In 2020, three landmark exhibitions were set to open at Sydney’s Carriageworks, Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, and Hobart’s Mona, Museum of Old and New Art; each recognising an artist working in Australia through ‘The Suspended Moment: The Katthy Cavaliere Fellowship’ – using the funds of Cavaliere’s deceased estate to remember her artistic legacy (1972-2012).
On 18 June 2021, the Mona iteration finally opens with Hobart-based artist Sally Rees’ ‘CRONE’; postponed from its original date; it now lives on a year later. Taking shape as an installation of 17 screens, featuring hand-painted animations that communicate through ‘bird-like calls’, forming the ‘crone-dome’, the exhibition reflects on both Rees and Cavaliere’s exploration of the self and the other side of femininity that rejects conformist notions of womanhood.
‘The work evolved to become a fairytale made of screens,’ Rees reveals. ‘Made up entirely of videos/animations, it centres the ‘Crone’ amongst her (my) network of fellow crones, a group of women who call out to each other like birds, accessed by a ceremonial entryway and precluded by a record of the Crone’s ‘becoming’ (the dawning of my 50th).’
Rees was first inspired to create this body of work through her research that found ‘some pretty scary statistics around the social position of older women in Australia.’ The artist noticed this group becoming the fastest-growing demographic for poverty and homelessness in the nation. Instead, Rees wanted to perpetuate a new image of resilience, wise, compassionate, unruly and ‘even possibly somewhat transgressive and fearsome.’
‘This is the fairytale crone – an independent woman possessed of mysterious and specialised wisdom who self-sustains on the edge of her community,’ Rees shares. ‘She gets things done. I see these qualities in the older women around me who I admire.’
When Mona’s curator Nicole Durling first handed David Walsh the shortlist of proposals, he homed in on the word crone. ‘He thought that was incredibly brave of a female artist to identify with,’ Durling explains. However, Rees reveals, ‘I don’t know that I would agree… It’s the quality I want to cultivate most in myself, for sure. I think artists learn to exploit their resources, and one of the resources that I have is a lack of shame around certain aspects of my personhood.’
Initially set to open on Rees’ 50th birthday, the exhibition now reflects on how you can’t ‘reverse ageing’. ‘The two central crone portraits each had an earlier phase one and were due to ‘age’ – change over – to their phase two with my birthday,’ the artist shares. ‘With the postponement, I mounted one of them on the front page of my website for the week preceding my 50th, but the phase one works are now archived and won’t be seen at all.’
‘The ‘ritual’ of the project is resolved by being witnessed – by having an audience,’ Rees continues. ‘By finally opening the exhibition to public viewing, the intentions for my ageing are set. Now I get to live those intentions and watch curiously to see how they play out.’
A key element of the first iteration of ‘CRONE’ saw Rees performing the Cronewalk on her epochal birthday – a lengthy journey of walking from the top of kunanyi/Mount Wellington to the gallery. However, with COVID closing the national park to visitors during this time, it left the artist considering her intentions. ‘While we were all in pause, I had also become more aware of a spiritual significance to kunanyi’s pinnacle that I wanted to observe, and this confirmed for me that kunanyi was not my stage to perform upon,’ she muses.
As Rees reflects on her own understanding of cultural sites and heritage, she also reminds the audience to consider art created and shown in Australia today. Art is interconnected with the world around it; as Rees rightly observes, ‘I think art loses its worth if it doesn’t honour the realities of existence.’
Emma-Kate Wilson is a Sydney-based arts writer.
Mona, Museum of Old and New Art
18 June to 1 November 2021