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Wes Hill in conversation with Andrew Harper
Wes Hill: What is it like to be a contemporary artist based in Hobart? Do you think that Tasmanian artists are generally well-represented in exhibitions and discourse produced on the Australian mainland?
Andrew Harper: No, not really. But why should we be? I actually feel a bit uncomfortable speaking for Tasmania because the reasons I make a work and how I go about it are so personal.
Having said that, there is a sense of place in some of my work; Celluloid Curse Against the Current Government (2005) was very much about being in Hobart and being near Mount Wellington for the project’s final performance. But generally I don’t make work about place, though there is a bit of it about in Tasmania. It is interesting that you can feel so dwarfed by nature here. It’s so big. I was told once of a visiting artist from mainland Australia who found Mount Wellington to be an oppressive presence in Hobart. I thought that was hilarious. I understood this as a reaction to the immensity of nature—being humbled by it and not liking that feeling. I actually like the sensation of being dwarfed by nature here. I don’t see it as a bad thing.
Wes Hill: You once walked from Launceston to Hobart as an artwork, didn’t you?
Andrew Harper: Yeah, that was a weird one. I’d had the idea of going for a really long walk for some time. I think about a lot when I walk. I’m also into psychogeography and cognitive mapping. Walking became difficult for me after I broke my ankle badly in 2002. This was terrible because I don’t drive and I like walking, so it had a profound effect on my mental state and on my conception of myself. I put on quite a lot of weight and I’ve felt very ugly and deformed ever since. The walk piece came out of a desire to beat this injury into submission. It was really challenging. People thought it was a gag or a fiction, but it wasn’t. It took months. I had a little tent, a decent sleeping bag, strong boots and a rain coat. It was wonderful. All I concentrated on was getting to a bend or the top of a hill—feeling each step, feeling the road. I was constantly aware of the traffic, so I was constantly examining the road ahead for the safest place to walk. It was also really weird. On good days, I would walk about ten to fifteen kilometres. I had bad days too. I actually got quite sick and had to pull out at the end.
Wes Hill: A lot of your work has this meandering sensibility to it—like a stroll or a casual conversation. Is there an overarching concept that you think encapsulates the various projects you’ve been involved in?
Andrew Harper: Not really. I work intuitively. A lot of my work comes out of all the improvisation training I’ve done. Early on, I was interested in the Keith Johnston book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre (1979), which went on to become the basis for Theatre Sports. There’s a lot of misconception about Theatre Sports, largely because people have had bad experiences with it. But at its core is a concern for freeing one’s mind. It’s interesting because in conception it does many of the things that comedy is not supposed to do. What I discovered is that it isn’t really about comedy at all, but about narrative. After doing it for years, I found this way of accessing my subconscious by reacting instantly—by not negating or blocking my reactions to things. Comedy is usually about being cruel, and there are many ways to be cruel. Antonin Artaud suggested it is in exposing some kind of brutal truth. After a time I realised I was interested in that as well—in accessing the subconscious through ritual, or theatre. This also relates to Georges Bataille’s notion of transcendent abjection.
Wes Hill: Tell me more about your interest in Bataille. The transdisciplinary, mystical and transgressive aspects of your work provoke comparisons to Surrealism.
Andrew Harper: I’m always looking for a transcendent experience of some kind. Surrealist art and thought is about trying, at least in part, to make a politics of the unconscious, to put it somewhat crudely. Bataille’s writings helped form my notion of the abject—where there’s transcendence available through giving oneself over to humiliation or disgust at the squishy realties of the body. Recognising how un-angelic humans are, but also appreciating the richness of life—actual life—and the clammy mysteries of love. I see Bataille as someone who invested in secular mysticism, and who found it in base reality. There’s transformation in his work, as well as realisations which come through sex and immersion in the most gross of base matter.
Wes Hill: So you came to visual art through theatre?
Andrew Harper: Yeah, I’d perform story-telling shows which, after years of performing positive narratives, gradually became infused with horror elements. I think story-telling, improvised theatre and stand-up comedy have a lot in common. Although I was performing pre-existing folk tales, short stories and plays, it all felt very personal. I began to make myself emotionally vulnerable, and that idea of vulnerability become really important. Then I began using nakedness in performances, which was really exhilarating. I did seven performances in this extended ritual over nearly three years, and through this work the visual art world discovered me, and I it. I had no idea it was art. My first gallery performance, Celluloid Curse Against the Current Government, was pretty much what I had said it was: a curse. I really wanted to communicate all this rage I had about the Howard Government after Tampa and everything else. At the time, the best way for me to do this was to place a curse on him, a curse of empathy, really. I wanted John Howard to feel like I did, and I also wanted to understand his position because it seemed so utterly wrong.
Wes Hill: What are your thoughts on the relationship between politics and art? Is all art political?
Andrew Harper: That’s a difficult question. I keep meeting artists who claim that their art practice has nothing to do with politics. I don’t get that. I’m a bit of a Marxist when it comes to culture. I think I may have read too much Fredric Jameson in my undergrad years. Politics? Well I cursed John Howard, so what is that? Occult Politics? Politics though is in my head, in my relations, at my workplace, everywhere I see people negotiating power and negotiating the structures of culture. The New Zealand experimental musician Bruce Russell has suggested that pop music makes you feel comfortable about things as they are, when perhaps you should not.
Wes Hill: How did The Woodpecker’s Hole (2010) come about?
Andrew Harper: Gosh, that’s a rotten thing, isn’t it? You don’t quite get it if you watch it just once. You need to be subjected to that thing, that wretched thing. It began as a running joke between me and a friend called Nigel, who taught me improvisational skills. He and I would get drunk or high and chant stupid things over and over and over again in this odd voice. It’d drive people insane. That song, The Woodpecker’s Hole, was from an actual record of rugby songs—all these stupid drinking songs that are vile and about some sort of hideous masculinity. I am interested in the grotesque, and in songs about violating a bird with one’s finger. I really wanted to capture the bedlam in that idea, to highlight how it’s a bit of secret men’s business, and to make it irritating for those not in on the gag. I do enjoy these weird little folk traditions. The work echoes the early story-telling performances I did.
Wes Hill: Works such as Hieronymus (2011), A Thousand Pardons (2007) and The Woodpecker’s Hole, all feature you performing monologues. They also made me think of the bush-balladeer tradition in Australia—something that is hardly ever referred to in a contemporary art context. What do you think about this reading of your work, and what is the significance of oration in your practice?
Andrew Harper: I have a loud voice, and I think that language is far more slippery and difficult to grasp than is generally considered. One of the reasons I began making art at all is because I think language fails to truly communicate the intricacy of an emotional experience or a precise state. The words and speech that feature in my artwork are not quite literal, and are supposed to be understood as utterances from my subconscious. I try to improvise lots of dialogue, to unfurl what’s beneath the skin. I was quite surprised by some of the dialogue in Hieronymus—I didn’t know that it was going to come out like that. All three performances in that work are like tarot cards—the Hierophant, the Hanged Man and the Devil. They are also the id, ego and super ego. The Hanged Man is a direct reference to a performance by Leigh Bowery— he did this thing where he hung upside down and swung through a pane of glass. I also just enjoy occult symbols, but I like the way you can shoehorn readings into those things, the way you can make them your own, or invest in their cultural significance in a really personal way. The bush balladeer—well, I’ve never struck that before. It’s not a bad call actually because I am certainly telling stories and investing in traditions.
Wes Hill: How does your training in improvisational theatre still affect the work that you make?
Andrew Harper: Well, I got into improvisation after I got bored with traditional theatre. I liked how it was about moments. Basically, I became an artist when other people started calling me one. I’ve kept at art because I have an indulgent need to express myself. I couldn’t have known at twenty-two, when I wanted to be an actor, that I’d make a work like A Thousand Pardons. But this came out of my experiences with theatre, with investigating its history and its experiments. I just discovered things along the way.
Wes Hill: Does anyone or anything stand out as an important early influence?
Andrew Harper: The KLF [Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty] were really important to me at an early point. I appreciated their manual about pop, The Manual (1988), because it parodied the way the popular music industry worked in the 1980s. The KLF were totally invested in their project and they used celebrity as a medium to critique culture in a really broad way. They understood commercial pop so well that they were able to write pastiches of it that worked better than the things they were parodying. Their medium was everything and anything that came to hand. They exposed a lot of clichés with underground culture as well, because the KLF were in no way underground. They were engaged and I really liked that. I think one needs to engage if one is audacious enough to try to critique culture. You can engage on your own terms though.
Wes Hill is a writer, artist and curator. He has a PhD in Art History from the University of Queensland. As an artist he collaborates with Wendy Wilkins as Wilkins Hill. In March 2012, he curated a touring video art exhibition ‘This is what I do’ at Contemporary Art Spaces Tasmania (CAST), in Hobart. Andrew Harper’s work was part of this exhibition.