Performance and Installation Artist Hannah Furmage talks to Paul Andrew about the challenges of presenting truth and "authenticity" in an era post 9/11.
Is there an early childhood experience or memory when you knew you wanted to become an artist?
There was not one childhood experience in particular. There are a couple that stand out as setting foundation for reoccurring motifs.
I don’t remember the incident because I was too young but my Mum said that after I found my pet rabbit mauled by the neighbours pet Alsation that I drew a nightmarish series of drawings depicting the attack and bloody aftermath.
Perhaps this was a way of coming to terms with my personal horror. This is at the core of my artmaking, to investigate things that are disturbing and unsettling in an attempt to understand the brutality, senseless violence and insanity of the world. Not to turn a blind eye. If we don’t come face to face with these things they will end up haunting us.
Many years later in High School as a teenager I painted a woman giving birth for my art major work. I was not allowed to show my painting in the annual art exhibition with the other students. I had to show it in this separate room with a disclaimer urging children and sensitive viewers to "stay out".
My intention hasn’t really changed. I believe now as I did then that one of the most important roles of the artist is to agitate the status quo. To confront, discomfort and challenge. It is an intuitive knee jerk reaction.
Tell me about your tertiary studies Hannah and how performance/installation has become your creative focus?
Performance/installation was always my intended creative focus. However there was no major in Performance Art so I studied sculpture at UNSW COFA because it was the faculty which was the most interdisciplinary and would allow me to experiment with performance.
My process has never been technical or skill based. I never learnt any of the tools in the ceramic or wood rooms. I was more interested in the process, researching ideas and brainstorming with collaborators rather than creating finished art pieces with a commercial value.
After art school I became involved with Pact Theatre in Newtown and did a few ‘theatrical’ performance pieces at Performance Space. This kind of ‘theatre’ seemed disembodied to me, too fake. As opposed to ‘acting’ I am more interested in actually being. As opposed to recreating a scene why not just present the actual scene. I am interested in presenting what is real. Not conjuring up these magic shows that require a suspension of disbelief.
Tell me about your most recent artistic influences?
For me, a lot of contemporary art seems so impenetrable and snobbish.
However having said that I like the work of German multimedia artist Christian Jankowski who works with video installation and performance. I like Santiago Sierra too, a Spanish artist who is critical about Capitalism and the institutions that support it. I enjoy the work of contemporary Mexican artists such as Yoshua Okon, and Joaquin Segura. Who are like these super sophisticated and intelligent art hooligans.
When I was living in Mexico I was very influenced by the anarcho-punk energy of the contemporary art scene on a very street level. Artists making a wide range of socially and politically provocative works with no budget and a stolen video camera.
What entices you about these artists, artists who share a dislike for Capitalism. What do you find compelling in their work, urgent, intriguing, perplexing?
I think there is a real need to free art from the artworld pedagogy. To reclaim it back from the academics.
What I like about these artists works is that they are democratic and accessible to people from all walks of life not just the art elite.
I am interested in artists that are taking genuine risks. Not this benign ‘creative risk taking’ that most artists will only ever rhapsodize about from the safety of their studios. I am excited by the idea of artmaking as a Guerilla act, a criminal act, a terrorist act.
Yes, there is a long tradition of artists who use artmaking as a transgressive act. Like Fluxus and their anti art and anti capitalism tendencies or radical feminist Valerie Solanos who wrote the SCUM Manifesto and famously tried to kill Pop Artist Andy Warhol. What do you feel are the biggest challenges you face now as an artist?
The biggest challenges for me artistically is to get a little bit of money and exhibition opportunities to allow me to continue making my art. In Australia it is increasingly challenging for me to make the kind of brash and defiant artworks I want to because of ongoing artistic censorship.
There is this new kind of artistic censorship in Australia that has been created in response to recent occupational health and safety legislation and as a result of this a change to the corporate and government funding of the arts and artists.
When I speak about art as a guerrilla act it is because I feel that today everybody in the arts is playing it safe for fear of losing their financial support or possibly their jobs. It has created this sycophantic pandering of artists to government bodies and the widespread production of the most mediocre and insipid art.
Government arts funding bodies are setting the bar of what is acceptable. Arts projects must include these regulated buzz words and tick boxes such as ‘community engagement’. When was this ever a prerequisite for making art? When did this become the benchmark for good art? Who decided this? Did German Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys or Mexican painter Frida Kahlo have to consider this in the production of their work? I think not.
I think the government and the arts are getting too close. We have seen the extremes of this in communist countries such as Cuba and China with government sanctioned art. What is scary is that artists don’t seem to be questioning this and except it as the norm.
The most recent feedback I got from The Australian Arts Council by way of example. “The panel found your proposal interesting and provocative but they had concerns with the ethical and legal implications of the project".
Once artists begin censoring their ideas at their conception based on morals and ethics that are imposed like this, they are in your head and they have won. My artistic challenge is this; how do I continue to develop dissident artworks in the face of this increasing neo conservatism in the Australian arts? What acts of resistance are still available to me artistically in this climate?
How are you negotiating these challenges, how is this resistance manifested?
While there is this romantic integrity in being a rebel artist in actuality it is quite lonesome and frustrating. It is tiring and demoralising listening to these wimpy art directors and curators saying ‘Sorry but your proposed project is a liability risk we could jeopardise our funding’.
It is a dilemma. If you adapt your ideas to the fears of arts curators the work gets watered down. If you don’t you get labelled as too difficult to work with and blacklisted. I am trying to create this nomadic and autonomous art practice. I am forced to work overseas because I can not present the work I want to present inside Australia.
Yes. Tell me about your recent death/ resistance installation work in Mexico?
It’s a wild story. I was living in Los Angeles. I was arrested on the border of Mexico and California and got sentenced to a jail in Texas. Consequently I was deported and banned from The USA. My boyfriend at the time, Danny a chicano from LA.We decided to move to Acapulco, Mexico. As a result of our combined legal problems Mexico was the only country where we could be together.
We settled permanently in the southern city, Oaxaca. I approached a contemporary art gallery La Curtiduria to have an exhibition there. Everything about life in Mexico is tinged with this brutal beauty and extremes. None more so than loosing Danny in Oaxaca to drugs and suicide.
The installation was called, ‘Death Drive’ (Pulsion de Muerte). I exhibited a car from the police impound that had been involved in a fatal traffic collision. The blood of the victims, a mother and her small child, was still splattered across the windscreen and seats, their personal effects strewn through the car, a baby’s toy, a make-up case, a shoe. The authenticity of the wreck and the knowledge of the deaths that occurred in the car was a source of both fascination and disgust.
The audience unexpectedly responded to the work by laying tributes of flowers and candles on and around the car. It became a shrine.
Describe the cultural and political backdrop for that work?
The work came about as I was struck by the very Mexican characteristic to ponder images of horror. It is part of the day to day life there. The mutilated statues of saints in the churches. Day of Dead celebrations.
In fact, there is a section of the daily newspaper called ‘La Roja’ which presents graphic images of death, murder victims, car accidents and intersperses them with porn. A severed head in a pot on one page and then an image of a woman sucking a cock on the next. It serves to highlights the titiliation and physical arousal of this macarbe voyeurism.
In ‘Death Drive’ I was interested in breaking down the ‘spectacle’ of the media and creating a space for a more direct and human contemplation of the scenario.
Clearly there is a radical political tendency within your work?
I am a clumsy anarchist. I believe that the human spirit should conceptually move unhindered throughout the universe.
In my work I am interested in staging random acts of poetic sabotage and provocation. Creating these temporary disruptions and interruptions that highlight how social control and power operates and how it reacts to creative resistance.
I am sick of this socially conscience art that focuses on inclusion and ‘cross cultural dialogue’ for political change. I am more interested in instilling an ethics without morals into the order of things. If you are serious about change go out on the street and overturn a police car and start a riot. Don’t create these objects that can be brought and sold.
And your recent installation work at Alaska Projects featuring a group of bikies?
The work ‘God Forgives. Outlaws Don’t’ was created for a feminist group show Janis at Alaska Gallery. I wanted to present this authentic representation of a crass male stereotype that was completely abhorrent and offensive to traditional feminist’s sensibilities.
I presented a group of bikies sitting in the gallery space on their bikes and revving their bikes and filling the space with noxious gases from their exhausts. I wanted the work to be a physical assault. For the fumes of the bikes to suffocate the audience and the sound of the roaring Harley engines to deafen them.
As with a lot of my work it is a visceral reaction. About letting these demons loose in a gallery setting. The feminists, academics and critics can attempt to explain them and tame them. I don’t see that as my job as an artist.
And to my way of thinking the equally humourous recent installation at the MCA in Sydney?
The work was called ‘How To Blow Up The MCA’ and was created for The MCA Art Bar.
I wanted to present the ingredients of a terrorist bomb. Bags of ammonium nitrate and cans of diesel fuel, packed into an unmarked white van parked in the gallery space at The MCA.
Was this work censored in some way?
Yes. The work was questioned and censored every step of the way and with every possible excuse.
They finally agreed to show the work if there was no car, the ammonium nitrate bags were emptied and filled with sand and the diesel containers filled with water and red food dye.
They paid an employee from the MCA to watch me fill the bags and fuel containers so as not to switch them with the real substances at the last minute. It was absurd. Maybe because I have this reputation for authenticity.
Obviously part of the nature of my work involves an ongoing recontextualisation in regard to the governing regulations. The question is where do I draw the line? How much am I prepared to compromise?
If we continue to comply over and over again we will eventually lose our voice and spirit.
Arguably photo documentation is an important aspect to an artist working with temporal means, whether it’s for the sake of prosperity or the sake of having proof that something happened, or is it Hannah?
Documentation is the last thing that I think about when I am devising a work, It is not a major concern of mine. My work is action based and ephemeral by its nature. Any attempt to document it is pointless. Like catching spiders, putting them in a jar and then watching them die. At best documentation serves only as a record of the event.
What authentic artful resistance are you planning next Hannah?
I am currently revisiting a project I devised during a four month artist residency at Sydney Olympic Park, which is located directly next to the Silverwater Prison.
During the residency I began talking with male prisoners in their cells at night through the prison fence. The conversations enraged the prison authorities while agitating and enlivening the inmates.
Also participating in the residency was the Russian painter and video artist Vika Begalska. Vika began video recording the conversations and resulting confrontations with prison security guards. I am currently looking at ways to develop and exhibit the project.
Hannah does Janis - check it out
MCA Art Bar "Wierd Science"
Hannah in Real Time
PHOTOS: Hannah Furmage