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Sense and Sensitivity: immerse yourself in a sensory world

News story

When neurodiverse artist Simon Phillips turned four years old he was given a 35mm camera for his birthday. And so began his love affair with venturing outdoors to listen to the landscapes that surrounded him and capture them on film. Meanwhile, in Singapore, multidisciplinary artist Dawn-joy Leong, also on the spectrum, was following her twin passions in both science and the arts, encouraged by her multi-talented father and oblivious to any perceived demarcation between the two.

Drone shot of beach
Credit: Simon Phillips, Simon Phillips Photography

Almost three decades later, the two artists are collaborating on Sense and Sensitivity, a unique exhibition which opens on 17 November at the John Curtin Gallery at the Perth campus.

The cross-country collaboration, curated by Suzanne Ingelbrecht from Curtin’s School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry, is a series of sensory stories that celebrate the beauty of the material world. Phillips’ strikingly detailed landscape images are accompanied by Leong’s evocative soundscapes, and visitors are invited to immerse themselves in a multisensory adventure that reflects the artists’ experiences of the world.

The landscapes speak

For Phillips, who rarely ventures out without his camera, the landscapes he spends hours photographing speak to him, and these conversations are embodied in his art.

“When I get to a location, I spend a good hour or more walking around the place getting a feel for it and how the landscape speaks to me through the way the wind is, the way the terrain is, sounds, colours, textures, smells. I think of the landscape as a living identity,” he says.

“When I start to see possible images I get my phone out to work out compositions, as this allows me to narrow my field of view and pick out and integrate details of the scene. Once I am happy, I will get out my main kit and frame up the scene and how I see the world in its amazing form and beauty. I like to show emotion, a story and a journey. Without any of these elements the photograph doesn’t work.”

Simon Phillips posing with camera

Simon Phillips

For Leong, inspired by how she connects via her senses with the material universe, and the demeanour of her ever-present service dog, Lucy Like-a-Charm, responding to Phillips’ work for Sense and Sensitivity has been seamless.

“I am inspired by small details, minutiae, snippets of sound, words, images, movement, and the science behind sensory acuity as it exists in the autistic embodiment. Lucy Like-a-Charm, my closest companion, muse and (now-retired) autism sensory assistance dog, has also been a wellspring of inspiration to me. I’ve learned so much from observing her experiencing the world, and how she communicates wordlessly with me and the elements,” she says.

Dawn-Joy Leong with her dog Lucy Like-a-Charm

Dawn-Joy Leong and Lucy Like-a-Charm

“Simon’s photographs are loaded with sensory details and affect. We have not had to say too many words to one another about meanings and intent, our connection has been via the sensorial and it has been a great pleasure working together. My soundscapes are intimate and personal responses to Simon’s beautiful, evocative and sensorial photography. They are my inner conversations and sensory communications with the visual images.”

Art, inspiration and neurodiversity

Phillips and Leong’s neurodiversity positions them to create works of art uniquely informed by their neurology. Both are inspired by fine details, patterns and beauty, both can maintain their focus for extended periods of time and both prefer to work alone, finding in-person social requirements exhausting and depleting of their creative energy.

For Phillips, who was diagnosed on the spectrum just four years ago when he was 27 years old, his art is as essential to him as breathing.

“I understand things in a different way to most. Art is really important in my life because it helps me cope with the world and gives me a direction. The times I haven’t been able to create, I feel like I’m losing myself,” he says.

“There’s a lot that can be gained from the Arts and allowing people on the autistic spectrum the tools to access the hidden talents they may not be aware of. I use photography as a means to help me deal with my depression, anxiety, PTSD, social challenges and daily living. I can connect with other people who have a common interest. They don’t see me as autistic and neither do I. I just feel part of the community and I feel valued.”

Leong’s focus as an artist is on an experiential rather than intellectual understanding of her work, and the hope that those who engage with her art develop a more nuanced understanding of their own sensory experiences and needs.

“It’s not important to me at all whether people understand my neurology or even my art. My work is meant to be sensed and not intellectually understood. I do not set out to purposely create ‘autistic art’. I am autistic and I create art through my senses. It is simply just so,” she says.

“I hope people will not only enjoy the experience of Sense and Sensitivity, but also gain insight into their own sensory existence, and perhaps be inspired to create their own multisensory expressions.”

Gallery and exhibition details

Housed at Curtin Perth, the John Curtin Gallery is one of Western Australia’s foremost public art galleries and one of the largest and best-equipped university galleries in the country. The gallery curates the Curtin University Art Collection, one of the state’s major public collections. Established in 1968, the collection has more than 3,200 objects valued at over $20 million and major strengths in Australian contemporary art and Indigenous art. The gallery has more than 40,000 visitors each year and contributes to ongoing community conversations about the world and our place within it. Its exhibitions, events, and public programs are a catalyst for critical dialogue and cultural exchange.

Sense and Sensitivity runs from 17 November to 15 December 2021. The exhibition is funded by Curtin University and is a joint venture between the John Curtin Gallery, the Faculty of Health Sciences/Curtin Autism Research Group and the Faculty of Humanities/Centre for Culture and Technology. Technical supervision of the South Gallery digital collaboration has been provided by Chris Horgan, Principal of Organic Productions.

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