Sunday, May 26, 2013

An interview with Kent Wilson

Words by Jason Waterhouse

Artist, writer, curator and good mate, Kent Wilson's exhibition 'not dissimilar' is opening at Stockroom on the 8th June 2013.  

We had a chat about all things Kent.   

Kent Wilson, 'pollinate'

JW  - So in this interview I'm going to get straight to the point;  Kent Wilson you’re driving me nuts.  You have a show that opens in two weeks and you’re still making work, in fact you’re not even close to being finished (and I know this show is not your only yesterday deadline).  I can’t even begin to understand how you work like this.  It’s a polar opposite to how I operate. Can you please enlighten me as to how you’re not hemorrhaging with stress?

KW - Well, there's two aspects to this really. Firstly, I'm really just a very standard example of an emerging artist in contemporary Australia. In order to be an artist I juggle a variety of other part-time jobs and activities. All of these compete for my attention and keep me barely alive below the poverty line. But I simply cannot live without making art - it's a fundamental and insatiable need, not a choice. And I feel privileged and grateful to have the good fortune to be able to do what I do, so I'm generally of a positive and happy disposition. Even when I have 16 deadlines due in the one month.

Secondly, I am actually way more stressed than you would know from my calm demeanour. But some stress is a natural component of life and I don't like to hemorrhage it, as you say, because everyone else has their own stresses too and if I bleed my stress out into the atmosphere then that just infects the environment with additional negative vibes, soaking other people in my own issues.  I'm very aware that I'm really only a nodal point of interconnected relationships. The best I can do is manage the inflow and outflow of information, conjuring objects from materials at hand with as much deliberation as can be afforded at any given moment of the day. If there are good ideas driving the work, the art will make itself using you as an instrument.

Kent wanted to use this web sourced image of Rapunzel using a tool. I'm not sure why.

I should also point out that there are a few elements to this show: one is actually completed, one has commenced (and is looking killer!) and one is all planned out but not yet begun. And then there are periphery considerations of further works that may or may not make it in. None of this will make you any more relaxed about it. Such is the joy you signed on for as a gallery director, Jason. 


JW - Ok, I’m not convinced, but as always with you Kent I need to give the benefit of the doubt and trust that so far (against all probability) you have pulled each project off.  You’re clearly a genius, or a pure ass engineer, I will let the public decide.  

So tell the good public what to expect from this show that only partly exists, which opens on Thursday 6th June in TWO WEEKS time.

KW - Your caps lock, shift uppercase expression of the timeframe clearly reveals your own stress. Which in turn, makes me a little more stressed. You’re bleeding on me and now I'm stained.

Haha! This IS fun.

Also, thank you for the viscerally toned nomination of ass engineer. I notice that if I'm not a wanker, then I'm a skilled proctological craftsman. Either way, they are semi-viable Freudian references for the working machinations of an artist. Only semi-viable mind you.

And you're totally right allowing an audience to decide about the work. An artist can imbue an artwork with as much meaning as they like, but in the end the viewer decides the meaning. Always. Until anyone actually looks at art it is alway only ever partially complete.

Maybe I should just answer your damn question huh? In this show you will see the trace material elements of my thoughts on human beings grappling with their relationship to nature and nature's 'products'. In my estimation, humans are naked apes who pull stuff out of the ground, rip bits off of trees and concoct assemblages of these materials as extensions of their physical selves to interact with the world. Somehow we've become deluded into thinking these materials are separate from us and the world too is separate from us. But the cars we drive run on liquidised sunshine stored in ancient forest below the ground and computers function on bits of sand and melted rocks. Our instruments are us, and they are also the world itself. They are tools which we sometimes use as weapons and sometimes use for ceremony. In this show you'll see material expressions of these ideas.

Kent Wilson - work in progress

JW - The exploration of the balance between our living within, and pilfering of the planet we live on is a poignant and broad concept for an artist to explore.  And its a question not to be taken lightly, serious subject, in which its seriously hard to stay neutral (or at least leave the viewer to make their own mind).  As you know, I cant stand preachy art, and in this I am not alone.

So tell me about the title, 'not dissimilar'.  You’re not just making the same old hippy greenie shit I hope.

KW - That's really important to me actually. I don't like to make preachy art. I much prefer to be ambiguous and allow the viewer some freedom to determine their own meaning. If they want to. They can also just enjoy the shapes, the colours, the materials. That's fine too. I like art that is captivating visually, or sensorially, and if you're into it you also have an opportunity to find meanings and concepts lurking around like shadows.

But, you know, we do pilfer the planet. That's what we are. It's how we do it that often requires considered assessment. We will always reconfigure materials to suit certain ends. I do it in my art. Sometimes in my work I quite consciously choose plywood or pine plantation woods bought from large chain store, big box consumer churches of capitalism to reference our machinic approach to harvesting natural resources. We can't hate on ourselves, we can only adapt, evolve and make better choices.

The show is called not dissimilar because it reflects my approach to art making in general. It's not cool, or intellectually acceptable, to say that art is a metaphor. Some people think that's too easy a way to describe art. That's true, to a degree, but art IS a metaphor ... to a degree. All language is a code that attempts to translate an idea so that someone else can understand that idea. Art is a language too. A code of materials designed to translate ideas. The language (whether words or things) is the metaphor. These words you're reading aren't my ideas, they are symbols I punch on this keyboard in letters of a, t, e, r and so on. But when you read them, you reconstitute them into sounds and then you conjure the concepts into meaning in your head. Hopefully those concepts mirror the ideas I have in my head as closely as possible. Art is just another set of symbols.

The term not dissimilar is curious to me. If you think of an object, or an idea, you could say that on one end of a spectrum you have things that are similar to it. Down the other end of the spectrum you have things that are dissimilar (not similar) to it. But then there is a zone of things that are not the same, but also not not the same. These things are not dissimilar. It's a quirk of language, a double negative, but it lives in an ambiguous zone of relation. In this show there are a selection of artworks that I hope live in that ambiguous zone of relation. Both to each other, and also to the things they reference.

Kent Wilson - flag detail
So for example, I have had some flags made. They're made exactly the same way as national flags are made - by a company who specialises in making them, using the same dimensions, the same style and the same colours. There's four flags and they look for all intents and purposes as flags of African or Caribbean countries (this was unintended, but welcomed). They are not the same as national flags, but they're also ... not dissimilar. I'm also making some sculptures that look like javelins or spears. The same principle applies with them. But also, the javelins are not dissimilar to the flags. This is where it gets interesting to me. The way artworks begin to have relations with each other. Everything is networked.

JW - Over coffee at Stockroom I have had some very passionate debates over the concept of originality. In black and white terms, I sit it the cynical (surprise, surprise) there is no purely original idea camp. Does this mean your pitching a tent next door to me?  No Greys in this answer Mr Wilson.

KW - Well, sorry Jason, I'm afraid I'm camping elsewhere. There are original ideas, to my reckoning. They're very few and very far between though. And I certainly don't claim to be a creator of them ... yet. At best, I'm assembling contemporary ideas and materials into new configurations. But I'd have to say people like Duchamp, Picasso and Cage were originators. You could get all Platonic and say they tapped into universal ideas that already existed and get the credit for bringing them to the broader public. Still, they moved tectonic plates, culturally speaking.

JW - Yeah they did.  Near on 100 years ago.  In this day and age of world wide connection, I question if a truly unique and original idea is possible.  Sure we can adapt existing stuff into a unique state, but its all derivative.  

Hang on, I think were saying the same thing, your cups just more full than mine.

Ok, so taking a few steps back. 16 deadlines. I know you well but here’s a question for the wider public.  What are these other hats you ware that make the balance between your art and wider existence so tenuous, and people, the big reveal - Kent was a corporate jock in a previous life. How did you get from there to here?

JW - Yes, it's true. Out of school I did a commerce degree and then went into retail. At 24 I was flying to Perth and Sydney to train people twice my age in how to conduct good customer service. I had no idea about art. I studied economics and marketing and strategic management. I'd never done art in my life, not even at primary school. But while I was a corporate desk monkey I was playing in a band, making short films, designing graphics for fun, teaching myself how to use software to make animations and filling dozens of notebooks with ideas and drawings. I assumed I missed the boat with creative stuff and I'd have to accept it was just a hobby to pursue. After a few years I found I was being creative all night - often until 3 or 4am - and then dragging my reluctant arse to work in the morning. The longer this went on, the more miserable I became. It became obvious that I was compelled to be creative so I needed to give myself over to it or risk dying with regrets and having a heart attack way before my time. So I applied to art school and here we are.

I do lots of other things besides my own art. Some of them I do to pay the rent, like proofreading high school textbooks and online resources. Some of them help pay the rent as a happy side-benefit but they primarily serve to advance my art, like teaching, writing and curating. Only recently have the last two activities resulted in any revenue outcomes. I really love teaching and find that to be a great companion to art making. I feel obliged to engage with teaching because it took me so long to figure out what I wanted to do. I'd like to have a hand in helping anyone interested in art to fulfill their passion for it. I had some amazing teachers at art school and some pretty lame ones. The ones who were passionate, knowledgeable, energetic and generous have armed me very well to do what I do. I've seen dozens of wide-eyed students be unmotivated and unstimulated by shit teachers and shit systemic issues and it's a waste of talent and energy. The more people curious about the world and creatively engaged with it, the better for all of us. Being around that inspires and motivates me to work my arse off. 

I consider all the creative outputs I do - teaching, writing, dancing, walking, sound, curating - to be parts of the intricately woven fabric of my work.

Kent Wilson - work in progess

JW - I could go into rants about the state of Arts education, but for the sake of the public I won’t. There’s only so much of our ideas the people can cope with in one read Kent. Just be a firecracker teacher and make sure those young minds question every thing you and everyone else tells them.

As a emerging artist near on a couple of decades senior to most of your recently graduating peers you must have reasonably clear ideas and motivations for pursuing art beyond just a compulsion. What do you see as the roll of the visual arts in contemporary society?

KW – At the moment I see it as rather sadly under appreciated. At Monash I teach students about visual language and the sort of areas we cover include car culture, architectural influence on urban design, the psychology of geography, the power of advertising imagery, gender representation and a whole swathe of issues that are critically important to understanding our place in the world. Visual art provides an incredibly valuable way to analyse and interpret the world around us. It incorporates an awareness of how things are made, how objects relate to each to other, how behaviours influence others and how power structures work.

I had a fairly high-end education where I was schooled at the finest grammar schools in Australia and at a prestige international-standard university. I came out of that without ever having contact with the ideas and skill sets I’ve been exposed to in visual art. Art should be a fundamental aspect of early education. The biggest misunderstanding here is that art is for artists, and that artists are those people who know how to draw realistically. That’s patently wrong. Some of the most artistic people I know are CPAs, motor mechanics and inventory controllers. But they don’t even know that they think like artists. My contention is that if they were exposed to the ideas inherent in visual language and art early in their education, they would be even better armed to do what they do and do it well.

Art transcends all cultural structures. It exists in tribal communities, in capitalist societies and in socialist utopian communes. It is inherently a driving inner urge and finds outlets in film, in advertising, in cars, in tabletops, in shoes, in cooking, in politics and potentially any form of human activity. From that point of view, we should have a better understanding of it. It can be used for both good and evil and knowing how, why and to whom this is done is critically important.

Kent Wilson, 'cell'

Kent Wilson's 'not dissimilar' exhibition launch is on the 8th June at 4.30pm and runs until the 7th July 2013.