Visual arts Bronwyn Watson’s Public Works
ON a balmy February night last year, 350 people accepted Simon Terrill’s invitation to converge on the centre of Adelaide so they could be photographed doing whatever they liked. The resulting large-scale performance, Crowd Theory Adelaide, is the seventh in an ongoing series of photographic events staged around Australia since 2004.
Inspired by the wonderful crowd scenes of 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel, who famously depicted everyday life, Crowd Theory Adelaide engages the public in the making of an artwork by melding performance, photography and community collaboration.
Terrill, who lives and works in London, has said that he is fascinated by human behaviour in public places and by the way architecture can act as a giant theatre set, influencing how we function.
Crowd Theory Adelaide is indeed like a giant film set. Look closely at the mural-sized, long-exposure photographs and you can see people and cars frozen in a particular moment. Some people are standing still, while others act up for the camera. There is a person in a wheelchair, people with briefcases, people with umbrellas, dogs, or piles of heavy books. Some hug, talk or play hide and seek. A cyclist weaves through the crowd, while a Kaurna elder, Uncle Lewis, sits quietly, observing, dressed in his red kangaroo-skin cloak.
Crowd Theory Adelaide was commissioned by the University of South Australia’s Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, and when I visit museum director Erica Green shows me the photographs of the crowd scenes, which she says are ‘‘ carefully planned and choreographed to achieve a deliberate artistic outcome, but also depend, at their heart, on the unpredictable spontaneity and dynamic anarchy inherent to large gatherings of people’’.
The event took place in Victoria Square/ Tarntanyangga, which dates back to the 1837 plan for the city of Adelaide, when surveyorgeneral William Light proposed a ‘‘ Great Square’’ as the city’s heart, named after the Princess Victoria who one month later would become the monarch of the British Empire.
Crowd Theory Adelaide was timed to coincide with the square’s redevelopment. Green explains the aim of the museum’s commission was to capture the square’s last moments in its familiar shape, before its transformation.
‘‘ Over the years Victoria Square has evolved into a somewhat down-at-heel, diamondshaped parkland, surrounded and bisected by the city’s churning traffic,’’ says Green.
‘‘ A loved fountain, Three Rivers, by local artist John Dowie [commemorating the visit in 1968 by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh], anchored the square’s identity as iconic public space, yet its potential as a modern civic heart for the city remained unrealised, bedevilling city planners.
‘‘ The Victoria Square site, in fact, had for centuries been a meeting place of the local Kaurna people, known as ‘ the Dreaming Place of the Red Kangaroo’, a place for special ceremonies of the Dundagunya tribe.
‘‘ In 2002, the Adelaide City Council renamed the site Victoria Square/Tarndanyangga, and more recently embarked on a $90 million project to transform and regenerate the square.’’
The photographing of Crowd Theory Adelaide took place the evening before the demolition of Victoria Square; however, Terrill arrived in Adelaide several weeks ahead of his one-night shoot to negotiate protocols with Adelaide City Council staff and to secure the complex logistics of necessary elements such as scaffolding and lights.
Before the shoot, Terrill promoted the project widely around town, encouraging community participation to ensure that a crowd turned up on the night. Then, in the space of an hour, Terrill did a sequence of still photographs produced from 10-second exposures. He photographed the crowd, and the square, viewed from a high scaffold looking north, past Dowie’s fountain towards King William Street. Three shots were selected to form a large-scale triptych.
Terrill, who was born in 1969, originally studied at the Victorian College of the Arts. In 2008 he was awarded the Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship, which enabled him to pursue further study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. His work is held in public and private collections in Britain and Australia.
Green notes that underpinning Terrill’s projects is an interest in scientific theories of complexity and the self-generated energy of human crowd behaviour. ‘‘ Crowd Theory Adelaide is not simply the document of an historic moment in the changing life of a metropolis but is also a sophisticated experiment in community process.
"The triptych is quite large. When we eventually displayed the finished work in the darkened gallery space of the Samstag Museum and could see it properly for the first time, its impact was dramatic. For me personally, there was a poignant alchemy about it, I guess through having been a participant in the crowd. It was also fascinating to watch people viewing the work, all of them leaning forward intensely to scrutinise the detail, no doubt searching for themselves but equally absorbed in the work’s allure.’’
Type C print. Three panels: 160cm x 93.5cm, 160cm x 202cm, 160cm x 93.5cm