SCULPT IN JUNE.
The winter solstice is over, we're heading down the path to summer again, and The Art Olympics is halfway through!
We met this week's interviewee through the studios of Melbourne mad geniuses (genii?) Oh Yeah Wow, whose work with 3D animation has been blowing our minds this month - check out this video they did for Gotye, and this one for Elliot the Bull. Incredible, painstaking stuff, and a reminder that sculpture needn't be static.
Now, grab a coffee and dive into our interview with Katie Turnbull as she chats auroras, the Arctic, animation and how humans are just like flocks of birds.
THE ART OLYMPICS heads over to Brunswick to chat to kinetic sculptor and visual artist KATIE TURNBULL.
1:44 pm. A table outside a café in Brunswick. One flat white, one soy hot chocolate.
Art Olympics: So, if you want to give a brief overview into who you are and your creative practice, and where it’s taken you of late, that’d be great.
Katie Turnbull: So I studied Visual Media kind of before computers were as ubiquitous as they are now. I remember my memory stick was 64 KB.
KT: And I was studying motion graphics, a little bit of coding – back then, it was a program called Director – and Photoshop. And then through there, I became more interested in motion graphics and animation, and I did my Masters at RMIT in Animation and Interactive Media in about 2010. But I became more interested in the physical side of animating, the touching of objects over screen-based stuff. So I started making zoetrope work. And from there, I got commissioned by Experimenta to make a new work for their 2012 show ‘Speak to Me.’ And then I kind of became a practicing artist from there. Fell into it.
AO: I think a lot of artists do.
KT: I never wanted to animate ever again.
AO: You’ve done a bit of stop-motion stuff, haven’t you, with ‘Soap Joy’?
KT: Yeah, that’s all stop motion. It’s layers of glass with colour print-outs on acetate, and I just love that technique. Actually, everything stemmed from that work, with the layers of glass. That’s what I found really fascinating. I just thought it was so beautiful, and it was an object, even though it’s just 2D – with the layers, it becomes 3-Dimensional, and that kind of spawned a whole other life every since then. The building up of layers.
AO: I’m so in awe of how people have the patience to animate, to do that kind of work. I’m such an impatient artist. I can’t fathom the amount of intricate, long-term work that it requires to be an animator.
KT: And it’s repetitive as well! So repetitive. And these tiny, little changes with each frame. I don’t know what type of person is an animator. I haven’t figured that out yet – what’s wrong with them?
KT: What’s their personality quirk, that makes them want to do this?
AO: So what’s the most recent sculptural work that you’ve done? Is it the work looking at herding and flocking?
KT: ‘Patterns of Thought,’ yeah. It’s a series of small, hand-cranked kinetic sculptures. So I made that work early last year. And that was still an extension of animation, looking at early automata toys. But again, this playful notion of experimenting and touching, and learning through play. That inspired that work. It was an interesting process, because I come from a purely digital world, and I’ve never made anything with my hands, so I kind of just take everything, get kits and pre-made toys, and take them apart, figure out how they work, and then go about building my own. I kind of learn by destruction.
AO: The ones that you made, did you hand-craft each element, or did you design them and have them 3D printed or laser cut?
KT: Most of it’s laser cutting, but I find the problem with laser cutting is that you can send something off and then when it comes back two weeks later, if the joins don’t work or it’s 2 mm out, you have to laser cut again. So I do a lot of prototyping in cardboard initially, and get all the measurements exact, because it’s fairly precise work. And then send things off for laser cutting. But I do most of the woodwork myself. I get out the hand-saw. And I have a very unique approach to hand-sawing, where I sit on the floor, because I’m not very strong, and I grip the mitre box with my toes.
KT: With both hands. And I have to be in a very small space – I put my back against the wall, and the mitre box against the other wall.
AO: So, your arts practice works best in a corridor?
KT: It’s a corridor, that’s where I work!
AO: Well, it makes you very portable, at least.
KT: Whatever gets it done at the end of the day, that’s what I’ll do.
AO: You say on your website that part of ‘Patterns of Thought’ is about observing peoples’ reactions to the kinetic sculptures. So in terms of that kind of herding and flocking mentality, what were you observing about the way that people interacted with the sculptures?
KT: I was interested in decision-making processes, and that moment when you can see someone is changing their mind. If there’s a group of people observing one person interact, it just takes one person to break the group up, interact with the work and the rest of them will follow. It’s very much like the decision-making process of birds in the sky – it’s the first 5% of the flock that make the decision about where the flock is going. I thought there was a similarity there.
AO: Was there a certain type of person who tended to be the initiator for interactions with them?
KT: Yeah, small children.
KT: Always kids.
AO: They haven’t got the years of –
KT: ‘Don’t touch the art!’
AO: Exactly. My mother was in Europe a couple of years ago, and we were going through her travel photos, and half her photos are of her just touching art. Hugging these ancient marble artworks, and kissing them, and I was like ‘How did you get away with this? Why did no-one stop you?!’
KT: ‘You’re out of control, mother!’
AO: There’s something nice about breaking down those boundaries of what you’re supposed to do, though.
KT: I like making tangible work for that reason. But I have to say, it’s difficult if you’re making work where some things can be touched, and other parts can’t - that’s what I find difficult. Where you’re trying to design it so the parts that can be touched are very clearly marked without any signage. I don’t want signs saying ‘Don’t touch, touch, touch.’ That’s what I try to consider, but I haven’t really mastered that, and I’ll find that if I have a little handle that you crank, people just touch the whole thing. The same with the work that I made for Experimenta, you stopped and started the zoetropes – they were on record players. People would just touch the actual artwork, and scratch on it, and put their fingers on the camera lens, and crawl under the table looking for the projector –
KT: It was really wild. I should never have let them touch it at all.
AO: So the egg machine –
KT: My Egg-Bot.
AO: Can you talk me through how that works?
KT: I guess this is an example of me getting something and then taking it apart to figure out how it works. So this is for something I’ve been working on from my trip to the Arctic. I’m trying to make an aurora from data.
KT: So the idea of transposing data from one medium to another, just to see what happens. So it’s data from me sleeping. It’s my sleep cycles, and I’m trying to make an aurora from it. I need two motors – so this will eventually have a laser in there, where the pen is now. The laser will make phosphorescent paint that will form the aurora, and the light will bounce off a mirror and appear in the air. So there’ll be this aurora floating in the space. But for now, I need these two motors working really smoothly. So the Egg-Bot works from a sketch, run through a program called Inkscape, which is a free version of Illustrator. You import it in, and this little motor will drop the pen arm down, and this motor will move the egg on that axis. I have - I’m about to say a swear word –
AO: It’s fine.
KT: I have a zine that I make, called Cunt Zine, and the most recent issue is on female competitiveness. And so I made all these ping pong balls, as cunt balls. I figured I’d get my money’s worth, before I take it apart!
She plays a video of the machine working.
AO: Oh wow! It’s so intricate!
KT: It’s really sophisticated. I tried to code my own motors to do the same thing, but it wasn’t such a smooth movement.
AO: So is this all coding skills that you learned when you were studying?
KT: I just kind of self-taught. It’s the same thing – I’m good at taking apart code, but I can’t write from scratch, but I can kind of read it. So if I find lots of different bits of code from all over the internet, I put it together using the Arduino – it’s a little microprocessor, from Italy. So the Egg-Bot will eventually be taken apart.
AO: Tell me about being in the Arctic.
KT: I went last year, in October, for an artist residency. It’s a not-for-profit residency called The Arctic Circle. I don’t know why I was compelled to go – I really like Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’.
AO: Yes. They’re brilliant.
KT: So, I went to Svalbard. I found out it’s a real place. So I just went.
AO: Is it run by giant polar bears?
KT: I wish. I wish. So I guess that’s why I went to the Arctic. But then it was just stunningly beautiful.
AO: Did you have to apply with a concept for how you were going to use the residency?
KT: Yeah, you kind of go with a loose idea for a work that you’d want to make, but there is no exhibition outcome. But I have to say, like anything in the arts, you apply so far in advance – nearly 2 years prior to going, and by the time you get there, you’ve changed your mind. So I was kind of looking at ideas around the quantified self, and measuring every aspect of my time there, using all these different apps on the iPhone. Measuring my heartbeat, GPS tracking my whole time there, and my sleeping patterns and sleep cycles. I have all this data now, and I’m not really sure what’s going to happen. I need to start making, and then I think it will reveal itself. But yeah, the idea of transposing data between mediums – I think there’ll be something quite beautiful there. And with the idea of a more emotional response to climate change data, combining that data with my personal data of the place, and making a weird hybrid emotional map. That’s what I’m trying to do.
AO: And with the Egg-Bot aurora, is that something that you were thinking about when you were in the Arctic, or has it just come out as a way to use the data?
KT: Yep, it’s come up as a way to use the data. After seeing the Northern Lights – this mystical, magical thing, I thought ‘I want to try and recreate that feeling, of seeing that.’ But with pure data. I mean, everyone dreams of seeing the Northern Lights. They’re very spooky, actually. Kind of scary and weird. They move in weird ways. So I was totally compelled to try and recreate that.
AO: That idea of trying to quantify everything about yourself – I’ve been talking to some people recently about the Mars One project, and reading all these articles and watching documentaries about these people who are basically trying to machinise their lives, to become a perfect astronaut, for a project which will never happen. There’s no way.
KT: If they do go, they’ll die.
AO: I read this great long-form article which said that there are so many obstacles that we haven’t overcome to even think about getting people there. And it was basically, ‘Even if they got there, they’ll just die of radiation in three weeks.’ And I think they’re turning that project into a reality tv show, which I think is pretty representative of the quality of the so-called ‘mission’ itself.
So the residency you’re doing in New York, do you know what you’re going to be exploring while you’re over there?
KT: It’s a follow-up to the Arctic. So it’s organised by this artist, Daniel Kukla. His funding partners have invited him and some other artists to go to New York and distil the experience, combine all our research post the residency and just have one week really intensive working time together, and just see what we come up with. We’ve actually weirdly come up with all these designs for furniture – ‘Furniture for an Uncomfortable Future’, to do with climate change. Stools with metal spikes, that sort of thing. We’ve all made a lot of video work, and hopefully we can integrate that into the exhibition – video, with the furniture you sit on to watch the videos. I think that would be an interesting little spin. It sounds like I don’t know what I’m doing, but that’s the nature of the beast.
AO: Absolutely. You go there, and you don’t know what you’re doing til it’s done.
KT: You do a lot of research. I’ve been reading about mapping processes. You read everything you can, and then just go.
AO: So climate change is obviously a strong theme in your work. With the kinetic work that you’re doing, obviously you’ve got pieces that people interact with, is the idea to create things that people are able to engage with, or is it more stuff where people step back and observe?
KT: My main interest in my practice is interactive works, but I do struggle with the way that some of the previous two works, big, large-scale works that I’ve made, the work has been quite damaged from making it interactive. It’s hard without the resources to have a full museum-scale show, where people can be minding work.. The idea is that, I guess we have all the facts on climate change, but how do we elicit an emotional response from people? Or something that makes people take more responsibility for what’s going on, because everyone knows. We’ve all got past that stage of doubt. So I think interactive works would make sense.
AO: I think there’s something really disarming about going into a space and having to engage with something physically, that forces you into an emotional reaction.
AO: So if someone turned around tomorrow and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to give you a million dollars, and you can do whatever you want with it’, what would you do? Where would you go? What would you make?
KT: I have an idea for a work. I want to replicate the idea of nature vs. nurture, creating an interactive artwork in two rooms, where the action of participants in one room directly affects the experience of people in the other room. Seeing if the people who’ve seen how their experience has been affected by the actions, do they go and do the same thing? Do they make the experience unpleasant? It’d be a sculpture with a live feed into the first room. I like those little tests of human nature. That is a work I would like to explore. That’s what I would want to do.
AO: I think that could be an alarming piece to put on. I think people would probably end up being dicks to each other.
KT: Yeah, I can’t make up my mind. That’s why I want to make it.
AO: And in terms of art and sculpture, who are the practitioners who are inspiring you at the moment?
KT: I have always loved Len Lye’s work – he’s an animator. He did scratch-on film and also kinetic sculptures. Who else? Olafur Eliasson, the Icelandic-Danish artist. His work is really beautiful. It’s simple – deceptively simple. It’s so elegant. He did this great piece in Copenhagen last year called ‘Ice Watch’ where he got huge chunks of ice from Greenland, and put them in a circle in the square in Copenhagen, and everyone sat around and watched them melt, and interacted with these giant chunks of ice. I was there, and people were really rough with them. It was kind of horrible. Deliberately melting them, there was littered trash everywhere, from people coming to see this spectacle. I mean, it was beautiful, but the message didn’t make it.
AO: I wonder how many people walking through that square, what percentage walked by and thought, ‘Oh, this is actually exactly what we’re doing to the planet, on a micro scale.’ Hopefully some.
KT: How long have you been running the Art Olympics?
AO: Since January. Originally, it was just an idea for me, to expand my creative practice, to try things I’d never done. But as I told people about it, a lot of people were interested, so since I’ve put it online, it’s become a much bigger thing. I spend much more time interviewing and transcribing interviews than doing the art at the moment, but that’s okay.
KT: That’s just art-making, isn’t it? Set off on one project and then a thousand essays later and you’ve written a book about it, and not a drop of paint.
AO: It’s been interesting, though. It’s been great, being able to be quite naïve and not having to pretend that I’m not.
KT: Being playful.
AO: Exactly. Traditionally, when you interview someone, you need to have an awareness of the form and the context around the artist, but I can just ask really basic questions of excellent, fascinating people. It’s very freeing.
KT: That’s so perfect. And, you know, I didn’t study art – I studied very loosely, but I’m not trained -
That guy just did a kick in the air! A kick for joy! It was wild!
AO: He’s having a good Monday.
KT: He is.
AO: I think there’s a lot to be said for – a lot of the people I’ve spoken to haven’t trained. Or, they have trained, but not in the area that they’re working in. It’s good. I think training and studying gives you a sense of taste and an awareness of the possibilities of artistry, and then you can use those instincts.
KT: Create the framework. I think sometimes, a lot of training can make you more – this is not always the case, but I feel really curious about things. It’s curiosity that’s driving, the Egg-Bot for example. ‘How does that work? What can it do?’
AO: I think the more you know about something, it can be easy to be crushed under the weight of the canon of artistic creation, whereas if you just come in blind, often you might not be doing it technically correctly, but at least you’re doing it.
KT: That’s always been my way of animation as well. I never did it the right way, but whatever works. I’ve got the end product, I’ve got something in my mind, and I’ll just do whatever it takes to get to that end product.
AO: I’m like that with photography. Often with Photoshop I think, ‘I bet there’s a faster way to do this. Oh well.’
KT: It’s really annoying when someone comes and looks over your shoulder and is like ‘That’s not the way.’
AO: ‘Well, it’s my way.’
KT: ‘Stop looking over my screen.’
AO: Now, did you have a challenge for people doing the Art Olympics?
KT: Yes. I’ve got an exercise using abstract origami/paper forms. So, make any abstract origami form - this pyramid is a good example. Make a few of the same shape or a few of different shapes. Then experiment with how they could join together. Take photos of the iterations to compare. Glue the final composition together. Play, experiment, make many versions- sculpture doesn’t have to be serious, large or heavy.
AO: Great, that’s excellent. So, finally, do you have any particular goals for the next year, for your work?
KT: I would like to have a show in between July and November of this year. November I’m heading over to London for three months.
AO: To work?
KT: I’m doing more research. I’ve got a residency there with the Australia Council, in their London studio space. And the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood is full of kinetic toys and objects, so I’m going to research that. And more large-scale works, fabrication to make big things. So I would like to have a show in Australia before there. I have to learn a bit more about 3D printing. So that’s something - mainly learn. I’m just obsessed with fabrication, and the more I learn how to fabricate my own work, and the quicker I can prototype ideas, I just find everything more satisfying. Getting other people to make things for you is expensive, time-consuming and it can be difficult when they’re, like, a welder, and they don’t want to make art for you. And if you want something weird, they’ll just be like ‘Why?’ It’s not the easy way to do it. Actually I’ve worked with a really great welder, who’s just totally amazing. But yeah, I’d like to learn more fabrication, and buy lots of equipment.
AO: Awesome. Thank you very much for that.
Katie's work can be found on her website.
Interview photography by Sarah Walker.
SCULPT IN JUNE.
Sculpture is a fabulously varied form, in both material and size - from vast statues nearly 200 metres high to pieces so small they fit in the eye of a needle. This month we'll be celebrating them all, from the intricate to the simple, from the colossal to the teeny, from paper to wood to metal to ceramics to plastic.
Sculpting at home can seem an intimidating thing, but we don't all have to be Rodin. As ever, the internet is a fabulous repository of DIY advice and projects. You can put together your own 3D paper sculptures, make a table centrepiece using 72 pencils, use plastic spoons to make a mirror frame, make your own realistic cloud, make a starburst wall piece from skewers, heck, even make your own chain mail from soft drink tabs!
Now, part of what we strive for with the Art Olympics is carving out a space in our lives to create, regardless of what we do with our day jobs. We live in a society that prioritises business and looks down on leisure, on play and on hobbyism. This month's first interviewee is a marvellous example of how a passion for the arts can support and stand alongside a non-arts career, and can provide a welcome place of refuge, of introspection and of discovery.
Julian Burnside is a barrister who over the past decade has become Australia's most prominent advocate for refugee and asylum seeker rights. Somehow, in between carrying out an enormously successful career as a lawyer, acting as a formidable force for social change, writing books and articles and giving speeches, he finds time to be a major supporter of the arts. He chairs several boards for theatre and music organisations, commissions work, hosts concerts, and is an extremely enthusiastic collector of work by emerging artists. He has also quietly been creating art of his own over many years, with sculptural works that he describes as '3D collages', created from detritus that washes up on the beach near his holiday home.
The Art Olympics sat down with him and his wife, artist and activist Kate Durham on a chilly Saturday morning in Melbourne. The conversation covers sculpture, but ranges along the way through discussions of what it means to be an artist and how to push one's own creative practice, to what it means to live well in the West, through refugee policy and government mistrust in Australia, to classical music and back to sculpture again. It's a long read, but a fascinating one, and a wonderful insight into two enormously educated, sensitive and passionate individuals. Do take the time to pore over it.
THE ART OLYMPICS heads to Hawthorn to the home of lawyer, activist, author, commentator, arts patron and sometime sculptor, JULIAN BURNSIDE and his partner, artist and refugee rights activist KATE DURHAM.
11:22 am, in the garden room of Julian's house. One pot of coffee, one pot of herbal tea.
Art Olympics: Okay, so if you could just say a couple of words so I can check the levels on the recorder –
Julian Burnside: ‘Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire-’
Do you know this poem?
AO: I don’t, no.
JB: ‘But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.’
AO: Who’s that by?
JB: Robert Frost. ‘Fire and Ice.’ It’s one of the perfect poems.
AO: Is that the entirety of it?
JB: That’s the entirety of it.
AO: That’s wonderful. So, I think if you were to say everything you fill your days with, this would be a very, very long conversation – you are a very busy and involved man! But if you could give a brief introduction into what you do day-to-day, and then also what you do as an artist.
JB: Well, first thing, I don’t describe myself as an artist.
JB: I’ve got too many friends who are real artists! Well, I’m a lawyer, I’m a barrister. So I do cases in court and think about things. And I’m – I think I’m called a political activist, because of my involvement in refugee things, but I actually don’t think I’m an activist. I think I’m someone who has a conscience. Who tries to point out where things are going wrong. And if that makes you an activist, well. And I’ve always liked the arts. I guess my most significant involvement in the arts is in my attempt to support the arts, one way or another. So I chair the board at 45downstairs, which I think is a marvellous place. And I chair Chamber Music Australia, which runs the International Chamber Music competition. And for a number of years, I was on the board of Musica Viva, which also puts on chamber music concerts. And I’ve always collected art. Well, not always. From when I had an income, I’ve collected art. And I’ve now got more than I can accommodate, so I lend it to people. Because I’d much rather have it hanging on someone’s wall than being in a cupboard. And where possible, my principle approach has been to buy things by young unknowns, to use a rough collective description. It’s not universal, but typically – this is Kate.
Julian’s partner, Kate Durham, comes in, paint-spattered.
AO: Hello! Hi, how are you?
KD: Nice to meet you! It’s freezing out there, isn’t it?
AO: It is.
JB: And it’s not warm in here. Do you want some tea?
KD: I might have a coffee, actually.
KD: It’s not that late, is it?
JB: No, it’s not noon yet.
Laughter. Kate heads through to the kitchen.
JB: So, by preferring to buy things made by people who are at the start of their careers, I mean, they’re the people who actually need the money. And the encouragement. And I know a lot of people who claim to be supporters of the arts, but what they do is they go to the auction houses and they buy second-hand works by people who are old or dead. I don’t regard that as supporting the arts at all. I think that’s just supporting auction houses. And then those people say to me, ‘Yeah, but hang on, how do you know that the work you buy is going to increase in value?’ Well, short answer is, I don’t give a rat’s. I really don’t care.
JB: I’ve never sold a work. And I don’t ever plan to. If it turns out, eventually, after I’m dead, that I paid more for things than the later market is willing to pay for them, well, that’s a problem for my descendants. I don’t care! And in the meantime, I’d say I’ve had my full measure of enjoyment from looking at the things.
AO: Do you remember the first piece that you ever bought?
JB: Yes, I do. And in fact, it’s in our bedroom. A painting. It’s a nice piece. I enjoy looking at it, and I look at it every night.
AO: And what’s the most recent thing you’ve acquired?
JB: That’s a good question. I’ve slowed down in the last year or so, because – (he gestures to the walls)
AO: Yes, there isn’t a great deal of wall space.
JB: It’s fairly full. And my room in chambers is equally full, and I’ve –
Kate comes in with a cup of coffee.
KD: You’ve furnished about four floors of other people’s chambers, truth be told.
JB: What’s the last thing I bought?
KD: You don’t tell me, often.
JB: Yes, that’s true.
KD: What are you doing? You’re doing a work on –
AO: So, I’m running a project called The Art Olympics, which is providing people with a different creative project every month, to encourage artists and non-artists to work outside their own form, and to try new things, and the theme for this month is ‘Sculpt.’ Each month I do interviews with practitioners in the field to talk about what they do, and what inspires them, and how people can start to tinker with forms that they’re not used to.
KD: It’s a great idea, to work against your own mannerisms. And nothing stimulates you more than working against your own taste. So people voluntarily say ‘Here’s the thing that I did that was for the project’?
AO: It’s linked to Instagram, and so people can say ‘Here’s a drawing that I did. I haven’t drawn since I was at high school.’ I’ve been getting some really lovely emails from people, saying ‘I never thought I could do this. And it’s not very good, but I did it. And I gave it to someone, and it made me feel good.’ And I’ve been speaking to some people who do public art, public intervention art, and it’s been really great to have people say ‘Just make something, and just leave it somewhere. Give it to somebody. Leave it on a park bench with a little note saying ‘For You.’’ It’s been really lovely.
KD: That’s lovely. A bit like guerrilla knitting and things like that.
AO: Yes. I’ve spoken to an artist called Sayraphim Lothian, which is probably the best name I’ve ever heard, who’s a public artist, and she does things like knit little objects and leave them for people. Recently she went to Christchurch, and made – there’s a species of flightless bird called a kakapo, of which there are about 120 left in the world, and she went and made 120 little felt kakapo, and left them around Christchurch for people to find.
KD: How beautiful!
AO: It’s really lovely. She talks about just creating nice experiences for people. Which is probably not very fashionable. But really lovely.
KD: It’s not fashionable. But things are changing. Certainly in my work, I was treated suspiciously in a sense, because I just like doing a lot of everything.
KD: And no-one trusts you if you change style. It’s like changing character, like suddenly declaring your unreliability. And when you’re assessing contemporary art, I think, to be honest, the whole thing is so subjective, no-one knows how to assess your work. And really, the longevity and sticking power is really most critics’ guide. I mean, Fred Williams kept doing that sort of thing, so people eventually thought ‘Oh, there’s an intellect at work,’ when he was actually quite a simple painter. So people constantly overestimate the obsessives. John Nixon, another painter who’s just done that Malevich Cross, for, I’d say, forty years. Same picture.
AO: I’m really fascinated by people who can do that. I get so bored, so easily.
KD: And you know what happens, you have to admit, once you have facility for something, you should actually move on, because it’s not challenging. And actually, your work can look less engaged. That happened to John Anderson, I think. The more skilled he got, the less interesting his paintings became. There was something wrong with them. He should have changed radically, to give himself the same challenges.
AO: I think if you’re going to be an artist, and you’re expecting to achieve perfection, you’re in the wrong field, really. Because I think good art happens when you scrabble for something and don’t quite make it, and you ask, ‘Well, what’s the aftermath of that?’
KD: And it’s always just a series of bridges, really, isn’t it? One piece of work leads you to another, distracts you, you go back to something you did. And that’s the intrigue. I was even frightened of even doing large, consistent exhibitions, with work that had one through-line. I thought that was intimidating.
JB: Although your boat people exhibition had one through-line.
KD: It had to.
JB: At least, an idea that was a through-line, not the material.
KD: Oh, no, and I conceived it because that would work in a large, commercial gallery. It had to work there. I couldn’t just do one or two, or a series of paintings. I wasn’t really sure how it would work unless it had that. So, getting back to the nature of the subject, what you’re trying to do is provoke people into just stepping out of what they’re comfortable with?
AO: Yeah, exactly. And I think a lot of the people who are signed up to the project are not artists at all. So, I kind of wanted to do it because I noticed that a lot of people I know, including me, felt like we weren’t allowed to pick up a new form of art as a hobby, or as something to explore, because I know a lot of people who are very good at one type of art, and it’s really difficult to be not good at something for a while.
KD: It’s like music – unless you’re a professional at it, you don’t play at home.
AO: Yeah, every time I pick up a guitar, I find myself very disillusioned by the fact that I haven’t miraculously become brilliant through not practising.
KD: All these pleasures that people are kind of foregoing. Like, dance is one of those things that I miss, actually. As a young person, you’re allowed to. It didn’t mean that you were going to be a dancer, just one of those few things that people can still do – until they get older. And you can’t go to nightclubs and dance any more.
AO: That’s so sad.
KD: I completely understand that idea. It works the opposite way, too. I can remember doing my thesis on what do artists do when they’re not doing their work. This thesis was ‘Can you tell me what you do when you’re not making art?’ and all of them were saying ‘You’re not going to publish this, are you?’ It was real fear, of having a face that could be – I remember, Libby Gower was very open. She said ‘Oh, I crochet bikinis’. All these things that artists aren’t supposed to do. And I think I called it ‘Empty Pleasures’. These things that are almost craft-based that you’re not allowed to do.
AO: I would love to read that.
KD: I don’t think I even have it any more. But it was the tyranny of art-making, because you’ve also got this converse problem for artists, which is that they can’t explore either. They can’t go dabbling into areas that don’t concern them. They’re just so self-conscious.
AO: There’s also this thing that’s true of our society generally, too, but for all of the artists I know, it’s also really taboo to say that you’re taking care of yourself, giving yourself a bit of time to eat and sleep and cook food. Just have a sit down. Read a book. Every time I talk to someone and ask ‘How are you?’, it’s ‘Oh, I’m so busy. I’m so busy. I’ve got all this stuff to do, I’ve got all these grant applications, and this, and this.’ And if you say, ‘I actually stopped working yesterday and just went and did some yoga’, people are like ‘Oh. Well, it’s great that you had all that free time.’ And it’s like ‘It's so important to find that time. You have to make the time.’
JB: But that’s because it’s a function of modern existence that we define ourselves by our nominal occupation.
JB: And if you stop being an artist, you stop existing as a person. It’s a great pity.
AO: I read an article recently on introducing people to each other and trying not to just say, ‘This is Julian, he’s a lawyer, this is Kate, she’s a sculptor’, because that’s all you are.
JB: Although the other justification is that it gives you a conversational hook to go on.
KD: Traditionally, it was ‘Who are you the son of?’ or ‘What town are you from?’
AO: Yes! Someone asked me, when they met me, ‘What world are you from?’ And I thought that was really lovely, because I could say ‘Well, I work in the arts, but this is what I spend time doing.’
KD: That’s a good one.
JB: Next time I’ll answer ‘Tralfamadore.’
KD: But what you were saying before is actually extremely pertinent to a little conversation I heard on the radio yesterday, which was about a psychologist talking to people who want to lose weight and why they fail. And she said one of the things is that if you haven’t exercised, or if you come home and feel too tired to exercise, instead of saying, as you would to a friend, ‘Yeah, you’re too tired, just relax, just take the night off,’ you never do that to yourself. You lacerate yourself for failing. And you don’t take care of yourself in the way you would a family member or anybody else. And you’ve got to encourage yourself to take pleasure, or do the yoga, or whatever, and approach it happily. You should be saying exactly that sort of thing – ‘What do I feel like now? I think this would be nice for me.’
JB: Except that plays into the modern tendency, which is –
JB: Yes, narcissism, self-indulgence, seeing yourself as the centre of what matters.
KD: Well, this psychologist put it much better than I can, and she said it doesn’t do that, it shouldn’t go into that. She’ll say ‘This is about protecting you from harm.’
JB: Why is protecting yourself an intrinsically good thing?
KD: Because then you’re more focussed and happy the next day.
JB: And why is that an intrinsically good thing? More focussed – because you’ll be able to do your job better? That’s understandable. Because you’ll be happier? I’m not denying it’s an intrinsically good thing, but the point is that it’s one of the assumptions of our age. That the happiness of the self is one of the key things to strive for.
KD: It wasn’t so much happiness, it was just being yourself, being in yourself without feeling that you were torn, that there were hundreds of people in you, and that they’re all at argument.
JB: In Eastern cultures, I think, that would be regarded as an absolutely alien thought. And if that’s right, well then, it’s worth examining it to see why it is important.
KD: We’re in a society of discontent.
JB: We’re in a society where the individual is the paramount consideration, especially for the individual. In Eastern cultures, they’re much more concerned with society at large, which is a combination of individuals. And the individual’s fortune and future don’t matter as much as the fortunes and future of the society.
KD: That’s why people don’t necessarily have names, and it’s all about ‘Who’s your father’ and what not. But that’s changing, unfortunately.
JB: Sure. But the fact that that difference exists means that it’s legitimate to stand back and say ‘Why is my happiness of first order importance?’
KD: No, it wasn’t talking about happiness, it was actually talking about functionality, and saying ‘This is dysfunctional, what you’re doing at present is dysfunctional.’
JB: Well, no, your last statement was actually that you’d be more focussed and happier. Now, more focussed is allied to functionality.
KD: Didn’t I say ‘Be more content?’
JB: No, you said ‘More focussed and happy.’
KD: Alright. Well, anyway, I’d have to go back to it. But I think that’s a nice thing to say, ‘What world are you from?’ That’s far more open.
AO: I think it lets people determine how they want to respond to it. Because it can just be ‘This is how I know the people in the room’, or it can be ‘This is what I love doing, this is how I approach the world.’
JB: Have you read ‘Slaughterhouse Five’?
AO: I have, but a while ago.
JB: That’s where Tralfamadore comes from. And the defining characteristic of Tralfamadorians is that they can see time in the same sweep as they can see up and down, left and right and forward and back. So they see all four dimensions at once, whereas we see three dimensions at once. And there’s that mystical little passage where a Tralfamadorian sees Dresden with flames being sucked into the earth, and bombs rising from Dresden back into the air – that is the most magical little passage. I think it’s the most memorable piece of writing I’ve read in a long time. And then of course, the planes land backwards in perfect condition, the bombs are taken out, and returned to factories where they’ve disassembled and made back into ploughshares and agricultural equipment, mostly by women.
KD: Ah, that’s great. Well, I should let you get on.
Kate heads out to the studio.
JB: Incidentally, before, when you referred to people striving for perfection, and you said that you write some poetry, have you read Auden’s little poem, called ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant?’ It’s very short, it goes:
‘Perfection of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he wrote was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.’
JB: And no-one knows who he was writing about. It was written in the 1930s. Could have been Stalin, could have been Hitler, could have been some abstract tyrant.
AO: It’s great. So, you said before, when we were in the kitchen, that you wanted to be an artist when you were a young person, and you painted. Did you paint from a very early age, or was it a thing that you came to through school?
JB: No, I think it was at school, because I did art at school through to Year 12. And in fact, in my first few years at school, junior school, my art teacher was John Brack.
AO: Oh, wow!
JB: So I’m not sure that I developed quite as much benefit from his teaching as I could have. But, yes, I was very interested in art, and I was interested in what artists were like. I came from a pretty stitched-up family. In senior school, the art master was Ronald Miller, who was, at least by the standards of the school, a very exuberant, wild, tearaway person. Looking back, he was probably very conservative. And so I was greatly attracted to what art was all about. I was very excited by the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists.
AO: And as a young person, what was your concept of what art was all about?
JB: I’m not even sure if I can describe it. When I talk about art, I mean the whole range. Painting, sculpture, poetry, music, everything. And for me, having all my life been interested in language, arts are the languages. I’ve got a terrific painting in Chambers by Robert Hirschmann, a big, abstract expressionist painting. And at the opening of that exhibition, he was talking to a woman, who said to him, ‘Can you tell me what that painting means?’ And he paused and said ‘No, but I might be able to hum it to you.’
JB: I really, really liked that answer. That captures it perfectly. And I’m actually fairly hesitant to talk about art, a) because I don’t know nearly as much about it in terms of technical things and history as Kate does, and b) because if it’s about particular works, well then, who said, ‘Talking about art is like dancing about architecture’?
AO: But, I suppose, given that story you just told, dancing about architecture makes perfect sense.
JB: Indeed. But the point is, it’s an exercise in translation. And I would content myself with saying, I look at a work, and I think, ‘That’s interesting, and I enjoy it’, or ‘It’s disturbing, and I appreciate it for that’, or something. And my appreciation of art is still developing, and I’m certainly not as sophisticated as many people. I just think it’s good. And I’m convinced, I’m utterly convinced, that artists do things that are far more important than anything I’ll ever do. And I have this thought experiment which really appeals to me. I came up with this a long time ago, when someone challenged me on why the arts matter. And it’s this: take a room full of 50 or 60 people, people of reasonable intelligence and average education, and give them a list of names from the last five or six centuries. And I guarantee that they will recognise, disproportionately, the names of poets, painters, novelists, composers. They will not recognise the names of lawyers, accountants, economists, politicians.
JB: They’ll remember some of those later categories, but out of all proportion to their numbers, they’ll recognise the names of artists. And I think that tells you something quite profound about the importance of the arts in our society. Of course, which arts matter is a different issue. I was saying before, I never buy with a view to re-selling, and especially to re-selling at a profit. It greatly tickles me that in 1873, two things took place in Paris. One was the Salon, at which the leading artist was Franz Xavier Winterhalter, who is not really remembered today, except that he did an early portrait of Queen Victoria in about 1842 or so, and it’s a nice portrait. For its time. But otherwise, you know, mention the name, and most people won’t remember him. But the same year, of course, the Salon de Refusés, took place, at which Monet showed, amongst other things, ‘Impression Sunrise’, and hence the abusive term ‘Impressionists.’ And of course, the smart money of the day was rushing off to the Salon and buying Franz Xavier Winterhalter, and everyone’s pouring scorn on Monet! Their descendants will not thank them for that.
AO: With the – I love the term ‘3D collage’, which you mentioned in the email you sent to me – with the works that you have done, is that something that you only started doing when you bought your holiday property?
JB: No, I had been doing it before then, but my materials were much more limited. I’ve got a workshop down at the beach house, and it is filled to the roof with materials. I can scarcely – I can’t fit anything more into it. Materials ranging from tiny little fragments of coloured plastic, to big beams of timber, and everything in between. And that gives me the biggest palette imaginable. It’s marvellous. So the sort of things I’ve been doing have been very different there, because I’ve got a big palette.
AO: And so when you’re putting together a piece, what’s the starting point, what’s the point of inspiration? Do you come and say ‘I’m going to explore bone’, or –
JB: No, none of it’s thought. And that’s one of the reason I like doing it. Because it’s just using a different part of my head. And typically, I’ll just think ‘Yeah, I’ve got a piece that’s like this, and I’ve got a piece that’s like that’, and you start fiddling around, and it looks alright, or it doesn’t look alright. And interestingly, especially if I’ve been working hard on brain-type stuff, I don’t have any ideas. And so I re-organise things. I’m one of those people who, if I have to sit down to a project, I sharpen the pencils, and adjust the paper. And so what I do is go through and re-organise things, because it gets untidy, and I reorganise it. And then I rediscover bits that I collected a year ago, or ten years ago, or whatever it is, and I think ‘Oh, that’s an interesting piece.’ I’ll start collecting those, and then all of a sudden I get the idea for something. But it’s all below consciousness.
AO: That’s lovely. Because so much of the work that you do is so intellectual, it must be nice to just fall back on your intuition.
JB: Yeah, and using your hands. I like doing things with my hands. I’ve always liked making things, and that does use a different part of the head.
AO: Certainly. I think that’s part of why I set up this project. Because so much of the work that I do is so in my head, and on a screen, and it’s remarkable how you can spend all this time creating things, but because they only really exist as pixels, there’s no sense of landing, of the object. So it’s really satisfying to just touch something.
JB: Well, it’s interesting you say that, because I was very interested in photography for a long time, and I’ve got a darkroom here still. And of course, my interest in photography was all black and white, all on film, and all processing it myself. So that gives you the sense of hands-on. But that exercise was all visual. Entirely visual. The fact that I was using my hands to print and develop things was sort of secondary. Especially in the darkroom, it’s all about adjusting how the image is going to be. And oddly – I hadn’t thought about this – it’s a very different process from making found object stuff. Very, very different. I mean, there are obvious differences, but in my head, it’s a different process.
AO: I think darkroom stuff is so much about timing, and about chemical processes, and I think it’s so mathematical in many ways.
JB: If you’re a bit obsessive, it’s useful. It’s interesting how different photographers go about their work. I bought, just a few years before he died, a collection of 92 photographs from Wolfgang Sievers, who wanted to raise some money for his daughter. And then, a year or so afterwards, he approached me and said he wanted to give me most of his remaining photographs, to use after his death, to raise money for human rights causes generally. So I’ve been doing that quietly over the last ten years. And one of the photographs in that collection was a print of the Vickers Ruwolt gears. And it comes, by the way, wrapped in tissue paper, with a Post-It note in his handwriting saying ‘This is the best print I ever did of this photograph.’
JB: It’s going to get a lot of money. Anyway, he told me about that image, which is undoubtedly his most famous image. Probably not his best, and not his favourite, but his most famous. He had a contract with Vickers Ruwolt to do stuff for them, and he went to the factory one day, down where Ikea is now, and was sort of sniffing around the factory, and he sees these two half gear wheels, lying covered in crap, gets them cleaned up and positioned, gets an engineer, sets up the lighting. It took him 18 hours to set it up – he took two frames.
AO: Went ‘Nailed it’ and went home.
JB: Yeah! Isn’t that spectacular? Ah, I was absolutely amazed when he told me that.
AO: I feel like there’s this lovely parallel between you creating sculptures of things that have washed up on the beach, and your interest in asylum seekers.
JB: The whole thing about being washed up on the beach.
AO: Yeah, this kind of arriving on the beach unexpectedly. And things that other people look at as detritus, or something to be thrown away and ignored, you see beauty in and value in. And humanity in.
JB: I see the parallel, but it’s coincidental. The found object stuff started years before I became involved in refugee matters. My first involvement in the refugee matters was the Tampa case, and I didn’t know anything about refugees then. I knew nothing about what we were doing to them. I agreed to act for the Tampa asylum seekers, pro bono, simply because I thought it was wrong to hold a bunch of people hostage on the steel decks of a ship in the tropical sun. It’s not really very sophisticated, I just thought, ‘That must be really uncomfortable. That’s a horrible way to treat people.’ So I think that probably severs the apparent parallel between washed up things and people.
AO: I saw, I suppose it must have been last year, that you were collecting letters from people to be sent to Manus Island –
JB: Manus and Nauru.
AO: And they were returned, unopened.
JB: They were. And I’m still chasing the Department for a proper explanation.
AO: Gosh. That’s so horrifying and frightening.
JB: It is. It is. But the Department does some pretty horrifying things. And of course, it’s all cloaked in secrecy. They’ve just passed legislation which will make it a criminal offence, jailable for two years, if anyone working for the Department or for any of the contractors to the Department, discloses anything that they’ve learned in the course of working in these centres. There’s one defence provision which I think is going to be really important, and I’m hoping to use it to blow it all apart –
JB: But their objective is to make sure no-one learns what’s going on.
JB: And that lead to an interesting thing, because since the current government got in, I’ve had more whistle blowers come to me talking about stuff than I’ve ever had before. And I was approached recently by a doctor. This doctor has spent most of his professional life working in the prison system in Australia, but he was offered a contract to spend a year on Manus, and went there. Now, the fact that he’s worked in the prison system means he’s not some bleeding heart, you know. So, he tells me three things in particular. First, when he went to Manus and first saw the compound, he thought ‘This is what Auschwitz must have been like.’ Second, the conditions and treatment of people in Manus, people who’ve committed no offence, after all, the conditions and treatment of those people, he says, is a hundred times worse than anything he’s seen in any prison in Australia. And third, the system is run in order to break their spirit so they’ll abandon their claim for protection and go back. And that’s the sort of stuff the government does not want people talking about.
AO: I just, I don’t know what to do. It’s funny being a young person growing up in a country and presuming that we were sensible, liberal people. And coming into adulthood and realising that we are treating people in a way that is illegal in every way that it can be illegal. And just not knowing how to react. What can we do as artists, what can we do as people, to change the mind of government?
JB: You can’t change the mind of government, but you may be able to change the mind of the public at large. Because both the government and the opposition don’t have ideas of their own, they feed off what they think the public will vote for. I don’t know what the answer is. Actually, there is one answer that I’m working on at the moment with some people who approached me, which is – and this is for lawyers, not for artists. Actually, artists could play a role in this – stop trying to persuade the public at large that what we’re doing is bad. Because they’re not interested, and the message doesn’t get through. Instead, attack the corporates who are involved. Transfield, specifically, and IHMS, who provide medical services. And attack them by targeting their main financiers, and their major shareholders, saying ‘Why are you involved in this?’ Just draw to their attention that their money is being used for dirty work. Their profits are coming from deliberate human misery. And you know, it worked with Big Tobacco, it worked against guns in Tasmania. And I think there’s a real prospect that it would work against Transfield and IHMS. And the fact is, all the other stuff hasn’t worked, so why not give it a go?
AO: You have commissioned artworks in the past, haven’t you?
AO: What is that process? I’ve never been involved in either end of the commissioning process. What does that entail?
JB: Well, it varies a bit. Out in the back garden, there is a swing, which I saw at the Fringe Furniture festival, years ago. And I thought it was terrific, and I bought it, and the guy who had made it, Nick Curmi, later came round to install it here, because it’s quite a big thing. He’s a sculptor, and I was chatting to him about being a sculptor, and he was saying ‘Oh, I’m thinking of giving it away, because it’s just too much like hard work.’ And I said, ‘Well, would you be interested in a couple of commissions, because it’s a big garden here?’ And he said, ‘Yeah’, he would. So I commissioned him to do two pieces. I think they’re pretty good, actually. And I caught up with him a few years later, and he said ‘I’m still doing sculpture’, because that apparently gave him just a little kick-along. I was really thrilled, actually.
AO: So did you have any input into what he was making?
JB: Not at all. And I never do. I commission music often, too, and I never, absolutely never, try to insert my views, because they’re good at that. I’m just the wallet.
JB: No, I don’t like the idea of commissioning things, saying ‘Well, I want it like this or like that or like the other.’ You might as well do it yourself. I’m trying to think if I’ve commissioned any other sculpture. Oh, yes, I have, a couple of things. Minor things. But my favourite sculpture is obviously that boat.
AO: Who did that? It’s remarkable.
JB: That’s Eddy Parritt. I saw it at Australian Galleries, this is quite a while ago. This would have been in 2000, I guess. And we hadn’t built the studio. I had nowhere to put it. And so they hung onto it, I showed it to Kate, she loved it. We were in the process of designing the studio, and we rejigged the design so that one room would be big enough to hold that work.
AO: That’s great.
JB: And then, it’s just the boat, sitting on the elephants, okay? And Kate said ‘It has to be in a display case, and it has to have crushed glass underneath the elephants’ feet, and it has to be backlit.’ And I didn’t have an objection to the crushed glass, and I didn’t mind about the backlighting, but I said, ‘A display case? Give me a break! They’re too expensive!’ Anyway, so we had this sort of running debate going for about a year. We finished getting the studio designed and built, it was just about ready, and Eddie was going to come round to see how he’d get it in. And I said, ‘Look, I won’t be there when you come, but Kate will be. She might start talking about a display case. Can you just hose her down?’
JB: He said, ‘Yeah, no worries.’ And then he said, ‘You know, it’s a funny thing. ‘Cos when I made it, I was thinking of putting it in a display case.’ And I had asked Kate, you know, why? Why? Because my objection is, it’s going to be expensive. Her reason is, it would give it a museum quality. I mean, who cares? So, anyway, he says, ‘You know, it’s a funny thing, because when I made it, I was thinking of putting it in a display case.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you?’, he said, ‘Ah, bit expensive.’ I said, ‘Why did you want to?’ He said, ‘It’d give it a sort of museum quality’, and then I knew I was done. I knew I’d lost the argument.
JB: Of course, they’re both right. The crushed glass is interesting. There’s a few bits and pieces in it that Kate has found here and there. But for most of it, she rang up Windscreens O’Brien, and said, ‘If you give me a couple of sacks of broken windscreens, I’ll give you a couple of slabs of beer!’
JB: And they came round with sacks of broken glass.
AO: So, something we’ve been asking everybody is to provide a challenge for the people doing the project. Did you have anything?
JB: My instinct, oddly, is to ask people to do a sculpture about ‘Death and the Maiden.’ ‘Death and the Maiden’ is the title of one of Schubert’s string quartets, and the second movement of it is extraordinarily beautiful, and has special significance for me. So that would be interesting. The idea of something inspired by a piece of music interests me. So you can have that. Second movement. ‘Death and the Maiden.’ And the significance of it, can I tell you this story?
AO: Of course you can.
JB: I love this. I was on the Victorian committee of Musica Viva for a number of years, from the late 70s. Mainly because the then president of Musica Viva in Victoria was a patient of my father, and had the bizarre idea that having a lawyer on a committee was a good thing.
JB: I don’t think I’ve met many people who think that. So I get onto it, and, you know, I had no particular interest in chamber music. I was interested in music generally, but not chamber music particularly. But back then, one of the nice things about after-concert suppers was that they were always held at a private house, it was always just a committee, maybe a couple of friends, and the musicians. And they were all low-key. So in 1980, the Tokyo String Quartet had their first tour of Australia for Musica Viva. And despite their name, they were based in New York, and I had read about the instruments they played. Instruments on loan to them from the Corcoran Gallery in New York, the so-called ‘Paganini Strads’ – four Stradivarius instruments –
AO: Oh my goodness.
JB: Collected together in the 19th Century by Paganini, who was the virtuoso violinist.
JB: So it’s two violins, viola and cello. And the first violin was made for, and played by, the Sun King.
AO: Oh, get out. Oh my god.
JB: And I thought, this is incredible! So, I’m at this supper in a house in Malvern, and I’m talking to the first violinist, and I said, ‘Look, I read about your violin. Can I have a look at it?’ And he said, ‘Yeah!’, got it out of its case, handed it to me –
AO: Oh my goodness!
JB: And I thought ‘Oh! Here’s a Stradivarius instrument from, you know, 1610 or whatever it was!’ And round the inflection points on the body, it’s studded with tiny gems – rubies, diamonds and emeralds. Which actually look quite drab, because they’re not lit from underneath, but even so, the idea is kind of interesting. But because he had his violin out, someone said, ‘What about playing something?’ They all said, ‘Sure!’ They all got out their instruments, and then and there, in a domestic sitting room, roughly twice the size of this room, they played the variation movement of ‘Death and the Maiden.’ And for me, all of a sudden, the whole world opened up. It was an experience I will never recapture. It was astonishing.
AO: Wow. Oh, how extraordinary.
JB: And I mean, right up. These fantastic instruments, fantastic musicians, fantastic music, and they’re right there. That moment not only did I have the scales fall from my eyes when it came to understanding what chamber music was about, but it also inspired me to start having concerts at home. And ever since then, I’ve been having concerts at home. The middle room in the studio, we use for concerts a lot. And it’s very exciting. So. The connection between music and sculpture. I always listen to music when I’m making found objects. There you go.
AO: Is it always classical music?
JB: Pretty much, yeah. I got wedded to classic music sort of by accident. My whole life is a series of accidents. Any other accident, and I might have actually turned out to be an artist, and would have suffered an early, miserable death in some cold garret somewhere.
JB: Because as I said, I was always interested in language. And when I was in year 8, I think, a friend of mine from school and his father took me to a performance of ‘Pirates of Penzance’, by Gilbert and Sullivan. And I was captivated by the use of language. And we had a two-disc recording of ‘Pirates of Penzance’ at home, and the gramophone was in my bedroom, and I used to lie on my bed at night and listen to it again and again. And I think by the end of year 8, I knew the libretto by heart. I could have recited any part of it for you. And I was lying on my bed one night, the first disc ended, I got up in the dark, put it back, pulled out the second disc, put it on, lay down – and I’d got the wrong disc. And instead of the second disc of the recording of ‘Pirates of Penzance’, I’d pulled out Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Which I had never heard. And it suddenly – I thought, ‘Wow. Wow!’ And I don’t think I’ve ever listened to Gilbert and Sullivan again.
JB: But suddenly, Beethoven sort of exploded in my head, and I started exploring from Beethoven outwards. Back and back to – not Vivaldi, actually – there’s an interesting thing. Everyone knows about Vivaldi, everyone knows the Four Seasons. But I can remember when Vivaldi was rediscovered. In, I think about 1965 or 6, the Nonesuch label decided that they would produce some recordings of stuff that people had never heard, and they found this long-forgotten Italian composer called Vivaldi, and they recorded his set of four concertos, called ‘The Four Seasons’, and it became a bestseller, and all of a sudden, everyone knew Vivaldi.
AO: How extraordinary!
JB: But Vivaldi had disappeared for a couple of centuries.
AO: I did not know that. That’s wonderful!
JB: Yeah! And my father, who was born in 1913, still had a copy of, I think, Baker’s History of Music and Musicians, from his schooldays. In which JS Bach gets about half a paragraph.
JB: Again, he was just one of those people from the past who wrote stuff. It’s very interesting. These things are very fashion driven. But Beethoven was famous in his own lifetime, and continued to be famous, and has never dropped out of being important. And one of the reasons for that, I think, is that Beethoven, apart from being a fascinating, albeit rather unpleasant person, Beethoven shifted music from the classical to what’s now called the Romantic era. And that was important. And it’s very interesting – one of his – actually, there’s a story about his most famous symphony. One of his most famous is the 3rd, which is called the ‘Eroica’, and – I’m sorry if I’m telling you stuff you know already.
AO: No, no, no. Not at all.
JB: He was mad keen on Napoleon. He thought the French Revolution was fantastic, and all this while he’s being supported by royal patronage. But as he once famously said, I think to Prince Lichnowsky, ‘You are a prince by accident of birth, but I was born a genius.’
JB: ‘Give us your money.’ Anyway, he wrote the 3rd symphony and dedicated it to Napoleon, but then before it was published, he heard that Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor, and was so enraged that he rubbed out the dedication so vigorously that the original manuscript score has got a hole in the front page, because he rubbed it right through. And then he rededicated it ‘to the memory of a fallen hero.’ Hence ‘Eroica.’ Anyway, the 3rd symphony, with that curious little bit of history to it, you can tell it’s the turning point from the Classical tradition to the Romantic tradition.
AO: So what are the features of Romanticism in music?
JB: It’s not written to a set of rules. I would say that’s probably the key difference. I mean, if you listen to all the music written before, it is basically rule-based. And he broke all the rules. Again and again and again. In one part, in the first or second movement, I think, he juxtaposes a D major chord and a D minor chord in a way that’s sort of regarded as utterly impossible, but he just lets it creep up on you, and all of a sudden it happens, and ‘Oh, that’s alright!’
JB: But the other interesting story about him, which kind of captures what he was like, is the 9th symphony, which everyone knows, and everyone’s heard the Ode to Joy, and you hear it in the lift, and it’s one of those things which has been degraded progressively, because people don’t have the faintest idea why it matters – it was breaking the rules again, because it was the first time anyone had written a symphony which had a choral component. It had never been done before. And really, it wasn’t until Mahler that it was done again. The text that he used was Schiller’s poem, which we call ‘Ode to Joy’, which in German was ‘An die Freude,’ and was written in the shadow of the French Revolution. Now, if you read the text of it, it’s really overblown if it’s talking about happiness. And there’s a theory which says that while he wrote ‘An die Freude’, he intended, and people understood, ‘An die Freiheit’ – ‘to Freedom.’ And if you read the text of it, it makes much more sense if it’s talking about Liberty than if it’s talking about happiness. So the theory is that he wrote it knowing that people would hear it and understand it was singing about freedom. And of course, that was written in 1824, I think – the censors in Vienna would never have let you get away with that, singing about freedom. But happiness? Who can criticise that? Now, it’s just a nice piece of history, and it’s possible, and the text makes it plausible, but in December ’89, Leonard Bernstein conducted the Berlin Phil in a performance of Beethoven’s 9th. The wall had just come down a month or two before, and the choir sang ‘Freiheit’, not ‘Freude.’
AO: Oh, how wonderful.
JB: It would have been a great one to be at.
AO: Oh, that’s fantastic.
JB: Can I show you a couple of pieces of sculpture that I like particularly?
AO: I would love that.
We wander out to the front of the house.
JB: There’s that, there’s the angle grinder, and there’s the cordless drill. They were three of four pieces at a show by David Murray, which was called ‘Tools.’ And it was those four pieces, the fourth was a circular saw, and four small bronze castings of the same tools, and four glass panels which had been etched with silhouettes of the same tools. I thought, ‘Shit, here’s this guy, he spent a year making stuff like this with a 1% chance that anyone’s going to have anywhere to put them!’
JB: So I thought, ‘That is fantastic!’ So I bought three of them, and I’m really glad I did, because I think they are remarkable. And Kate, who doesn’t drive, had a taxi arrive here one day, and he’s looking straight at that, and he said, ‘What’s that?’ And she said, ‘It’s a cordless drill.’ And he said, ‘Huh. Does it work?’
AO: They have such a wonderful sense of humour to them.
JB: Yeah! You can sort of see the cordless drill. It’s quite an impressive drill, isn’t it?
AO: I just can’t fathom having visions that are this big.
JB: Yeah! Yeah! That’s right. That’s one of the things that I really admire about artists – they just see things differently.
Julian's website is an excellent reference portal for information about topics ranging from refugee policy to the arts.
Kate's website features her artwork as well as information about her own extensive work with refugees.
Photos by Sarah Walker.