For the 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire, renowned Australian artist Susan Norrie presented her film Dissent (2012–14) in the atmospheric Powerhouse building on Cockatoo Island.
Shot in Tokyo at night, Dissent depicts scenes of recent Japanese protests against nuclear power. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, the largest such event since Chernobyl in 1986, all of Japan’s nuclear reactors were closed down. In mid-2012, just over a year after the disaster, two plants were reopened, prompting large rallies and protests outside Japan’s parliament. Despite official police reports of 14,000 protestors, organisers of the rally claim that up to 200,000 people, including children and the elderly, took part. Norrie’s moving and cinematic images of protestors, replete with candles and banners, depict the ceremony of the demonstrations, capturing the public’s spirited hope for change.
For the better part of the last two decades, Norrie has presented audiences with scenes of terrifying beauty; an apocalyptic world on the brink of ruin. Using art as a means of political commentary, she creates videos that elaborate on the theme of natural and man-made disasters, ruminating on the fragility of nature and human existence.
A concern for ecology and the environment is at the core of Norrie’s artworks, pertinent topics in our contemporary political atmosphere, where debates surrounding climate change continue to dominate election campaigns and influence party policy. Norrie’s imagery of disruption and disaster – of earthquakes, dust storms, volcanic eruptions and drought – should make such warnings difficult to ignore. These scenes reveal first-hand the devastating effect of human intervention on the landscape, not only in our impact on a changing climate, but through industrial damage, nuclear testing, depleting resources and pollution.
Unlike other artists who highlight environmental issues, Norrie does not work in a documentary style. Emerging as an artist in the 1980s, she initially made a name for herself as a painter. The sensual textures and techniques gained from this practice are evident in Norrie’s visceral approach to creating moving-images, which appear as a marriage between fine art, documentary and cinema. The use of montage and film-editing techniques, informed in part by pioneering filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, allow her to combine her own footage with existing material – blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction.
In recent years, Norrie’s practice has displayed a particular interest in the Asia-Pacific region, shedding light on the many environmental and humanitarian disasters that have befallen the area. Havoc (2007), set in East Java, is a 16-channel installation profiling the mud volcano Lusi, which has been a source of continued disaster for the people, villages and environment of the region.
Norrie studied at National Art School, Sydney, and Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. Since the 1980s, her work has been the subject of significant solo exhibitions worldwide, including ‘SHOT’ and ‘Enola’ as part of Edinburgh International Festival at Collective Gallery (2009); ‘UNDERTOW’, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2002); and ‘THERMOSTAT’, Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki (2001). Norrie has also participated in numerous international group exhibitions, most recently ‘Among the Machines’, Dunedin Public Art Gallery (2013); ‘Porta Nigra’, Hidde van Seggelen Gallery, London (2012–13); 4th Yokohama Triennale (2011); and ‘Molten States’, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2008). She has participated in three previous iterations of the Biennale of Sydney (1986, 2004 and 2008), and was one of three artists representing Australia at the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007).