Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Ashlee Laing - Greening - Artecycle 2013 - Upcycling Series - INTERVIEWS

Artecycle is the annual non-acquisitive art award held at The Incinerator Gallery in Moonee Ponds. Inspired by the striking 1929 Walter Burley Griffin Building this exhibition has become an important event on the annual arts calendar bringing together artists from around the country who are negotiating waste, recycling, environmentalism and sustainablility in a plethora of ways and means. As a part of his series of profiles on visual artists working with waste and upcycling Paul Andrew speaks to artist Ashlee Laing.

Artists who inspire you Ashlee?

The artists that I’m beginning to delve into at the moment are Nedko Solakov, Hans Haacke and Rachel Harrison. I’ve known about these artists for a while but I haven’t really got to know them in an in-depth or influential kind of way and am now just beginning to research their practices, amazing artists.

If I have to look back or choose two artists who I have long admired and who inspire me most of all, I would have to say Felix Gonzales-Torres and Nan Goldin.

I still get butterflies in my tummy when I see their work in the flesh. What really resonates with me is that both of these artists made art directly from life, about life, and specifically about their lives, yet they seem to connect with us, not in demonstrating their lives to us so much, but I guess in some kind of way connecting with the viewer, the other, in really powerful ways. 

For instance, I’m thinking of Gonzales-Torres’s Perfect Lovers as one of the most beautiful, simple and incredibly powerful gestures - two identical clocks on a wall set to the same time and as time ticks by they fall out of sync after having moved, however briefly, perfectly together.

What I love about this work is that it’s just so simple and so germane to interpersonal relationships, to life, such a powerful piece of visual poetry.

And, Nan Goldin, who you know, for years has documented her life and the people in her life. I remember while living in Hamburg for a little while, a time when the Ballard of Sexual Dependency was installed at The Hamburger Kunsthalle, I went there almost daily for several weeks whilst I was unemployed and just sat there on the red velvet cinema chairs immersed in the installation, the slide show, of her life.

I was truly mesmerized by these photos, these photos of everydayness, that were images of stuff that anybody could have taken, images that you’ve taken, that we all take, that I’ve taken, documenting time, party times, documenting life, documenting the good and the bad.  I mean I remember taking a photo of myself crying at one time, just to see what I looked like, to see what an emotion looked like. Her work really captures that, for me, really captures the emotional connection and

What inspired you to enter the 2013 Artecycle Exhibition?

I guess what attracted me initially to apply for the 2013 Artecycle Award was for the opportunity that my work could be in an exhibition that had a prize attached to it and the possibility of winning that prize - money is hard to find when you're an artist. 

These kinds of exhibitions, exhibitions with prizes and awards attached to them put together by public galleries are also another way of exhibiting - an economical way of exhibiting. As an early career artist these types of exhibitions also provide opportunities to exhibit in a public gallery context, to a wider audience, alongside artists with more established careers.

I remember seeing the call out for this show and thinking “Oh, I should really make that sculpture I’ve been banging on about for years” but it hasn’t happened yet. With further reading of the call out I noted that the entries had been diversified and artist could submit work that dealt with issues of sustainability and the environment without having to use recycled materials. 

This is when I thought that my work “Bush Vandal (Green wash) would be a good fit as it dealt with ideas of, notions of environment disaster and the impact of contemporary culture and consumerism upon the natural and constructed environments we inhabit. 

Artists upcycle wit differing intentions?

Yes, in fact, I couldn’t even begin to try and categorize the diversity of work being produced at the moment. I’ll leave that for the art historians/theoreticians to ponder. For me, art and it’s varied outputs simply fall under the HUGE umbrella term - Contemporary Art Practice, which provides more than enough food for thought.

It’s interesting to look at say, art education (although fraught) over the past several decades and note the break down of disciplinary practice. 

Art making now being an interdisciplinary process relying on a multitude of factors for the articulations of concepts. What's fantastic is that Contemporary art practice crosses different genres, different disciplines; it’s a hodge-podge of coming up with ideas, objects, propositions or whatever it is that really finds; that locates and exemplifies the essence of the idea that is being expressed rather than formally working within a more kind of disciplined approach to media, something that I am much more excited about than working exclusively with a particular media. I am much more interested in the idea and finding a way that best facilitates and resolves that idea - relying on a multi-disciplinary approaches to art making.

The diversity of the work in Artecyle reflects the interdisciplinary nature of art practice. This can be seen by tracing the history of the prize that was initially a sculptural prize that dealt with recycled materials, found objects, waste etc and all those words that we use to describe the readymade and its re-signification. This year it was opened up to include other works that were not only made from such materials or processes but work that was conceptually located within the discourses surrounding environment and sustainability. I guess my work was selected as it's a landscape video and deals with me in that landscape doing something quite absurd, and in an unconscious way has an environment message. 

At the time this wasn’t the reason or impetus for the work I made but through a series of coincidences and reflections it poetically speaks of the destruction of the environment.

In fact I wouldn’t say that I am an environmental artist or that my work deals exclusively with issues surrounding the environment. I guess I make work that poetically comments upon social conditions, usually a response to the limitations of or restrictions that culture, that society inflict upon my being. 

Historically - the 90’s had a major impact on me, work was made about identity and its inherent politics, I’m thinking Barbara Krueger, Jenny Holzer - those kind of artist who were about exposing the inequality and I guess I think it’s even more pertinent now in 2013 to be exposing that because things like homosexuality, things like adoption, giving blood, things like being a woman, or being one of the genders between male and female, things like being an asylum seeker, these identities, these rights are still not equal with what the so called majority of the population are privileged to. 

I mean homosexuals are not equal - homosexuality has been captured by consumerist culture and rendered a lifestyle, and this is something that I am still very passionate about  - making work that subtlety exposes that - blatantly exposes that - poetically exposes that; perhaps not even exposes but work that proposes and questions is where I am coming from.

Tell me about the video work Bush Vandal?

Bush Vandal (Green wash) was developed while I was the artist in residence at Birrarung house as part of the Nillumbik shire councils Laughing Waters Artist in Residence program in aug-sept 2012. Birrarung House is a beautiful 1970’s mud brick house designed by Gordon Ford along the Yarra River in Eltham. When I first arrived I began to explore the landscape, the environment, by embarking on daily walks through the bush and along the river. 

The bush here was somewhat dense and fallen trees, trees that appear to have been snapped off at their middle, continually obstructed my walks through it and thus I was constantly navigating new passageways through the bush. From this I got the idea of heading out with different coloured gouache and every time a fallen tree blocked my path I would paint the tree in a really bright, almost toxic colour. 

The colours came about because I had noticed that most of the trees in the area had brightly coloured fungus growing on the south-side of their trunks - this being the side that didn’t get sunlight. This also tapped into the idea of brightly coloured things usually being dangerous. I’d been out here for only about a week at this stage and was finding it difficult to actual location where I was. 

I mean I knew that I was along the river, outside of Eltham but I was unsure of how far the next house actually was, where anyone was living there, whose land was on when walking etc. So when I got back to house I did a Google maps search view of where I was and realized through this Google map search that the fence that I had jumped wasn’t into private property but was into Parks Victoria Land. 

This residency is run in collaboration with Parks Vic and I had signed a contract agreeing not to interfere or damage the environment in anyway. Realizing that I had breached my contract and that I had damaged the environment I became completely paranoid that I had breached my contract and that I was going to be the first artist evicted from the residency in it’s entire history for painting trees. 

So I filled my rucksack with booze bottles (the only bottles I had around - thankfully plonk is now screw top) full of water, and the only scrubbing type of brush I could find in the house was the toilet brush. So I set off with this, back to the tree I had painted and proceeded to video myself scrubbing it clean - removing my crime. I videoed this process, as I am one of these artists that in the past had lost a lot of work by not documenting it. I know obsessively document everything I do. Now, I hadn’t spoke to a living soul either in person or via technology for about 5 or 6 days at this time, which in context of our current culture is a rarity.

It was also bizarre to be only ten minutes from Eltham by car but feel completely isolated and unsure of who was around the area, other than knowing that there were people around, somewhere, which added to a kind of fear I think which I kind of got carried away with.

Anyway, I was out there scrubbing off this gouache as quickly as I could. The tree I had painted was about 30 meters way from a fire track. Three quarters of the way through cleaning the tree I heard a car coming down the fire track, now being completely paranoid at this stage I’m like OMG it's the ranger, OMG they’re gunna see what I have done, catch me in the act, I’m gunne be thrown out - this is gunna be sooooo embarrassing while I am scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing away. 

I could see the car fortunately they couldn’t see me. They proceeded to do a 4 point turn and proceed back up the hill - I drop everything and hide behind a bush, while the camera continues to record the static frame and sound of the car and then when safe I return to the scene and continue cleaning up. That's how the work came about. I was retifying an act of vandalism

This lead me to think about corporations and the idea of green products and that more money, time and non-green processes go into the advertising of environmentally friendly products rather than spending resources on developing and sustaining environmentally sound practices/ products. It's installed in the gallery on a slick near infinity edge LCD TV (very environmental) and is mounted on the brick wall of the downstairs gallery of The Incinerator Art Centre. It plays for about 5 mins an 30 seconds and is looped.

It has a charm this work doesn't it, it's enchanting?

People really seem to enjoy it. I think what they enjoy about it the most is that it is kind of comical, yet sinister. I forgot that I am quite theatrical in my approach as well as my being that I can be quite camp which contradicts my physical image which people of see as a big burley, scarey kind of guy and really I am a pink pussy cat. So I think that the image of myself, the gestures, and the reaction to the car, the crisis that this temporally presents is something that people responded to. I am not sure what the judges liked about this work for it to be included in the show other the similarities to what I have just said. 

I also think that Bush Vandal (Green wash) was a good example of a different approach that artists use to engage in the political discourses surrounding the environment and environmentalism.

So many artists in the exhibition with different angles to upcycling?

It’s interesting seeing the work in this context or in an exhibition about environmental art, as I said I have never really engaged with environmentalism before and Bush Vandal (Green Wash) was an indirect response to this theme. 

It started off as a painting exercise really in order to begin a daily practice while in residence doing something everyday in order to begin the process of making art and that's what happened. This work also taps into, through the imagery and my persona, the action of pouring water over the tree which has this feel of pouring petrol over the tree and that perhaps I am about to start a fire which brings this other sinister reading of the Australian bush, landscape, environment and how vulnerable it is, how aggressive it is, how volatile it is. 

There are some provocative sequences that happen in the work that highlight different elements for people to contemplate one being the red-neck bogan in the bush; the booze thing; the aggressive volatile nature of the heteronormative masculine identity of the Australian male.

How does this work tie in with your recent photo/video based works?

Recent photographic and video based work sees me play with multiple, minority identities in an attempt to confront the audience with the ingrained cultural fear and bigotry that seems deeply etched into the Australian landscape, constitution and psyche. 

I am conceptually driven and utilise photography, video, objects and public space to articulate my visual responses. My practice is about the placement and location of the individual and of the collective within the construction of socio-cultural spaces. It explores the relationship between ourselves (identity) and the combination of social, cultural and environmental factors that influence and challenge our identities. I am interested in the boundaries enforced upon the individual by cultural, sub-cultural and self-identification codes. 

The outcomes of my conceptual investigations rely on the development and use of a visual language or system of signs taken from a variety of cultures. My work is poetic and political; and continues to embody notions of intimacy, mortality, sexuality, gender, race and ethnicity. Through my work I seek to challenge and provoke questions rather than answer them.

Where do you think your work is located in art hitorical terns?
Hmmm in an art historical context I am not really sure, you know, I guess that landscape depicted in the video is a very McCubbin-esq landscape so there is a reference/play upon that and the Heidelberg School - traditional landscape painting in Australia. The image in the video, the fixed position of the frame, references painting and photography - a time-based, moving painting. The painting action, the painting of the snapped, fallen tree illustrates, draws upon, conceptual and contemporary responses to landscape. 

And there are the performativity elements that I play, that I bring to the work. So I guess you could trace a history in that landscape, elements of the history of Australian Landscape painting in this work - historically and conceptually it fits with notions of contemporary art as comment rather than representation.

Useful Links:

General Bio
Ashlee Laing was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1974. Laing works in photo-media, video, installation, painting and performance. His practice is concerned with the location of the individual and of the collective with socio-cultural spaces. 

Artecycle Artist Statement 
Bush Vandal (Green Wash) is was developed while on a two-month residence at Birrarung House as part of the Nillumbik Shire Councils Laughing Waters Artist in Residence program.

Bush Vandal (Green Wash) is a 5 min. 32 sec. looped video of a fallen tree in the bush. The tree has been painted with green gouache. The video begins as I start to remove the paint using a toilet brush. It documents my behaviour in the process of rectifying my act of environmental vandalism. The sound in this video is of the actual environment and cleaning process.

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