Artists document Canberra’s COVID-19 experience in First Response

There is always a duality in the meaning of Canberra – at once a city and home to our community, while also being synonymous with our national politics.

This was perhaps especially evident during the initial phase the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the ACT went in to lockdown and the lives of Canberrans changed dramatically, our city was also at the centre of the national response.

First Response, is a series of four new works commissioned by Tuggeranong Arts Centre to document this duality and the many experiences of Canberrans during the initial COVID-19 lockdown. The works, by artists Martin Ollman, Marissa McDowell, Anna Georgia and Shannon Hanrahan, highlight Canberra’s unique role as the national centre of this crisis while also showing the profound and personal effects the pandemic had on individuals and communities in the ACT.

Photo by Martin Ollman

Conceived and developed during isolation, CEO Rauny Worm says First Response captures the uncertainty and panic that marked the past three months.

“Somehow there was no escape from the many questions this pandemic was confronting us with, so we decided to explore what it was doing to us, to our community, and how we as a place are dealing with it,” she said.

At the centre of First Response is Plagued, a solo exhibition of new works by photographer Martin Ollman.

During the initial stages of Canberra’s response, Ollman was granted unique access to Canberra’s frontline health services, political figures, and major institutions, including the Australian parliamentary Senate inquiry into the COVID-19 response. The exhibition includes portraits of individuals who played key roles in the COVID-19 response, including Senator Katy Gallagher and ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith, as well as frontline health workers, and members of the arts and tertiary education communities.

Jane Golley, director of the Centre on China in the World at the ANU and one of the many Canberrans photographed by Ollman, highlights the dual facets of Canberra’s role in the pandemic through her own experience. In a professional context, Golley says:

“As an academic economist focused on China, I’ve had plenty to think, write, and say about the pandemic,” she says. “This has mainly related to how the Chinese economy has fared through the crisis, but there’s also been lots going on with the broader Australia-China relationship, which has deteriorated quite dramatically this year.”

On a personal level, Golley says: “We’ve actually really enjoyed the ‘lockdown’, and I feel very lucky about that. I have especially liked having more time to spend with my son, Hugo.”

Alongside Ollman’s work is a short documentary by Wiradjuri filmmaker Marissa McDowell. Isolation explores the COVID-19 experience of Canberra’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, including their unique fears and hopes for the community’s future. The film features personal accounts from a broad range of community members, including Elders Aunty Matilda House and Uncle Warren Daley, artists Brenda Croft and Dale Huddleston, and local students, offering insights into how they felt about these new and unfamiliar circumstances, and how it affected their families, businesses and education.

Meanwhile, the video installation Notes on Canberra Lockdown (A Non-Travelogue) by artist Anna Georgia draws on her training in ethnographic filmmaking, to investigate the everyday activities, digital engagement, circumstances, states of mind, and material spaces of individuals during the period of COVID restrictions (and economic downturn).

Georgia believes that while COVID-19 has us looking outwards mentally and virtually, it has shrunk our worlds down to the dwellings in which we live, our local parks and bushwalks. In Canberra – a city defined by its middle-class suburbia, small population, high rates of secure government employment, manicured open spaces and proximate bushland – there is a generalised sense of appreciation for Canberra as a place of safety and comfort. This film takes COVID-19 as an opportunity to collect images of people’s everyday gestures and activities at home and ‘out of the house’.

Similarly exploring concepts of space is Fix Me, a contemporary dance piece choreographed by Shannon Hanrahan. Fix Me explores the contradiction of the freedom of movement vs the physical restraints of self-isolation at home, the physical space transferred into the online space, and the way that dancers/dance artists can work around, and even be inspired, by spatial limitations.

The Arts Centre hopes that the exhibition of these works will provide an opportunity for our community to reconnect and reflect on their own experiences of lockdown in this unique city of ours.

First Response opens at Tuggeranong Arts Centre on Saturday 25th July and will be on display until Saturday 19th September.

Photo by Martin Ollman
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