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Australian art

Contemporary art


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a) undeveloped b) 8 St Peters Lane, Darlinghurst, from the series Secret archives of the recent past



Helen Grace


1949 -


Helen Grace has been exhibiting photography since the late 1970s. She is also a respected filmmaker (her 1983 film 'Serious Undertakings' won the Reuben Mamoulian Prize for Best Short Film at the Sydney Film Festival that year), writer and academic. She is currently deputy chair, School of Cultural Histories and Futures, UWS, Nepean. Grace's film and photographic work has been included in numerous exhibitions within Australia and internationally including 'From the Empire's End: Nine Australian Photographers', Madrid 1991; 'Aurora Australis', Canadian tour 1990, 'Australian Visions', Guggenheim Museum, New York 1984 (film program), amongst many others.

The 'Secret Archives' are specific sites in Sydney which the artist frequented in the 1970s - hence the 'Recent Past'. The buildings have been neglected, or reinvented so that all traces of previous functions have been eradicated. In general, the locations were once sites of political activity. 'undeveloped' located at 8 St. Peter's Lane, Darlinghurst was the home of the Sydney Filmmakers' Co-op. 'an art gallery' is Mori Gallery at 168 Day St which was previously the headquarters of a political party. The small photographs were taken with an infrared camera and glow with a blue-green underwater tone. Framed in silky oak, the resulting work provides an archetypal window. A view is created onto a place from the recent past, its very blandness and ordinariness mitigated against by the effect of infrared and oak framing.

Each image is paired with documents on parchment which trace (literally) the legal history of the given site. Comparing the one to the other - the bland flat delineation of space with an imaginative yet restrained depiction of recent history, the viewer becomes aware of the gaps in official history. Moments of ferment and foment have disappeared except from the memories of the participants and the unofficial recorders.

Eugene Atget crisscrossed Paris for decades recording the details of ordinary buildings in order that they not be forgotten. August Sander in Germany embarked on a gigantic visual encyclopaedia of humanity. These gargantuan and utopian exercises dedicated to preserving the everyday are no longer undertaken: the idealistic belief in the purpose of recording has disappeared.

Helen Grace has documented a total of 12 sites as part of the 'Secret Archives...', of which these are two. Such fragments of recent history belong to an honourable tradition now somewhat outmoded as the master narratives of modernity have largely collapsed. Grace's interventions are an attempt to preserve heritage of a different order: humble yet critical (where would Australian film have gone without the Film-makers' Co-op...).




Media category


Materials used

a) type C photograph, silky oak b) parchment paper and architectural tracing paper documentation


a - photograph, 11 x 16.5 cm, image

a - photograph, 61 x 51 cm, frame

b - documentation, 90 x 61 cm, sheet


Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Collection Benefactors' Program 2002


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Helen Grace

Works in the collection


Shown in 1 exhibition

Exhibition history

Referenced in 2 publications


Judy Annear, Points of view: Australian photography 1985-95, Sydney, 2005. no catalogue numbers

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales annual report 2003 [for the year ended 30 June 2003], 'Year in review', pg.14-35, Sydney, 2003, 20.