Published  01/10/2014

Anne Graham interview: ‘The ability to see things as if for the first time is for me the essential quality necessary to make art’

Anne Graham interview: ‘The ability to see things as if for the first time is for me the essential quality necessary to make art’


Anne Graham
William Wright Artist Projects, Sydney
28 August – 13 September 2014

Anne Graham: Shifting Sands and Falling Trees
Articulate Project Space, Sydney
20 September – 5 October 2014

Anne Graham has two exhibitions of sculpture in Sydney, which indicate the many layers of influence from her travels in Asia and residencies in China and Japan. I spoke to her earlier this month.

Janet McKenzie: You trained at the Manchester School of Art and the Royal College, before a travelling scholarship took you to India, and then on to Australia. Your work now strikes me as being steeped in Asian influences. Can you explain the evolution of your work from art school to the present?

Anne Graham: That is quite a long period of time. At Manchester, I studied painting and then at the RCA I moved to textiles because I had discovered that I enjoyed the sculptural possibilities of canvas more than applying paint to it. I became very interested in the use of fabric to make temporary living spaces. I was extremely fortunate to gain a Sanderson scholarship from the RCA that took me to India, where I stayed for a year travelling around. One profound influence from this time was acquiring the skill to pack all my basic necessities into one small bag. I enjoyed the process of selection. What do you really need? What do you really value? I carried my house on my back. Also, I suppose from this time I became interested in nomadic living. I have continued to make “tents” and to set up living spaces in odd locations around cities over the years. These spaces become places where unpredictable things occur; the stage is set for all kinds of situations.  During an early exhibition in Melbourne called The Bridge, I made a living space under a bridge and lived there for a while. There I met the Thai curator Apinan Poshyananda, who introduced my work to Fram Kitagawa from Japan, and I guess that is how my Asian travels began.

JMcK: Being based in and near Sydney means you are situated very conveniently to be part of the dialogue between Australia and Asia and the Pacific Rim, which has increased tremendously in the past 30 years. How would you describe the art world there now?

AG: My first trip to Japan was in 1994, 20 years ago, to a residency at Hinode-machi, just outside Tokyo. This was the beginning of a long relationship with Japan. I took part in three Echigo-Tsumari triennials and, through these events, met many artists from all over the region. Kitagawa, the director of the triennial, has been instrumental in encouraging artists, writers and architects to communicate with other cultures and traditions.  In Sydney, the White Rabbit Gallery provides a window into contemporary Chinese art, the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art has regular exchanges with artists from the Asia Pacific, and the Sherman Foundation also presents exhibitions and forums focusing on the region. The Australia Council for the Arts Residency programme and residencies such as Red Gate in Beijing provide opportunities for artists to experience, and be inspired by, other cultures. In Brisbane, the Asia Pacific triennial is the flagship of the Queensland Art Gallery.

JMcK: The Biennale of Sydney has played a vital role in enabling Australian artists to have a regular dose of international ideas. You exhibited back in 1986 in the excellent Origins, Originality + Beyond, a theme that remains so important today. Can you recall that experience and how the other artists taking part affected your art practice?

AG: I arrived in Perth, Australia in 1975. I did not intend to stay, but to continue on to South America. Instead, I began to work with a local community of expat artists at the Media Space Studio. We were interested in examining this new country; we needed to know more about the place in order to fully respond to it. I became interested in the history of women in Australia, and I think I probably made the first feminist performance works in Western Australia. Curator Nick Waterlow chose a work from this series to present in his Biennale of Sydney; I still have the catalogue and when I pulled it out and looked at my photograph I laughed. I then looked at the photo of Laurie Anderson, and her influence on my early work is evident. Joseph Beuys had a strong influence on Anderson’s work, and he was also inspirational to my practice and continues to be so today. His choice of materials opened up a world of possibilities. Wolfgang Laib was another artist influenced by Beuys: his work explores the connection between nature and culture; his simple, elegant pollen works transform atmosphere and space. His work is meditative and contemplative, with a spirituality more often found in Asian and oriental cultures and in the Shinto temples of Japan, which I visited much later. 

JMcK: Your studio looks like a fabulous Asian market place or a museum. Can you describe the contents of it at present?

AG: My studio is rather empty at the moment as I have just taken one show down and packed it away and then immediately installed another exhibition at Articulate Project Space. I collect beautiful functional objects, I have a large collection of combs from around the world; many from Japan that are exquisitely crafted. I also collect implements, hand-held tools, spoons, cups, bowls, fans, buttons and so on. I use these objects as resource material – they are almost like preliminary drawings. I move them around and they form a narrative of objects. I assemble them in glass vitrines and sometimes, maybe after years, they might become part of a work. I also collect stones, lint, feathers, ash, dog and horsehair, all sorts of byproducts that I like to transform. I moved to the Blue Mountains four years ago and slowly my work is accommodating itself to the materials and ambience of the space there.

JMcK: You choose quotidian objects to imply ideas and to evoke memories. Does Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past influence the process? Can you tell Studio International about the work you did on memory, with people with Alzheimer’s?

AG: Yes, I suppose Proust has influenced me a little, but this process of collecting small things began when I travelled to Asia in the mid-1970s before I had read Proust. I still have a few objects from this journey – a shell, a wooden stamp, a spoon made from melted aluminium cans. In my project The Mnemonic Function of Objects and Materials as Constructors of Identity, which was located at the Wescott Retirement Village, Stockton, Newcastle, in 2002, I intended to further develop an understanding of the importance of the environment in terms of identity construction and memory. The study focused on the mnemonic quality of objects and materials in relation to elderly female subjects who are displaced from their original homes and in the position of recreating a personal space in a retirement village or nursing home. The study explored the metaphorical and material significance of the everyday, and developed the use of the everyday in a series of extended portraits. The intention was to focus on the creative solutions and existing “disruptions” to the domestic space accomplished by the subjects and acknowledge the value of such solutions. Significantly, the project gave prominence to the minutiae of the everyday: it acknowledged the fine detail, the small moments, the beauty of domestic solutions as indicators of identity.

The places in which we live are not just accumulations of the apparatus of convenience, they are spaces loaded with memory and significance; they contain our present and our history. Ordinary things are imbued with meaning.  Memories emerge unbidden, stimulated by sensory perception embedded within the substance of material culture. These memories interact and interface, and it is this complexity of interactions and shifting meanings that we constantly tear down and negotiate. A critical aesthetic intervention into these processes can provoke highly charged recognitions for the viewer. I adopted the methodology of the British Mass Observation Archive to a certain extent, but my project differed radically in that my intention was to generate a “critical aesthetic intervention” that could make possible the existential moment that brings key experience into focus.

Memory and Things [an exhibition at the John Hunter Arts for Health Gallery, Newcastle, in 2003]. Was this based on The Mnemonic Function of Objects and Materials as Constructors of Identity?] further developed my interest in “conversational” narrative as a means of generating an image/installation that could extend the possibility of portraiture and further develop an understanding of the importance of the environment in terms of identity construction and memory. Narrative articulation as an artistic strategy was used in Memory and Things, the intention being to provide a study that might be used, in conjunction with medical researchers, to improve the environment and treatment of patients suffering memory loss. Data collected at the village formed the basis of an exhibition. The artwork comprised photographs, objects and text, constructed and organised such that the components and their installation became a “portrait” of the “sitter” and her life. This notion of portraiture is, of course, a significant departure from a conventional notion of the painted likeness. The approach at Westcott extended the concept of portraiture and provided the opportunity to develop a richness of disparate detail and narrative potential through the relationship between objects, image and audience.

The capacity of objects to create a sense of the past within the present is clearly emotionally significant to us; this could be seen in both the Mass Observation and Memory and Things. In both these projects it also became apparent that the remembered past was not necessarily an accurate record of a moment, but a “contaminated memory”; often stories about the same object would change. Take Mrs Ella Perrett and her comb [one of the exhibits in Memory and Things] – at one moment the comb was given to her at the age of 17, by her fiance; at the next moment, she remembered her sister giving it to her at a much later date. Accuracy was not important here; much more important was the “peculiar quality of objects to make it possible for us to create an active relationship with the distant or relatively distant past … and, in so doing, to achieve a sense of continuity and psychic well being”[what/who is this quote from?]. Our ability to manipulate objects in both a literal and a metaphysical sense and our ability to select and dismiss particular objects, to make choices, offer us the chance to complete ourselves. We are able to create significance and meaning out of nothing but the power of imagination and need; through this activity, we sustain a sense of dignity and purpose.

JMcK: You prefer to use materials such as horsehair, cedar wood and felting, and found objects such as teapots, Chinese tea cups, rather than traditional sculptor’s materials: marble or bronze. Can you explain how you chose this path?

AG: I think perhaps I have answered this question in earlier statements, but most of the objects relate in a very literal way to the body, they are often objects for grooming or eating. Other materials are recycled: the cedar that I am using at the moment was salvaged from an old cooling tower. It is beautiful and, even when sanded and inked, still bears the imprint of its previous life. Dog hair is another waste material, but when combined with merino it makes felt, the oldest fabric known to man. My mother was a tailor and, as a child, I was surrounded by construction, I watched flat pieces of fabric transformed into 3D garments. I love the versatility of soft materials.

JMcK: Marcel Duchamp must have been a key influence on your work?

AG: Yes, of course, especially the Readymades.  After visiting an exhibition of aviation technology, Duchamp said to Constantin Brâncuși: “Who will ever do anything better than that propeller. Tell me, can you do that?” I look at my Japanese combs and tend to agree.

JMcK: You have one exhibition on at the William Wright Artist Projects in Sydney, and a second opening on 19 September at Articulate: Singing Sands and Falling Trees. Can you describe the work in each exhibition?

AG: The exhibition at William Wright Artist Projects was in two parts. Downstairs, I used cedar salvaged from an industrial cooling tower to make a series of fan-like shapes, obviously influenced by the beautiful fans that I had seen in Japan and China, but also by the wings of the magpies and currawongs that live in the trees around our house. I made shelves out of copper, aluminium and Perspex, on which I placed various objects that related formally to the fan shapes. Beneath a black fan on a copper shelf, I placed a gnarled grevillea root from my garden, and two small clay bonsai monks stand beneath the grevillea. Like many of the works in this section of the exhibition, this work, like Laib’s, is intended to reference “the great and manifold traditions of meditation, which bear a contemplative view of the world and a spiritual unity with nature found in Asian and Oriental Cultures”.[whose quote?]

In the second section of the exhibition at William Wright, in the upstairs gallery, I showed a series of felted coats made from dog hair and merino wool. Accompanying the coats are photographers of the dog owners wearing the coats. [OK?] I first came across felted garments in a museum in Beijing and enjoyed the sculptural quality of the material. Also, of course, Beuys considered materials such as felt and fat to be sources of energy. In Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me (1974), Beuys wrapped himself in a felt blanket as he shared his caged space with the coyote. My coats have a rather ceremonial quality and, when worn by the owner of the dog, they indicate the close connection and bond between human and dog.

In the Niigata Water and Land Art Festival, 2009 I presented the work Singing Sands in a traditional Japanese house called Shinohara’s House.  This house had been moved to the village of Gokahama when the village in which it was situated, Kakuminhama, sank beneath the encroaching ocean. Kakuminaha was famous for singing sand. My bronze and glass columns sang when a mixture of glass beads and sand were poured through them. This work remained in Japan, but I realised that a version of this musical piece would transfer to another context. I now live on the Cox’s river and the riverbank provides an ever-changing environment, small beaches form and reform, the roots of the trees are rounded and curved by the flow of the river, occasionally a tree falls and this creates new sandbanks. Here, nothing is permanent and the sound of the water provides an ongoing flowing rhythm of continuous movement. My intention was to create an installation that reverberates with this sense of an organic process of change, decay and regrowth. I have worked with materials from the river, as well as materials similar to those used in Japan. The musical, interactive columns hang down the centre of the space and are designed to operate in sympathy with the shape of the gallery.

JMcK: You have had numerous artist residencies that have enabled you to develop your work in different directions: in China, Japan, Hong Kong, Sweden and later this year in Paris. Can you describe how the cultural influence of these respective places has been absorbed into your practice?

AG: I have described early influences and the impact of travel on my practice, but it is not just travel, it is also time. Many of my projects do require allocating quite extensive periods of time to try to more fully understand a place, person, animal or thing. MemoryandThings was a four-year project, and Singing Sandscame about after many trips to Japan. Also, a residency in a place where you only know a few words of the language and you do not know any people and have few funds will force you back on to your own resources. I find these situations incredibly engaging and stimulating. Recently, I have been reading Karl Ove Knausgaard and he talks about visiting Sweden from his home country of Norway and how even small cultural differences heightened his awareness of his surroundings. The ability to see things as if for the first time, to explore the unknown with no fixed assumptions is for me the essential quality necessary to make art.

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