Aim Higher

With the artwork now complete on the PMH site, Lizzy Pepper delved into the history, the artists and what is to come at the new 1909 precinct.

The heart and lungs of the former Princess Margaret Hospital – its Boiler House and Chimney Stack – are being transformed into Subiaco’s most prominent artwork, and a thoughtful new place for people to gather. Perth-born artist Abdul Abdullah and American David ‘MOMO’ Momyer were selected for their innovative and playful proposal – a combination of MOMO’s energetic mural painting overlaid with Abdul’s portraits sculpted in neon. Completely unfazed by scaling the 53-metre Chimney Stack, the artists have loved the experience, with Perth’s blue sky and 180-degree ocean vistas to Rottnest as the backdrop while they apply paint. “We’re using the tallest boom-lift available, 180 feet,” said MOMO. “We’re piloting it in open air around the curved Chimney Stack to reach all sides. The view is absolutely magnificent, and the whole process has been plenty of fun.

A significant place for millennia

The site holds the memory of footprints as people moved across this land for thousands of years. It was on a path taken by the Noongar People following the lake systems north to south. From Doondalup (Joondalup) through Galup (Lake Monger), they would gather at the Subiaco Oval site, continuing through the hospital site to Karra Katta (Kings Park) then Derball Yerrigan (Swan River). Others more recently have been here for care and, in a myriad of ways, to support and nurture. It’s a significant place for many Western Australians, filled with memories. Now, it is on the precipice of a new chapter with the following in mind: “To reimagine is to acknowledge that something has come before” (excerpt from the curatorial vision).

An icon reimagined

The place where Princess Margaret Hospital once stood is on the brink of a new beginning. Set for a superb new development including residential towers, shops and restaurants, the foundation of a new community gathering space is being laid with this new artwork. The hospital has been demolished and the Subiaco East site has been named 1909, honouring the year it first saw patients. Four buildings have been retained – the characterful Boiler House and Chimney Stack which form the canvas for Here Together – Godfrey House and the original 1909 Old Outpatients Building. The latter is a small white weatherboard on the corner of Thomas and Hay Streets, and a water memorial is being designed around it. The idea of re-imagining asks artists to honour the past, and to think about what this place might become, and the communities that will flourish in years and decades to come.

The heart and lungs of PMH

“When I first heard it was a Chimney Stack I asked, ‘are we decorating the morgue?’”, laughs Abdul, who was glad to learn the canvas is an old gas-fired power station that became redundant when the hospital connected to Perth’s electricity grid. Few people know it, but a complex tangle of underground service tunnels lay beneath the hospital, piping power and heat throughout the network. Oil burners powered the hospital in the early 1960s, and local residents dreaded the filthy soot that sprinkled their homes. The Health Department ordered a taller stack be built to alleviate the pollution, and a new Boiler House and 53 metre stack was erected in the late 60s – now an iconic centrepiece that honours the former hospital site. The Boiler House was the beating heart of the hospital, and the place where the tunnels converged, a brown brick shell housing power boards, cables, and mechanical equipment. In time it will be reimagined and given a new purpose, surrounded by public open space and sumptuous gardens. 1909 is about bringing people back to the site, celebrating its history. Here Together is the first step, an iconic landmark and artwork.

Honouring its history

The hospital was an important place for so many people, and the artwork needed to respect and acknowledge that. Significant community engagement and consultation went into the planning, gathering residents, business owners and people connected to the hospital to share their memories and hopes. “Since PMH’s closure, we’ve engaged with the alumni, former staff and families. We delved into the archival records to understand the importance of PMH and uncover a range of stories,” said Dean Mudford of DevelopmentWA. It was a young girl in the 1890s who placed three pennies in a collection box, starting the fundraising when she realised there wasn’t a hospital just for children. Her story will be represented in the public garden. Lots of parents want a place they can come and remember, and a memorial is planned by the Old Outpatients Building, with the public open space surrounding the chimney, a place to create and reflect on happy memories.

An international search Artify Consulting guided the curation and commissioning process, first developing the memories and stories into curatorial themes: play/energy/momentum, gathering/movement and reflection/learning. An international callout followed, and 70 expressions of interest were received from artists around the world. Carolyn Karnovsky from Artify was thrilled with the response and general enthusiasm. “It was a really positive response, and a tough job going from 70 to six submissions. The nature of the project itself and canvas – a 53-metre-tall Chimney Stack – meant the expressions of interest were so diverse, which was exciting.” “We weren’t looking for just one thing – not just a painting. We wanted to see how artists could take it a step further with lighting and sculpture to create a dynamic experience and impact day and night.” Public art curators Creative Road had identified MOMO and Abdul as ideal for the project; artists whose skills would complement each other. Creative Road had worked with MOMO on a fantastic mural for Home of the Arts on the Gold Coast, and Abdul, a fifth generation Muslim Australian had just started collaborating with Patricia Piccinini on a Melbourne Metro artwork. Abdul, who now lives in Bangkok, comes from a gallery practice with experience in temporary installations, and it’s exciting to see him create an important large-scale, permanent piece in his hometown. For a long time in Western Australia, you had to demonstrate delivered public art projects to get a look in. “There’s been a shift happening over the last decade, with artists collaborating with other artists with public art experience, or fabricators who can deal with going big,” says Carolyn. “Clients feel comfortable with that process, seeing the possibilities.” A panel with a passion for street art shortlisted six artists teams, eventually unanimously selecting MOMO and Abdul. “For Abdul we can see his gallery process, and the panel saw the potential in his work to go large scale and permanent – it’s really exciting!” “Their concept was a combination of MOMO’s colourful, energetic and very technical mural approach, overlaid with Abdul’s neon portraits,” explains Carolyn. “The colour palette takes its cues from the vibrant Megazone Arcade and Radio Lollipop, and the facial expressions talk to a range of emotions – joy, contemplation, curiosity.”

Here Together MOMO and Abdul’s piece, Here Together, honours the energy and vibrancy of the kids that have been there. “Abdul’s lyrical style drawings will be rendered in neon strips, floating above a colourful mural of my collaged vocabulary,” said MOMO. “So there’s a look during the day, one at night and one in between.” The collaboration and creative process was seamless, conducted across time zones via video chat and email. “The idea became that the drawings Abdul has been doing on his landscape paintings could be embedded in neon across my mural,” says MOMO. “I’ve arranged a lot of the elements and he’s riffed on them.” With apartments to follow, the beacon will soon be part of the vista. “We considered the optimal sight lines and preferable scale of things, and then worked the other way, my elements following his drawings, until things finally nested well and the electrician signed off on it being feasible.” Lighting elements were placed to be seen from a distance without interfering with architecture and living spaces. Responding to the themes came naturally to the American artist, “Play and curiosity is central to how I work, and what I like to produce. Energy from dynamic compositions is my big interest. I think the landmark mural-in-the-round Chimney Stack acts like a pin in the map for public gathering. And discovery can be well suited to the science-based colour techniques.”

Colour play and gestures

MOMO uses an optical colour blending technique known as additive averaging, “I’ve created halftones in my mural paintings for 10 years with specially cut rollers,” he explains. “The various colours will seem to shiver up-close, but blend at a distance: any two colours becoming a third colour.” A self-described ‘outsider amongst outsiders’, Abdul has been painting expressive faces and hands on rocks since 2020. “They started as nervous little rocks. I was in Sydney and couldn’t see my family in Perth,” he explains. “As the year went by and we caught up, the faces became happier, more optimistic. Now they’re unapologetically happy to see you.” It’s these radiant faces and hands that beam at us from the Chimney Stack, reflecting or conjuring joyful memories and bringing people together. “We thought about the idea of memory and recollection. The faces reflect memory in a positive sense – focussing on the good memories.” Around 240 languages are spoken in Western Australia, including languages and dialects of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people and the languages of communities who have migrated and settled over generations, and migrants and refugees who have come from all corners of the globe. Here Together speaks to diverse communities through the universal languages of colour, light and gesture.

A gateway to the city As the 1909 precinct comes to life, Here Together can be admired from a number of vantage points – glimpses from afar, having it soaring over you from the public garden space, or glancing it from a 10th floor apartment. As MOMO adds the final brushes of colour, and electricians connect the neon lights, Abdul is spending time in the classroom. “I’ve spent full days with year nine art students at Bob Hawke College and Perth Modern,” he says. “The kids are so engaged!” Community engagement sessions were also a success, with the artists and public connecting over conversations about sparking curiosity through public art. If the most successful artworks are the ones that disrupt your day, motivating you to get closer for a better look, then the Here Together team has done themselves proud.

You may also like…

All That Glitters: Discover Subi’s Premier Jewellers

The doctor will see (your art) now

Lives through a Lens