Magazine article Sculpture

Policy of Truth: A Conversation with Fiona Foley

Magazine article Sculpture

Policy of Truth: A Conversation with Fiona Foley

Article excerpt

Imagine a proposed and completed public artwork recording the locations of 94 fire and flood disasters in Queensland, Australia; then imagine the unveiling of the work, as the artist reveals that the list doesn't document natural disasters at all, but a series of 19th-century atrocities against indigenous peoples. It takes guts to do this, especially in a small, interconnected network like the art world. Though such a strategy may build a following, it also has the potential to form divisions that might bite back. But if art is really supposed to reflect and comment on societal issues, then Fiona Foley's Witnessing to Silence (2004) at the Brisbane Magistrates Court ranks among the very best examples of how to bring a policy of truth through the system and into public art.

This kind of fighter mentality underpins Foley's practice, which includes public projects around Australia, numerous international group exhibitions, and solo exhibitions at venues such as London's October Gallery; Andrew Baker Gallery in Brisbane; Niagara Galleries in Melbourne; Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney; the Contemporary Art Museum, University of South Florida in Tampa; and a co-curated presentation at the University of Queensland Art Museum and Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art.

In order to explore Australia's history, Foley uses aesthetic layering and storytelling to address conflict and exploitation. Her work presents a sometimes unnerving contrast between visually attractive form and confrontational content-fueled to some extent by her indigenous Australian roots and continuing fight for justice. At other times, her public sculptures are what they seem-representations of nature-that still leave viewers looking, thinking, and digging.

Robert Preece: When I think about how your work deals with historical atrocities and racism directed toward indigenous Australians, I keep coming back to the emotional content. What is it like to make these works, see them in your studio, propose them to decisionmakers, install, discuss, and sometimes sell them? Is it difficult to combine such loaded content with the professional art game? I'm thinking of Witnessing to Silence in particular.

Fiona Foley: Witnessing to Silence was a well thought-out sculpture. I decided not to reveal the true meaning of the work until after it was installed; otherwise it would never have been approved for commissioning. I approach my work in a philosophical manner. Of course, some of the content addresses emotive subjects; however, if I were to dwell purely within that emotion, I would burn out very quickly.

My work is based on facts that I have read in numerous Australian sources. That is the starting point for my creative process. Most people are not aware of this history because it continues to be silenced. As an indigenous person, I feel that it is extremely important to expose these hitherto hidden aspects of Australian Aboriginal history. On the flip side, there is so much information now available in the public record that there is no excuse for Australians not to know.

RP: After your revelation of the true content, did you consider subsequent discussions and media coverage as part of the work? Was Witnessing to Silence a sculpture-performance?

FF: Not necessarily a performance sculpture, but public art with layers of meaning- like Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

RP: Do you know how much media attention there was? I searched a usually good database for Australian media coverage (Lexis-Nexus Academic), and it seemed thin given what you did. In Britain, this would have been headline news, covered extensively in national newspapers, TV, and radio.

FF: I will have to check my Australian PR! I can only talk about the work that I make, not the lack of media coverage. Would it be headline news in the United Kingdom or the United States? I can see how you might think that. Some papers are led by such ideas, aren't they? …

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