Queensland University of Technology (QUT) graduate Tom Emmett won the King St Car Park Competition last year and here he details the development of his work into the completed piece which was revealed at This Year’s Ekka.
I’m up in Brisbane for a few days finishing off a commission for a good friend of mine and have a couple of hours to visit the Brisbane Showgrounds and the newly created King St precinct. At the end of July, my artwork Travel Together was opened at the site, the culmination of 12 months development and work on the piece. Having been immersed in the development of the work and the physical installation of the piece, I hadn’t had the chance to see the piece properly, as I had been away from Brisbane since the opening.
It’s a funny thing seeing a very familiar work of yours with a fresh set of eyes; you can see it and appreciate it as though it’s new, as if you’ve never seen it before. And then you can take in the subtle details, how the light hits it, the light blue winter afternoon sky as a backdrop, the three dimensional nature of the pixels themselves.
The Kings Co-op Façade competition was spawned through collaboration between Lendlease, the RNA (who are redeveloping the Bowen Hills site) and The Buchan Group. QUT and the Queensland College of Art then came on board and students from both universities were invited to enter and create an artwork for the five-storey, three-sided car park which was going to be built on the site.
A cash prize and the opportunity to have a prominent public artwork created in my home city were strong enough justifications to enter and I set my mind to the brief, one that outlined the technical creation of the work and written text about the site and its history.
Around the time of the competition I was working on a sculpture for Swell Sculpture Festival at Currumbin Beach, which was about interpreting the beach as a living entity and how that would materialise. This was partly inspired by Tim Winton’s book Island Home which among other things, discusses the various ways of seeing the landscape and how it is alive, breathing, changing and growing just as we do as humans. These ideas were present in my mind when considering the Brisbane Showgrounds site for an artwork.
The Showgrounds has historically proved itself to be a meeting place, a site where many people from different backgrounds and hometowns converge. The Ekka springs to mind first, with the country and coast making a pilgrimage towards the city Showgrounds, where people meet and gather and share experiences, stories, memories and create new experiences and relationships and connections. I thought this to be the essence of the place and I imagined this giant living organism which spread itself out across the state to be representative of the Showgrounds. Working on a map and tracing various routes from rural towns gave form to this notion and from there I created my initial submission.
The competition allowed students to present original artworks to prominent art and design figures of the state and nation. It was broken into an initial judging round and a shortlisted round, where after some feedback from the various stakeholders we presented our concepts to a judging panel and I was fortunate to win decisively.
Part of the feedback given to me was that my concept wasn’t as grounded as it could be, meaning my proposed artwork needed a handle to bring it back to reality. I struggled with incorporating this into my work, but worked through it to include the map outline of the Showgrounds and the main arena into the centre of my image. This lifted it from a general idea about the place into a drawing that was intrinsically linked to the site.
I drew the final artwork onto a digitizing screen, which allowed for direct translation from my hand to a digital file, incorporating another human element. This was very important to me as I wanted my hand to guide the final installation and create a work that was very analogue, but assisted and amplified by digital manipulation and scale.
The actual medium for the artwork was developed by the architects at the Buchan Group. A custom plastic ‘pixel’ which could be clipped onto galvanised steel mesh allowed a large canvas to be created. The mesh allowed natural light and ventilation through the building, while by varying the density and composition of the pixels, complex images and shading could be created too. I had this in mind when creating the work, and the technical limitations informed my decision making so I could use as much potential as the medium allows for.
Lendlease, who championed the competition and fully embraced my vision for the project, were very easy to work with. Penelope Layton, Jodi Clifford and Brad Coombs were my main contacts and we discussed the various tasks and commitment we had to complete for the project.
I worked primarily with industrial designers Anthony Rawson and Patrick Shirley from Buchan while developing my artwork and converting it into the installation plans for the drawing. Both were great to work alongside and we enjoyed the meticulous process of ‘pixelating’ my drawing. We broke down the image into the pixels, and customised algorithms which created different pixelations. Anthony’s expertise and meticulous attention to detail was of great benefit to the project and we left nothing to chance.
The pixel itself is a two-part custom plastic ‘tile’, developed for manufacture with industrial designer Chris Townsend. It was designed so its face could be orientated up or down by eight degrees. This theoretically allowed certain pixels to be highlighted, as they would reflect more sun than downward facing pixels. Patrick’s computer renders and subsequent virtual reality modelling showed this was possible, but it wasn’t until final installation that we saw the outcome, which was of great surprise and satisfaction to the whole team. This knowledge influenced my artwork too, and I had key lines I wanted highlighted by a stronger reflection.
As part of the process and Lendlease’s practice, we consulted Indigenous Elders from the Turrbal People, Brisbane’s Indigenous nation, regarding my proposed artwork and sought their feedback and thoughts on the work. We visited their office in Kippa-Ring and I presented my concept and work to them, illustrating my process and meaning behind the work. They were very supportive and loved the message and story the work is about, which was incredibly special and humbling and meant a lot to me as an artist.
The scale of the project with thousands of tiles proved challenging to systemise and communicate with the team. A coordinate system proved the most efficient, and allowed speed and accuracy of execution which was crucial to the sheer scale of the work. The 58,000 pixels were split into approximately 500 technical drawings, each generated individually, and then assigned to a mesh panel on the building.
The installation itself was held over a two weeks, with panels only accessible by crane installed first and then the main installation by hand. A call out to local residents, community members and other people from the Brisbane area brought in a variety of people who volunteered on the installation. Although it was a challenging task at times, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the tasks and drew great satisfaction at what they have achieved. Installing 58,000 pixels across 1800m2 of façade was a mammoth task, and the volunteers were instrumental in the project. Penelope organised the installation and the logistics of the volunteers, and without her efforts along with Dine Marie and others, the project wouldn’t have come to fruition.
It was so amazing seeing the piece come together, like a giant jigsaw puzzle with the pieces fitting in slowly. The scale is really incredible and I’m happy with how the work commands monumentality about it, bearing witness to the act of travel and communion at the Brisbane Showgrounds. The ‘updown’ feature of the pixels performed extremely well and we were all very satisfied with the effect that it creates, as though the artwork is breathing and changing as the day passes and light shifts.
I feel very fortunate and lucky to have had the opportunity to create this work and I feel a lot of factors aligned which made it possible and ensured a successful project. It has also led to future works and commissions including paintings, a residential screen façade and early talks with architects for future collaborations, which is an exciting prospect and I am interested in this direction greatly.
The King St Co-op Carpark is part of a larger development around the Brisbane Showgrounds led by Lendlease. Working on this project gave me an interesting insight into how these large projects run and the various parties who are involved in them. It also gave me insight into how successful projects are managed and run. The RNA development project director Andrew Hay was hands-on in the project from the judging through to installing the pixels, and learning about the intricacies and layers of coordinating large infrastructure and community developments such as this from him was very fascinating.
My artwork Travel Together is a very positive, life affirming piece; essentially demonstrating that we are all connected and are of the same body. The most remarkable thing about the journey of creating this work is all of the people who have contributed and collaborated on it, and how it has bought many people together to work towards a common goal. I’m so thrilled to have been able to communicate and execute my vision for an artwork and work with so many great people to make it happen.