Susan Norrie is documenting the tragic forces of the world


West Australian philanthropist Lady Sheila Cruthers was a strong supporter of acclaimed artist Susan Norrie. Consistently purchasing work from each of Norrie’s exhibitions, particularly in the 1990s, Cruthers added Norrie to her growing, famous collection of work by female artists. Now, Norrie’s work—which spans photography, painting and film—is serving as a weighty, dark exhibition springboard.

With works from the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art donated to the University of Western Australia in 2007, curator Lee Kinsella has now chosen to exhibit several of Norrie’s paintings, executed in a dark palette and sensuously tactile in their application of paint. Norrie’s paintings are part of an exhibition of works from the university collection that includes portraits by 20 artists including Yvette Watt, Adrienne Gaha and Susan Wyatt, positioned on an opposing wall.

“Norrie’s works are conceptual in that they engage with the subjective processes of both making and viewing art,” says Kinsella. “Her paintings present lush and beguiling surfaces that allude to uncanny and potentially troubling currents beneath.”

While Norrie’s most recent work is with film and video, storytelling has remained a crucial element of her practice. Starting out as a painter in the 1970s, Norrie has also embraced photography and installation throughout her career. “I’ve worked with film and video for over 20 years but have continued to paint,” she says. “There seems to be a real division in the art world in terms of my practice. A lot of people feel it’s painting versus video, but I feel they connect and comment on each other because my ideas and concepts are the most important aspects of my practice.”

With her filmmaking, Norrie extends her viewpoint outwards from the self to present a global portrait of multifaceted human experiences.

Describing herself as “a citizen journalist”, Norrie has regularly travelled to environmentally volatile locations in the Asia-Pacific region to record and investigate the experiences of those who live there. Propelling interests for Norrie are climate change, human-made and natural disasters, and how traditional knowledge is contrasted with science and technology.

Susan Norrie, HAVOC, 2006–2007. © Susan Norrie.

Research into volcanoes and seismic activity or “disaster surveying” has played a particularly important role in her film and screen-based practice. Often presented in a multichannel large-scale format, Norrie’s video work is immersive, filling the gallery space with filmed footage that slips between documentary, art film and meditation. For Norrie, two experiences have proved pivotal to how she currently works: travelling to the Lusi mud volcano in Indonesia and being deployed to Iraq as an official war artist.

Caused either by natural elements or excessive drilling practices, the Lusi mud volcano erupted in East Java in 2006, spilling waves of toxic mud and gas across the landscape and displacing the tens of thousands of people living nearby. At the time, news about the disaster was scarce.

“There wasn’t enough information coming out of East Java, so I had to go there to find out what was happening,” explains Norrie.

The resulting work, HAVOC, a 16-channel video installation, became Norrie’s presentation for Australia at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. “I think that’s where video became important for me. As a medium it is contemporary but it’s also able to depict certain contexts really effectively. The use of documentary and telling stories has always been important to me.”

Works like HAVOC encompass the viewer with visuals, fully occupying our field of vision with the information Norrie wants us to see. With the Lusi mud volcano, Norrie returned to the site 10 years later to track changes to the landscape and to document how locals had continued to live in the wake of the eruption. The two-film installation, Aftermath, 2016, revealed this experience and was shown as part of Susan Norrie: Field Work 2006-2016, a major exhibition held at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in 2016.

“Revisiting sites, not seeing them as one-offs, to go back and see what had happened to the people after 10 years was essential,” says Norrie. “I realised at the time there wasn’t a lot of context, not only in Indonesia, but also for Australia, in relation to the Asia-Pacific. I wanted to expand Australia beyond itself.”

As a result of her investigative work in HAVOC and Aftermath, in 2016 Norrie was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial to be an official war artist for Australia. She was deployed to Camp Taji in Iraq where she spent time documenting her everyday life on film. “We went to Taji two weeks after the Battle of Mosul started,” she explains. “The Australian Defence Force was there, and they were training the Iraqi soldiers to defend their own country.”

Likening the process of documenting these important moments to the history paintings of Renaissance artists, Norrie says, “Hundreds of years ago painting was used in the same way film or video is used now as a way to document history. Making this kind of work has really expanded not only my sense of the world, but also my sense of self. To a degree, my work deals with the tragedies of the world but it’s also very much about the mysterious forces of the world.”

From the Cruthers Collection of Women’s Art
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery
University of Western Australia
Until 10 December 

Feature Words by Briony Downes