Anton Hasell is an artist bursting with energy and just the sort of person you can lob a probing inquiry to and he’ll respond with a firework display of bright stories, concepts and impassioned pleas. He is the ideal interviewee, or even companion over coffee. In many ways Anton was an early artistic influence on me, little to either of our awarenesses. His bells at Birrarung Marr stimulated and reinforced my own desire to pursue art, as I wandered about the city in the wee hours of the morning, plagued by insomnia and wrestling with a decision to return to school at age 30.
I’ve interviewed Anton previously, in a different context, which you can read here if you’d like more of insight into Anton and his creations. His current exhibition with us at Stockroom gave me an excuse to chat again, this time more specifically about this body of work – ‘Quest to find an inland sea’.
KENT: Hi Anton. For your exhibition with us you have created a form of background narrative that informs the content of the artworks. So, aside from the material artworks themselves - the panels, the painting, the laser-cut and constructed metal tree - there is also a story that you have constructed that accompanies the exhibition about geography and the reinterpretation of history. Could you divulge a little bit of that for us?
ANTON: Hi Kent, Cherry Blossom Tree (Prunus serrulata von mueller) whose discovery along the shoreline of the inland sea offers a serious challenge to the 'Wallace line' flora and fauna disjunction theory and the implication that Australia is part of Gondwanaland, one of the fragments that also includes Africa and Sth America. If the species Prunus serrulata can be shown to be common from North Asia to the Australian continent, then clearly, in a geographic sense, Australia must be understood as an essentially Asian country. Our cultural future, responding to geography, should be to continue to splice the threads of an Asian future that is clearly forming before us.
The inland sea, so long invisible to our European eyes whose vast expanse was amazingly just missed by every inland explorer other than Leichhardt, saturates the centre of this country by bringing to the surface the intricate vascular network of the artesian basin spread out beneath Australia and the Asian Islands to the north of us. These works on brass and copper panels are observations I have made from the shores of the inland sea. There are beautiful islands whose indentations are perfectly scaled in equal tempered array, in size and distance apart, on whose bank a bell buoy has come to grief. Perhaps the tolling of its great bell have rutted the topology to musical perfection, so trace your fingers across its undulation to feel the musicality of a braille touch. Some land forms are clearly dangerous, and small light towers are installed to warn off the innocent, though a drifting boat seems to have been empty of these kind of people. Other island's rolling waves have keep florescent inflatables beyond their safe harbour. But where birds dash across the waves, or fish swim into eager beaks, life can shimmer along the edges of the inland sea. The Cherry Blossom Tree thrives in the marshy tidal flows, and like clockwork the weather patterns and flocks of birds cycle through their season.
For those who know my work, this exhibition is a continuation of a long essay into finding how it is that we can come to live in this mysterious continent. It began in the 1990s with the manufacture of wearable deep sea diving suits to be used on fishing boats in the Great Southern Ocean where each of us could be lowered to a depth where light failed and coldness reached the marrow of our bones such that we embraced our own mortality and our European heritage's relevance faded. At this point we could look up to the light above, be pulled up toward the boat's deck and, Lazarus-like, birthed back on deck with new eyes with which to see the Australian landscape for the first time. The second body of work has been to make the tools of navigation and the beaten copper maps that Leichhardt might use to leave the crowded shoreline of the continent to traverse this distracted continent. Clearly the European compass, set square, sextant and paper maps misdirected navigation across the Australian otherness, and new navigation instruments are needed to be tuned to the turn of the Southern Cross Constellation across the night sky, the intricate and beautiful flight patterns of mobs of budgies and the sonorous archetypal sounds of ocean waves found in a shell instrument of navigation. On so flat a landscape only the beating of copper sheet against the earth can elucidate the subtle and ongoing marks of time, occupation and undulation as can be felt in fingertips.
These artworks on the Inland Sea begin a body of work that asks the question "how can we live in the heart of this county of ours, once we have left its crowded shores and travelled to its interior?" My collection of observations from the coast of the inland sea are fragmentry to be sure, but I am showing some evidence of attempts to make crossings and things found that invite speculation upon the meanings we can attach to 'Australianess' and its impact on how we can live productively and creatively with one another. Beneath the spring blooming of the Prunus Serrulata von mueller what ceremonies can we enact that connect us in ritual and collective shared cultural experience? Our community well-being rests on each of us sharing our creative imaginations with the rest of us. In a world of economic limits, our democratic and market-based use of asset accumulation as a measure of social status is set to fail, and we only need to look at tribal communities to see that in a shared garden (the arithmetic economic growth of feudalism) social worth is attributed to those that grow the best yams, those whose dancing, singing, painting and other story telling activities are best enjoyed and those whose shared cultural creativity is the source of the regard they have in their community. A steady-state (non-growth) economic theory will need to be structured on sociological frames. Up until only a mere 200 years ago we lived in an agrarian economy of small markets, barter and subsistence. This was an economy in which there was an ongoing contest between, as Malthus put it, geometric population growth and arithmetic agricultural growth. We then devised a mercantile model of investment (including the future in our economic equation) that resulted in a turbo market mechanism. It was, to use a metaphor, like building an internal combustion motor versus maintaining and riding a horse. We have, in the 'shed' of economics and engineering, built a wonderful V8 turbo-charged motor in the course of those 200 years. We started the motor and were stunned by its sheer power but in that short period of just 200 years (Man, we just got it running right!!), we have come to see that for all its power and beauty, it consumes fuel like there is no tomorrow, and belches fumes that choke those of us in the shed (most of us, as you know, are outside the shed looking in). Someone pointed out that while it could, in a slight frame, power us down the straight in 3.5 seconds for the quarter mile, in fact it was to be installed in a bus body, as we all of us needed to be transported by it to our collective future. The task before us is to modify the V8 motor to pull a community bus on very little fuel (or alternative fuels) gently and reliably. Our steady-state economy has to be about the bus frame, seats, comfort station and all else, as much as it has to be about the dynamics of the motor itself. This is why the work ahead requires a new set of definitions on the quality of life, and why asset accumulation will have to become a non-measure of community and individual feelings of wellbeing, and why, (because I am sure you have forgotten by now) we need new rituals, ceremonies and social engagements beneath our newly discovered Prunus serrulata von mueller tree.
So Kent, let this work inspire others to investigate the diverse coastal life to be found along the shores of the inland sea and let the brave put out into it and sail their way across the heart of our mysterious and wondrous country.
KENT: These are wonderously romantic passions Anton. That probably should be romantic with a capital 'R', but I can't abide by such heirarchical concessions, so I'm maintaining a lowercase democratic level-playing field of ideological artistic movements. And the romantic urge is on the upswing in recent times as we all feel compelled to re-embrace an environmental awareness in the face of the consequence of our collective actions, driving ever onward with the smoking combustion engine of our consumerist urge.
With this in mind, I wanted to ask you about your materials. You often use metals - brass, bronze, steel and copper - in your various creations. What draws you to these elemental and heavy substances hewn from below the surface of the planet?
Your reference to the "romantic" caused me to write volumes on Modernism, Post Modernism and Suzi Gablik's call for a 're-constructed' and 're-enchanted' participatory kind of art practice (Gablik. S 'The Re-enchantment of Art', Thames and Hudson, London, 1998) that was central to my PhD thesis (2002) investigations into the experiential nature of Art. Lucky for you, I have put these aside for another time, and will let it (the 'Romantic' description) slide past, except remarking that those who follow the followers of others are already two steps behind themselves, however great they may personally feel at being one of the 'in' crowd. My journey as an artist is within and through and about the insights I can gather from my own personal experience of life unfolding before me. Not that this needs be diaristic alone, or completely self-obsessed, for as you can see I tackle historical, political and social ideas through the lens of my own personal feelings and my thoughts about my place within these contexts. Perhaps I am naughty doing this! Everything I know has been or is being framed in my own imagination. Artists are people who are excessively attracted, I expect, to their own moment of living, and they document the substances wrung from investigations into this 'being' that never stops, day and night. Yes, I will let you call it 'romantic' but I cannot see what the alternative might be! Might an alternative be that there are clever emerging artists who are encyclopaedically aware of the cultural context, who are networked and networking, connected to the cultural power centres and those significant individuals at the centre of these art groups, sophisticated, global, fashionable, smart and successful? I have heard it put that way, and I can kind of see the tribalism that underwrites these followers and their followings. Hey, I am starting to fire up again..... enough!
Yes, OK, call me romantic, but what I will hear as you say it is that here is someone doing their very best to make sense of so complicated a thing as being alive amongst so many other equally alive others. When I was in grade 5 a boy said to me one day after school that he was going home to "mum"! I was really confused. I was going home to "mum", he wasn't going to be there! I had no idea where he was going to go to, but in all truth, I knew that where ever he might go, he was not going home to "mum". It made me wonder where he was going to go that night, in fact, where did they all go after school? Luckily for me, in my confusion, I still had my mum to go home to and to feel safe by. Accepting that others are not just figments of one's imagination is not easy at all. To accept that every other person I meet is as introspective, questioning and in search of a meaning to their life as I am for myself is difficult. But it is true. No, really, it is! It is. You who read this writing must see that I am one like you... indeed, very like you... even worryingly too like you... OK, not just a passing shape, not a fragment of any kind of your dreaming, no, not even another part of you. Just very like you. Awfully like you, probably! (OK, I have "mum" and you don't, but I should try to get past this feeling). So, I make art to tell my story of me to me, and I want you to make your art (any kind at all will do) to tell your story to yourself, to which I can listen in. I know from going into the studios of my friends that their works inspire me, thrill me, and make me want to run home to my studio to make works in response to their work, and when they come to my studio I see their eyes widen (now and then) and feel their wanting to run home to make work that responds to my work. I make work for me, but I hope it brings out responses in others that assure me that their interior lives are as vast and as fascinating as I find my own. And so very similar too. In an ideal world we all will make works manifesting our self conversations, and these works will resonate with one another, and shared creative imagination will be the test of social connectivity, the measure of social contribution, the gold standard of social worth and the final realisation that we are not alone in the world. In this utopian (but possible) world there are no artists, just people engaged in collective play with themselves and with others.
So, what materials do I like to work in? For a long period I enjoyed working with cheap materials like the steel of 44 gallon drums or corrugated iron in large scale sculpture and in cast bronze for studio work, having kept a studio foundry since 1983. But the slow rusting away of these works became unbearable. Beautiful steel sculptures slowly dissolving renders the immense work and effort put into these sculpture invisible through time, and so in the early nineties when building my bluestone house that will never leave the landscape, I decided to only work in materials of permanence, so that my 'messages in a bottle' can reach those in the future with which they might resonate. I work in copper, bronze, stainless steel and laser-cut steel plate as and when these materials make appropriate sense of the form and concept of the work. Naturally, as much of my work is for public-spaces, materials that are robust through time are a requirement for this practice. I am very interested in new digital possibilities in sculpture and matching these with traditional processes from the ancient forms of art making. As the new bell designs are possible only with sophisticated digital design software, the casting of the bells happens using ancient techniques reaching back to the start of the bronze age. I make relief prints using laser-cut stainless steel plates whose images are developed in design software, but print the plates on a printing press with traditional printmaking papers and inks. They could be digitally printed of course, but something truly beautiful happens when old and new processes and technologies are brought together to make works of art. In this exhibition exploring the inland sea, I have used brass and copper plates and applied hand-beaten textures to create particular surfaces and then applied traditional chemical patinas to colour the metal through corrosion. Somehow this process allowed me to look for playful ways of making sea surfaces that felt the tidal currents beneath the surface and the wind pressure above the undulating surface plane.
These materials are a continuation of, and development from, those used in the last two exhibitions at LaTrobe University VAC ('The maps of Leichhardt' November 2010) and at Woodbine Art in Malmsbury ('Leichhardt's Bell' March 2011) and so remain consistent with the quest to explore Australian identity through imagined history. I love working with elegant materials like these and working out how to shape them to get the look and feel I want. As I work the material, I trust that my hands will leave the marks and shapes in the materials beyond my direct intention, as they work tuned to subliminal sensibilities that I cannot control. My work surprises me and gives me joy and when it works well it is much more than I intend, and the more is the better part. That is the challenge of making things and images, and always chasing the thing you imagine. Each work is a pearl on a thread followed in trust and pleasure. I hear of artists destroying works, but no working in the 'third person' (see earlier comment) for me. I love my works and while none are perfect, (we agree!) none are separate from the others either. It is a body of work that is left, but in process, there is always the wonderful thing imagined, the struggle to realise the imagined thing best as one can, but imperfectly achieved, and the newly imagined thing glowing in beauty and wonder that has grown out of the previous wondrous imagining(s). How good is that, to chase down thoughts and feelings, hand over fist? So, Kent, I hope these works in the exhibition give those who share them some of the pleasures they have given me.
Anton’s exhibition, ‘Quest to find an inland sea’, runs until April 8, 2012. All of his beautifully hand-wrought, narrative-imbued metallic artworks serve as individual reliquaries, his passionate ideas poured into the fabric brass, bronze and copper. Forming a horizon line around the gallery space, they enframe the viewer and the large Cherry Blossom tree that reaches upwards toward the sunlight that fliters down through the industrial era factory beams. Wonderful stuff.