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project description

This permanent commission is sited at the old parliament house, Canberra. Walls That Whisper honors the past uses of the space and those whom once populated it. Walls That Whisper advances the hall into the 21st century by incorporating high-end projection and sound equipment to aid in continuing the relevance of the building. Both Walls That Whisper investigated new and challenging ways of interpreting cultural history while paying respect to existing heritage and conservation guidelines.

This sound and light work subtly challenges the notion of public art. Visitors to the Hall trigger sensors that release its echoes – voices and sounds from the chambers, bells, footsteps. Names of those who worked in the House in various roles are softly recited by actors including the grandson of a former Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, whose voice shares its history with the House. Names are projected in light and apparitions of figures momentarily appear in the Hall. This ghostly work challenges the conservative concerns of site in Australian art history, inviting discussion about both impermanence and collectable objects. Walls That Whisper plays off the formal character of the building, respecting the authority of the space. Kings Hall is a space which is open to the unpredictable and Walls That Whisper offers the viewer to experience impressions from the buildings memory.

Robyn Backen’s Book of Shadows

The King's Hall is located at the centre of the Museum of Democracy in Old Parliament House. It represents the meeting of the building’s two halves which join to form a façade of composure and balance. The Hall is the point of reflection for the architecture’s symmetry; its spaces also reflect the appearance of statesmen in statues, busts and paintings.

During Old Parliament House\'s first life, the King’s Hall connected the two legislative chambers, becoming a type of public square or loggia that allowed unexpected meetings between members of different parties and allegiances. Since the building has been retired from its original role, the Hall has grown more reticent. Robyn Backen’s Walls That Whisper calls upon persuasive means to create an art work that is ‘visibly invisible, and audibly inaudible’, as she has phrased it.

The work revives aspects of the Hall’s past and introduces new possibilities to its visitors, renewing the space’s earlier capacity to allow unpredictable meetings. Unlike the illusions of painting and sculpture, the artist awakens impressions from the building’s memory. Visitors to the Hall trigger sensors that release its echoes – voices and sounds from the chambers, bells, footsteps. The names of those who worked in the House in various roles are softly recited by actors including the grandson of a former Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, whose voice shares its history with the House. Names are projected in light and apparitions of figures momentarily appear in the Hall, as if disappearing for secret conferences.

The artist also invents a small drama to touch the individual psychology of the visitor. Emptied of words and memory, a circular spotlight wanders the Hall, moving according to its own sensation like a nerve of the building.

Occult tradition advises magicians to stand within a circle when reciting incantations and invoking spirits. The deceased cannot penetrate this circle that guards the living from the spirit world. Robyn Backen opens a book of shadows to call on names of the past and to revive sounds that have expired, but she frees her protective circle of light to travel randomly, democratically across the Hall. She frees it to protect visitors from the forbidding possibilities of the past  - the fear that it may ask us to be only dutiful and humourless in its service. It becomes the spotlight that stages its own drama; the pool of Narcissus that inhibits self-delusion; the cloud of unknowing which instructs by eluding us.

© John Murphy

credits

Project Management - Edwina Jans

Technical Installation - GPT Phil Preston, Hill Sound and Lighting

Sound Production - Jasmine Guffond, Gregor Murray

Sound Consultant - Simon Lear

Image Development - Ian Hobbs, Vanessa White, Josh Raymond, Gobo Tech

Assistance and Support - Heather Mitchell, Jim Backen, Charlie Daiziel

ABC Researchers - Beth Shepherd, Elizabeth Ellis, Natasha Marfutenko