Finished, but not finished yet
words by Perdita Phillips
1 October to 31 December 2017
Artsource Global City Residency Sydney, Artspace
Close to the Artspace Gunnery studios in Woolloomooloo are the 113 sandstone and concrete steps of the McElhone Stairs that were originally built in the 1870s. These stairs now connect the melange of state housing, navy facilities, boutique hotels and luxury apartments that is Woolloomooloo below and Potts Point above.
While on residency, I used these steps almost every day but was neither local resident nor part of the flashy lycra-clad lads and ladies of harbourside Sydney. The condition of being neither – of being in-between – in a new place can be a positive or negative experience. I decided to adopt the former. I went into the residency with the clear aim of structuring it around focused interests. I knew that I wasn't, for example, using the residency as a bridge to move to Sydney. Instead I wanted to be selective in what I experienced – what exhibitions that I saw and what I chased up – so that I could use the three months as wisely as possible.
But I also knew from previous residencies, that you never make as much work as you expect to make and that you need to be open to the new experiences and new directions that come up. So, whilst I had some specific goals in mind, I also wanted to take some of the pressure off (my) conformist expectations around what I do as an artist and do mini-explorations that were not destined for a predetermined output.
I wanted to slow down a bit and re-centre my practice. Putting it bluntly: I wanted to do stuff, see stuff, process stuff, make a bit of stuff, connect up with people I knew from social media but had never met, and regenerate!
Given that my expectation was to be pulled in different directions, I was ready to be as agile as possible and try and use different ‘speeds’ at different times. Whilst this switching of speeds wasn't always easy, it allowed me to take chances doing things that I would never have the time, opportunity or money to do in Perth.
A lot of what I did in the studio was raw and early in development. Some of the diverse directions I experimented with will undoubtedly be useful in the future. I want to work further on 'precipitating change' which, in retrospect, was what I was using the residency for and why it has been such a tremendous psychological boost, personally and professionally.
A central component of the residency that deepened my practice further was my collaboration with Sydney-based writer/theorist Astrida Neimanis, Going underground: Multispecies encounters with rocks and water in the shadow of extraction[i]. For some time, we’ve been corresponding and exchanging ideas about stygofauna as unknown and unknowable inhabitants of the subterranean[ii]. The residency gave us the opportunity to work together to organise a one-day walkshop/field trip to/from the State Mine Museum in Lithgow for 30 people. As part of this I designed and printed a postcard and also assembled a dossier of material for participants. The latter I regard as an artwork too – a collection and curation of visual and textual fragments about stygofauna, the underground and the mining and industrial history of Lithgow – to stimulate discussion on the day between scientists, scholars and artists. I also led a silent walk in one part of the day – so overall the event ended up being an embodied, pragmatic and conceptual gesamtkunstwerk[iii]. Later I went back to Lithgow to take casts of slag near the remains of Australia’s first blast furnace. I became interested in slag-as-Anthropocene-rock and this is something that I am now pursuing back in Perth.
In the studio I began with small mixed media drawings of stygofauna. Unexpectedly, I started making small watercolour/acrylics over digital prints (and vice versa). Then I worked with large double-imaged digital artworks made by combining scans from found postcards. These explored the theme of caves and mining/energy/extraction/industrial sites. One was printed in Sydney and there are more are in the pipeline. I also produced a 1 x 7.5 metre long mixed media on paper geological transect (that failed), and another, looser watercolour ‘process drawing’ of the same length that was the base of a wall installation composed of the many fragments I had collected over the residency. The latter was on display as part of the Artspace studio Finissage in early December.
I called my mini solo show Finished, but not finished yet[iv] because I still had another three weeks to work in the studio before I left. This title also reflected the nature of making and the unfinished processes inherent in this exploratory residency.
And then there is a long list of a whole lot of other things that I did during the residency. In the first week of the residency I installed my work as part of the Incinerator Art Award[v] in Melbourne and visited Burning Mountain[vi]. In the second week of the residency I participated in the Bookmachine project as part of VAABF[vii] and produced a printed book in 24 hours called WingenretnuH[viii] based on Burning Mountain and the coal landscapes of the Hunter Valley. Later I was one of the judges of the GreenWay Art Prize[ix]. I was selected to attend the Wild Lab Sound Workshop[x] with master sound recordist Chris Watson at the Yarrangobilly Caves in Kosciuszko National Park in October (fantastic but expensive to attend!). Later I attended the Biosphere Soundscapes: perspectives on listening[xi] symposium in Brisbane and these two activities brought me back to my interest in making sound art again. These activities were a great reinvigoration.
Some other unexpected interventions to revitalise my practice were a collage workshop with artist Deborah Kelly, attending a postcard fair, touring the Sydney Fish Markets, going on two weed walks with artist Diego Bonetto[xii] and a night tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens. I went on a site visit to the Blue Mountains National Park chasing up the material culture of speleology. I caught up with nine or so people (artists, gallery directors and curators) who were either known to me or whom I knew through social media, and the same number of people again, who were either suggested to me or with whom I developed friendships as the residency progressed. One of the outcomes of this was being commissioned for the Lost Rocks[xiii] publishing project. Astrida and I have one more artwork (a postcard/text collaboration) that will be published this year.
In summary, it was an amazingly productive focussed-but-exploratory residency with lots of contacts and follow-ups still to make. The theme that I set off with – stygofauna, groundwater and the subterranean – is still strong and relevant. Whilst I didn't come out with one complete body of work I felt that the different developments were adequate compensation. With all of the ‘stairs’ that I had climbed, the work continues: finished, but not finished yet.
Perdita Phillips is an Australian artist whose practice revolves around environmental issues and social change. She has a wide-ranging and experimental conceptual practice that traverses and integrates art, science, walking, listening, human communities and nonhuman worlds. Phillips takes photographs and videos, draws, publishes books, makes walks for people to participate in and sculptures for people to come across. www.perditaphillips.com
Images (top to bottom):
Perdita Phillips, studio process drawing as part of both/and project, 2017. Mixed media drawing installation, detail approx. 18 x 27 cm. Photographer: Perdita Phillips
Perdita Phillips, studio process drawing as part of both/and project, 2017. Mixed media drawing installation, detail approx. 28 x 42 cm. Photographer: Perdita Phillips
Perdita Phillips, studio process drawing as part of both/and project, 2017. Mixed media drawing installation, detail approx. 30 x 45 cm. Photographer: Perdita Phillips
Perdita Phillips, studio process drawing as part of both/and project, 2017. Mixed media drawing installation, detail (cards. 10 x 15 cm). Photographer: Perdita Phillips
Perdita Phillips, studio process drawing as part of both/and project, 2017. Mixed media drawing installation, 900 x 220 x 40 cm. Photographer: Perdita Phillips
Perdita Phillips, studio process drawing as part of both/and project, 2017. Mixed media drawing installation, detail (book approx. 13 x 19 cm). Photographer: Perdita Phillips
Perdita Phillips, studio process drawing as part of both/and project, 2017. Mixed media drawing installation, detail (postcards. 10 x 15 cm). Photographer: Perdita Phillips
Perdita Phillips, studio process drawing as part of both/and project, 2017. Mixed media drawing installation, detail approx. 18 x 27 x 2 cm. Photographer: Perdita Phillips