My project has always been the human condition… How do we make ourselves? Where is the meaning? These are our eternal mysteries
Heather B. Swann in ‘Heather B. Swann | Oh lover, hold me close’, 2021, Station Gallery, video, 2:41 mins

Over the past three decades, artist Heather B. Swann has dredged the depths of what it means–and feels like–to be human. Best known as a sculptor who thinks and works across painting and drawing, as well as, more recently, video and performance, Swann examines an inner world–the emotional or psycho-spiritual realm–in order to reveal and revel in the phenomena of being alive.

In the multifarious installation Last night on Earth (2024), drawings, paintings and sculptures sit in spatial and poetic relationships to one another. Vast painterly pools are inverted in the glass globes of The Moth (2023) which are, in turn, echoed in the penetrating vision of Charon (2023). As a physical object that portrays a void, Charon is a silhouette–a recurring motif across Swann’s work that embodies both presence and absence, and positive and negative space. At nearly three metres wide, The long rock (2018) is another hybrid curiosity. Neither animal nor human, featuring an upholstered torso and bowing legs, it materialises a yearning of ‘wanting to stay, wanting to go’.[1] Swann not only moves easily between mediums, but the objects and images themselves exist between states. They delve intuitively into the unknown: ‘The recognition that we are mysterious to ourselves is the driving force for me as an artist.’[2]

Drawing is also a pillar of Swann’s practice, both as a powerful medium unto itself and as a method for materialising works into being. As curator Beatrice Gralton describes, it is a ‘process through which [Swann] solves problems and makes sense of the ideas (texts, histories, materials, mythologies, life experiences) and shapes (figurative, landscape, abstracted) that inform her sculptures.’[3] Things there is no one to tell (2024) expands on Swann’s diaristic approach to drawing, pulling from her studio archive of studies, preparatory and finished works, and notebooks. The mercurial imagery and text form a visual taxonomy of unspoken thoughts and unfulfilled actions, as if–like the title suggests–Swann is whispering into the void.

[1] Heather B. Swann quoted by José Da Silva, Inner Sanctum | 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2024, p185.

[2] Heather B. Swann in ‘Heather B. Swann | Oh lover, hold me close’, video.

[3] Beatrice Gralton, ‘Heather B. Swann: The Heart of the Myth;, Vault, issue 36, republished by Union Magazine.

More Swann in AGSA's Collection

A signature of Swann’s work is its surrealist tendencies. In HeavyHead (2016) in AGSA’s permanent collection, for example, we are confronted by an object that is familiar yet foreign. A bulky black body, resembling a sheep, is confounded by the fact that its face and hooves are wheels. It has been de-identified, no longer part of its herd and made to perennially graze the gallery floor. Swann’s uncanny combination of forms, alongside her unusual material choices like faux fur in place of wool, prompts us to extrapolate on who this creature might be: is it lost; where is it going; why is it alone? For Swann, this tension between abstraction and representation is a tool of artistic divination and reveals pathos–the inevitable tragedy of life.[1]

Similalrly, Swann’s wearable sculptures of enormous dark and brooding Banksia Men are inspired by the natural world, and the wicked characters from tales by the Australian children’s author May Gibbs. The title Banksia Men comes from the children’s’ stories of May Gibbs, where the big bad Banksia Men are the villains of the Gumnut stories and are based on the appearance of aged Banksia “cones” – dark, hairy, knobbly, many-eyed creatures. They are always hatching wicked plots to capture the Nuts and Blossoms and Mr Lizard is their greatest enemy. The looming, grey figures who stand clustered in a darkened room at AGSA are the stuff of children’s nightmares!

[1] Heather B. Swann, interviewed by Jaimi Wright in ‘In the Studio: Heather B Swann’, Art Almanac, 27 Feburary 2023.

Books and Articles

Da Silva, José. Inner Sanctum | 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2024.

Gralton, Beatrice. ‘Heather B. Swann: The Heart of the Myth’, Vault, issue 36, republished by Union Magazine.

‘Sidney Nolan: Myth Rider and Heather B. Swann: Leda And The Swan’, Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Education Kit, April 2022.

Wright, Jaimi. ‘In the studio: Heather B. Swann’, Art Almanac, 27 February 2023.


‘Heather B. Swann’, Station Gallery.

‘Heather B. Swann’, The National 4: Australian Art Now, 2023.

Video and Podcasts

Watch our interviews with Mia Boe and Heather B. Swann…’, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Facebook post, video, 5:43 mins, 27 January 2024.

Curator Beatrice Gralton on Heather B. Swann’, The National: New Australian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Soundcloud, audio, 1:01 mins, 2023.

Heather B Swann, born Hobart 1961, Banksia Men, 2015, Canberra, wood, metal, silk, glass, 9 parts, Music score: Thomas Green (composition and production); Kevin Brophy (poetry); Jack Swann (voice); James Nightingale and Martin Kaye (saxophone), 230.0 x 75.0 x 75.0 cm (each); Dr Christine Annette Lunam Bequest through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2016, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Heather B Swann.

At the centre of Swann’s installation Last night on Earth is a series of paintings depicting vast pools of darkness – mysterious voids and places of quiet contemplation. Imagine you are travelling to a new planet to live. What would you want to do on your last night on earth?

You are leaving earth forever and handing over the planet for a new species to take care of it. Write a letter to the new custodians about how to take care of this planet.

Swann’s installation encourages quiet contemplation. Where is a place where you feel content and relaxed. Describe this place to someone who has never been there – the sounds, the smells, what you can see and touch? It might be somewhere you visit during the holidays, or it could simply be your backyard your favourite room in the house.

Create your own nature character. Do you have a favourite flower or plant? Does it have features that look like a face, body, arms, and legs?

- Write a list of words inspired by your favourite plant or flower. Cut out your words and place them in a hat. Choose three words and use these as ideas for a collage to create a character.

- Give your character a name and write a sentence or story about your character.

- Swann’s Banksia Men sculptures are sometimes accompanied by music and poetry. What sounds could you play to accompany your work of art?

Make a second list of words, this time with words associated with human-made objects for example wheels, nails, hammer, hinges etc. Create an uncanny combination using four words, two from the natural words and two from the human-made objects.

Go on a nature walk and collect leaves, bark, pinecones etc from the ground. Draw these items in detail back in the classroom or in situ. Modify these drawings to add limbs or facial features. Use your drawing as the basis for a sculpture.

Design and make a costume inspired by a native Australian flora. Wearing your costume, move around your classroom or school the way you think your flora would behave. Is it slow and cautious or friendly and welcoming? What gestures would imply those characteristics?

Using black ink or watercolour paint, create blobs on paper. Move the paper so the fluid becomes distorted and created interesting and unplanned shapes on your paper. Once your paintings are dry using texta or pen to transform your blobs into animals or a new species!

Heather B. Swann, born Hobart, Tasmania 1961, Things there is no one to tell, 2024, ink on paper and wood veneer, multiple sheets, installation dimensions variable; Courtesy of the artist and STATION, Sydney and Melbourne, © Heather B. Swan; photo: Peter Whyte.

The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.

This education resource has been written by Dr. Belinda Howden with contributions from Kylie Neagle and Dr. Lisa Slade.