21 March to 3 May 2015


John Stephen Britten

A BLINDSIDE / NETS Victoria Exhibition

Curator | Claire Anna Watson

During its regional tour Synthetica is supported by a local exhibition series – Here in the Undergrowth – a showcase of new work by artists with a strong relationship to the venue’s surrounding area. Here in the Undergrowth is a means of creating a conversation – a knowledge
exchange, an initiative intended to promote regional artists as well as to link Synthetica to each location in a new and unique way. In 2016, at the conclusion of the Synthetica tour, a curated selection of works by artists from Here in the Undergrowth will be presented at BLINDSIDE.


Andrew Tetzlaff

John Stephen Britten’s Heart and Poem is an unassuming treasure map—a topography of winding paths and esoteric annotations drawn using the tools of sound, photography and restraint. Across the work, a collection of moments act like discernable landmarks for us to visit, orient ourselves to and navigate from: hearts beat, cars burn, glasses clink and birds caw. Upon investigation these components reveal a curious depth and Britten’s “map” unfolds, hinting at unspoken stories, knowing observations and treasures waiting to be unearthed.

There is a quiet and compelling quality to the manner in which we enter the work, a hypnotic absorption of our senses. In fact, it is more of a release than it is a premeditated movement. As we fall in, we are caught in a web of interconnectivity—an architecture of sense that loosely fastens the components together. Like some pattern-matching game we’re unknowingly playing (or perhaps it is the natural gravity of like attracting like), the pieces begin to line up. In one moment we pair a sound of the natural world with a photograph of the same; in the next, a heartbeat finds its stethoscope. Gradually, through this puzzle-piece fitting process, the cast, sets, and acts emerge; over time the work is revealed—a nonlinear collection of descriptive tangents, key characters and narrative vignettes. It is an ambiguous and purposefully incomplete picture, a state of amnesia constructed for its potential. Left to our own devices and in a reclining posture, we are allowed—almost invited—to negotiate this set of posed, and poised, disconnects. We are able to listen and look at our own pace and in our own way. We are given a time for reflection—perhaps on one of the circumstances alluded to or perhaps on our own personal situation. The unspoken and understated nature of the work is not an obfuscation generated in the interest of secrecy; it is a celebration of the faint—of the intimacy and gentle qualities of the whisper, of the tacit words that compose a considered silence. It is through this openness that the work engenders curiosity and incites interpretation and imagination. Britten’s work presents itself as a dynamic cartography of circumstances for us to traverse. This is not a story to be experienced second-hand; it is a map for a personal pilgrimage, an invitation to experience, explore and negotiate.

Despite its complexity and profundity, Britten presents the situation in a poetic manner and with a light touch. In this work, we move alongside the story of an Afghan refugee poet, through the volatility of the Derby Marsh of the Northern Territory’s Kimberley, around the outskirts of Swan Hill and into Britten’s own domestic life. Throughout, there is an audible presence of land, of body, of instrumentation and of conversation—both human and animal. Sounds of interiors float on top of outdoor field recordings. Places and times are layered, conflated and confused; complexity is allowed. Temporally speaking, Britten’s visual and sonic subjects regard the passage of time in a variety of ways: there is the “speed” of our thoughts, of our anatomy, of our conversations and of the earth. Slow and fast are contextual terms, terms which the work does not make any attempt to unify or reconcile. Things are not boiled down to one point, they are left as a constellation; the natural, the geographic, the social and the synthetic are allowed to coexist in relation to one another. The same method is applied to the work’s spatiality. A quick ear-glance from one sample to another shifts our perception of space: the expansiveness of the wilderness is juxtaposed with close-quarter intimacy or the confines of an internal body rhythm. The heartbeat, which provides a backdrop and sonic ground, is simultaneously the murmuring heart of our poet and a reminder of our own flesh and blood. It is as if we’ve just plugged our ears with cotton to tune out the world. The beat invites an inward direction to our listening and once we succumb to it, our senses re-orient themselves—a subtle shift of perception perhaps inspired by Britten’s own synesthesia. Our body becomes a frame through which to view the work: conversations are heard with a newfound sense of physicality, and the metallic humming of aeolian harps belie their source to ring like a synthetic version of our own central nervous system. We are brought into ourselves, to a place where medulla oblongata thinking is prioritized over frontal lobe cognition. There is a primal quality to this state, a connection to tactility, to our intuition, our emotions and our memory. Time is allowed to dissolve—a sonic, visual and experiential journey without start or end. The work’s installation echoes this sentiment, providing open-ended systems—looping audio and a coffee-table style photographic journal—that give us the freedom to enter and leave when we like, traverse how we like and focus on what we like. It is not point-a-to-b; it is a meander. There is no rush. There is a chair.

Heart and Poem sits us down to tell us a story. It provides a pause for us to remember and consider—in a very physical way—where it is that we are and where it is that we are going to.

Andrew Tetzlaff is an artist, curator and academic based in Melbourne. His practice is an investigation into the manifestation and experience of place and natural phenomena often realized via sound, photography and installation.

This exhibition has received development assistance from NETS Victoria’s Exhibition Development Fund Grant, supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria, a division of the Department of Premier and Cabinet.