ARTIST AS HUMANIST
Contemporary art has a long tradition of engagement with societal developments and events. Expressing alternative positions and raising awareness about topical issues, artists are able to utilise their unique position as a voice for change through their work. Tapping into discussions concerning class, gender, race, politics and the environment, the concept of the artist as activist is a powerful one. In reaction to the social realities of migration – namely the 2015 European migrant crisis – global humanitarian concerns are an increasingly recurring thematic within the vocabulary of the current contemporary avant-garde.
Arguably one of the world’s most visible contemporary artists today, Chinese-born Ai Weiwei spearheaded this plight in 2016 penetrating the global mass media with his photographic recreation of the tragic image of a drowned Syrian child refugee. Months prior within pop music, the British singer-songwriter M.I.A. tackled the refugee crisis head-on in her political song “Borders” conveying a visual illustration of the hazardous journeys faced by migrants in its video clip.
On a recent studio visit to The Hague to visit Belinda Fox, an Australian artist who has a long history of integrating socially engaged issues within her work, Rachael Vance discussed the omnipresent migrant topic within the context of contemporary art. Sharing her personal challenges in achieving the right balance in combining politically charged content within her artistic practice, Fox also spoke about a range of recent, major projects.
How long have you been based in The Netherlands?
I’ve been in The Hague for almost a year now since relocating from Singapore. I got working very quickly and felt settled almost immediately. I can ride to the studio on my bike in just over ten minutes and really enjoy the journey along the canals and streets. My studio is in a converted primary school and has a great communal feel with other creatives in the building. I feel very energised at the moment.
You are known for harnessing beautiful, organic musings that depict natural environments and combine contemporary social issues in pictorial compositions across prints, drawings and paintings. Your pieces are very organic. I observed this very early on when I came into contact with your work in your printmaking practice. Despite the clear premeditation, there is this sense of spontaneity within your work.
I worked really hard to create that space within printmaking so that those spontaneous moments can actually happen. That is what I love about printmaking so much. You have to almost create the situation for it, whereas in painting, it just happens through the very nature of the painting process. Painting is very immediate and you know if it is working straight away. With printmaking it doesn’t happen that way. There is this space within the making of a print where the happy accident can occur.
Looking at these works in your studio and hearing you talk about this idea of survival within nature earlier, there is a dual element within your work: that of fragility, but also resilience as well. There is a sense of softness but also a strength apparent in your work.
On a purely technical level, I am trying to explore the form and the disintegration of the form. So there is this constant interest in trying to breakdown and buildup. For me this is conceptually interesting because I am aiming to find these fine balances of where there is a tipping point. This tipping point is very relevant to how I often feel about the craziness of the world. It’s very important for my work to have incredibly beautiful images that are thoughtfully situated on a balancing point. I want someone to live with my pictures and enjoy them, but I also want to give people something to think about. I feel that if I make the work unlivable, then I haven’t succeeded in making the work thoughtful, because then it doesn’t last. You look at it and turn way. We get tha in the news everyday and it doesn’t work, no one pays attention. I am trying to create a visually intricate web that binds various elements into a layered whole in each composition.
You have engaged very directly with global issues concerning the migrant crisis in your recent work as a reaction to the waves of asylum seekers migrating to Europe in recent years. But this is not the first time you have integrated social ideas within your work. In your series “Hide and Seek” (2004/06) you also referenced turbulent world conflict.
Yes, it is a common thread in my practice. In that series I reflected upon the Iraq war by referencing the design of war rugs in my printmaking. My prints incorporated apparatus’ of war such as helicopters and tanks. I think it is very hard to include a political element in a meaningful, genuine way that isn’t contrived. Having the desire to do it is one thing, but actually having the ability to pull it off is another. It is also about finding stories that speak to my own creative vocabulary within this paradigm.
As an Australian living in Europe and witnessing Germany’s stance on immigration, it is difficult not to compare the differences between Australia’s hardline immigration policy in managing asylum seekers offshore known as the “Australian Solution”. Can you discuss your motivation for including this content within your recent work?
I feel very strongly about these situations and think about them a lot. Germany and Australia have taken extremely different political positions on refugee and migrant issues. I think Angela Merkel is a very brave lady and I admire her decisions in taking a humanitarian perspective on an extremely complex situation. We live in volatile times. Who is to say that your own country might not end up in a terrible situation one day. Syria was not always a war-torn country. It is terrifying to think your world could just crumble through no fault of your own and you have no choice but to try get away, and leave everything behind. In contrast, Australia has done the opposite. The way the Australian government has dealt with asylum seekers is is one of my nation’s greatest shames.
So you are a political artist?
I would not call myself a political artist. Rather, I am a humanist. I think that it’s important not to ignore social issues as a human. I wish to bring a human connection to my work. I believe in compassion. I don’t think people really listen if you constantly tell them how fucked-up the world is. No one wants to hear it. After all, we see it every day in the constant news feeds on our iPhones. I aim to make thoughtful work that celebrates and questions both sides of humanity: the good and the bad
You recently held a two-person show “Tilt” at the Manly Art Gallery and Museum in Australia. Can you discuss this project?
I got invited to work on this show with the ceramicist Neville French, whom I have worked with in the past. The inspiration came from reading a wonderful article by Australian writer and Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan about the refugee situation that was published in The Guardian last year. He visited Lebanon, Greece and Serbia to report on the plight of the Syrians fleeing their country. It had such an impact on me. I felt compelled to make work about the humanitarian aspect of this terrible situation. His novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” also had a great influence on my work. His writing gave me the idea to make this enormous sea drawing in which I referenced Théodore Géricault’s amazing painting “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19). Our idea was to created an entire installation that integrated Neville’s ceramics with my drawing in the space. Measuring two by six metres, I wanted the drawing to envelop the room with the ceramics sitting atop a reflective glass table. The aim was to try and integrate the 2D and 3D elements together, as though they were vessels or bodies tossed from a shipwreck. From this concept we decided to make the ceramics tilted and slumped by literally warping the forms.
The name of the show “Tilt” echoes this sentiment.
Yes, it directly relates to the boat that stands at the precipice of falling over. The aim of the show was to create this feeling of a tipping point, but the audience is not quite sure which way it is tipping. It is not saying everything is doomed, but it could be. I wanted the exhibition to create the energy of a moment before something is about to happen. Almost like you get to choose the way you see it ending.
In this presentation you referenced the vibrant orange colour from the life vests used by refugees as a motif.
Yes, this fluorescent orange colour in the drawings is also integrated into the ceramics. It is a pretty wild, pigmented colour. This project has a direct connection to the imagery in the painting you are working on now for your exhibition at Arthouse Gallery, Sydney. You mentioned that the composition of this new work is appropriated newspaper articles about refugees in boats fleeing Syria. Yes, the picture I am making currently includes a refugee boat that is being pulled apart in this sea of a tumbling, beautiful chaos. I’ve many, many images of same boat in a time sequence. The images depicts real people in a lifeboat amidst these treacherous waves. It was so painful and humbling to paint this scene. There is this incredible humanity playing out in this one scene for me. It is a scene of survival.I must admit it is a challenge for me to locate this balance between a sense of beauty while including this content. I wanted to conjure a feeling of claustrophobia that is overwhelming in its beauty and introduce these political undercurrents as subtle introductions for audiences. I always aim to convey a balance of political and personal interest and present how those two things align. I want it to be a quiet unveiling of an idea, something that will creep up on you in amongst a beautiful menagerie of surface.
I really like the way you conflate the foreground and background in your compositions, allowing for a distance from the reality you are depicting. What inspiration have your drawn upon lately?
The Dutch photojournalist Geert van Kesteren has produced some incredible imagery from the Middle East, documenting mass migration and displacement that I have also found very inspiring. I was also incredibly lucky to see two amazing exhibitions this year. Richard Mosse’s presentation at the Barbican in London entitled “Incoming” consisted of a triple-screen video installation presenting imagery of rescue teams, overcrowded boats, and refugee camps taken from footage taken from Syria, Iraq Afghanistan, Senegal and Somalia. It was one of the best video pieces I’ve ever seen. And the second show was Ai Weiwei’s presentation at the National Gallery in Prague called the “Law of the Journey” which included a range of major sculptures and installations dealing with the migrant crisis. Both shows dealt with refugee themes in completely unique ways.
It is interesting to see how creatives deal with such powerful imagery and content so differently.
I always strive to express a balance in an unstable world through my practice. I wanted to harness and concentrate on that intensity further within the new pieces I am making. For my next show in Sydney I have produced two pictures that engage with this topic in particular entitled: “Tapestry III (group in sea - after Guston)” and “Tapestry X (group in sea II - after Guston)”. The first image depicts refugees scrambling on a life raft, a child is raised above a strong man’s head, representing the pyramid of humanity, struggling to make it to shore safely. Branches and web-like structures precariously hold them up. In this image I focused on the victims. However, in “Tapestry X (group in sea II - after Guston)” my focus was on the counter – the people on the other side of that treacherous sea – the saviours, the rescuers, the people risking their own lives to save others. These pictures pay homage to my favourite painter, the late Philip Guston, and one of his most compelling paintings “Sea Group’ (1980). Its an amazing painting depicting a sea of humanity and desperation. Individuals become a blurred collective whole. These new works oscillate between the perspective of the individual and the collective.
Interview: Rachael Vance