CLEANERS, pastry-cooks, security guards and carpenters jostled with senators, press and bureaucrats yesterday as the results of a commission from one of Australia’s leading photo media artists were unveiled.
Anne Zahalka, one of Australia’s most eminent photomedia artists, was commissioned in 2013 by the Department of Parliamentary Services to document the many facets of “The House on the Hill” during its 25th anniversary celebrations.
“Parliament House at Work”, 20 photographs and many more digital images taken behind-the-scenes at Parliament House, can be seen on the first floor of the building for the next month. The photos take us to places we have never seen in the house and while most of the focus of the individuals who keep the building humming 24 hours a day, two images are most striking – one of the main foyer filled with people and one of the car park, entirely empty.
At a function to celebrate the results of the commission, the secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services, Carol Mills, said this that this was not just a series of events but something intended to be lasting. With funding from the government, they had been able to engage one of our “really great photo media artists” to interpret the work of the staff “that make this building happen.” Ms Mills said the photographs would now be in the permanent collection and provide a record that could tour to those people who never have the chance to visit Parliament House.
Anne Zahalka, she concluded, had been commissioned to produce images of “the seat of Australian democracy.”
Ms Zahalka told those present that she had in the past undertaken commissions on a naval base and overlooking the Berlin Wall but that this had been one of her most enjoyable undertakings, as she particularly liked being introduced to different communities.
When she undertook the commission, she said, she had only once before been inside Parliament House, the construction of which had been documented by photographers as famous as Max Dupain and even some of her old lecturers so that she felt “it was humbling to follow in their footsteps.”
Ms Zahalka told “Citynews” that initially she would have preferred to name the subjects and that indeed there had been an oral project where they were interviewed, but the decision was to focus on the work that took place in the building rather than individual, giving the project longevity and a sense that the subjects “were all pulling together for Parliament House…” ‘Parliament House at work’ acknowledges these people and the important role they play in securing, maintaining and breathing life into its hallowed halls.”
The retiring president of the Australian Senate, John Hogg, said that on the previous night he had made his final statement to the Senate and it had got him thinking about “the people who really make this place tick.” Senator Hogg said the exhibition would encourage people “to see the different aspects of Parliament House and to consider the work that is required in order to maintain and run this national treasure.”
He revealed to the crowd the existence of a mysterious place known around the house as “the Cathedral … a space under a ramp,” a place that even people like the Speaker and he had not been aware of for a long time.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, said the photographs recorded “the fact that you cannot separate the people from the building.” Mrs Bishop said that in selecting an artist to undertake this commission it had been important to find someone who understood the scale of the building and the scope of the work that it is performed within it. She reminisced about her first six months as a junior parliamentarian in Old Parliament House. There, she said, her office had been the equivalent of a “broom cupboard,” so the change had been extraordinary. “The volume of work…could not be carried out without changes in technology and space.”
For a long time, she said, photography had not been given prominence in the Parliament House art holdings but that these worsk by Zahalka were “a tremendous addition to our collection.”
Although it was striking the number of none of the behind-the-scenes people in the photographs is individually named, Mrs Bishop did name carpenter Bill, cleaner Maria and security officer Laurie, all of whom were on hand for a morning cuppa.
As for the mysterious ‘Cathedral’ well, Mrs Bishop said, “we’re always looking for new spaces.”
“Parliament House at Work” is on display at the Presiding Officer’s Exhibition Area, Level One, House of Representatives side, Parliament House until August 10. From 10.30am – 12 this Friday, June 20 Zahalka will joins photography scholars Martin Jolly and Helen Ennis to discuss the photographic legacy behind this commission. The accompanying book, which costs $4.95, may be purchased from the Parliament House shop.
All photos by Howard Moffat/AUSPIC