Contemporary art and the transformation of space into place : Lake Burley Griffin and contour 556

  • Neil Hobbs

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Art exhibitions in the external environment are commonplace, yet few respond to the specific
characteristics of carefully designed places. contour 556, sited in and around Lake Burley
Griffin in Canberra, brings together the landscape analysis of a site to the curatorial selection
and development of temporary art interventions. The central question of the thesis is whether
temporary art can change the way people experience a well-known public landscape. This can
be broken down into three questions: first, how can temporary art transform space into place;
secondly, how can different approaches to temporary art influence memory of a place; and
finally, how can temporary art interventions in a place be sustained?
contour 556 relies on landscape site analysis to draw out the lake basin’s key design
principles. These are the manipulation of line, shape, form, volume, scale and horizon.
Geometry and connections of water, land, and sky are key to understanding the lake site. The
intersecting land and water axes provide a frame for the landscape and architectural design of
Central Canberra. Aspect and elevation change the point of reference of the viewer, and
enclosure is provided by vegetation and built edges around the lake edges. The embedded
design creates opportunities for temporary artworks to reinforce or subvert this geometry and
symbolism of place. Invited artists engaged in a process with the landscape architect to play
and interact with the physical, cultural, and historic landscape; audiences were questioned to
determine their responses to these interventions.
The 2016 temporary exhibition demonstrated that art in a designed landscape has the potential
to transform perception and influence audience memories of that landscape. Refinements
were implemented for 2018, including deeper engagement with place from several returning
artists, as well as the introduction of new artists. Demographic and survey catchment groups
were refined; in particular, a series of workshops for schoolchildren run by selected contour
556 artists and a public forum helped to confirm the thesis’ central question and that
temporary art can change the way people experience a well-known public landscape.
Findings from 2016 and 2018 showed that both exhibitions were highly valued by the public.
They also delivered against the aims and objectives of funding agencies, and gained wider
recognition including various local and national reviews in news and art journals. This raises
future questions concerning how exhibitions that transform place can be sustained. The forum inquired into the potential of temporary art to transform space into place, and whether
temporary art can influence memory of place. The forum also canvassed the curatorial
constraints to temporary art and the environmental sustainability of the crowded public art
event program.
This exegesis provides the context for the exhibition planning, research method, and
curatorial premise behind contour 556. It uses the designed landscape of Canberra and
Canberra’s cultural, political and social histories as the links between temporary art, and
memories of place. The outcomes from contour 556 confirm that a public art exhibition
closely integrated with and within a designed landscape can transform space. The 2016 and
2018 iterations reveal that a careful, landscape architectural approach to siting works and
performances within a designed place may enhance an audiences appreciation of that place. It
further confirms that temporary exhibitions can activate and enliven underutilised public
Date of Award2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Canberra
SupervisorDianne Firth (Supervisor) & Greg Battye (Supervisor)

Cite this