The exploded infant

By Robin Fox

‘… sit[ting] within a huge all-color jewel while this every colored jewel spoke the music of one’s soul ….’
—Mary Hallock-Greenewalt on the experience of playing the colour organ

I don’t have synaesthesia, or at least I don’t think I do, but it has been in my life since the beginning … before the external beginning, even … since the womb. My mother was a synaesthete. She associated colour, numbers and sound (particularly pitch), so my joke now is that I couldn’t burp or fart at the dinner table without her telling me it was the number ten, a slightly murky orange and a B flat. We could always test the latter at the piano but the other two seemed peculiar to the rest of us and a deep truth only to her.

I didn’t think much of it over the years of my youth; it wasn’t important to me that my birthdays always had colours attached and that the numbers that mum had for notes didn’t match their position in the diatonic scale. I was busy in headphones thrashing away on my cheap drum kit trying to play Def Leppard’s Hysteria album with one hand tied behind my back and committing far more to the aesthetic of self destruction that came with bad hair metal than to the rudiments necessary to actually get any good on the skins. But I remember the music that she composed and that she sang. She became interested in atonal music when I was a child, so I have memories of her rehearsing Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (her score is one of my more treasured relics from her life) and, more importantly in relation to synaesthesia, she loved to sing the Klangfarbenmelodie (sound colour melody) of Anton Webern; melodies constructed from timbre difference. The timbre is often called the ‘colour’ of sound. In the early eighties, she made computer music on mainframes when computers were the size of apartments and the turn around on six seconds of sound was twenty-four hours in the lab. In some of these works she would morph her voice into the sound of a bird attacking a beetle, among other things.

But I digress; this is becoming a eulogy. I guess what I’m saying is that all of these factors contributed to my obsession with joining the senses of sight and hearing together in my work. There were other factors of course. When I was studying composition at university I was in the odd position, eventually, of being able to compose music without really being able to read it. Weird? Maybe. But it’s a language like any other and you can learn the rules of construction and say intelligible things etc., etc. In the end, the linguistic side of music didn’t sit well with me and later in my degree I branched off to write about visual notation, graphic scores, musical gestures represented in abstract visual gestures rather than notated instructions. I guess I was moving toward a situation where the relationship between musical and visual gesture wasn’t causal anymore, but so simultaneous that you couldn’t separate the two. I found this symbiosis through electrical signal, but it has just occurred to me now that what I am talking about is the essence of live performance—that essential link between physical (visual) action and sonic outcome that allows for virtuosity through the constant challenge to the limits of these physical systems.

The way that the sound and light equivalence started for me was with the Cathode Ray Oscilloscope. I was making some quite harsh, angular noise pieces years ago and I happened to have a CRO in my studio. I had heard that you could feed sound into them and ‘see’ the results so I plugged the left channel into the X-axis and the right channel into the Y-axis to see what my noise looked like. For the most part it was pretty uninteresting and unsatisfying … except for one three-second snapshot where the sound and light locked together and I felt like I was looking straight at the geometry of the sound signal. It was a ‘eureka’ moment for me and has defined my audio-visual work since. I studied that three seconds and started to build a library of sounds and techniques that had interesting visual outcomes. The results fascinated me. The more harmonic the spectrum of the sound, the messier the visual result. Pure tones worked beautifully and distortion (overloading the system) was amazing. The important revelation for me was that sound is geometry, not in the ‘Bach-ian’ sense either of geometric patterns composed as pieces of music, but that sound is geometry.

Take the building blocks of electronic music for example. The sine wave. Take time out of a sine wave and fold it on itself and you have a circle; take time out of a square wave and you have a square; a triangle wave … you get the picture. What it means is that when we make sound we are producing complex combinations of these flowing geometries in the form of sound waves. Of course, this wasn’t a general revolution, it wasn’t entirely new at all (people had been working with optical soundtracks, for example, for decades) but it was new to me and it blew my mind and changed the way I worked with sound to this day.

It also led me to the rich history of artists working to forge a connection between sound and light. The ancient Greeks mused on it, and after Newton’s treatise on Opticks there was the sense that light and sound could share properties through wavelength and frequency. One of my favourite examples of an artist attempting to forge a connection is Louis Bertrand Castell’s Ocular Harpsichord (c.1730). It was basically a harpsichord but each key was attached to a system of pulleys that would open a small curtain to reveal a candle shining through coloured glass. Although beautifully simple, in modern OH&S parlance he had created a fire hazard and perhaps it is no surprise that there are no remaining physical examples of the instrument. Other pioneers in the field include Mary Hallock-Greenewalt, whose visual music phonograph (1919) was a record player with accompanying light show, and Thomas Wilfred, whose Clavilux Junior (1930) was definitely a psychedelic pre-cursor to the Xbox. For me, the grandfather of my work is Jules Lissajous, a French mathematician (1822-1880) who, in order to tune his tuning forks, devised an ingenious method for visualizing sound waves. He created a focused beam of light by placing a cover with a pinprick over a candle, then bouncing that light off tiny mirrors attached to the end of his tuning forks. He could see the reflected waves on the wall.  He essentially created a crude prototype of a laser projector.

What I produce when I make works where you see and hear the same electrical signal at the same time is a manufactured synaesthetic experience. There is no causality; the two things happen simultaneously so you don’t have time to think about which came first. Sight and sound become the same thing in time and space, like Lissajous’s patterns on the wall. This seems fascinating to non-synaesthetes. Why is that? Margaret Hollis alluded to one possible answer in her essay from the previous Synaesthesia program. I’ll restate it here in my own way. One theory of synaesthesia is that we are all born with it. Imagine a pre-language state (impossible, but try), what Lacan might call the condition of the ‘exploded infant’. All of our senses are one. Vibration in the form of sound, light, smell, even touch, swarm into us as an undifferentiated mass of pure experience. Gradually, through repetition and the establishment of concrete neural pathways, we segregate those sensations and attach perception to them, developing, in the end, our ‘sense perception’. Perhaps works of visual music or synaesthetic artworks draw us back toward that pre-language state, to a neural recklessness where everything is thrown in without deference to the emergent synaptic bureaucracy that parses our senses into organised and functional blocks. People frequently recount to me a sense of euphoria, ecstasy and the feeling of a chemical high after seeing synaesthetic artworks. I’ve certainly noticed that a much broader demographic of punters will sit through (and even enjoy) the kind of noise I generate in my shows when it is accompanied by its direct visual correlate.

Oddly though, one of the most interesting things about synaesthesia is its idiosyncrasy. Each synaesthetic person experiences it in a unique way. It’s an intimate condition, born of the interior and unknowable to others, private. By claiming to manufacture it homogenously in a group of people, am I some kind of cross-modal fascist? Before she died I had the chance to ask my mother more probing questions about her condition. Though it had clearly been a huge aid to her in her musical life, guiding her through fiendishly difficult atonal vocal works, she spoke of it primarily as an affliction, a chorus of often unnecessary and unwanted correlations that she could never switch off. So maybe synaesthesia is something wonderful to behold and to experience from the outside. A fleeting reconnection of now disparate parts of the brain, but would we want it all the time? I’m not so sure.

Audio-visual artist Robin Fox is a repeat performer at MONA FOMA and Dark Mofo. We can’t wait to experience his latest offering at our two-day sound-art spectacular, Synaesthesia+, at Mona (where else?) on August 16 and 17, 2014. Did you get this far without realizing this was a plug? Get your tickets pronto.

Synaesthesia Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Synaesthesia, 2012
Photo credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Dark Mofo Winter Feast 2013 'White Beam', Robin Fox   Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Dark Mofo Winter Feast, 2013
‘White Beam’, Robin Fox
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Just a story

By Elizabeth Pearce

Tessa Farmer’s The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum will be de-installed on Tuesday. The work is part of The Red Queen exhibition, which opened in June last year; it has taken me since then to find a way of putting into words Tessa’s startling, fun and funny way of looking at her role as an artist. It’s simple, really. She just tells a story. But the unique part, the part that makes it all so loveable, is the way she elides her role as the creator, watching the narrative unfold with the detached curiosity of any other bystander. In another artist, this might seem pretentious, a rhetorical trick to get attention. In Tessa, it’s a pleasure.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

Her work revolves around an army of tiny fairies – made from the roots of plants found in her mother’s garden – terrorizing poor, stuffed critters: cats, hedgehogs, foxes and, in this case, a Tasmanian brushtail possum. I interviewed her twice, in London in 2009 and more recently in Hobart in the lead-up to the opening of the Red Queen. One of the questions I always ask in my interviews is, ‘How do you define success as an artist?’ Both times, Tessa told me her ultimate objective is for the fairies to take over the world. She says it with a smile – of course she knows they can’t really take over the world – but still, the objective of her art unfolds within the internally cohesive, closed-loop narrative world of her own making. The same goes for the fairies themselves. In 2009, I asked her: ‘Why are your fairies so mean?’ expecting an answer along the lines of, ‘Historically, the figure of the fairy has been anything but sweet and innocent. I’m interested in drawing out those more macabre elements’, or, ‘My work is a fable about the ferociousness and futility of human conflict’, or, ‘I am making a statement about the way we wage war on the natural world’. Instead, I got: ‘Because they’re ambitious, because they’re greedy. They’ve got to eat’. From that interview:

Elizabeth Pearce: Are you on their side?

Tessa Farmer: I suppose so. That sounds a bit mean, but – yeah, I suppose I feel responsible for them. I’m satisfied by their progress. It makes me happy.

EP: So you’d feel guilty if they went hungry?

TF: Oh, I wouldn’t mind so much…  I really don’t know very much about them, to be honest. It’s a bit frustrating. People keep asking me about their social structure.

EP: That’s their business, really, isn’t it.

TF: Yeah. Like do they have a queen? I don’t know. Do they mate? I don’t know, I don’t really want to know. It’s embarrassing.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

In The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum, the fairies are conquering a bees’ nest. ‘They learnt to control bees in Britain, and they seem to be controlling the honeybees here in Tasmania quite well, too,’ Tessa told me when I spoke to her in June. They are apparently using some sort of unspecified mind-control to do so:

TF: I think it might be pheromones, and maybe dancing – you know, like how bees dance to communicate where flowers are. Lots of insects communicate through pheromones.

Once enslaved, the bee-sting power is sublimated to more sinister use: the torture and destruction of a (taxidermied) Tasmanian brushtail possum. (‘Wouldn’t the wasps evolve behaviours to counteract the predation of the fairies?’ worries Tessa momentarily, before brushing the thought aside).

TF: I thought the possum would be quite easy to overcome, but they make these horrific noises and have these big claws. When it actually arrived [from a taxidermist in Launceston], I realised what thick fur it had, and wondered whether the bees would be able to get to the skin of the possum to sting it. It might all be completely futile.

Which bit, I wondered later, might ‘be completely futile’? Is this an existential, or entirely pragmatic matter?

TF: They’ve developed a mutation where they have – this sounds so ridiculous, sorry, I’m just mentally telling myself to shut up.

EP: No, don’t.

TF: The fairies have developed a mutation so they have crab claws on their heads, to grab the wasps with. We collected the crab claws a couple of weeks ago at Lewisham [Tasmania]. They’re really tiny because the fairies are only one centimetre in size.

EP: Amazing. And I’m correct in saying the fairies are anatomically accurate?

TF: Yes.

EP: I remember when I spoke to you last time you were worried because they didn’t have kneecaps.

TF: Yes, but I’ve gotten over that. I have to learn to stop putting myself down.

EP: Yes, I must say the lack of kneecaps is not a major issue for me. What are they going to do with the possum once they have it?

TF: Eat it and use its bones to make bigger, more elaborate ships and architecture, and probably use its fur, I think.

EP: Do you want the viewer to take away some kind of environmental or social message from your work?

TF: No. I wouldn’t mind if they did, but that’s not my intention. I’m far too involved in the story.

‘I’m far too involved in the story’, she says. I have recently encountered a theory (de rigueur in some circles) that has liberated me: we are more viable, evolutionarily speaking, when we create sweet stories about ourselves, and believe them. Others – both competitors and mates – are more likely to be deceived by us, to find us funnier, sexier, kinder and better parents than we really are, if we are deceived by ourselves. This gives me chills a bit. I didn’t really need to read it in a book to know that it is true. (To what extent it is useful to discuss in terms of natural selection I will leave to others to decide.) The notion has helped me accept the stories of the people around me, as opposed to trying to get them to ‘see the truth’: that their worlds are not autonomously animated by mysterious forces (God, the fairies, fate), but a result of a series of choices that seem natural and invisible to each individual because those choices obey a secret, powerful inner logic. Is the conflict we see all around us – most intensely between loved ones as opposed to strangers; those of overlapping but conflicting interests – the result of stories in collision? When others act outside our plot, refuse to play the part assigned to them, or, worse, call into question our own heroic role, this hurts and angers us; obstacles on the path to our true destiny (to ‘take over the world’, whatever that means on an individual basis). Interestingly, I have noticed that the traits people are most self-critical about are often not the ones that cause others the most pain (‘I have to stop putting myself down’, says Tessa). That’s the nature of self-delusion. The more you squint at it the more it recedes into abstraction, like those hidden-image stereogram patterns that were popular when I was a kid. The best we can aim for, I think, is a modest self-consciousness, an ability to momentarily see ourselves from without (‘this sounds so ridiculous…’).

Listening to the recording of my interviews with Tessa, they are full of laughter. I am laughing at her (gently) and she is joining in. This is the difference between the best and worst of us, I think. It is also the difference between a friend and someone who means nothing to us: the willing suspension of disbelief. Occasionally it has occurred to me to beg my friends to tell me what my self-deceiving stories are, but that’s not the nature of friendship. They might, perhaps, remind me when I’m a little ‘too involved in the story’; but mostly, I am lucky enough to have friends who laugh and cry in all the right places, reassuring me with their very company that it’s not ‘completely futile’ after all.

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)

The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum (detail)
2013
Tessa Farmer
The Red Queen

Consider the Fuhrer

By Elizabeth Pearce

Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian? You probably did – or, conversely, you are spitting at the screen right now: ‘He was not a vegetarian, that is a myth!’ Indeed, type the key words into Google and you will find whole forums dedicated to discussing the Fuhrer’s warm-and-fuzzy or otherwise feelings for furry critters. Wiki says he was one, though (vego, not furry critter). It’s interesting to consider why it matters so much. On the one hand, it throws into starker relief the cruelties he perpetuated on his own species. But on the other hand – and more menacingly – it draws attention to the flimsy and contingent nature of any moral system. We want to draw the blanket conclusion: monster: but his sensitivity (imagined or otherwise) to the lives of some, and not others, mirrors back to us in monstrous form our own hierarchy of species. A question stirs somewhere: is there an inherent cow-ness or pig-ness that throws open the door to these creatures’ slaughter? Or is it just because we can? (The question stirs, but only for a moment. Hitler’s abstinence from animal flesh is swallowed whole by the holocaust, which unites us in our horror.)

The reason I am compelled to consider the Fuhrer is because I am researching Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia on display as part of the Red Queen exhibition at Mona. I heard from someone at some stage during the installation of The Red Queen that Olympia is ‘a documentary about Jesse Owens and Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games’. That’s an interesting distillation, but an inaccurate one. The film is actually not a documentary but a highly stylised work of creative non-fiction. The ‘non-fiction’ part is the fact that the subject of the film is, indeed, the ’36 Games; but these events are shaped by Riefenstahl into a form as exquisite as the bodies on screen: these finely honed fetish-objects, fit for the mythical apotheosis of the human form. Jesse is there, amid the other Gods. Hitler is, too.

If you’re not clear on the significance of ‘Jesse Owens, American negro, the world’s fastest sprinter…’ (as put by the commentator for the men’s 4x100m relay) basically it is this: Owens won four gold medals at the Games and was its most successful athlete. Born in Alabama in 1913, at nine he moved with his family to Ohio, part of the ‘great migration’ of 1.5 million African Americans from the segregated South to more prosperous parts of the country. At Ohio State University he broke track-and-field records willy-nilly but was compelled to live off campus like other black students and also was not permitted to patronise the same hotels or restaurants when he travelled to events with his teammates. (I find myself given to the temptation to rehearse these Wiki-facts with tired shock: we’re well versed in the realities of racial segregation but still that reality has the capacity to amaze me). In one day (actually, according to Wiki, in the space of forty-five minutes), May 25, 1935, Owens broke three world records and tied for a fourth at the ‘Big Ten’ college athletics event at Ann Arbor, Michigan. The ’36 Games were set in his sights.

But here, Wiki and I say our goodbyes: Owens apparently ‘countered’ ideologies of Aryan racial superiority ‘by winning four gold medals’, irking Hitler. But surely his superb athleticism could be conveniently explained away by the belief that ‘primitive’ peoples inhabit their bodies more fully – devoid, as they are (according to ‘master-race’ theory), of the need to direct as much energy as whites to higher intellectual, social and moral functions? Apparently Hitler muttered something like that into his moustache as he turned away from the field in disgust. I made that last bit up. And someone else, apparently, made up the well-known story that Hitler refused to congratulate Owens after his first gold-medal win, storming out of the stadium in a terrible huff and going home to fondle his guinea pigs. (Sorry, it’s just that I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that read ‘Justice for vegetarians: Hitler was no animal lover’).

(And on the vegetarian issue: I have recently partaken of flesh – I think some drama is appropriate – for the purposes of nurturing my unborn child i.e. I’m normally a vegetarian but my obstetrician told me my iron is too low. This is the first of many instances, I sadly concede, when my broader vision will be obscured – obliterated – by my desire to bolster in any way I can the wellbeing of my progeny, in some sort of bizarre, compulsive faith in the belief that as my child thrives, so the world turns. One of the caricatures of a bio-cultural approach to human psychology is that we are puppets moving on the strings of our genes – a caricature, I say, because good bio-cultural explanations do not in any way displace the importance of culture, environment and personal choice in favour of ‘genetic determinism’. But in this case, I feel a bit puppet-ish, I admit. At exactly sixteen-weeks pregnant, which was when I felt my baby move, I started to feel near-hysterical levels of anxiety in regards to its safety – I’ve since been told this will never get better, which is terrific, thanks. And when I say ‘near-hysterical’ I mean signing up to Choice Magazine, itself an appalling act, and compulsively scanning articles on pram and change-table safety, and hence managing to be both a lunatic and hideously boring at once. This new me sits outside of me, somewhere apart, totally disintegrated with what I consider my character. I am not enjoying it. The sensation is captured in a beautiful book by Anna Goldsworthy, Welcome To Your New Life, in which the narrator attempts to take her husband and new baby on holiday ‘from sleep deprivation, from hyper-vigilance… from ourselves’. At their coastal holiday house she is horrified to discover a long-drop toilet, a repository – or suppository, if you’d prefer – of maternal anxiety:

Quickly I close the lid, but it is too late. I have seen how you would fall. That moment in which clumsiness ticks over into disaster. The dense plummet of your body; the viscous splash…
The baby must never go in there!

That night, so fearful is she that her husband will succumb to the toilet’s ‘sinister gravitational pull’ and offer up the child as sacrifice to its ‘moist and malodorous’ belly, that she builds a fortress of suitcases around him as he sleeps, so that if he wakes he will rouse her as well. Recently David wrote a blog post about his daughter Grace’s accident which many of you read. One comment on our Facebook page in response to his post read: ‘A very nice example of why a scientific world view can, and does, help us deal with shit of the emotional kind’. This made me feel cheerful because it is something I have learned, and I’d like to think that it has come across to those who engage with what we do at Mona. So, science consoles. Something I have always known, have never had to learn, is that so, too, does literature).

Yes: so while it’s true that Hitler did not shake hands with Owens, neither did he shake hands with any competitor that day. Initially he had decided it was appropriate to congratulate only German victors on the podium; the Olympic committee gave him an ultimatum: shake hands with all of them or none. He chose the latter. Which I find a little amusing. It reminds me of a recent failed attempt at a veiled ultimatum for my husband’s eight-year-old: ‘If you don’t go for a walk with Dad, I might find some jobs here at home I need help with’. ‘Good. I like helping’. (His reward for piercing my pathetic attempt at manipulation was that I let him off the hook, which he would have appreciated because no one likes helping. It’s something our mothers made up to wreak revenge on the human race for the pain of childbirth).

The artistic and historical significance of Olympia is twofold. Firstly, it exemplifies many cinematic techniques – such as creative camera angles, tracking shots and use of non-diegetic sound – that were, for its time, groundbreaking. Its release brought widespread acclaim for Riefenstahl, who beat Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to take the grand prize at the 1938 International Film Festival in Venice. During a tour of the United States to promote the film, she was received by Disney and publically praised by him for her achievement. But there in America, awareness was growing of the horrors gathering in Germany. In November that year, Riefenstahl was asked to leave the country.

It seems clear that Riefenstahl was to some extent consciously participating in a Nazi propaganda campaign, especially when you consider Olympia alongside an earlier film, Triumph of the Will, about the Nuremberg Rally, as well as her close personal association with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. But whether or not she was really conscious of what she was collaborating in – how could we possibly know? In her autobiography she claims that she learned of Nazi Kristallnacht attacks against Jews from American reporters, and was shocked. The historical debate could go on forever and is not super interesting to me. Much more interesting is the relationship between artistic intention and outcome the film generates.

Firstly, is there any propagandist purpose evident in the film itself? I find it impossible to say. I watched it without knowing much about the historical conditions of its production, and I didn’t find that it dwelled in particular on German athletic supremacy. You could argue that the shots of Hitler looking calm and sane in the face of racially diverse athletic success are terrible visual lies, but they are not in themselves propaganda (i.e. they obscure, as oppose to champion, his true agenda). Secondly, and more importantly: does it matter whether or not she ‘meant’ for the film to carry any special message? Is what the artist wants or intends to express a priority, when considering the value of a work of art to us, the human race?

I made out like that was a hypothetical question. The truth is that I’ve already made up my mind. Artist intention does matter, but not that much. I might not have meant to pull the trigger, but I did, and now you’re dead. The fact it was not a malicious murder matters, sure, but you’re still there on the floor, gathering your own meaning as the blood pools behind your head. In less violent imagery: there is no perfect transmission of intent. The space between my words and their echo in your ear is the engine of social interaction, the imperfection that perfects the system. Reading is always misreading, listening mishearing; art is art, by definition, when its message gets lost in translation. Otherwise, it’s just advertising. Olympia is art, then, and not (just) propaganda, because it takes us close to the Fuhrer, and then onwards, elsewhere. Indeed, that is the power of the arts, to exercise the human double-bind: that we are infinitely malleable, amenable to past and future, but also share a common nature, ‘that which binds us,’ and that which ‘literature [and art] has always, knowingly and helplessly, given voice to’ (Ian McEwan). And it is also to remind us, more urgently perhaps, that ‘no one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced … is the suppository of all wisdom’ (Tony Abbott).

At the arsenale

This worm bears the face of its creator, Jan Fabre. What the worm says is: ‘I want to draw my head out of the hangman’s rope of history’. He says it in Flemish, because the artist is from, um, Belgium. He’s a bit of an artist rock star, making major works for biennales and staging sell-out shows at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, that sort of thing.

Zelfportret, als grootste worm van de wereld, 2008, ©Jan Fabre/Licensed by Viscopy Copyright, 2012

I saw a work of his at the Venice Biennale (I just want to say: that sounds really snazzy, and part of me rejoices that I’m so lucky to have been to Venice as part of my job, but another part remembers that I was intensely lonely at that particular time, and found traipsing around the obviously incredible, amazing etc. Venice on my own, in the shoulder season, abjectly depressing). Fabre’s work was out in the boat-building part of town, called the ‘arsenale’ (hot and dusty. I went back to Venice two years later with my boyfriend, and with David and Kirsha – a far pleasanter trip, although my boyfriend and I did have a massive argument, or rather, I sulked in a very energetic manner, because at dinner one night David had commented that he found Brazilian-waxed women ‘hot’ and my boyfriend agreed with him, and I was mortally offended because I find the whole thing a form of casual self-torture that everyone seems to be participating in except me [1]; but more than that, I took it as a form of personal rejection, basically his way of saying, ‘Haven’t you realised by now I find you repulsive’. It was early in our relationship and perhaps, in hindsight, I was being a little sensitive. Anyway, on this far-pleasanter trip to Venice my boyfriend took photos wildly of the arsenale, the big cranes and chains and docks and stuff like that. I guess he was imagining the hub of empire. I was thinking more about Shakespeare). So the Jan Fabre work that I saw (this is the lonely trip now, the first) was encased in a large closed-in space around which the visitor walks via a sort of elevated, wrap-around viewing platform. You look down into this pit-like mound of dirt or soil or something, where a silicone replica of the artist stands digging into an oversized – perhaps, Nissan Micra-sized – replica of his own head. So it’s a big Jan head, over which a normal-size Jan stands and digs with a shovel. Parts of his big brains are exposed.

From the feet to the brain, 2009, ©Jan Fabre

What I’m trying to say is that this artist is pretty interested in excavating his own mortality. It’s a back-handed form of massive-egoism: an artist like Jeff Gabel – whose work flanks the worm in our gallery – isn’t obsessed with his own insignificance because it comes as less of a shock. It’s less of an affront, or insult to his intelligence. I’m siding with Jan here. I get weak-kneed shock each time I think about the fact that I’m going to one day not exist, but I’ve banged on about that enough by now. Maybe one day, the thought will begin to bore me. As an aside: Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, which I read (some of) in preparation for writing some marketing material for our concert Synaesthesia (Nabokov was a synaesthete) begins like this:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

See also: ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more…’ – Becket, Godot. Nabokov continues:

Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged – the same house, the same people – and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell.

That ‘young chronophobiac’, surely dead by now, was probably fairly self-centred.

Anyhow, the additional factor, of course, is that this worm work is not just about mortality, but about art and its history. Jan knows he is but a worm before the greats of European culture, whose names are emblazed (via some sort of entomological code) on the tombstones over which the worm debases himself (ok, that was a little dramatic, but still). Like all great egoists, this artist knows his place and is horrified.

I have felt some sort of Shakespearean reference agitating at the edges of my memory in relation to that work; if that sounds a little pretentious, perhaps you’ll like me more if I tell you the reference finally emerged (as in, just then, as I wrote the last paragraph) via my memory of a scene in a cemetery from the Steve Martin film LA Story (it’s got Sarah Jessica Parker in it and it’s brilliant). In this scene, the guy from Honey I Shrunk the Kids is grave-digging, and the actor playing Steve Martin’s love interest starts quoting Hamlet:

A fellow of infinite jest…
He hath borne me on his back a thousand times.
Where be your gibes now?
Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?

I think what I’m saying is that Jan Fabre, like Steve Martin and everyone else, knows everything is shit compared to Shakespeare. Except maybe Nabokov.

The other encounter I had with Jan Fabre (other than when I interviewed him and he told me he felt sorry for the people who had to listen to my interviews, no joke) was when Olivier, Mona curator, took me to one of his said shows at Queen Elizabeth Hall, called ‘Orgy of tolerance’. It was during my first term as a Mona employee, and Olivier hadn’t quite worked out whether I had been sent to London as ‘a spy’. He took me to the show and I didn’t like it at all, although everyone else sure did. There was an extended group masturbation scene that transposes polite conversation with flagrant flogging of logs and so forth, which everyone but me found uproariously funny. Anyway it turns out Olivier was angling to bring the show to Tasmania for Mona Foma, and my reply to an email question from David – ‘Did you like the Jan Fabre show?’ – that no, I didn’t, I thought it was tacky and unfunny, contributed somewhat to David’s decision to can it. Olivier didn’t speak to me for a week. But when he did, his rage scorched my eyelashes. As it turns out I think David would probably have loved the Fabre show: he loves Balletlab, which similarly, I can’t stand.

One of the things Fabre said to me in the I-feel-sorry-for-your-listeners interview was that he believed in the ‘sacred bond’ between artist and viewer. He ‘trusts the public’, he says, to interpret his message and appreciate his creation, which we should not ‘dirty too much’ with our comments and interpretation. Whoops.

-Elizabeth Mead


[1] ‘But absolutely everybody gets Brazilians’ – My beautician, the other day.

New works (in progress): Jeff Gabel and Jan Fabre

Jeff Gabel at work in MONA

Jeff Gabel at work in MONA. Untitled detail (work in progress), ©courtesy of the artist, 2012

Jeff Gabel lives in New York and works in a library. He makes art when he can, ‘because he can’; ‘and just because you can means that you probably should’, he says of art writ large. The same goes for drinking on the job (the art job, not the day job): he routinely, when working on a show for a gallery, sips beer as he works, being careful not to peak too early and have the hangover set in before his day’s work’s done. The beer is ‘for fun’ and because you’re not allowed to drink beer all day in other areas of life. At Mona we’ve decided to supply him with Moo Brew for the duration of his installation of his work; if you squint your eyes, you can almost convince yourself it’s an important part of his creative process. He just asked politely what he should do when his issued carton started running low, which would be ‘by the end of today’. I told him just to let Nicole know. The truth is, he seems more interesting in his art than he does in real life. I don’t mean that as an insult at all, it’s just that he does seem very interesting indeed in his art, and in reality he’s – not at all normal, but operating according to the objectives surely common to us all: to do what seems right at the time, with a vague and patchy sense of how things will pan out long term, remembering when we can to attend to the supposed lessons of the past. I guess sometimes it seems, when the outcome is novel and surprising, that the work of an artist is imbued with a more embracing purpose, such as to help us better understand something about ourselves, the audience.

The source for his new work for us – an illustrated narrative, evolving (as I write this) on a wall in the museum – is the short novel Amras by Thomas Bernhard (1964), written in German, and imperfectly translated into English by Jeff. He likes the book because the sentences are notably complex and difficult, rather than for its content, which is horrendous: a family tries to commit suicide to escape the torture of epilepsy (which they all suffer from) and two of the sons are saved against their will. They live in a tower for a while thinking intensely about how life is supremely shit and then one of them kills himself and that’s the end. So this story as I said has been translated mostly on the spot, and in an amateur manner because Jeff doesn’t actually have the skills of a professional translator at all, and anyway that’s not the point (if there is a point that’s not it). He might also draw on a novel by Carl Zuckmayer, the title of which translates to English as The Moons Ride Over (1935). This one he’s read a million times in languages he both does and does not understand, which seems a pretty strange and unpleasant thing to do. He has created an online lived reality (as such) for Zuckmayer’s book: each character, from the protagonist Thomas Stolperer to a policeman with a walk-on one-liner, has a Facebook account and interacts variously with the other characters (Thomas is in an ‘it’s complicated’ relationship with the waitress Mena Morandell). Apparently this is not art at all, it’s ‘just for fun’.

The drawing, like I said, is unfolding as we speak (if you’re in the gallery please approach him for a chat, he loves it when people do that). It flanks another new work we’ve dragged out of the archives: a mess of tombstones over which crawls a giant silicone worm bearing the face of the artist (the Belgian Jan Fabre), muttering the words which translate from Flemish as: ‘I want to draw my head out of the hangman’s rope of history’. David first saw this work at the Louvre, surrounded by Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vermeer. It’s decidedly shitter here, how could it not be? But still, we like it a lot, and hopefully you do too.

-Elizabeth Mead

Jeff Gabel at work in MONA

Foreground: Zelfportret, als grootste worm van de wereld, 2008, ©Jan Fabre/Licensed by Viscopy/Copyright, 2012
Background: Jeff Gabel at work. Untitled (work in progress), ©courtesy of the artist, 2012

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
2008-12

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
2004

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.