Interview with Meghan Boody

New York artist Meghan Boody’s bizarre pin-ball death machine, Deluxe Suicide Service, is on display in the museum at the moment. She’s been making a new work for us in her stunning Tribeca tower (i.e. apartment), where she lives with her son and works with her familiars (assistants) on her art works: photographs, installations and sculptures that memorialise her psychic states, and trace her transformation from one mode of being to another. It’s all deeply Freudian, but in a glamorous earth mother, as opposed to Woody Allen, kind of way. The new work is called The Mice and Me. It depicts herself as a child, encaged, in a pretty frock, with mice lapping at the drool that leaks from her silicone mouth. It’s fully weird, and pretty amazing. It has recently arrived here in Hobart and will be on show at the museum soon.

Elizabeth Mead: Is your work autobiographical?

Meghan Boody: Yes. I think that any blob of paint or dab of sputum has to be categorised as autobiographical. Some artists like to admit it and some don’t.

EM: But I mean directly, self-consciously autobiographical.

MB: Mine is consciously that way, because what I try to do with my work is piece together things that I want to achieve in my life. They’re almost like guide books of how to proceed. I try to figure out ways of transforming myself, to make myself happier.

EM: Does that work for you?

MB: It has. Well for instance, in the Psyche and Smut series, I was very interested in getting pregnant. The series is about these two girls that start off as diametrically opposed twins, and they gradually merge to become one person. So it’s about harmonising the warring factions of one’s mind, and becoming a more integral, powerful person. There’s a cluster of eggs that have been fertilised – that’s that blue mass in the background. This was my way of meditating about being fertile. And I did get pregnant while making the series.

EM: Do you always have such a clear idea about what you’re trying to achieve, or are some works more explorative?

MB: It’s both. The more I do it the clearer my objectives become, and each work builds on the past. It continues to distill. Often I start with a very different game plan than what I end up with. But ultimately it just ends up telling the same story.

EM: What’s the story?

MB: The story is about how to switch from one type of person to the next. Self-transformation. My hope is that by studying it in myself and giving myself guidelines, some of this will filter off to somebody else and be helpful.

EM: I’ve never met an artist who is so able to pinpoint what it is they’re trying to do.

MB: Really?

EM: No, never. Can you remember the first time you felt the inkling of that objective?

MB: I think it was with the Henry’s Wives series. I did a series based on the wives of Henry VIII. Each piece was devoted to one of the six queens – leading up to a seventh and last image where they have been resurrected and are celebrating Henry’s demise. Each piece is titled after the motto that each queen had during her reign. So Katheryne Howard had the motto, ‘No other wish but his’. The historical fact acts as an armature for my fantasy.

That’s one way of perceiving the series. But also, each image is devoted to a different alchemic phase. Putrefaction, sublimation, coniunction… I felt like there were definitely things I wanted to change about my life, so I engaged in a process that studied alchemy, took to heart the lessons behind each process, and devoted a piece to it, in the hope that this would generate change in my life.

EM: It sounds like an unhappy part of your life…   

MB: Sure, you could say that. I was married to somebody who I was very unhappy with…

EM: Yes, clearly. Can you remember the first time you wanted to be an artist?

MB: I think it was like an escape hatch for me, growing up. I had a very solitary childhood. I used to escape into my room and make stuff. I lived for those moments, and then whenever there was a rap on my door it was like doomsday. And then of course my parents said, ‘Oh, you’re so artistic’, and I rebelled against that and said, ‘I don’t want to be an artist’. It took me quite a long time to come back to it. In college I thought I was going to be a writer, then I tried my hand at fashion design, and I finally fell into photography, not purposefully.

EM: Is photography the medium in which you feel most yourself?

MB: Photography is my base medium, but then it bleeds into sculpture. I go back and forth between the two, and combine them.

EM: Is ‘diorama’ the term you’d use to describe some of this stuff?

MB: You could definitely say that, or tableau. I do the same thing whether it’s in photography or sculpture. I’m creating worlds, physical realms that are like little parallel universes I can slip into. They give me respite from this particular level of reality.

EM: So you want the viewer to go into that world with you?

MB: Definitely, yep. I hope that that’s what ends up happening. I feel like if it’s believable for me, and if it’s a place that I want to go to, other people might want to go there too.

EM: Where do the visual, aesthetic elements of these worlds come from? Do you draw on a wide range of sources from literature and film?

MB: I do. But sometimes I back into it. Like Henry Darger for instance – I didn’t even know he existed. Then I came across a book on him and I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is so what I’ve been doing’, so then I very consciously adopted some of his ideas. And there are certain things that I’m crazy about – Peter Greenaway for instance. I love the way he puts great attention into the frame of his movies – images within images, a layered story. And also, he and I are both very interested in old master painting.

EM: There are obvious similarities. Maybe you’re both creating worlds that are internally consistent, even though you can’t discern the values or logic that has put that world together in the first place.

MB: Yes, exactly. That’s what I think is so important. No one’s going to know about the alchemy – well, maybe now they will – but no-one’s really going to have a clue that that was an underpinning of the work. But I think that just because it’s there, as an underlying structure – that gives it some kind of integrity.

EM: How can you tell when you’ve been successful in making something?

MB: If I like it. Because I’m so stringent and difficult, and a perfectionist. So if I don’t despise it then chances are it’s okay.

EM: Do you give yourself a hard time?

MB: I do, incessantly, and I’m actually thinking that maybe I could let up on myself a little bit, because it’s rather onerous and it takes a really long time for me to make things. That’s why it’s taking me so long to make The Mice and Me – because I have to have the perfect chandelier and pendants, and garments for her to wear. I have to make sure it’s flawless.

The Mice and Me

EM: What do you say to yourself when you’re giving yourself a hard time?

MB: ‘That’s disgusting, I hate it’. ‘This is foul, it can’t possibly exist’. I become outraged, and woe unto those who work for me because I’m just like, ‘How dare you, this isn’t right’.

EM: Can you please tell me how you made The Mice and Me?

MB: Sure. The first thing I did was find my model. I was looking for somebody that could emulate myself as an eight or nine year-old child. So we found her and encased her body in silicone to make a mold. We did not do her head because that was sculpted freestyle from photographs of myself as a child.

EM: Was this the child of a friend?

MB: It was, and it was actually quite gruelling for her because she had no idea, and I had no idea, that it was going to take so long for the silicone to set up. It took about two hours, so she had to be perfectly still. This was a nine year-old girl and she was practically in tears. I felt so terrible – we were feeding her chocolate and ice cream and singing to her, whatever it took.

And then there’s the positive made of the silicone mold, out of clay.  Then you make another mold out of something very tough called Aqua-Resin, and that is what allows me to make additions. And then once I have that mold, I have a silicone casting made by special-effects people from the film industry. So all of the hairs have to be hand-punched individually, as do the eyebrows and eyelashes. It’s all about the translucency of the skin and getting the pigments just right.

Then I [adjusted] the original cabinet and attached the old fire extinguisher – that’s where the water reservoir and pump live. Then we got an electrician to wire the timer, lights and pump. And then the doors – they were bronze, and then coated in chrome. The chicken wire had to be chrome-plated too.

Then one of the big things to calibrate is the drool, and I’m so thrilled that we finally got that to work today.

EM: I know, it’s so cool.

MB: Oh, thank you. Well let’s just make sure it doesn’t flood. And then finally it’s all about her outfit…

EM: Is it creepy to sculpt a face in the image of yourself?

MB: Not for me. I find it very comforting, nostalgic. I grew up here in New York City, on 64th street. I often feel a strange tug or presence when I walk by the apartment where I grew up. I look up into the window of my bedroom – and wouldn’t it be wild if I saw myself as a child looking back down?

EM: That’s pretty creepy.

MB: So that’s the kind of thing that fascinates me, that we all… How far away am I from that little girl that I once was? I think about all of the things that made me the way I am now, but I think of her separately from myself, as somebody that I’m interested in and I have great affection for. I guess it’s positive if you can get to the point where you like that young person who is still living inside you.

She’s in this enclosure, and it’s unclear whether this is self- imprisonment or whether she’s been put in there. Is this a little fairy bower paradise for her? Is she happy in there? But I like to think of it as an enclosed biosphere, a self-sustaining environment where she is providing nourishment for her little companions, the mice, and they’re keeping her company. Now that I think about it, this is more like an ode to staying forever young. But I think if you can just accept that desire, and the impossibility of it, that it frees you from it, and allows you to grow up.

EM: So the other work we have, Deluxe Suicide Service – how did that come about?

Deluxe Suicide Service

MB: That came about because I was always fascinated with games and machines, different arcade contraptions. I was always roaming around bric-a-brac shops, antique shops, anything, looking for something to insert my photographs into. I was also often going to a pinball bar at the time, playing a lot of pinball machines, and I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be so cool…’ So I went to a pinball machine warehouse where old machines were waiting to be sold to bars or restaurants…

EM: Like a pinball graveyard.

MB: Kind of, yeah, and it was unbelievable how cheap they were. Everybody wants the newest, best thing. I picked a machine whose components I liked, but one simple enough for me to add on to. Like some of the sounds are integral to the original game and some of them I added. The images are of friends commingled with found photographs, with several self-portraits sprinkled in. I got a lot of the sea imagery from old National Geographic magazines and the coin slot images are Bellini Madonnas. The score panel shows my subjects transposed against boudoirs of Victorian harlots from early Daguerreotypes. The numbers refer to the game score as well as referencing serial numbers of prisoners’ mug shots.

I think of this piece as either a mobile crematorium or a life support system. It is unclear whether the electrodes and X-ray cables fastened onto the image of the prone girl are sucking the life out of her or restoring her vital fluids. The whole basis of Deluxe Suicide Service is playing a game, alluding to the game of life. Is it possible to gain mastery over one’s life? It’s really, in this case, an ode to the Id, and all sorts of dark impulses and drives.

EM: What’s the answer? Is it possible to gain control in that way?

MB: I think that if you can gain the illusion of control, that’s just as good as getting control. It’s all about identifying what those dark drives are and not fleeing from them. And the more you know them, the less likely they’re going to come up and get you from behind.

EM: It makes me think of Shakespeare’s Prospero: ‘This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine’.

MB: I love that line, yes. And all of my work is about that: aligning oneself with one’s beast so it doesn’t overpower you. If you don’t know who you are, if you don’t know about your dark compulsions, therein lies the road to insanity.

Interview with Vernon Ah Kee

Vernon Ah Kee, a Brisbane-based artist, is co-founding member of the Aboriginal artist collective proppaNOW. His pencil portrait ‘unwritten #8’ is on show in our exhibition Theatre of the World.

Aboriginal art, Mona, Theatre of the World

Unwritten #8, 2008
Vernon Ah Kee

Elizabeth Mead: Why did you start a group of exclusively Aboriginal artists?

Vernon Ah Kee: One of the reasons was that, as artists, we were being largely ignored. We felt that we were making art that had something to say. But because of the context that we’re making our art in, the context that we live our lives in as Aboriginal people, and the subject matter that we wanted to talk about, we were being ignored. So we wanted to start up an artists’ group to say that we know that our ideas are valid because there are several of us who think like that. If we band together we’ll have a much more compelling voice.

EM: What characterises that collective voice?

VAK: We all have similar backgrounds in that we’re Aboriginal artists who come from a politically aware history, and have politically active families. We’re also conceptual artists. We’re trained to think that way. We don’t shy away from what we want to say. There’s a lot of internal critique of each other’s work, because another reason that we had to make a group was due to the lack of critique of Aboriginal art.

EM: If you speak with a unified voice, is there a risk of homogenising, or putting pressure on your artists to create certain kinds of work?

VAK: No. We’re trying to combat the homogenisation of Aboriginal art. We’re trying to demonstrate that ‘Aboriginal art’ can be as complex as ‘Australian art’. It can be as complex and diverse – as dynamic and evolving and fluid and liquid – as any kind of identity-based art. Australian art is not frozen in time. When you look at the colonial artists of the 1800s, you lock it in the 1800s. Aboriginal art seems to be frozen in the stone age. People want to talk about it in those terms. It’s crazy, when we don’t live like that. It’s unrealistic to the point of being utopian.

EM: But if you want to get across the idea that Aboriginal art is as diverse and contemporary as non-Aboriginal art, do you run the risk of saying the opposite, if you group everyone together? Would you aim, one day, to just be ‘an artist’ as opposed to ‘an Aboriginal artist’?

VAK: Look, I think I am. But this country would never allow me to be that. When I travel internationally, I’m received as a conceptual artist. When I get back to this country, I am reduced to being an Aborigine, and that colours the way I’m received.

EM: Do you feel like you have to wear your identity politics more blatantly in this country than you do overseas?

VAK: No, I demonstrate who I am overseas, too. I’m just myself. It’s just that in this country, what I demonstrate, how I express myself in terms of who I am, is very often oppositional to the way people think of themselves. So it comes off as political, it comes off as reactionary, when really it’s Aboriginal. I don’t think of myself as the one with the problem.

EM: So you become political just by being yourself?

VAK: No. I don’t even think I’m political. I think I’ve made about half-a-dozen political artworks, where the intention is to be political. Mostly my practice is built on work that is produced within the context of my being Aboriginal. It’s made with the idea that my family reads my work, that they understand what it’s about, and that they see themselves in it. That’s the context that I make my art in. Other people get to make work about their lives and their family’s history, and it’s not political. It’s just that when I make work about my family and articulate it clearly, and it demonstrates the polarities that exist in Australian society, it’s construed as firstly oppositional, and then political.

EM: In the broader context of this country, the question of who is and isn’t Aboriginal is a fraught one. Do you ever face that problem in your group? Do you have to police that boundary somehow?

VAK: Our only stipulation as a group is that each of our members expresses themselves fully, and we mean like – to the limit. We have Gordon Hookey in our group and he is a prime example of that philosophy of taking your ideas right to the edge. He’s not afraid. Going too far is not far enough for him. There’s an imprimatur on everybody to go as hard as they want. We are very disappointed when our members don’t do that.

EM: Is that your own objective too – to go hard, and take your ideas to the edge?

VAK: It is, yeah. I’m at the point in my career where I will have an idea and that idea gestates and sits in my head for a while, until it articulates itself. Then the framework builds and kind of solidifies. Then I will think of what platform serves the idea. I’ll go out and discuss it with my friends until I have a very, very set idea. So the platform might be video, printmaking, painting, sound, photography, sculpture, or some other digital form. Within our group we [pool our] expertise. If I can’t develop the skills I need within myself, then I’ll go and source people that can help me. By that time, the idea is solid and will continue to sharpen. You just hone the blade.

EM: If you start with an idea and then you find the appropriate platform, that’s truly conceptual art, isn’t it?

VAK: It’s definitely one kind of conceptual art. Richard Bell – he’s almost a pure conceptual artist. He’s only interested in getting his idea from his head onto some platform. Once he’s satisfied that that idea is there, even if it looks like crap, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t even wrap his canvasses. He does nothing. He doesn’t care if the canvasses get water-stained or they have marks on them from grabbing onto the sides. Once he’s satisfied that the idea has been achieved, he doesn’t even think about the painting anymore. That’s a conceptual artist.

EM: Do you care about those things?

VAK: I’m interested in design and composition. My background is in drawing and I used to be very, very meticulous and pedantic about my drawings. I also did a year of design before I did fine art. So that’s the aesthetic that I source for myself. It’s a little luxury that I take on, that I like my works to be clean and concise. I like using beauty as an aesthetic and a tool.

EM: You think of your craftsmanship as a luxury?

VAK: Not necessarily – not if, as I was saying before, it provides entry into the work. All good conceptual artists will have a good, solid idea, and design the work to have different points of entry according to who you want to see it. So the large portraits [such as the one shown at Mona] – the subject matter is portraiture, and Aboriginal people – so there’s an entry for my family and for Aboriginal people generally. But they have to be beautiful drawings – the beauty-aesthetic provides another entry point. Also, the reduced palette offers people nothing else outside of it, especially in black and white – charcoal drawings on paper. Drawing is the best tool for conceptual artists, because it’s just lines, one line next to the other and nothing in between. There’s no hiding. Your ideas have to be strong, your composition has to be strong, and your discipline has to speak for itself.

EM: If that’s how you feel about the immediacy of the message – why art at all? Why not just write something?

VAK: Well I’ve written a few things over the years. But art, as you would be aware, is the least censored of all the creative forms. Writing is one of the most censored.

EM: In what way?

VAK: In getting things published. There are very stringent editorial and publishing processes that suffocate some writers.

EM: But surely the internet age must have loosened that stranglehold?

VAK: It does, but it’s about building the audience and the platform, and designing your writing style for that too. You have to have very, very broad appeal if you want access on that level. I’ve read some pretty good art blogs, but I don’t know how big their readership is. You have to pick your style and stick with it if you want to build your audience. Art’s not like that.

EM: You have a pretty ambivalent relationship to the culture industries you work in, especially the commercial aspects. How do you negotiate that as a professional artist – one who has to sell work to support his family?

VAK: I think as a professional, and I have a gallery that represents me. Look, I’m the first one to say that I had a bit of good fortune in that I was picked up by a good gallery out of art school. I just make whatever I like and it’s the gallery’s job to sell it. [My dealer] Josh Milani sells my work to the point where I can have a living off it, and I’m sure he does very well off it. I don’t know. At the end of the day I make work to please myself and if it sells, it sells. Mind you, it’s one thing to have good luck, but you have to perform. You can have one good show, then you have to produce another one the next year, and then another one.

EM: We were talking before about problems with the reception and criticism of Aboriginal art. Do you think your own work is free of those problems?

VAK: Not at all, because this country is hung up on my being an Aborigine. If it set that aside – but I mean, my whole practice is produced within the context of my being Aboriginal. Now nobody criticised Brett Whiteley for making work completely in the context of being a white Australian. Nobody has a go at Ken Done for it. He gets criticised for being touristy and simple, and he’s probably much better than that. But nobody criticises these paragons of Australian art for being white Australians and making work completely in the context of that.

But as I said already, my being Aboriginal clouds the way people see my work. It also clouds the way people want to view history, and society, and themselves, and art, and art practices, and the way we frame art. It clouds the way Aborigines should frame themselves and frame their work. I don’t pander to those kinds of stereotypes. I don’t feel like I should lock myself into the stone age. I wasn’t born into the stone age.

EM: If you had the chance to augment the discourses around Aboriginal art – is that what you would say? Stop locking Aboriginal people in the past?

VAK: Richard Bell, Gordon Hookey and I were saying that 10 years ago and we were being laughed off, ignored, shouted down. Richard says that 30 years ago we were faced with this. And it’s still valid – horribly and unfortunately and terribly and disgracefully so.

EM: Can you tell me more about the Unwritten portraits please?

VAK: All the portraits start from the idea that you have these formless faces on human bodies, but with no features. These are Aboriginal people, just ordinary people like me, like my family, like my friends. But the way that I’m portraying them in the drawings is how white people see us, how the country sees us.

So it’s this idea that we have no eyes, no ears, no mouth, no discernable features at all. So we are dumb, in that we can’t see, can’t speak, can’t hear, and we’re held static, benign, silent and bound. So the very early ones had lines going across the face. They looked like they were emerging, but being held back, tied back, and pushed back into the surface. So they’re always becoming human, but never being allowed to be fully human, never reaching that point. The only aspects of humanity in the features are western. So in some of them I will emphasise a brow or the nose or cheekbones, to demonstrate this aspect of the western ideal. Like what’s happened with Christ. Underneath is a fully realised human, representing a fully realised people.

See I was born three months before the referendum in 1967, and so for the first three months of my life I was a non-person. I was property of the state. The history of Aboriginal people in this country, Australia, has been a history of always becoming human. We were written out of the Constitution when it was first written. There’s the doctrine of terra nullius, which wrote us out of existence. So that’s why these drawings are unwritten.