Christine Dean, Greg Ferris, Talitha Kennedy, Ian Milliss, Phebe Parisia, Lesley Punton, Abdullah M.I. Syed, Carla and Lisa Wherby, Kayo Yokoyama
Editorial: On this platform conversations are developed between artists through each writing about anotherâ€™s practice. Taking a collegiate approach, Visualbind explores the specific perspective of one artist to provide a fresh response to anotherâ€™s practice in the framework of the contemporary, the excellent, the present and the discussed. Each quarterly publication will consist of ten to fifteen essays and interviews. Operating on a barter system, each artist will write, and also be written about. We invite artists to approach other artists whose practices they would like to write about, and/or who they would like to have write about their own current practice. Each 1000 to 1500 word essay will be accompanied by fully attributed images, and professionally edited prior to publication. Each quarterly will have an ISBN, and a copy will be lodged in the National Library of Australia and relevant state libraries.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Contact Details: The Visualbind team consists of Fiona Davies, Lizzy Marshall and Helen M. Sturgess Website - www.visualbind.org or email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Cover Image: Christine Dean, I pretended to be straight but knew he knew and I knew he knew and he knew I knew he knew remember that feeling (2011) Oil on canvas; 60 x 60 cm (image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 9) ISBN: 0 9578366 7 8
contents Transitional Style Christine Dean by Ian Milliss
Target or targeting - the work of Abdullah M.I. Syed by Fiona Davies
Interview with Kayo Yokoyama 13.02.15 by Lizzy Marshall
Walking as knowing - Lesley Punton by David Watson
Mark making and trace Phebe Parisia by Sean O'Keeffe
The dark thrill of nature-fear Talitha Kennedy by Hayley West
Greg Ferris interviewed by Fiona Davies
Carla and Lisa Wherby by Nicole Barakat
In Conversation with Ian Milliss by Beata Geyer
Transitional Style Christine Dean by Ian Milliss The concept behind VisualBind, of artists writing on artists, would be worthless if artists just wrote with the spurious detachment of reviewers. I hope they will write with more emotion than calculation, and with some openness about their own relationship to the artist and about any influence the work may have had on them; critics, after all, are not influenced by artists, but other artists are. Another artist may change your life, for better or worse, although I suppose it would be hoping for too much to one day see an article written with all the bile that we know some artists harbour for others. I was pleased to be asked to write about Christine Dean, an artist who I can write about with genuine affection, whose work I admire even though it is, in many ways, distant from my own concerns. It is hard to disagree with Charles Harrison's comment on the beginning of conceptual art, that it grew out of a need to return content to art that had been reduced to flat patterns by the logic of formalism: “The next move, in the wake of [Jasper] John’s [sic] work is to make the text pictorial – as people like On Kawara did – finding ways to make textual subjects into pictures; the text as picture.”i Over the thirty years following the advent of conceptual art, pictorial text became a genre in itself, as unremarkable as landscape, portraiture or still life, but also as variable in appearance and meaning as more ancient genres. This is one of the rare situations where using the terms ‘conceptual’ and ‘painting’ in the same sentence is not proof of feeble mindedness; there is a logical consistency in the practice of painting text that goes beyond the manufacture of art market fodder. There is enormous room to manoeuvre in painted text, room for revelation and concealment, for ambiguity, for intimacy or public dramatisation, for sincerity and irony. All this informed my initial reaction to Christine Dean's text paintings when I first saw them about fifteen years ago. Looking back on the work now, it seems so obvious what was happening, but at the time it seemed less personal than it became, more of an intellectual game. The first of her works I had seen, from the mid 1990s, were textured fabrics such as lace doilies and chenille bedspreads glued to canvas then painted in monochrome pastel house paint. Their glossy opaqueness reminiscent of prosthetics and dentures induced a sort of queasiness in me, yet they had an individuality that was not common in the ‘90s scene. They seemed to be an ironic take on gender and second wave feminism's identity politics, an impression confirmed when I heard of the
pink painted engine block, at 383 cubic inches the biggest production car engine ever available in Australia, the ultimate suburban macho statement of size mattering. Christine was also historically aware, unlike many other young artists of the time. Her 2001 homage to the 1970s hard edge painters of Central Street Gallery, consisting of one painting per artist, reduced their heroically oversized formalist paintings to A4 sized logos that nonetheless captured their essential imagery without ever reproducing it exactly. They were artists I had been closely associated with, the first gallery where I had shown. They had been notorious for being unselfconsciously masculinist in a Mad Men sort of way, not surprising given that many of them
made their living in advertising. Domesticating their work with such cruel clarity was powerful feminising magic; you could see that Christine's great respect for these artists did not preclude boiling them down into something like a collection of shrunken heads.
Unfortunately, given the Australian art world's wilful historical ignorance, it was a crushing gesture that remained incomprehensible to most people, but it may have been Christineâ€™s first serious step down the path towards becoming a very different person or, rather, becoming herself. It needs to be said for those who don't know, that Christine was at that time Christopher, and the work that was to follow increasingly revealed the psychological processes underlying what was to happen. I think Christopher saw those paintings as a tribute to the Central Street group. He had met the surviving members, had learned the lessons of their formalist skill, but soon knew they had to be overcome, that it was necessary to add meaning to formalism. This, too, had been my experience 20 years earlier when they had supported and mentored me, and so it became my first real point of connection with Christopher. The text paintings that followed seemed to break through into a way of working that could accommodate concerns beyond the art world. The technique was developed from earlier
paintings where, prior to doilies, he had used the cut-out shapes of carburettor gaskets. Now the felt lettering was over-painted with geometric shapes that sometimes referenced other artists and sometimes formed a symbolic link to the text. The art world was still there, of course, as many of the texts quoted artists, but the Adventure Island Series of 2006 was based on an ABC children's series which Christopher described with adult hindsight as filled with “non-traditional gender stereotypes such as drag and left wing politics that emphasised that the baddies were always in charge.” The cheerfully gaudy paintings quoted fragments of the script, such as: “If you hadn't rushed off to be a princess none of this would have happened”. I suppose that, in a sense, Christopher's ruminations were becoming a game we could all join in. When I got married in late 2009 I asked Christopher to be my best man - “as an art historical joke”, I told him - and later presented him with a painting with the words “Best man” repeated in a fluffy airbrushed pink, in recognition of his ongoing PhD thesis on pink paintings. The thesis culminated in the Pink Room Exhibition at Gallery 9 in 2011, where a series of paintings in shades of pink spelt out the whole art and sex and gender conundrum: “Middle age hard edge abstractionist from St Marys seeking same” or “The best part of my job at the University of Western Sydney Kingswood Campus was giving an annual lecture on Rock Hudson & Doris Day”. But above all, the painting that encapsulated the whole situation was a quote from Sydney gay scene bon viveur Phil Scott “I pretended to be straight but knew he knew and I knew he knew and he knew I knew he knew remember that feeling.” It was around this time that Christopher visited the Gender Centre and the transition to Christine began. The painting Show Girl, also begun in 2012, quotes from former Les Girls performer Ayesha: “I don't miss being a full time show girl because how many times can you keep painting the Mona Lisa”. It remained unfinished until late 2014, when its delayed completion and exhibition at Galerie pompom signalled the completion of Christine's own transition. This journey as I have mapped it out is, of course, far too simplistic, imposing a narrative, in retrospect, that ignores the reason these paintings are so appealing. It's not the story they obliquely tell of personal understanding and regeneration, but rather the complex visuality that accompanies the text. Show Girl is a tour de force of technique in which the negative areas cut out of the letter stencils are scattered all over the text as visual punctuation and decoration. The text, in fact, exists twice on the painting - in both positive and negative form. The negative form is almost unrecognisable and could never be described as the ‘dark side’ - in fact it is the other bright side, its brilliant colour and apparently abstract shapes providing nuance, decoration and distraction, like art itself. Personally I love the paintings, both as paintings and for the role they played in helping a friend resolve a tumultuous part of her life. That's what distinguishes good artists from bad - an ability to externalise things that may not make complete sense until a long time later. Those things can only be found by reaching deep inside, beyond what is clear or safe; by exposing vulnerabilities and
ambivalences that even the artist may not comprehend. Yet self-exposure does not necessarily make good art, in fact it often makes bad art, and what is also required are the visual skills and invention that formalism mistook as the only important element of art. The last word and the new beginning is probably found in a recent drawing that quotes the American cubist painter Stuart Davis, an artist who also used text in many of his works. The drawing, in Q&A form, refers to a collector who told Davis that he had misspelt the name of the country Yugoslavia in a painting - to which Davis replied â€œIt's a painting madam, not a geography lessonâ€?.
Images: Christine Dean, Famous Homosexuals in History (Michael Butler) (2012) Oil on canvas; 65 x 65 cm (image courtesy of Alaska Projects) Christine Dean, Show Girl (2014) Oil on canvas; 64 x 64 cm (image courtesy of the artist and Galerie pompom) Christine Dean, Not for rent and not for sale either (2015) Oil on canvas; 65 x 65 cm (image courtesy of Alaska Projects) Christine Dean, 96 Kings Cross (2015) Oil on canvas; 72 x 72 cm i
Charles Harrison in conversation with Elena Crippa in January 2009, in Charles Harrison, Charles Harrison: Looking Back, 2011. London: Ridinghouse, p. 203
Target or targeting - the work of Abdullah M. I. Syed by Fiona Davies At the time of writing, the list of categories under the word 'target' in Wikipedia does not include any references to the concepts of war, killing, battle, terrorism, immigration or prejudice. Under the category ‘sports or games’, a target is described as “the object shot at in target archery and other shooting sports” i. In contrast, 'Targeting' is a much more strongly defined and active term. “Targeting is to make a thing or group of things a target, to select it or them to be acted upon.” ii However, neither of these definitions include or refer to any response by the target. The political processes of targeting, and conversely of both being targeted, and responding, are critical ideas in the artistic practice of Abdullah M.I. Syed, a Muslim male artist in diaspora. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Syed lives and works between Karachi, Sydney and New York. In Syed’s work Soft Target: Doris's Crack ‘Shibboleth’ in Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London (2011), the artist is photographed standing on a plastic fold-up target, placed so that its edge just overlaps the residue of another work, Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth (2007), commissioned for the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Standing close to the extensive ‘make good’, or scar, left by Salcedo’s work, Syed appears slightly hunched, as if expecting a blow; as if expecting the worst: that his interventions will be seen by surveillance cameras and he will be hauled up and out by security, ending up who knows where. He does not act as if the space is his, or as if he believes he has a right to be there, standing on his plastic fold-up target. His stance in this work embodies the idea of a soft target, one that is vulnerable to attack; one that even expects to be attacked or one that is expected to attack others. Salcedo described her work, which consisted of a large, jagged crack extending across the floor of the Turbine Hall, as representing “borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred. It is the experience of a Third World person coming into the heart of Europe. For example, the space which illegal immigrants occupy is a negative space. And so this piece is a negative space.”iii The immigrant or refugee is always a soft target, always expecting to be attacked. Long after the negative space of Salcedo's Shibboleth was filled in, the scar remains to define that space, and the memory of that space, and the reference to this work within Syed's work creates a very powerful layering of historical art discourse.
Salcedo’s title Shibboleth has its origins in ancient history. After a particular battle between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, the victors used a difference in the pronunciation of this word to identify their fleeing opponents who were then killed. Utilised in this context to identify refugees fleeing from war, nowadays the word is used to refer to any words or custom, or even nonlinguistic cultural element, which can be used to divide people into ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.
In a later work from this series, Soft Target: Empire State from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York (2014), the artist adopts an almost heroic stance. Whilst the earlier work suggests the viewing position of a surveillance camera, this later work positions the photographer as an equal. Syed appears to be standing on waste, possibly ex-industrial ground, looking across the Hudson River towards Manhattan and the Empire State Building. In contrast with the earlier work, his stance suggests that he feels he has a right to be there; he does not appear to be expecting the worst. Can he still be considered a soft target? Surely he can remove the target from under his feet, fold it up, hide it in his bag and pretend he is an ‘insider’, someone who belongs there. The multiple connections between the term ‘target’ and games, sports, performance, and pretence led me to alternative but complementary interpretations of Syed's work, in particular through Mackenzie Wark's book Gamer Theory (2007), in which he “uncovers the significance of games in the gap between the near-perfection of actual games and the highly imperfect gamespace of everyday life in the rat race of free-market society”. Wark depicts the world as becoming “an inescapable series of less and less perfect games” which “gives rise to a new persona … the gamer”. The book “seeks to offer guidance for thinking within this new character”, acting as “a primer in thinking about a world made over as a gamespace, recast as an imperfect copy of the game.”iv Via Gamer Theory, the progressive targeting of Muslim men can be seen as Wark’s “series of less and less perfect games”, in a real world where prejudice totally disrupts any concept of ‘perfection’. The plastic fold-up target used by Syed in these performances alludes to the plastic fold-up sheet used in the game Twister. Predominantly played by children and teenagers in developed countries, it also can be seen as descending into a less and less perfect game, in which size, weight and luck determine the outcome. One needs to play by the rules of the game. I will end with three of Syed’s studio works from 2012 that are chronologically bookended by the two performance works examined above. Syed had waited until he had a large enough studio space to make these works. They required extensive, prolonged, detailed and exhaustive effort. In this series Syed overlaid each paper target with a grid of painted nightingales, lotuses or roses, conflating both the modernist and the Islamic grid with motifs from Persian and Mughal miniatures. Onto each target / grid background he then drew the outline of a body - possibly a terrorist bomber, a warrior, or a martyr. In these works, unlike the photographic ‘performance residue’ works, the body does not look like a real body, just an outline, reminiscent of a graphic or cartoon depiction of a gamer. The material of the target, to some extent, determine their ephemerality; thus whilst the performances leave ‘permanent’ residues that can be conserved, the paintings are ephemeral, in that their conservation may be problematic. One crucial element of Syed's practice is the complex layering of references to art histories that he builds up in his work. I don't feel that I can understand, beyond the fairly superficial level of the outsider, many of the culturally specific references, yet I sense that they are there.
Image: Abdullah M.I. Syed, Soft Target: Doris's Crack ‘Shibboleth’ in Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London (2011) UV Inkjet Print + DIASEC; 83 x 127 cm and 51 x 76 cm (photographer Li Wenmin) Abdullah M.I. Syed, Soft Target: Empire State from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York (2014) UV Inkjet Print + DIASEC; 83 x 127 cm and 51 x 76 cm (photographer Christine Navin) Abdullah M.I. Syed, The world knows sorrows other than those of love (2012)—series of 3 works— installation shotv Found target paper face and mixed media (including acrylic, acrylic ink, gold gouache, white ink pen, graphite, ink stamps, needle tool and sandpaper); each work 82 x 82 cm (photograph: Alex Wisser) Abdullah M.I. Syed, The world knows sorrows other than those of love: Virtuous Lotuses (2012)— detail—installation shotvi (photograph: Alex Wisser)
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Target, 2015. [ONLINE] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Target [Accessed 14 March 15]
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Targeting, 2015. [ONLINE] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Targeting [Accessed 14 March 15]
Ian Houston, The Crack In The World, 2007. [ONLINE] Available at: http://theartlife.com.au/2007/the-crack-in-the-world/ [Accessed 14 March 15]
Ben Vershbow, gamer theory 2.0, 2007. [ONLINE] Available at: http://futureofthebook.org/blog/2007/04/25/gamer_theory_20/ [Accessed 14 March 15]. v
Fiona Davies (curator), ‘Death 3: I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas Anymore’ (third in a series of three group exhibitions), Parramatta Artists Studios, Jul – Sep 2012 Image sourced from: Ann Finnegan, Death 3: I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, 2012. [ONLINE] Available at: http://death1and2and3.jimdo.com/death-3-i-don-t-think-we-re-in-kansas-anymore-artists-and-works/ [Accessed 14 March 15] vi
Fiona Davies (curator), ‘Death 3’ Image sourced from: Ann Finnegan, Death 3
Interview with Kayo Yokoyama 13.02.15 by Lizzy Marshall Kayo Yokoyama is best known for her glass sculptural forms and installations; I met with Yokoyama in her studio to discuss her lesser known practice of paper cutting. LM: There are known to be two main methods in paper cutting. KY: I would be most influenced by senga, either cutting out or … cutting in. Kiri-e is traditionally black paper and you are cutting away, a reverse silhouette; the removed piece is seng. I’m more senga. LM: Are you influenced by Japanese techniques? Kayo: No, not at all. LM: But you’re very fond of origami.
KY: That’s because of what I grew up with, it’s a natural thing. LM: Because paper is a natural material for you? KY: Paper is a natural material for me. I used to collect correspondence paper. When I was a young girl I would buy cartoon magazines and they would come with small gifts such as stationery sets, most of the time just the paper to write [to] your friends. We would collect them and exchange them with friends. We didn’t want ten of the same paper: each set would be of different sizes, colours, characters, shapes and smells; that is why I always love paper. Then I came across handmade paper in Australia, such as in Tasmania where they use Kangaroo poo in paper. We used to make paper when we were little in art classes. They don’t do it here, my kids don’t know how to make paper. LM: Do you still make your own paper? KY: No, no, no, it’s too much of a hassle. You need big equipment to make paper, so I started to just look at and buy paper, because I always like paper. Then I started doing the sandblasting in glass. What happens is the glass plate has one side of colour and one side is clear. You mask the colour sections and then cut them to get the image out. You can either keep the colour as your image or you can keep the clear for your image. That’s what sandblasting [glass] is all about. You will see a lot of sandblasters use colour to be their image because they leave the colour. However I was doing the reverse, as I wanted the clear glass to be making the image. That practice has informed my paper installations. It’s the same process, but vice versa. When I had a child I couldn’t do glasswork anymore because of the danger associated with the material. I used to mask up the plate and cut the image and then give it to a technician who would sandblast [it] for me. That made me turn to just cutting the paper. Then I didn’t have to go anywhere, I could stay home and cut them whenever I had ten minutes. I could also leave it out, however, when you have glass you have to put I away so it doesn’t get touched by a child - so that’s how I started doing paper cuts. It was more of a meditation, like I’m doing more than being a mum. There [are many] artists doing paper cutting with a huge amount of detail. I didn’t want to turn my practice into technique. It’s what you get out of it. LM: What do you get out of it? KY: The pleasure, the shadows, it makes me feel like I’m in a wonderland. Cutting through the black. LM: Because there is a sense of presence behind the cut-out? KY: Yeah; you start cutting out and you leave what is there, it lights up your world, you create something by subtracting, the paper cuts are about minimising, how much can you take out.
LM: You don’t see the paper works as integral to your practice yet? KY: I’m trying to see where they are going first. They are very good for installation works - easier to manipulate, larger in scale yet lighter than glass and create more shadows. My short-term process is to combine both practices, to put the two mediums together: paper with glass. I have started making animal engravings, or parts of animals: eye, beak, or paw, and if I can take some paper cuts and put them inside the engravings… LM: It’s like a layering of fragilities then. We see glass as an incredibly fragile object, yet glass – if it’s looked after - will last for aeons, whereas paper is ephemeral and disintegrates anyway. KY: That’s right, playing with that thread [of thought] is very exciting. LM: And you’re interested in the fact that the paper may disintegrate? KY: Yes, nothing is forever. Your happiness is never going to be forever. I mean, you may be happy forever but the level of happiness is always up and down. You may be sad but the sadness is not forever. Paper, is not forever. The glass may have a longer life, but it is so fragile that in the next minute it could shatter or break, so I like the, kind of, nature of those materials. LM: When did you first start exhibiting paper cuts? KY: Brenda May Gallery, 2013i. Paper is hard to exhibit. Commercial galleries generally won’t take them because people won’t buy them, and I don’t want to frame them. LM: Do you see [the works in] your recent show in Western Plains Cultural Centre as sculptural installations? KY: Yes. The good thing is that they [WPCC] didn’t dismiss me because of paper. A lot of people dismiss paper works. LM: You mentioned earlier, and I’m just trying to the follow the thought process of your paper practice. What is it that ignites you first? You said you are interested in the material; is it also colour, forms in your mind that you want realised, or is it the effect of the cut-out that you want realised? KY: It is the effect of the cut-out. Colour doesn’t strike me at all; it is the medium, the space – you can create your own space. Glass is very hard, you need a lot of space before you even begin work. With paper you can just start cutting them, touch them, and that made me excited to work with it. It is an easy material to obtain, it is an easy material to cut, and everyone can put their hands on it and make paper cuts.
LM: When you come to create the glass objects you don’t use preliminary drawings. Does that create a tension, because there is no room for errors? You also use a single piece for the paper cuts. So it’s the same approach to the paper cuts as the glass – no preliminary design, just an image in your mind? KY: It’s the same approach. I never thought about that! I’ve never had any “oops” in the paper cuts, nor the glass. LM: Maybe that’s because you have the form, the effect and the process completely resolved in your head? KY: Probably; and also it’s not rocket science that the line has to go here or there, it’s more freedom, free form, … glass and paper are both freeform. There are no parameters, such as the weight has to go here. A bronze caster has to think through the weight, or thickness. With glass and paper I just think about them in my head and try to get them out. LM: A lot of your glasswork is related to landscape and notions of home, and finding a place of being. Would you say your paper installations, particularly the work in WPCC, were an approach to a landscape? KY: Yes, it’s the same thing. [That work] is called Dappled of Light: when I walk through the work I can see the light come through, like light coming though trees. Looking through the canopy, like when I walk my dog, you see light and sometimes rain. It doesn’t have to be in the forest; it can be in the city too. I grew up in the city. The city has that effect. You are looking down and you see a light effect. You look up to see [what is causing the effect] and it might be a window reflecting light, or a flag on a pole interfering with each other. The dappled [sic; in the Western Plains Cultural Centre installation] is from the trees; however, it could be anywhere. LM: Including the built environment. Whilst you are proudly Australian, this conversation has been centred on influences from where you were born. Through past conversations we’ve had [I know that] you’re not hugely comfortable with discussing philosophical theories that could be applied to your practice, and you’ve explained to me that there is not an emphasis on understanding the theory of objects in Japan, they just are. I’m referring to the pressure on artists to articulate themselves in art theoretical terms. KY: “Better not to talk” is the statement in Japan. “Oni to on-na ha mienai houga ii”. It translates [as] “women and the devil are better not to be seen”. The devil and women are always there and always with and in us, but better not to be seen. With women it’s better to imagine the sound of her voice or what she looks like under her clothes. The same thing becomes with art. Someone created it; why do you need to explain it? If you cannot understand it, you will not understand. If you feel it, you don’t need the words; even the words cannot make you feel it. So that’s what it is. This is why I have a problem explaining my artwork.
Kayo Yokoyama has been invited to create a paper installation for the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre in celebration of the upcoming visit to the Blue Mountains by the Dalai Lama in June 2015.
Images: Kayo Yokoyama, Dappled of Light (2014)—as installed in ‘Shadow Weave’, Dubbo Regional Gallery Paper; 8 x 1 m (photographs: Ona Janzen)
Brenda May Gallery staff (group curation), ‘Paper Works II’, Brenda May Gallery, Apr – May 2013
Walking as knowing by David Watson I barely know Lesley Punton. We’ve met only once – on my side of the earth – the day Lesley and her family dropped in for a cuppa at our home studio after she’d projected images of her resonant work up at Sydney College of the Arts, here in urban Rozelle. Later we strolled a few hundred metres together, with Angus in his pram, around restored harbourside parkland on Iron Cove – named, some say, for the iron shackles worn by convicts there in the 1790s to prevent their escape – north, some dreamt, to China!
An ‘enthusiasm’ spotted on Sydney’s Great Western Highway (2012)
We’ve kept in touch since, sent each other stuff – catalogues, texts, images – emailed sporadic enthusiasms. Though often months in the making, and usually delayed by the variegated demands of life, our missives are always delivered (somewhat unnecessarily given their lengthy gestation) at the speed of light. No stamps these days, no weeks spent jostling quietly, expectantly with other packets and packages down in a creaking wooden hold.
We early adopters, we privileged navigators of the contemporary West appear strangely unphased by this new-found duality: the blending of often-unhurried analog experience with usually-instant digital gratification. Lesley and I have tapped out paragraphs on occasion (Generation Y call this ‘speaking’) about how the cadences, exertion, focus and freedoms of
walking help to ‘unlock’ new experiences of place. Immersion at a meandering pace certainly does seem to help remove a little of the contemporary clamour, the ‘background noise’. Perhaps, as Rebecca Solnit has observed, the mind works best at three miles per hour;i Lesley has even wondered, in an entirely ‘pre-GPS’ sense, whether cognition might be motion sensitive and site specific: The geography of Scotland has started to make sense in new physical ways with rivers, glens, and mountain groups providing every bit as many connections as the roads that previously formed my understandings of how things linked.ii Walking loved places (even unloved ones) delivers tiny epiphanies, imaginings, meditative pauses and memories, personal, occasionally sharable palimpsests of meaning and emotion. Nourished by metaphysical spaces such as these, artists can inflect and embroider, add nuance, help to transform space into place. Lesley’s favoured sites – often-remote corners of Scotland – are for her never void of calories: The wild places I seek out … are about as full as I could hope them to be, and that includes vast expanses of moorland such as Rannoch Moor or the rock outcrops in the North West of Scotland where not much other than heather and grass can grow.iii Throughout our two-year ‘conversation’ Lesley and I have spoken often about what it means to walk at a time of accelerated, largely city-based living, and of our love/hate relationship with new technologies. Interestingly, and contrary to our initial prejudices/fears, we have both come to admit that the slow progress of [our] work ‘won by walking’ has been immeasurably enriched, opened up, via access to digital research materials.iv
For example, instantaneous key-word searches for specific place names (across previously amorphous, inaccessible archival-image collections) had fuelled and embroidered Wild Ryde, my seven-year photo-based walking and swimming odyssey across suburban Sydney.v Via home computer the immersive ‘now’ of my transit had been enlivened, entwined with the ‘then’ of history in (almost) real time: ‘fact’, fiction, dream … the personal, the anecdotal, the entirely fanciful, borne along, buoyed by until-recently unresuscitated (but far from worthless) digitally derived minutiae and detritus.vi Sometimes I think about Lesley in Glasgow – all those molten earthy rock-laden kilometres away through the earth – and her latest mountain walk, or artwork. Via her website (at the rather poor industry-standard screen resolution of 72 pixels per inch) I can bring to mind but not properly appreciate the true surface and depth of her imagery, nor her oft-laborious technique which, beyond traditional landscape representation, viscerally, softly echoes her journeying.vii As I think about our ant-like wandering, wondering, googling and inscribing, upon separate hemispheres, poles apart, I gladly recognise though that our practices are more immediately communicable, alignable, mutually sustaining in this ‘post-digital’ age than ever before in history.
When Lesley mentions Scotland’s fiercely defended ‘right to roam’ in an email, for example (in response to my outrage re the access coal seam gas companies are being allowed beneath people’s farms up and down our east coast: unchecked legal pilfering which has lately spawned the unstoppable Lock The Gate protest alliance) I flash back immediately to indigenous notions of walking and caring for country here in the South. In seconds I’m able to recommend that Lesley read a new book, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia, about the extensive, until now barely acknowledged good stewardship of aboriginal people via the walking and firing of ‘country’, over millennia.viii I can even attach a PDF review of the book with a couple of swiftly empowering keystrokes.
Alongside and despite the lure and marvellous utility of the virtual, it becomes clearer to me by the day that most human beings, whether indigenous or newly-arrived (Lesley, I know, regards herself as a ‘native’ of Scotland) still crave an immersive relationship with ‘country’ – within their
most familiar, loved, often local physical environments – whether they be urban or rural, built-up or people-free.
Aboriginal people regard ‘country’ as: a place that gives and receives life. Not just imagined or represented, it is lived and lived with. People talk about country in the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country. People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, is sorry or happy. Country is not a generalised or undifferentiated type of place, such as one might indicate with terms like ‘spending a day in the country’ or ‘going up the country’. Rather, country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. Because of this richness, country is home, and peace; nourishment for body, mind and spirit; heart’s ease.ix
Last year Lesley sent me some extracts from The Living Mountain, a remarkable 1940s prose meditation by the Scottish writer Nan Shepherd. Like Lesley today, Nan was a lover and climber of mountains. During her long life she covered thousands of miles exploring the Cairngorms (in north-eastern Scotland) on foot. In a 2008 review of her recently republished paen, English nature writer Robert Macfarlane observes: The book is about the Cairngorms in the same way that Ulysses is about Dublin, or Mrs Dalloway is about London – which is to say, it is attentive to the specifics of its chosen landscape, but also passionately metaphysical.x Lesley Punton’s work is similarly extracted, abstracted. Derived directly from the places she walks and pursues connection to, it also simultaneously experiments with (in her case visual) language, which seeks to parallel the experience.
Macfarlane goes on to note that most mountain literature is written by men ‘focused on the summit’, and that in utter contrast, Nan Shepherd goes into the Cairngorms ‘merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him’.xi ‘“And” is one her favourite words … being the conjunction which implies connection without hierarchy’, he writes.xii Shepherd speaks of recapturing ‘the pristine amazement not often savoured’, and of sleeping upon the summit, where ‘emptied of preoccupation, there is nothing between me and the earth and sky.’xiii
Walking barefoot (a favourite Sydney pursuit of my own, not always achievable in Scotland) the author muses – so memorably you can feel it – that ‘a flower caught by the stalk between the toes is a small enchantment’.xiv Concluding her ode, Shepherd writes of ‘living in one sense at a time to live all the way through’ so that ‘the body may be said to think.’xv Schooled in Buddhism, Nan Shepherd’s spirit and approach to ‘country’ sound, at least to these white Australian ears, extraordinarily, refreshingly aboriginal: indigenous Australians have believed, for 60,000 years, that they are part of the land, that it owns them, not the other (Anglo) way around.
In 26 views of the starburst world, his recent re-imagining of early Sydney through the eyes and burgeoning indigenous sensitivities of William Dawes, the colony’s first astronomer, author Ross Gibson observes:
To be in country most beneficially, you have to be absorbed by it, you have to redistribute yourself in it, you have to flow with its dynamics.xvi
Amidst that flow, those dynamics, those earthly and celestial heavens, a mere 180 degrees to the north, walks Lesley Punton, an artist in touch with mountains, whom I have come to know through walking, and email, and to respect. One day I hope to see Lesley’s work with my own eyes. And to spend a night alone upon a Scottish mountain: witness, like her, to the fleeting ‘maximum black’ of a summer solstice.xvii My rucksack, I assure you, will be free of all technological devices.
Images: Lesley Punton, Les Grand Montets (2007/12) Lightjet print; 22.5 x 30 cm (photographer Jim Hamlyn)
Lesley Punton, Duration I & II (2010-12) Silverpoint and gesso on board, and oil and gesso on board; each 24 x 18 cm (photographs: the artist) Lesley Punton, La Jonction - the meeting place of the Glacier des Bossons and the Glacier de Taconnaz, Mt Blanc (2007/12) Lightjet print; 22 x 15 cm (photographer Jim Hamlyn) Lesley Punton and Jim Hamlyn, Schiehallion (South image) (2009-12) Pinhole photograph recording the hours of darkness on the mountain's summit on the shortest night, silver gelatin print; 12.2 x 10.2 cm (photograph: Lesley Punton) i
‘I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than
the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.’: Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Viking, 2000), p. 10. ii
Email correspondence with Lesley Punton, 15 August 2012.
‘Only those thoughts won by walking have any value’: Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Maxims and Barbs’, in Twilight of the Idols
(1888), trans. Duncan Large (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 9. v
David Watson, ‘Wild Ryde’ (PhD diss., Sydney College of the Arts [Photomedia], The University of Sydney, 2012); David
Watson, swimming home (2012) [7-minute video] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAueTqffyDY. vi
David Watson, ‘swimming home’ (conference paper, Sydney College of the Arts, 2011).
Lesley Punton, Back to the Things Themselves (Lesley Punton/Judy Spark) proposal, Glasgow International Festival 2012.
Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011).
Deborah Bird Rose, Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal views of landscape and wilderness (Canberra: Australian
Heritage Commission, 1996), p. 7. x
Robert Macfarlane, ‘I walk therefore I am’, The Guardian, 30 August 2008.
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (London: Canongate Books, 2011), pp 80-81.
Ibid. Shepherd, p. 81.
Ross Gibson, 26 views of the starburst world: William Dawes at Sydney Cove 1788-91 (Perth: UWA Publishing, 2012), p.
In her artist statement for North (2012) Lesley writes: ‘On June 24th 2008 at 12.05am, I made a walk up Ben Hope,
Scotland’s most northerly mountain over 3000ft, with the aim of finding … a place on this island where the sun didn’t set. Of course it turned out that the sun did indeed set … but [it] only just dipped below the horizon. “Maximum black” was at around 1am.’
PERSONAL STRUCTURES 9 MAY - 22 NOVEMBER 2015
Mark making and trace by Sean O'Keeffe
You have scored your name into my shoulders, referenced me with your mark. The pads of your fingers have become printing blocks, you tap a message on to my skin, tap meaning into my body.”i "
We live in a world of marks and traces. Now more than any time in human history, the passage of our lives is digitally marked and trailed, logged, coded and decoded; our very biosignatures are now being traced and documented in a microbiological narrative stream from birth till death. Our digital, chemical and biological interactions with the world are increasingly catalogued, creating a vast lineal archive that is almost beyond our comprehension, and unlikely to be personally considered unless it is used to hold us to account or condemn us; yet despite the forensic minutia of this extensive record, the personal tactile experience of human life seems more transient than ever. Beyond a carefully contrived digital identity, the lasting signifying legacy of the contemporary human will differ greatly from the Pyramids of Giza and Peru, the Lascaux Caves and the delicate rock engravings of the Burrup Peninsula—works that resonate with the pressure and sinewy strength of the human mark. Instead, the contemporary collective human legacy is likely to be the indirect and horrifying marks of dry creek beds and barren clear–felled forests; the shimmering rainbow patina of oil slicks and invisibly expanding patches of plastic debris in the ocean; the patchwork quilts of industrial farming, convex spirals of open–cut mining and collapsed faces of melting glaciers; combined with vast scored scars of concrete and steel across the planet to create a massive structured, sculptured cenotaph of industrialised humanity, replicated as a cross–referenced digital network in the virtual world that we increasingly inhabit. It is little wonder that humans continue to struggle to find meaning, and even presence, in such a world. Our virtual marks are permanent, no matter how much we might try to delete them, yet we can’t really feel them either. There is no tactile response to digital mark making, little consolation in the ethereal scent the trail leaves behind, and even less validation. A digital summation of our lives is a hollow one. As annual reminders and push notices take the place of fireside recollection, the images become increasingly disconnected from our real experiences. Like the marks left by fingers drawn across a dusty mantelpiece, or footprints in snow, our existence is soon lost in the endless blizzard of digital particles. As the divide grows between our socially networked, curated digital selves and our less manipulated, more organic physical selves, there is an understandable re–emergence of practices that seek to engage with a more primal sense of physical self. Phebe Parisia is a mark maker. Her marks are documents of events, intense performances of consciousness evocation that record her explorations into the self, into existence, into the physical act of living.
Parisia’s drawings record a savant–like ballet of repeated mark making, a meditative mantra in which she forges contact between the mind and the body through a subtle chaos of variation, reaching for a connection with the visceral sense of being alive. Visually her drawings reference the formalist abstraction work of the 1960s, particularly the optical works of artists such as Bridget Riley, in which mark making distanced itself from the human hand. Riley’s work, with its hard edges and geometric trompe l’oeil preciseness which contrasted strongly with the haptic fury of abstract expressionism, was a personal response to the complex post–war world of burgeoning technology and industry. Her generation had already recognised the dehumanising potential of technology and modern society, and her paintings forced passively posturing art audiences out of immobility and into involuntary interaction with the works. Presciently pre-empting the digital interaction of humans and technology through artworks today, Riley’s work explored Descartes’ theory of mind-body dualism. Although the optical reactions elicited by Parisia’s hand–drawn and variable marks and Riley’s paintings are similar, Parisia’s work is post–apocalyptic in comparison. Whereas Riley’s work simulates the absence of the human hand, Parisia’s presents a humbly human return to the hand amidst the ruins and frustrations of a contemporary social dystopia born from a future anticipated by Riley, combining the illusory elements of Riley’s hard–edge works with a looser expressionism suggestive of a constrained Pollock. Parisia’s hand–drawn surfaces shimmer and vibrate with an electric movement, seducing and confronting the eye. Yet the subtle variances caused by the human impacts of shake, muscle fatigue and body position speak of more than optical illusion; they are the indelible signature of the human hand, flawed with the mortality of flesh and muscle, pulsing blood, concentration, frustration, exhaustion, pain and boredom. As every subtle variation is amplified exponentially by each repeated passing, the whisper of a hand shake becomes a primal scream restrained. The mainstream rise of mark making rituals such as tattooing and scarification in young and old alike is telling evidence of a human need to somehow record life in a base and primal way, through permanent marks upon the body. “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel”ii sang Johnny Cash in one of his last hit releases, echoing the actions of countless teenagers searching for signs of life. Parisia’s works are no less dramatic, no less committed; the pain is transferred from the needle to the pen, and the physical demand of thousands of repetitive strokes. Parisia the mark maker has recorded her life in a coded catalogue, a traceable signature; but unlike the eternal digital stain or intransient biological trace, it is a tactile physical embrace. Whereas the quickly fading mark of a lover’s touch on skin haunts memory and the senses, a digital thumbs–up fades away amidst a sea of identical thumbs. Parisia’s drawings, like the lover’s touch, hold the moment longer, in a reverse echo of widening and expanding suspension; presented in exhibition they, like Riley’s paintings, compel the viewer’s eye to interact with a resonant rhythm that sings the song of her movements and marks. It is only a brief hold, a song limited by the archival restrictions of the materials; yet as a personal treatise on living it is an effective record of a moment, a trace felt and shared.
Images Phebe Parisia ..running through veins buried deep... (2014)â€”detail Pen and ink on paper; 70 x 100 cm Phebe Parisia ...the buried place animals dug water flowed.. (2014)â€”detail Pen and ink on paper; 70 x 100 cm
Extract from: Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body, 1993. Canada: Knopf.
Trent Reznor, Hurt, recorded by Johnny Cash in 2002. American Recordings, Universal Music Group.
The dark thrill of nature-fear by Hayley West There’s a sense of both constraint and abandon in the works of Talitha Kennedy. They are sensual, luring the viewer to reach out and touch, yet simultaneously exuding an eeriness that sends him/her into retreat. An uncomfortable darkness lurks within them, welling from holes in stretched tensile skins and from pokeable orifices in hand-held worlds, extending across floors, from ceilings and into corners. With persistence, though, the sensation of ‘feeling around in the dark’ rewards the curious. Amongst these high-rising and low-riding works, the intensity of nature’s fertility and the grandeur of its growing, living, decaying and dying can be sensed. ‘In the process of making there is a necessary destruction of things to make the new. I embrace this dilemma as an aesthetic of fecundity where the creative forces are in eternal flux between living and dying. My drawings and soft sculptures conjure rhizomic masses - part plant, body and landscape - where metamorphosing surface suggests an underlying physical struggle and battle of wills.’
Kennedy is mindful of the anthropomorphic suggestions in her work. As her hand stitches laboriously through black-dyed hide she is aware of creating new cavities where a soul once resided. An element of penance is suggested, a conscious reverence for the life that was. We have only our human experience to refer to when positioning ourselves amongst other living forms in nature: thus plant roots suggest our legs, hide represents our skin, a hole is seen as an orifice; as Kennedy puts it, ‘the rendering of natural form as something familiar and resembling one‘s own body makes for a sensation of simulated intimacy.’ Perhaps this is where the unease resides – do we want to be captured in the all-encompassing fleshiness of the other? The animal hides used by Kennedy parallel human form in scale, an uncanny similarity that we cannot refute. While artificially cut holes resemble shadows laid on the skin through tree canopies, they also double as a restrictive shield. Our presence is revealed, should we try to conceal ourselves behind a skin; we can see out, but also cannot escape being seen. Whole body commitment is necessary in Kennedy’s creation of the hand-held forms: pushing, pulling and turning inside out. In the process of making there is a slow shift from the pure struggle of stuffing the unforgiving, limp material, to joy in the corporeal object it becomes. Kennedy understands that through performing intimate gestures in the act of making, she develops a special engagement with the finished piece. Visitors to her studio are often compelled to hold, poke, coo, and dance with her works. Kennedy, like me, has left behind the incredibly charged and outrageously hostile climate of Darwin. This extremity of climate breathes in her work, resonating with my pangs of both nostalgia and nervousness. Although she is now based in Sydney, Darwin’s environs still inform the process of her investigations: her toes are secured amongst mangroves, her hands feed through vines. Her works result from a direct observation of natural forms and the struggle to reconcile her relationship with them. There is tension in the material, in the making of the object, and in her unsteady connection with our natural environment. As an urban adult she describes a sense of being invisibly blocked from connecting totally to ‘wilderness’. Trusting our instincts, especially when we make process-driven work, is fundamental to the outcome. The driving force to complete the work can sit harmoniously alongside the will to listen. Accepting both what our thoughts can rest with and what our physicality can handle ultimately lead to creative success. I see this in Kennedy’s work: this active acceptance of process, and that ‘what will be, will be’. Kennedy talks of being armed with purpose when beginning a work. Ready with references from the field, she cuts into the skins with ‘a very loose idea for the form and then trying to make it, which has all the masochism of trying to make the impossible’. However, she then accomplishes a balance by moving away from the original intent, trusting in her own ability to compose and knowledge of when to stop. For me, the realm of the imaginary is concocted through the blackness of Kennedy’s works. There’s a confidence to move around and caress the works, yet a fear of not knowing where I am. I have an uncomfortable relationship myself with nature - all that breathing, that decaying,
that unruly growth. In these works I am drawn to the confrontational size and the endlessness of monochromic matt black or, as Kennedy puts it, ‘black leather like shadow becoming flesh’. Through them I relive heat and dread, yet am reminded of the resilience needed to persist. I’ve seen others touch and react, but I’m yet to stick a finger all the way through. Images: Talitha Kennedy Weeping Hiding Place (2014) and Domestic Black Hole (2013) Talitha Kennedy Pervasive Flesh (2014)—detail Leather, thread, stuffing, wire, gravel; dimensions variable Talitha Kennedy Domestic Black Hole (2013) Leather, thread, stuffing; dimensions variable Installation shots from 'Pervasive Flesh' at Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin, 2014 (photographs: Fiona Morrison)
Fragments of Every Time I Leave the Room by Greg Ferris by Fiona Davies The girl: ‘I hope you make it. People disappear every day.’ David Locke: ‘Every time they leave the room.’i
The interactive cinema artwork Every Time I Leave the Room by Greg Ferris was installed at Mosman Art Gallery from 18 October 2014 to 1 February 2015. Here is a physical description of the work, for those who haven't seen or experienced it: a room containing a large screen, half the size of the wall, on which seven filmic/cinematic scenes set in a hotel interior are projected. The sequence of their playing is driven, by a user, from a lectern-like object on which a set of light sensors respond to gestural passes by the viewer or experiencer.
The room in which the work is shown is dark, with minimal exterior lighting bleeding into the space; all light in the room comes from the film sequences, each of which cuts to black at the end and repeats. I met with Greg the day before the work was pulled down to discuss his practice, how he has maintained that practice, and the ideas driving this work and the next project. A series of fragments of our conversation are recorded here, in a sequence of my choosing.
[Date that the work was made] 2014 So it's part of a work in progress — at least it’s a continuing project until the Rendezvous Hotel at Central Station changes their decor… or I run out of scenarios to shoot additional rooms. I was originally going to build a hotel room set but shooting on location turned out to be less expensive, so I ended up shooting over three nights for the seven scenarios in this (particular) version. In the end it was more about finding spaces that looked fairly generic in terms of hotels and their tropes, and playing with those tropes. [Technical] I received a small grant from the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at UTS as well as an artist fee from the gallery which went straight into the budget, along with my own financial input. It was complex in terms of setting up the six camera angles within each room because I only had four cameras to shoot with, so the bathroom angles and some of the other ancillary angles, for
instance the alarm clock, were shot later... the camera angles were useful as a way for the user to orientate their position spatially in relationship to the various narratives that take place. The way you interact with the work is through light and shadow-play… it’s a reflection of the work itself which is all about light and darkness: the idea was to have an interface you didn't have to physically touch, rather you could gesture or swim your way through the work. I'm not a big fan of buttons and touch screens, and I wanted something that was a little bit more… evocative and related to the work itself… Katrina (Cashman Assistant Director/Senior Curator at Mosman Art Gallery) mentioned that a lot of the time visitors just came in and stood up the back, watching as others interacted with the piece. There’s also a bit of an Ouija board thing going on with the piece, it feels like the user is calling up these spirits and their stories… [Content] There’s seven scenarios of eleven minutes in length: the length of a typical short film. You interact by switching between rooms [and angles between the rooms], until one of the characters walks in through the door, or wakes up… the rooms are running parallel to each other, temporally and spatially… there’s also a voyeuristic surveillance thing going on, which I didn’t pick up until the world was in situ… the seven senarios are all interconnected via one event - exploring the rooms you discover the event that connects all these characters; you’ll find out what causes the power to go off, the trigger event that affects the action, and rewinds everyone's stories: that idea of rewinding came from a previous project I worked on, Eavesdrop, where a number of characters are in a kind of… purgatory. They're all dead, and whilst that's not necessarily the case here, there's a little bit of... you don't know where they necessarily are… almost like a waiting room… these characters are waiting to move on… so all the rooms start in blackness, and the idea was that they switch on within the narratives, and are switched off as part of the narratives as well. I also had to give them (the actors) certain restrictions or obstructions: the room had to start in darkness, the narrative had to end with the power going out, and it had to be within a certain time limit and that the actors had to work within the locked camera frame. Normally with a cinema frame you have options for focus pulls, camera movement, zooms, that sort of thing to draw the audience's attention. The idea was to have blocked off frames so that they would work within the frame, so with Every time… there’s also a bit of a theatrical thing going on as well the viewer is p resented with a locked off point of view… the idea of a frame within the frame ... .
It's pretty bleak in certain of the narratives, and speaking of that sort of triptych thing going on… so there's a lot of breaking up of the camera frame, which is pretty classical approach, and you've also got a lot of hotel mirrors as well, revealing secondary spaces and reflecting characters, who are themselves reflecting on their existence.
Hotels are great places for mirrors in inappropriate places... There's stuff happening with light obviously in a darkened room, and the lack of light, and mirrors being reflections, it features strongly in one of the scenarios, where the characters discuss photography, Roland Barthes and how the mirror of the camera effectively turns the world on its head... it's superficially about the move from the photochemical creation of imagery to a digital production… and the SLR with its mirror… it takes the image that's effectively upside down and flips it back up so it's all… alright… again. It’s a nice metaphor… The larger hotel mirrors pick up on that idea… that sort of personal reflection and turmoil... as does the other frames with the rooms, the paintings and the television. One hint that these characters are maybe ghosts is the stuntman character switch on the television and John Boorman’s Point Blank is on, the Lee Marvin film, where the lead character is left for dead on Alcatraz, and yet somehow he manages to miraculously survive. The character’s name is Walker, and he spends the whole duration of the movie going on this wild revenge trip, executing all the people that have betrayed him. At the end of the film he just disappears… into blackness… into shadows, so you don't know if he's a ghost or not, and there’s echoes of that idea in Every Time.
That’s also reflected in the painting on the walls of the hotels…disappearance, that sort of stuff going on. The paintings are based on well-known paintings like Christina’s World, albeit with the figures wiped out of the frame… so there’s another clue that something’s not quite right with these characters. I like for the scenarios to cater for all types of viewer. [Fiona Davies: You can't do it.] No you can, you can. A bit of something for everyone… There’s one particular room that's fairly pretentious and very fine arts and academia, they're talking about photography. But it's kind of interesting because there's bits about ... and this is the trigger coming up... [Working on the next part] There’ll be a bunch of further scenarios shot, expanding the work each time it’s exhibited. One I’m working on is about a refugee applying for a permanent visa who meets up with a private refugee advisor. At a certain point the advisor realises there is nothing she can do for the refugee and she can't make any money from his situation, so she cuts him off mid-sentence and tells him he has to leave. The plan is that that particular scenario will link and will also be part of the next project I want to make, which will be entitled Sympathetic threads…
Images: Greg Ferris, Every Time I Leave the Room (2014-15)—as installed at Mosman Art Gallery (photographs: Adam Hollingworth of Hired Gun)
https://vimeo.com/114762221 Documentation https://vimeo.com/112117287 The Stuntman (Room #1) https://vimeo.com/109346769 Living in a Golden Age, ‘L'Âge de cristal’ (Room #5)
Quoted from the 1975 film The Passenger, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and starring Jack Nicholson.
Carla and Lisa Wherby by Nicole Barakat In my role as co-curator of the recent exhibition ‘Then, Now, Tomorrow: After the War’i, I worked with the artists Carla and Lisa Wherby as they realised a new collaborative series honouring the often invisible contribution made by women, including their grandmother Winifred, during the First and Second World Wars. Family played a key role in shaping the twin sisters’ appetite for art, with their mother painting landscapes whilst their eccentric artist and collector uncle created extraordinary abstract paper collages.ii Political Parties, a collection of works by the Wherbys, featured in another recent exhibition, ‘Rather Curious’iii. This show centred on the idea of the ‘wunderkammer’, typically defined as ‘a room filled with a collection of curios, natural objects and cultural artefacts sourced from far off lands’iv, or a ‘cabinet of curiosities’. Carla and Lisa are fervent collectors, with remnants of pop culture, celebrity autographs and political badges amongst the remarkable objects that complete their multi-faceted collection. Political Parties makes a smooth transition from the depths of their own wunderkammer to the walls of the gallery, where they fuse a combination of hunted and gathered ephemera, images and text into an inquisitive composition satirising the current state of Australian politics and political parties. A series of eight detailed drawings form the backbone to this body of work. In the signature style of the artists, a palimpsest emerges in finely rendered ballpoint pen portraits, threads of text, and incongruent symbols and imagery overdrawn in permanent marker. In a recent interview Carla, who draws for at least three hours a day, articulated the sense of achievement she gains through makings these elaborate drawingsv. The labour-intensive drawings feature arrangements of smiling headshots of politicians, reminiscent of electricity pole election campaign posters, captured with their mouths open, laughing or frowning (at unknown subjects), or in the midst of impassioned speeches. In contrast with most parodies, the subjects are represented in a relatively dignified manner. The Wherbys acquire many of their images from internet searches, and these portraits were probably appropriated from the media and the politicians’ own websites. The artists’ deliberate avoidance
of stereotypical political caricature enables the heaviness of the ink pens to intrude on the ghostlike presences of Tony Abbott, Barak Obama and Joe Hockey, leaving a dissonant and indelible mark. With a few simple additions, Hockey’s already grumpy expression fits neatly into the ‘piggy bank’, the keeper of the nation’s funds in the ‘Deserve Bank’; thus the Wherbys’ subjects’ power is dismantled by a combination of political insight and razor-sharp wit.
The depth of these drawings invites a thorough investigation; as I delve further the work begins to speak, telling stories of Australia’s colonial history and its unofficial assimilation with the contemporary imperial powers. The sinister face of George W. Bush hiding slyly behind a pattern of internal organs and blood, sitting between himself and John Howard, references the 2003 invasion of Iraq orchestrated by the U.S. and willingly joined by Australia’s then Prime Minister. The partial Union Jack, the abstracted star spangled banner, and the allied soldier with his back to us (with the words BRAVERY SLAVERY emblazoned on his coat), are all reminders of where the Australian government’s allegiance lies. 'It is as though I can climb right into these works, to find myself sitting in a small room staring at a fast-flickering television and listening to a blaring radio behind me. A sense of vertigo prevails, with psychedelic patterns spiralling further into a political chasm. Spider webs net one-time hero
‘K. Rudd’, whilst fragments of popular songs drop around me, such as “truth, beauty and a picture of you” from The Whitlams’ award-winning 1997 song No Aphrodisiacvi - a stab at Australia’s FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), of being left off the world stage, if they refuse to join in.vii The Wherbys unapologetically pluck politicians out of their (cabinet) seats and assimilate them into their own quirky collection. Political Parties is a southerly change on a heavy, humid February afternoon, an imperative assessment of a flawed and failing system which manages to unravel the bind of a miserable mess.
Images: Carla and Lisa Wherby, Political Parties (2014)—details—as installed in ‘Rather Curious’—see endnotes (photograph: Nicole Barakat) Carla and Lisa Wherby with their installation Political Parties at Peacock Gallery (photograph: Hayley Hill
Nicole Barakat and Penelope Stannard (curators), ‘Then, Now, Tomorrow: After the War’. Peacock Gallery and Auburn Arts Studios, Auburn, Feb – May 2015 ii Accessible Arts, ‘Interview with Carla Wherby (visual artist)’, 2014. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.aarts.net.au/resources/artist-resource/visual-art-resource/interview-carla-wherby/. iii Michelle Tran (curator), ‘Rather Curious: An Exhibition by the Auburn Artists Network’ (annual group show). Peacock Gallery, Auburn, Nov 2014 – Jan 2015 iv Michelle Tran, ‘From the Curator’ in Rather Curious: An Exhibition by the Auburn Artists Network (Exhibition Catalogue), 2014 v Accessible Arts, ‘Interview with Carla Wherby’ vi The Whitlams, No Aphrodisiac, 1997 vii The chorus of the song is “There’s no aphrodisiac like loneliness”. This particular work refers to Australia sending troops to Iraq in 2014.
In Conversation with Ian Milliss by Beata Geyer
Beata: Although I went to art school in Sydney, and now hold under- and postgraduate degrees in visual art, I didnâ€™t hear of Ian until about 4 years ago. In my defence, contemporary Australian art teaching at the undergraduate level tends to have a Euro- and America-centric bias, and as a result many Australian artists remain in relative obscurity. Ian Milliss is one such example; despite his practice spanning almost half a century, he is relatively unknown outside art circles. Luckily for me I met Ianâ€”via social media initially, then in real lifeâ€”and now hang out with him a lot!
Ian Milliss began his artistic practice in the mid-1960s, first exhibiting whilst still a teenager. Remarkably, he is still alive and kicking and with a retrospective or two under his belt, still a practising artist. I had the following conversation with him over tea and homemade scones in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney in NSW. Beata: How are we to define the role of an artist? For you, Ian, this is not a flippant question, is it? Ian: Absolutely not! Great scones! Beata: The understanding, and definition, of who is an ‘artist’ underpins your conceptual and ideological approach to art and to life; so, Ian, how would you define who is an artist? And, given that the average human attention span is only two and half minutes, could you keep it short. [Ian likes to talk!] Ian [not at all offended by my last remark; luckily, he totally lacks any sense of self-importance!]: This question really needs to be turned around, as I firmly believe that who is, and is not, an artist can only be established retrospectively. Calling yourself an artist doesn’t necessarily mean you are one. The issue really is what makes an artist? What effect did your activities have on human culture that means you could be described as an artist? I don't see it in terms of the size of your body of work, or whether you conducted a particular artistic practice that would conventionally qualify as art, like producing paintings or having exhibitions. I see it in terms of the cultural effect of what you do. Your practice as an artist needs to challenge and change cultural understanding of something significant, something that matters in real life, outside of the art world. Beata: In a world filled with opportunities and options—not in reality, but in theory—why are you still making art? And don’t tell me you aren’t, because I’ve seen your studio—you continually make new work, and participate in numerous exhibitions and artistic projects. [Just in the last six months, Ian has participated in: ‘Private Collection’i and ‘Magenta’ii at WEST, Blue Mountains; Cementa 15iii in Kandos; and a duo exhibition with Vernon Treweeke at Macquarie University Galleryiv].
Ian: I started exhibiting in Central Street Galleryv, showing hard-edge Abstraction. However, I soon became interested in activities outside of â€˜normalâ€™ art, activities which I understood to be culturally significant and which dealt with similar issues to art, even if they would not have been described as art back then; so I started examining possibilities of making art that didn't look like art, and could exist outside of the usual gallery system; I looked specifically at the culture of Australia, because culture is created by power. I thought a lot about what were the centres of power that had generated the values of the place I found myself in, and they were the trade union movement, the media, rural life, religion, and a few other things; so from that point on, the very early 1970s, for almost 30 years, I focused on projects within a radical political spectrum, such as trade unions, union publications, and media, using them as my media because they were the most culturally resonant at that particular time.
But by the 1990s I had worked through a lot of that, and part of what I was arguing was that there was no limit to the ways you could be an artist, that every technology was, in fact, a viable artistic medium. The joke was that what I hadn't explored were the conservative, conventional ways of being an artist. Apart from my hard-edge shaped canvases and then some conceptual work, I had done very little that could be described as conventional art; so while continuing with other activist activities I have been more or less systematically working my way through obsolete genres, the more discredited the better, like painted furniture. I wanted the fun of working with a full range of artistsâ€™ mediums, even with the most conventional and established, such as painting and photography. I even tackled portraiture recently; maybe I should enter the Archibald, ha! It was also the satisfaction of being able to thwart the art worldâ€™s compulsion to label every artist and their practice - in my case, as a conceptualist and then an activist artist from the distant past. That labelling allowed me to then be sidelined, and I didn't want to be sidelined because very few people other than me have been making the points Iâ€™ve been making about the politics of art; these arguments should not be lost in general (if rather confused) complacency. And finally, I'm getting old. It's not just that I'm increasingly disabled and therefore can't be involved in activism like I used to be; it's also that, in a way, your job when you get old is to make sense of your life and history. If there is any audience for my ruminations and self-justifications,
then it is probably the art world where I began, but every group has its own language and forms, and so, to be intelligible to much of the art world, I have to present my history in forms that pretend to be artworks. Beata: Yes, the art world, especially the dealers and the collectors, demand to be able to put each artist into a neat category. I can see your satisfaction in overcoming the reputation of being a bad boy by painting flowers! [Ian’s flowers are a strong political commentary, both on environmental disasters created by coal mining, and on politicians like current Australian Minister for the Arts George Brandis, who seek to control and limit artists, as well as a tribute to Ian's long-term artistic hero Tatlin, who by the end of his life was politically restricted to painting flowers.] You are multitasking then? Ian: Yes [laughing] Painting, photography, sculpture, design and graphic web based projects, anything really! Beata: Finally, are you going to make more art? If you were, would you agree that you are either insane or just super optimistic about the role of art in society? Do you believe that art really matters in society?—or is it just a propaganda tool, a trinket in the hands of oppressive governments. [Just off the top of my head: the USSR and Social Realism, the USA and Abstract Expressionism, Australia and ‘Excellent Art’ …] Do artists do have a voice? Ian: Well, insane probably, because I'm certainly not optimistic. I can happily do it precisely because I don't think it matters; if I thought it mattered I would be a lot more strategic than I am. I only make stuff-that-looks-like-art to communicate with the art world, and I make it about art; I’ve always used other forms to communicate with audiences other than the art world. Again, it really depends, who do you call ‘artists’? Those who call themselves artists do not have a voice, because their art changes absolutely nothing—and that includes those who load their work up with political references. That is my point about flower paintings—even flower paintings can be subversive and symbolically critical, but they don't change anything. Even if political art is currently fashionable, it's just another product manufactured for a particular art market segment. All those people calling themselves artists are just producing a sort of entertainment commodity, that’s all! On the other hand, most of those who are in a position to have a potentially culturally significant voice wouldn’t even call themselves artists, and don't operate within the art scene. However, their contribution will probably be recognised at some point in the future, and they will
retrospectively be understood as artists. That was my point about the agriculturalist PA Yeomans, the subject of an AGNSW exhibition that Lucas Ihlein and I curated; or you could think of them as being like Ada Lovelace, the mathematician who developed the beginning of computer programming a hundred years before computers actually existed.
Cultural significance is the issue, not exhibitions or collectors and market value. Think of Picasso, Duchamp and Tatlin. The market loved Picasso. He died a billionaire in contemporary terms, while Duchamp left only a few hundred thousand dollars that heâ€™d inherited from an old girlfriend, and Tatlin died penniless and almost forgotten; but Duchamp rose to be even more influential than Picasso in the last fifty years. Now, as we understand the Anthropocene is upon us, then Bogdanov and Proletkult, Tatlin and the Productivists are finally being re-examined, and I have no doubt will eventually be seen as even more significant than Picasso or Duchamp. Like Ada Lovelace, they were so far in advance of everyone else that it has taken almost a century of change for it to become clear why they are so important, how they provide the clues for the human culture that must develop if we are to cope with climate catastrophe.
History has proven over and over again that the most celebrated and conventionally successful usually get forgotten and dismissed as irrelevant. Those whose voice will be heard in the future do not know it yet, probably don't ever think of themselves as artists. If you think of yourself as an artist you need to think about this, do you want a career or do you want to be significant in the long run? Occasionally they are the same thing, but not very often. Beata: Thank you Ian. Another scone? .... Thanks.
Images Ian Milliss, Me and Max 2014 digital print (110cm H x 390cm W) and online essay http://milliss.com/me-and-max/ Ian Milliss and Lucas Ihlein, The Yeomans Project 1975-2013 AGNSW installation view 2013 mixed media. Photo: Louise Anderson
Ian Milliss, Trade Union Journals 1979 Notes on the Works exhibition Artspace 2013 digital prints Photo: Silversalt
Ian Milliss, The Kandos Red Book 2015 blog http://kandosredbook.com/
Beata Geyer (curator), ‘A Private Collection’, WEST Project Space, Hazelbrook, Blue Mountains, NSW, Dec 2014 Beata Geyer (curator), ‘Magenta’, group exhibition, one part of a three-part exhibition ‘Unfolded Magenta World’, WEST Project Space, Hazelbrook, Blue Mountains, NSW, Mar-Apr 2015 iii ‘Cementa 15’ biennial contemporary arts festival, Kandos, NSW, Apr 2015 iv ‘Ian Milliss and Vernon Treweeke: Then and Now’, duo exhibition, Macquarie University Art Gallery, Macquarie University, Sydney, Oct-Nov 2014 v Sydney, 1966-70 ii
An online magazine where visual artists use a collegiate approach to respond to each other’s practice. The essays and interviews in Visual B...
Published on Aug 20, 2015
An online magazine where visual artists use a collegiate approach to respond to each other’s practice. The essays and interviews in Visual B...