Arts / Big Bad Banksia Men invade gallery

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Artist Heather B Swann… known for her large installation pieces.
Artist Heather B Swann… known for her large installation pieces.

THE National Gallery of Australia has been invaded by Big Bad Banksia Men, the kind immortalised by children’s author May Gibbs.

They’ll be momentarily coming to life soon in the Gandel Hall as sculptor Heather B. Swann presents “Nervous”, a live performance and art installation exploring intense emotional states.

Swann, a studio-holder at Australian National Capital Artists in Dickson, is known for her large installation pieces.

The full installation of sculptures – nine Banksia Men and seven other sculptures including  pairs of terrifying swinging legs – are up until November in the NGA’s Contemporary Gallery, where they will be punctuated by occasional “pop-up” performances.

But the September 3-4 weekend performances will be unique and short-lived. Involving sculptures by Swann, poems by Kevin Brophy, score by Thomas Green and performed by music ensembles Plexus and Continuum Sax, and vocals by Astrid Connelly, Jack Swann, they will see the fearsome Banksia Men played by members of the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus Ristretto, led by Michelle Leonard.

Heather B. Swann’s installation "Nervous" at the National Gallery.
Heather B. Swann’s installation “Nervous” at the National Gallery.

The audience, the sculptures, the performers, the musicians and the Banksia Men will all be on one level, close up and Swann says: “The audience will be inside this Mental [the performance space], inside the brain as it feels and experiences a range of emotions embodied in the sculptures, abstracted by the music, felt by all.”

“None of this is haphazard,” says senior curator Australian painting and sculpture Deborah Hart. “Swann has been at work for two years with her collaborators.

“I think that while the installation is for everyone, the performance is not the kind of thing you want to bring really young people to.

“The sculptures of Banksia Men are actually worn and the legs are worn by a six-foot man.”

It could be pretty scary and this writer, for one, still has nightmares about Banksia Men.

“The music by Brisbane composer Thomas Green is amazing,” Dr Hart reports and one of the performers, Connelly, has little sight, so Swan has created words for her with this in mind.

“It’s a really nice intersection that merges music and theatre and visual artist.”

Heather B Swann’s “Nervous” until November 20. World premiere of “Nervous”, Gandel Hall, NGA, 7.30pm, September 3 and 2pm, September 4. Bookings to

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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