Michel Foucault — the 20th century French philosopher and historian — in his seminal work Discipline and Punish asked, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” It’s hard not to be reminded of this quote at the Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), on the former site of the Callan Park Hospital. Here, the contemporary school and the historical hospital are one.
It’s a comparison not lost on Rosie Thomas, second year student at SCA and a multidisciplinary artist whose work moves between video, sculpture, photography and performance. Thomas’s work spans topics of memory, time and the place of the viewer in relation to the art on display. It has been the environment of the colonial-era hospital reverberating the past into the present which has led to many of the questions that Thomas is currently asking in her process-driven practice.
In a work currently under production, Thomas began with colonial depictions of the landscape and ephemera from three different sites, however soon felt that more needed to be added.
“I was also thinking about the distance from the horizon, but for me I was like, but what about the memory of those landscapes?” This led to Thomas bringing in a friend and a collaborator as a vocalist, which led to a performance element to what was previously just a sculpture.
Such an intuitive adding and community-based process is part of the benefit of working in the environment of an art school, rather than in a solitary studio. Sitting under the verandah outside the central block of SCA, Thomas intermittently chats with other passing students, brainstorming together how to overcome roadblocks in the creative process.
“I mean art making is such a collaborative thing and you're always having conversations and that's how you problem solve an artwork, just talking to someone in the studio.”
It’s this problem-solving perspective that Thomas brings to her own art practice that leads her to continue developing and honing ideas.
“You kind of get this sense and follow this sense, ‘I feel like there needs to be movement’ but you don't kind of understand why, and then you try something and it takes you down another path … you have just all these questions in your head that kind of just sit there.”
Unwilling to define herself in a single method or practice, Thomas preferred to be led by her intuition in her process of art-making.
“For me I think that the flat image wasn't enough, and I wanted to evoke something else. I felt like I couldn't evoke everything in that still image so I needed another sense to be engaged. I think you can be really playful when you're working with the senses and engaging your audience through their senses.”
This playfulness can be seen in the short videos Thomas has developed. In one, while holding up a pleated semi-translucent sheet she tap-dances beneath it. In another, she intones the daily rhythms of life, such as the number of heartbeats in a day, through a megaphone in a suburban parking lot as the sun rises.
The question of time and our understanding of it dovetails with Thomas’s other focus in the resonance of history in the present day. This has been particularly true of her performance based work, where Thomas has been able to develop and interrogate the concept of poetic time. For Thomas, this stands in contrast to our default understanding of time as progressing in a single direction.
“I've found, for me, time for me is just so not linear. You find these linkages between ideas or works or pictures and time kind of gets lost in that.”
This theme was explored in a recent solo show at Airspace Projects in Marrickville. Entitled, ‘What am I doing? Why are you here?’ the artist, in what resemble staged self-portraits, questioned both the place of the viewer and the artist in relation to their surroundings, asking what was the sequence of events that led up to this moment, and how might they still be playing out in the present and into the future.
This work, and others by Thomas, resist our rush to find meaning or a consumable message in a work of art and instead encourage a disassociation from our present moment in time, leading to an opening up to multiple meanings and memories.
Thomas’s next show will be held at Sneaky Possum in Chippendale from December 7 to 27. Thomas is a finalist in the Greenway Art Prize which will be announced on November 2. You can find an ongoing portfolio of her work at @i_am_a_real_artist_