Roadtrip is behind, New Year is ahead, and Fertilizer Friday is baaaaack!

Fertilizer Fridays are interviews with artist friends. It’s about honest, casual conversation, sharing ideas + busting myths about being an artist/making art.

I met Gabrielle in 2008, when we found ourselves stuck halfway up a hill at the RBS-Malihom Residency Programme in Balik Pulau, Penang. Together we weathered isolation, bugs, creative difficulty and extreme weather. I couldn’t have asked for a better residency companion.

Gabrielle is now based back in Sydney, but has been and continues to be frequently found in South East Asia. In fact, she’s spending this December at Cherrycake Studios, Penang! Here she talks with warmth and honesty about travel, being an outsider and what it means to belong…

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Self-portrait with Red Beads, 2005

Just like everyone else, artists have good days and bad days. Could you describe what your working day is like, a good one and a bad one?

a) GOOD:

Usually in the latter stages of concept development. Ideas flow and make sense, productivity is high. Shit shines, I know what I’m doing, I complete work easily and feel satisfied. I don’t trip over anything. There’s plenty of tea & milk in the studio fridge.

b) BAD:

Usually in the early stages of concept development. Everything I do is ugly and try-hard. I am frustrated and attempt to work through it, but no matter how much paint I use, the work gets worse. I trip over and break things. There’s no milk for tea. I usually cry a bit and whine to friends about being no good.

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Malaysian Gothic, 2007, from Mouth of Flowers series

You’ve experienced living and working on a few artist residencies, both in Australia and overseas. Up to 2011, I was travelling frequently for art projects. At some point (I don’t know exactly why), I said to myself: enough. Maybe the idea of mobility had become a career crutch, with one opportunity leading to another, and if I stopped I was afraid of losing something… Momentum? Visibility? I lost a sense of my own direction and place, and with it, clarity of purpose in what I was doing.

Does success = mobility? What does travel give an artist? And what does it demand in return?

Yes, I totally understand. Art travel can be frustrating, exhausting and distracting. It becomes all about career and something gets lost in the process. After being away from the Aussie art scene during 2007-2010 (extended by a hiatus nursing a dying parent), I certainly experienced a kind of ‘invisibility’.

So now I’m keeping art sojourns short and sweet, if at all. My month in Penang this December will give me space to pause, get some perspective, and reconnect with Malaysian friends. Despite the setbacks though, travel does provide insight. And in return? I’ve been happy to meet the ‘pay back’ requirements of residencies. But it’s also taken 4 years to get back on my feet, so the price can be quite high.

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The Revelation, 2008, from Gods in A Box series

Something that’s seldom discussed is the agenda of those who host art residencies. What do you think are some of the motivations of private/institutional organizations when providing artists with residency opportunities? Are artists aware they’re serving these agendas alongside their own?

Good question. Sometimes the motivation is genuinely philanthropic, but more often it’s about getting a tax break or gaining political kudos. With many private residencies, it is a way of generating rental income. Some artists are aware of these agendas and research the background of organisers/residencies before accepting support. Others simply take advantage of an opportunity where they can, which is understandable in an environment where opportunities are so limited. Other times, it’s just an affordable holiday with a studio attached. I think that the simple fact that residencies exist is a miracle. They certainly weren’t around 30 years ago…..

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Figure 1A, 2009, from Colonialus Nullus series

As an Australian artist working in Malaysia, did you experience discomfort as an outsider? I know this term ‘outsider’ isn’t a polite one, but talking about it openly helps break that sucker down. We hide behind too many unspoken walls when perhaps a visible one would be preferable – it’s easier to dismantle.

I bring this up because I see in your paintings an attempt to grapple with the surface of the social culture you encounter, e.g. Mouth of Flowers and Gods in a Box, two series you completed at Rimbun Dahan and Malihom, respectively. The figures are constrained by a decorative outline, or shell. At the same time, they inhabit the shell. I also see the Colonialus Nullus series as a take on Westerners encountering an ‘exotic’ landscape and becoming part of it’s history, themselves becoming exotic creatures.

Could you tell us more about experiencing culture from the outside and inside?

Wow you summed that up really well. Basically I’ve been on the move for the last 23 years…17 addresses over London, Sydney, LA, Melbourne, KL and Penang, so being an ‘outsider’ has become the norm. I’m an expert at adapting to new social/cultural environments. Discomfort is a major part of the process – and a major inspiration.

Moving allows for calculated risk taking; it generates all kinds of interactions, conflict and ideas. Depending on the environment, the art will reflect feelings of constraint, frustration, violence, exoticism, humour or total absurdity. And my role as being part of the ‘problem’ is always implied. In creating Colonialus Nullus, I experienced my own redundancy in terms of making any genuine contribution to Malaysian culture; I was just a passenger/visitor, like my colonial forebears – and in historical terms, an endangered species. Everyone else in Malaysia seemed to know this but me.  

Another good reason to travel – it wakens you from outrageous ego states.

Are you a feminist?

A big fat ‘YES!’

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Liberate Education participants with their work

In 2011, you started something called Liberate Education, where you conduct art workshops for all ages, in different contexts. I was moved and inspired by the testimonials from participants in their 80s. What insight has Liberate Education given you about the creative impulse as an essential part of being alive?

It banished all cynicism or contempt I had for the creative process. It’s so easy for an artist to become jaded, I have certainly felt it. But seeing folk – especially those with dementia, physical disabilities or psyche issues – start painting, drawing or experimenting for the first time and creating an artwork they never thought possible, is incredible. For however long the feeling lasts, they are totally uplifted, confident, surprised, amazed. Group members start relating to each other as human beings. They laugh and look younger. They get cheeky and playful. And they can’t wait to come back and try it again.

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Figure 2A, 2009, from Colonialus Nullus series

Something has been bugging me for a long time about the art profession in Malaysia: the fact that galleries and collectors often take months (sometimes years!) to pay artists for works that have been sold and delivered. Has this happened to you? If you had to pick a specific problem you’ve encountered professionally, what would it be? What can be done to improve the situation?

Yes, it happens in Australia too. I know of several galleries that have gone bust and artists have been left unpaid. It’s absolutely unacceptable and totally disrespectful. But much of the process is about solid communication. Often artists are just so grateful to be invited to have or be in a show, they don’t ask questions. But we have to wise-up and not assume it will all work out, especially in an industry where galleries go bust and collectors don’t pay.

We must negotiate our contracts/conditions with care. If we want to be paid straight away, we’ve got to get the gallery/collector to agree to this, otherwise, forget it. As an individual artist however, it can be really hard to create change, so forming a union, peak body or non-profit association is a good option for moving things forward. Direct political representation with strong numbers encourages professionalism…. and respect (ie. payment) follows. The Matahati group is an interesting example of what can be done within the strength of a collective alliance. Bet those guys get paid on time?? :)

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Mea Culpa, 2012, from Antipodisease series

In your many years as an artist, what has been the relationship (should I say tension?) between social class and art? Is this relationship different in Australia compared to Malaysia? I think there is class tension in your latest series Antipodisease, or am I totally off base?

There is much class tension in Sydney, and it’s become more acute as new ethnic groups enter the equation, and the divide between rich and poor widens.

For the last three years I have spent many ‘day job hours’ driving from incredibly wealthy suburbs in Sydney to poor ones. I inspect homes in all these suburbs, hearing the stories of the people who live in them, and writing about their properties for the local real estate market. I’ve seen a lot of change, experienced plenty of ignorance and witnessed a general disengagement with the natural environment.

Up until recently social class hadn’t been a big item on my artistic agenda, but after these experiences it became achingly apparent that I needed to address it. So yes, Antipodisease does reflect the shifts and cultural differences/tensions I have experienced since being back in Sydney.

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Plugged-in, 2012, from Antipodisease series

What’s next for you?

A big thing has happened to me in the last 12 months. For the first time ever, I now live in my own home. I am no longer negotiating the idiosyncrasies of roommates, or worrying about when I’ll be moved on.

It feels weird, great, confronting, and sometimes lonely. I’ve started fixing stuff and browsing through home décor catalogues. Yikes. So, short of becoming a renovation princess, I am beginning to think more deeply about what home, place and identity really mean. What does it mean to belong?

My work in property marketing is helping with this. Remember when you were fascinated with pockets? [In 2008, I began collecting pockets from used pants I found at Penang’s Thieves’ Market - SC.] I have become quite taken with architectural floorplans. I think they’re totally cool. So I’m visually playing with floorplans from all the places I have lived, loved, visited. I don’t know where the journey will lead but I’m currently at (b) BAD early stage concept development that will hopefully lead to (a) GOOD latter stage concept development where everything flows and I do little dances in the studio without tripping over anything.

Hopefully there will be some milk in the fridge for tea. 

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The Surrender, 2006, from Flight Path series

Thanks, Gabrielle!

Everyone, please check out more of Gabrielle’s work on her website.

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Fine Print: Images are Copyright Gabrielle Bates 2005 – 2012. All Rights Reserved. Wouldn’t hurt to ask before using. But if you’re taking them anyway, credit correctly!