A review of ‘Olga Cironis: This Space Between Us’
Kelly Fliedner 

To cite this contribution:
Fliedner, Kelly. ‘A review of Olga Cironis’s This Space Between Us’. Currents Journal Issue Two (2021), https://currentsjournal.net/Olga-Cironis-This-Space-Between-Us.

Course of study:
Doctor of Philosophy, Department for Fine Arts and History of Art, University of Western Australia 

Book review, Olga Cironis, Art Collective WA, Western Australia, Contemporary Art, Art History

Image ^^^ cover of Olga Cironis: This Space Between Us,  (Perth: Art Collective WA, 2021). 

Why does identity and history matter for the material histories of found objects that become art? How do individuals reflect and refract institutional and personal experiences in their work? And, to what extent are we enmeshed in broader, structural narratives, regardless of where we are situated, especially when breaking down barriers of centre and periphery? These questions are there in the practice of Olga Cironis, and are especially marked in the recent publication of Olga Cironis: This Space Between Us published by Art Collective WA. This book was accompanied by an exhibition at Art Collective and follows two other recent major exhibitions of Cironis’s work, the first Forest of Voices at Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (November 2020 - January 2021) and the second Dislocation (February - June 2021) at the University of Western Australia’s Lawrence Wilson Gallery. Taken together the exhibitions and publication mark an important moment of institutional recognition. This Space Between Us features three texts by Jacqueline Millner, Paola Anselmi and Lisa Slade, all of which are an excellent contribution to the discourse around this artists’ work. These texts are accompanied by over 150 photographs of Cironis’s works, many of which are installation views of works no longer extant, so much so that This Space Between Us also acts as an extensive archive.

Olga Cironis was born to Greek refugees in 1963 in what was then Czechoslovakia. She came to Australia in 1971 and has spoken about the shock of arriving in a racist and avowedly white society.1 Braided into this story are more personal details, including her mother’s tailoring, the desire to fit in as a teenager, and her engagement with drawing and objects. This desire to make and craft, especially from discarded and rejected items, has followed her throughout her life, even during formal studies at the Sydney College of Arts between 1987 and 1995.

Recently, Cironis’s work has entered a different conversation along with other members of Art Collective WA. Art Collective was started in 2013, as a member organisation that supports the work of established long career artists from Western Australia through exhibitions, discursive events and publications. Their activities attempt a ‘deliberate contribution to the art history of Western Australia’2—a history that has often been neglected by art historical  and collecting institutions of this place. They continue to make their own distinctive works in a community of practitioners who come from diverse fields and media, each contributing unique sensibilities to a small city’s art scene. This book, The Space Between Us, is a chance to reflect on Cironis’s work, to celebrate her contribution, and to think more broadly about what recognition means when looking at the oeuvre of a later career artist in the context of identity, place, reclamation and more.

Although diverse in both medium and subject Cironiss works have through lines and recurring materials: objects that borrow from domestic and the military, dangling unfinished threads, blankets and other fabrics wrapped around furniture or ornaments, organic material like hair or nails or features turning inanimate objects animate, bringing them to life through some kind of alchemy or witchcraft. In This Space Between Us Lisa Slade describes the transformative power of Cironis’s work as ‘amuletic’ (p. 37) thinking too of its specific genderings.

Much of Cironis’s work might be defined by a fierce or hard feminism, a militant approach to otherwise benign household objects. In many ways, her works amount to a domestic battleground that the audience enters into, an invitation that is complex and complicated and not entirely unproblematic. In a particular way, her wrapped objects participate in a long history of female artists from Méret Oppenheim, Mary Kelly, and Louise Bourgeois to contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. Cironis is one of many who have used furniture as a stand in for the human body. The works are performative or theatrical, dramatic renderings of the ‘taken-for-granted’. Ready to be animated by the audience. Gentle and caustic, soft and hard, they look like creatures lovingly animating a gothic horror story. They speak to work by Australian artists like Bonita Ely who has worked through the intergenerational traumas and PTSD of war (see Interior Decoration, 2017)3 by reconfiguring furniture and objects as acts of repair, mending, shrouding. Or Fiona Hall whose textile sculptures speak to a cohort of artists invested in trauma art. They also evoke the beautiful and haunted Australian surrealism of Rosslynd Piggott or Pat Brassington, but more frightening because of the traumas and intergenerational suffering that they speak to.

This trauma is complicated, not a simple mine to exploit, or a wound unhealed, or even a performative grief that appears publicly therapeutic. This is about the interaction of feeling and rage, melancholy and playfulness as they connect to Cironis’s identity as a migrant and woman in Australia who experienced social hardship on arrival here and who carries within her the trauma of her family. As Anselmi writes, ‘[b]y dismantling, reassembling and covering, Cironis examines the nation of appropriated histories and conventional attitudes of belonging within the adopted foreign Australian cultural landscape.’ (p. 21)

Images ^^^  Bouquet 2020, repurposed mannequin, tapestry, porcelain and found objects, 97 x 34 x 25cm. Collection of the artist;  Yellow 2019, repurposed toys, feathers, military fabric and cotton thread, 148 x 17 x 12cm. Collection of the artist; and, Dancing with Leonard 2017, repurposed toy, amethyst, military fabric and cotton thread, 44 x 43 x 13cm. Collection of the artist.

The depiction of trauma in Cironis’s work often leans into and borrows motifs from horror—a thread of Gothic so present in settler Australian self-representation. This  interest in the macabre takes many forms but is particularly striking in her child-like effigies and wrapped toy military figures such as Dancing with Leonard (2017) (p.138) or Yellow (2019) (p.140) or Bouquet (2020) (p. 109). Each doll is hand woven in stitched-together pieces of military camouflage cloth with strange, and estranging, protruding and pieced together limbs of found objects. They possess a creepy, spooky, scary kind of power that is hard to understand. They are reminiscent of a cinematic dark magic, even a violent, threatening blood lust, with mad and unhinged potential. One of Cironis’s more disturbing works is Hollow Desires (2016) (pg. 130), a wall-based textile of an army camouflage baby sleepsuit upon a military canvas both arranged in the shape of a cross. The pleated crown of the canvas curves around a black face embroidered with gold flecks that all move toward a central point where a mouth or an eye might or perhaps should be present. This, like many pieces, has a capacity for psychological terror, which situates violence—state-based as well as intimate and individual—at the very heart of Cironis’s oeuvre.

Image ^^^  Hollow Desires 2016, child’s clothing, hair and cotton thread on millitary canvas, 111 x 83cm. Collection of the artist. 

Cironis’s works are, of course, personal as they speak about her own and her family’s history of displacement. They also attempt, with varying degrees of success, to use the Australian experience to enter a universal, humanistic conversation about what it is to be a refugee, what it is to be displaced, or to deeply connect with exile and longing. Anselmi suggests that Cironis is in a process of ongoing renewal and a reinterpretation of her own work, a way of reframing and understanding her role in historical events, including the changing political and social contexts where nothing stands still, not even here. Anselmi writes, ‘Her generational migratory experience and her own movements within Australia have invested in her a palpable understanding that nothing stands still, and that meaning can change and quickly become distorted.’ (p. 18) However, this claim of Cironis’s temporal dynamism is tested by the aesthetic expression of the work itself, especially given its consistency for twenty-five years, since the mid-1990s. any of the conceptual tenets of the work have likewise remained steady. Home Run (2013) (p. 24) and Alexandra (2013) (p. 16) present imposing, three quarter length portraits of the artist facing the viewer, a dead-pan expression on her face and her lips crudely stitched together. These works speak to the very specific feeling of being a refugee, of being displaced, of being othered, and of being powerless, of being voiceless. It is also a reminder that time has stood still. For a refugee in Australia being incarcerated by temporary protection visas, offshore processing centres, and the many variations of draconian detention has remained startlingly stagnant for twenty years—plus ça change. Cironis’s own work, has constant threads that weave throughout the book building a picture of an artist who has dedicated her life and career to the same ideas, painstakingly studying them, producing variations on similar themes, producing a rich picture that is more still than motion. These works are strongest when they connect back to the specificity of Cironis’s own personal history, making obvious the point that the way to universal suffering, to the world out there, has to be through the specific, its detail, its care.

Image ^^^ Alexandra 2013, archival digital print on paper, 120 x 80cm, ed. 4. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

There is something polarising about Cironis’s work, not for the audience, but rather internal to the objects themselves. Tensions are brought about by harsh juxtapositions: cots without mattresses wrapped in military blankets; loose feathers trapped in steel boxes; kitsch porcelain figurines stabbed in the face. There is no middle ground of feeling, the tensions are stark and uncomfortable, the paradox evident in the most cursory of looks. Anselmi gets at this tension by signalling out the use of binary text by Cironis: If you’re not with us, you’re against us (from Under Cover (2002) (pg.24), with the critic stating ‘[b]y reading the words the viewer becomes part of the narrative; either an agent of change or an enabler of suppression, as the words sit within a binary space not a neutral one.’(p. 31) This is the lived presence of the artist made visible, who, after all, is a worker crafting an object rather than working magic. Thankfully, alchemy does not quite occur, lest we lose touch with the material circumstances of politicised rendering, of social responsibility, and the body of the domestic itself.

Image ^^^  Under Cover 2002, repurposed wooden cots, military blankets, cotton thread and castors with projected text, installation dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. 

Perhaps the essay that best gets at magical domestique, that witchy, amuletic nature of Cironis’s work, is by Lisa Slade who opens her text discussing the concept of the ‘evil eye’, a concept that unpacks a lot of the art here with reference to its gaze as well. Slade discusses her family history in particular, highlighting how the work is about loss and reunion. Sombre and celebratory. The funeral and the birthday party. The christening and the wedding. Memory and loss, always there when one comes from elsewhere, with visions and longings for home and its associated meanings of safety, warmth, comfort. This is consistent with many diasporas, particularly those unwillingly formed in the aftermath of war and turmoil. As Slade writes

 …art becomes the mediator and the ameliorator in this perpetual diaspora. Through the tearing, stitching, covering and embalming of objects and images, traumatic familial histories that feature dislocation, disorientation and loss are repaired. (p. 41)

This is, of course, made real by the objects themselves, by the very fabric they are made from, for afterall, ‘[t]ext and textile, words that share an etymology, a history, and connect to the idea of weaving, converge in a series of repurposed floor rugs, blankets, and wall hangings made by Cironis from 2010.’ (p. 45) These works of cloth and blanket, of succinct statements and derisive words represent the promise of protection, warmth, swaddling, and suffocation.

Slade appropriately contextualises Cironis’s work in relation to international feminist artist practices like those of Miriam Shapiro and Meslla Meyer, who use text and textiles to identify the, ‘pan historical use of collage processes by women artists and artisans, identifying such techniques as strategies of proto-feminist social subversion.’ Confession and moral interrogation. Slade also does well to place Cironis with Australian artists like Fiona Hall, Tony Albert and Caroline Rothwell that have, ‘used camouflage to comment on conflict and culture, and also to flip traditional associations and meanings.’ (p. 50) Cironis’s use of militaria is more personal than many because of her familial experience of war and displacement. It is also a way of connecting to her mother who after coming to Australia worked as a tailor, more notably for a company that made military uniforms. This detail helps uncover what makes Cironis eye so close and connected, yet implicated with a moral universe beyond the nation and into the world historical. One aspect that remains unremarked upon here, perhaps due to the generational frame, are the cultural limitations of the intersection of the personal and the world historical. As in some instances Cironis’s work errs on appropriation as the universal read through the lens of the personal eclipses the unique traumas of refugees of colour and Aboriginal Australians. Whether in texts or motifs, specific references, or the models in photographs, we might comment that the personal gets one only so far and that the world historical changes with other voices demanding to be heard, others still silenced.

All three of the texts convey that Cironis is always attempting to enter into this kind of dialogue with her audience. To play with them through craft and concept. To create unexpected situations and juxtapositions speaking directly to the ‘space between us’, that of the imagined space between artist and audience: a conceptual as well geographical. This recognition by the writers means that This Space Between Us is a welcome collection of writings that helps recognise an important Perth artist.

Cironis’s work deserves a wider audience, both of viewers and critics who want to engage in meaningful discourse about independent practice. In that way, the connections to be made include how we teach and think about the art historical narratives of gender (especially through the domestic, including at the level of object and subject); of violence (especially through the gothic, including at the level of palette and narrative); and of location (especially through displacement and identity, thinking especially of continuing perspectives around belonging). In Cironis’s work one can discern continual threads that question easy myths of consumption, sunshine and whiteness, all leading towards a position of making and unmaking, of performing critical labour in creating homes out of detritus, and bridging mediums through experimentation. That alone makes her of interest beyond this city, but when considered part of a generation of practitioners finally gaining recognition we can see the importance of these essays and photographs. That might be This Space Between Us greatest contribution.

Olga Cironis: This Space Between Us
Published by Art Collective WA, Perth, 2021
Texts by Jacqueline Millner, Paola Anselmi and Lisa Slade
This book can be purchased directly from Art Collective.


Image ^^^ Home Run 2013, archival digital print on paper, 122 x 95.5cm,  ed. 2. Collection of the artist. 


1. Perth Artists 2018 “Perth Artists S02E01a: Olga Cironis” video accessed 19 November 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saRvowDOkAI

2. Art Collective 2021 “About Us” accessed 19 November 2021, https://artcollectivewa.com.au/about-us/

3.  Bonita Ely, Interior Decoration: Memento Mori 2013–17, installation, mixed media. https://www.documenta14.de/en/artists/1001/bonita-ely

About the author:
Kelly Fliedner is a writer living on Whadjuk Boodjar interested in the intersection of creative and critical writing practices.  She is also a Board Member of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art; Editor at Tura New Music where she is writing a history of the experimental music organisation; and, one of the founders of Semaphore, a publication about art from Western Australia. Kelly has worked for a broad range of organisations as a writer, artist, curator and editor  including the Perth Festival,   Kochi-Muziris Biennale,  Sydney Biennale, Next Wave Festival and West Space. Kelly is currently on leave from her PhD candidature at the University of Western Australia and is unsure if she will return. 

Currents  is a collaboration between the Centre of Visual Art (CoVA) at the University of Melbourne and the School of Design, University of Western Australia, and is funded through the Schenberg International Arts Collaboration Program. The Advisory Board and Editorial Committee are comprised of staff and graduate students from across the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia.
Currents acknowledges the traditional owners and ongoing custodians of the land on which this journal is produced—the Boonwurung and Wurundjeri people of the Eastern Kulin Nation and Whadjuk people. We pay our respects to land, ancestors and Elders, and know that education involves working with their guidance to improve the lives of all.

ISSN 2652-8207