Saturday, April 8, 2017

Interview with Brigita Ozolins

Brigita OzolinsKryptos is one of the most liked artworks at Mona. The Hobart-based artist and academic now has a second installation, Graphos, at the museum within Mark Changizi’s section of the current exhibition, On The Origin of Art. I talked to Ozolins about her lifelong fascination with language, 60s Minimalists, her response to Changizi’s ‘nature harnessing’ theory, and the very reason why she makes art.

Tell me about your art practice.

It’s about exploring our relationship to language, to books, to the way we store and sort information, to codification, and to an essential mystery I see associated with the process of writing. It’s inspired by my love of books and literature and libraries. My interest in all these things stems from growing up in a family where we spoke Latvian as well as English, and my parents spoke a number of different languages so I’ve been fascinated, or exposed always to this idea of different ways people express themselves.  When I speak Latvian, something different that happens in my brain, the way I express myself and my thinking. There’s something slightly different there and I think it changes with each language. They’re the concepts underpin my ideas, that I’m interested in conveying - our complex and paradoxical relationship to language. On one hand language is an extraordinary tool. It enables us to express our thoughts and ideas and our feelings, and to describe our place in the world, but at the same time it’s not an accurate reflection of reality. It’s something in a constant state of flux and change.  And it changes as our perceptions of the world and our understanding of the world changes. I’m interested in trying to convey that gap between reality and what language does. That’s where the mystery is for me. I think we have this paradoxical relationship to language as a result of that. One of the key strategies I’ve used in my works is to promise meaning but also deny access to meaning.

Could you give me example?

In Kryptos, the walls are lined with binary code. As you enter Kryptos and experience it more and more, you start to see there are some English words in amongst the code. There is this promise of meaning embedded in this code, that it’s not simply patterns of zeros and ones on the walls… but ultimately the viewer’s access to that meaning is denied. Hopefully you get a tantalising glimpse where you may start to question your own relationship to language.

Does that mean the artist statement is key to interpreting the work?

I like to think that people can have an experience in my work that affects them. They can have an experience about the work – a rich experience – without having to know my specific intentions. People might go into Kryptos and say ‘oh wow, I loved being in that work’, but they don’t need to know that the text is from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and that it’s to do with a man coming face to face with his own mortality as Gilgamesh does.

I think that’s an indicator of a successful artwork, and one of the things I like about Kryptos: you can read the artist statement if you wish, but really you can enter the work from any level.

And that’s my aim. People say ‘oh wow, now you’ve told me about the Epic of Gilgamesh, I feel as if I really understand what the work is about.’ But I don’t think that way. Reading my artist statement and finding out what I was thinking and so on may add some other dimensions to your understanding of the work, but I really don’t think it’s necessary to get that work.

I’m not sure if it’s the same with my new installation. Graphos is a response to Mark Changizi’s ideas [on the origin of art], which are very specific and from a scientist’s point of view. I’ve tried to create another experience that evokes his ideas but is also poetic in some way.

He tells us that language is all around us. We develop it because of our relationship to nature and the world around us. We see certain objects in relation to each other... we see angles and lines and intersections that then become the basis of an alphabet in any language. [However, his interest is in] the formal structure of language, whereas I’m more interested in the content and meaning of what we say.

I was drawn to Changizi’s minimalist diagrams in his book [The Vision Revolution], and the three large objects [in Graphos] come directly from his diagrams. The first thing I thought of … was the work of the 1960s Minimalists like Robert Morris and Donald Judd.

Yeah, I was reminded of Robert Morris’ L Beams when seeing your work.

It’s an obvious conversation that I’m having with 60s Minimalists. But my work’s created out of wood, so that’s my reference to nature and the world around us. The objects also contain sound. One thing Changizi says is that the actual forms of language come from seeing objects in relationship to nature in the natural world. He says the actual sounds of language come from the sound of body in motion in the world, and basically from three types of sound: hits, slides and rings. It might be the stamp of a foot, a body hitting something and the reverberations that come from that. I interpreted those things as quite percussive sounds, and so they’re the sounds you get in Graphos. I think they’re a little avant-garde, a little bit 50s and 60s. They have an experimental beatnik sound to them. But then you get voices intermingled with that that are sounding out the phonemes of the words that line the walls of Graphos, which say ‘around us everything is writing’. Those words are a direct quote… from a beautifully poetic work by the late Marguerite Duras … about what it is to be a writer and the process of writing.

Changizi says a similar thing, but from the viewpoint of the scientist: that writing is everywhere. I think writing is embedded in the world around us. So Graphos is the merging of the scientist, the writer and the visual artist. They’re three different ways of thinking about writing, but they have interconnections.

Both works have a really interesting relationship to the human body through scale and movement. That was something the Minimalists were doing too – L-Beams was designed to be walked around and viewed in relation to the space and the body.

I was thinking about the relationship people would have to the forms in the space, but I was also thinking about the dimensions of the space and the size you would need to command the space in a particular way. 

But I’m also quite practical as an artist, and I designed them to the standard sizes that the plywood panels come in because it makes it so much easier to construct. It’d be really interesting to look at the origin of those dimensions. It’d be related to what the human body can make practically and also handle. 

It’s similar to the standardisation of photographs and paintings. Why are they usually rectangular and hung in ‘landscape’ or ‘portrait’ orientations?

Yes exactly. So my objects work with those standard dimensions, which also gives them a sense of proportion.

One thing that I notice in your installations is a sense of excitement, play and anticipation.

I think that really works in Kryptos. In Graphos it’s a different experience because you don’t have separate spaces. It’s one big all-encompassing space. A number of people have said to me that they enjoy being in there, that it feels very warm and comforting. The wood makes them reasonably sensuous objects that you would like to go up and stroke. It’s quite different to Kryptos which creates a little bit of anxiety.

One is very cold and the other very warm.

Yeah, one’s a crypt really. It uses concrete steel and glass – materials that are naturally cold. Whereas Graphos uses organic materials – it’s all wood.  There’s this idea that it’s still breathing and contracting and changing with the environment in a different way to steel and concrete, which are manmade materials.

Although to be fair, plywood is manmade.

Yes, but it’s still made of wood.

I was buying my sister’s new baby a toy the other day, and I thought back to Roland Barthes’ essay on plastic where he talks about wood with its warmth and soft sound.

We do respond to wood. I don’t like glass tables. I think it’s slightly scary. That timber and the rich grain in parts of it with those embedded letters feels inviting and all encompassing. It’s that idea of ‘around us everything is writing’.

Lastly, why do you make art?

For me, it’s a way of thinking in three or four dimensions. It’s a way of realising my thoughts physically, and it’s a way of distilling a lot of seemingly disparate thoughts, or seemingly disparate thoughts and interconnections between ideas. Art can be a combination of anything and everything that you’re thinking and that you’re interested in. In art, I can combine my love of literature, my love of film, a phrase that I’ve read in a book, or heard in a film that evokes a powerful idea about something. It can combine all my interests and passions. Then the great challenge as an artist is to distil those ideas into something three-dimensional - or four-dimensional if I’m using sound or time-based media - into something that makes your thinking concrete. It’s like the process of writing. Writing allows me to think. It’s only through the process of writing that my thoughts become real. [Making art is] a similar process in that it enables me to see my ideas and extend them even further. And sometimes when you make art you don’t realise what those thoughts are until years later. You review the work in a different way from what you did at the time you were making it. You do some writing at some point in time, and then you express thoughts at that time, and then later on you read it and you go ‘oh hey, there’s some really interesting ideas – things that I haven’t quite expanded on.’ It’s a form of thinking and understanding your place in the world.

Visit for images.

A shorter version of this interview was published in Warp Magazine, December 2016.

Disclosure note: The interviewer is a Mona employee.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Leo Albert Kelly and the Three Days Darkness

Part of Kelly's rock collection,
many of them labelled with
hand-engraved metal tags.
A few years ago, the British artist Lindsay Seers and Queenstown-based Raymond Arnold visited the reclusive Leo Albert Kelly in his Queenstown home, videoing the tour of his extraordinary self-built corrugated iron house, complete with circular chapel and observatory. During their visit, Kelly revealed a great number of paintings and his collection of found objects - the full extent of which was only discovered on his death shortly after.
The resulting video was shown as part of Seers’ installation, Suffering, at The Unconformity festival last month alongside Kelly’s many paintings and collections of memorabilia, rocks and other ephemera. It was exhibited in the Queenstown’s Uniting Church building and Country Women’s Association hall. While the once devoutly Catholic Kelly would have probably rolled in his grave at the thought, the hall provided the perfect architectural environment for Seers’ replica iron house and video, which looked like it was shoehorned into the main hall. Kelly’s paintings also suited this humble environment perfectly, hung against the roughly hewn, white-painted wooden interior of the rear hall and kitchenette. Seers’ creative edit of the video (which included interviews with local residents, images of the landscape, and even the building that burnt down next to the CWA only three weeks before the opening) was interesting, but it left me wanting more information on Kelly’s life and work.

Lindsay Seers' installation, 2016.

Leo Kelly, 'Satan's Hand'.

Kelly left the church when Catholicism “didn’t match his opinions” (such as the rapture that’s supposedly due to occur in 2018), and he had a falling out with a local priest. His rumoured plans to join the priesthood fell through following a mental breakdown, and it’s assumed he had psychological issues and autism. He was described as ‘very reverent, very humble, and very quiet and private’, and at one point he worked as the town’s postman. While the exterior of his house indicated an eccentric individualism, there was little known about his creative pursuits until just recently.

Leo Kelly, no.7

Kelly’s paintings are a mix of mystic Catholicism, religious figures, and Queenstown landscapes – both built and natural. They feature rainbows, planets, angels, the Virgin Mary, and magic purple landscapes with glittering temples. But many of them also include the relatively banal streets, cars and houses that made up his everyday physical environment.

Leo Kelly, no. 36.

The paintings are individually numbered and hand-framed with offcuts from doorframes and other scrap wood. Number 36 is painted on Masonite with handwritten notes roughly screwed to the top. It portrays a group of people and their cars at the edge of a lookout, seemingly oblivious to the looming storm. The sky is ominously split in two, with the clear blue sky (with an oddly bright moon) on the right threatened by stormy grey clouds on the left (albeit with an accompanying rainbow). Number 35 depicts a central angel wielding a bloody sword, with a line of angels descending from the sky behind her - the mystical scene countered by the Queenstown townscape in the foreground. The recognisable grid of streets, complete with central roundabout, traffic and houses, are painted in flattened, map-like style. The paper tags attached to the frame echo this conflict between the everyday and the mystical: a couple of notes read “The Holy Trinity. The father. The Son. The holy Sprit” and “They will seek God’s face In there (sic) misery”, while another identifies the subject of the painting as “The Greate (sic) Red Cut Back”.

Leo Kelly, no. 35

Leo Kelly, no. 29.

Caption to painting no. 2:
"Jesus and Mary Greeting Leo". 
Number 29 is a little more grounded, but again, mixes Catholic iconography with a depiction of Kelly’s everyday surroundings. A walled house and garden sits in the foreground of an expansive natural landscape, its isolation exaggerated by the contrast between the flattened grid of the domestic plot and the illusion of depth in the surrounding landscape. An angel (or Jesus?) tends to a small bush, while a nun (or is it Mary?) works in the garden. Another painting (no.4) is captioned “Inviting Leo to look into Her stone”, recalling the time he was “given a gift” of a rock in the shape of the Virgin Mary while wandering along a beach. The rock, which is framed in a glass and wooden pod with doorstoppers as supports, does indeed look like the Virgin Mary.

Leo Kelly's 'gift': Virgin Mary rock.

No one seems to know what is going to happen to this incredible body of work, and a few locals I spoke to worried it would just go back into the church’s basement. I’d love to see it acquired by our state museum. Kelly’s work was never intended for exhibition or public display. They were created for himself and for his God, which is why they’re so intriguingly personal and revealing. It would be a great shame if his work wasn't preserved for the future.

Update: 9 November 2016 
The original version of this post incorrectly quoted that there are no plans to keep the collection intact.  The festival organisers have stated that there are plans to keep the collection intact, and the post has been changed accordingly. The article might have also implied a lack of community care about the collection.  I should stress that the people I spoke to were in fact passionate about the work, but were unsure of any plans for the collection and were understandably worried about its future. The wording has been changed accordingly.

Lindsay Seers' Suffering was part of The Unconformity Festival in Queenstown, Tasmania, 14-16 November, 2016.  See my previous post for an interview with the festival director, Travis Tiddy.

For a more extensive review of The Unconformity, see my article 'Festival for a town that doesn't conform' in Realtime 135, 2016.

This review was originally published in the November edition of Warp Magazine.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Interview: Travis Tiddy, director of The Unconformity

Ahead of Queenstown’s third arts festival, I spoke to founding director and 5th generation Queenstowner, Travis Tiddy, about the festival’s development, his own involvement, and the name change from The Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival to the more ambiguous The Unconformity.

Queenstown and Mt Owen at sundown. © Lucy Hawthorne

LH: How did the festival start?

TT: It started initially in 2009. [I was part of an] organisation called ‘Project Queenstown’ – a local tourism organisation that’s existed for 25 years.  We put out a municipal survey to ask local people where thought the direction of the town was going, or where it should be going.  The survey told us people wanted a festival.  So we took on the challenge of developing a cultural festival for Queenstown with a mandate from local research.  There was a gap and a need.

LH: The first two iterations were called The Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival. Tell me about this original name.

TT: When we started there was a bit of momentum and energy around Raymond Arnold and what he was creating in Queenstown with many visiting international and national well-known artists. He had a rigorous artistic program, and so we wanted to capture that and build upon it.

We had no experience in event management when we started.  We built these skills from the ground up.  So The Queenstown Heritage and Arts Festival was a very literal title.  In a way it was incongruous at the time. It was self-referential in the absurdity of having an arts festival in Queenstown - a regional backwater on the fringes of cultural activity in the state.

LH: At the first festival, I noticed that there was a really broad spectrum of activities, from more traditional and conservative celebrations of cultural heritage to cutting-edge contemporary art.

TT: Previous programs have represented our diverse audience.  The festival has been a very strong home coming event [for] people who have had a very strong connection with the region.  The festival is an opportunity to reconnect.  We have historically had an older audience - a heritage-loving audience - who use it as an opportunity to connect to the place.  So we have a broad program [that appeals to this older audience] and also captures the interest of the contemporary art community.

There’s an incredible amount of goodwill and interest in the West Coast and Queenstown.  We have to remember that the region was really booming only decades ago. There was a point in time where Zeehan was supposed to be the capital of the state.  Earlier than that in The Depression, the West Coast was firing all cylinders while the rest of the state was really hurting.  In 1902, Mt Lyall company’s gross turnover was greater than the state government’s so we’re talking about a region that’s pivotal in the formation of the state, and illustrious on a national and international scale from a mining perspective. It means that as the mining industry has become more subdued, as people have moved away, there are still these fundamental connections that people still have to the region.  There’s still a memory or emotional response.  So our audience is made up of all those people.

View of the famous gravel footy oval from the Spion Kopf Lookout, Queenstown. © Lucy Hawthorne

LH: Where does the name The Unconformity come from?

TT: Personally, I think that at the 7-year mark it’s almost at a renewal phase for any organisation. It’s the fatigue point from a staffing point of view and from a brand point of view, but maybe also artistically. So we thought it was time to refresh the organisation.  When we looked at where we wanted to head with the festival, where artistically where we think it should be based, it came back to the geological story because it sort of unifies. It’s the reason why we’re still there. It unifies the mining story. It brings the natural landscape - the surrounding heritage wilderness - into the story.  It also lets us talk about the hydroelectric industry, which is really important to us as well.  So on a number of levels, the geological story gives us a lot to work with.  When doing research into the local geology, we came across this local rock form: the Haulage Unconformity.

LH: So it’s actually a rock form?

TT: Yes, you’ve probably seen it on our posters  - a detail of the rock face.  It’s an exposed wall of rock at the Mt Lyall mining field. It represents the touching point of three geological agents.

It’s a really dynamic representation of local geology. It tells the story of why there are so many minerals on the West Coast. It has a sense of immeasurable force - forces that are in opposition but coexist. So artistically, when we were thinking of this feature as a thematic basis for the event we realised that the Unconformity speaks about the people… people with a very keen sense of identity…  an isolated community that essentially does things its own way and in its way doesn’t conform.  We had a lightbulb moment.  Not only does it speak about industry, it also speaks about the people and is something of a statement about where we live and how we live.

LH: Queenstown is such a unique place visually, particularly the contrast between the world heritage area and the landscape immediately surrounding Queenstown. Its social history is so interesting too – it’s a tale of changing fortunes.

TT: There’s quite a tragic narrative to the place. When we held the last festival [in 2014], only 10 months earlier we had devastating news that there had been multiple fatalities underground in the local mine. It rippled through the entire community. It really impacted everybody. Six months later, the mine temporarily closed.  In that context, we decided to make the entire festival free. We also changed our opening ceremony to feature a sculpture called The Angel of the West, a symbolic feature of ‘let’s get through this’. However, during the opening ceremony it caught on fire…

LH: That wasn’t deliberate?

TT: It wasn’t deliberate.  We were disappointed by the outcome but afterwards as we were reviewing it, we thought the idea of a community creating a symbolic five-meter tall angel and yet her face burns off… it sort of fits with the tragic narrative. I was doing the speech at the time so I quickly changed the speech to make it seem like it was intentional with a few references to the phoenix coming from the ashes and that sort of thing.

At the moment there’s a lot of interest in the fringes. There’s a lot of interest in authenticity, in stories and connections within regional settings and I think artistically we can see a bit of a move in that direction.  We recognise the world is coming to Queenstown. 

Queenstown's famous Empire Hotel and a very handsome vehicle. © Lucy Hawthorne

The Unconformity, Queenstown, Tasmania. 14-16 October, 2016.

Visit for program information and ticketing.

This interview was originally published in Warp Magazine, October 2016.

Review: Tesselating in the Slips at Visual Bulk

Jonny Rowden and Alexandra Hullah’s energetic performance, Tesselating in the Slips, followed a month-long residency at Visual Bulk.  It’s a testament to their performance that they sustained an engaged audience for nearly two hours on a freezing Hobart evening.  The performance was bookended by participatory damper making, then damper cooking and consumption.  When I arrived, visitors were kneeling in the gallery, mixing ingredients according to laminated instructions.  In a small vestibule, sat the ‘common loaf’ – a lump of dough kneaded by any and all.  Later, the common loaf took on almost religious status when the uncooked mound, shrouded in a tea towel, was taken from its plinth as part of the performance.

The room of the common loaf was lined with documented thought experiments, notes for short performance ideas, and photographic documentation running up to the public performance.  The ideas range from the banal to the utterly absurd. 

The start of the performance (or at least the first of the short back-to-back performance ‘vignettes’) was down the banal end of the spectrum.  I couldn’t quite hear the chanting, but it was something about energy transference I think.  It was a lengthy and participatory affair that led me to flee into the dark corners of the courtyard lest I be picked as a vessel for energy transfer.  I was reminded of a similar activity at a meditation retreat I attended in the Blue Mountains fourteen years ago (my first and last).

As the performance moved inside it picked up pace, incorporating sound, light and projected images, a costume change, a sandstone block, and eventually the absence of clothing altogether (as previewed on the Facebook event photograph that remarkably dodged the site’s ban on nudity for an entire week).  The relationship between the two artists altered with each vignette.  One moment they’d be hurting each other until the safe word ‘sufficient’ was mentioned, and in another, they’d be diligently oiling and powdering each other’s naked bodies as if applying some kind of protective layer.  While passing the burden of the loaf-like sandstone, they exchanged confessions: “last year I dropped a bottle of whiskey on my hand and it broke my finger”, “I use to pray every night until I was 21”, “I can speak four languages”, “I never liked Disney films because there are too many songs”, “watching Disney films made me want to be an artist”, “I hate making bread” [cue laughs from the audience].  The activities were ritualistic and little a bit Catholic with all the confessions and the breaking of bread.  Unlike most performance art, the seriousness was relieved by small moments of humour. 

The last vignette, however, was extraordinarily confronting.  Although the context suggested otherwise, the naked wrestling in which Alex was forcibly pinned to the ground looked non-consensual.  Distressed, I ended up exiting the gallery.  I’ve sat through some pretty challenging performances, but Tesselating in the Slips crossed a line at that point.  As one friend later asked, “at what point should the audience intervene?”

Visual Bulk attendees are a diverse bunch who seem to linger at openings (based on my observation and absolutely nothing else), making it a perfect venue for extended performative works like Tesselating in the Slips.  As always, I look forward to the next event.

Tesselating in the Slips was performed on the 17th September at Visual Bulk, Argyle Street, Hobart.

This review was originally published in Warp Magazine, October 2016.