Empathy: Interview with Canberra Artist Saskia Haalebos
Updated: May 9
by Zora Pang at National Portrait Gallery Cafe, rainy
10-11am, 4 Mar 2020
(With Special thanks to Dr Anni Doyle Wawrzyńczak, Dr Maya Haviland, Saskia and other collaborators who made this and the subsequent exhibition In(out)sider (2020) possible, and Professor and Brasilian artist Christus Nobrega who brought inspiration and wisdom to the group.)
Zora: I typed this bit [for our collage experiment], "words not first language," which comes from your CV. You mentioned that you have dyslexia, what does that mean?
Sas: It's a different way of thinking and organising with your brain, specifically to do with language. Many people see it as a learning difficulty when I looked at it as a teaching inadequacy. […] You will mix words up or letters will switch around, or you might say a word that is related to what you want to say […] but not the word you meant to say. […] So, neurodiversity, I guess.
Zora: That's interesting, because a lot of your works were related to words.
Sas: I know. [laugh] Give yourself a challenge! My job is also word-related. […] That way of thinking means that I am really aware of anything that is ambiguous, so I need things to be specific, which means it makes me a good writer because I can see where it might be confusing for other people.
Zora: Is there a theme or topic that you really interested in that's related to your making?
Sas: It seems to be revealing itself. I like to try to make work that is about helping people have more empathy and see things from a different perspective, and maybe not judge people […] based on the first experience meeting them.
Sas: Yea, […] helping the world to be a kinder place, which is the big job and I don't know if I'm doing it. It's a big part of my focus, really.
Zora: Which specific project you think have attempted that?
Sas: I had a work at Canberra Contemporary Art Space (CCAS) last year. […] I made an alphabet out of shapes and made a sentence, […] translating texts into shapes. This work was a sentence made out of laser-cut in MDF, so each letter was about this big and made up a sentence on the wall. It is called Threshold (2019), and people will look up, either realise that it is a sentence and try to decode it, or they just go "Oh, that's abstract art", reach their threshold of understanding and walk away. It was sort of about people recognising that what they see on first glance isn't actually what it's about, because the sentence actually said, "Abstract is a term used by those who have given up on understanding".
Zora: What are the other projects that are about empathy?
Sas: So, I notice that you have this one [for the collages] here. […] This is about the changing of the environment over time and, how, based on snow depth over 65 years, [it is] a downward trend. […] the blank space is the important part of the artwork. And these orange polls are […] the ones on the side of the road, so when there is snow, you can still see where the road is. This is called the Great Vanishing (2019), […] so the great vanishing is about the ecosystem around here but also the great vanishing of all of us. Over this time, someone who is born here may not still be alive here. It is […] realising that we are all part of the ecosystem, and to have empathy for the environment not just to the people around you.
Zora: That reminds me of, by looking through your website, there is a very deep connection with this land and indigenous [history]. […] How did you come to this position?
Sas: I was born here. We weren't taught anything to do with First Australian history at school, and I find that very shameful that it is just brushed aside and not talked about. This Ngunnawal country is so beautiful. The smells, and the colours, all of that. To think that people were here 60,000 years ago, and we don't know about that, that to me is heart-breaking.
For me, community isn't just about people. For me, my community is more about the parrots that visited my house, and two cats that I live with, and the big gumtree that is outside my house, and so it's not just about people and events. It is nature that I feel most connected to…, more so than people, coz they don't disappoint you. [laugh] […] I do have a partner, and he also lives with me (laugh). […] This enormous gumtree has been there for hundreds of years, so I just find it really lovely that [it] let me live beside it.
Zora: Something I felt about nature, or culture with a longer history... they are all very generous. The concept of ownership only came after Western arrival.
Sas: And it's in the language isn't it? The First Australians talk about custodianship, so looking after it but not owning it. […] I think too, that western idea that we are separate to nature, we are not part of nature, that is certainly an issue.
Zora: Have you ever done any work that's about this land?
Sas: [Two years ago] I did a long durational drawing performance Flood (2018) as part of Contour556. […] A friend of mine, Jane [Rawson], who was also born in Canberra, wrote a story about living under Lake Burley Griffin. […] It used to be a paddock […], and it took couple of weeks for the water to fill up the lake. […] There is a little gallery that's down by the lake so it was on-site, pretty much, and I wrote her story out, backwards, on the glass, so you could see it from the other side […]. Then I flooded it over four Sundays, it took twelve and a half hours to fill the glass. [So the story was about how the lake] flooded the indigenous history that was in the paddock and how we kind of just covered that up, and over time, how the lake filled in and was writing over the history.
Zora: What does work with other artists or institutions meant to you? Are they your community?
Sas: I do collaborate with other people to make art, but I need to really trust them. Cos you're quite vulnerable. I don't want to be in the situation where I just say yes because I don't want to hurt someone else's feeling. Though the people that I do collaborate with, we are such good old friends that I don't feel like anything I would say would be taken the wrong way. […] I seem to [collaborate] with people that I know I can talk to. […]
Zora: What makes this possible? What do you feel like that's at the core of such communication?
Sas: [Pause] […] I think, because they have empathy, and they are patient, and give me time to formulate my questions or explanations, and ask questions... Don't just jump to conclusion. […] These are relationships that were built over decades, so I think we've ironed out all the creases.
Zora: [The art school] is a community, isn't it?
Sas: Yes, especially in Print Media and drawing. Print Media is all about community because the equipment is so big and you have to share it and the history of community posters to help people […]. It is the social media of that time.
Zora: yes, Alison is also in this project.
[Sas excitedly showed Zora her own version of # Knowmyname T-shirt with Alison being the first name]
Sas: Just one though. […] I feel like one is enough. Like all of us. You don't need to produce multiples when one is worthy. Yeah, I am anti-edition. I guess, there is the thing too, empathy. One is enough.
Zora: Is CASS also a community for you?
Sas: Yeah, so I interned there during my degree, and then I asked if I could stay on to volunteer, and then they employed me. It's an important organisation in the local arts community. […] They paid artist fees when you exhibit with them. So good to get paid! It's a great place for experimental contemporary work. […]
Zora: This project is a collaboration between Brasilia and Canberra, and we also have a lot of Chinese students, I wonder how would you imagine yourself tackling the challenges of language gaps.
Sas: I'm so excited about this. [laugh] I've come up with ideas about how we might be able to do it. […] I'm a big fan of Google Translate. I like the idea of that miscommunication, I think that's a really important element in that process, because […] there is an assumption that there is no miscommunication if you both really fluent in one language. It's not true. There is miscommunication, then people decide what's being said, and that's where potential conflict comes out of it. […]
Zora: And that's relating to your idea about empathy. Do you think people can actually understand each other?
Sas: No, I don't. However, I do believe in the intent that people will try and understand each other, and I'm an idealist, and I'm blindly optimistic that people have good intentions and will try. […]
Zora: That inspired me to think that maybe, understanding each other is always a process. There's no end to it. […] It's a constant effort.