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A virtual cup of tea with… Hayley Millar-Baker

Gunditjmara woman and contemporary photographic artist Hayley Millar-Baker has a distinct visual style that draws on family narratives and scenes from nature, to reveal layers of history embedded within Country long after the original barbaric acts of dispossession and massacre. The land is still healing many generations later, and the plants, animals and people within Millar-Baker’s digital assemblages are carefully placed to awaken the viewer to this fact. While each work appears to be of a singular existing scene, the artist has meticulously cut, layered and repositioned a multitude of images to create unique composites, encouraging us to look beneath the surface to seek out details that may not be immediately apparent. Storytelling is at the core of Millar-Baker’s work, and she does so on her own terms.

Millar-Baker has packed a lot into her thirty years revolving around the sun. To name just a few of her achievements, the artist’s work has been featured in Primavera: Young Australian Artists (2018) at the Museum of Contemporary Art; TARNANTHI: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at Art Gallery of South Australia (2019, 2017); and for those of us lucky enough to have seen it snaking around the city, a public commission for 2018 Melbourne Art Trams (which was located by entering the tram ID into the tramTRACKER app – art on the go). Millar-Baker was awarded the 2019 Darebin Art Prize, a $10,000 acquisitive award which means she now has a work in the Darebin Art Collection.

Untitled 5 (I’m the Captain Now), inkjet print on paper, 20 x 20 cm, 2016
Hayley Millar-Baker, Untitled 5 (I’m the Captain Now), 2016, inkjet print on paper, 20 x 20cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

I am a huge fan of Hayley’s practice, so it made perfect sense to reach out to her during a time when cultural output has been forcibly (but necessarily) stalled during the global health pandemic. I wanted to touch on how COVID-19 has impacted on the artist, while also thinking beyond a topic that has dominated public discourse (and all of our lives) over the past few months. We find ourselves living in an unprecedented reality, but it is important to remember that we are more than this present moment, as claustrophobic and absolute as it may seem. While it has caused monumental disruption to the ways we work and socialise, it will pass. I hope you enjoy this Q&A – I have aimed for it to be as accessible as possible, avoiding overly theorised vocabulary. This, after all, is how we expand the conversation around contemporary art, and develop a language that everyone can speak!

Untitled (So he mixed arsenic with half the flour and a raging thirst was created) 80 x 100cm, inkjet on cotton rag, 2018
Hayley Millar-Baker, Untitled (So he mixed arsenic with half the flour and a raging thirst was created), 2018, inkjet on cotton rag, 80 x 100cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

Which mentors have been fundamental in supporting your creative development?

My first thought of a ‘mentor’ goes straight back to my very first primary school teacher Miss Atkinson. She was the first person outside of my family to give me opportunities to showcase my artistic passion and she really believed in me. Deep down I truly believe that had I not had her in my life so young, such a pivotal point in life to learn how to believe in yourself, then I wouldn’t have had the confidence to work towards my dream of being an artist.

I consider myself to be a lone wolf. I tend to isolate myself when I work (and when I don’t work) but I have a small selection of trusty people that I continuously go to during my creative development stages, be it preliminary ideas or works in progress. These people range from my gallery (Vivian Anderson Gallery) who I feel sometimes knows me better than I know myself; curator friends, and then my family, because they know nothing about art so they can share the most pure and basic criticism, which I find can sometimes be the most important.

I guess my mentors change depending on what I’m working on, where I’m at personally in my life, and what exactly I need to learn.

In this time of unprecedented global health crisis and the resulting detrimental financial impact on artists, what keeps you going?

Oof, I’m not really ‘going’, haha. I’ve been in isolation for four weeks now, and for the past two weeks, the night before I say to myself “tomorrow is the day I’ll stop being a lazy sack of potatoes and actually do work.” And then I wake up and I don’t do anything all day. And that’s been on repeat. But in saying that, I think I am really hard on myself; I don’t ever give myself breaks, and if I classify something as a break it’s usually a trip somewhere to photograph something for work. So really, it’s not a break. This time has really forced me to do nothing. When I say nothing, I mean nothing physically. Mentally, I have been sorting through this new project I started working on prior to lockdown. I think about it every single day, I think about who I ultimately want to be in the future and can my work back that up. So, my brain is working full-time, but my body is a sack of potatoes on the couch.

How are contemporary artists uniquely placed to respond to the two major existential threats of our time: climate damage and pandemics?

I feel like creatives (of all fields) really stood up and financially held Australia down during the bushfires. We all went above and beyond. And then in this pandemic crisis, it’s like Australia (the government) has thrown it back in our faces, making us ineligible for income such as the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments. The arts bring in more money than air travel does in a year tenfold, yet we are always left out. It’s been making me think a lot lately about our true value versus what the government willingly and happily takes from us, yet doesn’t give back.

Art is way more than art.

Anyway, that’s just my personal feelings after being cooped up in my house for four weeks straight with no one around bar my two-year-old daughter who only wants to talk about Moana and Frozen.

Who gives you strength on a personal level?

My Nan. When I’m not feeling it, I can always count on her to tell me to suck it up and get on with it. With all the things she’s had to deal with in her life she has this ‘no sooking’ attitude, even when the sooking is warranted. She will say ‘oh well that’s life, get over it’. And it’s true, nowadays our luxury to linger on unproductive emotions and attitudes is beyond anything that my mother had, or my nan, or her parents, or their parents.

How do you like to care for yourself outside of your practice?

I get this question A LOT. The honest truth is that I watch junk TV. That is the only way my brain will stop thinking so I can get some downtime. My brain doesn’t need to think, and I get the simple joy of watching someone else’s bonkers life. My favourite shows to switch off to are Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Grey’s Anatomy, Riverdale, and then whatever reality TV junk is on at the time.

You have an adorable toddler in tow. What have you enjoyed most about motherhood?

Motherhood is hectic! I really love Maeve, she’s like a grandmother in toddler form. She’s relaxed, yet judgmental, loves a joke but is super critical. She’s my small sidekick. I don’t know what I enjoy most about motherhood apart from the (mostly) cool person who now hangs out in my house that wasn’t here before. Motherhood is hands down the hardest thing I have ever taken on and will ever take on. So, we are just doing what we can each day! Every day changes!

Tell us about your plans for the future, once we come out on the other side of COVID-19.

Post-COVID-19, I will have a new body of work coming out which is super exciting. It’s a bit of a new direction in terms of the way I use storytelling in my work. I’ve also outsourced people to work on specific parts of the project with me, which I’ve never done before.

Work-wise, the exhibitions that were planned for 2020 will now be scheduled for 2021, so there will be a few big shows and projects on which should push me back into the swing of things post-isolation.

Other than that, I’m super keen to get out and see some animals and head up to my healing spot under Gariwerd!

HMB_Image_Jade Florence
Image credit: Jade Florence.

You can check out more of Hayley’s beautiful work via her website.

This is what catharsis looks like

This curatorial essay was written for the exhibition Crafty Queers at Kingston Arts Centre, Melbourne (2 February – 2 March, 2019).

There is a craftiness not just in the ability to manipulate form, but also in the vesting of objects with coded queer narratives. They may not be immediately apparent, but they are brimming just beneath the surface. Layers of personal history are embedded within ‘Crafty Queers’ – both Anna Dunnill and Nicholas Smith were raised in religious households, and through this exhibition aim to unpack their heritage. As their queer identities came to the fore, the artists began to question whether these divergent aspects of the self could harmoniously co-exist.

There is a quiet power in Soft Hold (2018-19), Dunnill’s series of six palm-sized textiles. The repetitive process of stitching becomes a kind of meditation; hands which would otherwise be clasped together in prayer are redirected to a similarly contemplative act. While the term “pocket devotional” traditionally refers to miniature religious texts, in this case Dunnill’s labour is an act of devotion. In New prayers for old feelings (2019), flattened clay forms offer Dunnill a surface on which to inscribe performative marks, much like her tattoo practice. These ritualistic objects, lustrous in appearance and placed upon ceramic shelves, seem to emulate altarpieces; in fact, they have been an avenue for the artist to reclaim her religious identity, which remains of great significance to her as a queer person. Dunnill refuses to leave her early education behind; instead, she embraces those foundations by re-imagining them in the present.

anna_KA
Anna Dunnill, New prayers for old feelings, 2019, stoneware, glaze, woven silk and cotton threads, botanical dyes (red onion skins, brown onion skins, mint leaves, eucalyptus leaves and bark, avocado stones and skins).

In an effort to redress the devastating impact of waste on the environment at a local level, Dunnill experiments with botanical dyeing methods, using organic matter to produce natural colours. Found plant materials from surrounding streets such as eucalyptus bark and eucalyptus leaves, wild mint growing in the artist’s garden and leftover kitchen scraps – red and brown onion skins, avocado skins and pits – are mixed with silk and cotton threads in a jar of water, then left in the sun for several hours. Heat and light transform the fibres into an array of earthy tones. Dunnill has also picked amaranth weed from CERES Community Environment Park in Brunswick, not far from her home, which turns a satisfying deep purple in this process.

Smith has developed a body of work that draws on a multiplicity of influences: religious iconography, popular gay culture, filmic and artistic references. The artist’s series of clay tablet drawings seamlessly meld household floral arrangements and heavenly scenes with young men in bliss or repose. One tile features three actors from Pasolini’s Il Decameron (1971), while another depicts a lithe figure donning tight boxer briefs and thigh-high boots, backed by robe-like brown velvet. Much like the chiselled male form considered to be the peak of physical perfection during the Hellenistic era and subsequently revived through Victorian-era decorative arts, Smith positions his characters within the realm of ‘respectable’ aesthetics to reveal homoerotic undertones. While the Kingston Arts residency has afforded Smith an opportunity to engage with new techniques, there are details of a previous work – St Sebastian martyred five times (2018) – echoed in the queered bodies of his muscular models.

nick_KA
Left: Nicholas Smith, Assumption, 2019, glaze, porcelain slip and nail polish on stoneware, velvet.
Right: Nicholas Smith, Terrance, Vincenzo and Franco with arums, 2019, glaze, porcelain slip and nail polish on stoneware, velvet. Images courtesy of Art Documentation and Kingston Arts.

Rapture and pain exist along the same continuum in the expressions of Smith’s characters. They are on the precipice of climax, death, or both, appealing to a morbid curiosity for the spectacle of martyrdom imagery. During the making of one diptych, Smith was preoccupied with thoughts of a sculptural masterpiece dating back to the pious seventeenth century: Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini. Teresa’s transgressive episode is encapsulated by this revealing snippet from the saint’s autobiography: “the pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it”. Smith occupies dominant western histories passed down through religion in order to interrogate his own conservative upbringing. The artist asserts his queerness by exposing the culturally repressed elements of Catholicism, casting off the burden of shame.

Through camp and queer revisions of Christian ritual, Dunnill and Smith open up a space for nuanced reflection, highlighting the shifting nature of subject positions across varying contexts. Devout worship gives way to desire; libidinous encounters; sensorial pleasure. Clay becomes the medium for releasing tension, its malleability resembling the softness of skin. I experience a strong urge to pinch and press my own flesh, to test its boundaries.

Chloé Hazelwood is an emerging curator and arts writer living and working on Wurundjeri land in Narrm (Melbourne).

To Master Your Mother Tongue | Pavement Projects, November 2018

This curatorial essay was written for the exhibition To Master Your Mother Tongue at Pavement Projects, Melbourne (15 October – 15 November 2018).

“When your life exists between the margins, you’re always not enough of one thing and too much of another.”[1]

What does it mean to be ‘Australian’, anyway? Our national identity is contested and fragile, forcefully re-asserted at the hint of any perceived threat to ‘the Australian way of life’. The diversity of lived experience across a multitude of social and cultural contexts is overshadowed by everyday acts of micro- and macro-aggression toward those who dare to resist the status quo. Why is it that the loud majority feels entitled to hegemonise physical and virtual spaces, shouting over the top of other voices in an attempt to intimidate them into silence? Perhaps it is the insidious and persistent fear of ‘difference’ as pejoratively defined by the dominant cultural group that rocks their insecure foundations. One such shameful historical incident was the ‘Lambing Flat Riots’ of 1860 – 1861, when growing anti-Chinese sentiment among European miners exploded into acts of racist violence. Chinese miners were subjected to horrific hate crimes: tortured, killed and driven out of their camps due to baseless paranoia.[2]

This festering undercurrent of xenophobia resulted in clampdowns on Chinese immigration in what became known as the ‘White Australia Policy’, enshrined in law in 1901. It enabled the newly-formed Federal Government to restrict the flow of non-British migrants to Australia, as well as to deport ‘undesirables’ who had settled here prior to federation. Although this explicitly discriminatory policy eventually gave way to the rhetoric of ‘tolerance’ that emerged along with multiculturalism in the early 1970s[3], racist ideologies continue to have a stranglehold on the national psyche. Siying Zhou’s exhibition To Master Your Mother Tongue investigates the ongoing tensions between white Australians and Chinese immigrant communities – or, rather, the unidirectional prejudice levelled at the latter by the former. Zhou questions the validity of multiculturalism as it has been packaged up for white Australian consumption – evidenced by a demand for ‘exotic’ cuisines, but not a truly egalitarian nation.

The reality is that stereotypes are reinforced through food: certain ingredients, certain smells, certain flavours come to stand in for an entire group of people. Zhou inserts a familiar dish into her assemblage of objects, drawing attention to one trope in particular: the fetishisation of Chinese women in Australian popular culture. Two bronze chicken feet rest on carved wooden poles, glistening as they slowly rotate (and surely mesmerising the pedestrians of Hoddle Street). Three flashing LED signs spell out ‘YEAH’, ‘YAEH’ and ‘YEH’, reminiscent of a takeaway shop. A small white bureau has been emblazoned with ‘SUK MY EXOTIC FINGERS’ in delicate diamantes. To the left, a latex-gloved hand pulls on a woman’s tongue, rendering her unable to speak. Upturned mannequin hands – perhaps giving the finger to racism and sexism – are impaled by chopsticks, with two kangaroo fur pom-poms dangling underneath. Is this a phallus, a cultural mash-up, or both? One thing that is made abundantly clear in the display of these “temporary material artefacts”[4] is Zhou’s refusal to be subjugated by the white male gaze.

A gold brick acts as an improvised support structure for a lamp festooned with two wigs: a blonde mane overlaid with a black lob. Against the soft pink wall, the flaxen hair brings to mind Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. This is a film in which there are virtually no POC characters, and a privileged sorority girl takes centre-stage (spoiler: she graduates from Harvard Law School and delivers the valedictorian speech). Both Zhou and the author of this article are critical of the overbearing whiteness of mainstream feminist discourse. Black American writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde powerfully has articulated this prejudice: “When white women ignore their built-in privileges of whiteness and define woman in terms of their experiences alone, then women of colour become “other”, the outsider”.[5] By symbolically foregrounding female Chinese Australian identity, Zhou rejects the ethnocentrism of white feminism and the pressure of performing a certain identity to feel accepted in conventional circles.

SiyingZhou, To Master Your Mother TongueSiying Zhou, To Master Your Mother Tongue, 2018, mixed-media installation. Image courtesy of Pavement Projects.

In the course of her research on the history of Chinese Australians in Victoria, Zhou came to realise that female representation in migrant narratives was lacking. While this was in part due to the fact that, initially, there were less Chinese women migrating to Australia than Chinese men, this gap in the archive reveals the urgency of revisiting past cultural records in order to build a treasure trove of empowering stories for current and future generations. Further, Zhou contemplates the idea of being ‘Chinese’, and how it relates to being ‘Australian’. She is fascinated by the space between these identities, deftly navigating a social and political world very different from the one she grew up in. Zhou’s embodiment of cultural hybridity in a new environment raises complex issues: constantly having to negotiate her ‘in-betweenness’; tokenistic categorisation according to how others narrowly perceive Chinese culture; and having to be well-versed in a fresh set of social conventions. The artist’s sense of social justice has also led her to the question of how this country can move forward as a fully-formed society if it has so far failed to resolve the traumatic impact of colonisation on First Nations peoples.

To Master Your Mother Tongue extended beyond the exhibition space to local community engagement: firstly, through a public conversation with Chinese-born Australian artist Pia Johnson, activating Collingwood Library Meeting Room (a vital cultural hub); followed by a playful dumpling workshop at Otao Kitchen in Richmond, in which participants invented dumplings that referenced their favourite family food. This public program gave Zhou the opportunity to demonstrate her father’s dumpling-making techniques and the recipes passed on to her.

Chloé Hazelwood is an emerging curator and arts writer based in Naarm (Melbourne).

[1] S Chua, ‘The Short Stories of Another New York: An Interview with Jenny Zhang’ in Lindsay Magazine. June 2018, viewed on 21 October 2018, http://lindsaymagazine.co/an-interview-with-jenny-zhang/

[2] S Cai, ‘The Burrangong Affray’ in un Extended. July 2018, viewed on 22 October 2018, http://unprojects.org.au/un-extended/reviews/the-burrangong-affray/

[3] Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1998, p. 82.

[4] S Zhou, ‘It’s Neither This Nor That’, artist website, viewed on 22 October 2018, http://www.siyingzhou.com/it-s-neither-this-nor-that-2016-2017

[5] A Lorde in T Ball, ‘Still talkin’ up to the white woman: Encounters with corporate feminism’ in Griffith Review 56: Millennials Strike Back, J. Schultz & J. Head (eds), Griffith University Press, South Brisbane, 2017, p. 43.

A Wilder Sun: support, surrender, control, release

This curatorial essay was written for the exhibition A Wilder Sun at Firstdraft, Sydney (3 October – 26 October 2018).

Knowledge cannot be separated from the bodily world of feeling and sensation; knowledge is bound up with what makes us sweat, shudder, tremble, all those feelings that are actually felt on the… skin surface where we touch and are touched by the world.[1]

A Wilder Sun is artist Blake Lawrence’s vulnerable and honest account of healing through feeling, from “moments of cathartic recalibration and emotional ecdysis”[2] to “an attempt at the proclamation and reclamation of personal narratives”.[3] The core elements linking each work are sunlight and water, as instruments of the cyanotype process and sources of strength for the artist.

Lawrence has immortalised anonymous subjects with whom he shares an intimate connection in his death shroud series Catasterisms 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8. These death shrouds act as a materialist form of “spontaneous memorial”.[4] In experimenting with cameraless photography, Lawrence removes the photographer’s organ[5] and replaces it with an alternate “technology of memory”.[6] Perception arises from bodily contact with the natural fibre that is gently laid over each subject as they turn their face to the sun and wait for the ultraviolet light to cast a “registry of sensory impressions”.[7] Cloudy agate slices mimic the human eye and return the viewer’s gaze with a fixed stare. Soft pink sequins resembling marine creatures have been delicately sewn to the surface of each shroud – perhaps they are fish swimming upstream, ending life’s journey by returning to the place they once hatched.

catasterism
From the series Catasterisms 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8, 2017, cyanotype on cotton, sequins, agate slices. Image courtesy of the artist.

Sea animals re-emerge in Costume from Palimpsest, this time as a masked crown. Lobster pincers and tails reach upwards to embrace the air, while a crab spreads itself across the artist’s face. In a previous life, Lawrence studied marine biology and his deep fascination with aquatic species continues to inform his work. Indeed, this impressive headpiece could be an homage to the crustacean. Costume from Palimpsest is imbued with queer codes and collective cultural practices: “physical acts and performative rituals”[8] that celebrate a rich history of intergenerational drag heritage.[9] This work is an ontology of the (queer) flesh – it foregrounds the body’s largest organ in order to “recapture the feel of perceptual experience itself”.[10] Skin is bound up with the ways we instinctually express love, connection and support, as we seek other warm (queer) bodies to hold.

Having spent his childhood in the sugar cane fields of Palmers Island, on unceded Yaegl, Bundjalung and Gumbaynggirr lands, Lawrence honed the art of whipcracking. This pastime is re-contextualised for another location of personal significance – Little Bay Beach, Sydney – in A Cathartic Action, with the artist’s much-loved whip becoming a kinesthetic symbol of mourning. The process of whipcracking is a full-body experience – rhythmic, fluid motions propel Lawrence’s whip through the air until a section of it has gathered enough momentum to move faster than the speed of sound, creating a small sonic boom. Lawrence occasionally pauses to rest, collects his whip and paces across the rock, maintaining an elegant composure even on a craggy surface in sky-high Pleaser shoes. Towards the end of the performance, a small section of the whip snaps off. The artist stands resolute, framed by a shimmering ocean backdrop while the viewer is left to contemplate “the affective potential of grief”.[11]

Dead Reckoning is Lawrence’s most recent video work and marks a turning point in the artist’s path to “personal and shared healing”.[12] With the support of his chosen family, Lawrence works to expose and develop large photographic shrouds that are unearthed from the sand. The trio wrap the shrouds around each other, activating exposure through skin contact. The cyanotypes are then rinsed and fixed in the ocean. As Gaston Bachelard wrote in his famous meditation on phenomenology, The Poetics of Space, “there is no greater value than intimacy – it has magnifying properties”.[13] The union of Lawrence and his companions is sustained through emotional, ecological and ethical mutuality. Dead Reckoning is another contribution to the “abstracted family albums”[14] Lawrence has been assembling over time. In recording the bodies of lovers and friends, the artist hopes to unlock “the healing power of autonomy”[15] as an outcome of these sentimental collaborations.

A Wilder Sun is filled with tender vibrations and an unwavering commitment to ‘the ethics of care’: “the importance of everyone having a voice, being listened to carefully (in their own right and on their own terms) and heard with respect”.[16] Seeing as this also informs the ethos of an artist-led organisation such as Firstdraft, the relationship between exhibition and gallery feels particularly organic.

Chloé Hazelwood is an emerging curator and arts writer based in Naarm (Melbourne).

[1] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York and London: Routledge, 2013), 171.

[2] “A Wilder Sun”, Firstdraft, accessed September 25, 2018, https://firstdraft.org.au/exhibitions/a-wilder-sun/

[3] “A Wilder Sun”, Firstdraft.

[4] Erika Doss, “Spontaneous Memorials and Contemporary Modes of Mourning in America”, Material Religion 2, no. 3 (2006): 294-319.

[5] Gilbert Caluya, “The Aesthetics of Simplicity: Yang’s Sadness and the Melancholic Community”, Journal of Intercultural Studies 27, no. 1-2 (2006): 83-100.

[6] Marianne Hirsch and Valerie Smith, “Feminism and Cultural Memory: An Introduction”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no.1 (2002): 1-19.

[7] Anthony Fitzpatrick, Faraway: so close (Melbourne: Arts Project Australia, 2017), 6.

[8] Doss, “Spontaneous Memorials”, 300.

[9] “A Wilder Sun”, Firstdraft.

[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception [1948], trans. by Oliver Davis (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 53.

[11] Doss, “Spontaneous Memorials”, 313.

[12] “Dead Reckoning”, This is Not Art, accessed 26 September 2018, https://thisisnotart.org/events/dead-reckoning-sunday-installation/

[13] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space [1994], trans. by Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 184-189.

[14] “A Wilder Sun”, Firstdraft.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Carol Gilligan”, Ethics of Care, accessed 26 September 2018, https://ethicsofcare.org/carol-gilligan/