Discussion between Paul Shepard, Simon Maidment, and committee members David Simpkin, Adrien Allen, Katie Lee, 22 September 2006.
Adrien Allen: Maybe you could start by describing the working process Paul, because there’s been an interesting response from a lot of viewers. They can’t seem to get their head around the medium, how it’s done, it’s relationship to photography, the materialism of the prints, and the specialized lighting.
Paul Shepard: I guess it’s always been interesting for me to use photography as a medium to sit on the cusp of complete abstraction. Also in this particular environment I’ve enjoyed installing the work on the cusp of even being identified as photography. I think both Simon and I like to make work that in theory exists in its own right, but in this space it had to coexist together.
AA: But they’re photographic prints with images. They’ve been taken in the same location or different locations?
PS: Different locations. But the subject matter is almost identical.
AA: They’re then sandwiched in…?
PS: They’re face mounted, so it’s using a process that I actually haven’t used before, whereby the front of the image is actually adhered to a glass Perspex material. So it’s like a dry mounting process but it’s optically transparent. I think we were always aware that there was going to be a reflection problem. It was a decision at some stage whether you work with that or try to fight it. And I think the solution was essentially to use the outrageously reflective material because it was going to be in an environment where you would evoke the fibre optic interaction.
Katie Lee: So if they weren’t mounted in this Perspex that they’d loose their luminance?
PS: Yeah, it’s (inaudible) paper, which can really look quite inappropriate with a more traditional image. But when it’s a really minimal image, it becomes quite a feature. It’s one of those few situations that the more natural ambience you introduce into the environment, the darker the images become. It’s quite perverse the way it responds to light. It’s like an (inaudible) suspension. There is an (inaudible) suspension in the paper which is not dissimilar to a projection screen. It’s quite bizarre.
AA: Can you talk about the decision to hang them over the gallery windows?
PS: Well actually that wasn’t the notion. It sounds like a ridiculous comment, but Conical is a very space-specific gallery. It’s not a traditional gallery that I would normally hang photographs in. My first reaction was actually to give them a bit of space to breathe. And in many ways to pull them as far away from Simon’s as possible, to let them stand in their own right.
But it’s a no-brainer that you walk into this space and the windows have been positioned in a way that is appropriate to the space. You don’t have to be an artist to do that, you can be a builder to do that. And I don’t know if it’s one of the cruellest things that can happen to a photographer, but printing at the maximum size you can print and mounting at the maximum size you can print, because you want to go large, and then finding out that they are within 2 or 3 mm short of the exact size of the window is quite a crushing experience. So I thought maybe if I’m going to really work with the space, then I will really work with the space. And it’s a similar issue with the reflectivity. Do you fight it or give in and make it work for you as best you can.
AA: So you went through this whole process trying to work out if a gap would be acceptable at the top and at the bottom (of the window) and you decided that it wasn’t, so you came up with this sort of MDF wraparound floating wall, that is essentially a seamless wrap around over the windows and around the rendered walls that most people don’t notice.
PS: Yeah, I didn’t want to literally replace the windows with the images.
Simon Maidment: And in fact one isn’t over the window, it just looks natural.
PS: I think I wanted to make reference to the windows, but not replace the windows, because you (Adrien) had made spoken of shows that had been here before where the windows had been blocked up, and replaced with artwork, and I didn’t really want to do that.
AA: The way you have used the window placement – despite the fact you haven’t lined them up accurately – is like a ready-made composition. It’s a not a classic serial hang . I remember you saying that you felt like the windows were perfectly positioned. I’m not sure what you meant by that.
PS: Well it’s interesting, you know perfectly positioned isn’t always more interesting. It’s probably something you’ve experienced yourself working in this building. Because it’s an older building sometimes having something accurate with a spirit level looks completely inappropriate because things have shifted and moved and altered in time.
Walking into an environment like this and seeing where the windows are there’s two things that occur in my mind. One is does it look natural and appropriate because I’m used to seeing the windows where they are? Or, are the windows placed like that not necessarily for structural reasons but because they looked balanced?
And it’s interesting because you could get out a spirit level, or you could get a measuring tape or a laser point and work out where equi-distant balance for windows or images this size would fit in this room. But when you walk in this room, your interaction is different. It’s like your vantage point isn’t central. Your vantage point is from the doorway, through the hallway and into this space. So there is no accurate or technically correct answer for where they should be positioned and I wonder if perhaps the windows were positioned in that way for that reason.
There has to be some golden mean. There has to be some brainwashing about where these portals should be in the space.
SM: It was always a grid, but in this space the grid looked less about serialism and more about an evenly spaced show. Which was the initial issue when we first plotted it out. All of a sudden that grid and that almost unbending nature of how you (Paul) hang and how you show these works and give the impression of one after another, was lost in this space because of it’s naturalness, fireplaces and so on.
AA: That’s why it’s not so much about minimalist seriality in that sense, it’s much more about a readymade in that the situation already exists and you have to embrace it. It’s not so much emphasising the authority of the works imposition into the space.
PS: I guess so. I do enjoy particularly clinical material in an organic space. It was one way to channel and change the space for our purposes, but in another way, I feel it would have been wrong to completely repanel the whole gallery and make it flat and linear. I like that clinical contrast.
AA: The other thing that confounds the minimalism of these works is the framing device that you’ve used with the lighting. When the lights are off, you walk in and they are black pools. I see them like that when I walk in, in the morning. But the minute that you turn the special lights on, you are left with a framing device, which turns them much more into pictures, they reference the history of pictorial language, it turns them into the very windows they conceal, which to me undermines their materiality.
PS: I guess, but essentially my primary fascination is with photography and I can’t deny that. It’s one thing to install images and install panels, and to say that they are monoliths, but… I’m in two minds about the lighting. The edge, the black edge is very much a photographic edge. But it’s not a photographic edge, it’s actually a lighting edge. The black edges on the images, are non existent. There’s no reference to photography as far as the images are concerned. But the lighting is pre-visualised for this show. The original notion was to use the shutters to light the images so that they were literally had a luminance that seemed quite difficult to discern.
AA: So it’s an absence of light?
PS: Yeah, in a way. It was completely impractical to have the illusion that I wanted there to be, because working in an organic space, I would set up the lights and then I would come back in, and it would have rained, and the lighting would be out because things had shifted… so it was one of those things that happen that you have to live with, but I do quite enjoy that. And the shutters have introduced a photographic edge, which I do also quite like.
SM: When you turn the lights off they become these heavy, monolithic things, and they become like black holes that actually suck light out of the room… but there’s that moment which we have now in between. With the lights that you’ve set, people almost think, ‘what have you done covering the windows?’ ‘ What have you covered the windows with?’ Or ‘what are you projecting onto the windows’, or maybe, ‘how have you lit these photos?’ But it becomes a shadow…
AA: We talked about illusionism, but they deny that too. They act like projections. David (Simpkin) and I were standing around just before noting that every time you stand in front of one of those images there is that eye of the light reflecting back at you. And to me, that is the eye of the projector, projecting the imagery that we see on there. But for David it was something else.
David Simpkin: For me it was opening up all the narrative possibilities. The world of cinema or of the stage and screen. The Golden Gate bridge – you’re floating in there. And the light becomes the light of someone’s apartment in the city, or a train at night when you have another 6 hours before you get to Sydney, and you are looking out the window.
PS: It’s interesting I have wondered if it’s possible to implement two different mediums into a space this size and for it not to be theatrical?
DS: Probably. If it’s in a uniform way, but you are dealing with light, so if you are dealing with light, and you are coming into a dark space, then you’re in a theatrical space. It’s one of the things about installation.
AA: It’s interesting you talk about the reflection as a problem, but to me theatricality is always the bigger problem. But I’ve tried to stop thinking about it as a problem. You may remember Louise Hubbard talking about harnessing the theatrical, by using illusionism (see CrONICAL #3). Not trying to go against it or solve it, or even undermining it, but just by harnessing it. The theatrical is there, but there is also this whole sense of autonomous visual illusion that somehow coexists.
SM: I’m totally driven by the theatricality of art. Whether it’s someone living in a wall, David, (referring to 2006 VCA show) whom you can’t really see. Or works that you’re told about that you haven’t experienced first hand. Like Chiara and Roberta, the two Milanese curators that are out here presenting this project (Too Near To Far 2007). They had no documentation or video only an essay about a friend of theirs that is an artist who grew his hair and dyed it grey, and grew his fingernails and put on a paunch, and tried to look as much like his father as possible and no one really saw this act, or this theatrical thing… but it becomes this theatre in the world of art. It becomes this theatre when it is told to an audience of people, where it doesn’t have to act out in front of them, it can kind of become a tale. I’m totally into the theatricality of art, because for me it’s where a lot of it’s power lies. Because I’m not really interested in objects, I’m interested in the other stuff about the discussion or about the theatre of it.
AA: That is why I wanted to bring the discussion back to the level of the object initially. Because there’s an ambiguity in the show between object and images.
SM: The images?
AA: Yes, the images. I think sometimes we assume that the material facts are taken in immediately, but in this particular show they’re not. People walk away enjoying the show, but not understanding that they are photographs or particularly not reading the imagery in the photos. Does that matter to you Paul?
PS: Well I’m not sure if I’m being brainwashed by Simon or not. I’ve always found with you (Simon) that you’ve always seen the artistic endeavour as being a theatrical occupation. Whether it’s a meeting in a gallery, or installing a work or making work. And I don’t know if I’ve blindly accepted that because I’m okay with that. But it’s almost like a second bite of the cherry. If people don’t understand or interact with the photography in this environment the way we’ve installed it, if they walk away having been a good thing then I’m okay with that.
SM: I think that is totally underselling the discussions that we’ve been having about those things and the ideas that you always have about ‘red herrings’ but also a decision that you’ve made, and that we’ve made collectively. You definitely wanted to have the lights that framed the prints. Deep down inside as an installation, you much prefer the lights to be off, and for them to act like black mirrors, rather than photographic prints. But that’s not what the show is about. The show is about photographic prints.
DS: Have you operated the show in that sense? (In the dark)
PS: We have, on request.
DS: Having the gallery open for a day, and showing it with the lights off?
SM: We talked about doing that.
AA: It would feel like a bit of an add-on in this show though, it’s like you are trying to force process on it or something.
SM: In the classic sense your show (Paul) would be in a white cube, with the prints on the wall, lit how they are, but in a brighter environment. Mine would be without any other lights on and with this thing, (the work) sort of breathing. But the point is that this show was never designed to be like that. Part of the power of it is that it is neither of those things. And the reason people can walk away and be confused about the medium is that it isn’t so straight-forward as being one or the other. And that’s part of the reason that we commissioned the essay in the way that we did, with Susan Fereday. In that we didn’t have her write at all descriptively about the pieces, but about some of the ideas that we were talking about. And we sat down and had a round table discussion about some of the things that Paul and I had talked about that led up to this show, and an interest in such a simple formal thing as a departure point, with the cables, and we definitely pursued that path. And it’s not a second bite of the cherry, it’s actually a really conscious decision to problematise the relationship.
I think we have always enjoyed walking the line between co-existence and collaboration.
AA: Maybe just a final point on the photography Paul, does the imagery matter?
PS: It matters to me. Are you saying does it matter in regarding to this show or does it matter universally?
AA: Does it matter as imagery in an isolated way? Or does it only matter as it intersects with the reflected imagery?
SM: The reflected imagery came after the photographic imagery.
PS: If it didn’t matter to me I would have put in 5 black monoliths. The imagery is important to me.
AA: I think you imbibe the atmosphere. You take in the room, and the dialogue between the two pieces. But then there is this other thing, this intimate requirement, where you have to walk up to 3 or 4 paces from the prints in order to be able to discern the imagery. And I wonder about that way of looking as opposed to the overall experience of the installation …
SM: That is the difference between our practices. Mine is always about sitting in the room and experiencing this thing enveloping, and Paul’s is quite different.
AA: Perhaps we could talk about Simon’s work now. Could you talk about the scale of the work Simon? You used the word model…
SM: No, you used the word model, in a past conversation. I got the sense from you when the Conical committee were looking over the proposal for these works, neither of which were photographed, or built and photographed for the committee to see, that there was a sense that my work would be this quite large, architectural, monumental intervention, and that Paul’s would be prints on the wall. But actually the process of hanging Paul’s work on the wall, and getting the space ready for that was actually the big architectural, monumental intervention, which thankfully hardly anybody notices when they come into the gallery. But mine are, how I’d always envisaged them. Pretty much. I was considering the scale a little higher, before spending a little time in the gallery and seeing the way the beams interact with the roof. I felt like I needed to work within the space there and they are definitely tailored to the Conical space. Potentially in another gallery they would have been a little higher, but only in relation to the space that surrounds them and I’ve always seen them as a vehicle for the lights, and not as objects.
Obviously there is attention to specific details within them. Right down to the mix of paints that create exactly the reflectivity and gloss that I wanted, but there was always a sense that they would act as a vehicle for carrying the cables first, and objects second.
So in that way they were always just responding to the physical amount of space. There were always going to be two, the dips were always going to do what they do, although I was considering the centre dip of the cables being a bit lower. But everything else was a decision I made in the space here.
A lot of my work, without going off on too much of an obscure tangent, has always been about infinity and the void and this is one idea of the endlessness of these and the impotence of these. Of this very kind of rustic falling down impossibility, a lot of the ideas that Susan talks about in her essay. And so they are a little bit about failure. But they’re also about endlessness. And that was the main thing with installing them here, that they were part of a continuum. I couldn’t envisage a way of getting that sense of endlessness without using some kind of symmetry within the space. And it seemed like quite a natural one. And when you stand in the entrance, and are about to step into the space that the visual picture that it would give was really important that it would physically bisect the space in front of you. To tap into that endlessness.
Katie Lee: It’s sort of a feedback. And that is mimicked in the seamlessness of the wall mounts. You’ve turned what are actually fractured in a way, into a seamless line around the wall. I was in a loop, rather than an extension.
SM: Well that’s the infinity thing. There’s a time-based thing that you can’t capture in an interview or in documentation.
AA: We’ve talked a lot about the ambiguity of Paul’s work, it seems to me to be positioned in opposition to the representational quality of your work. There’s a certain literalism to the piece, the scaling down, right down to the electricity conductors. Some viewers have found it quite brave in relation to the abstraction in Paul’s work, and others have found it too much of a chasm to try and bridge.
SM: I find it interesting that it’s a chasm. I could imagine people thinking that it was a bit banal. That it’s just a rendition.
AA: People have said, ‘what if it was just the cable’ (without the poles).
SM: Stuart Koop said the same thing, he said, ‘I felt like you should somehow suspend the cables without the poles’. Which is possible, but then it’s talking about cables and waveforms rather than cables and powerlines. I wanted to physically address some of the abstraction in Paul’s work. I kind of like that idea that I actualised this thing that he’s spent so long trying to abstract. I did go down the road of trying to abstract the poles and being really tricky with them, and they always would have been vehicles. But it felt too tricky to try and do it any other way. The only other way that theatrically appealed to me, was that I really wanted to make them out of rammed unprocessed uranium. It’s pretty expensive to get hold of, but I really wanted to make it out of the dirt they get out of uranium mines. But I didn’t, and it would have been a really different show.
The other way I was thinking about it was abstracting the poles and having it formed out of plastics and stuff, almost Alexander Knox style, you know fucking up of an actual form and slight abstraction. The further and further I went down this path, the more it had to be really rustic. Almost to the point that it had to have the same covering that they have over real power poles. I guess they are kind of models.
AA: They were referred to by one viewer as more of a clothes line than a telegraph pole.
SM: I was going to make a Hills Hoist, but apparently Paul’s work was of power lines. I like emblematic imagery as well. Even when I was doing photography, I like creating things that rather than being signs or pictorial work… I’ve always steered toward this idea that things can be really emblematic, emblems of other things and these (power poles) recall a whole lot in our country, that clothes lines do as well, a vernacular, but it’s not enough to do a clothes line, it would have to be a Hills Hoist. In the same way it’s not enough just to do a power pole, it has to be a power pole like we have in Australia.
AA: There’s nothing remotely clothes-line-like about them, perhaps it was a scale issue, or that you’ve only chosen to drape two cables that don’t intersect physically and only intersect as imagery (reflected on Paul’s prints).
SM: They intersect physically in Paul’s work, and they intersect physically depending on where you stand in the room.
AA: That’s what I’m saying, they intersect as imagery, but not as physical strands, they don’t touch. And some of your photographic imagery intersects and some of it doesn’t.
PS: We have enjoyed playing with this as composition.
SM: And finding that Golden Gate bridge as David suggested before.
KL: With the model-like nature of it and the disappearance of the cables into the wall, I felt that there was no escape from it. Paul, you talked about it having an escape quality, but I actually found it quite nightmarish.
Do you think the work has a direction?
SM: There’s a certain place in the room when you stand in the room and the reflection almost perfectly echoes what you think or know what the print has on it. I like the idea that is proposed by Damien Hirst, about coming across his pieces in a gallery, where you don’t see the start and the end of them in terms of how they’re installed. You just come across these objects and they look like the fell from space and there is no physical mark of how they got there. That’s the first impression of his work, you come across these things and that rendering of it is very controlled, and then it’s the content of it that you engage with second. And I like trying to do that. It appealed to me in his work.
PS: What do you mean when you talk about direction Katie?
KL: You’ve been talking about the theatrical element to the work and about experiential versus the pictorial, and the point that you stand at when you enter the work, and the point that you’ve chosen to document the work from, looks like you’re standing at the vista, and referencing the sublime, standing on the precipice looking out over the landscape, and the vista being the window panes. It’s a heroic set… like a Friedrich painting or something.
SM: The thing I like about this piece (the cables) that you don’t get in the exhibition is that you don’t have the sense of the room breathing in and out with the light. Which is how it feels when you just have this piece on, rather than with the other lights on too.
AA: The glue that holds this cohabitation together for me is the pulsing of the light in the fibre- optic cables. It’s a physiological pulse, like the pulse of the building, which, as Paul has found out, is very much alive. And it points out the visceral connection between these two works. It was interesting when Chris Coller was in here yesterday, he was saying, ‘but they pulse, don’t they’, he was actually talking about your photos Paul.
SM: He said the same thing to me. He brought it down to the change in the light. To Penny Webb they are cables caught by passing headlights, and to Stuart Koop they are the physical waveforms, so the physical cable layout echoes the wave form that is creating the light going up and down.
AA: What I like is the restraint of the pulse. And given the technology of both of the works, it’s an admirable restraint. Often you see technology start to take on a formalism, its all about itself, and it doesn’t do that. It pulses in a way that enriches the content.
SM: The only way to get that happening was to make the loop last. The pulse was programmed last, I began programming when Paul was here, and then finished it without him. But it was really important that everything was installed before the loop was programmed. And it was literally like a drawing. I drew it and drew it and drew it and drew it in the space.
I sat here in the space and didn’t pack up my tools until 5.50 pm (before the opening), not because I was physically working on anything, but because I was drawing it again and again until it felt right. So maybe that’s the emotional element of it. It is an organic pulse and it’s supposed to reference breathing, as you talk about with the building. But it is supposed to reference breathing in the same way that the piece I’ve just finished with Al Knox, the lighting piece on top of the building references breathing and it’s the same idea… that when you bring someone into a physical space it hopefully positions them physiologically in a certain way, so that they start breathing differently, or it slows their pace in the room down.
AA: Yve Alain-Bois coined the phrase the ‘respiration of space’ (in an essay on the artist Fred Sandback). The pulse is like a breath that humanises what could be quite a cold experience. But it’s quite an uncanny humanising.
SM: I love uncanny.
AA: It’s not a humanising that you can relate to. I used the word visceral before but maybe that’s wrong. Maybe physiological..
SM: No, that’s the idea that I was not articulating with emblematic imagery. When you do something that’s emblematic it’s not touchable or obtainable, and it’s not ‘of your thing’. It’s not a sign of something else in life, it’s an emblem, and that’s kind of what I’m interested in that specifically with imagery and with those things. It’s about something that is a slippage. You recognise it as being from your life, but it’s displaced in such as way that is… there’s plenty of artists that do this. That’s the uncanny, but you wouldn’t walk into this exhibition and think, ‘wow, that’s uncanny’ but there is a certain separation from the object.
It’s not just about the cables either, it’s about the poles, with the polished steel, which should be ceramic or glass or something. So there are a whole lot to elements that feed into the same thing…the distance and the slippage between these things and life. Which is why it couldn’t have been abstracted in the same way. We couldn’t have had a soundtrack although we were going to add one later.
AA: There is a soundtrack though isn’t there? The sound of the computer. It sounds very much like traditional 35mm film running through a projector.
SM: Well it’s exactly the soundtrack that we were thinking of having. It’s a hum. I’ve done a lot of sound works and Paul’s done a lot of sound work with his video installations and we decided very late that we wouldn’t do one. But we talked almost about exactly the same sound, but on a larger scale. But I felt in the end that it would be too tricky.
AA: Manipulation is something I get very strongly from this show. And I think a soundtrack could have tipped it to be too much toward technical gimmickry.
SM: And the thing that David was talking about before that people can browse the various elements, and tap into some approaches and things that we are talking about, or Susan is talking about in the essay. But that wouldn’t happen if there was a sound piece or a music piece that was designed.