Raquel Ormella

The textiles, installations, moving images and zines created by Raquel Ormella work on us in complex and contemplative ways. She beguiles us with her materials’ textures, colours and scale, and the strength of her intellect is as apparent as her emotions. ARTIST PROFILE caught up with her in her Canberra studio, and in Tallangatta, Victoria, just before her national tour.

What can visitors expect from your Shepparton Art Museum national tour?
This survey draws on work from a twenty-year period, though the majority have been made in the last six to seven years, but it includes key works such as the drawings on whiteboards I made in 2008, ‘Wild Rivers: Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney’. There are two new works; one is City Without Crows, a performance that I’m reworking into an installation, video and drawings; the other is All these small intensities, a series of small hand-stitched embroidered works, which are now a 3-D installation.

Is your changing scale determined by your ideas or other factors?
It’s definitely to do with the idea, partly with the labour involved, and studio size. I was 2016 artist-in residence at Artspace (Sydney); the studio there is so huge. I didn’t think of the works as particularly large … I’ve made big textile works before, I didn’t think ‘I need to get bigger’. Now, unpacking them in smaller spaces, I think ‘OMG, these are really big works’. Making something 1.2m, it’s not much different from 2m when you are sewing on a machine. But making something hand-size, my labour changes, by stitching the work a 15 x 10 cm work can take two weeks. If I then increase the scale a little it can take almost twice as long. So the labour shift is much stronger in the small works.

Has your point of view in media changed?
I guess there are differences. Working with a moving image, the point of view is a conscious formal device. Sometimes there is a planned composition similar to my stitch work. In video, the point of view, where you are possibly situated, becomes the key driver building the work. With Watching (2003), the way the re-enactment framed the policewoman Debbie’s (Wallace) body and therefore Anita’s (Cobby) body was really startling. Anita’s body was framed by the cutting off of her legs and torso, and this chasing-behind view. This view produced a very visceral reaction in those who knew Anita, they found this view very distressing; it made Anita a consumed body.

Walking Through Clear-fells (2009) is about the landscape of Tasmania’s destroyed forests. No campaign image had captivated the general public, partly because clearing produced sublime views of the mountains. I wanted to work against that sublime view by scanning the ground. So, one channel was filmed from a helicopter with the camera pointing straight down. In the other two channels I strapped the camera to my body and to the cinematographer, Joe Shemish, to generate the same viewpoint and walked across the landscape. There is no sense of horizon or the sublime location. Instead we’re looking at the unrecognisable detritus of a former forest litter the ground. That disorientation creates an emotional reaction.

There is a perception that Conceptual Art is devoid of emotion and materiality. Are you trying to give a different account?
The material presence: definitely. Maybe there’s something about materiality that reads stronger, in terms of affect, but I haven’t considered the driver to be affect. When I finished art school I studied for a year in Vienna, living in Vienna and Berlin. Afterwards I went between Australia, Berlin and Vienna for a couple of years. Vienna has an amazing museum collection of conceptual and performance art. Having seen a lot of stuff in books, when you’re physically encountering these great works of art for the first time, you are struck by how much they’d aged. Their materiality was very present, regardless of their original conceptual intention. So that made me realise that I don’t have to avoid materiality; artworks will always be material.

How do you start your embroidery?
Sometimes it starts when I’ve got a set of threads, like a palette. I’ll think about what would be the words, the language which holds the artwork. I’ll mark a rough dimension. Or I’ll map out the area, from the left-hand corner, or start stitching around the edge of the fabric so it doesn’t fray. Usually, it’s like call and response; I’ll put something in and then I’ll decide that yellow’s OK now, it’ll need something high contrasting, or that isn’t so contrasting. They’re very impromptu and free. I’ll make them in the bus, the studio, in front of the tele; sometimes I’m concentrating, and sometimes I’m not.

Do you want to add more about painterly qualities in the embroidery?
They are where I am thinking about painting, but they’re not paintings. One of the unusual things about stitchings is that the ground is usually a cream white and I don’t use white very much in the stitching, I don’t particularly like white. It’s quite hard to imagine how the tonal contrast is going to shift when I start to fill in ground areas. In a sense I’m thinking about these as paintings; there are certain traits that mimic painterly effects. And also a painterly sense of improvisation, the image building itself, watching it formed in front of you.

Are you interested in the history of embroidery techniques?
Not particularly. I’m more interested in textile works and embroidery as a second wave feminist critique, the way Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch references embroidery instead of painting. Narelle Jubelin’s use of petit-point-rendered images and photographs was another way of sitting outside formal approaches to painting, as a critique of modernism where form was opposing content. Their approach was to link form and content now; if we think of the opposite of ‘form’, we might say ‘formlessness’.

How important is drawing?
Stitching has taken drawing’s place in my life this last year. When I have to work through a set of options I’ve worked with drawing, particularly when I was doing stuff with Regina Walter, and Flaps (Zines), or the ‘I live With Birds’ series, or work I’ve made with the Wilderness Society. Drawing was a way of working with photographs, allowing me to make photographs that were not just ironic, a way of slowing down, shifting certain aspects of the photo that were important. I would use the photo as a reference, decide what is the relationship to the photograph, how can I make this drawing without the photo.

You’re hoarding fabric?
Yeah. For future artworks. Every piece of fabric has a story. The stash, the potential, that’s something that’s very common to anybody working with textile. I’d like to make a work about that, but maybe I’m too close. Also it speaks to people who understand the language of textiles. It’s not a language everybody reads. I wonder; can you make an artwork that only speaks to a small audience? How does that artwork circulate? I guess I’m still thinking about it.

I’m assuming text is coming through multiple sources.
In I’m Worried This Will Become a Slogan (1999–2009), a series of double-sided banners, the story came from newspapers. So was Core Promises, Mutual Obligations (2007), they were newspaper Howardisms. The banner Things that have not changed (2009), that was a Howard and Ruddism, the phrase describing the policy logic of the Northern Territory intervention that Aboriginal people are still living under – Colonial power – these were words being said to Australians all the time so we didn’t question their logic. From the burnt flag series, Poetic Possibility (2012), This Dream on the Other Side of the World (2013), New Constellation (2013), Return to the Beginning (2013), those are my poetic phrases, they’re not sourced from anywhere.

Do you need to deconstruct the material for the object?
One of my lecturers at the University of Western Sydney, Joan Grounds said ‘there are certain artists who construct something, and there are those who take something away’. Creating a conceptual image means taking another image apart. In Wealth for Toil No.1 (2014) the ground with this is hessian, it wasn’t necessarily an image, but it was a material, a square, and monochrome. The unified object as a painting or the unified square needed to be deconstructed. I wanted it to be in a state of moving from one position to another position. In a sense, that’s what art is, taking the prosaic and transforming that into a poetic experience, an experience of the imagination.

You seem to avoid personal stories in your work?
When I was a student Sue Best asked us to question the clichés, frameworks that are gendered, class-based, cultural or art-historical. All those questions about what constructs an artist, ‘just because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean that it has to always be that way’. The number of times an artist’s work is read by their biography, some tragedy or personal interaction, a particular place – I think that’s really boring. It really predicates the kind of dominant culture, middle-class, white. So often the idea being promoted is of glamour or lifestyle – at its worst really distasteful.

So many artists have no money and are living somewhere really boring – what does it matter? What does it matter about my back-story, who I am? The work should stand for itself. I want it to be read for its intellectual and material curiosity. But now I am going to contradict myself – I’m not just a thinking brain, or a brain with hands. I’m a woman living at this point in time, from a particular cultural background, born at a particular point, who’s very close to the boomer generation, whose opportunities, and at points lack thereof, have been formed by what is going on around me in the world. So all of those things form my life, and come into my work, but I don’t want to foreground those as being ‘mine’, ‘my’ story. Mostly because I share this with a lot of other people, and any power my story might have, comes from the points it has in common with others.

What do you gain or lose from collaborations?
Long-term collaborations come from friendships, and a lot of conversations. Flaps was about hanging out and doing things together with Regina (Walter). With Andrew (McQualter) the works came from a lot of conversations, then we made works together. It’s being outside of yourself as an artist making the sole decision. I couldn’t do it with everybody, these are key friendships.

Are your objects deliberately subversive?
I try to make them subversive. They express doubt, they express disdain for convention or they might express uneasiness. Making work doesn’t come easy, I’m not sure how deliberate or how conscious it is, but my objects do those things, that’s a good thing for me.

Are you modelling processes according to context and location?
Definitely. I’m thinking what is the work of art, what is this context, where will it be shown, is this an object which can, or should, be sold, or does this need to sit outside that monetary exchange, is it ephemeral?

Does your research enable you to engage emotionally with an issue, or assist to distance you from that issue?
Probably a combination of the two, sometimes you don’t know about something, and your research uncovers, historically, something quite affecting. Or sometimes the research is about analysing the situation and distancing yourself from the gut reaction. If you don’t have any broader understanding of the issue, then the only thing left is your emotion. The research enables you to be open to other people. It’s not just about your feelings.

Where do you think the portable nature of your work comes from?
The way I lived has dictated that the work has to be quite portable. For such a long time I didn’t have a studio. I was working at home, so things had to be packed up in order for the kitchen table to be a kitchen table. I’ve been commuting between Sydney and Canberra for work for twelve years, but I’m doing less of that now because I moved my studio to ANCA in Canberra. Also textile is transported easily overseas and some works were made with international shows in mind.

Is there an ethical line you wouldn’t cross in your work?
The work that I made for Carriageworks, Handshake from the Past (2017), was about engaging with the stories of people who had been on strike, and so had lost their income, sometimes for eight months. Some people never got their job back, some were never able to work again in the railways. For years, there was this back and forth, in terms of the Royal Commission, getting their pay reinstated to the level when they weren’t on strike. The community they lived in, their families, took a big risk. In the art world you make something and then there is an expectation that the object will be for sale. I felt strongly that I didn’t want the work to participate in this kind of exchange. I didn’t want to make money out of this situation, because it felt like a betrayal of the struggle that those people had gone through, and their loss. Using workers’ uniforms enabled me to make present the absence of the bodies of the strikers, who were anonymous. Those banners went back out into the neighbourhood, out of the Carriageworks site. Some of them have disappeared, some of the people have hung them up on their balconies, others have disintegrated.

Writers don’t pick up on your work’s humour: there’s a lot there.
I don’t know whether that’s a Protestant thing, the idea that you can’t be serious and funny. Maybe for me that comes from a culture that’s influenced by Jewish humour, or maybe that very black humour that’s set in Europe, in terms of being serious and laughing at quite heavy things. Or the kind of Socialist humour that emerges, poking fun at the church authority. When people meet me for the first time, they just see someone or they experience someone who they don’t quite read culturally, so they stick with this kind of serious aspect, rather than seeing that there’s a whole kind of Latin-American and Spanish humour, that has a kind of blackness. The knowing wink, ‘we all know that we shouldn’t say something, but let’s say it.’ That’s complicated, because you have to be in safe company. Lot of times, you do get pigeonholed, ‘she’s a serious artist, she does this’, or ‘her work can’t be commercialised, so we won’t commercialise her work’. Also you and I knew each other before we were art professionals, it is easier for us to see our complications, to know that we have things in common, so perhaps you see my sideways smile and know that I am repressing laughter.

EXHIBITIONS
I Hope You Get This: Raquel Ormella
Shepparton Art Museum, Vic, 26 May – 12 August, 2018
Horsham Regional Art Gallery, Vic, 13 October – 9 December 2018
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Tas, 19 January – 24 March 2019
Drill Hall Gallery, ACT, 12 April – 9 June 2019
Noosa Regional Art Gallery, Qld, 22 June – 28 July 2019
Penrith Regional Gallery, NSW, 30 November 2019 – 2 February 2020