Robert Heather: Good evening everyone and welcome to tonight’s discussion, The dome as artist’s muse. My name is Robert Heather and I’m the manager of Collection and Interpretation here at the State Library. Our event is being held on the traditional country of the Kulin nation and I wish to acknowledge them as traditional owners. I would also like to pay my respects to the elders and the elders of other communities who may be here tonight.
Tonight’s event is a first in a series of conversations centred around the Library’s iconic domed reading room in the honour of the centenary of the dome. This series of conversations celebrate the dome as a source of inspiration for writers, artists, musicians and photographers.
In my role I’m responsible for the exhibitions, the events, the fellowships and the publishing here at the Library, and it’s really exciting how the Library interacts with creative people of all types. I’m delighted tonight to welcome arts journalist Ray Gill, artists Julia Ciccarone, Ross Coulter and Marco Luccio, and the Enchanted dome exhibition creator Ann Carew to reflect on the Library’s domed reading room as an imaginative haven and a source of creative inspiration. We have a very good Creative Fellowship program here at the Library, which creates opportunities for artists and other creative people to interact with our collections; and some of these projects that people will be talking about tonight have actually come from one of those. Following on from the discussion, we’d like to invite you to stay and enjoy two short films: Ross Coulter’s 10,000 paper planes and Kasimir Burgess and Julia Ciccarone’s Sixty-seven.
Tonight’s discussion will be chaired by Ray Gill who will be leading it. Ray is an arts journalist, well known for his incisive writing on the national and the international arts scene. He graduated in law and arts from Melbourne University in 1986; he has worked at the Sun News Pictorial, the Sunday Age, the Age where he was the newspaper’s arts editor for over a decade until he, along with 70 other journalists, left last September. He wrote a column called Culture Vulture for the Age for six years which has been described as ‘having a knack for cutting through the bullshit to reveal the little white bone of reality that is there, once the bone and gristle is removed’. He is now writing a comic novel for Hardie Grant books. Tonight Ray will be joined by special guests Julia Ciccarone, Ross Coulter, Marco Luccio and Ann Carew. We have a really outstanding panel tonight. Over to you, Ray.
Ray Gill: Thank you everyone for coming. This year of course we’re celebrating the centenary of the dome, designed by Normal Peebles and as part of the year-long celebrations, the Enchanted dome exhibition has been put together by Ann Carew. And maybe you’ve been to see it already, maybe you came before this talk, but you can also go and see it straight after – which if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do because it’s open I think until 9pm, isn’t it?
Ann will soon talk about how she put the show together. It’s the work of 34 artists and we also have, as it’s been said, three of the artists whose work has been inspired by the State Library or the dome, with us as well. I don’t, you’ve already been introduced. Do I need to you give your names again? Everyone knows who they are: Julia, Ross and Marco. But before Ann speaks, I thought we’d just reflect a little on the reading room, which I suppose in its most basic way, a reading room or a library is a place of functionality, it’s a public utility, it’s a storage centre here for two million books, it has spiral staircases where once upon a time you’d hear the stilettoes of the librarians going up and down, and that was probably the only sound that you were allowed to make. It’s a place of catalogues, cards, photocopiers, faxes, computer systems and portals. It’s a place so practical that it required a panopticon in its centre where the invigilator – is that the correct term? – basically a prison guard, more or less, stood in the centre making sure everyone in every corner of the room did what they were supposed to do and not damage anything or get too excited by what they were reading, I suppose. But as this exhibition so definitely shows, this particularly library Melbourne is lucky to have is also a place of inspiration. Its dome acts as a sort of secular temple; it inspires those who use it, those who just come to look at it, or those who glance at it from the street and for Melburnians I think it’s very important because we always hear people saying, ‘oh let’s have a landmark competition, we need a landmark, let’s build a 112-storey building’, and we actually have one that’s been here for 100 years at the very centre of the city.
The knowledge stored here has inspired countless works of literature, arts, science and learning, but it’s also been a place for assignations, a place for meetings, a place for dates, a place where people meet and eventually get married and have children, but not in the Library of course. It’s great to see 34 artists in this show and how they interpret that room and this building in a very particular way, but I don’t think it’s celebrated enough in popular culture; and you know, I’ve got a thing for popular culture and I think it’s been pretty scant how little has been done. Though if you were here a month ago for the White Night festival, it was incredible inside, because it was turned into this kaleidoscope of colour and movement and sound. It was a new way of seeing it after 100 years of using modern technology, it was brilliant. It was also, apparently, I’m told the exterior was seen in On the beach, I think you told me that, Ann?
Ann Carew: Yes.
Ray: Someone told me that.
Ann: Yes, On the beach was filmed on the forecourt of the State Library.
Ray: On the forecourt of the 1950s film. And last year was also included in a film called Any questions for Ben, and the reading room was also used in that. As you will see, if you go upstairs to the exhibition, a Sydney band called Faker made a video here, the video of a song was called ‘Hurricane’ although I tried to follow the connection between Hurricane and the State, the reading room, and I didn’t get it. And in 1994 Ben Lewin, the filmmaker, made a film called Lucky break in which the reading room played a pivotal role; the film starred Gia Carides and her husband Anthony La Plaglia, and Carides played a writer of Fifty shades of grey sort of erotic novels and she’s partly crippled from polio like Ben Lewin himself. And if you’ve seen his latest film, The sessions, it covers similar territory. And for some reason she’s in the reading room, she has to read out the erotica that she’s just written, she just reads it to herself and he overhears it, becomes attracted to her, doesn’t realise that she’s got polio and then a duel heist follows, you know, which just a natural progression of course. Anyway for some reason there are no stills from Lucky break in this exhibition, which I think is a poor show, Ann, but …
Ray: But having said that I will now let Ann say what she chose and how she chose the works for the exhibition, Ann.
Ann: Great, thanks Ray. And just getting back to Faker, I mean it’s interesting, Nathan who’s the lead singer for the song ‘Hurricane’, he himself is someone who has a great love of books and so looking for a location, the band’s based in Sydney, that’s why he turned to the domed reading room. And I guess that’s an interesting thread through a lot of the works in the show – that people have come here because of the book collections and then perhaps the architecture’s taken over. But I thought I was going to give you a few facts, and I think I will still give a few facts.
Ray: Oh and actually I forgot to say, I forgot to introduce Ann properly, I’m very sorry about that. Ann is an art historian and a curator; she’s worked at the Ian Potter Gallery, she’s worked at the Geelong Gallery and she’s been at the State Library since 2007, and in that period has worked on many exhibitions, including one, another one, that is on at the moment, Gusto: the culinary history of Victoria.
Ann: Thank you Ray. No look I thought I would just give you a few facts before we started. The Library opened in 1856 and the dome opened in 1913, and in 2003 it was refurbished. It was built over a four year period from 19 – well a bit longer than that actually, I’ve got my dates wrong here – from 1907 to 1913, and as it rose on the Melbourne skyline, it was a very dominating building and the cause of great interest in Melbourne. The architect was Norman Peebles and his firm was founded by Joseph Reed, who was the original architect on this site. It was very briefly the largest concrete dome in the world, measuring 114 feet or 34.75 metres in diameter and height. And when it opened it was heralded as one of the greatest buildings on earth. It was a dominating presence in the Melbourne skyline. It’s the only building on this site that has remained in continuous use as a library, and in 1913 the book collections of the Library and the library staff occupied the domed reading room. It was modelled on the Library of Congress in Washington and also the domed reading room of the British Library.
The other thing that one of my colleagues asked, pointed out today too, there is a tradition too of domed rooms for libraries. The Radcliff Camera in Oxford which was built in 1748 is a beautiful domed space, and then we had in Melbourne the Parliamentary Library in 1860, which if you’ve had the chance to go up and have a look at that, that’s another just exquisite space that takes you back to another world; and the Supreme Court Library which was built in 1884. And often these libraries encapsulate the idea of the earth and the sky so you’ve got the grounding of the earth, the book collections and then the heavens above.
There were 300 volumes on open access when the Library first opened and 30,000 stored around the building. When they took all the books out in the lead-up to 2003, in 1998 they took all the books out and there were 2.4 million items. So the main intention of the exhibition was to celebrate the centenary of this great space and when I began to look around for content, we weren’t entirely sure whether we could do a whole exhibition about the domed reading room, but I quickly discovered that there was a vast archive of photographs, visual material and other records concerning the dome. So I quickly placed a limitation on myself that it would need to be works that had some evidence of creative inspiration, and the things that I was looking at were responses to the building, the collections, the ambiance of the room and the behaviour of visitors and staff. At the time I was also reading articles that had been published on the dome, and looking in literary sources and I suppose what struck me was that quite serious historians were describing this room in sort of fanciful terms as magical and mysterious: it’s been described as a show place, a giant brain, a place of refuge, a metaphor for the enigma of knowledge and a temple of enlightenment. So I was very curious about that and as I went on with the research I realised that I knew that the dome was a special place, but I hadn’t quite appreciated how special and how many various people across Melbourne had written about it and tried to depict it.
So some of the themes that I’ve looked at in this exhibition is the idea of it as an archetypal symbol. And people think of domes, great domes around the world whether it’s the Pantheon in Rome or St Peter’s, or the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It’s an icon on the skyline and a lot of people have looked at the way it’s remained, this timeless icon in the midst of the development around the city and also the Library. It symbolises for many people the intellectual heart of the city, the community of scholars that have worked underneath it. The collections are very important. Then we’ve also got these wonderful interior views and there’s some wonderful descriptions by authors and historians where they’ve had this Eureka moment underneath the dome, and that’s made it a very special place for them; the quietness. There’s people who’ve been inspired by the architecture and embellished the architecture and then the other aspect of the exhibition is that, as Robert mentioned, we’ve got the program of Creative Fellows where we’re looking for people who are going to be having thoughtful and creative responses both to our building and the book collections.
The other aspect I had in mind was also the physical limitations of the space we were going to have the exhibition in: it’s an octagonal room, it’s got three massive doorways and bright blue walls, so I decided early on that I was going to, where possible, have very large works on display or group works by the same artist which immediately meant that I wouldn’t be able to display as diverse a range as possible. I started the research in the latter part of 2011 and the way we work at the State Library is my list was delivered to the conservators in the early part of 2012, so I think that was January or February that year and then I said goodbye to it until we came to presenting it. So I guess that’s the snapshot.
Ray: Thanks Ann. Some issues that we’ll probably want to, or things that you’re raised or the artists themselves will want to speak about … but I should introduce each of the artists properly.
Julia in the middle here is an artist, lecturer, writer, actor and art director, sometimes all at once. You’ll see her in the film Sixty-seven, which follows here after this talk. She wrote and produced this film and it’s a mesmerising and slightly creepy adaptation of one of her paintings which was set in the reading room. Many books appear in the film as well as does the State Library reading room and Julia has worked in the Library, she worked at the VCA library when she studied there and she is now art-directing a feature film called Fell which is about logging, and on Friday she finds out, because she is on the short list for the Archibald Prize, she finds out whether she might win it for her portrait of the book sculptor Nicholas Jones, who also has a connection with the State Library, and Julia met him here when he was a fellow.
Next to me is Ross Coulter, who’s an artist who works in film, photography, painting and a sculptor, and his work often plays with ideas of levity and gravity. Ross once worked intimately I’d say in the State Library because he worked two days a week in the photocopy department, photocopying. He returned here, not as a photocopier but in 2010 as a Georges Mora fellow-in-residence. He has received many awards which are too numerous to mention, however the Herald Sun gave him, well the headlines said, ‘artist Ross Coulter wins $10,000 grant to fly paper planes in State Library’!
Ray: The photograph of 10,000 paper planes flying through the reading room is in the exhibition room upstairs and the film of the event will be shown after we finish having a chat. Some people recall being in the room at the time that the artwork was created and saying it was like being inside a giant snow dome, and I actually think that is something that should be in the Library shop, there should be Library snow domes. [Laughs]
And Marco in the middle here, sorry at the end there, Marco was born in Beneveto near Naples in 1969 and came to Australia when he was four years old. He is a painter, drawer, and printer whose work is in numerous collections around the world; and buildings, cranes and constructions appear in many of his drawings and he is said to be able to talk his way onto any building site.
So we’re just going to sort of free flow here, we’re just going to talk generally and hopefully you’ll find some nuggets of what inspired these artists and how they responded. But what do you think generally? What is it, I know Ann touched on this, but what is it about a dome that inspires people? There’s something, as I said before, it’s like a temple, it’s an agnostic temple. Why do you think we react the way we do to it?
Marco Luccio: Well I think for one, I think the shape itself is such a contrast to the sort of vertical elements of all other buildings. So when you walk around here in Swanston Street, you know this, the shape of the dome itself is such a contrast from a visual point of view. I think it’s such a feminine shape against the very masculine vertical elements that are out there. You know architecture, and particularly modern architecture with the glass box sort of architecture, I think the dome really harks back to, for me it’s like the beginnings of time and civilisation and knowledge. So I think the shape itself, it’s not a conceptual thing, I see it visually and I may not be able to even really articulate exactly what I mean by that, but it’s like an ancient kind of power in the shape of a dome for me, do you agree?
Ross Coulter: I guess thinking about the inside, for me it’s sort of like a brain or a cranium, like with the 10,000 paper planes I was thinking about the way ideas or thoughts might move through space. So when you’re sort of seeing people sitting at a desk, these sort of ideas, sort of imagine like your thoughts sort of wafting up into the space of the dome. It’s also a place where you can get lost quite easily, it might sound sort of funny, but yeah it sort of all looks the sameish, except there’s a clock, there’s a clock that faces west so if you like, okay so there’s a clock and you can sort of make out where you are, but it’s a space in which you can kind of get lost physically but also I think in your own thoughts as well. Does that answer the question?
Ray: Yeah I think so.
Julia Ciccarone: I think for me I was actually just thinking of the Italian background that we’re from too, my dad was a bricklayer and so he actually used to make, what are they called …
Ray: The ovens?
Julia: Well they’re not ovens they’re liked the vaulted ceilings.
Ray: Oh yeah.
Julia: So underneath my dad’s house in Italy the whole of the downstairs was a cantina but it was all vaulted, so it’s quite an amazing way to build things. I think when I was about four I actually went to dad’s hometown and it probably brings back memories of those vaulted ceilings too, it makes me feel sort of at home.
Ray: I think what’s special about this particular dome, this reading room, is when you enter a building with a dome obviously your eyes go up to the skies, it’s where they’re led. But here you can go up to the balconies and you can also get that perspective down. So it’s a completely different experience because you feel sort of god-like, I suppose, you know you’re up there with the gods in the dome as you look down at people working, like ants. But it’s also interesting if you go up to I think the fourth floor, and you look down. Whenever you see in a public place – when you see a group gathered, like at a church or a theatre or like here tonight, everyone is basically assuming the same pose, we’re all facing the same direction – but when you get up there and you look down at people working at these desks, they’re slouching, they’re leaning, everyone’s doing something sort of different. So it’s sort of a chaotic space which I suppose ties into your idea as well with the planes flying around. And I think in the show , Oslo Davis – whose work if you haven’t seen it is often in the Age, he does those line drawings – his work in this exhibition I think captures that slouchy, slovenly use of the reading room. Do you think so, Ann?
Ann: Yes well you know with Ross talking about getting lost in there, and people sit at those desks and they do seem to become totally unaware that there are other people around them. But I was going to ask Julia about those paintings. I was intrigued to see the person looking under the desk, because I haven’t seen that before. I’ve seen people sleeping, but was that reference?
Julia: I just think I’m pretty curious, so I like to look at all sorts of angles and I think at the time when we were filming, we were filming it sort of 1am until five in the morning, so the security guard kept saying there were ghosts in the building. I don’t know if you’ve heard stories about the ghosts? But you know there’s a lot of time when you’re doing film where you’re not doing anything, then fiddling around with cameras and stuff like that, so it was sort of like … but when you actually see the film, it’s just sort of part of the mystery of what’s going to happen and so there’s not anything that I’m looking at in particular it’s just sort of, you know …
Ray: Did the security guard give you any info on the ghosts?
Julia: No but he kept saying that he sees them in a particular spot every time he comes in.
Ray: Is he the only security guard who sees the ghosts?
Julia: I don’t know. He was a bit, he started to freak me out a bit.
Ray: I think also what’s special about this or any dome, but this dome in particular, is the sense of light that’s coming through, but what’s interesting of course is the dome was copper, it was shuttered for close to 40 years until 1998?
Ann: 1998. When it reopened in 2003 that was the first time that many people had seen it without the copper sheets.
Ray: So several generations of people probably studied there, grew up and you know entered there. It was a place of darkness where those beautiful green lights were what was creating this sort of intimate effect.
Julia: Yes and that’s what I remember. I don’t remember it being so light and bright. I remember it being sort of dark and somewhere where it’s almost like womblike or something. Do you remember that?
Ross: Sort of, it’s almost, sorry Ann, it’s almost like oppressive, that darkness; like looking back at those early photos which I think were on a slideshow before we started. But I was thinking about your film as well Julia, that sort of dark stillness at night which is generally not our experience of the dome now.
Julia: No I had quite different memories of it, like I used to come in from the VCA and walk down and do some studying and researching and sit there and it was really quite dark, like I don’t remember the darkness of it all.
Ann: No, and I think that sense of the darkness and also as Ross was saying, the fact that is very hard sometimes to find your way out of the room, that sort of adds a certain sense of claustrophobia. That comes through in some of the imagery; that can be quite claustrophobic some of the images or quite dizzying spaces. So in some cases the artist painted it as a sort of a restful environment and in some other cases it’s quite restless, as it was with the 10,000 paper planes shooting all around you know there’s a lot going on in there.
Ross: And also because of the architectural shape of the dome there’s also the sense of sound which is very important. There’s no invigilator there anymore to tell people to shush. Do people just respect the space when they’re in there, do you think?
Ann: Well that was a very interesting thing when the dome reopened in 2003 because there was a lot of publicity and maybe some people here came along to the day when the dome reopened and it was a great celebration. But it also brought in an entirely different audience to work in the dome. And I became aware when I was doing the exhibition too that some of the memories I had of the dome, people working in the dome now don’t have any recollection of, or they may not have realised they were sitting in the seat that Alan Sumner [corr: Ray Lawler] wrote Summer of the seventeenth doll or there was this whole tradition of scholarship and research that had happened in that space. So it’s a very different space today, but I think my observation is the exhibition team’s offices are off the domed reading room and the dome changes all the time, but we try and maintain a silent area for people. There are other areas where people can work in groups and you’ll go in there sometimes and it feels like the dome of old, particularly if you come in in the evenings. But of course during the middle of the day it’s filled with light.
Ray: That sense of sound must have been interesting Ross when you flew your planes. What does it sound like to have 10,000 paper planes shooting through an enclosed space?
Ross Coulter: It’s actually quite violent and crashing, it was quite unexpected to hear like ‘crash, crash, crash’, that sort of sound. Bit scary.
Ray: We’ll talk about how you did the work. But that was like three or four minutes at a time.
Ross: So that was continuous, there was two sort of events like continuous for ten minutes, crashing and then when the rest of the 10,000 paper planes were released, yes maybe another five to six minutes.
Ray: So the dome has, acts as a muse, if a building can act as a muse so can I ask you, maybe starting with you Marco, how the Library, the exterior in your case, inspired you to – it’s not a drawing that you did, it’s actually a–
Ray: A drypoint.
Marco: Yep. So for me first of all it was as a student in around 1990 at RMIT and being a sort of eastern suburbs boy I hadn’t really spent a lot of time in the city. The city was the big smoke for me, so coming to study in the city and seeing this beautiful dome was really awe inspiring for me and I usually find myself on top of rooftops, so I would go to the top–
Ray: Why do you normally find yourself on top of rooftops?
Marco: I just walk around and find myself on rooftops, no I’m interested in the aerial views of cities because it does look different from above. I think you mentioned, you know just being up in the balcony and the effect of even being in a balcony looking down, well when you’re up on buildings and looking down over a city, it’s a totally different world; it’s quite silent and so you have a totally different concept of civilization and so I would find myself, I would set out to find locations you know across from RMIT looking back at the dome.
On the RMIT rooftops I painted images of the dome, so I did a lot of paintings and drawings and etchings that featured the dome because it was such a big presence in the city and it was really awe inspiring, so that was the first case that it started to inspire me. And then also in 2003 when they refurbished the dome, I spent a lot of time at the QVB site, I was inducted onto the site and spent a lot of time up there with my copper and you mentioned earlier that the dome just appears as such a big sort of presence all over the world with Florence and those sort of places, well for me it looked like the, sort of top of the whale but it actually looked like an ancient creature rising from the city. So for me it was kind of this amazing, crazy, juxtaposition of the cranes at the QVB site which were making these huge screeching noises against this silent beautiful creature that just looked like it was bobbing every now and again above the city, so that’s what I really wanted to kind of capture.
I spent a lot of time scratching directly onto a plate copper sheet and scraping the copper sheet on the rooftop to try to get, to sort of imbue some of the rooftop’s energy and surfaces onto the plate. And then scratching and gouging directly onto the plate, sometimes so deep that it would carve my hand up and it’d be very exciting up there.
Ray: How long were you up there for?
Marco: Eighteen months. So I sort of captured the dome as the workers were putting in the windows. And you know the other image called Escalator which features an escalator leading to nowhere, the dome features in the background as a reminder of what beautiful architecture is, and the escalator leading to nowhere I think is more interesting than what it is now actually, which is a shopping centre. So I found that was a really nice juxtaposition for me as well. So there was lots of opportunity using the dome as a muse for me, and it still pops up in my work yes.
Ray: Julia, do you remember the first time you ever entered the reading room?
Julia: Yes I was studying up the road at VCA and I was doing some research because those days we didn’t have the internet so we’d have to, if there was a particular artist or a contemporary person that you wanted to look up you’d have to go to the Library and look it up, so I would come down to the Library and start researching books. And that–
Ray: So you’d grown up when you went in there for the first time? You’d been in the building?
Julia: Yes, I didn’t come as a child.
Julia: So I would have been sort of 17 or 18 when I first, although I, yes I studied at RMIT so I’d come in–
Ray: Right, so what was your reaction? ‘I didn’t know Melbourne had this incredible architectural space’?
Julia: I kept thinking of the darkness and the green lights and stuff like that, but I actually didn’t find it depressing, I found it quite a great space because you came from all this hustle and bustle outside and then you’d come into this great, quiet, dark space, so I really enjoyed coming in here and researching because you could just be, you could just become, you know part of yourself rather than thinking of all the other stuff around you.
Ray: Did you all come from, I mean, bookish families with, no?
[Indistinct ‘no’, ‘book club’]
Ray: Because in the exhibition there’s Daddy we hardly knew you, the Germaine Greer book, it’s open on a page where she describes the reading room and she talks about having grown up in a bookless prison, and how coming to the Library was this incredible act of emancipation and wonder. So it’s interesting, we were talking before about visual artists responding to a place of books and how you interpret that space, and Ross for you I gather your inspiration for this work, of the work you’ve done, is from that time when you worked at the Library in the photocopy department. Now I suppose, do they still have photocopy departments?
Ross: They do, but I think they’re ‘un-personed’. The machines have just taken over, I think.
Ray: Okay so you would come in, you’d clock on for what, eight hours?
Ross: Ah yes I think we did like, it was four- and eight-hour shifts, but usually just a four-hour then another four-hour shift.
Ray: And what were you doing? Were you photocopying for students, or–?
Ross: Oh just helping people to photocopy, to explain how the Konicas work, and you need to put money onto a card and you can use any card …
Ray: But did you actually have to stand there?
Ross: Not often but I’d assist people to do that, though.
Ray: Right. So the first time you flew a paper plane …
Ross: Yes, that’s right.
Ray: … in the Library?
Ross: Yes I was sort of wondering because people get quite obsessed about photocopying and getting like a perfect copy and you can only copy ten per cent of a publication or one chapter. So people discard photocopies that weren’t up to scratch and some people try to photocopy like an entire book and I was sort of wondering about this knowledge, like I mean even if you had this photocopy of this book and you put it on the bookcase would you have the knowledge? And I came across this work called Nympholexy which is this love or attraction of the unobtainable and I sort of felt that this photocopying was this kind of nympholectic act because you could never get this perfect copy.
Ross: Anyway, one morning tea break I went to the recycle bin and took out a piece of paper and folded it up and on my tea break I went to the, because the dome was being renovated at that time, so I went up to the fourth floor and released a paper plane.
Ray: And did you feel as if you were being, doing something slightly wrong or criminal?
Ross: I sort of did. I felt like, it’s a bit illicit you know, yeah this is pretty exciting.
Ray: And it was just an empty space when you threw it?
Ross: Yeah. The disappointing thing was the plane just went, it dived
Ross: So thinking back now, it’s like, ‘oh no it just went down’ and I sort wonder like if this project is the fulfilment of like, put the plane having lift and life or something.
Ray: Were you a good paper plane maker beforehand?
Ross: No, no, not at all. It was like a couple of years later that I thought about doing a thousand paper planes and then ten thousand.
Ray: Had you seen anyone else you know, this act of insurrection, throwing paper planes in the dome in the Library?
Ross: No. But I’ve spotted some planes that other people had thrown. There’s one in the chess centre, where the chess collection is, you can look across towards the dome and there’s, on a grey ledge there’s this wide-wing kind of glider.
Ross: And there’s a few others around the place.
Ray: Can you get addicted to photocopying, do you think?
Ross: Yes I think some people, like it gave some people … that’s a great thing about the Library. Having, you know it’s a place that people can access, it’s a public space, you don’t need to pay to come in unless you’re putting your bag away.
Ray: So were you like an invigilator yourself, I mean if people were photocopying too much, you know.
Ross: You’d have to like, you know enforce.
Ray: ‘Stop, you’ve gone too far there bud.’
Ross: Yes you’d sort of turn a blind eye a little bit.
Ray: Right. And Julia – as you’ll see in Julia’s work when you go upstairs, and you’ll see in the film – books appear, you know they’re very present in your work, they’re about books and you’ll see in the film someone lugging out of the sea this pile of books. So what are you saying about the act of reading? I mean it’s a sort of a …
Julia: Good question. Well I’m not going to tell you what I was sort of trying to say, because I’d like you to interpret that at the end of the movie, but all through my life, even though I wasn’t in a book sort of family because both my parents were from working class backgrounds–
Ray: And Julia, sorry, your family are from 100 kilometres from where you’re [Marco] from?
Marco: 20, 30 minutes yeah.
Ray: In Italy.
Julia: Yes, the same town. And I really loved books and the idea of just opening up a book and then an image coming at you and then you could interpret it the way you wanted to interpret it and then that image or from that face of writing you could then make up a whole new story or that could inspire you to create your own work. So I did do a series of works on seven books that were written in 1663 called Fictitious voyages and there were only, I think there was only one known copy of this particular book that was written in English, the others were all written in old French. And I think the one copy that I could find was at the State Library, so I had to get it photocopied but it was, yes that was another really sort of poignant time in, you know my history.
Ray: And so maybe if you can explain that connection because of the Archibald, the subject Nicholas Jones who’s a book sculptor.
Ray: And who’s portrait you’ve just painted.
Ray: He is a fellow here this year … oh he’s in the audience! So can you explain how you’re both visual artists who got together through books?
Julia: Okay. So we were both were up on this stage, I don’t know how many years ago now, but Nick had this fantastic moustache, like this great big, sort of Salvador Dali moustache and I just kept looking at him, going ‘good moustache, good moustache’. And my kids were studying Salvador Dali at the time and I thought he’d be great to open up the art show at their primary school, and we became friends through that. And through that, just you know, he’s just got a great face and he does these magnificent sculptures out of books so I had this vision of Nick standing in front of one of his sculptures and it just went ahead in paint. I didn’t particularly paint it for the Archibald, in fact I just painted him because I thought he was a great looking person. And it just happened to get chosen for the Archibald.
Ray: Both of you, your families are from the same area in Italy and you’ve got the same background, do you think there’s something about that Italian background that makes you respond to this sort of domed building, given Rome or Naples?
Marco: I didn’t used to think so but I think, you know, our bodies are imbued with things from the past that we don’t necessarily, that we’re not really conscious of, but I think it comes through. So I mean my dad was also a brick layer and so there’s probably an interest there that you don’t necessarily, you know, you can’t really see it at the forefront when you’re making these images but I think all that stuff does come through. And you know for me it was always flicking through photo albums of architecture from Italy and looking at films and things like that, so that stuff I think now I see that it does come through, you don’t have to make a conscious effort to access that.
Marco: But we’ve got that, you know, that part is in us.
Ray: Well you’re drawn to cities, painting the frenetic activity of cities.
Ray: And you’ve been in, you did an exhibition in Florence?
Marco: I made work in Florence of the duomo. So for me the lovely thing that, what I really like about buildings is either when they’re being pulled down or they’re being built, I kind of … so when I did the State Library it was during that process where they had scaffolding around the dome. And the same thing in Italy, there’s always scaffolding around the duomo in Italy.
It is interesting what people do say about domes. I showed both domes in New York in an exhibition two years ago at the Australian consulate, and the comments about the dome from one particular fellow were really fascinating and he just felt that the dome was a completely, I think he was a bit odd actually but he thought it was a very sexual beast and he was talking to me in a way that … we didn’t spend a lot of time with him after that.
Ray: We’ve talked about the dome as a whale, a humpbacked whale.
Marco: Yes that’s right.
Ray: You’ve also talked about its feminine …
Marco: It is feminine.
Ray: … shape as well …
Marco: Yes I think so, I think so.
Ray: … given the rest of the city is vertical or phallic or whatever.
Marco: That’s right. Absolutely. I think buildings have a certain character and personality. In fact one gentleman I was speaking to recently, he was writing a book about, you know, some buildings are Italian buildings and Italian people and they have Italian personalities, so he’s looking at it that way. And I think buildings have character and there is something very human when they’re built beautifully like the dome is and I think that’s why it’s so timeless. They do have, I think the humanity is what makes the dome here so beautiful. At three or four in the afternoon on an autumn day I remember walking down Swanston Street and the light would hit the whole of the dome in the side of the building and it would be absolutely inspiring, it would make me want to you know, make more work and even write and I’m not much of a writer, would make me want to do things that beautiful buildings, you know, can inspire. I think the dome here could be a great emphasis for improving the whole of Swanston Street because I think Swanston Street could be a marvellous street, it could be absolutely stunning.
Ray: What do you mean, more domes?
Marco: Not necessarily, but I think we should look at the fact that it’s bookended, you’ve got the dome here and then you’ve got the dome at Flinders Street station. And then you’ve got another green dome, you know the one at Southbank, the little green dome. Does anyone know the dome at Southbank when you look back at the city? So there are a few domes from one end to the other. And you know the history that’s on Swanston Street … so one of the things I did here as a student, but also returning all the time to, is Swanston Street, I’ve been documenting it. And I think it could be an amazing street, starting here and going down to Flinders Street.
Ray: I don’t think the dome is celebrated enough in Melbourne iconography, you know. I don’t think we talk about it. People talk about the Twelve Apostles and this and that, but I don’t think we appreciate it enough.
Marco: I think it’s a logo, almost. I made some images, little etchings where it was just the outline, trying to understand what it is about the shape, the silhouette of it. I think it’s almost a logo, the Library itself could become a logo you know.
Ray: Even though everybody knows the Library, I mean it is absolutely part of Melbourne, but there’s some works in this exhibition where I think it doesn’t look like Melbourne. Rick Amor’s painting of the dome, it’s from the rooftop looking at the dome, it feels like sort of another city, another mysterious city, which I find with a lot of Rick’s works, even though you know they’re in Frankston or whatever, he creates this otherworldly aspect to it.
Ann: Yes I think his work is so enigmatic and I love looking at that painting. When I first looked at it I thought, ‘Is this the ruins of civilisation?’ You know you’ve got buildings falling down. The pediment is from Spencer Street. What I thought was sort of classical ruins are air conditioning ducts on roofs but he’s an artist who came here, he studied under John Brack, he came here and researched in the dome, wandered through the dome on his way to the art school when it was on this site, and his family have a tradition of working in the dome. So he’s got this great love of the dome and sees it as a place where he got a lot of support and nurturing for his own art by looking through art journals. So I think that painting for me is the dome is a beacon but it’s imbued with that sort of European sensibility.
Ray: Yes. And it’s also a sense of melancholy because of the colours he uses, those sepia colours and those greens and those deep sort of hues.
Ann: And the sunset.
Ray: And in fact there’s a work in the exhibition by an employee of the Library?
Ann: Fiona Jefferies’ beautiful painting, which is hanging near Rick Amor’s. And that whole wall, they’re contemporary paintings but there’s a lot of interesting history in them. She’s looked at a photograph from the Argus newspaper and has been interested in that period of the Library in the 1930s, when it was really more dominating on the skyline. And then of course Louise Forthun’s work, Then and now, also looking at changes in the cityscape.
Ray: Louise I see is in the audience tonight, but her work, that sort of x-ray sort of feeling, to me – if you go upstairs and have a look – I think the dome looks like a flying saucer that has just landed in the middle of Melbourne which reminds me again of the 1950s film we were talking about, On the beach. There’s something sort of space invaders, invasion of the body snatchers or something, element to it.
Maybe we can just talk about the individual works because it’s often interesting to hear about how you actually construct the work you do, the physical nature of it. And Ross if you could maybe put, you know you’re seeing this image up here but obviously doing something like that is enormously complicated.
Ross: Ah yes, but it was funny, the first day after I received the fellowship and Gail Schmidt took me through the space of the domed reading room I felt quite overwhelmed, like it was quite, wow how is this going to happen! And yeah I just think, one paper plane at a time …so I think it just unfolded very slowly and with a lot of support from the Library and our friends and volunteers, whether it’s part of the crew or –
Ray: You had the Australian paper plane champion working with you.
Ross: Yes, James Norton, he’s based in Canberra. He came down a couple of times and we did tests after-hours in the domed reading room – which is amazing, as Julia may talk about as well, being in this space after hours when there’s no one else around, you can sort of –
Ray: But did you all have to do the same paper plane, for maximum aerodynamics?
Ross: Yes. So there were 35 people that folded planes and there are some amazing plane folders here, I can see them in the audience. So it took 35 people five weeks; we folded them all beforehand and then stored them, yes, then distributed them the night before, had the choreography and James Norton was, he tested, he actually tested every paper plane.
Ross: He threw –
Ray: Hang on, ten thousand.
Ross: Yeah because they can’t, the way you have to store them, you have to store them very carefully and if they bend a little bit they need to be trimmed. And with Jenny Turnbull, my mother-in-law. James had actually dislocated his shoulder, he was like throwing them, but he still wanted to be a part of the, like throwing them to Jenny, and then Jenny was like storing them and putting them back into the boxes, so each plane was trimmed.
Ray: I was going to ask, when you’ve got ten thousand paper planes flying around, were there any injuries?
Ross: Yes just one.
Ross: One hit me in the eye.
Ray: Oh, you. [Laughs] You should wear aviator glasses or whatever.
Ross: Yes I know.
Ray: And I understand you had people called ‘wing commanders’?
Ross: Yes. So there was 165 people involved in the launch and 35 of those were wing commanders. Robert Heather here who was a wing commander, he would have a headset on and I would say, you know, ‘cue.’ [Makes off-topic comments] Wing commanders would get the cue to go, you know I had the choreography and would say ‘blue two go’, ‘blue three go’, ‘blue four go’.
Ray: Did you ever think of having coloured paper planes?
Ray: And why did you reject that?
Ross: Just because like a blank piece of paper has all the potential and colours would have just made it more theatrical. And I think it’s in keeping with the space as well.
Ray: So they were absolutely pure white, no writing?
Ross: No writing. See you have to have a brand new piece of A3 paper because you can’t have any creases when you fold it, it has to be perfect.
Ray: And Julia, you were here overnight too, filming. What was that experience like? The ghost you mentioned, but …?
Julia: It was quite beautiful actually, because you’re walking in, sort of drizzling with rain outside and coming in when you know that you’re not supposed to be in here but you’re allowed to be in here, and yeah it’s one o’clock in the morning and you’re sort of going, I should be asleep but I’m in this room and the sound is quite beautiful too, because you can hear sort of every footstep you take, so you can hear this ‘dook, dook’ . So everybody that was filming had to be really, really quiet because you could pick up every little sound that was sort of happening. So it was quite a beautiful feeling and yeah just really peaceful, I found it very peaceful actually.
Ray: You said that when you first approached the Library to film, you had to go through the commercial arm.
Julia: Oh yes.
Ray: And that was going to cost 10,000 a night?
Julia: Yes I think I they heard ‘film’ and they went, ‘oh film, okay that’s going to cost you $10,000 for the hire of the space’, and I said, ‘I don’t have $10,000’; ‘We’ll get back to you’. So then that $10,000 was cut, and then they said that I had to spend another $10,000 on liability insurance and I said, ‘I’m going to throw myself in the ocean, I have no liability insurance’. So they cut the other $10,000 and then they said ‘you do need to have some security guards’ and I had to get a security guard which I think that cost me $1,000 for the security guard, so overall I did quite well I think!
Ray: Yes. And Marco, when people see, if they haven’t seen your dry point, it looks like there is a giant wrecking ball.
Marco: Yeah it started off as a vessel for carrying concrete, sometimes I find them really fascinating in themselves, as they’re floating above the city, you know they’re so heavy you wouldn’t want them to drop, but they look quite mysterious when they’re moving around on their own. And then just in the right spot where the crane would stop with carrying this mixed concrete thing which was about to land, as I was scraping away it started to become a beautiful rounded shape and I kind of got a sense that it might look a little more ambiguous as something that could possibly be seen as more than just a vessel carrying something, but maybe it could be seen as something that could possibly be knocking down the dome. I didn’t set out to do that, but I discovered as I was doing it that it kind of became that and then I pursued that further and encouraged it more and more. So you get this idea that maybe it’s a comment on tearing down buildings, or maybe it’s not that at all, but that makes it ambiguous and makes it a little more interesting, I guess.
Ray: I mean the fascination you have with construction, is that all due to your father being a bricklayer?
Marco: Yes, he was a really bad builder.
Marco: Like he was awful, well maybe it was just my mum giving him a hard time, but all I heard was how bad he was. But his car was always filled with bricks and tools and buckets and things like that and the backyard was always filled with messy concrete things and I always loved the way that you know, he’d mix the concrete and even if these things that he was building were a bit wobbly, he built a lot of buildings in Italy, he built houses for people and apparently –
Ray: Are they still standing?
Ray: Are they still standing?
Marco: Apparently so, and here in Australia he’s built a lot of illegal cellars for Italians around Australia.
Marco: And other than being maybe flooded three-quarters the way up, which ours was often, they’re actually pretty good.
Marco: So I was always interested in the idea of, you know, ‘man building things’. I’m really bad at building things.
Ray: Did you ever do any construction work yourself?
Marco: I’m really hopeless. Deborah who’s sitting there is just building some shelves today for our studio and she does all that handiwork, she’s got a doorknob to fix as well. But people assume that because I’m interested in these things and I get inducted on site, and sometimes when I’ve got my red jacket, you know I’ve got my red card, and whatever coloured hat, people just assume I must be able to build things, and do stuff.
Marco: I built a one-and-a-half metre pathway once and I invited people to come and have a look, and people laughed because there was only one and a half metres and that was my biggest building achievement.
Ray: But there’s also that, when you see your dry points as well, it’s sort of like this children’s illustration aspect to it, you know the diggers and the construction, and you mentioned before you were working on a kid’s book?
Marco: It’s kind of a kid’s book. It’s about Australian animals that become human. It’s written by John Hughes who also wrote Remnants and it’s 80 etchings about Australian animals that become human, but they absolutely massacre each other and so it’s not really a kid’s book. People ask me, ‘Is it a kid’s book?’. I mean it’s probably something you’d read with your kid, but sort of more like Grimm tales.
Ray: We haven’t got much more time but I just thought we should ask the question, do you think if we were building a public building – like a major public building like the State Library – today, would we put a dome on it? Or is a dome seen as old-fashioned? Because I was just trying to think of what domes have been built recently and we were talking before, maybe the Millennium dome I think, in London, and I think there was some criticism of that dome because it was seen as retro, you know it wasn’t forward-looking. Do you think we don’t celebrate domes enough?
Marco: I think the shape, as you and I talked about today, the shape’s repeated in things like the soccer stadium, it’s repeated without being obvious. So I think that lovely, circular … I mean Southern Cross station, I spent 18 months on there and the beautiful flow, especially from up high. So I think the elements of dome build, I don’t think we need to build more domes, it’s good to build things that are of our time.
Ray: I actually think, was it in the ‘90s when Jeff Kennett I think suggested that the dome, there was originally supposed to be a dome on Parliament House, and he initiated trying to get the dome built and it all fell apart, I don’t know why. Did you know anything about that dome, Ann?
Ann: I remember that, because I think also in the original designs for Parliament House there was a dome. And similarly in the first designs for this building there was a dome, but not the dome as we know it today. Yeah, I like the symbolism of the dome, I don’t know whether we need to build more domes. I always look across at RMIT and the green brain on the building at RMIT and I wonder whether Ashton Raggatt McDougall have invented the new dome with the green brain.
Ann: But yeah, I don’t think we need more domes, but we certainly need more interesting architecture across the city.
Ross: Maybe more spaces that are free for the public to use if anything else, that you can get shelter or commune with people.
Julia: Also that Seaman’s Mission, have you ever beenthere? That’s pretty amazing.
Ray: Have you been in that dome?
Julia: Yeah I have, yes.
Ray: And also Flinders Street as you mentioned as well.
Ann: I don’t know if people saw Flinders Street on the White Night festival but that was fantastic that dome, lit up with purple and green and as a stage and as you were saying Ray, I don’t think we celebrate some of the things we’ve got already, enough.
Ann: And certainly that was a great night for the Flinders Street dome and it was a great night in here too for our dome interior. I think, I’m with Ross though, it’s this whole idea of having places that are refuges for people and community spaces that anyone can come into and feel comfortable and work and just that wonderful free access.
Ray: It’s maybe time for the films but just one final question. Would you use the dome again in an artwork, I mean would you interpret it again?
Ross: I don’t know. Not this week, not in the short term.
Ray: And Julia?
Julia: I don’t know about the dome.
Ray: I mean the room.
Julia: I’m sure that I’d probably want to do some more work with books and, I wanted to get into the area where you weren’t supposed to get into, so I’ll be working on that one I think soon.
Ray: And Marco, your inspiration for domes is endless isn’t it?
Marco: Yes I think it will always pop up, especially in the aerial views, but I’m also working on a comic book that has the dome post-apocalyptic, kind of.
Ray: This one?
Ray: Well thank you very much everyone. I think we’re going to have the two films now, beginning with Julia’s Sixty-seven.