Film: Interview with Ben Quilty
My interview with Ben Quilty for Studio International is online now. Filmed by Martin Kennedy at the Saatchi Gallery (with William Kennedy). Watch it here.
"Ben Quilty’s first solo London show opened at the Saatchi Gallery on 4 July, celebrating his winning of the inaugural Prudential Eye Award, 2014.
Quilty’s work confronts Australian history and identity through a series of Rorschach-inspired paintings. These include Fairy Bower Rorschach (2012), which layers colonial landscape with past atrocities against Aboriginal people, and Self Portrait Smashed Rorschach (2009), in which images of past debauchery coincide with a surface whose textures recall trees and abstract patterns. His Inhabit series, meanwhile, challenges ideas of Australian colonialism and identity, through paintings of Captain Cook evolving from a devil and into portraits of the artist.
Christiana Spens went to the Saatchi Gallery to talk to Quilty about his exhibition, as well as his past work as an official war artist, embedded in the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan, and his wider ideas about history, identity and brutality.”
Ben Quilty is at the Saatchi Gallery, London, from 4 July – 3 August 2014.
The text version of the interview is here:
CS: Growing up in Australia clearly influences your work, most obviously in terms of natural landscape and history. Can you explain how these themes influence your Rorschach paintings?
BQ: As a little boy, and I had two little brothers, mum and dad took us away for two years and we traveled around Australia in a little old caravan, and we were home schooled by Mum and Dad. And I remember being in the Western desert, in Western Australia, and we stayed with a community of people there, who’d been living on that land for 50,000 years. And I remember really, really strongly feeling for the first time in my life, as a ten-year-old boy, that I didn’t really belong to this place. So the Rorschach’s, then, especially the landscapes, reference very beautiful sights with very dark histories.
So Fairy Bower Falls Rorschach, for instance, is a site right near my home, and I live in the countryside a few hours south of Sydney. It’s very beautiful, very green, very cold, huge deep valleys, very, very rich soil, and Gandangara people had been there before British immigrants started taking and clearing the land, for 40 or 50,000 years. And Fairy Bower Falls is one very beautiful waterfall there. There’s a famous photo from that part of the world, of women with parasols and men in top hats – a black and white photograph – taken on the site of this waterfall – from almost 180 years ago. And only four years before that photograph was taken, there was a massacre at the base of the waterfall – of between 30 and 40 Aboriginal people. The men were away on the initiation ceremony, so it was women and children and elderly - and two white Englishmen came and used rifles and killed – hunted and killed all these people.
So in a sense, I guess, and as retaliation on my behalf, against this whole notion of reordering history, I really feel that it’s important for my children and their children, for their society to be a healthier place to live in, that we really definitely need to acknowledge things. And it’s something that I think humans need to be very aware of, that when you reorder history you quite often – there’s a real pain involved in reordering history, because you deny people grief, you deny people healing, you deny so much. I mean the act of denial, in a sense, is a very violent thing to do.
So these paintings are based on Herman Rorschach’s ink blot tests; they literally are a ‘squashie’ that little children use acrylic paint and shut a piece of paper on an image, and as a child it’s the first time you have sense of control over a medium like that. And I’ve literally used that process to make these huge big paintings of landscapes. And Herman Rorschach’s inkblot tests were designed to diagnose – as a pioneer of mental health research – to diagnose mental illness. So if you could see something in the image, then you showed signs of paranoid or delusional behavior. So in a sense, there’s a dark joke in the paintings that you can see something but the audience shouldn’t feel ashamed that they can see something because you’re possibly showing delusional behavior. So they’re very beautiful sights, with a very dark history.
CS: What, [then] is your intention with the audience? … With the original tests, anything they saw was delusional or their own interpretation, but with these obviously you’ve put images in there, as a sort of trick almost.
BQ: Yeah well, there’s a whole act as a young man of growing up in a Western culture, where there’s no rite of passage, no initiation ceremony for my young men, my young male friends, we made up our own initiation ceremonies, and quite often included quite violent, self-destructive behavior. And through that process, which is really about glorifying decline, you compete with each other to fail – and fail, quite often, in very crazy and self-destructive violent ways – and [in] these paintings – really you destroy what’s made in the first place to make something that’s more beautiful – but also by destroying it you give it whole other layer of meaning – which is about the Rorschach and about forcing the audience to view something that might be an uncomfortable truth.
And in the end as an artist, I think too many artists deny the fact that there’s a theatrics in having a beautiful white space and having an audience standing in front of your work – it’s very much about theatrics. I’ve always been interested in that space between the very surface of the painting right up close to the painting, and as you move away from it, you’re confronted with something that’s quite often – confronting – it’s ugly, or violent, or a sight of massacre – something that’s a confronting thing for a human being to watch. And you only view it as you move away from that painting. This one’s called “Self Portrait Smashed”, and it’s from an image of me very, very drunk. Which in a way is – I guess it’s sort of symbolic of the way we re-order history and we actively forget – and that’s what you do when you get blind drunk when you’re twenty-five years old. You wipe yourself out. You wipe part of your history.
I have two little kids now, I’m a dad, and I’m forty, and my son’s eight - and I’m now a role model for him, so the whole drunken thing, you know… If I can have a son who is a nineteen-year-old man, who doesn’t want to drink, who wants to be really straight, then I’ve fucking succeeded. And I guess that part of my life is very much in my history, but nonetheless it’s made me who I am, and I think the act of rebelliousness in young men is because there’s a complete lack of any process for them to become good young men. There’s no initiation ceremony. And I know I always look to Aboriginal culture in my country because I think they’re an incredible race of people who lived in harmony, in a beautiful, beautiful part of the world, for so long. Their initiation ceremony for their young men takes up to thirteen years. And it’s very physical, it’s actually, from my perspective, often very confronting. And it’s about finding the soul of yourself, so that you can become a valuable and valued, and respectful man. In my society – in our society – there’s nothing.
CS: But do you see this – as an initiation ceremony – art practice?
BQ: Yeah, for me that’s exactly what it is, yeah. No doubt about it. And for me, painting was – and I read – I went to a very good art school in Sydney, at Sydney University – and Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was one of my favorite essays, but it really hinted at the fact that painting had been superseded – but for me, outside of contemporary art practice, the fact that I could pick up an implement, and have a pigment, and make a mark, and make a statement – nothing could touch that for me. And I think that was all about being a young man, and a straight, white male. And having that output which was completely esoteric, was completely meaningless, in a way it was like a Latin Mass – was a very important thing for me. And to find myself, and then to comment on why I think young men have such trouble finding themselves… they should all just paint, and then they’d all be right!
[CS: Why have you chosen Captain Cook, the devil, a skull and yourself as subjects in these paintings?]
BQ: These two works particularly, are [inspired by] very famous portraits of Captain Cook, by Nathaniel Dance – these two here – two very different portraits of the same man. They asked his wife, after he’d died, which portrait would you rather him be remembered by, and she was very adamant that in my view it was the much more effeminate version of him looking more like an English aristocrat, with powdered cheeks and pouffed hair, which in a way was the absolute antithesis to what my sense of identity as a male is, that this much more chiseled sea-farer is what today is seen as the ultimate form of masculinity. So this body of work started with that, and in a sense the idea of animating paintings, from one painting to the next, from the devil at one end and then through to self-portraits, made sitting in front of a mirror, at the other end. And I was sort of criticized for suggesting that Captain Cook’s somehow associated with the devil – but if you’re an indigenous Aboriginal Australian and then Captain Cook is symbolically definitely – symbolizes the end of their community, the end of their Dreamtime, the end of their culture. And quite often very destructive, and violent death as well. So, I didn’t think it was too far a stretch. And then if you include yourself as an artist in your work, then you can say anything you want. And I believe that you do have to be – I think artists are pretty self-aware – all of us are pretty self-aware human beings, and therefore it’s pretty natural that you end up putting yourself in your work.
CS: And it’s understanding yourself through history, as well, so it’s more subjective, in a sense?
BQ: Yeah, look the notion of history that I hope this work talks about is a history that I think humans are very good at readapting to suit their sense of national pride, or social identity, and there’s been – particularly in Australia – over the last 25 years, a real reordering of history, and quite often I think that’s a very tragic erasing of parts of history since European colonization – erasing of the violent history to do with the indigenous people, who’ve been there for 50,000 years, who know the country far better than we will ever know it, far better than my great-great-grandchildren will ever know that place.
CS: It’s a type of social death, as well, and I suppose you’re talking about – you’re looking at the perpetrators of that.
BQ: Yeah well I’m the perpetrator of it. My blood is Irish; I’m part of that legacy, of what – what the globalization of the planet – what it is about. That borders are broken down, that identities are becoming looser – and that’s one part of it. And I’ve lived it and witnessed it – and although I’m Australian on my passport, I still feel that my blood is very Irish, and that the real, real contenders for Australian-ness are the indigenous population, who’ve been there for so, so, so long.
CS: What do you think about your own Irish and Scottish and new immigrants – what should the identity be then, as an Australian? Because you’re not Irish, per se.
BQ: Yeah, saying that, yeah it’s a good point, as an artist it’s just a completely idealistic argument, it’s completely unrealistic – there’s no way that – but I think that one of the roles of an artist is to point out the things that are so idealistic, that they’re unreal - so that you can have a discourse, so that… the fiber of the societies that we’re from becomes richer and stronger. If you actively discourage open versions of history then you really damage the social fiber of the place where you live, and there’s a lot of things – I mean, after this show, I’m living in Paris for three months, and there’s a very infamous bridge in Paris – Algerians were thrown off that bridge – piles of dead bodies were thrown off that bridge into the river, and the French have reordered their own history – every country does it – history is constantly reordered to suit the paradigm – it’s the way we are.
CS: The winners write history – it’s that idea –
BQ: Yeah, of course –
CS: So you’re contesting that?
BQ: Yeah, and artists do that, it’s what we do.
CS: Do you think that’s a moral obligation, or do you think it’s natural with art?
BQ: No I think artists are driven to do that, I think most artists are… I mean I think it’s sad, but I think in a way, artists replace the historical figure of the philosopher, and that we examine, and kind of tear apart social norms and – you look in the face of a taboo, then you start to get more a sense of what it is to be human.
CS: Tell us about the graffiti around the paintings, and why you decided to present the paintings in this way?
BQ: The gallery asked me to install the work this way, which is something that I developed, and really started off in the studio as a way of scarifying the space, of breaking down the highbrow notion of what painting is about, that it has this history which is an uncomfortable history, and in a sense the reason that the essays were written about the death of painting was because it became so highbrow, and I feel like it sort of lost touch with the fact that in the end it’s about using a pigment on a surface, and particularly as a young man, making a statement about your existence. And the aerosol as the most low brow form of paint, and illegal, really – to then walk into a museum like this and fuck with the walls, destroy the surface of the walls, and then place paintings on top – I guess it’s about the notion of trying to build a frame – that I’m building a frame, that the frame is more about my own history, and marking the surface. Instead of ornate gold frames, which you’d find in the museum up the road, I’m allowed to destroy the wall to show off the paintings.
[CS: Can you tell us about your time as a war artist, embedded in the Australian Defense Force, and how that experience influenced your work, and your ideas about colonialism and brutality?]
BQ: Well in 2011, I went to Afghanistan, and it’s a long residency program – a hundred years they’ve been doing it – the Australian War Memorial’s been sending artists all over the world to cover war. And the Australian Defense Force is very paranoid about journalists going there – we get a very sanitized version in the media about what war is like and really the War Memorial facilitates us going there and telling the story the way it is. And they back us up. And they took us everywhere, and I had absolute access to everyone, and everything, including the Special Forces, and the opportunity to go with them and – quite confronting and horrendous, really. But because my work’s for many year’s been about my own sense of my own masculinity, and identity, I felt compelled to tell their story because in a way they’re not conscripted to go to Afghanistan – in that war, they were all there by choice – and in a sense, for me, that was the ultimate, final madness of masculinity, that these young men want to be there. I read All Quiet On The Western Front – an incredibly confronting book – when I was thirteen, which is probably a bit too young, I think, for a little boy to read that, but it really instilled in me an absolute fear of conscription. I was born the year after the Vietnam War finished – for Australians, that was a very serious engagement. A lot of men were conscripted and a lot of – hundred and hundreds of Australians died in that war – so for me, conscription felt very real. And I wanted to go there as an older man – not eighteen anymore – with plenty of fear – and a lot of questions to ask these young men – about “Why are you here?” “Why did you want to do this?” “Why did you want to be involved in something?” – And all the other questions, “Have you been involved in death?” “Have you been with someone when they have been killed?” “Have you killed someone?” – And I was given the opportunity to ask those questions. So it’s inevitable, as an artist, that the answers to those questions [will] inform work, and they really informed that particular body of work.
"The Drone Age" is in Foyles! In good company with Lee Rourke’s "Varroa Destructor"…
New stationary line for Galley Beggar Press!
The postcards I designed for Galley Beggar Press are now available to pre-order from their online store, with free p&p until August. Collections include: The Lost Generation, The Romantics, and the Beats.
Inside “The Drone Age” - available from Foyles London and Galley Beggar Online…
The Drone Age
My new art book, The Drone Age is out now - available from the Galley Beggars Bookshop online, and Foyle’s in London.
The Romantics - a series of illustrations for Galley Beggar Press’ new stationary line… Out soon as postcard sets, along with On the Road and The Lost Generation sets!
My illustrations of On The Road characters, for a new stationary line for Galley Beggar Press! Out soon as postcards…
Here are the finished drawings for the new Galley Beggar Press stationary line… these will be postcards, inspired by the Romantics, the Lost Generation, and the Beat Poets…
My book is out next month…
"The Drone Age", a book of art and poetry by Christiana Spens, is out in June - and available to pre-order from the Galley Beggar Bookshop here. The work explores themes of warfare and pop culture, featuring paintings such as “First We Take Damascus”, “The Aesthetics of Terrorism,” “Fashions of the Day” and “Unmanned Vehicles Will Destroy Us All (Save Endangered Jets)”.
Very excited to be designing for Galley Beggar Press’ new stationary line, starting with this set of ‘Dress-Me!’ writers, inspired by the 1920s literary scene… They will be available through the Galley Beggars Bookshop soon.
Free London Corner
If you weren’t able to make the Passport to Pimlico exhibition on May 5th, where some of our chapbooks were handed out, here is a free PDF of the art / poetry collaboration (by Christiana and Darran):
For “Passport to Pimlico”, a May Day exhibition organised by Lana Locke, I collaborated with Darran Anderson on this chapbook - poetry by him and art by me. Limited edition copies will be handed out at the exhibition on May 5th.