Sunday, March 27, 2011

Meet Your Maker - Michael Needham

Michael Needham is a Melbourne-based artist and academic. He lectures in Fine Arts at the Monash and Australian Catholic Universities. His practice primarily incorporates sculptural installation, drawing and increasingly, “architectural intervention”.

Right, 'Untitled diptych (for Moments of Being)', 2004.

‘Curious Duality’ is an exhibition of drawing, sculpture and “architectural intervention”, in which artist Michael Needham probes a relationship between representation and death, through a visual and spatial exploration of body-space and trace.

It will be on display in the Stockroom gallery from April 16 - May 15, 2011.

In the show, Needham will stage a conversation with his 'audience', around the site of the body and its potential to reveal a sense of both ‘wonderment’ and ‘lack’.

It's a new and recent body of work by the artist, where, in his words, "multiple forms of representation are proposed by which the parameters of ‘the self’ might be explored."


Michael Needham enjoyed answering some questions about 'Curious Duality' for Stockroom...

Stockroom: What inspired ‘Curious Duality’?

Michael Needham: 'Curious Duality' has come about after an exhibition I had late last year titled 'Contours of the Self' at Light Projects in Northcote, Melbourne.

This show was my first solo since finishing my PhD and while I was still keen to extend on some persistent themes I’d been looking into for several years, for me it signaled a slight shift in subject matter and an important development in my practice.

For the current show at Stockroom I am pursuing a similar line of enquiry, but the space is bigger so I can basically fit more works in the gallery.

As far as what concept has actually inspired this show, it is many things. Though perhaps it is most consistently about the limitations of representation through objects which invoke bodily absence. It is also inspired by a peripheral inquiry into the subject of melancholia, that is, as a kind of a melancholic predicament that progresses in relation to the main theme/s.

SR: Can you give us a bit more detail about the 'conversation' you are having with your 'audience' in this show?

MN: What I have tried to do in this body of work is to stage a conversation between the separate works in the show. This is something that always happens anyway with a group of artworks sharing the same space, but I’ve considered it more intentionally because the form and medium of the artworks vary quite a lot. In fact a relationship between several works is partially suspended, at least from immediate recognition.

I anticipate that for the audience this will strategically point towards an underlying dialogue between the works and encourage people to linger with them for longer.

Of course this would only work practically if the artworks are appealing both aesthetically and conceptually - which I believe I have considered on multiple levels.

For instance there are subtle motifs and design features together with a prominent monochromatic palette, that hold drawings, sculptural objects and an underplayed architectural intervention together.

At the same time each of these works are presented as careful responses to complex ideas in themselves, in this case pertaining to ‘the self’ and its limits of representation as understood in a particular stream of philosophy and psychoanalysis.

SR: And what does the title of the show mean exactly?

MN: Titles are often really tricky to get right and sometimes there are a few options that can work equally well or be equally as restrictive in terms of condensing a large body of thought into several words.

Right, 'Hauntings of the Imaginary' by Michael Needham.

For 'Curious Duality' I’d have to say that it mainly refers to all of the works individually and collectively ‘mirroring’ the viewer. However this is meant to be more psychological than literal, even though there are some distinctly physical echoes of the dimensions of the body together with a kind of figural transference between human and animal.

SR: Why have you chosen the body as your primary site of exploration?

MN: It’s actually less about the body being a site of exploration than the site of the body being a crucial subject of exploration. This may sound like a trivial difference but it is enough to separate work that utilizes figurative representation or work that is about adornment of the figure, from work that essentially plays with either disfiguration or absence of the human figure.

For example a gravesite is an archetypal site of the body. It carries everything that is associated with the body, from its practical dimensions to its memorial function to its presage of mortality to even pictorial representation (of the deceased). But each of these features still point to an absent figure. They all define a space loaded with memory and therefore a space charged with the imaginative image. It is a space that facilitates – as much as is possible – an imaginative, commemorative, reassembling of the body that has become immaterial.

For me, that’s why this subject of the ‘site of the body’ is so closely related to death and the process of mourning. And that’s also why the very humanistic ideal of seeking a means of transcendence (or representation claimed as a marker – or means - of transcendence) from these basic limitations is never far away as an interconnected subject.

SR: And how many months have you been working on this show?

MN: Truthfully, every show I make is in some form or another a result of many years of an ongoing exploration. Although if I include the 'Contours' exhibition for which this show is a more direct extension, I guess it’s been about 18 months.

SR: Is it a difficult balancing act, teaching and continuing to practice as an artist?

MN: Not really, no more than being an artist with living expenses like everyone else. I find that teaching actually keeps me engaged with the experience of investigating, making and generally articulating ideas through creative means.

Above, 'Contours of the Self'' by Michael Needham.

Sometimes it would be nice not to work away from my own studio work but I can’t complain because as a sessional lecturer I have a lot of time off during semester breaks. And the pay rate is usually just enough to scrape through.

SR: What do you enjoy about teaching?

MN: I’d have to say the most enjoyable part about teaching is when there is genuine interest maintained by the student’s own dedication and teach-ability. Whether they struggle or not with their technique or expression, if they are focused and driven by an innate desire to learn and create, there is usually the most progress made and the rewards are clear for the student and teacher/s.

SR: And from being an artist - could you imagine your life without making art? What would you be doing instead?

MN: I can vaguely imagine not making art in the ‘fine art’ sense, although I’m not sure how happy I’d be. If I weren’t an artist I’d definitely be doing something practical or something with the freedom to explore, imagine and problem solve. Possibly this would be archeology.

SR: Is it difficult making a career from being an artist in Australia?

MN: Well, yes, if you mean making a living from it. Commercially I believe it is quite possible to make a living if one is prepared to strategically adapt their creative urges for the art market. But to make a satisfying career and to sustain this throughout one’s life, I think this is a necessarily idealistic pursuit.

SR: Where do you see yourself in five years time?

MN: I hope to be in a similar position only with more experience. If my artistic career has afforded me further creative opportunities in Australia and overseas, while sustaining a relatively simple family life, I certainly won’t be complaining.

SR: What kind of experience do you hope those who see 'Curious Duality' will take home with them from Stockroom?

MN: I’d like them to be 'curious' (as the title suggests!), to remember something from the show, for something to linger in their mind, whether that be a simple image or a more complex idea.

Right, 'Splash' by Michael Needham.

I hope they are haunted by something they saw, in a good way. I hope they take some idea, inspiration or rumination away with them, something that impresses on their mind. I like to think this is what a successful artwork or show does for viewers.

SR: Are you looking forward to this show at Stockroom?

MN: I am. Having moved to Kyneton mid-way through last year just before Stockroom had opened, it’s been quite exciting to follow what Jason and Magali have done. As an artist, it’s also plain to see that Stockroom - as a well considered and professionally presented contemporary art space - is definitely an asset to Kyneton and Regional Vic. It’s great to have the opportunity to have my work showcased here.

'Curious Duality' opens at Stockroom on Saturday April 16 at 4.30pm and continues until May 15.

Visit Michael Needham's website here.

Words: Megan Spencer & Michael Needham. Thanks to Michael Needham for the interview and pictures.