Transcript of opening speech

13 April 2013 – Purgatory Artspace, North Melbourne

Most, or many, of you here today will be familiar with Nicola’s work, and witnessed at least part of its evolution through the last two decades or more. But you may not know about the thought processes and inspiration behind it, why Nicola does what she does so beautifully.

When you gaze at work like this, it’s easy to be seduced by surface, to focus on the thing, not the doing. Nicola’s skill is evident and her execution impressive. But make no mistake – there is nothing superficial about her inspiration, her intent – her obsession.

A few weeks ago, Nicola emailed me a short piece she had written about her current work – just a page or two. Something about what she had written I found strangely haunting: it wasn’t just the imagery it evoked, but the way it seemed to echo my own experiences and so closely to represent some of my own thoughts and feelings on similar subjects.

Nicola’s project, her artistic practice, tends to focus on, in her words: themes of migration, displacement, loss and longing, and she had written:

It was only recently I discovered the exact geographical location of the villages my German great-grandparents left in the 1890s, for the East End of London. In 2010, I journeyed with my mother to the ancestral sites we traced back to the 1600s. They were archetypal European villages surrounded by fertile green fields: the rural idyll. It was, however, in the ancestral church graveyards, dotted with headstones that bore my mother’s family name, and in the forests that lay just beyond, that I sensed those strange obscured shadows.

Nicola describes a journey that perhaps many of us would like to take, but few actually realise; journeys that are, or would be, imbued with the same significance regardless of whether the destination is Germany, Italy, Ireland or other places literally on the other side of the world; or Vietnam, China, India and relatively closer sites of emigration.

Nicola goes on to describe her artistic interpretation of this journey and its discoveries:

I have embedded sticks in wax hinting at the forest: the unknown hidden place; a peering into a past that holds uncertainties.

This sentence – particularly the word ‘peering’ – conveys the trepidation and uncertainty with which we investigate our ancestors’ lives, which are part of our own stories. What is it about the forest that fascinates? What are the hidden meanings of the twistings and turnings of journeys taken, the fateful decisions and destinations along the way? And how are these reflected in our lives today? To what extent do our lives mirror those decisions; and to what extent do we honour them?

Of course, the answers to those questions, and others you might care to ask, are deeply personal. Nicola weaves together her own heartfelt experiences of loss and longing with those of her antecedents, and of all our forebears, by looking at what she calls ‘the language of materials; the meaning they carry’. I think she invites us to make our own explorations, our own meditations, about the journeys we’ve taken, or might take, into our family stories and the mysteries we uncover.

In my own case, I took a journey to a windswept, isolated volcanic island off the north coast of Sicily, where I wandered about the lanes photographing the lovely local architecture, and – almost unconsciously – searching for a two-storeyed white stucco house – or perhaps ruin – that might have belonged to my great-grandparents.

Nicola collects and sifts through the everyday detritus of lived lives – making stories of her own and our lives as she examines those of others, secreting personal histories in her work, inventing her own language of hidden messages in texts, maps and scrolls. She describes a process of searching and imbuing meaning to the found objects, textualising them through, in her words, her ‘gesturing’: dipping, soaking, tying, rolling, rippling, wrapping and bandaging.

She also talks about ‘chance events’ in making artwork, unconscious directions, paths converging, the fact that things don’t always make sense; and a phrase that I find particularly intriguing in relation to some of Nicola’s work: ‘containers that can’t hold anything’.

And she poses the puzzle every person who embarks on family history eventually encounters: how to make sense of the information and artefacts we uncover; the people to whom it mattered, whose lives it concerns, who are long gone? What do we do with what we find? How can we honour and acknowledge their journeys?

For most – well for many – of us, our response is to build a family tree on Which makes Nicola’s artistic response to these questions – which you see here all around you – all the more rich and satisfying.

Helen Bongiorno

Helen Bongiorno has a long association with the visual arts in a variety of roles - as a curator, editor of art magazines and books. She is an online writer, publisher and an art collector.