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.

Hand-jobs in the post-humanist age

Gild the lily

1. To adorn unnecessarily something already beautiful.
2. To make superfluous additions to what is already complete.

—thefreedictionary.com

On Saturday a man who is much cleverer than me asked what angle he should take in his write-up of our exhibition, Theatre of the World. The exhibition opened on Friday. Actually, it opened on Saturday, but the party was on Friday. I didn’t enjoy the party until near the end because there were too many people I knew in one place. I find it very difficult to remember how everyone relates to each other, and what sorts of things are acceptable to talk about in each situation. For instance, two of my good friends standing on either side of me who don’t really know each other: my in-jokes and way of interacting is totally different for each and I have to think, on the spot, under pressure, not only what their names are so I can introduce them but what conversation topics will be relevant to them both. Really the problem is having to mobilise discrete parts of my personality at once. I don’t understand people who are the same in every context, ‘She’s always herself’; how do people know this of each other, anyway? I refuse to accept that this means I’m inauthentic or dishonest with myself: I quite simply feel differently around some people compared to others. With Anica, puns are funny, but not with Simon. With David, it’s perfectly permissible to express opinions on other people’s undertakings using violent terminology like ‘kill’, ‘bullet’, ‘appalling’, ‘horrific’; Amy’s company makes me sense the inherent value in people’s creative pursuits, regardless of the quality of the output. With Kate (I promise this is the last comparison) I have high expectations of myself; Corinne makes me like my frailties. The other reason I wasn’t having fun was that my feet were hurting. That concrete is really effing hard on heels.

So at lunch, at The Source, the clever man asked me his question, and I answered him, and thought I should probably think about it a bit more and write it down, so that’s what this is.

The angle I would take is:

Art and post-humanism

Notably, my boyfriend (sitting on the other side of me) commented after my pitch to the clever man that I was ‘gilding a lily’. For him, humanism is not a threatening notion; the ‘post’, and its attendant chat, is an unnecessary adornment (I already knew this though because he likes to build things and I prefer to take them apart i.e. he studied architecture and I studied arts. I also knew it because his eyeballs make a grinding noise when he rolls them).

The truth is – I’m actually kind of sorry about the ‘post-humanist’ bit. [1] I don’t want to use an academic-sounding word, really, because I have enough respect for academia to know that I am therefore obliged to spend a lot of my energy discussing my terminology, and to lose my reader in the process. Nobody reads academic texts except other academics, and that means hardly anyone benefits from them, and the texts themselves benefit from hardly anyone’s influence, just a small circle of people with obscure and special knowledge. [2]

I’m talking about our concept of ‘the human’. The reason I’m suggesting it’s ‘post’ (which doesn’t mean ‘coming after’ so much as ‘in response to’, or ‘in reaction against’) is because just normal ‘human’ without the ‘post’ took a thorough beating in the second half of the twentieth century. As it should have. ‘Human’ seems inclusive, but actually it’s not, because it hinges on a standard and a type. Simply put, ‘human’ implicitly means a white man, and probably a pretty good-looking white man, and certainly not one that likes other good-looking men. He, that man (and of course I’m simplifying, ‘stylising’) was the standard against which other modes of humanity were measured. Darwinism was appropriated (inappropriately) for this cause: it was used to buttress the myth that humanity existed on a continuum of progress, at which degenerate types like Africans and Tasmanians represented the lowest ebb of human development. The Tasmanian bit is not a joke: according to nineteenth-century social Darwinist discourse the Tasmanian Aborigine was the lowest rung of evolutionary development. [3] Similarly, women – especially those who embodied an inappropriate or threatening form of femininity, like if they have a moustache or are wildly unimpressed by penises – have fought hard for admission to the human race. In my humble opinion, they’ve (we’ve) at least got our foot in the door. Privileged women like me are all the way through. On the other hand, Australian Aborigines only officially became people in 1967. We have a long way to go before Aboriginal becomes synonymous with human.

Nevertheless, the twentieth century’s fracturing of empires – imperial, sexual, ideological – gave birth to a kingless world of diffuse and relativised power. I will use my eye-rolling, skyscraper-dreaming boyfriend as an example. He is a bona fide WASP (bless him). [4] But he’s also a separated father. He’s a majority in the workplace, and at the ping-pong table (no one plays golf anymore); decidedly a minority when he takes his kids to school, and in the realm of family law. In this world, where minority and majority fuck around with each other a lot, [5] we don’t have to fight so hard to assert our differences, because we take those differences for granted. Of course many people don’t respect difference, but I’m talking about our dominant, collective cultural identity – according to which, overtly racist and sexist people are the deviant ones.

I argue that we can think in terms of ‘human’ again, because we’ve done the work required to break down the sexist, racist and homophobic implications of that term. It is only from this perspective – both fractured and inclusive – that we can sift though for some common human truths.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye, MONA, Theatre of the World Exhibition

No title (Awelye), 1994, ©Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Licensed by Viscopy, 2012

Lucio Fontana, MONA, Theatre of the World Exhibition

Concetto spaziale, 1964 to 1965, ©Lucio Fontana/Licensed by Viscopy, 2012

Art, arguably, manifests such ‘fractures’ aesthetically. And Theatre of the World gathers them together. I find the idea a little outrageous. It raises my postcolonial hackles. Placing a line-painting by Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye alongside a European modern master like Lucio Fontana reeks of primitivism. Primitivism is one of the vehicles of the exclusive form of humanism I outlined above: the one in which non-European peoples represent an earlier, more idealized stage of human development. ‘See?’ The pairing of Fontana and Kngwarreye might (possibly) say. ‘We’re all the same’. And with this, the realities of the inequality faced by Aboriginal people slides out of focus, as does the very different way Aboriginal art operates within our commercial and cultural economy.

Except this doesn’t happen, I don’t think, in Theatre of the World, and part of the reason is that we’re ready, collectively, to think about how two artists like Fontana and Kngwarreye might be compelled by comparable human motives, each enmeshed as they are in a complex matrix of personal, social and historical forces. We’re ready to see them both as both radically unique, and shockingly the same.

Maybe. I’m pretty sure my favourite WASP chimed in at this point, charmingly, with his gilded lily.

Speaking of which:

The other thing the clever man asked me, at the party this is, on Friday night: how come no one talks about sexual technique anymore? Indeed, it’s all about self-esteem, connection, maintaining a work-life-sex balance; what to do if your boyfriend compares your labia to Wiener schnitzel (or any other crumbed meat product). [6] Take this example from the sex column in The Age.

Q. After we’ve done the family thing in the morning, my husband and I plan to spend Christmas Day in bed, awake! Can you recommend some sexy gifts we can unwrap together?

Massive cares. This is a sex advice column? What about, ‘How do you give a good hand job?’

Which is precisely the knowledge contributed by my friend’s ‘shy’, cherub-faced girlfriend who, joining in the conversation with the clever man and myself at the party, informed us that the appropriate manner in which to manually stimulate one’s partner’s penis is to the beat of ‘Wangaratta’, where the hard syllables correspond to the up and down strokes respectively:

WAN-ga RAT-ta!
WAN-ga RAT-ta!
WAN-ga RAT-ta!

And so forth. I added the exclamation marks myself.

That’s that then. Not much left to say, really, except perhaps to come up with some other place names, perhaps some relevant to us Tasmanians. Ouse? [7] Sorry. My WASP will be horrified.

-Elizabeth Mead

Footnotes

[1] Although, without it, my angle would just be ‘Art’ and that’s a bit general.

[2] A comment from David: ‘In science it isn’t like that. A paper on, say, giant magnetoresistance might not mean anything to anyone, except for the guys that use it to build the big hard drives that we put our porn videos on (such as the ones demonstrating hand jobs).’

[3] I first encountered this argument in Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather: race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest; I was reminded of it rather powerfully more recently, when the Brisbane-based artist Vernon Ah Kee told me of the way he and other Aboriginal people are taught not to ‘reach for an upper rung, let alone to grasp it’. You can see Ah Kee’s work in Theatre of the World.

[4] He comes from the sort of family that produces senators and architects; the sort that gets the kids skiing early so it comes easy to them later on. I never learned to ski: my leisure time as a kid was taken up with watching my mother’s bulimic, ‘singing deck-hand’ boyfriend perform ‘Under the boardwalk’ for the weekend harbor-cruise  passengers. She kicked him out eventually, after he stole her watch; her parting advice was to ‘skip the middle bit, and throw the food straight down the toilet’. Happily, I inherited my mother’s sense of sarcasm and not her taste in men.

[5] This idea is taken (and bastardised) from Ken Gelder and Jane M Jacobs’ Uncanny Australia: sacredness and identity in a postcolonial nation.

[6] From Marie Claire magazine, February 2009: ‘I was already feeling slightly body conscious when he reached down and put his hands between my legs and suddenly started laughing. “Wow!” he exclaimed, as he tugged on my inner labia. “You’ve got a couple of Wiener schnitzels here!”’

[7] Say it ‘Ooze’ (for non-Tassies). Also – please note that the correct pronunciation of Launceston is LON-ceston.

Interview with Robyn McKinnon

Robyn McKinnon is a Tasmanian painter. Her work Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen, part of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) collection, will be shown in our up-coming exhibition, Theatre of the World. Theatre is curated by Jean-Hubert Martin in collaboration with MONA and TMAG.

Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen, 2007
Acrylic paint on canvas

Elizabeth Mead: Do you generally not like to talk about your work?

Robyn McKinnon: Generally not. The title is about as far as I get. The title’s the clue, it’s a bit of a crossword. You’ve got the clue, work out the rest for yourself.

EM: That makes perfect sense to me.

RM: Does it?

EM: Yep. But you did change your mind about this interview. You said no at first, and then you decided to.

RM: Yes. I thought about it, and I thought that if I want to actually put myself in a position where I’m not ignored, then just do it. I also spoke to Allanah from Handmark [Gallery] and said, ‘Should I do it or not?’ They’re not mentors for me, but they look after the business stuff that I don’t know how to look after.

EM: Are you ambitious?

RM: Yeah. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. It doesn’t mean that I want to rule the world or anything, but I’d like to feel, apart from the personal satisfaction of succeeding for myself, that there’s someone else who thought I succeeded.

EM: So that would be your determination of whether you’d been successful or not?

RM: No, no, no. My determination of whether I was successful or not is how I feel about it, if it moves me. If it moves me, I can put it out there. If it doesn’t it gets painted over.

EM: Being a painter comes with the pressure of putting yourself out there in the world, with a financial impetus. Do you find it hard to manage your position as a professional artist?

RM: I just usually leave it up to the gallery or in a lot of cases, destiny. I do it because I love it, and the rest of it is really a bit of a pain in the bum. Allanah is really good. I’d say, ‘Well if I’ve got to pay the rates, and the rates cost $200, then the painting costs $200’, and she says, ‘You can’t do that’. So I don’t want to know.

EM: I don’t imagine that you think much of the culture that goes along with the display and production of art – ‘the art world’, whatever that means.

RM: Yeah, not a lot. It’s ok, it’s important, it’s like all strains of society. There are people that you choose to get on with, and people you don’t choose to get on with. You run the gamut, and if you know that those people are no good for you, then move away. They all make up the community. But I stayed away, there’s not enough time. I taught for 27 years. And when I turned 50 I thought, ‘That’s it mate, no more’.

EM: No more teaching?

RM: Nope.

EM: Did you enjoy the teaching?

RM: No, not really. I used to get nervous about it, feel sick in the stomach before every class, until I got the lessons down pat. And then it got boring. And I didn’t want to tell kids that what they were doing was wrong. You can’t do that, I don’t think. ‘You need a ticket’, my father said. The ticket was art teaching, and the rest was mine.

EM: How did you come to be an artist?

RM: I’ve always done it. I don’t know, I can’t remember when I didn’t do it. It was probably when I came back from Europe, I was about 29 and I thought, ‘No, this is no good, I’ll just do what I have to do, what I like to do’. So probably when I turned 50 and gave up teaching, I actually took it on as a profession. Yeah, so for the last nine years I’ve just applied myself in that way.

EM: Have you enjoyed having all that time to just focus on…

RM: I just love it.

EM: That’s wonderful. You’ve earned it.

RM: Well, yeah, I think so. And it’s just great. This really old house that is falling down and needs painting and stuff like that, that’s where I go every morning, front room, at whatever time get up. If I have something on in the day I get up at 3am and work until 10.   

EM: You get up at 3?

RM: Yeah but I go to bed at 7.

EM: Impressive.

RM: No, it’s not impressive, but that’s what I do. It’s eased off a bit. There’s been several catastrophic things that have happened over the last seven months that don’t warrant talking about. So I’m having a holiday. This morning I got up at 5:30.

EM: Oh wow, that’s pretty slack. So back when you came back from Europe that time, and you started to be more focused about making art, did you have a sense of your motivation or objective? Was there something you wanted to communicate?

RM: I think it was probably more instinctive. It was actually not knowing what you were going to create, that was what it was. When I finished at teacher’s college, I did a secondary art-teacher thing. When I finished there I went to art school at night so I could find out more about art. It was easy, if you know what I mean – I didn’t have to push myself to do anything. All these other kids were racing to get work in on time, but I’d have it done, for no reason other than I liked to do it.

EM: So what was motivating you was the sense of exploration, of not knowing what was going to happen?

RM: Yeah, and you don’t, because you’re just the vessel. You start a painting with some sort of idea in your head – no, it’s not the idea of the painting, it’s an emotion, it’s sensibility, a vision, a leaf falling, just these tiny things. And all of a sudden, this painting starts to grow, and then you think about what the painting reminds you of, and then you know. You’ve got to sort of smell it, go with it, and then you think, ‘Shit, how come that happened?’

EM: When you say that you’re the vessel – what’s filling it? 

RM: I think it’s a sensibility that you have. People know more than they choose to know. What they choose to know is pretty banal, usually. What they don’t know scares them, so they prefer to know the banal rather than the scary. It’s not really scary, but it’s a bit unnerving to think that a silly little person like yourself can make – that. That’s not to say it’s great, but where did it come from? I think as you get older, the visionary aspect of understanding a little bit more about yourself helps you to question why you respond to things the way you do. Not why you did it, but why you responded in that way.

EM: What have you learned about yourself over all those years of painting and teaching?

RM: Well, I’m still a stubborn Scot… I couldn’t put that knowledge into words. I like that, because each of my experiences is different, and it doesn’t matter where I go, I think.

You look at a painting, and it activates something in you. Sometimes it might activate a sense of sadness, or happiness, it depends on the painting. And if it does that, then it half fills the purpose – well, for me it just about fills it.

EM: So the only hope that you have for someone viewing your work is that it activates something for them?

RM: That would be the main hope. Also that they would actually choose to come back and look at it again, and maybe question the feeling that they had in the first place, and then think, ‘Oh, I wonder why I feel differently about that’. And maybe it’s them that has changed, and not the painting.

Sometimes – there was one painting in particular last year I put up on the wall, and I couldn’t take it down. And it wasn’t about ego, it wasn’t about that, it was about every time I looked at it I could be in it. The water was so churned up, and rough. It wasn’t scary and you could breathe in the water. When I took it down a felt a bit sad. I put it away, and then someone actually walked in and bought it from Handmark and the amazing thing was that that fellow had gone through a similar situation to the one I’d gone through when I was looking at that painting. It’s weird. It’s not weird, but I think a lot of people find it scary. I don’t know, it’s a bit like an echo.

I can explain it: this lady, her son had committed suicide. She cleaned for the accountant that I take my stuff to and Darren, the accountant, said, ‘Why don’t you take some stuff [of your son’s] to Robyn, she might be able to do something with it’. So she knocked on the door, and she told me about her son – this is ‘talk back’, I get goosebumps, all the way up my arms – and I said to her, ‘I’ll do you four drawings’. She gave me free range, and I took four illustrations to her. And after that – that ‘talk back’ sort of thing – it’s like a connection.

EM: So you think that your work is a part of that process of ‘talk back’?

RM: Not quite sure. But if it does talk back to people, then I’d like it to be part of a healing process.

EM: And does it form part of your own healing processes?

RM: I think it must do. I like people, they’re alright – but in the workshop, I’m really happy because I don’t have to talk to anyone. I always feel content to be there. There are very few days where I pace up and down and go, ‘I hate being here’. Maybe it actually gives me a truer sense of myself, my old self, as I was as a child, not as I have to be socially, or talkatively, or stupidly, as people see me, you know. I don’t know.

EM: So how do you feel about Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen?

RM: Mrs Vermeer’s Kitchen – it’s probably a childhood memory. My brother had pyjamas with little trucks on them that looked exactly like that. He was born in 1956 and I was born in 1953, so if you can imagine – summer pyjamas in Queensland. I thought people were being too hard on themselves – I thought about this after I painted the painting. I thought, it’s sort of a soft painting, it’s reminiscent of old-fashioned curtains, old-fashioned pyjama material, stuff like that. And it also reminded me of screen-savers. I thought that maybe if people actually saw it as a screen-saver they’d relate to it as something more gentle, something you could actually relate to and say, ‘Oh look at that little pot, things haven’t changed much’. I just felt that when I’d done it. It felt busy, but if felt quiet. Because of the size, too, of the objects, they become more intimate. And it felt like that intimacy thing where you could actually just look at one object and not the whole lot. Yeah, and I thought, ‘It’s fun, that will do’. I felt like it was calming. There’s nothing aggressive about it, except that Mrs Vermeer has too much stuff.

EM: Who is Mrs Vermeer?

RM: Well that’s the other question. Johannes Vermeer’s wife, Vermeer the Dutch master. Mrs Vermeer – you never hear about her. You know The Milkmaid, and the ones with the virginals, and all the pictures he did – she was stuck in the kitchen somewhere. And I don’t even know if he had a wife [laughs].

There’re some jugs in there – the Dutch jugs that you see in his paintings. That’s probably the only reference. Along with that there’s beaters, which Mrs Vermeer would never have know about in a million years. Yeah, it was just to ask the question, ‘Well who was Mrs Vermeer?’ She’s every other woman as well.

EM: How would you feel if someone described you as a feminist artist?

RM: I wouldn’t like it much. If I hear that I think of someone’s work – like eX de Medici. I think tampons, the lady who used tampons in her work, that was probably the height of feminism in Australia. Can you remember things like that? Teabags and tampons hanging off little bits of weaving on walls, and I think, ‘Oh, for god’s sake’.

EM: No I don’t know that one, but it reminds me of Tracey Emin’s My Bed.

RM: Yeah, all that sort of stuff. I don’t know whether that was to shock. I think of someone like Tracey Moffatt, she’s strong as anything, she’s amazing. But if you think about feminism and the power that women can have, it’s neither here nor there in the arts, I don’t think. It sounds like you cry poor if you want to be named a feminist artist. You’re an artist, that’s it.

EM: Yep. So, potentially, someone like Tracey Moffatt, who’s a strong woman, and a strong artist – to relegate her to ‘feminist artist’ could almost weaken her?

RM: I think so. It sounds really crazy, but culturally she’s an icon, isn’t she. So how can she be a feminist as well? What does feminism really mean? Someone said once, ‘If you don’t call yourself a feminist, you’re not a woman’, and I thought, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’.

EM: Well, to me, feminism doesn’t mean everything under the sun to do with women, it means something quite particular. But it’s become so diverse and so imprecise that, as you say, you almost have to identify as a feminist just to be a worthwhile woman. But lots of women are making art, and being a woman is their reality-filter. So for you, whatever it is you’re drawing on…

RM: I’m drawing on where I live, and experiences I’ve had, millions of things…

EM: … the filter for that reality is that you’re a woman, and so therefore someone could come along and label that ‘feminist’. Is there a place for art to perform a social or political duty, do you think? 

RM: I think if art chooses to do that, it does it. I don’t think you can actively decide. Or maybe you can. I’m not the sort of person who actively decides that, I let destiny decide that. People see my work – I don’t invite them in, they just see it, and maybe it fits. If it doesn’t, don’t feel bad about it, just press on.

EM: Do you ever think about artists having a duty?

RM: I think you’ve got a duty to yourself. Again, without ego: if you love what you do, and you know that you can actually better yourself through what you’re doing, then the duty lies there, otherwise you’ve failed as a person. If you give up you’re never going to get anywhere. It’s just a little edge, it’s a little gift, a little bit more than someone else might have. And if you don’t use it, you’re a loser, you waste it. And that’s how I’m ambitious.

Everyday Happiness

I mentioned in my interview with Daniel Mudie Cunningham meeting the artist Nell (no surname) the same day. I left it in the transcript because I wanted to segue into this.

Nell’s currency for us lies in the fact her silver poo has been selected for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition at Mona.

© NELL, Everyday Happiness

The exhibition is large, and curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, in collaboration with TMAG (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery). The thrust of the show is silent aesthetical resonance: to not teach anything about art history, but to place the onus of pleasure on the viewer, via their visual register. Homi Bhabha calls this register the ‘scopic drive’, in reference to the desire to visually possess and categorise that which is different to the self. Homi Bhabha is a postcolonial theorist. I mention him because the show raises some hair-raising questions about power relationships between France and Tasmania, TMAG and Mona, indigenous and non-indigenous art. I’m not sure where to start with those yet. In the meantime, I missed a vital piece of information: the show places all sorts of art and artefacts, zoological, historical, decorative, functional, from different periods and places, alongside each other, under the rubric of visual congruence. It’s called ‘Theatre of the World’.

So Nell’s silver poo comes from a long line (or, not that long) of her other things with smiley faces on them – tombstones for instance. Hmm. I’m not sure how I feel about the smiley poo. I’m not sure how I feel about Nell’s work in general, namely:

Me: I’ve seen bits and pieces of your work and I cannot for the life of me pick a thread. Is there something that holds it all together?

Nell: Yeah. Me. I’m different every day. I think people end up with signature styles, kind of an accent in a way, but my accent is just who I am. Maybe it’s not really so good in the market place, but it’s just who I am and what I do. I feel like I can do anything or be anything in a really freeing way. 

Please note: my first ‘I’m not sure about’ is a euphemism for ‘I don’t like’; my second means what it says. Her answer, above, helped me understand and categorise.

Me: There’s obviously so many different ways in which people make art – if it’s conceptual, like if you really want to pose an argument or raise questions about the world we live in, you find a way to do that. Or if you just compulsively draw as a child, and then one day people start to buy them. How did that happen for you?

Nell: I think because when I grew up I was pretty bored for stimulation.

Me: In Maitland?

Nell: Uh huh. I went straight from high school to art school, and just tried to be curious about everything. Maybe it just came from that part of my nature, I’m not sure. Then I heard this quote that says, ‘The job of a Buddha is just to be awake’. And I thought, okay, just to be awake, just to be awake. So my job is just to be awake, twenty-four hours a day, just to be awake and open to things. That was the defining moment of how I wanted to live my life, and my art practice is the same.   

I like this. I feel the need to say, I’m no Buddhist. I asked Nell a bit more about happiness, forgetting, really, that that was the name of her work, the smiley little poo. Some say you make better work, better works of creation, when you are unhappy. I have been wondering lately, in happiness, whether I would still want to write about anything, for instance. David my boss says he keeps things incomplete because he needs to let human feeling seep through the cracks. He said this when he was going out with a woman who made him unhappy; I wonder if it’s still true.

The other currency, that’s running out fast as time passes, is that Nell performed for us at MOFO this year: she put on a triptych, a three-paneled piece, that included a chanting group performance, an installation, and a truck-ride through Hobart singing ACDC’s Long Way to the Top.

Image: Chanting To Amps © NELL

Image:  Let There Be Robe © NELL

Image: Long Way To The Top © NELL


The cohering motive of the triptych, she says, is ‘kind of that simple: I love rock and roll. Rock and roll and church were my first aesthetics, and Buddhism was my later one, and they all just mish-mashed’. She said she had always wanted to play music, but had ‘absolutely zero’ musical aptitude:

Nell: I thought, well if I can make mosaic and tapestry and make bronzes and glass works and all these other things, why can’t I just apply that same open-hearted, open-minded mindset and get people to help me, and just learn how to play?

Me: When you get in a cab and the cab driver goes, ‘So, what do you do?’ what do you say?

Nell: I say I’m an artist. I imagine most people you interview would say they are artists, right?

Me: It splits, it goes either way. If you think about making art as looking askance at the system, or being sensitive to the system in a way that directly creates something, then to identify professionally, ‘That’s my career’, it can be a bit of a conflict. But you don’t seem to be conflicted by much.

Nell: No. I’m not sitting here torturing myself. When you pay studio rent – that’s when you know you’re an artist. 

Me: Right. It makes me think about last time I was in Sydney when I interviewed Del Kathryn Barton, and she was saying the exact opposite of what you’re saying, that it’s all about self-torture, that’s her whole game with herself. 

Nell: I know. You know she’s my best friend, don’t you?

Me: Oh really?

Nell: Yeah, she gave me my [bunny necklace]. Yeah, she’s my bestie. No, we’re very similar, and very opposite. I told her, ‘When you learn to be lazy in your paintings you’re going to be a really great painter’. 

Me: But maybe that just works for her. Maybe self-torture works for her.  

Nell: Of course.

Anyhow, so the poo’s in the show, and we’ll see with what it visually resonates when things kick off in June. In the meantime, we’ve just hung some fresh Bartons.

-Elizabeth Mead