Alexie Glass-Kantor, Del Kathryn Barton, Patricia Piccinini & Paul Yore
Upon the occasion of the group exhibition of contemporary Australian art “Mad Love“, show curator Del Kathryn Barton, and fellow Australian artists Patricia Piccinini and Paul Yore, travelled to Berlin for the opening on the 6th of June 2016. Prior to the event, the three artists were invited to take part in a round table panel discussion with Australian arts leader, Curator and Director, Alexie Glass-Kantor. Below is an excerpt from the transcript from the conversation that revolved around the exhibition, the role of the artist, and Australian identity.
Installation view: mad love, Arndt Art Agency, Berlin, 2017
Alexie Glass-Kantor (AGK): Del can you discuss the process of development for the mad love exhibition?
Del Kathryn Barton (DKB): My starting point for the show was a gathering of others’ work that really spoke to me. It was a very subjective starting point. There wasn’t really a conceptual rationale, but rather, the inspiration came from a deeply felt poem I wrote. This text erupted out as the text in my work often does. The statement for me describes my whole oeuvre and why I make art. I wanted to work as a curator as I would work as an artist. I wanted it to be vulnerable and pure in that way. Let me read it to you:
Body as pleasure. Body as machine. Body longing, always longing. Hungry body, filthy body. Body to run. Body to deny. Thinking body. Muscle Body. Body as instrument and song, as instinct towards life. Body light. Body dark. Evolutionary body, dinosaur body. Plastic body. Colour body. BODY as unmitigated surges of light and energy, just briefly, but oh, such, such love……… mad, mad love
AGK: You’re a beautiful writer. When we were asked to do the interview today, it seemed much more natural to me even without having read the poem, to think about this exhibition in terms of the body, rather than in terms of an exhibition of Australian artists. I think it’s reductive to call it a show of Australian artists. Rather, it’s a show of artists who happen in some way to have a connection to Australia. I think in the 21st century this imposition to distinguish or provide that as a prefix is arbitrary. It’s as if the postcode – the longitude and latitude – is the thing that determines the situation of your work, rather than the content of your work. That connectivity to Patricia Piccinini and Paul Yore’s work, of being led by intuition is evident when you think about the works in this show.
DKB: There was a beautiful initial list of works and it was very hard to decide on the final cut. Matthias Arndt and I tussled a little bit. I feel that his name should be beside mine as the curator to be perfectly honest.
AGK: I think it’s equally important to speak about what’s not included in the show. That is the process of making and the process of curating. I suppose again it’s that problem of having a show under the banner of Australian art, because you can’t include everything that’s ever going to be truly representative of such breadth and diversity. So you include the works that suggest possibility rather than the things that name the detail.
DKB: Patricia’s work in the show, Eulogy, was one that Matthias fought for. I see this work as a father; it is an important beat in the show. A very sincere, deep, male beat that for me has a lot of emotionality, love and sentimentality.
AGK: Do you know about the fish?
Patricia Piccinini, “Eulogy” (2011), Artworks series, Silicone, fibreglass, human hair, clothing, 110 × 65 × 60 cm, Edition of 3 + 1 AP
Patricia Piccinini (PP): The blobfish is an Australian fish that lives offshore in the deep seas near South Australia. And it looks exactly like the one in my sculpture.
DKB: Stop it! Are you serious?
PP: One of the things about that particular work that’s different from all my other works is that I actually didn’t make it up. This creature, the blobfish, and that’s its common name – it’s Latin name is Psychrolutes marcidus – is being fished to extinction because it lives with crabs and gets caught up in trawling nets.
DKB: So, it’s like a waste product.
PP: Yes, and because it’s gelatinous and inedible, it gets thrown away as waste. But it’s an extraordinary creature because it’s one of the few fish that stays with its young, and the density of its body has evolved so that it can survive with tons and tons of water above it. That’s why other sea creatures, like crabs, have hard shells.
DKB: Like an armour?
PP: Yes. It’s evolved to be perfectly suited to its very difficult environment that up until recently was unknown. We tend to anthropomorphise the blobfish because it’s got this face that looks like a human face and we find it funny. I researched the story of this fish and found out that it is at the end of its time on this planet. It’s a very sad story. In my sculpture this everyday man is just holding the fish – he’s not the culprit. He’s probably one of those people who wouldn’t even care or know about it, but in this moment he’s supporting this fish through its demise. To me it’s actually optimistic and, as you say, there is a kind of strong sentiment. Even though it’s also heartwarming.
DKB: A moment of reverence.
PP: Yes, and also of connection, between this ordinary man and this ugly fish that is doomed because no-one wants to care for it. And the title of the work connotes we’re at the wake and he’s saying goodbye.
AGK: There’s a perfect line in Del’s poem: Body to run. Body to deny. Thinking body. Muscle Body. Body as instrument and song, as instinct towards life…Evolutionary body. It’s quite beautiful when you walk into the exhibition to see something that looks fictional being held by a figure that looks real, however, that real is inauthentic because they are both replicas, a kind of form of reality. I love the idea of this being an exhibition of artists who come from a place that exists for most people in this context as something that they know of as real in an abstract way, but not something that they know of as real through experience. Similar to the blobfish. As Australians, we exist in a kind of subterranean space at the bottom of the world, off the edge of Antarctica. I was thinking last night about the connectivity to animals and to their totemic and spiritual qualities. Paul your koala bear is pretty spiritual! That’s probably Del’s spirit animal!
Paul Yore, “Art Is Nature” (2016), mixed media textile, beads, sequins, buttons, 112 × 104 cm
Paul Yore (PY): I was brought up on Blinky Bill and I always identified with him as this sort of mischief making character. I was thinking about that as a model for what the social role of the artist could be. I was also considering how abstract the idea of Australia is, and that it’s just an idea, almost a bad idea actually. To have such a huge state is kind of dystopian in a way. That was never what Australia was throughout its human history. In many ways, our short history as a nation state has been so misguided. But that’s heavy and I didn’t want to talk about the heaviness of Australian history when we talk about being artists. Of course, there is this element of wanting to unburden yourself, especially in an Australian settler context, but also at the same time not wanting to deny this history or walk on eggshells. The heaviness of that history also gives rise to this explosive potentiality because if you think about Australia as an adolescent country, which was invaded at the same time other countries were having their revolutions, there’s this latent revolutionary potentiality in Australia. I think it’s expressed most profoundly in our society through art. I really see that kind of possibility in this show. Although we can’t deny Australian history, the imperialism of Western art history and the alienation of being outside of the European and American centres, once you move through all that energy, there’s this other space where there’s freedom to explore. To look at the possibilities of what we could be out in the world. This goes back to that idea about the body and its explosive potentiality.
DKB: One thing that I think about when you talk about the youth of Australia, is that profound dichotomy, because yes, it’s young on one level, but it’s also held within the cloak of one of the oldest living cultures on the planet. The Sally Gabori works are the only abstract works in the show that speak directly to land. Then there is the beat that Brook Andrew’s works bring. They have a deep gravitas that a lot of the other works don’t have, and that presence of the figure is just as much about the absence of the figure as well.
AGK: You mention that the Gabori pieces are the only notionally abstract works in the show, but I think there’s a strong sense of subjectivity and representation that runs through. For example, Dale Frank is most known for his colourist abstractions, but you’ve chosen works that are a composite of images of masks, of a grotesque kind of beauty. And obviously, there’s the kind of kundalini that pushes through Ramesh’s work and that high-key erotic charge that comes from drawing together a range of influences from his own Sri Lankan and Australian background. Through that charge, that energy, I think there is an abstraction that underlines this show. That abstraction is an impression or experience of how something echoes through you rather than the representation of what something is. You are each representing things as you feel them to be. Do you know what I mean Patricia?
Patricia Piccinini, “The Osculating Curve” (2016), Alone with the Gods series, Silicone, fibreglass, human hair, 54 x 72 x 30 cm, edition of 3 + 1 AP
PP: Yes, because I use representational work to undercut reality. I use a medium and a process that seems very realistic and I use it to undercut what’s real. You can see this especially with my other work in the show, Osculating Curve, which is a mathematical term that defines the place where two curves touch – it comes from the Latin word “to kiss”. That work uses representational forms to talk about abstract ideas such as fecundity, sensuality and a kind of deviation from normal in a good way. It’s saying, “it’s ok not to be what we understand to be beautiful and attractive.” I don’t want to say the word monstrous because it’s not monstrous to me, I think it’s a beautiful incarnation of what it means to be full of energy and to represent the potential for reproduction.
DKB: Yes, it speaks to Paul’s use of the potentiality and irrepressibility of the manifest life energy.
PY: You talk about that deviation from a normative body which really speaks to me. The show is really Bacchanalian in a way, and sort of Dionysian as opposed to this idea of the perfect body. All of the works have a sort of orgiastic or frenzied energy about them which is erotic and, in moments, barbaric or grotesque, but also playful and autonomous as well.
“There’s a kind of belligerent malevolence that runs through this show, the work is not conceding its territory.”
AGK: There’s a kind of belligerent malevolence that runs through this show, the work is not conceding its territory. None of the artists are conceding to convention, to affect to the conditions and circumstances of codes of representational conduct. Each one of them has a kind of resistance that is really interesting, and in that sense it’s quite duplicitous in the way it iterates in this space. It feels quite contained, but actually the works are operating at a high frequency of resistance to convention and code. I quite like that in your work Paul. You of course know very specifically that no stitch is neutral. You know when you make a work that it is going to be situated in a particular space.
PY: Yes, absolutely. I’ve been thinking recently about the work being dissident and the importance of that. That can mean so many different things. As you point out, I think all the work in the show is dissident in the way that it deviates from normal codes of representation, in its energy, and even in its indulgence in the ocular which is almost belligerent in a way, in its decadence and celebration of carnality.
AGK: I agree with you. There’s an interesting balance in this exhibition between the kind of masculine and feminine status quo in a sense that you’ve disrupted. Del, you have such a strong potent feminine charge that runs through your work as a kind of affirmative and powerful transformative catalyst. But it’s really interesting that there’s four male artists in the show, Paul, Brook, Dale and Ramesh, who operate in a particular sphere of masculinity and challenge the conventional representation of the masculine. Brook looks at the trespass space of Indigenous representations of the history of masculinity through time and colonialism. Ramesh through the objectification of otherness. But then we have Dale with this really particular energy in the show.
Pictured in front of Paul Yore’s works left-right: Britta Schmitz and Patricia Piccinini at the mad love exhibition opening
DKB: The other thing that really spoke to me about the artists that I wanted to gather together is this sort of combination of sincerity, coupled with a kind of conscious fucked up-ness. Having those two beats talking to each other is something that always really excites me.
AGK: You also talk a lot about the political space of vulnerability.
DKB: For me that’s close to sincerity. It’s not enough just to slap you around. That’s not interesting. You have to believe in it at the same time.
AGK: I agree with you, there’s no point being provocative for the sake of provocation, it has to come from a space of being open, to being changed and transformed yourself, and not just trying to transform others, but actually being changed through the process of making or thinking through how ideas come together in a space.
PP: And heartfelt. I just can’t do irony.
Installation view: mad love, Arndt Art Agency, Berlin, 2017
AGK: I’ve known all three of you for a long time. Paul since you were a student, and Del and Patricia, I’ve known you both for almost twenty years.
DKB: I think that’s part of the alchemy and the magic.
AGK: I’ve had this discussion with each of you before about a necessity to be present and authentic in your own practice. Authenticity is such a complicated word. That sense of being located within your work in a way that is conscious and creating work that isn’t detached from subjectivity or the personal.
DKB: Oh, we bleed for it don’t we?
PP: I grew up during the theory boom and was studying at Sydney University at the height of the Post-Structuralist theory madness where everybody was ironic and deconstructing this and that. And I think that really fed into a sense of a long-standing cultural cringe that we as Australians needed some validation, something to prop up what we did. That’s why it took hold in Australia. Now thirty years later, I feel we don’t need that. We can stand by what we think, feel and say. We make the works about what we really want to talk about with our community. We don’t need a fancy theory from somewhere else to validate our ideas. And I think that’s a big shift to be honest.
AGK: There is a question that’s been posed for the mad love panel discussion tonight asking if we think that globalization has meant that national edges have moved to the centre and the centre has moved to the edges? I do not believe this is the case. I believe that what’s happened in the last ten years is that the edges have become deeper and that what we see is that every context has its own sexuality, its own history, its own relevance, its own resonances, and its own discourses that have their own agency and efficacy. In Colombia, in New Zealand, in Indonesia, in Australia, we have such a depth and vocabulary of our own strengths. Paul, it’s interesting when you remarked that we are a young country and we’re probably due for some form of resistance or transformation. How do you feel about the space that your work occupies in terms of agency?
Paul Yore, “Bless This Mess”(2016), Wool needlepoint, 47 x 28 cm
PP: What you’ve just said really resonates with me because I grew up through the art school system and there was this pressure to engage with Post-Structuralist theory. It always left me cold. That’s nothing against the institution or the academic structure, but I think learning about how to just communicate is something that comes naturally. Rather than feeling constrained by heavy conceptual theoretical models, being able to actually make something intuitive or something that’s just about feeling is important. There’s a juvenility and a playfulness in my practice that I’ve always embraced. I see this almost like a form of idiocy. I want to access that space of not knowing, like agnosticism, like inhabiting that space of unknowingness. I think it’s really interesting how you were talking about the blobfish which is one of the only pieces of truth in the show, of realism, and it’s the one thing that looks totally alien and fantastical. That’s really interesting. We know nothing and this is just a general human habit. It’s like the sort of order, the language, the theoretical framework that we inhabit as thinking social subjects is just full of lies and we learn those lies and tell them over and over. That’s the world we inhabit. This sort of shimmering smoke and mirrors façade. Art can really smash through that when it’s good.
DKB: Something that I try to preserve more than anything within my practice as a forty-four-year-old woman is this idea of serious play. With all the learnt stuff you accumulate through your life, I really believe that the only way my practice can continue to grow with agency and with courage is through serious play.
Installation view: mad love, Arndt Art Agency, Berlin, 2017
AGK: The three of you each have such strong presences and reputations in Australia, as well as having substantial careers that have advanced abroad. Patricia, you have represented Australia at the Venice Biennale through to a range of other international contexts, and Paul and Del you range from more burgeoning to more established. But each one of you at home in Australia has had to be in a situation through the media, through public response, where your work has been taken out of the space of its intentionality and either been challenged in parliament or faced issues of censorship. Each one of you at certain points has had to stand up and speak in a very public way to the intentionality of your work. Because you do all draw on this space of vulnerability in your work, what is it to negotiate that space when you know that there’s this risk that exists when you put your work into the public sphere?
DKB: A word that comes to my mind immediately is just this incredible feeling of relief. It’s a complex question. There is a certain defence in my body and in my consciousness that I have that causes me a lot of anxiety back in Australia, but here it feels more celebratory and more expansive. I feel safer within the histories here. Especially pertaining to audacious, courageous, figurative histories around the body.
“The body is still the most difficult thing to show in Australia. It’s still the thing that’s most sensitive.”
AGK: The body is still the most difficult thing to show in Australia. It’s still the thing that’s most sensitive. In a sense it’s easier to make directly political work than it is to make work that deals with the spaces of sexualised, gendered or post-human bodies because it’s still somehow within an Australian psyche that negates the value of context. Asking why that is in this context is important. Audiences may not understand the risk that this work represents personally and professionally to each of you. It’s so easy to be an artist in this context with historical precedent, but it’s not so easy to be an artist in a place where that abject threshold is still one that we’re so afraid of, regarding the corporeal. There is still something about the Australian body, whether it’s a black or a white body, that is difficult to show.
PP: That’s a really good point that you have raised and it’s amazing that you’ve made this connection. I think part of being sincere and showing your vulnerability is that you do get hurt. So when politicians say your work is crap or it’s not worth spending money on, you do get hurt and you just take it and keep on going.
AGK: This is interesting because we’re in Germany, the home of the Degenerate Art Exhibition (1937), the most interesting exhibition of 20th century art that became known as the most powerful form of anti-art ever assembled in one place. In this place a hundred years ago, what artists were doing represented a kind of risk. In Australia in the 21st century, what each of you are doing represents a kind of risk as well. That’s a really interesting thing to consider when we’re thinking about the price of mad love.
Del Kathryn Barton, “hard wet” (2017), acrylic on French linen, 240,3 × 180,5 × 7 cm
PY: When talking about different bodies, the female and the male body, as free as we perceive ourselves to be in the West: as creators of visuality, the context we find ourselves in after the advent of photography, of television, and now the Internet, is an image saturated environment full of debased demoralized bodies. Whether it’s pornography, or unrealistic images of what a body should be – white and muscular or unhealthily thin or all of these things. That is the nightmarish milieu that we inhabit as creators. It’s never been a more difficult time to be a creator of images in this deluge of debased bodily images. I think that’s possibly why we all make the types of bodies in our work that resist and push against that in a really pointed way.
AGK: I think that is a good place to end. Thank you all for contributing to this discussion about your work and good luck for the mad love opening this evening.
mad love panel discussion, 6th June, 2017, Arndt Art Agency, Berlin. Left to right: Krist Gruijthuijsen, Matthias Arndt, David Elliott, Del Kathryn Barton, Alexie Glass-Kantor.
mad love panel discussion audience, 6th June, 2017, Arndt Art Agency, Berlin.