FLIGHT: Q&A with Luke Létourneau

Western Sydney International (Nancy Bird-Walton) Airport, after decades spent as the topic of discussion, debate, and speculation, is slated to open for travel in 2026. Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre's recently opened exhibition, FLIGHT, explores a full range of historical and contemporary perspectives on the airport, and on the dream and experience of flying itself.

The exhibition's curator, Luke Létourneau, spoke with Erin McFadyen shortly after the show's opening.

The sweep of this exhibition, from a curatorial perspective, seems to capture so much: a multi-layered topic, and both local practitioners and “big names.” How did you formulate your rationale for the project, and what kinds of curatorial work went into developing it?

For us as an arts centre, FLIGHT was our way of doing a blockbuster; it’s examining a broad interest topic, but it also tells a specific story about Liverpool right now. The new Western Sydney (Nancy Bird-Walton) International airport is a topic of conversation that’s been going on intensely for the last five years, and for the last thirty years more broadly. We decided to put on a six-month exhibition around it, which would interest the community and provide lots of different opportunities for us to engage with them through public programs.

Our thinking was also that a big topic could include artists who have a national profile as well as local artists; we wanted to create a platform for people who are directly impacted and affected by the airport, and by the transformation of this landscape, to have a really clear voice in the exhibition. We invited a lot artists through direct invitation. So for instance, we engaged with Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro – you know, so much of their practice is about aeroplanes and for FLIGHT they have been commissioned to created a major installation for our turbine hall titled Journey to the West, 2023, which features two Beechcraft Twin Bonanza wings exhibited in a way to mimic the presentation of kites. We also did a local callout to artists who live or work in the Liverpool region. And, we held a series of sessions where artists would pitch a project to us and we’d mentor them through the process [of creating the work]. We really wanted to make sure that artists at all career stages would be exhibited alongside each other seamlessly throughout the exhibition.

And you’ve also included collection objects in the show, is that right?

Yes, that was part of our thinking about taking a broad approach to engaging audiences. What I have tried to do a lot in my time working here is give a lot of tours – it’s really interesting to see how people respond and react to different displays. And I’ve noticed that many people, when you have museum-style material, or “factual” material, find that it’s a useful starting point in a show. When thinking about this exhibition, it was really important for us to think about the very different kinds of audiences: thinking about children, thinking about contemporary art audiences, thinking about people who are impacted by the airport, and might want to know more about it. 

We reached out to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, and have a series of objects loaned from them. We have six model aeroplanes, and materials from a collection about Nancy Bird-Walton, the pilot that the airport will be named after – we have her helmet, some photographs. Alongside this, Linda Brescia was commissioned to create an installation of painting and videos about five different aviatrixes and their stories, and how they negotiated the aviation industry. 

We also loaned forty-two Barbie and Ken dolls – these are really quite amazing. They were made by a flight attendant called John Wilmott-Potts. He was a Qantas flight attendant, and as a hobby he created replicas of the Qantas flight attendant uniforms over the years; he even sourced Barbie and Ken dolls of the eras that corresponded with the uniforms. The work points to different design histories of Qantas, but also the enduring fascination that people have with the national airline, and the romance of flying – that very 1950s idea, like in Mad Men. 

I was just thinking of that!

Absolutely. And that energy is really captured in these Barbie dolls. It’s also about dreaming, and the things that kids play with and imagine their futures, or imagine different versions of things.

We also have informational museum-style vitrines about different topics. For example, we have one about Lawrence Hargrave, an important early inventor whose work facilitated the creation of flight as we know it today. There is a school named after him in the area! There’s also a photo series that was commissioned by the State Library [of NSW] in the early 2000s to document Badgery’s Creek. It’s amazing to see these photos now; Badgery’s Creek is one of the biggest industrial projects to take place in Australia in recent memory, but for so many years the land was used for things like hobby farming. People were growing tomatoes there, and taking them down to the markets.

We also collaborated with the Liverpool Regional Museum, who, in the early nineties, commissioned an oral history project about Badgery’s Creek. They interviewed local residents, asking how the development of the area was changing their lives. When we were putting together this exhibition, we engaged with Chris Caines to develop a new work – his work is amazing, dealing with remixing audio and visual material – and we asked if he could do something with this oral history project. The Museum was really generous in opening up their collection and in digitising some of that material to provide to Chris to create a new work, Requiem for Badgery’s Creek, 2023. It’s a four-channel audiovisual work, and the entire soundtrack is made using the audio tracks from the oral history project. To hear some of those voices is really interesting; it’s stuff about, you know “I bought my house, I don’t know how long I’m going to live here, I don’t know if it was a mistake . . .” You get to witness the very intimate transformations of people’s lives, but also a big-picture industrial transformation. 

You mentioned earlier that you were also thinking about how children would engage with the show – where did you land on that? 

One very literal way was through lowering the plinths to the eye level of a child. When I think about children in museums, I think of myself as a kid, with the nose pressed against the glass to see what’s going on inside the vitrines. There are also objects with a lot of “wonder” about them, like the Barbies and model aeroplanes. But that’s not just about children, it’s also just touching on the simple excitement of flying. 

We also did a launch workshop with Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan, and commissioned two works from them, a floor mural titled Arrivals and Departures, 2023, using the painted signage of tarmacs, and Flight/Path, 2023, featuring cardboard aeroplanes installed on one of our walls – an installation not dissimilar to what they’ve done also at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Over the course of the exhibition we’ll develop activities, workshops, and education materials. 

I notice that you’ve emphasised this kind of dual tone in the exhibition, when it comes to attitudes taken toward the new airport and toward flight more generally: you include both “celebrations” and “critical” works, to put it simply. Can you tell me about a few works that explore these attitudes?

Yes – the important thing for me has been that all these works can be multiple things at the same time. For example, Amy Perejuan-Capone has presented The Trike (Dreamer 2), 2021. It’s a replica trike glider – a kind of hang glider with a small engine – made by the artist from memory and drawing from archival photographs and video. The wings in the sculpture were originally made by the artist’s father and a family friend, and Amy remembers the object as something that was being made in the shed while she was a baby in a bouncer. The work is intimate, but also touches on the “flying too close to the sun” thing, and has a hint of the danger of this kind of flight about it – this is an activity where people essentially hurl themselves off of mountains but have totally exhilarating experiences when they are flying above the land. 

There’s also Anna Madeleine Raupach’s work, Connecting Flight, 2023. The work is presented as a series of punch cards, all stitched together. On the surface of each punch card is the three-letter acronym used to identify the airport; on the face of it, the work is about the potential connections that we can make when we fly. And it’s fun, too. At the opening, lots of people were playing at identifying the airports: “That’s Hong Kong, that’s Brisbane.” Underneath this letters are laser-cut names of the animals identified in the environmental impact statement of the Western Sydney International Airport. When the light shines through these words, you can see the names of at-risk species projected onto the gallery wall.

You also worked with Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council on a project, right?

Yes! When we engaged with them for the exhibition, the starting point of that conversation was actually about boomerangs. We wanted to create a space for audiences who had some curiosity about boomerangs – the design, the aerodynamics. We commissioned through conversation, and we ended up installing two large installations, both of which are visible from the ground-floor entry of the building: Mapping Gandangara, 2023, and Tracking respectfully through Country with Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council – Connect. Belong. Thrive, 2023. In this second work, a series of photographs shows First Peoples on Country: in urban, suburban, and rural settings, in caves and on top of skyscrapers, even on tarmacs.

I imagine a six-month exhibition gives you a lot of time to plan some public programming – what have you got on?

Amongst other things, Casula Powerhouse has a partnership going with Western Sydney University. It’s really great to have people who work in the humanities of that university available to us, to present public programs at a super sophisticated level. We’re collaborating with them to deliver a public program in the last Saturday of every month, in the form of panel discussions.

That’s a really good local link.

Yes. And that’s important to the show, because we really wanted to explore how Liverpool can tell a flight story which is unique to this place. Of course there’s the story of this giant infrastructure project in the region, but also, forty per cent of our residents are born overseas. Flight has created Liverpool, too.

21 January – 11 June 2023
Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney

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