noonan, Monica Sosnowska, Nathan Coley, Pipilotti Rist, Niki Savvas, Chesworth and Leber among others.  Each has been memorable and different.  But it was Susan Norrie who set the bar high in the first instance.

Susan Norrie: Undertow
14 October – 2 December 2002

Juliana Engberg is the Artistic Director of ACCA.


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