Tony Burke to artists: “We don’t just respect and appreciate what you do, we need what you do.”

The Hon Tony Burke MP's speech, Arts Day on the Hill launch & Inauguration of the Parliamentary Friendship Group for Contemporary Arts and Culture, 30 July 2019.

Image: The Hon Tony Burke MP, Shadow Minister for the Arts, at the launch of NAVA's Arts Day on the Hill. Photo by Irene Dowdy.


The Hon Tony Burke MP, Shadow Minister for the Arts
Arts Day on the Hill launch & Inauguration of the Parliamentary Friendship Group for Contemporary Arts and Culture 30 July 2019
Parliament House, Canberra
(Introduced by Esther Anatolitis, Executive Director, National Association for the Visual Arts)

Thanks very much.

I join in acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, their elders past, present and a reminder of what always was and what always will be.

Thank you for being here. Thank you for being here tonight and thanks to those of you who are artists for what you do.

I should let you know in coming here…big thing for me to come to something…because tonight is the night we have the Labor party band practice.

We had just finished our rendition of Khe Sanh when I came here, so tonight’s gathering is that important!

In Australia generally we’ve lost the capacity in almost every policy discussion or debate to deal with something being beautiful; to deal with something touching your soul, we’ve sort of got rational metrics that are our only way of entering into any discussion.

But ultimately what we try to do in this building, no matter what side of politics we’re on, what we try to do, is to change how people feel…how people feel about their lives. What our policies try to do, with education, with health and a whole range of things is to change how people live and how people feel.

But the Arts does that so much more quickly than how we do.

A novel, a narrative, a drama will take us through a rollercoaster of emotions.

A good work of music will grab and change how we feel by the second bar…and your work as visual artists? You take control from the first glance.

In terms of the role that we try and play here, the truth is, you do it more quickly; and your role is that important.

I think Gough Whitlam probably put it best when he said everything else we do here is a means to an end; what the Arts does is an end in itself.

I’m asked to talk about one work of art, and I’ll get to the one that I keep, but it’s a bit of a story to explain it.

I love the artist Jonathan Jones. Absolutely love his work. I’ve had a longstanding involvement here with the Murray-Darling, so when the NSW Gallery, over the last few months first put out Jonathan’s Darling River work of broken pieces of wood, of a trunk, of branches just like the branches of the river but in fact the branches of a tree, dead and separated across the floor, it would have been half an hour before my heart would allow my legs to move.

But the first work of Jonathan’s that touched me was one that has forever changed Sydney for me.

Now to understand this I’ll just tell the story as Jonathan told me.

Having been raised with not a lot of knowledge of his First Nations heritage, he knew that in different parts of the country there had been collections of artefacts. There are a whole lot of collections in Victoria, there’s still a great collection in South Australia. These are artefacts that you can say have been collected, some stolen, but once there was also a collection in Sydney for the different nations that formed his heritage.

Now you would all know about the Royal Exhibition building in Melbourne.

But very few people know about the Sydney Exhibition building.

It was magnificent. It was glorious.  And it housed these First Nations treasures but after just over a year, it burned down and everything within it was lost.

If you go to the Sydney Botanic Gardens there is one garden that is just a circle. A concrete circle. It doesn’t look all that impressive. But the reason it’s a circle is because it’s immediately beneath what once was the dome.

Jonathan wanted to recreate what lived there for such a short time, which were the treasures that had lived here since the first sunrise.

So what he did for the different nations that were his heritage, he constructed the different collecting dishes in four different shapes, in white resin, and then produced thousands and thousands and thousands of them and laid them across each other for the entire perimeter of what was once that building.

So you knew when you were standing inside it and when you weren’t.

Then from the trees that were now within he had recordings of people speaking First Nations languages. From the languages that had part of their story destroyed or lost when that building burned down.

In that circular concrete garden he planted kangaroo grass. He ripped out the roses and the petunias or whatever else had been there and planted kangaroo grass. 

It was a reminder of how art can physically change a space.

The most beautiful reminder of that work as to how it changed the space was when the art was removed.

Because, and they hadn’t thought of this at the time, as they removed the white resin dishes, the grass of course, having been covered for months with them, had changed colour.

The exhibition had been completely removed - but the work was still there.

I went to it a lot. It has forever changed how I walk through that part of Sydney.

A few months later I was given a work which I have in pride of place, not in my office, at home, because I want to look at it all the time  (although arguably I would do that more in the office than at home).

A photograph arrived; an original photograph. Jonathan obtained an original print, not copies, an original photograph (and there’s not many around) of the Sydney Exhibition building, and punched into the photograph repeated copies of the four shapes of the gathering dishes, making the photograph a more authentic depiction of the site than what a photograph could ever be.

Every time I look at that I see a reminder of the depth of us always having to remember whatever the building, whatever the construction, the story that truly lives there has been there since the first sunrise.

I can never do that with a policy.

I can never do and create that sense of what it truly was and feels with a speech, but as artists, you can change how people see their home, their world, their surroundings, themselves and if the world ever needed that it’s now.

Thank you for what you do, please keep engaging with this building. We don’t just respect and appreciate what you do, we need what you do.

Thank you.