Within most artists, there’s a total overwhelming need, hunger, obsessive, compulsive, mania addiction to it. Because you’re willing to let your whole life go to crap for it.
Map of the Heart co-founder Sarah Blair interviews long time friend and prominent Australian contemporary artist Mikala Dwyer during her solo exhibition 'A Shape of Thought' at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Australian artist Mikala Dwyer has shaped the way we see and interact with materials and familiar objects, creating an ongoing conversation between ourselves and the world around us. With a career spanning over 30 years, Dwyer has challenged and pushed the limits of installation and performance. She has had solo shows at major institutions such as the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Project Arts, Dublin, Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff and has participated in Biennales in Istanbul and Sydney.
Her solo exhibition ‘A Shape of Thought’, installed across several rooms of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, spans recent years of Dwyer’s works and presents us with a playful and colour filled experience. Here, she is interviewed by long time friend and Map of the Heart co-founder Sarah Blair, discussing her journey as a female artist, her practice, and how one exhibition can bring you back to life.
Something which I’m interested in discussing with you, since it’s topical at the moment, is women in art. Do you think that there is a real distinction, or a sense of being a woman in the arts?
There’s always been women in art, but recognition hasn’t always been so present. Perhaps there has been more attention on it since the Weinstein outing, MeToo, and other movements. I do feel, however, that women in Australia are slowly gaining recognition. In some ways, Australia has been better than Europe in this matter since the Australian Council adopted an affirmative action policy in the 80’s for women. I think women are better represented here than in a lot of European countries. It’s still not great, however – there are a lot of women running art galleries and museums experiencing disparity in their pay. And the prices of artworks also differing between women and their male counterparts.
I guess I don’t make my work solely about being a female artist. Although it is always inflected by that, as it all comes from my own experience. I do take the piss out of our male history a bit…. there’s that aspect sometimes.
Do you think your career has been affected by your gender?
It definitely halted at a time when I was really busy and I had a lot of shows going on. I was doing a big solo show – maybe my first solo in a commercial gallery – and I was pregnant with Olive. My due date was actually the opening date. I just remember a photo of my gallerist trying to tie up my laces for me (laughs).
But then, for the next two years after I had my daughter, everything went dead silent. It didn’t bother me at the time because I was busy with Olive, but it was almost like the word went out “Oh! She’s useless now since she’s had a baby.” It was a very weird time.
Did this response encourage you to work harder? Or was it rather a period of silence, and then opportunities began presenting themselves again.
I never stopped working. If anything, my work became more focused over time – especially from becoming a mother. Your time management is much sharper, and I think that’s a really great space to make work from. Opportunities did start to surface a little but it took a while.
Do you think there’s a particular experience in being an Australian artist? It’s interesting how Artspace is deliberately trying to create connections overseas through co-commissioning work from artists. You have quite a big presence internationally.
Actually, my international career isn’t very big, but I’ve made some inroads into scenes overseas. There are very few artists who have any traction outside of Australia – and when they do, it’s a rare and wonderful thing. It’s very difficult because you really have to be there for a sustained amount of time, wherever that is.
Indigenous artists are very present around the world but white Australian artists aren’t because we make contemporary art which, at first glance, looks the same as everywhere else. The beauty of being a long way away from all the so called ‘centres’ is that you have a lot of freedom here. No one is watching, so you can do what you want. That, and you’re not burdened by a European history – you can really fuck with it. I find that overseas, you can’t make work in such an unselfconscious way. I quite like working from a base here in Sydney where no one really gives a fuck about art. Particularly in Sydney, if people have some extra money, they’re likely going to buy a boat or a house. It’s harder to see people being interested in art here, so it creates a great freedom – no one is watching.
The artists here are very resilient. It often creeps out of cracks and finds its way – and when it does get out and about – it’s different. It’s home grown and has a toughness, surviving against all kinds of odds. Melbourne is a whole other kettle of fish, but I find Sydney artists quite wild – like weeds.
“My father and I were weirdly connected. We collaborated on a few pieces together, and he seemed to indirectly understand it much better than my mother did, which was weird since she was supposedly the creative one."
Years ago you told me how your gallerist in Sydney, Roslyn Oxley, chooses her artists. One of the things she looks for is people who don’t have a choice in making art. I can definitely say that in the long time I’ve known you, you’ve never stopped art-making.
I have to fess up – it is some kind of therapy. Within most artists, there’s a total overwhelming need, hunger, obsessive, compulsive, mania addiction to it. Because you’re willing to let your whole life go to crap for it. Sometimes you can be so oblivious to the sort of wasteland that’s circling around you, like having not done the washing for weeks, or the kids are running feral, and you haven’t paid the bills. If you’re in the zone, you aren’t even thinking about where everything is going to go. You just work. It’s a very deep engagement with the process.
Thinking about our upbringing, we really came through the start of feminism, like our mothers – there was a hotbed of 50’s feminist mothers!
And into the 60s and 70s they were starting to become a little bit liberated. They were still very under the thumb though – as feisty as my mother was, she could still be pushed around by my father.
Same with my mother. My father always said things like – “Well whenever I wanted to make these great changes in my life, your mother always agreed with them and she was always beside me.” He says this as a matter of pride, like he had these big ideas and she supported him regardless. But I think that they always had ways of tricking the men into thinking they were in control whilst quietly going about doing their own thing.
It was a very good strategy and way to have control and power. I think women have done that forever.
Your exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW is phenomenal. It really feels like it spans your practice over a long period of time.
It really only spans about 7 or 8 years, which horrifies me to think that there’s more. It does take up a lot of space, and I think that’s because I work quickly and roughly, and I don’t really care so much about the product – it’s more about other things.
There seems to be a lot of refinement in the work.
There’s a lot of detail, which I think people mistake for refinement. My mother was a great craftswoman who could sit polishing and grinding metal to perfect these organic and geometric forms. She would work with such unforgiving substances; silver, gold, titanium. She paved the way in a sense for my work to be free of that. I don’t have to sit hammering at something to make it yield. I guess from my father’s influence, I can sit for a few hours and make a huge form with similar processes, welding and wrestling a substance, but it’s much quicker and the scale is larger.
I thought that was really interesting in that work of yours where you dedicated it to your parents. You had the beautiful silver piece, very precise and polished which is about your mother’s jewellery and the large clear shapes representing of the world of your father.
I continually marvel at her formalism.
It’s interesting because I always thought of your father as a more structured person.
I think he was actually the real free-spirited artist. He was much more the poet and the artist.
And that definitely comes across in the work since he is represented by the ethereal shape, and your mother’s is beautiful, but rigid and meticulous – it’s literally polished.
My father and I were weirdly connected. We collaborated on a few pieces together, and he seemed to indirectly understand it much better than my mother did, which was weird since she was supposedly the creative one.
Going back to your show. When you construct a show, which is large and institutional, do you have a sense of completeness? Can you step outside yourself and look at it as an observer?
This particular experience at the gallery has been incredibly joyful. I worked with a fabulous curator, Wayne Tunnicliffe. He has this kind of very diplomatic, perceptive and incisive curatorial approach. He gently directed me into showing a combination of new and older works, and away from doing too much new work. I’d wanted to do all new work but we had to change tack a bit, as I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the lead up to the show.
I’ve done other survey shows which have become very depressing. You get so sick of yourself and you sort of come out wanting to slash your wrists. With this show, it was a very different experience. I also think that since coming out of a time where I, literally, thought I was going to be dead, to coming back to life and the process of putting the works up and having such incredible support from the gallery and the people, your dreams come back into some kind of form. And with such careful curating of the crazy excesses of my projects I can see the work with some critical distance. I’ve felt like having it here for 6 months and being able to come and visit, it’s been such affirmation of life.
“This particular experience at the gallery has been incredibly joyful. I worked with a fabulous curator, Wayne Tunnicliffe. He has this kind of incredibly diplomatic, perceptive and incisive curatorial approach."
I think that as a visitor, you have that sense of joyfulness.
It’s not like any other show I’ve done before.
The day that we went, people were very engaged with the work. Young children were running through and around the exhibition.
Funnily my demographic seems to be children and old people.
Also the flow between the several rooms was wonderful.
They are beautifully proportioned rooms, and it was pure pleasure working in that environment. They also gave me a long period of time to install the work, because museums have quite a tight turnover. I had three or four weeks, but normally you have one week. It’s unheard of in most institutions because they can’t afford to do things like that. It felt like having four studios on the boil at once.
Also, the guys who work at the gallery are often artists themselves, and they’re sensitive, not cynical. They’re really open to doing the best we can with it, and it’s really rewarding for an artist since you’re on a journey making with your work, and then there’s other people who are also invested in it. It was an incredible privilege and brought me back to life.
(Laughing) I think that it’s a very life affirming show.
The work is really personal, and sometimes people don’t understand it but it’s really basic, it’s drawn from life and ordinary things.
I think all the juxtapositions of the ideas, and the way you execute and put things together make it sing.
The gallery is where an audience has to take their time, slow down for a bit, to think and reflect. Its one of the few spaces we have where we can do that, simply slow down, meander and experience things at a different pace.
Art galleries are often air-conditioned too, so what better way to spend a few hours in comfort. There’s something nice about walking into spaces which have very high ceilings – like churches or museums or empty houses. It’s such a joy.
You’ve always taught as well as maintain your practice. Do you think that teaching in some ways has informed your art-making?
Totally. Teaching is inseparable from my practice. I have had so many amazing students. And I’ve learnt more from them than they have from me I think. The beauty of an art course is that you’re doing deep, intense, profound learning in a studio. It’s embodied learning, and there’s no other form of education like it. You can get through an enormous amount in a short period of time. It’s not like swatting over books. It’s a bodily knowledge. I feel that an art school education is beyond any other education and in someways all schools should be art schools, or at least high school.
And what’s next for you?
I’ve got some shows coming up in Sydney and one in Tuscon, Arizona, and I’m starting a new job at RMIT Melbourne which I’m really excited about – a associate professorship.. a grown up’s job.
It’s a really exciting art school, since they began as a working man’s technical college, they still have foundries and so many interesting things there. They have brilliant departments and a great history of alumni. I’m really looking forward to the change.
My final question… I’ve noticed that you’re very astute in the way that you talk about scent and olfaction.
Do you remember your first smell?
I have a really good sense of smell, so I remember a lot. I really love apprehending the world through scent because it’s a trigger to memory. It’s involuntary memories, and definitely perfumes are part of that trigger. They can take you way back to a mother, a country, a trauma, a joy. It’s a very emotional matter, and what’s beautiful about it is that it’s so invisible.
I also love the way that it inhabits space. I just remember when Issey Miyake released that perfume, which became the art world fragrance. It was like the equivalent of the black uniform. You would go to an opening and walk through these clouds of scent. It was such a weird experience, and it really maintained itself for a long time. There are only a few hardcore supporters left – like Roslyn (Oxley) – she still wears it. The faithfuls.
That was the fragrance that actually brought me back to the world of perfumery because it was so elegant.
It was a paradigm shifter because it broke through all those department store mixes. There’s something about walking though a perfume counter where they all mix and it’s so bazaar. But when that scent came out it was so distinct.
And the bottle was very minimalist. It found an audience, which was people who probably never even wore perfume.
It was a historical moment in fragrance…
Photography by John Buckley
Interview by Sarah Blair