WHAT IS YOUR PREFERED ART FORM AND WHO ARE YOU AS AN ARTIST?
I am a cabinet maker by trade. I did my apprenticeship in khaki overalls….That’s how I came to understand how trees grow, why and where they grow, and I explore the Australian landscape through the materiality of trees. That has since broadened to include sound, video and photography.
I work as a cross platforms artist and funds come from a range of sources like self-devised work or government grants, councils. It all depends on who I am working with and what the initiative is. I have commission based practice in wood craft, making furniture and sculpture made of Australian timber.
My woodwork was the basis for my learning. I understand the land a little bit more now and there is more that I need to express that I feel I can do better with other mediums.
It’s like the wood is my hand, the sound is my ears and the photography and video are my eyes. I am there with all my body
WHAT PROJECT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I have a series of photographs that I took in Menindee in far west NSW, desert landscapes, bringing the landscape down to its essential elements of colour and light.
It is an attempt in capturing the Quiet.
From quiet I can start to understand the landscape around me. That is the basis for my study: trying to capture the smallest elemental part of things around me.
From that work in Menindee I have just been invited recently to undergo a residency at Arteles Creative centre in Finland. They put out an expression of interest for artists concerned with the themes of “silence, isolation and existence”…so I put my hand up straight away, and I am going there in February next year, in the middle of their winter.
What I tested and try to understand in the arid landscapes of Australia, I am now going to test in the monotones, dark and cold of the Finish winter! [laughs]
AP: It is going to be magnificent!…. scary, a little bit too, I suppose…
It’s ALWAYS scary. It’s always scary because …. I don’t know WHERE I AM.
I live in Australia, I am of Irish and Scottish descent, I have no memory of this landscape within my DNA.
…. So it is always a little bit scary.
I can tell you a story about that if you like….the story of the first time I went to Barmah national park, which is right on the Murray River, 400km North of Melbourne. It’s Yorta Yorta country and they call the river Dhungala.
The first time I went there I was traveling there with my kids.
I’ve known that landscape through pictures I have seen, things that people have told me about it and in working with the timber from that forest: it’s the biggest red gums forest in the world. I finally got the opportunity to go there and I travelled there with my kids, they had talked non-stop for four hours.
Included in that was my first internal dialogue:
”where am I to stay for the first time? What’s this place gonna be like? We are going to be staying there for the weekend?…”
I was so appreciative of the privilege…
We got just passed Shepparton, the road straightens and the sky opens up. There a little dogleg in the road, that I remember, we went through that dogleg, all this noise of the kids talking and that internal dialogue went quiet and I heard a voice say:
“What are you doing here….should you be here?”
And it sat in me from then on. It was just two questions that I just left there.
We spent the weekend in Barmah National Park but I felt that I was being watched. It was like something said “okay, you can come here, we don’t know who you are but we can see that you have two children. Maybe you are alright. You can stay here but know that we are here as well”
I keep coming back to that idea that I DON’T KOW WHERE I AM….
It’s like when you go to someone’s house for the first time: you don’t open the cupboards, get out the bread, you don’t go wander through the place trying to find the toilet…you ask “excuse me, could you tell me where the toilet is?”
You need to build a relationship with a place and the people who know that place so you know where you can or cannot go.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR ART PRACTICE IN RELATION TO THE LANDSCAPE? Preferred exposure? Plein-air, residencies, memories?
I don’t always have the privilege to do so but ideally, I need to stand where I am and I make works in situ: photographs, videos and sound works are made in-situ, in sympathy with the landscape around me.
For example for a lot of my sound works: it is not simply field recordings, not simply some guy playing a musical instrument outside. I use a musical instrument as a measure of my imprint on the landscape around me: so the noise that I make is just as important in the work as the silence or other noises around me.
AP: Could you take me on a typical day of work?
Most often my first step is to talk to people that live there. I am cautious about just wandering around. I go to spots that seem more familiar than others first and then as I gain more insights and access I start to wander out a little bit further.
AP: what do you mean by “more familiar”? do you mean more “friendly”?
Well….if I see a picnic bench, I know that someone has be there before and it is more likely that it’s OK that I go to where the picnic bench is. Not to say that maybe someone may have placed that picnic bench there by mistake and it shouldn’t be there, but that would be how I take my initial cues.
Maybe I go the community centre first and I talk to people and ask them about places.
Then I have these places in mind and go to them with loose decisions about how I want to show that place. I often take a bag of sound gear and camera and video so I can work spontaneously.
So I start with silence.
I sit there.
Silence is very important because I want to privilege the existence of what is around. The outcome of that work ideally would privilege the place around me more so than my own existence.
Because at the end of the day my work is not about me.
AP: you are measuring the quiet of your surrounds and you do create a sound work that includes noises, say with a bell….Is this something you do in situ or back in the studio?
It is made in-situ. In that bell work you are talking about, the silence in-between bell strikes should be just as privileged as the sound I am making.
It was so silent where I was! I was in the middle of a salt lake near the border between New South Wales and Queensland, and it was 45 degrees and there was such an absence of sounds, which as at the same time creates such richness….so yes the silence is so important in my work.
Field and federation bells. Bells used as a measure of the surrounding acoustic ecology of Salt Lake. (50km south of Tibooburra, North West NSW.)
AP: You said the work is not about you but about the landscape. Is your work related to an eternal landscape, or do you try and represent, or relate to, a specific place with each work? Is it about the concept of landscape or specifically related to the location?
I think that will happen by default that eventually there may be a collection of works where by you can assess the acoustic ecology of one place in comparison to another. But that is not the intent.
What I am trying to understand is “WHERE I AM”. Where I am, without the distraction of, but still tinted by history, culture, environment.
AP: this is where you are as a living being, but not geographically?
I don’t know what geography is. Geography is a made up thing so that we can put fences and borders and decide who has access to where.
AP: Wood and your wood craft has been essential to the birth of your interest for the landscape. Today, where does your wood work fit with the rest of your practice?
It still matters very much. As I said before, that’s my hands.
That provides a tactile experience for people. I make things to tell the story of how trees grow. So that’s an in-road for people to be able to understand what’s around them. I want to reframe the economy of objects. I don’t make a table, a chair, a cabinet: it has that function but there is more to it than that.
[Pointing to a piece of wood] This beetle came here at this time, you can see that mark, that then receded as winter came on, the tree was this old at that time as a branch then grew, this timber is hard because it has grown very slowly in the desert….those sorts of examples of landscape are in the work.
AP: And you are using this to establish relationships with the people, locally, when in a residency? It is the wood, the people and the landscape, all in a continuum?
Yes. I have a practice which involves 50% commission based woodwork and 50% visual and sound art. During my residency in Menindee I could can pick and choose from my cross-platform art practices I am involved in, to get the most of a place I was in. People often understood woodwork a lot easier than: “Oh, this guy plays guitar in the desert in sympathy with the surrounds”….[laughing]…
So it is totally interconnected. It is a whole. And it informs each other.
FIGURE OR NO FIGURE IN THE LANDSCAPE?
This is usually a question that I ask to painters but I feel that in your case the figure and the place of humanity in the landscape is important in another form.
I am going back to some of the “interviews in silence” you did in your Menindee residency. The silence seem to be the connecting link.
Can you tell me a bit more about how you include people/humanity within the landscape?
I work with them separately. I want to present the landscape free from any distraction. I can create work about people but it will be free from the distraction of the environment.
And you are right in that all the work is linked by silence.
If I place a person in the landscape, then there are two elements there and I want to work with the least amount of elements that I can, I am always taking things away. I present people in silence because I want us all to understand the elemental parts of existence. I can put that person in the landscape and then the viewer will make a judgement based on that context. I am taking away that context so that we can just look each other straight in the eyes.
(field and guitar – dungala narrows, sitting on car hood between two big ol’ ancient trees. naive and fumbling. then it rains.)
WHAT ARTISTS HAVE BEEN OF INFLUENCE TO YOU AND YOUR WORK?
Firstly the landscape is the influential artist: it exists, shaping colours and lights and sounds. So my primary influence is from the sky to the grounds, to the river to under the earth, to what I am standing on.
The river is an entity just as much as Mark Rothko and deserves the same privilege.
I am inspired by indigenous leaders and ancestors all over the world. Their custodianship of this land, of all lands, brings such richness of knowledge. They got in in their veins, their DNA and their memory.
I am influenced by modern days warriors and thinkers: like Gary Foley, Robbie Thorpe, people who are asking us to question our privilege on land. John Turell, who is American Indian, asks similar question about our existence and our right to access land. Gaston Bachelard, French romanticism, who questioned the industrial revolution at a time when everyone was going “isn’t it a fantastic thing”, these guys were saying “hang on a minute, there is something that is left behind”….
Today we have the ‘Dark mountain project’ based in England that asks questions about hyper-geography, the internet and climate change. How are we going to exist when the world is depleted of all its resources. “Be honest” is what the Dark mountain project asking us to be.
In furniture I love the utilitarianism and pure approach of shaker furniture. These pieces are made without the distraction of ornamentation, they are purely functional objects but beautiful in that purity.
Then there is George Nakashima, who shows us how tree grows into his work: he wrote a book titled “the soul of the tree”
I have such a wide range of sources… I am interested in people that think and question.
I love sound works of Fabio Orsi who creates these beautiful, lush landscapes of sound, interlayering frequencies, giving us a special appreciation for sound….. I could keep going forever.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN ATTRACTED TO THE LANDSCAPE OR HAS YOUR PRACTICE EVOLVED TO COME TO IT AS A CENTRAL ELEMENT?
When I was a kid I didn’t have the privilege of much access to the Australian landscape. I was born and bred here in Melbourne northern
I left home when I was 15 years old so I needed to find a way to sustain myself… and I chose woodwork. I got an apprenticeship, started work, and I found that I wasn’t given enough time to do things as well as I could. So I wanted to step outside that mainstream, develop a craft and an understanding as to why I am doing this thing, outside of just making objects for a market.
My practice has evolved to incorporate the landscape as I have been able to access it and learned about it.
AP: Many landscape artists I have spoken to had seeds of their interest for that subject planted in early life: born in the country, happy childhood memories holidaying in the bush and so on. In your case is it just ‘luck of the draw’ that you picked woodwork? Or is there anything in your family’s Irish and Scottish history that could have influenced you to go in that direction?
I don’t know enough about my Irish and Scottish history and that is one thing I need to access more: what is my culture, what is my vein, in my memory, in my DNA? I know bits and pieces that my family has told me but there is so much more to it to know about.
AP: so you are Australian from an arbitrary, purely geographical perspective, but you feel that there is something foreign flowing in your vein that is foreign to where you are?
I feel dispossessed. I feel like I have been dropped here. I don’t intimately understand the movement of the wind or the shape of the trees.
YET, DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL CONNECTION TO THE AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPE OR COULD YOU USE ANY LANDSCAPE AS A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION?
I have a very special connection to the Australian landscape and I appreciate what I get out of it daily and I look forward to what I may find in other landscapes. I don’t know the answer to what I will find but I am really looking forward to it.
AP: could you describe “special”?
I gained so much knowledge from it:
I am not afraid of spiders because I am familiar with spiders.I am not scared of the river because I learned from the river. I respect it. I don’t just jump into the river, I get to know the river first.
I have a special connection because I feel whole when I am floating down the river. I feel so grateful when I am floating down the river and it starts raining and I get to see the tiny drops of rain touch the river. I am so grateful for the long necked turtle, when I am scared by where I am. It’s in the middle of the night and I’m walking down the track, unsure of where I am, already a little bit edgy and then right next to me a kangaroo jumps right out of the bush. And all these little things I think are special because they are just telling me WHERE I AM.
It allows me to be reminded of my part in the landscape and my effect on the landscape. It’s really nice to be working together with someone [the landscape] and I feel like it’s a special connection because we are trying to work together.
A collaboration with Sound Artist, Ryan Granger. field recordings and found objects from remote western NSW, guitar, harmonica, federation bells & electronics.
HAVE YOU TRAVELLED OVERSEAS AND HAS THE FOREIGN LANDSCAPE INFLUENCED YOUR WORK?
No, I have been to New Zealand and did create work from going to Aotearoa but I haven’t exhibited any of it. That was purely research.
I got to see another landscape infused with another culture. There is so much water and the mountains or hills look like there was once a string attached to the top of them and someone has pulled the strings up. It undulates and sprouts out around of you so much more than the flat and arid landscape that I have worked with in Australia so far.
AP: Are you trying to trigger a response with the spectator of your works or is it merely and primarily a personal exploration or quest?
I say what I say and the viewer can say whatever they want to say.
I want to minimise the boundaries that my language or my interpretation may give. I want to have a conversation, yes, because I feel very alone when I am out in the desert, wandering around. As an artist you are constantly talking to yourself and thinking that you might be crazy and you wonder if someone else thinks this way, so I want to present this work so that it agitates dialogue and critical thoughts.
SO IN CONCLUSION, WHY THE LANDSCAPE?
Because it’s in me…..
The landscape is in me.
…..I have a million ways to answer that question……. I am trying to pick one…..
Just something innate that is in me and drives passion. It drives an appreciation, it drives simplicity, it drives quiet.
Read more about Michael and his work: