Join Emma Dexter, Visual Arts Director, British Council with Australian artists Mikala Dwyer and Natalya Hughes in a conversation on humour and the impact of Sarah Lucas’ practice, facilitated by Peter Johnson, exhibition curator Project 1: Sarah Lucas.
The National Gallery’s current exhibition Project 1: Sarah Lucas is the artist’s first major solo exhibition in Australia. Lucas is well known for her use of crude and humorous imagery to explore the representation and experience of gender and confront the realities of bodily existence.
Emma Dexter is a contemporary art curator with longstanding engagement in British art. In her role at the British Council, Dexter oversaw Lucas’ solo exhibition I SCREAM DADDIO for the British Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Mikala Dwyer is a leading contemporary artist who explores ritual, sexuality, magic, memory and history in her sculptural, installation and performative practice. Natalya Hughes’ practice is concerned with decorative and ornamental traditions and their associations with the feminine, the body and excess. Dwyer and Hughes are both currently featured in the exhibition Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now.
This accessible livestream event is supported by the British Council as part of the UK/Australia Season.
PETER JOHNSON: Welcome and thank you for joining us tonight for the panel discussion for Sarah Lucas's exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. My name is Peter Johnson and I'm the Curator of Projects here. I'd like to begin by acknowledging the land on which I'm coming to you tonight and the traditional custodians, the Ngambri and the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I would like to extend that respect to all the First Nations people joining us tonight.
I am a man in my 30s, a white man, with middlelength brown hair, a fringe I've been cultivating over lockdown which I'm still not sure about, blue jacket and a blue shirt. For those of you who aren't familiar, that was a selfdescription and we'll be asking the other panelists to do that as well for the blind and vision impaired audiences joining us tonight. Tonight's panel is being supported by the British Council as part of their UK/Australia season and we'd like to extend our thanks for their support.
The impetus for this panel discussion is, of course, Sarah Lucas and the exhibition Project 1: Sarah Lucas that's currently on at the National Gallery. We've been really thrilled to bring the work of Sarah Lucas to Australia for her first solo exhibition in this country. Sarah has become one of the UK's leading artists in her practice over the last 30 years and, indeed, one of the world's leading artists. Through her amazing use of humour, she's able to talk about really difficult things like misogyny and objectification, mortality and our relationships with our bodies.
This show, which you can see behind me, is on until Easter 2022, the 18th of April, so I hope you all have a chance to come and see it before then. It brings together 10 new works, 10 sculptures five of them in bronze and five of her Bunnies made from stockings and stuffed with wool surrounded by 7.5mhigh photographs, selfportraits that she took in 1990, where she's eating a banana and staring right down the barrel of the camera, returning the viewer's gaze.
This exhibition is the first in the National Gallery's Project Series, which presents new works by contemporary artists. It's also part of Know My Name, a series of ongoing gender equity initiatives by the Gallery to increase the representation of women in artistic programs, collection development and organisational structures.
It is my pleasure this evening to introduce a really exciting panel to discuss Sarah's work and indeed their own works as well. I'd like to begin by introducing Emma Dexter. Emma Dexter has been the Director of Visual Arts at the British Council since 2014, with oversight of the British Council collection as well as being the Commissioner of the British Pavilion for the Venice Art Biennale, overseeing in this time the selection of Sonia Boyce OBE to represent the UK in 2022, Cathy Wilkes in 2019 and Dame Phyllida Barlow in 2017. Before joining the British Council, Dexter had a curatorial career in a wide range of UK visual arts organisations, including Tate Modern and London's Institute of Contemporary Art. And I'd now like to invite Emma to selfdescribe.
EMMA DEXTER: I am a 60yearold woman sitting in my study in south London as the dawn comes up and I have a blue background in my room and I have short, dark hair. I wear glasses and I'm wearing a tweed jacket.
PETER: Thanks, Emma. I'd now like to introduce Mikala Dwyer, who's joining us from the lands of the Boon Wurrung and the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation in Naarm, Melbourne. Dwyer has been exhibiting internationally since 1982 with works that explore how we relate to the object world. She has pushed the limits of sculpture, painting and performance, establishing herself as one of Australia's most important contemporary artists. A major survey exhibition, Mikala Dwyer: A Shape of Thought, was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney in 2017 and 2018. She's currently Associate Professor of Fine Arts at RMIT University in Melbourne and represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Over to you, Mikala.
MIKALA DWYER: Hi. So I'm also a well, as 62yearold woman. I'm white. I have really bad lockdown hair that needs a haircut desperately and it's sort of white and black and the roots have really grown out and I'm sitting in my apartment, which is really messy but you can't see that because I've got the camera pointing at the tidy end of the corner, and I've got some artworks behind me that are one is by Madison Byecroft. It's a beautiful silk hanging of a kind of strange creature, god, goddess behind me, and a wooden carving by the artist Baluka Maymuru from Yirrkala, which is a small kind of figure, sculpture. And another kind of long, skinny red wax sculpture that's by the artist Fionn Batchelor. And that's me.
PETER: Thanks, Mikala. And finally it's my pleasure to introduce Natalya Hughes, joining us from the lands of the Jagera people in Meanjin, Brisbane. Hughes's practice is concerned with decorative and ornamental traditions and their associations with the feminine, the body and excess. Recent bodies of work investigate the relationship between Modernist painters and their anonymous women subjects. Hughes won the Sunshine Coast Art Prize in 2020 and was a finalist in the Sulman Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2018, as well as the 2017 Ramsay Art Prize at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Her work has been included in institutional exhibitions, at QAGOMA, Artspace in Sydney and the Ian Potter Museum of Art in Melbourne. She's currently the Program Director of Honours Visual Arts at the Queensland College of the Arts. She is represented by Milani Gallery in Brisbane and Sullivan + Strumpf in Sydney. Over to you, Natalya.
NATALYA HUGHES: Hi. Thank you. I'm a 44yearold woman. I'm quite paleskinned but may be a little red today because it's quite hot in Brisbane. I have shoulderlength, shaggy, curly hair and I'm sitting in my studio, so to the right are some unfinished paintings in the background and to the left is an unfinished rug floating around. Thanks.
PETER: Thank you. I think we should just get straight into it because tonight I really just want to hear from you about your practices and how they intersect at different points with the work of Sarah Lucas. For me, the thing that I think of first when I think of Sarah is her sense of humour and the humour in the works. When I interviewed her in preparation for this exhibition, her response was and I would like to read it out because I think it's really interesting she says: "When humour happens, things get good. Less depressing. It's a kind of magic. Suddenly things make sense. Contradictory things. Hard to reconcile things. The same as jokes really. Or Freudian slips." Emma, in preparation for this, we talked about the fact that Sarah Lucas is the master of the oneliner, yet she deftly ensures that her work never feels onedimensional or trite. So how does that humour play out in her work and what effect does it have?
EMMA: I think for me, a key word that I keep coming back to when I think about her work is 'play' and 'playfulness'. Obviously that's a really important element in any artist's or any successful artist's work, the way that she uses language, phrases that are just knocking around in her head, and often repetition, sort of visual puns, literal puns, jokes, that play within an exhibition. So huge amount of interrelation of materials and colours and repetition but all interlaced together. So I suppose for me, just thinking about the whole question of humour, I think when Sarah sort of arrived on the scene in London, and obviously her fellows who were sort of part of that Goldsmiths moment in the early '90s, who sort of burst onto the scene, obviously there was a sense of breaking with the old order and I think probably perhaps a lot of work that was made in London in the previous decade was very serious and rather pofaced and so it did seem very radical and destabilising for artists, particularly Sarah, to be using humour to really sort of upset the apple cart, obviously sort of upset the patriarchy. Also, it was also quite threatening to the establishment and that establishment art world because of its humour. I'm sure there was often there's quite a lot of snobbery associated with humour in art, that it's somehow less valuable, that it's not so serious, and I was just thinking there was a sort of radical accessibility about how Sarah operates and puts work together and the fact that because of all the play and interplay between objects and materials and repetitions and injokes and ambiguity as to meaning when she's using certain titles, et cetera. There's always something to go back to and there's always something to discover, and I suppose for me that's a wonderful gift to the viewer but there's also something profoundly kind of democratic about it because it talks about the speech of everyday life and it speaks about the street, and so I love what feels like it's sort of radical accessibility.
PETER: I couldn't agree more. I think for me the importance of that humour is it's disarming as well. It allows her to talk about different things and get one foot in the door.
Mikala, there's a lot of often subtle, sometimes not subtle, humour in your work. I'm thinking particularly in the meeting of unexpected objects but also in the costumes and performances that you created. What draws you to this approach? Is it the same sort of things as Sarah, do you think, or is it a and we can see here a recent 2013 performance Golden Bend'er currently screening.
MIKALA: I'm not trying to be funny. It's often by accident. Like, I mean, this could be that Golden Bend'er one was quite serious but it ended up being funny. If I try to make something funny, it ends up really tragic and serious and if I try to make something tragic and serious, it ends up really funny, so it's not something I can control really.
PETER: Yes, it's interesting where humour is found and sometimes that's in unexpected places.
MIKALA: But I do like what Emma was saying about the radicality of humour and its accessibility and what you mentioned, this word 'disarming', which I think is really so true about if something funny happens, it is a break with a sense of order. It's a kind of it is disarming, and in that way, it is like from some fixed order. You can't if you're laughing, you can't you know, there's a sort of a release of control or order or something which I think is really interesting. It's very hard to do, to get humour, and it's very unfunny analysing it, I think.
PETER: And yet we find ourselves here. Natalya, I was going to ask I think that humour is often a part of your work as well. I think about the beautifully decorated canvases that you've created that are resting on the golden dildos. Do you find that humour makes it easier to talk about difficult things? What attracts you to that?
NATALYA: Yes, definitely. It makes it easier. The thing that I associate with humour is just how it's a coping mechanism for something a bit uncomfortable, like we're used to responding to an uncomfortable situation. I fell terribly the other day, I fell down, and I sort of sat there laughing. I guess that's the interruption Mikala is talking about as well, just to, you know, reset and find a way to get up and keep going. So I think it makes things that are maybe a little bit hard to swallow, a little bit unpalatable, possible to take in. I like that about it. Things become I don't know sometimes it's a way of taking something that might otherwise be a little bit offensive and making it I don't know I don't want to say it negates what's uncomfortable about it but it just provides some sweetener to engage with that thing that might be otherwise taken as offensive.
PETER: No, absolutely. And I think that probably leads on to the next thing I wanted to talk about, which is I guess what to my mind Sarah Lucas is using that humour to talk about, which is, by and large, misogyny. It's about the objectification of women, whether that be in popular culture, obviously her series of soft sculptures the Bunnies, named after Playboy Bunnies. But there's depictions of women in art history, particularly in that North American and European art history.
There's an interesting quote from Sarah when she was asked about how she's dealing with these sort of quite serious issues that her works raise, and she said: "I'm not trying to solve the problem. I'm exploring the moral dilemma by incorporating it", which I think is interesting and you can see that in the work, that they're not necessarily activist but they are raising the issues.
Natalya, your recent body of work explicitly considers the legacy of Modernist painter Willem de Kooning's Women series, several of which are exhibited here at the Gallery as part of Know My Name. And I should mention that Mikala also has work exhibited here as part of Know My Name, which is really exciting. What drew you to this lineage, this legacy, and how does it relate to women and their bodies and how they're treated more broadly?
NATALYA: I guess it's just an extension of something that I've been doing more broadly. Like, I really did hone in on de Kooning, maybe unfairly, but I've always been quite interested in the way women are represented in art history and especially which kind of canonical works explore this theme as if you know, the theme of the female form, this particular abstraction. And de Kooning was kind of exemplary as a figure who had done that, especially because he didn't name particular women in the work. It was Woman I, Woman II, Woman III, Woman IV, Woman V. So I guess I was kind of in part well, because initially I hated them, so that's a good reason to spend four years of your life engaging with them but I was also trying to understand the appeal, understand the process, understand the way he worked, and to take a little bit of it back as not just the subject but also the person making the work. So in some ways it's a bit of an easy target, I thought. I know better now, having engaged with them more closely, but it just seemed like a place that had a lot of potential for some thinking through that theme of the representation of women in particular. So that's why I came to it and it's still kind of hanging around the studio a little bit, even though I've moved on to another artist. But, yeah, I'm not quite sure I get asked all the time whether I like him or not. I mean, a lot of people kind of saw the show and hadn't quite figured out if you do if you appropriate a de Kooning image and then you spend all this time kind of reconfiguring it using this decorative language and then you plop it on some gold doubleended dildos, whether that equates to me loving the artist so much that I had to have another go at it or whether I'm critical, and I definitely err on the side of critical of certain aspects but then I've learnt to have an appreciation of certain others. I certainly wanted to change the tone of them, and that's where humour was important, I think.
PETER: Because, as we were preparing for this exhibition, Woman V from that series is in the national collection and I spent some time with it. And it was interesting to think about the violence inherent in those works and the way that women's bodies are cut up and the picture plane is distorted and the abstraction emphasises the breasts but also obscures her identity but then also thinking about the violence in some of Sarah's figures, and I think they're perhaps doing very different work.
NATALYA: I don't know if I would ever describe Sarah's figures as doing violence to the body because they're so I don't know the absurdity, the way it's pushed into an area of humour. I don't know. For some reason, I see it as a different process, even though there's like multiple body forms and they're piled on top of each other and the twisting and contorting and then they're squeezed into these completely unreasonable shoes. It kind of seems to me to be motivated by something a completely different end. Like, I think and I think I said this to you when we talked last time, I kind of have more empathy necessarily for the Bunnies than I would a de Kooning woman, who is sort of looming and a little bit grotesque and terrifying in some ways. These are not so terrifying. I just kind of I feel for them in a particular way.
PETER: Emma, I was wondering I think I mentioned this before. Do you see Sarah's work as being feminist or activist or is it dealing with misogyny in a different way and how do her works relate to that long history of men depicting women in art history?
EMMA: Well, I think from what I can tell from interviews that I've read from Sarah and knowing her a little bit, she's not terribly keen on labels. I just think and I think that's very freeing as well because, as we know, labels are ways of putting people in boxes and I think she's obviously she's been very smart, I suppose, in the way that she has created a particular identity for herself but nothing about it feels forced. Her selfimage is that of an artist first and foremost and that in itself sadly is quite a potent thing to do. And the fact that she I think it's all about context. When you first see when I first saw those sort of tabloidspread collages in the City Racing show Penis Nailed to a Board back in 1992, I was really disturbed and confused by them and I imagine I was probably quite a pofaced young curator at the time and I didn't really understand what Sarah was doing. And what she was doing was this really sort of classic Duchampian move of putting those images and those texts in that gallery and getting you to see them for real. And the fact that they were blown up so large, I was really horrified by them and still remember that to this day. And I was very I have to admit I was very confused by the exhibition and I didn't really get it, which is my failing, not Sarah's. But I talked about it. I took photographs of the show and I talked to a group of students. I was doing a talk at Winchester Art Gallery and I talked about that show in depth, I think as a way of trying to work out what it was and knowing that there was something really important going on there. So I like the way that she doesn't there isn't anything at all preachy or sort of pedagogic about her work. It's still very open for you to make up your own mind about what you're seeing and what it means and where you fit into it and obviously for women, sometimes that can be quite uncomfortable when you recognise things about the world that make life difficult reflected in her work. As Natalya was saying about how you feel when you look at the Bunnies squeezed into those shoes and in those positions and there's a strange sort of identification that happens with that, I think, if you're a woman looking at those forms. So I don't know whether I've really answered your question, Peter, about feminism but I think I've probably said enough.
PETER: No, that was fantastic, thank you. I think the only when we were talking previously, I was really interested in particularly the comparison you made between the classical busts and the busts that Sarah did for Venice and how she is referencing this really rich and long art history, or at least playing with it in her work as well.
EMMA: Yes. I mean, she... That was a very classical show and I suppose she it riffed off the very classical architecture of the building itself. It was a remarkable total work of art and the way that she's using ordinary furniture as plinths and being so again, there's always so much to go back to in her work. So the idea that she took away the bust, which is the sort of classical statuary that we're so familiar with, and replaced it with bottoms or whatever you want to call them, bottom halves of figures, and yet somehow through the use of the cigarettes, et cetera, used bottoms as faces, et cetera, but actually because of the classical echoes of it, the monochrome nature of it, the fact that it was all in a sense very pure, again that's really disarming and I think that's wonderful that she's able, she's so free, to make references to classical sculpture in that way which, of course, has objectified women. But she talks also about the show as being like sort of floating meringues in a sea of custard as well. I mean, there are so many things going on at the same time her culinary references, her references to food. So I think again it just shows how multilayered everything in, everything from Greek classical sculpture and Dutch history right up to food, which clearly is a really important part of her life.
PETER: Fantastic. And, Mikala, your work actually often eschews direct representation of the body. It's more often implied through the choices in materials or the particular way in which objects are arranged. How do you relate to the representation of bodies in Sarah's work and the way that it challenges the male gaze? Does that work for you?
MIKALA: I guess I really feel like I really have been working with similar materials and furniture as Sarah likes too, except I guess I imply the figure to keep a kind of a space where you can enter it, where she occupies it with the figures. But I find it really interesting because she's so focused, like the play and the materiality and the furniture and the oneliner, they're very focused in there. There's a precision to this work that I'm not so good at. She's really like, you can identify it and feel it because these materials have great proximity to the body so we are able to transfer into them very easily. The chair is a standin for a body. It's easy for us to sort of sit into it but it's already occupied by this figure, but this figure is wearing stuffed stockings. I mean, the stockings are skin. They stand in for skin for all of us well, certain colours of skin, I guess. I don't know. It's the way we inhabit these sculptures I find curious, whereas I think I'm more there's a figurative element in my work but it's more architectural and spatial but it's a conflation of the sort of architecture and the furniture and the figure, whereas I think there's more focus on something else in Sarah's. I really enjoy the way she uses these Modernist furnitures as plinths and it sort of highlights and the way that the bodies are so kind of elasticated and flexible and perky and droopy at the same time, but there's a real defiance there, and that play is really radical, like play is very serious and it's quite a political tool, I think, that she can employ. I don't know where I'm going with this but I find there's a real focus and precision in her work and also just bloody good sculptural form. They're really beautifully she really knows how to work as a sculptor. They are just it's about all sorts of really complex things, traditions and histories of sculpture that she totally gets and she's able to just very lightly muck around with it, but it comes back to being really good form. But there's a whole lot of things there that are at play and she's sort of messing with at the same time.
PETER: You're right. They're really satisfying in space, in the way that they move and as you move around the object.
PETER: One of the other things I wanted to talk about was the way that difficult works and some of Sarah's works can be a bit difficult are received potentially in different parts of the world or at different times. In terms of the show here at the National Gallery, overwhelmingly it's been really positive. People have really loved the works, particularly when they've gotten to spend time with them in the space. But there has been a small cohort who I think find the works confronting, perhaps even offensive to begin with. So I'm interested in that reception, whether that's in Australia versus the UK. And, Mikala, I know you spent some time in the UK in the 1980s, particularly when the Young British Artists were just starting to come into their own, and you've obviously exhibited in many places around the world. Have you noticed a difference between how your work is received here and overseas?
MIKALA: Yeah. I don't know where to start with that. Yeah, I don't... yeah. I don't quite know how to answer that. So it's different anywhere you go. It's always different. In Britain, when I was living there, it was the deep, dark Thatcher years and it was just really hard, and being Australian, you never go down too well in Britain. I found it really complicated. And I'm sorry, Emma. I'm a bit traumatised by my time in England.
EMMA: Oh, dear!
MIKALA: Well, it was a bad time. It was the '80s. It wasn't a good time in London at that time. But, I mean, yeah... I don't know. Where am I going with that? What did you want to know? Was it a different reception?
PETER: I guess the question I'm interested in, and maybe open it up to Natalya and Emma as well, is that line which we've talked about humour but also that line between what can be offensive and what can be delightful. So when you encounter these sculptures, for some people, you know, the female anatomy and the way that that multiplies or the way that it is really confronting, but for others I mean, I find their fallibility quiet endearing. I love spending time down in the show with the Bunnies but I guess I'm interested in how good work and often good art work can be confronting to begin with.
MIKALA: Yeah. Sorry.
PETER: Did you have any thoughts, Natalya?
NATALYA: I do because I don't I find it hard to understand the response of offence because I'm thinking about certain traditions of the nude that everyone's fine with, and I can't I can't quite understand why this is not OK and that's totally fine. Like, I don't really get it. I will say that the other thing that I really love about Sarah Lucas's work at the moment in a teaching capacity is that I have I teach like a whole generation of younger women who find the idea of feminism quite offensive but they can deal with Sarah Lucas. So they find a certain range of body practices really hard to deal with and then they find Sarah Lucas a way in. So there's something about the offensive there that I kind of I feel like she what's the word when you put down your weapons 'disarms' in a way. So I haven't yeah, I find it hard to see why someone would find this unacceptable and like La Demoiselle d'Avignon totally cool. But maybe I don't know. Maybe I got raised differently or something. I'm always surprised by you know, on the one hand, people kind of treat art as if it's impotent and has no use and then, on the other hand, they're deeply offended by a squishy set of stockings shoved into a pair of high heels.
EMMA: I think it's quite visceral, her work, as well. I think that's probably where people might be quite unsettled quite unconsciously. There's something quite disturbing about the squishiness of stuffed stockings and sort of contortions. It's almost just on the basic level of kind of awkwardness of conjunction of materials that just I don't know brings goosebumps out in the viewer or something. I think it's at a very kind of primitive level that we react to sculpture and objects in a very different way to how I think we react to paintings and flat work personally.
NATALYA: I'm sure that's true.
MIKALA: I also think offence is something that's temporal. Like, it's not always the same. Offence is a shifting kind of reaction, I think. I think also the offence might have been earlier about works that weren't finished properly and that there were sort of made out of stockings. It wasn't the objects that were offensive. It was the materials that were offensive. Or you can't make a I mean, what's funny then is then Sarah goes and makes the men bronze, and I find that really funny. If you're talking about offence, like it wasn't so much the sort of tits and the dicks and everything everywhere. It was more, "Oh, that's in an art gallery and that's just made with crappy old stockings". It's not it's a combination of things. It's not any one thing. It's touching a lot of buttons, that "Call that art", kind of thing, "My 4yearold could do that". It's all those sort of like a chair and cigarette butts and things like that, which part of it is offensive? There's a whole kind of constellation of things that are triggering people's reactions, I think.
PETER: I totally I agree. And I think there's also a question about who's being offended, and maybe that's not a bad thing all of the time. I would just encourage all of our viewers out there, if you've got any we'll move to Q&A soon. If you've got any questions for our amazing panelists, please send them through on the platform that you're viewing this on and we'll get to as many as we can.
I just wanted to ask before we move on to Q&A I wanted to dig down to that question of materiality a little bit more, into Sarah's use particularly of found objects, of everyday objects, and she talks about using them because they're they are the vernacular of the every day but they're already imbued with some sort of content with her, with some sort of meaning. Mikala, I'd love to go to you first again because I think there's some amazing and interesting both sympathies and differences between the way that you and Sarah have used the everyday objects, things like cigarette butts, things like stockings and found objects. And so what is the appeal of those materials for you?
MIKALA: When I you know, I think it's like any artist at any time. You know, you work with what is available and I was working with what I could afford, I could find, what I could do. There weren't slabs of marble just ready there to chip away at. I couldn't afford that. I didn't have the facilities. It's like a lot of artists now working I guess with NFT or Instagram because that's what's been available during lockdown or something, or videos more able to be transferred. You make work of your times, I guess. And for me you know, like the materials and the readymade and found things like cigarette butts, stockings, whatever, they were things that they had a great sort of vocabulary of you know, they were accessible. Everybody understands what those things are, so you can employ them in a way that they can become very evocative in a kind of poetry, I guess, of the every day of talking yeah, I don't know. They're just the things that present themselves, like, yeah, at any given time what's available.
PETER: Yes, I think particularly about the installation that was here recently of yours that had the found objects in the stockings, and hopefully we can grab an image of that. But I think we've sort of talked about this. There's this implication of flesh but there's something pendulous about the materiality of it as well.
MIKALA: Yeah, I mean, I was always interested in architecture, architectural theory and stuff and the way that there's always this emphasis on these big buildings and the way architectures are very bossy and they can dictate the way we move through space and the way we develop psychologically and all that. But I was thinking: well, what happens in domestic spaces when people can really subvert the nature of an architect's intention by, you know, the tacky ornaments you might want to place around or the bad shelving you choose to put up or the terrible coloured carpet, the way you can really mess with the authoritarian nature of architecture by interior decoration, I guess. I'm interested in the power of objects to change space in a way.
PETER: Yes. Natalya, I guess there's something interesting, having looked at your practice, whereas for the last few years this move towards a really you know, using decorative prints from the '50s and '60s and this move towards questions around gender and power and representation through decoration. But some of your earlier work is really there's a work that uses a mattress that couldn't help but make me think of Sarah's work Au Naturel that also uses a mattress but a slightly different effect. But these soft forms. So I'm interested in that journey for you away from these more organic found objects to what you're doing these days.
NATALYA: Yeah, I still do try to use especially decor, items of decor. I'm still very invested in using those. I guess I want in particular, those mattresses were a good way of bridging everyday life in a kind of particular tradition of painting and making that tradition of painting kind of a little bit sleazy. So I think I'm what Mikala said about what's available and what it brings, so these kind of discrete objects always bring something new to a particular I don't know, you bring them into a scene and then they come what comes with them is a certain range of associations that can be very useful, if you're talking about painting, to just drop in there. Yeah, I still, you know, like, squishy stuff and this is one of the reasons why I think I love the Bunnies. The squishy stuff that we have around us is always hovering around my studio in different forms, no matter what. So I haven't left it behind but I guess it just gets deployed in different ways. I have a at that time that I made the mattress work too, I don't know if there was a bed bugs outbreak in Sydney but there were just mattresses leaning against fences everywhere all the time. I don't think hard rubbish gets collected anymore but it was like at a time when you could put your mattress out on the street and the council would come and collect it. So I was just trying to map that everyday experience to something that might happen in a gallery, yeah.
PETER: No, I just wanted to I guess, Emma, ask you from I guess a more art history point of view that obviously the readymade has a really long history in modern art and even, you know, Sarah's use of food, as I think you've mentioned previously, but I think for me she's doing something really different with those everyday materials than perhaps Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel or something like that.
EMMA: I mean, I was thinking about eggs and her use of eggs that she sort of used consistently throughout her practice, that selfportrait of her with fried eggs, which is quite an early work, which we've got in our collection and which has been travelled all around the world and is much in demand. And we've got about 15 works in our collection by Sarah. And just thinking about how that pose it's such a brazen position with her legs apart and it's a traditional kind of street catcall from men to women who are not who are quite flatchested to shout out "Two fried eggs". So she's sort of brazenly sitting there with two fried eggs on her chest with her legs apart, saying kind of "Gotcha". So for me it's a sort of it's such a wonderfully empowering image of such a riposte to the world of the street and what you face but also again humorous, very jocular, absurd and then she carries on with egg massages and again meringues and custard in the show that she did in the British Pavilion in 2015. So eggs, of course, everywhere, completely ubiquitous but sort of overlooked, and yet obviously relate very strongly to the nature of woman and the nature of humanity, so sort of operating on so many different levels just through using one extraordinary natural object. It can be mined endlessly, I think, by her.
PETER: Absolutely, and I think for me her use of food more broadly is really interesting. And the last topic that I wanted to come to was this idea of abjection, popularised by Julia Kristeva, but this idea of the existential horror you feel when you're confronted by the difference between the self and the other. It's the feeling of looking at a corpse, and often in a lot of art works, it's characterised by bodily fluids or grotesque bodies. So there's something in that vein in Sarah's work, particularly in her use of food. We can see Chicken Knickers on the screen at the moment, which is I think one of my favourite works. It reminds me in an excellent way of Courbet's Origin of the World, which I don't think we could show you tonight. But I guess I was interested, Mikala, about your relationship with the abject and I'm thinking as well again about that 2013 performance Golden Bend'er. And maybe you could talk a little bit about that.
MIKALA: I don't know. I was walking along on a sunny day and I thought I want to get a group of ballet dancers to do a communal shit in a gallery. No, it was actually it did happen like that. I was trying to perform some weird sort of reverse cyclic looping alchemy of turning gold into shit and shit back into gold. Yeah. I can read you out a text. I find this one it's quite complex to talk about it. In terms of abjection, I think for me the abject is more about connection than repulsion. It's about regaining kind of a connection back into your body and losing the sort of sense of separation that the other you connect with the other, not are repulsed by the other, kind of thing. So whether it's the corpse or the shit or it's you know, you're one and the same kind of thing. For me anyway. That's the way I would read it. But do you want me to talk about this? I'm just conscious of time. It might take too long, I think.
PETER: Just briefly, if you've got, you know, a minute or so, it'd be great.
MIKALA: So why shit? Shit has a truth to it as matter. A truth, not singular. A sort of universal truth that defies the idea of truth or universality, as pure. Shit is base matter, a matter that falls to the ground, that connects us to ground, that renders us all into a tube or a channel or somehow hollow by its presence and passage through us as an object. Our first creation or gift that hits the air that is almost part of us has been part of us, a fetish object, a relic, an erratic object. And it's sort of you know, we shit together as children and as soldiers in a state of exception, but rarely at any other time. And our shame begins as the architecture around our shit looms divides and flushes into elaborate systems of sewerage, pathologies, psychologies and economies of profit and loss. And then I, you know I blah, blah on a bit. And it was kind of: can we reimagine our consumption if we can reimagine our waste? And as Catholics because once a Catholic, always a Catholic I grew up Catholic we believe we can eat Christ at Communion, not as a representation but as a true magical transsubstantiated Christ, and can we not shit Christ? So these are the sort of ideas I was thinking of with that. That's a very rushed it's a very kind of complicated idea. It was so simple. It was really simple. It started off really simple and it got really complicated as it went on. It got argued in Parliament by Eric Abetz as a waste of taxpayers' money, which was really funny because I felt like it was successful then as a alchemical process. It became monetary value then as
PETER: Yes, you know you've made it when Eric Abetz is wanting to talk about your works. We've got a question from the audience, talking about in particular the distinctive names of Sarah's work and the humour that's inherent in her titling, which is often part of the joke, such as the work that we've acquired into the National collection called Tittipussidad. But there are other works in this show called Sugar, Alice Cooper, Oops!, Dora Lalala. And text has been a really important part of that throughout her practice. Emma, did you how have you related to the titles of her work and how they influence your reading?
EMMA: They're obviously really important and they just add they just add another layer to so I'm just thinking about the show that she did at the British Pavilion, which was I Scream Daddio. She obviously loved the fact that 'I scream' was embedded in that title. So I suppose just looking at every part of the artwork including the title as a vehicle for play and mirroring and all of which is going on actually in the work but, like I say, with a very tight touch and you know that if you try to pin her down to say: "Well, what does that mean?", you'd already have not got the point, if you see what I mean. It has to live in an area in your brain that is constantly revolving and changes its opinion about what that means.
PETER: Natalya, the titles of your work are really interesting as well. Perhaps not quite as oneliner as some of Sarah's but particularly the recent de Kooning the works that reference de Kooning that then refer to other women in your life. Could you talk a bit about the importance of titles when a work resolves and how you come to a title?
NATALYA: I used to just be so bad with it. Like everything was untitled and it was an archival nightmare. And now I've realised it sets a tone. It's just so important in setting the tone. So I try to be a lot more specific now. With the Woman paintings, they were difficult women that I had encountered. So one was Pam from the Gold Coast, who ran a hotel and had the most amazing leather skin I've ever seen. And then another was like a difficult family member. I just think as far as making it funny or absurd or showing an audience how seriously you take it or leading them in a particular direction, it's quite important. So I now try not to do any untitleds. I've let that go. I'm reformed.
MIKALA: A reformed untitler. That's great.
PETER: I think there's time for one more question before we have to wrap up for this evening. I'd ask the curators and the artists on the panel but I'm actually just interested in what the artists have to say. Is there work you have to do as an artist to make sure audiences 'get' the work? Is that something that you consider or that interests you? Mikala, maybe we'll start with you.
MIKALA: No, I'll just go back to what Emma was saying which I think was just so bang on. It's just that thing that you've got to activate. It's like the magic of I don't know. You said it so well, Emma. Just this kind of setting up a conundrum. It's not about understanding. It's about something beyond that. It's not about getting something. It's about just opening up, I guess, thinking and feeling and all sorts of things. But, yeah. It's definitely not about making I hate to think of people actually getting it. I would think that was a massive failure if that was the case.
PETER: I'm only discounting you and I, Emma, because our entire job is to help people understand works.
EMMA: I suppose but also I duly help people to understand about the wonderfulness of ambiguity as well, you know.
MIKALA: You can experience it without having to understand it, I think. It can open things up about all sorts of things, I think.
MIKALA: And you put in there and then the audience...(??) That sounds bad.
PETER: And for me, that's the power of art, right, to have multiple possible meanings at the same time, and that's what makes it so extraordinary and why I keep coming back. And on that note, I think I'm getting the bell and we need to finish up. But I would like to if this was an inreallife event, I would ask for a huge round of applause for all of our panelists. So if you're at home, a little clap would not go astray. But thank you, Emma, thank you, Mikala, thank you, Natalya. It's been a fantastic conversation. Thank you to the tech team here and the events team for making this all happen. There's more tech wizardry than you could imagine to get this all to function from one side of the planet to the other. And thank you finally to everyone who joined us tonight. It's been a really fantastic conversation and I hope you've enjoyed it and that we see you at the Gallery soon.
MIKALA: Thank you.
NATALYA: Thank you.
EMMA: Thank you.