Pub­lic works

Mona Hess­ing, Songlines (1995). Ararat Re­gional Art Gallery Col­lec­tion. Gift of the artist, 1997. On dis­play, Ararat Re­gional Art Gallery, Vic­to­ria.

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

UR­ING her life­time, Mona Hess­ing was de­scribed as a su­per­star of Aus­tralian craft, and when she died un­ex­pect­edly of a brain haem­or­rhage in 2001, the craft move­ment mourned the loss of one of its most in­no­va­tive prac­ti­tion­ers.

Hess­ing was a pi­o­neer­ing, mod­ernist fi­bre artist who was renowned for her large-scale wall hang­ings, which she pro­duced in the 1960s right through to the 80s. She was of­ten com­mis­sioned to cre­ate works for pub­lic foy­ers to soften the hard lines of mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture, such as her colos­sal, hand­loomed piece at the Univer­sity of NSW or at the Aus­tralian em­bassy in Paris and the Syd­ney Ma­sonic Cen­tre.

Hess­ing was at the fore­front of tex­tile prac­tice and was in­stru­men­tal in break­ing down the bar­ri­ers be­tween art and craft. She also was in­flu­en­tial in in­tro­duc­ing ideas from Amer­i­can, Scan­di­na­vian and Euro­pean craft­based de­sign into Aus­tralia.

In 1973, she was one of the first crafts­peo­ple to ex­hibit at the National Gallery of Vic­to­ria in the Clay + Fi­bre ex­hi­bi­tion. At the time, critic Pa­trick McCaughey (who later be­come di­rec­tor of the NGV) was the one who de­scribed her as a su­per­star of Aus­tralian craft, say­ing she ‘‘ ex­plodes the fa­mil­iar perime­ters of the crafts’’ and ‘‘ de­clares a new imag­i­na­tive sta­tus’’.

Hess­ing was born in 1933 in Kurri Kurri, NSW, and trained at the National Art School in Syd­ney from 1951 to 1956. She worked as a teacher and de­sign con­sul­tant un­til the mid60s when she de­cided to be­come a full-time fi­bre artist. In 1967 she trav­elled over­seas to study weav­ing and vis­ited In­dia, where she stayed for a year to de­sign and weave a wall­sized tapestry for the edi­tor of De­sign mag­a­zine, Pat­want Singh. The vivid colours of In­dian tex­tiles be­came an im- por­tant in­flu­ence on her work and she re­turned to In­dia nu­mer­ous times.

While Hess­ing is known for her monumental wo­ven sculp­tures, she also pro­duced more in­ti­mate, do­mes­tic work, such as Songlines, on dis­play at Vic­to­ria’s Ararat Re­gional Art Gallery, about 200km west of Melbourne.

Songlines, from 1995, is named af­ter Bruce Chatwin’s con­tro­ver­sial but much loved book, The Songlines, about the ‘‘ Dream­ing tracks’’ of Abo­rig­i­nal cre­ation songs and their path­ways that criss­cross the con­ti­nent.

When I visit Ararat, the gallery’s di­rec­tor, An­thony Camm, shows me notes writ­ten by Hess­ing about the in­flu­ence of Chatwin’s book on her work. In th­ese notes, which Hess­ing pro­vided to the gallery be­fore her death, she writes about how she was ‘‘ touched to the very depths’’. ‘‘ I felt in­spired to ex­press my re­sponse in tan­gi­ble terms,’’ she wrote. ‘‘ For me, fi­bre seemed to be the per­fect medium to con­vey the in­tri­cate me­an­der­ing yet fo­cused habit and qual­ity of th­ese path­ways ... the sump­tu­ous cos­mic web which con­nects and merges the en­er­gies of all be­ings, all things.’’

For Hess­ing, the red-brown raw jute she used in the work sym­bol­ises ‘‘ Mother Earth, soft, lush, warm and breath­ing’’. The con­cave con­tainer shape of the bowl refers to ‘‘ cradling and pro­tect­ing’’, while the tracks of fi­bre sig­nify ‘‘ ful­fill­ing our in­evitable des­tiny of end­less jour­ney­ing of the soul’’.

Hess­ing’s Songlines is a more per­sonal vi­sion than her ear­lier works, which were ‘‘ grand and pub­lic, im­por­tant cul­tural state­ments’’, ac­cord­ing to Camm.

‘‘ This con­nects back to early craft forms, and the bowl as a very an­cient cul­tural ob­ject,’’ he says, ‘‘ and I think there is some­thing sym­bolic and deeply sig­nif­i­cant in this for Hess­ing. ‘‘ What I like about Songlines is that you get this ten­sion be­tween the raw ma­te­rial, like the shiny undyed jute, which forms the con­tainer, and the var­i­ous coloured wo­ven strands con­tained within. It might be a bowl, a ves­sel, but it seems to be filled with

some­thing mag­i­cal.’’

Un­spun raw jute, dyed, glued, shaped, hand­spun silk, dyed and wrapped; 17.5cm x 52cm x 52cm

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