Melbourne based artist Will Heathcote recently showed a new body of work at Craft in his exhibition 20° S 135° E - the installation explored notions of isolation and interpretation of the Australian landscape. Will completed a BFA in Sculpture and Spatial Practice at VCA in 2010 and previous to that finished a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Art History from the University of Melbourne in 2003, also studying abroad at the British School of Art in Rome. Will’s worldly curiosity has drawn him to our own back yard, the Australian landscape. Will talks us through his recent travels and explorations in the outback:
The work in your exhibition 20° S 135° E is the result of an Australia Council funded residency in regional Australia, in which you explore the physical and conceptual connections with the Australian landscape. What are the particular magical qualities in our rural landscape that drew you to undertake the residency?
Growing up in Tasmania, I have always been keen on the outdoors and it seemed a natural progression to combine this interest with my passion for art making. Through this approach I have developed an interest in natural or seemingly ‘wild’ formations and their relationship to the designed, architectural and cultivated spaces of the cities and towns we inhabit. I am particularly fascinated in the apparent distinction between ideas of‘untouched wilderness’ and ‘controlled environments’ as way of classifying remote and urban places. Being very much from the South Eastern corner of Australia I have remained intrigued by romantic characterisations of the ‘red centre’ and mythological ‘top-end’.
It was in fact, after returning from a two-month trip to Indonesia with my partner and video artist Hannah Raisin that we went camping on the South Coast of NSW in the middle of winter. In stark contrast to Indonesia we suddenly found ourselves alone in campsites and began imagining the potential of an extended venture into the continent.
Beginning with a few short art projects in regional Victoria and South Australia, we began formulating a structure for a larger residency program and securing funding for a range of creative and community based activities. With funding, the project snowballed and we ended up being away for ten months in or old 60 series Landcruiser. This included forums, artist talks, collaborations, residencies, work on a cattle station and exhibitions including my recent show at Craft Victoria.
What were your expectations of the landscape and the people, and how did the reality compare?
In the early stages the proposed mobile arts program was aimed specifically at more philosophical notions of the landscape. Although, what we encountered was both vastly different and oddly expectant. The human/social element was perhaps the most eye opening. While I had romantic ideas about vast open spaces, a huge component of our experience was informed by the people who live in these areas. While considering myself engaged in national issues revolving around isolation and opportunity, the reality of this situation was far more confronting than I expected. Both Hannah and myself have come away from this experience with a wealth of new friends, stories and perspectives on this country. In response, we have developed a great many ideas for future projects that I could have never conceived before we left, including documentaries and life action community collaborations.
You work with a variety of media what are qualities you are drawn to in your materials?
My work develops in a project specific way. I either formulate an idea or one evolves through experimentation, in this case I responded to a particular piece of land in Australia’s centre. Then, it’s more a process of reduction that leads me to the end product. Gathering and developing a wide range of material and gradually whittling it away until I hopefully have a concise show.
In this instance, I was working from moulded impressions that I had taken from termite mounds. I cast them out in rock salt not only because the material has an interesting connection with the arid regions of Australia, but also gives a strange otherworldliness to the end product. At one point its crystalline and seemingly precious, the next it’s revealed as one of the most abundant materials on the planet.
This is the first time you have introduced photography into an exhibition context, the photograph forms an integral relationship with the installation, how important is the role of exhibition design in this showing?
Exhibition design is central to this particular show. I wanted the gallery to operate as a framework for transportation into a designed space. I painted the gallery a dark midnight colour as a way to frame the sculptures. While they are cast from location in central Australia, it is through the display and choice of material that they become otherworldly and bizarre.
It’s also interesting photography has made a return to my practice because in recent years it has been on the back foot, as I have mainly used it as a way to develop ideas, proposals and document completed work. In this instance, I experimented with a way of using older SLR lens’ to create microscopic images of the location in which I was working. Including these views of the landscape’s materiality up close seemed an interesting way of contrasting the macro and micro universes so apparent in the Australian outback. I took quite a few of these images, it almost seemed like a total diversion from the common desire to photograph the whole landscape, but in a lot of ways no less effective at capturing the nature the location itself.
The Isoptera 1 (Rock Salt series, above) were cast from live termite mounds and completed back in Melbourne, tell us about the process of making and the physical and conceptual transportations of the work.
I actually planned to cast rock formations. I was interested in the way geological forms present one moment in a massive process of gradual transformation and how fossils reveal the physical memories of time gone by. For example, around Alice Springs as the sedimentary rock layers fall from break always such as the McDonald Ranges, they reveal the texture of rippling ocean bed imprinted into the rock. They are essentially casts from the floor of the inland sea dating back millions of years, cast first in mud or silt and reproduced numerous times in many different materials from negative impressions to positive casts. It is a fascinating process that really situates you as a very small consideration in a much larger system. These natural processes also have some interesting affiliations with traditional casting and photographic procedures of capturing impressions in negative and casting them out in positive form.
I ended up casting spinifex termite mounds because I think they form a very interesting element in that seemingly ancient environment. They dot the landscape and appear to be natural formations in their own right, but are obviously the direct creation of an organism. They are forever changing, growing and falling over, the casts in the show present three mounds from one specific place and at one particular moment. The sculptures become physical reproductions literally transported from another place: 20° South 135° East. It was actually strange to see them cast out in salt back in the studio in Melbourne, because they were identical to the formations that I had camped next to and moulded in such a dramatically different place.
While on residency you also exhibited in a joint exhibition with Hannah Raisin at Watch This Space (pictured above), a collaboration using video, drawing and sculptural works how did your representation or interaction with the landscape differ in a collaborative showcase?
Hannah and I both have a great interest in making art. While our practices are quite different we always discuss each other’s work and help out with each other’s projects. I guess we’ve both become pretty comfortable working together. While on residency in Alice Springs we put together an exhibition of both our work at the Watch this Space Gallery. The project we set ourselves was to camp off the road in a remote location north of Alice for a week prior to the residency in order to make art by directly responding to the location itself. This led to a range of experiments including the early stages of the termite mound casts that I ended up developing for Craft. While we had a studio in Alice, both of our work came together based on the fact it was all taken from the same place. In this sense the exhibition became a showcase of impressions that we took from location in our own different ways.
What artists/thinkers influence your work?
I am influenced by a wide variety of artists and thinkers, but also a range of observers and stories that aren’t necessarily art related. While I can say that artists such as Francis Alys, Joseph Beuys and Robert Smithson have a direct relationship to my approach to art making, I also get as much inspiration from things such as watching nature documentaries. I am fascinated by science and often find myself reading and researching random discoveries and observations about the make up our planet and universe. This also goes for history and general stories about places and people, as they go a long way in forming my understanding of the world and reflect quite strongly in my work.
What’s next for Will Heathcote?
During the time away I developed a great deal of new work, the exhibition at Craft presented some of that, but I’m looking forward to developing the rest. There are a few things pending confirmation; a couple exhibitions (one collaborative show with Hannah) and even a proposed collaboration with a theatre producer in 2015. I’m returning to Alice Springs in September to work on a community Arts Festival with people we met while on residency. It really feels like I’ve come out of period of great new work development and I’m genuinely excited by the prospect of showing and refining the ideas over the next few years.
More information on Will can be found on his website willheathcote.com