Inside the Collection

Looking for the mermaid: developing the Annette Kellerman visual installation

Million Dollar Mermaid: Annette Kellerman, exhibition view
Million Dollar Mermaid: Annette Kellerman, exhibition views. Audiovisual immersive by Mariana Verdaasdonk and Tetsutoshi Tabata.

I am still looking for my chest of gold in a cool dripping sea cave — though a professional mermaid for the movies, I still wait to see my first real one sitting on a damp grey rock combing her long green hair.1

The exhibition Million Dollar Mermaid: Annette Kellerman features a visual installation projected onto a set, creating an immersive, sensory environment. I developed this with my partner Tetsutoshi Tabata and our Tokyo-based collective 66b/cell. It all started in mid-2015 with a visit to the inner sanctum of the Museum where we met Peter Cox, social historian and curator, who introduced us to one of his passions, Annette Kellerman, a person who has since become an inspirational figure in our own lives. A prismatic being, in terms of understanding the many facets from which to view her. Someone who has passed, yet still vividly alive. Swimmer, diver, fitness expert, early proponent of underwater ballet and aquatic spectacles…

Later in the Museum library, in a video documentary, a voiceover version of Annette Kellerman’s mermaid quote above, called out to us from the screen. Like the voice of a siren, we were instantly entranced.

Animations and research

We looked at one of the books Annette Kellerman wrote in the early twentieth century, How to Swim. The simple illustrations showing different ways to dive, Swallow Dive, Jack Knife, Dolphin, Australian Splosh, among others, inspired Tetsu to create the first motion sequences. Two examples appear in this post.

Pursuing this story further, I signed on as a “Behind-the Scenes” museum volunteer, Peter Cox showing me the colourful, wonderful world of Annette Kellerman (AK) through his own materials and fascinations. I was invited down to the museum vault to see her costumes, the conservator’s white-gloved hands gently opening drawers and unfolding tissue to reveal stunning arrays of sequins and feathers, silken scarves, fishnet stockings and one-piece swimsuits. While no actual body of Annette Kellerman appeared through the filmy fabrics, one could sense her presence in the many marks, the wear and tear, the darning and stitching — and therein the hard work, the reality within the glamour. The drawers revealed the woman as performer.

Looking for the mermaid led further afield to the State Library of New South Wales, to the Annette Kellerman Archive. Boxes and boxes of photographs, memorabilia, albums, letters, documents, certificates. A veritable wunderkammer of her life. And searching online, to articles and newspapers, going way back in time, to the stuff of myth or legend. Indeed I found some missing fragments of the AK story which Peter warmly appreciated. Like piecing together some kind of puzzle. Yet not to complete any “looking”; not to set it in stone, fixing it as some solid, concrete thing, but with a view to the fluid, the possible, the imagined.


Installation scenario

Several weeks later back in Japan, the journey continued with Tetsu to develop the set and scenario for the visual installation, as part of the Powerhouse’s forthcoming Annette Kellerman exhibition. Yet how to tell such an amazing story? Here we tried to capture essences or moments of her life. For example, the fact that she learned to swim and dive on Sydney’s coast. That swimming and diving helped free her from the shackles of early rickets-induced leg braces. We tried to depict this freedom in the installation through the small silhouette diving from the sandstone cliffs into the sea. Down through the water, like a time tunnel, popping up in the Thames, London, which she swam in 1905. Endeavouring to find photographs of London at that time, the bridges along the Thames, the different stages of the bridges, the varying times they were built and rebuilt; steam trains, carriages, people, the hustle and bustle. This became the fascination of Tetsu, who recreated several of the bridges, as well as an animation figure of Annette, through 3D modelling. In reality this was one of the worst experiences of Annette’s life as she swam amongst the boats, debris and animal carcasses. We decided to omit many of the river details, as we wanted to present an unobstructed view of Annette swimming, while also imagining that the presences of exhibition viewers, especially children, would “fill in” whatever was missing.

The photographs and movie footage of Annette Kellerman had their own stories to tell, and so we embedded these among other visual graphics and motifs. Her underwater adagio, for instance, filmed by her husband Jimmie Sullivan, is set into an art nouveau-type framing. A photo of a tower from which she stunt-dived in one of her movies, is replicated in 3D and turned into an M.C. Escher-like environment, in which little animated Annettes dive and climb. So the main concern for us was to incorporate photographs and movie excerpts within an aesthetic sensitive to the different eras and to the extraordinary person of Annette Kellerman, while also keeping in mind the installation’s position within the exhibition as a whole.


We really hope visitors to the museum immerse themselves in the installation. The presences of living people help bring Annette Kellerman and our animations to life, so come and swim, dance, or simply sit and enjoy!

1 Annette Kellerman, How to Swim, 1918, p35-37

Post written by Mariana Verdaasdonk.

2 responses to “Looking for the mermaid: developing the Annette Kellerman visual installation

  • Hello, I am 12 years old and I am doing my National History Day project on Annette Kellarman. I am wondering if I could email you as one of my ‘interviews’ that are crucial to the assignment. If not, I understand.

    • Hi Katharine The person who wrote that blog about Annette Kellerman doesn’t work for the Museum. I am the curator of the Annette Kellerman exhibition. You can email the interview to me but you need to do it this week, as I won’t be around after that. My email:
      Peter Cox

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