If Tamara Dean’s title, High Jinks in the Hydrangeas, conjures up images of merry japes among manicured hedges, well and good. Dean’s solo show is the inaugural exhibition at Ngununggula, the new regional gallery in the Southern Highlands, New South Wales. And as the artist explains, her photographs, sculptures and moving image work were shaped by the physical and existential threats of both the coronavirus pandemic and recent bushfires. “But,” Dean says, “I didn’t want to lean into only the negativity. I wanted to bring in a bit more lightheartedness.”
As a direct result of social isolation, Dean, who is known primarily as a photographer, turned the lens on herself for the first time in a decade. She started a new series just as the 2020 national lockdown came into effect. After years of working with the bodies of others, Dean made the best of a bad situation and became her own model. “I knew that I could at least depend on myself,” she says.
But, she points out, she doesn’t view these works as self-portraits. Instead she sees herself as just a figure in the landscape, something more universal. And it is this ability to distance herself from herself that lead Dean to her playful title. “I sort of looked at myself from the outside,” she recalls, “and I thought how silly I must look throwing myself into bushes and then running back to the camera! There was a sense of comedy to the actual shoot that I felt was coming through in the series.”
And there is a heightened sense of the fantastical and the comic in many of Dean’s images in High Jinks in the Hydrangeas. In Self-care, 2020, for example, multiple pairs of disembodied arms seem to magically clip a sinuous green hedge with whirring shears. This amusing image was inspired by a radical haircut Dean persuaded her husband to give her during lockdown. But the sculptural installation this photo inspired in turn, There’s something in the air, 2021, reveals a darker undercurrent running in parallel to the artist’s high jinks.
For this work, Dean suspended more than a hundred pairs of hedge trimming shears in the gallery space. She describes them as a swarm—and for her, they are a physical manifestation of pandemic induced anxiety; a response to an invisible threat. “They are a visualisation of the savage deadly air particles that we have to imagine around us,” she explains.
Dean also makes a sense of danger visible in her moving image work Dysrhythmia, 2021. Over the course of a 16-minute-long loop Dean is “smashed around” and nearly suffocated by masses of colourful powder. The artist says that this work responds to the twin threats of bushfire and coronavirus; it encapsulates the “idea of being battered by this constant fear of something in the air.”
Living on a bush block about a 50 minute drive from the Southern Highlands, Dean was evacuated several times during the catastrophic bushfires of 2019-2020. “The sky turned orange, ash rained down on us,” she remembers. “Our home went from this place of peacefulness to a place of abject terror.” And then within a couple of months, the pandemic hit and Dean found home to be a place of refuge again.
And through it all, art too has been a refuge. Dean received the invitation to stage the inaugural show at Ngununggula early in 2020, just as the pandemic began to take hold. And despite many delays, working towards this goal kept her going during the uncertainties of lockdown.
Housed on the National Trust property Retford Park in Bowral, NSW, Ngununggula is finally open, thanks in large part to the efforts of dedicated local residents including artworld luminary Ben Quilty. In addition to Dean, Quandamooka artist Megan Cope was commissioned to make a site specific installation for the opening, and the gallery is offering an extensive range of public programs.
Ngununggula means belonging in the traditional language of the Gundungurra people and the new gallery is ready to become a place of refuge for Southern Highland locals and the broader community. As Dean puts it, “It’s such a beautiful space and it’s a great place for people to come together and see art.”