Artist Hannah Bertram won this year's Environmental Art Award for her new installation work Evolving From and Evolving Towards Nothing. Paul Andrew speaks to Hannah Bertram about her practice of "repurposing" everyday materials and the particular alchemical challenges she faces in the throes of transforming dust into art.
Hannah thanks for your time today, tell me about your art education background?
My education history is a bit all over the place. I left school after year 11 and went to TAFE to do a certificate in Visual Art.
It was a dream to be spending everyday painting, drawing, talking and learning about art. After a year there I was accepted into RMIT where I quickly learnt that I knew nothing about pretty much everything.
I was painting figuratively but nothing I made seemed to convey what I wanted it to. It was a pretty miserable time. It wasn’t the right time for me to be at RMIT, so I left as a way of preserving my drive to be an artist. A year or two later, after I had my daughter, I went back to TAFE.
It felt safe there and my development needed a slower gestation period than perhaps some of my peers. After that I spent the next 5 years, painting (still pretty unconvincingly) attending lots of life drawing classes, reading, traveling and studying art history through Open Learning. Eventually I went back to RMIT to finish my degree. This time I had a bit of life experience, my knowledge of art and general history was broader, but mostly I had a clear vision about what I wanted from it.
I gave up painting and figuration and made two commitments to myself; firstly that I would be open to every medium and method available in order to find my voice, and secondly that I would give myself ten years of serious commitment to my practice, and if at the end of those years I had nothing to show for it then I could give up art.
What did your teachers instill in you at the time about recycling/upcycling?
I don’t remember any specific classes on recycled materials, but my teachers at TAFE taught me how to see. I think that foundation of attentive looking is significant for me, not just in the way you train your eye to look and your hand to translate that, but in a much wider way you start paying attention to and contemplating the world around you.
What I remember from RMIT in both my undergrad and Masters, was the focus on critical thinking. I started to understand that materials can provide meaning - they are not benign but can contribute significantly to the content of artwork.
How did you become aware of the Incinerator Moonee Ponds Annual Artecycle event?
I can’t remember specifically how I became aware of it, but a few years ago my studio assistant Lisa Franklin was shortlisted for it. I remember talking with her about the development of the work and going to see the exhibition.
At the time it was a prize for artists mainly working with recycled materials. For some bizarre narrow minded reason I was getting a bit frustrated with being pigeon holed as an ‘environmental artist’. I felt like my work investigated more diverse issues than recycling. So during the earlier years I didn’t apply
What inspired you to participate in the 2013 Artecycle?
A couple of things changed for me. I became aware that the reason why I didn’t want to be labeled an environmental artist was because of fear. I was afraid of being called a fraud. I thought I lacked enough political involvement in environmental issues. I was worried that should someone start scrutinizing my life they might find that my footprint was too large.
I guess I got to the point were I reconciled that I do what I can, and my political action occurs through my work. It’s therefore important to exhibit within the context of sustainability and environmentalism as a public action.
What siezes you the most about the Artecycle exhibition?
One afternoon recently at the incinerator site I was collecting dust, ash and dirt and I was fortunate to have a tour with one of the gallery volunteers. It turns out that the rubbish that was brought into the site and burnt in the incinerator was then mixed into the asphalt to seal the local roads. I love stories like that.
I had a very rewarding experience while I was installing too. This story isn’t really an answer to your question, but I’ll tell you anyway. I was at the gallery for three days making the piece and during this time there were a lot of comings and goings while the rest of the show got installed.
Three guys had been employed by the council to help out with a cherry picker, I think, and from time to time they would traipse through the gallery and stop and watch me working. One day I stopped to chat and it turned out that these guys worked next door at the Transfer Station (which is the fancy name now for a tip). So here are three men who see everyday the volume of waste from our over consumption, and they were really excited about the work. They started talking about some of their own projects - making things for their homes out of recycled materials and we all lamented that people can’t take stuff from the tip anymore. It was an exchange that felt very direct, less nebulous arty arty.
Tell me about your work over the past decade, you started exhibiting in 2003?
For the past 8-10 years, I have been exploring the ambiguity of value, by creating decorative ephemeral installations out of worthless materials. I use worthless materials, decoration, absence and temporality to question preciousness.
Materials such as dust, ash, scrap paper, dirty water and grime are salvaged from the overlooked remains of life in motion. These are then transformed into complex decorative installations, which exist briefly and are then swept up, washed away or otherwise disposed of.
Ornamentation, the decorative or the ornamental - is a recurring theme- what specific artistic influences do you draw from?
The types of ornamentation I look at gets broader and broader as I continue making work. It started with both an aesthetic and socio-political interest in lace, but I started to understand that decoration exists in all cultures and is present throughout the history of mankind.
Now I look at architecture, textiles, jewellery, weaponry, tattooing, design, furniture, masonry, religious artifacts, the list goes on. At the moment I’m interested in Islamic tiles. The patterns that they use are endlessly repeatable and actually elude to a sense of the infinite and to timelessness.
You have talked about the poetics contained in your work, particularly the installation work in artecycle pictured here, tell me about what you consider to be distinctly poetic about the imaginative reorganisation of dust and detritus?
Hmmm. I guess a definition of poetics is required first. For me poetry occurs when something holds a contradiction, its sense of something rather than a clear definition of itself or has a complexity to it that requires very slow contemplation.
I’m not sure if this is the general understanding. The term ‘poetic’ is a bit like the term ‘beauty’ it’s very, very difficult to define. I think I’m going to avoid this question actually, because its more than just the reorganization of detritus which is poetic, it’s the longing and loss experienced through it’s temporality, and the simple separate contemplation of what dust is that contribute to something poetic emerging.
Dust is often comprised of discarded skin cells- tell me your thoughts about this fact?
That’s true dust is partly comprised of skin, which is, even for me, slightly unpleasant. In fact the physical properties of dust incorporate the final deterioration of all matter, from the microscopic debris of our built environment to grains of sand and soil caught in weather, from specs of burnt meteorites as well as skin and hair unknowingly shed from our bodies.
The process of collecting dust and refining it through sieves is quite abject. There are a lot of filthy grimy fragments that have to be removed before resurrecting it into artwork.
I don’t have specific dust I prefer I more concerned with using materials that are relevant to the site where I am making a work.
Dust interests me because of its worthlessness. In addition to this, intrinsic to the production of dust is time, it evolves/devolves over days, years and centuries, accumulating slowly and quietly. So it’s a material that is discarded and yet is the visual articulation of time passing.
When I first saw one of your works about three years ago now - in an installation documentation photograph- it reminded my of the Man Ray Duchamp collaboration: Breeding Dust 1920, that fabulous work that happened after Duchamp discovered dust on his Bride Stripped Bare?
I have a deep arty reverence for Duchamp. And of course I love his ‘Breeding Dust’ with Man Ray. My love of this though doesn’t assume a lineage between their collaboration and my work purely through a common material.
I get excited by this 1920 work because it accepts randomness as a significant element in art and also because it captures the wonderful moment where rather than cleaning the work they saw this layer of dust as something of interest and wonder. I’m doing some experiments in the studio and at home at the moment - placing stencils on boards and pieces of glass then leaving them for months so that dust can settle on them.
Already everyone is saying “Oh it’s just like Man Ray’s photos of dust” and of course it is, but it came about because I was thinking about a more gentle approach to making work, a way to have work almost generate itself.
The use of photography is an entirely separate issue. And perhaps the way to talk about that is to say that I have a very problematic relationship with documentation. I am frequently frustrated by the way that documentation becomes not something which stands in place of an ephemeral work, but the work itself.
It begs the question ‘If a work of art is intentionally ephemeral and its content is dependent on its fleeting nature, does the production of enduring object-based documentation undermine the work?’ And does this act reinforce the value that is placed on permanence over impermanence?
If the answer is yes then is there any potential for ongoing access to ephemeral works for a continually growing audience. Or in other words: what, if at all, is the possibility of perpetuity within an ephemeral art practice?’
I’m struggling with these questions.
" Dust to dust" - working with dust like always evokes death and transience?
There are traces of all of that and some other things too. Some people draw parallels between my work and Buddhist Mandela’s or Indian Rangoli or Kolam, some people bring their own spiritual and religious readings to the work, and others still will be reminded of their own immortality or the death of another. This is fine, I sometimes think about these things too.
You use the term worthless, others like UK artists Paul Hazelton and Serena Korda have variously described dust as a nuisance- tell me about your feeling about what we value, or don’t value when it comes to the subject of/ materiality of dust- what makes it powerful and vivid as a metaphor in addition to what you have just been saying?
I think Korda and Hazelton’s works still refer to the overlooked and the discarded which for me sits under the umbrella of worthlessness in the sense that we have no use for it. It is beyond any function that it may have ever had.
I have probably focused more often on the term worthless because I have been interested in the ambiguity of the term value. In part it is linked to aspects of art history that have questioned the value of the object, and in other ways speaks to our overconsumption of materials and the ease with which we discard things.
I think it’s not simply the dust that activates a dialogue about value, but its dust which appears to be ornate. Decoration has many of its own references to status, reverence, preciousness, but when the dust is transformed into something decorative it superficially appears to now be something to consider.
Memory is also another aspect innate to your use of dust as a material?
Well, I think smell and music invoke memories more concisely than dust. I’ve tried to work with both of them for this reason and also because of their ephemerality, alas nothing great has come of it yet.
As for dust perhaps it has the ability invoke a speculative future memory, if there is such a thing. It may be that when you meditate on the properties of dust there becomes an awareness that that you and the world around you will in some later time be gone. It’s a way of looking at the absence of ourselves in the future.
Back to Duchamp and Man Ray for a moment- the idea of readymades that inform so much contemporary art?
Duchamp is clearly the most influential artist of the 20th Century. He radically changed art with his readymades, so it’s hard not to bring everything back to him. But I’m far more influenced by performance art at the moment. The current dialogue about reenacting and restaging of performance works is certainly informing my research, particularly in relation to some of the questions I mention earlier, such as “what, if any, is the possibility of perpetuity within an ephemeral art practice?”
Tell me about two of the contemporary artists who inspire you Hannah?
Wolfgang Laib’s pollen works are of course hugely fascinating to me. His process is remarkable - collecting pollen from individual flowers by tapping. I’m also reading a bit about Robert Smithson’s thoughts on entropy, oh but wait, he’s dead.
So contemporary… my mind keeps coming back to Tino Seghal. I only heard about him out about him a couple of years ago and I was very excited when I found out that he never documents his work, there are no photographs, no texts, no instructions diagrams - nothing.
When he sells the work to museums everything is done verbally.
I even went to TATE Modern and Documenta last year specifically to experience first hand two of his live installations, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. But during my day at TATE I noticed that most of the audience was either filming or photographing the performance.
I had expected to see signs saying you couldn’t record the work. When I got home I did a quick Google image search and found millions of images, sound files and films of his works. I felt so disappointed, I’d been researching him all year and had believed the writers and critics when they spoke about the eradication of all material trace, but it turns out it is documented by the thousands of visitors that go to see his work.
Is that an inspiration of sorts?
As for my other creative contemporary inspirations… I listen to a bit of experimental music. I won’t say I listen to a lot ‘cause that might assume I know something and I really know very little, but I have a few Jazz albums, and a few albums by an American composure John King, and some of David Sylvian’s albums and some percussive albums by my friend David Evans.
I listen to these a lot in the studio because I think that there is something unexpected that occurs in them which is similar to what I’m trying to do with my patterns at the moment. I want to create patterns that come undone, that appear to be repetitive and each reiteration is a new version itself or patterns that morph unexpectedly. I guess it’s about disrupting the expectation.
Process. Tell me about how you gather dust and something of your process particularly for the Artecycle installation?
Firstly I have to collect the materials. This is usually an unpleasant dirty activity involving sweeping or vacuuming dust from some pretty filthy places. I then go through a process of sifting it through different sieves.
The first sifting is to remove the large particles such as hair, food, litter and other more revolting detritus. The next sifting separates out fine from course. As an example the white flecks of ash are finer so the first sieving separates this from the grittier black ash. I then pound the larger particles of ash in a mortar and pestle. Once I have a black and a white I can mix a pallet of grey shades.
The design for the installation is usually researched and drawn to scale in the studio. I then go through a process of tracing the design to establish the individual stencils. These are then transferred onto card and I cut them out. This Artecycle work took a day of collecting and processing, then three days to install in the gallery but overall it takes about a months work in the studio.
More generally your approach is also emblematic of a current tendency in artmaking towards representing the mundane, the everyday, evincing the phenomenology of the everyday if you will? And from an art historical point of view there are so many terms circulating about this style of approach that artists are using in different ways – selection/selectivity, readymades, recycling, reification, upcycling, bricolage and so on- tell me about where you feel your work fits in to the art hictorical genre 'priors'.
I like to use the word repurposing.
There are a couple of genres that my work is in dialogue with and continues to build on. Because the preciousness or value of the work is lifted from the object and placed in the ephemera of experience it could be seen as an attempt to readdress the traditional status of the art object as collectable and saleable.
Therefore links can be drawn between my work and Conceptual art ideas from the 1970’s onwards such as process based art, dematerialised objects, interventions and particularly to Arte Povera and its use of commonplace materials. But like I mentioned earlier my work owes a lot to the vast history of ornamentation.
To my way of thinking there are a number of distinct approaches employed in the artecycle exhibitions- artists who use waste to hold up a mirror to society as if to say look at the truth as it really is, artists who employ waste for its transformational and poetic possibilties, artists who use waste for a particular political motivation or ideology about waste and excess consumption and artists who use waste as an evocation of shared human (collective) memory (Artists like Claire Healy and Sean Cordiero and/also perhaps someone like Song Dong's Waste Not fuses many of these tendencies) I am curious about your thoughts are about this sphere, this realm of wasted possibility?
I think these are all true aspects of the way and why artist use waste material. But I want to add one more reason, the Mount Everest of reasons - “Because it’s there”. Artists throughout time have used materials which were ready at hand and so as an urban practitioner waste materials seem to be a natural choice. It’s exciting to see so many artists reworking the detritus of our day-to-day existence. But I’m kind of still foolishly surprised that it gets so little public recognition by comparison to traditional media.
The question of kitsch.Texas dust artist celebrity Scott Wade - in a strange variation on the theme of chalk art/pavement art and so on- makes artworks on dusty car windscreens ( an interesting space for art in fact) - his work refers to art history, cinema history ( Mona Lisa, Marx Brothers and so on) and his work seems to be hugely popular both on the street and online. According to many an art critic his work is base or kitsch, nonethess an artist like Wade, mindful that a rain shower will eventually wash away his artwork, also has something 'deep' to remind us about impermanence - your thoughts Hannah?
Did you have to put this last Paul? It feels like this may be a test of my egalitarianism.
I have seen Wade’s work – in fact I get emails from people all the time saying “You’ll love this!” and it is surprising to see the first time, and he has, as one of my colleagues puts it a ‘good look and put’ ability. But to me it’s weak in terms of content. I haven’t read anything about him, but I’m fairly sure it’s not really about anything, it’s merely a fantastic technique combined with crowd-pleasing recognizable images but nothing much else to say. I don’t know that his intention is to remind us of our impermanence, even if people do read that into it, I think it equities to an arrogance of skill and a lack of substance.
For me there are plenty of other artists working in the public domain that provide ‘deep’ as you put it, consideration of our existence in this world.
Photos: Hannah Bertram