Tag Archives: printmaking

At Arms Length: conceptual framework for a print folio.

28 Jul

at the wheel
At arms length; since the industrial revolution that is how Western society has interacted with the natural world. There has been a gradual and seemingly inexorable process of distancing ourselves, removing our selves and more definitively of “seeing” ourselves as separate from the natural world rather than as a part of it. Industrialisation marks a turning point in our understanding of our place in the world, as being distinct from it, not part of it.

Industrialised societies have used a variety of lenses to get closer to, yet further from, the natural world. Think of microscopes, telescopes, cameras, etc. they all seem to bring the viewed object closer, yet when viewed out of context the object, in a sense, becomes more distant from us.  Viewed via a lens our experience becomes disembodied. We privilege one sense over all others and we de-contextualise the looking we do by filtering it with a machine. For instance, when I look with my naked eye at a little patch of yellow lichen on a stone wall and I know what it is and my relationship to it. When I look at the same yellow lichen through the eyepiece of a microscope I am confronted with a mass of yellow disks isolated from any context.

lichen and tiny stone

Without prior knowledge of this object I cannot understand it or my relationship to it. The same thing happens with a telescope when I perceive a star through its lens; I loose the constellations that form its family and I cannot follow its path across the sky accompanied by the stories that would explain its dance through the seasons. How many times have you returned from holidays with the sneaking suspicion that in your endless quest for the perfectly captured moment you have failed to fully experience where you were? The entire trip viewed down the lens of a camera, the de-contextualised eye privileged above your other senses and certainly above a holistic sense of an embodied experience.

ash seed

The ubiquitous presence of cameras in our lives means that many people spend much of their time viewing the world via their smart-phone taking pictures, editing them and uploading them to another screen in a de-contextualised virtual space. When we use cameras mounted on remotely controlled drones we can so separate ourselves from the actual viewing experience as to remove ourselves from physical danger; perhaps this is a good thing? Or does it merely make it easier for us to distance ourselves from responsibility for our actions? In his novel Homo Faber, Swiss writer Max Frisch describes technology as “the knack of so arranging the world that we need not experience it.”

birch bark

Yet certainly there are benefits to be had from this technology, indeed I owe my life to the superior surgical skills of neuroscientists guided by tiny cameras manipulated through my blood vessels. However, we should perhaps be wary of privileging a disembodied viewing experience because of the lack of regard it seems to foster in us for our relationships with the world around us.

Why does this matter?

Context, it seems, is important. It’s how we make sense of our world and our place in it. It gives us spatial, social, cultural (and any number of other kinds of) meaning. Context also brings us an awareness of consequences. When one’s interactions with the world are mediated by a machine, a de-contextualising lens, we are divorced from an experience informed by contextualising meaning. Without this sense of place or relationship one cannot have an awareness of consequences. Perhaps it is because of the saturation of such disembodied viewing experiences in our culture that we so often find ourselves looking without seeing, viewing our world without an awareness of our relationship to it and with scant regard for the consequences.

checking proofs

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At Arms Length: A Residency Project at Atelierhaus Beisinghoff

28 Jul

At Arms Length:

A Residency Project at Atelierhaus Beisinghoff

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“Let’s build a bigger telescope so we can see things more up close, further away from where we really are,” sings musician Michael Franti in his song Water Pistol Man. These lyrics returned to me when I began thinking about the work I might make during my current residency at Atelierhaus Beisinghoff in Rhoden Germany. As a sculptor my work has often been concerned with human constructions of space and place and how we make meaning from our relationship to the world around us. Lately I’ve come to ponder the way that industrialised cultures increasingly seem to experience the world via virtual mediums. I wanted to explore what this might mean for the way we view the world and our place in it. To this end, I decided to buy a pocket field microscope to take to my residency and find out what happens when one views common objects through a lens such as a camera, telescope or in this case a microscope. I have discovered that privileging the visual sensory experience over other senses and viewing objects in isolation removes them from their context, making it difficult to understand how they relate to us and we to them. Through the lens of the microscope a flower or feather may look beautiful but it will certainly appear alien because it no longer has any context. From my field studies I made a series of drawings that later became etching plates and have now further developed into a series of colour prints called At Arms Length.Image

These works will be exhibited, at Atelierhaus Beisinghoff upon completion of my residency and also in Australia later in the year. For further information about my work please visit my website www.racheljoyartist.com

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Exploring Our Feral Hearts

3 Jul

The text and images below will appear on an academic poster that I am presenting at the Impact 8 International Printmaking Conference in Dundee, Scotland later this year. The conference theme this year is “Borders and Crossings: The Artist as Explorer.” My poster responds to this theme using my latest suite of prints, Feral Family Portraits, as a spring-board to provoke discussion about making art within a cultural legacy of colonial violence. To purchase the prints from this series please visit http://www.etsy.com/au/shop/RachelJoyPrintmaker.

Exploring our feral hearts:

non-indigenous artists and the legacy of colonial violence in Australia, a multi-disciplinary approach.

Bullocky.  Wood engraving and digital print.

Bullocky.
Wood engraving and digital print.

From an Australian perspective the idea of exploration is, or at least should be, fraught. Exploration implies the discovery of the unknown. Certainly, there was plenty that was unknown to Europeans when they arrived in what would become known as Australia. The seasons were back to front, the animals were outrageous confabulations, the trees shed their bark not their leaves. None of it made sense to European minds but instead of asking the locals how it worked they murdered them then pretended they didn’t exist and stole their land. Today’s psychology journals would describe such behaviour as sociopathic.

Australia was built on the lie of “terra nullius” the concept of an empty land. This was a convenient lie the British colonists told themselves in order to justify their thievery. The Australian Government’s continued categorisation of indigenous Australians as native fauna until the 1967 referendum is evidence of just how far the self-deception went and for how long.

Historically European explorers set off into territory that was, to them, unknown. Many found the land hostile and difficult to negotiate, some even perished because they didn’t seek the help or heed the advice of those for whom the land was deeply known and understood.

What was the purpose of European exploration? Sometimes, perhaps to understand (for scientific purposes and to fulfil that peculiar European desire to collect and categorise) but more often it was to assess its potential as grazing land to be possessed and exploited for material gain.

Wood engraving and digital print.

Feral Family Portrait.
Wood engraving and digital print.

When thinking of exploration one might imagine crossings such as fording a river, traversing a desert or mountain range in a romantic quest for an Aussie El Dorado or equally improbable inland sea. In Australia these are the crossings our pioneers are famous for. We’d rather not talk about crossing the line of human decency with invasion, land grabs, genocide, child stealing and racism.

White Australia would do well to explore its own soul in an attempt to understand the mentality, the collective psyche, if you’ll allow, that perpetrated the evils of colonialism and then denied it ever happened. In some parts of the world today holocaust denial is again rearing its ugly head; in Australia we built a nation on it.

Printmaking has often been political and its many low cost incarnations make it a very versatile and democratic medium. Printmaking has become a powerful medium in the hands of indigenous Australians with many dedicated studios emerging to sustain this interest. However, as a white artist engaged in a multidisciplinary art making practice I see printmaking colliding with sculpture and street art to create something both beautiful and challenging. My work is an attempt to engage in a meaningful public dialogue about the constructed nature of our history and sense of community.

My latest project Feral Family Portraits explores notions of the foreign, outsiders/insiders and the feral. It posits European Australians as the ultimate feral animal. Using a combination of wood engraving and digital print technology I have created images that strongly reference and borrow from iconic colonial landscape and portrait paintings and photography. The original colonial images were created to represent a construction of truth about the colonial experience. By replacing the heads of the protagonists with those of feral animals I hope to re-present another truth regarding colonial experience.

Wood engraving and digital print

Madonna and child on the wallaby track.
Wood engraving and digital print.

This project challenges the idea of exploration as a heroic or noble endeavour and posits it, within the context of Australian colonialism, as a rather more fraught element in the construction of our national identity. Drawing inspiration from Theodor Adorno’s famous quote about the difficulties of making art after the holocaust, the goal of the project is to acknowledge the genocidal nature of the Australian colonial experience and ask how non-indigenous artists can make work that recognises this history and its ongoing implications.

Contemporary Australia has a fragile fragmented identity but it sometimes comes together in beautiful and unexpected ways. A multidisciplinary approach to making art reflects this and by opening up the process allows exciting possibilities to emerge. My own practice of colliding printmaking with sculpture and street art underscores the value of taking print out of the gallery and onto the streets. In particular the recent suite of prints and printstallations Feral Family Portraits, shows how the multidisciplinary approach of the work aids in exposing the constructed nature of our history and sense of community.

Billy Tea.  Wood engraving and digital print.

Billy Tea.
Wood engraving and digital print.

One incarnation of the project involves the works being installed as life-sized paste-ups in locations around my city (Melbourne) that have relevance to each particular image. For example, the work Bullocky has appeared on walls on the site of the former stock and sale yards in Kensington and Angler has graced the arches of the Queen Street footbridge over the Yarra River. Bullocks were the beast of burden most relied upon to pull the cartloads of materials required to open up and settle the land and European Carp were introduced to the rivers for sport, as a food source and reminder of “home.”

Angler. Wood engraving and digital print.

Angler.
Wood engraving and digital print.

The project highlights the importance of the social and historical value of the sites chosen to install the work and the democratic nature of a public viewing space. It also asserts the role of humour in drawing an audience in, to consider the deeper elements of emotionally challenging works. Here I would draw your attention to Bakhtin’s theories around the carnivalesque and it’s role in upsetting power dynamics. There are many examples of subaltern groups making use of humour to draw attention to injustice and my project continues in this vein.

Wood engraving and digital print

Trapper.
Wood engraving and digital print.

Powerful art should cross boundaries and explore ideas. So to that end I am taking this opportunity to problematise one possible reading of the conference theme in an effort to open up discussion about the issues faced by non-indigenous artists who acknowledge an inherited legacy of colonial violence.

References and further reading

Adorno, T. Aesthetic Theory, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.

Anderson, B. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism, Verso, London, 1993.

Bakhtin, M. Rabelais and His World. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1984.

Grimshaw. P, Lake. M, McGrath. A and Quartly. M, Creating a Nation, McPhee Gribble Publishers, Melbourne, 1994.

Jung, C.G. Essays on Contemporary Events 1936-1946.

Lake. M and Reynolds. H. Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality. Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2008.

Moses, A.D. ed. Genocide and Settler Society: Frontier Violence and stolen indigenous children in Australian History. Berghahn Books, Oxford. 2005.

Reynolds, H. Dispossession: Black Australians and White invaders, Allen and Unwin, Sydney 1989.

Salzman, L. & Rosenberg, E. eds. Trauma and Visuality in Modernity, University of New England Press, London, 2006.

Schama, S. Landscape and Memory, Fontana Press, London, 1996.

Tumarkin, M. Traumascapes: The power and fate of places transformed by tragedy, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2005.

FundaMattel: If Barbie Wore a Burqua

8 Feb

Next week I will be launching my latest solo show of prints, FundaMattel: If Barbie Wore a Burqua.  Many of you have been asking what it’s all about so I thought I’d put down a few words by way of explanation. This particular series of prints sprang from interactions I was having with burqua clad women in my neighbourhood and my ESL classroom.  I began reflecting on my attitudes to the burqua and the women who wear it.

I have never felt entirely comfortable with the idea that women who wear the burqua choose to do so out of blind religious faith or compliance with patriarchal codes of behaviour, that they are experiencing some sort of false consciousness seems to me rather patronising and simplistic.  Many of the women in my neighbourhood and in my language classes were certainly very spirited people and yet it seemed the burqua was an encumbrance to their physical expression.  I tried to imagine what they might become were they not so encumbered.  I was thinking about control of women’s bodies and their ability to be active and I realised the burqua didn’t have a monopoly on restriction of women.  I began to consider Barbie and the message she sends to little girls about the kind of woman they can be.  It seemed to me that both barbie and the burqua were extreme examples of constructed femininity and neither of them had much to do with a human being who could fully realise their human potential.  Barbie is renown for her costume changes, but few of them allow her to engage in physically active pass times, indeed the physiology of Barbie is such that were she a real woman she would be unable to stand due to her ill-proportioned body.  Barbie is impossible and leading an active life in a burqua is also damn near impossible, it would appear.  I started to try to imagine burqua clad women doing active things like sports and the project just grew from there.  Some of the images are very funny, I made them with the intention of using humour to unveil both western attitudes to the burqua and the garments limiting effects on women’s choices.  Humour can be a very powerful tool in opening us up to seeing in a new way.  I have no intention to ridicule the women themselves, rather this is a project about asking questions and exposing where the power really lies.  John Lennon said “Woman is the nigger of the world,” that is still true today and it’s a power relationship I’m trying to reveal in these works .

The graphic simplicity and power of the lino print lends itself well to this project.  I love comics and graphic novels and sometimes I imagined these impossible burquas as superheroes, certainly they would need to have superpowers to do what they do (synchronised swimming for example).  There is an Iranian comic book artist and illustrator, Marjane Satrapi, whose work I love, and while she was not a direct influence on this project there may be certain stylistic or thematic similarities.

The works in this show were made as limited edition prints but then I started to feel that I wanted to make gifts of the prints for my neighbourhood and my city so I started making paste-ups of the images and putting them up in city lanes, sometimes in masses or individually as little surprises for intrepid backstreet wanderers.  Street art is a great equaliser, it’s open to us all to create and to view as opposed to the gallery system which can be alienating to some viewers and exclusive of some artists.

I hope viewers will reflect on these works with an open heart, ask themselves questions about their own beliefs and about the various social codes that attempt to govern women.  Most of all I want people who see these works to laugh because laughter is subversive! 🙂