Sydney-based artist, Mikala Dwyer talks here with Susan Rothnie about the ideas which fuel her work processes and her enquiries into the nature of objects, materiality and relationships, and the vision which underpins her amorphous and intriguing sculptural installations.
Susan Rothnie: Your work has often been written about in terms of discourses, like Minimalism and Feminism. How relevant are they to what you're doing and how you work?
Mikala Dwyer: I think they become relevant after time, but it's not what I'm aiming at, or necessarily thinking about, when I'm working. That's the context it gets put into later by other people... I'm arguing with certain ideas of purity. But I'm not thinking in terms of 'Feminism' or 'Minimalism', but about ideas of essence, truth and purity. All those movements are part of your material language, going through art school, working around other artists, looking at art — all that language is around you, and you tend to talk where the materiality comes from. For a while I was quite in life interested in trying to work against what I saw as notions of purity and definition — which then goes into Formalism; so you end up becoming part of a discourse without intending to.
SR: Are you interested in aesthetics?
MD: I'm interested in taking seemingly beautiful things and trying to highlight their potential, their inherent ugliness. I'm probably more interested in ugliness: ugliness becomes beautiful. I see ideologies running behind forms and surfaces: some things might appear beautiful, but have quite sinister undercurrents. I look at all things in the world as kind of 'cooled ideas', as 'thinking' that has slowed down or cooled into forms: whether it be a building, or a chair, a road, or a plan of a city, a toy or a playground. Or fashion. It's all an idea or thinking at some point. That's where the materiality comes from. It's about stuff in life.
SR: Can you describe how you make art?
MD: There's chaos and there's order, there's clarity and there's confusion. I've tried to feature confusion, doubt and indecision, rather than always producing resolved, thought-out, work... I don't think I ever solve much! I always create more problems than I solve. The interest and desire that survive the boredom threshold produce a piece of work. A piece of work is in some ways a barometer of the levels of interest that have allowed something to survive... things fall away for many reasons: economic, lack of energy, or it seems stupid after a while. Often it's a side-ways throwing-off process that reveals the things you don't want other people to see; and they are often the more interesting. I'm very careful about what I put in the bin... the things that look nice are often the things that end up in the bin in the end. Collisions are more energetic than something that's really formally harmonious. But you can sometimes use something formal as a good access point, because things like colour, shape and form are great access points for people. I want to get deeper into and to try to understand areas in my brain, or in the world, that I've forgotten the underdogs of thinking. The things, the shapes, the forms or the ideas that survive that process, are often things that are part of a language that agrees that that is art.
SR: Do you have relationships in mind when you put the objects together?
MD: I do. But the relationships become more successful when I allow them a bit of space. I don't try to force it, or think it out too much. It's like a leap of faith, an act of trust... It's an intuitive overall feeling that these things could live together momentarily. It's usually a risky occupation because I don't normally know that until the day an exhibition opens. I put it all in the space, and at no point until that time have I had a chance to see it all together. Quite a few things I've [made] entirely on site. Which is incredibly nerve racking - putting yourself into that extreme state of agitation, and of embarrassment too.
SR: Is humour an element in your work?
MD: It's not something I set out to do. I often think it's the surprise that's funny. And if you're working with accidents, mistakes, and trying to embarrass yourself, it's funny. Even if l do set out intentionally to make something sad, or serious, invariably it comes to be something that's really funny. It's not something I try for.
SR: How do you select materials?
MD: I have a weird handle on materials I think: it's what can hold an idea or a feeling... The more you're running through your head what it is you're trying to express, the more things start to present themselves as you go. Objects, and artworks in particular, are like a ghost of thought, or the residue of what's left after a thought process. The irony of some materials — like making a concrete ghost, for example — will sometimes speak more clearly about what is absent.
SR: When you made cubes from organza, were you re-doing solid objects - making them fragile?
MD: Making them see-through. It was important that you could see through those forms. I was looking at the underlining, ubiquitous geometry which I saw as underpinning formalism. Also an idea of purity. People don't argue with it [formal geometry]. It's a given. Everything's built on those premises and it's the shape of logic. I started questioning: 'Whose logic? What does logic look like? What's the shape of my logic?' And trying to understand why everything's built on those kinds of things.
SR: Do you use colour and texture to contribute to meaning?
MD: You build up a vocabulary of materials, like a painter might have a particular palette of colours and techniques... For instance, when you wrap things, if you cover something up, people are a bit more curious about the internal space. By covering up all the tape recorders (for instance in Floating Old Man 2000), in a sense they become more soulful; they're animated in some ways; because you're sort of suffocating them. They're just tape recorders or CD players, but by covering them in a soft felt material which has got that kind of absorbency... it's a skin thing I think, it's something you're able to transfer yourself in and out of. Immediately there's that transference between you and the object which is more able to be activated... You activate the surface. So then, I think people are able to put themselves in [the work], quite unwittingly. Subconsciously, they're physically in it. I went through a phase of covering things with bandaids and blankets - a lot of things that have that proximity to the body. Everyone understands those materials. So whether they think they understand the work or not, they're in there. Once they're in there through one of those access points - then I can mess with their minds!!
SR: When you say you don't feel as though you're making art, are you producing something else?
MD: To me, a sculpture, an object, a body, a building, are all quite connected - they're all 'porridge-y'. I try to make it as fluid as possible. So that the edges to things get quite porous. If you're standing in front of one of those sculptures, and if it's doing its job, you'll be getting a bit of an identity crisis with it: you're not quite sure where you begin and it ends. It's a sense of finding out the points, or impulses or emotional reactions or things that people invest in: the things that we share, and the things that make us all the same, rather than different.
SR: Do 'big' themes or concepts, like time for instance, predominate in your work? Your work often has an open-ended, or unfinished aspect...
MD: Oh, but time is a little thing as much as it's a big thing. I constantly think about time, because I haven't got any! It's definitely about problems of possibility and too many choices and not enough time. And also how can you ever resolve anything when there's too much of everything, too many ways... You can never be right on anything. So you may as well just leave it undecided and unfinished. But I love the really little things. Whole works have sprung out of my staring at the floor at the edging of a carpet. Really ordinary things become inspiring. I continually wonder at the way we invent stuff around very primary experiences, like the shift from crawling to standing for example... You go from being part of the world, part of the object to suddenly mapping the world, having an over-view. Your first separation or first ordering, I suppose… I love the vertigo of that, the distance a tall building to the ground. The scale of it doesn't matter - there's always this potential vertigo. Recently I've been thinking about it in terms of a way that you can describe a sense of self in more places than one. You can physically feel that vertigo is made up of the experience that you've fallen, and you're down there, but you're still here. It's one thing I can think of that highlights that ability of the self not to be a single identifiable entity... that mind or self can be, might be, something that's more of a community of something. That goes back to the interconnectedness and the unfinishedness of all the work - that it's always going back or forwards, or in and out, of the next thing, or the things around it…
SR: Toni Ross has said your work creates a desire in the viewer - to interact with it and to understand it and its open-endedness. Is it a place where people can actually go and experience?
MD: And inhabit I want it to be a very real proposition for the moment... I suppose there definitely is a between your head and your toes, as much as from very strong thread of escape running through all the work. But if you're escaping something, you perhaps think you're going from somewhere to somewhere better. But I wouldn't say it's necessarily a better place to escape to... and Ted Colless has talked about an escapist thing in it too. I hope it's also a place where you could re-imagine whatever it is that you take it [to be]... I would hope it could reveal an openness... that you can open up systems and structures and ways of thinking through imagination and transference. If I have been able to achieve making a place, maybe it's somewhere you could go in and out of. It's not necessarily that the place is important. What's important to me is the transference. It's the space of moving in between those two places; your place and my place. And that you felt the transference. It's like walking through a wall - that you've felt yourself walk through a wall, so that you then understand the connectivity between things. It physically demonstrates that. That's why it's important that you can see right through the surfaces of all the things, like all the plastic sculptures, and that you're reflected back. In Berlin I made mirrored tubes. You couldn't walk into the spaces [of the installation], but you could walk around them, and you could catch your image in an almost cinematic way around the tubes. There were underground and overground worlds, and plastic tubes. It was a sense that, although it might be a really fantastical world, you're in it. And then you're out of it, and then you're in it. So it is not so much the sort of objects that I make that I'm so interested [in], they're just tools for transference. Maybe you could say that the work exists outside of the objects. It's more about the interaction with it. I suppose they're props, in a sense, to activate the exchange.
SR: In one particular work you had a TV set whose aerial was all gummed up. What were you saying with that?
MD: Again it's to do things with surface, kind of an ironic way of activating a sense of bleeding or osmosis in something. It's a way of activating something inanimate into something more, giving it life force. You seal it up so it seems as though it's suffocating, that it can't breathe. I think the viewer understands that very easily, quickly. And then they transfer their anxiety onto it and suddenly it's alive! It's a weird phenomenon with objects... A television aerial is something that picks up waves and information. When you're watching your TV set, even though the TV set is glass and sealed off, stuff pours out of it. You emphasise that if you over contain it. I think you can animate it and emphasise its leakiness.
SR: Your work often is suggestive of performance.
MD: Yes it's into performance; it's like taking all your costumes to the stage, or taking all your props to the theatre, and then you work them up into a sort of performance. It's very intense. But I can't seem to avoid it. It's not a relaxed thing. There's a certain amount of instinct, mixed up with what you think is a sort of consciousness. If I'm thinking about it too consciously I can't do it. I analyse myself out of it. That's the survival of the fittest forms coming out... Whatever's left at the end of the day before the opening, well that's it. You can do no more. You have to live with that. You have to live with the residue. You have to close it off, and so in a way it always dies when it gets into the gallery. I always find that it looks best when it's in the studio. In a mess it's much more lively and it's still full of potential.
SR: Is it about ego?
MD: Oh it's always about ego! But it's also about trying to understand what that could be. If you could think about the ego differently, if you could actually dissolve the ego... I suppose all the work is about that, in a way: how do you soften that, or make it porous, or how do you get the sense of shared ego, and shifting ego. It's where 'I' becomes 'you'. It's the IOU. Who's 'you' and who's 'I'?
In October 2003, Mikala Dwyer's installation I Maybe You was shown at the Hamburger Bahnhof National Galerie, Berlin as part of the exhibition of Australian art, 'Face Up' (curator Dr Britta Schmitz). This is an extract of an interview which took place in April 2004.