Elizabeth Fortescue

Elizabeth Fortescue is the visual arts writer for the Daily Telegraph, Sydney, and Australian correspondent for The Art Newspaper, London

Homepage: http://www.artwriter.com.au

Posts by Elizabeth Fortescue

George Gittoes and the Sydney Peace Prize: an interview from Artwriter’s archives

George Gittoes, 2014, photographed by Elizabeth Fortescue at Hazelhurst gallery, Gymea

George Gittoes, 2014, photographed by Elizabeth Fortescue at Hazelhurst gallery, Gymea

The Australian artist George Gittoes will receive the prestigious Sydney Peace Prize on Tuesday November 10, 2015. It’s a high accolade that’s been won by the likes of Desmond Tutu.

Ahead of the Peace Prize ceremony at Sydney Town Hall that day, I wanted to devote a post to Gittoes and his extraordinary body of work.

I have delved into my archives and found a 1999 interview that I conducted with Gittoes at his then home base in Bundeena.

It is reproduced below, with some edits, as my small tribute to this amazing artist who is, typically, not planning the usual Peace Prize “lecture” but who has been busy making puppets for a performance that he, his partner Hellen Rose and a variety of dancers and helpers are planning to enliven the Town Hall on Tuesday night.

I hope you enjoy reading this 1999 interview. It came about because I was doing a story on Gittoes for the Daily Telegraph. He had just returned from Afghanistan, where he had focused on gathering stories from land-mine explosion survivors. It is interesting to note that this was 1999, two years before the events of September 11, 2001.

Gittoes: I tell you, I’ve never felt so much as if I was in an alien universe as I have just on this trip in Afghanistan. It’s unbelievable. It’s possible to spend a month in Afghanistan without ever seeing a woman’s face. It’s real apartheid for women. I’ve worked in South Africa where there was apartheid for the blacks, but at least blacks could more or less move around, but this is apartheid for women and it’s ten times worse than anything I’ve witnessed with blacks.

At the moment the Taliban are having the biggest war they’ve ever had. They’re using tanks and MIGs and it really is more extreme visually than Star Wars because, you know, they capture a tank and the Taliban cover it with Koran writing, and they’ve got these MIGs that are covered with blessings from the Koran. They captured them from the Russians 15 or 16 years ago and you’d see these turbaned guys that come up to work on a donkey and then they start working on the MIG and you think, well, gee, I wouldn’t like to be the pilot.

When I was in Afghanistan I lived with de-miners, the people who were getting rid of the mines. They’re all Afghans and former Mujahideen, they’re all soldiers, so that was a fantastic insight, to get into their whole history and psyche and way of life.

The Taliban have only been in power two years. The Koran says you’re not allowed to represent any living thing. That’s why you can’t take photographs. There’s also something in the Koran against music, so they’ve banned music. And now English and American nationals have been banned by the governments from going into Afghanistan. I was able to work there fairly well because a group of Australians have set up the whole de-mining thing and they’ve been there for 10 years, and the head of UNOCHA which is the UN de-mining is Ian Bullpit, and Ian’s been there for seven years, so Australians are about the only people who can safely move in Afghanistan. The Taliban respect them because they’ve organised this de-mining thing.

A painting by Gittoes of a soldier wearing night vision goggles.

A painting by Gittoes of a soldier wearing night vision goggles.

Gittoes spoke about how  land-mines are a scourge of many countries, not just Afghanistan:

I’ve been in Cambodia, I’ve been on the Thai-Burma border, and the Thai-Cambodian border, and I’ve been in the tribal belt of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and they’re just about the most mine-affected places in the world. Ian Bullpit was very happy to facilitate me getting into Afghanistan and working with all these mine victims.

 The Taliban were happy for you to be there?

Only because I came under the flag of de-mining. About the only good thing that’s being done by the world for Afghanistan is the de-mining. Virtually all other aid has been pulled off. And I knew that this was a crucial time to be in Afghanistan because it was the anniversary of the rocket attack on Bin Laden where the Americans attacked Afghanistan. That’s why I organised to be in Afghanistan at that time. And I think the media’s losing touch with what’s happening in Afghanistan, and you can understand why. Basically they’ve had 20 years of war and the world’s tired of hearing about it. I’ve worked in every war-torn country in the world from Bosnia to Cambodia to Rwanda and Somalia and so on, and I’ve never seen such a totally destroyed country. The thing that pissed me off the most was there are two 2000 year old Buddhas, that are world famous, they’ve been studying them in art books since I was a kid, and they’re about 260 feet high or something, and I was trying to see them the other day and I discovered the reason why they’re being resistant was the Taliban have just recently been using them as target practice and destroyed them. I was furious. I said, you might be into Islamic religion and you might see them as Buddhism, but if you’d left them there it shows how Islam triumphed over Buddhism. And I said are they reparable? And they said oh no, the heads have been just blown to dust. And so the whole country’s been destroyed and there’s virtually nowhere for people to live, and all the ruins of the houses have been booby trapped with land mines and they’ve got unexploded artillery shells and so on.

Gittoes talked about some of the extraordinary stories he collected from land-mine victims in Afghanistan.  

I went into the hospital in Kabul and it was like pre Florence Nightingale. The whole place was full of people who’d lost arms and legs and things to mines, and they were lying in there with flies all over them and no intravenous drips, and a lot of them were children. Because the children go playing in places where the parents wouldn’t be stupid enough to go. There was one father and son I met that had both been blown up and they’d both lost limbs, and the father had realised the son was out playing in a bad area, ran out and grabbed him, and as he grabbed him the son had hold of a trip wire so he pulled it and it got both of them. There’s one little boy I saw the other day who was riding a donkey and he had his brothers and father with him and they went over an anti-tank mine and it blew the donkey, the father and the two brothers completely to smithereens, and the boy had lost both legs. The mother was now looking after five daughters and him, in a country where there’s nothing, nowhere to sleep or go, and this was the brightest little kid, he’d taught himself English somehow, he was only 13 years old, and walking around on his arms. I’ve got a drawing of him walking on his hands.

Gittoes and his partner Hellen Rose, photographed by Elizabeth Fortescue in 2014 at Hazelhurst gallery in Gymea

Gittoes and his partner Hellen Rose, photographed by Elizabeth Fortescue in 2014 at Hazelhurst gallery in Gymea

I’ve decided just for a short time to narrow down to this mine thing, because for me it represents humankind at its absolute most insidious because these mines are designed to trick and trap other human beings and they’re done by engineers and scientists all over the world and they’re indiscriminate. And all the research in the world proves that only one of the people who gets hit by a mine in 20 is the intended target. So in a country like Afghanistan they’re only getting one soldier to 19 civilians. I’ve  taken about 4000 photographs on this trip and I’ve personally interviewed hundreds of mine victims and so my own experience is in perfect alignment with what international statistics are saying. It just completely destroys lives. In most cases the people die. But those who survive, they’re around for a lifetime. And the worst cases I found were in the tribal belt of Pakistan where I was able to go and interview the women, and it seems pretty well the majority of people in a rural country who get hit by mines are women, and I’ve found this before in Mozambique and Cambodia and so on, because they’re the ones who work in the fields and who walk around for water and so on. In Pakistan I was able to go and see them. They’ve got the same rules as Afghanistan. The full burqa and not being able to see them and everything. But I got in deeper with the community in the tribal belt of Pakistan. But my contact there wasn’t through the de-miners, it was through the community itself. And so probably for the first time ever I was allowed to draw and photograph women. They’re even stricter than the Taliban. There’s one woman I can’t get out of my mind. She was lying on a stretcher sort of a thing, she had both legs blown off above the knee, she had one arm completely paralysed and she’d been blinded. In a wartorn place, covered in flies, and her children all around her, and her husband had been killed. She had six kids.

She could still talk. She said God only knows how we’re going to survive. And the kids were absolutely beautiful. The mine that had done that to her had killed her husband. And the kids, their whole universe was their mother. They were like precariously living in the shade of someone else’s verandah and the kids are still hovering around this woman who was blind, without legs and only one working arm.

In her case it happened four months ago, but she was still bleeding. All their savings had gone into, they had to pay for the hospital and the amputations. So the cost of being prevented from dying usually uses up all the resources they’ve got.

Gittoes at Werri Beach, November 2015, being photographed by Bob Barker for our story in the Daily Telegraph, Sydney

Gittoes at Werri Beach, November 2015, being photographed by Bob Barker for our story in the Daily Telegraph, Sydney

The most inspiring story I had was the people in the border area of this tribal area of Pakistan. There are more mine victims there than I’ve found anywhere else in the world and there’s no international aid agencies helping them. I was the first western person to visit it, ever. Everywhere I went was mined and there’s no de-miners, so I was constantly thinking when am I going to tread on one. One place they decided to get a whole lot of handicapped people (injured by land-mines) to come in and meet me. I was inundated. I had 40 or 50 people. And one old man just stuck out. And then I discovered that the woman he’d bought with him, he’d carried her for six hours. She had both legs missing. He’d carried her for six hours to meet me. He was 75 years old. He was the father in law. The husband was in Karachi trying to earn money to pay the debt that they owed the hospital for having to have her legs amputated. And she had six children. She said through a translator, she said I hate these mines and what they mean, I’m happy to devote the rest of my life to fighting against them. Now she’s agreed to be the ambassador for the handicapped in Pakistan and they’re going to raise the money within her village to send her to Rome where all the land-mine people are meeting.

A feature of Gittoes’ ability to manage his work in war-torn areas is that he makes friends with local people, follows their stories from year to year, and delights in seeing how many people can recover their lives even after they’ve been maimed by land-mines. Here, he speaks about one man called Ta Brang in Cambodia. He had lost his legs, but Gittoes returned to Cambodia to find him thriving.

Ta Brang, the man from (my picture) The Legless Bike, in 1993 he was living on the side of the road with his wife, and he’d lost both of his legs up his hips, and they had nothing, and he was just starting a bike repair business. And I went back to him now, six years later, he had a two week old new born baby in his arms. He’s now got five kids, he turned the bike repair business into a motorbike repair business, he’s built a nice house, and actually having no legs means it’s really easy working on motorbikes because he’s got access to them. I found that all the mine victims that I’d gotten to know and start to worry about in 1993, every one of them had made a huge amount of, you know, they’ve had more.

The blind guitarist of Angkor Wat, he’s the one that had been tortured by Pol Pot, he’s been reunited with his wife, she was in a refugee camp, he was being held as a prisoner, and so I met his wife. He’s getting on really well with his life, making money out of his music. He was a beggar in 1993 and couldn’t find his wife.

A lot of people say, are you depressed by what you see? But the fact that I’ve been doing this for so many years I’m able to see the turn-around. I just can’t express the inestimable pleasure in finding that these people had managed so well and were doing so well. The great thing was seeing Ta Brang with his two week old baby. He’s in Siem Reap.

Elizabeth Fortescue, November  8, 2015, Sydney



Yang Zhichao and the Chinese Bible: major new artwork for the Art Gallery of NSW


Dr Claire Roberts and Yang Zhichao with Chinese Bible

Yang Zhichao‘s artwork, Chinese Bible, on view at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) in Sydney until August 1, 2015, is one of the most extraordinary works of contemporary art I have ever seen.

Now it belongs to the Art Gallery of NSW, thanks to its recent gifting by the Sherman family.

I saw Chinese Bible at SCAF and interviewed the artist with the help of interpreter and Chinese art authority Dr Claire Roberts.

My interview is reproduced below.

But first, a brief introduction. Chinese Bible, 2009, is a side-by-side display of 3000 personal diaries dating to China in the 50 years between 1949 and 1999. This period includes the years of the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976.

“Private reflections were inherently dangerous in China during this period, with some decades more dangerous than others,” Gene Sherman writes in the Chinese Bible catalogue.

“As we know, the country focused exclusively on the collective  at the expense of the individual.”

So, without further ado, here is my interview with Yang Zhichao.

Elizabeth Fortescue: What is the significance of these diaries and notebooks? Each one feels to me like a very important piece of history.

Yang Zhichao: There’s an important place in history for every diary that’s here, because of its connection to the individual and the individual’s connection to what was happening in China.

Were these ordinary, everyday people?IMG_7698


Is it normal in China to carry a notebook around with you?

For some of these periods, the Cultural Revolution in particular, people were required to record things. You were required by your superiors in your work unit to carry your notebook.

At all times, or just at work?

Mainly at work, because from the 1950s onwards there were so many meetings. And they were meetings to disseminate politics and the directives from the Communist Party central committee. So writing down these directives was an important part of life. So that was a responsibility you had in the system.

Did people buy the notebooks, or were they distributed by authorities?

There are two instances. There’s the instance where the diaries were given out to people in the work unit as part of that expectation. But also people could buy them from shops. Of course in addition to writing down what was expected of them, people would make their own notations and carry these notebooks around so you do find a lot of different kinds of records in them, some of which reflect personal feelings or experiences.

You could be asked to reveal the contents of your notebook to your superiors?

During the early years of the Cultural Revolution in particular, people were required to offer up their diaries for superiors to look at.

IMG_7706This custom is no longer required?

No. By the early 1970s this kind of practice really had petered out. With the exception of people who had committed political errors in the eyes of the party. There was a continuing expectation that they would write self criticisms. Or that they would be forced to write confessions.

Did your parents have to keep notebooks like these?

Yes. Either they would carry it around or it would be in the drawer of their desk and they would use it as necessary.

Did people write little expressions of self that possibly they needed to disguise not to get into trouble?

The personal notations are very different from what we would think of as personal diary entries. What was regarded as a personal notation might have been something quite ordinary rather than a revealing diary quote.

I have been told that the recording of a little recipe might be seen as going against the regime?

The crucial thing is when that recipe was written — if it was in the middle of a major political campaign during the Cultural Revolution, and you were supposed to be recording political things and when you showed your diary for inspection it’s revealed that you’re thinking about (cooking), then your mind was not on the job. So you would have an ideological problem.

How do you think they all ended up in the markets for you to collect?

In Beijing in particular, where I collected most of the diaries, people value the written word and diary keeping. There’s an old custom in China that when you have items that you no longer need, you get rid of them. There are lots of people who go through unwanted things. These people come around all the time and they sort the different household waste into different categories and there’s a whole chain. Things then get funnelled into different avenues for resale or changing hands. And often a very small amount of money changes hands. It might be $1 or 20 cents. But for people living hard lives, it all adds up.

Is that what each of these diaries cost?

Sometimes things are just thrown out into the street, so people have just decided they want to dump stuff so there’s no direct monetary exchange. Someone just sees what’s there and goes through it. Basically these are valued for their paper so they’re sold according to their weight.

I interviewed Song Dong about his work at Carriageworks. Your work seems to resonate with Song Dong’s installation.

Song Dong’s mother is quite unusual in that she never threw anything away, but 90 per cent of Chinese households are continually getting rid of stuff they no longer need.

How much did you pay for the diaries?

The collection was put together 2005-2008. To begin with when I first discovered these notebooks they were very cheap. There were other people who might come to the markets and they might buy one. They might like the design of the cover. But no one was collecting them in a large scale until I expressed interest. Over time the traders got smart, so a notebook that had no content would be cheaper whereas one with notes in would be more expensive. Condition was another factor in deciding the price, and also size. So over the course of the three years I would have spent less than $10,000 Australian buying the diaries. Towards the end, if there was a particularly good diary, or now, a dealer might be wanting a couple of hundred for a diary because they’re sought after.

Have you read all the diaries yourself?

No, there are too many. But I’ve handled each one and looked through them all. I’ve read many of them but I couldn’t say I’ve read them all cover to cover.

Do you still collect these types of diaries?IMG_7707

I’m still very interested in diaries. If I come across particularly interesting diaries I will collect them, but this work is now complete.

It’s wonderful to have a work like this in Sydney.

To be perfectly frank, this material was all in second-hand markets. It’s not really taken that seriously in China. In a place like Australia it can be appreciated and studied.

Elizabeth Fortescue, July 8, 2015

Heartlands and Headwaters: John Wolseley at the NGV

Portrait of John Wolseley, supplied by NGV

Portrait of John Wolseley, supplied by NGV

John Wolseley is one of Australia’s most extraordinary landscape artists, and if you’re in Melbourne you can catch his landmark exhibition, Heartlands and Headwaters, at the National Gallery of Victoria until  September 20, 2015.

I interviewed Wolseley regarding Heartlands and Headwaters, and the transcript follows.

First, a little background about the project from the NGV:

For four years, artist John Wolseley has roamed the coastal floodplains of the Northern Territory through to the glacial lakes of Tasmania, exploring and recording in exquisite detail the diverse wetlands of Australia.  The works he has created will be revealed at NGV Australia, 11 April 2015.

This series of eighteen evocative works on paper, many of them monumental in scale (up to 10 metres in size), detail the geographical features and unique plants and animals of these wetlands in works characterised by minutely-observed drawing and rich watercolour washes.

Many works combine collage and unusual markings made through burying works or hoisting large sheets of paper across the charred remains of burnt tree trunks and branches.   Through this ‘collaboration’ with the natural environment, Wolseley subverts traditional approaches to the depiction of landscape and seeking to give the natural world a more active presence in the work of art

‘Heartlands and Headwaters celebrates Australia’s unique and diverse natural environment,’ said Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV.  ‘Wolseley’s work is not only of great beauty, but also demonstrates how depicting the landscape has become an important form of activism’.

The mangrove swamps of Roebuck Bay in Western Australia, the flood plains of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Northern Territory, the Finke River in the Simpson Desert and the sphagnum swamps of Skullbone Plains in central Tasmania are just some of the sites detailed in these impressive works.

Commissioned by Sir Roderick Carnegie AC, these works celebrate the beauty of the Australian wilderness and encourage an understanding of the significance and environmental fragility of these remote and little-known sites.

Here, then, is my interview with Wolseley.

Sir Roderick Carnegie once commissioned work from Fred Williams. Did you meet Williams?

John Wolseley  History of the Whipstick Forest with ephemeral swamps and gold bearing reefs 2011 (detail)  watercolour, charcoal, pencil and on 2 sheets  (a–b) 233.5 x 286.6 cm (overall)  Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family  © John Wolseley

John Wolseley
History of the Whipstick Forest with ephemeral swamps and gold bearing reefs 2011 (detail)
watercolour, charcoal, pencil and on 2 sheets
(a–b) 233.5 x 286.6 cm (overall)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

What’s rather lovely is that I saw quite a bit of him. I came here (to Australia from the UK) in 1976,  and when I first met him he sort of pointed me in certain directions of which landscapes to look at and things like that. I was laughing to myself the other day that I was drawing some grass trees and I suddenly remembered that he said, ‘you have to go and look at grass trees’.

Did you know each other well?

We had some really good talks. One thing he said to me, which was really nice, was something like, ‘the way you draw the really tiny things of plants and insects and so forth, I think you’re on to something very special there’, he said.

Your interest in ornithology and natural history? Did that happen as a boy in England?

I think I became a passionate little boy naturalist when I was sort of six onwards, because I lived on a farm on the edge of Exmoor, so I could spend all day wandering around in the forests and rivers and things. I think it all started then. And I was sent away to boarding school. I had various pets. I had two different kinds of voles and three different kinds of field mice, snakes, lizards and salamanders and also giant tropical moths which I bred at school in London.

There’s a book I found when I was 13 called Giants Moths of the Jungle. You can buy the eggs. So I had bright green caterpillars with tassels and things like that. In the carpentry department I made a special cage.

This love of animals goes right back. Did your parents live on a farm in Exmoor?

It was the remains of a very old estate and there were two wonderful Shire horses used for ploughing and also doing things like getting the hay on wagons. It was ridiculously Medieval. Funnily enough my father was  an artist and one of his friends was an artist called Alfred Munnings. So I used to see a bit of Alfred Munnings, and I even drew a horse when I went to art school and he gave me some tips. Apart from Stubbs, (Munnings) would be the most famous painter of horses, racehorses and hunting horses.

To carry on why I’m interested in the natural world, I ran away to Paris and studied etching and engraving with S.W. Hayter. He was a very inventive chap. He did the kind of etching which is called the viscosity technique. He printed for lots of artist like Miro and Roberto Matta, and when I was 20 I helped Miro print his etchings. He was absolutely the sweetest little chap, and he’d say things like, ‘oh, do you think this is any good?’ And one day he came into the studio and he’d picked up a rhizome from some kind of reed that he’d found in the Bois de Boulogne, I think, and he brought it in and he said, ‘this is where it all starts’, he said.

Getting back to your exhibition, Heartlands and Headwaters. This has occupied you for four years?

The main thrust is stuff I did over that four years. Where it’s a very unusual show is I have a method of working in the bush. I have about 20 different methodologies or systems which range from frottage to making scientific diagrams of natural phenomena.

The techniques are so interesting. There is a video of you inking up the carcass of a pelican and smacking it on to your paper. 

I suppose they’re just one of many systems in which I find ways to collaborate with the actual physicality of the plant or tree or rock. They’re different ways of narrowing the gap between the artist and the actual artwork.

(On a moonlit night in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Wolseley dipped a sheet of paper in the sea while the coral were spawning.) I lifted them up slowly, and there they were, sitting there on the paper like a sort of aquatint. Really beautiful.

John Wolseley   After fire – spiny-cheeked honeyeaters at Lake Monibeong 2009–11 (detail)  watercolour, charcoal, pencil, gouache and brown chalk  (151.7 x 128.9 cm)  Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family  © John Wolseley

John Wolseley
After fire – spiny-cheeked honeyeaters at Lake Monibeong 2009–11 (detail)
watercolour, charcoal, pencil, gouache and brown chalk
(151.7 x 128.9 cm)
Collection of Sir Roderick Carnegie AC and Family
© John Wolseley

Did you ever think you would become a naturalist rather than an artist?

Um, no, I’ve always said that I’m a pretty wonky scientist.

The other technique you use is where you take the paper out of doors and allow the bush to draw itself with the charcoal after a bushfire. Or you might even bury the paper and retrieve it later.

The burying paper thing’s been going on for about 20 years. But the frottage, the actual moving the paper against trees, started when I was artist in residence at Sydney Grammar School. It was when those big fires had happened in the Royal National Park. That all really started then. I should think it was probably 14 years ago.

It happened accidentally when the drawing I was doing blew off the easel and landed on some kind of burnt hakea or banksia and I thought, ‘the drawing they’re making is better than the drawing I’m making’.

It takes a certain amount of letting go on the part of the artist?

Yes, I think that’s a good point. You could say that a lot of art is the artist composing mental constructs on the paper. Half way through that you might have Jackson Pollock. That I see as half way between imposing and allowing the natural world to reveal itself. And the thing about just throwing bits of paper in the wind and letting them bounce around for six months in the desert wind is the ultimate release of one’s own controlling instincts and allowing the bush to take over.

The paper sometimes couldn’t be found when you came back for it?

About 30 per cent of them get lost; I can’t find them. I was once lying on my back when I’d done all this throwing about, and I looked up and saw a wedge tailed eagle incredibly high up, and then a bit above it were three of my frotts, as I call them, sail around in a kind of whirly whirly. It was quite clear that my artworks were going up and up and up and would probably disappear.

What of the pieces of paper that you do retrieve?

They had, as it were, done their own research and registered the charcoal fingers of all the different trees in such a way that I can actually point to a group and say, ‘these ones were done by a slender leafed mallee and these ones it was probably up against a banksia’.

Elizabeth Fortescue, June 25, 2015

Marina Abramovic in Sydney for her Kaldor Public Art Project


Marina Abramovic in Walsh Bay. Daily Telegraph photographer Bob Barker is taking her picture.

Marina Abramovic is in Sydney for the duration of her Kaldor Public Art Project, Marina Abramovic: In Residence. That means this city, until July 5, is playing host to one of the most famous artists in the world.

When I met Abramovic at Pier 2/3 in Walsh Bay on June 5 this year (2015), I found her to be personable, warm and only too pleased to enunciate her artistic methods and philosophies.

It was chilly, so we retreated to her lovely room overlooking Walsh Bay. Here is the interview:

I would like to concentrate on the John Kaldor project you are doing in Sydney. What will be your role?

First of all this project’s different than many other projects we’ve been doing in relation to the Abramovic Method because here we also have the artist in residence which I didn’t have before. So the project is separate two parts but they’re connected. The first part is really working with the public and I feel like I’m conductor, of energy basically. I give them the tools; they should interact with these tools, and to see how they can use any of this experience in their own daily life, and it doesn’t matter if they are teachers or politicians or they’re farmers or they’re any kind of profession you can imagine, because some of this experience can be used in any kind of profession you are in in your real life. And a part of this we have residency program which we ask the artists to participate in this Abramovic Method every single day for 12 days and they create this as a conditioning for their own work. So they see how that actually can help them for their concentration, for pushing their own physical and mental limits, for creating the different type of perception, the willpower and so on. So that’s the base. So we see two results. One work with the general public, and one work with someone who is really artist and creative person. So I’m kind of managing all these things. But in the same time I have two very important helpers. Sophie O’Brien who is Australian. She was curator at Serpentine and she curate my show 512 Hours. And I specifically invite her because she knew Australian scene much better than me. That we together look into the applications and choose the artists for the residency program. She will be one of the leading and curating the residency program. But I will interrupt with artists, I will talk daily with them and also give the opening speech. And then Lynsey Peisinger, who is right now auditioning facilitators and also training them to work, because if we have a few hundred people there, I can’t talk to every single person. We have to have facilitators who are trained properly who can actually lead this workshop to have the best success.

So the workshop have different parts. The first thing that happen is you have to leave your watches, your telephone, computers in the locker, so you get kind of free time for yourself. And then after that you are given headphones to block the sound completely. Now you are without technology and without hearing. You are just in silence. And then you start doing these exercises. And the different ways how you want to do, you are pretty free to manage. The one is slow motion walk, another one is rice counting, eye gazing, lying down and looking at the colours. So they’re all different exercises which I train myself through my career. And many others. But specifically these, because they are the more simple ones but also the most efficient that everybody can do in his own life. And to me,  idea is how to ritualise our daily existence, how to find the space of silence inside yourself, how you can deal with this, because we live in very disturbed time and there is no time for anything and the war is everywhere and we have to look for the different peace and awareness and the only way to change is to change consciousness.

How long did it take you to develop the exercises?

About 40 years! You know, I also believe the most simple things are the most efficient. But I went to so many different cultures because I always feel I am kind of bridge between East and West because I am born in Balkan and I always believe Balkan is kind of bridge between these two type of worlds,  and I understood what’s wrong in the west and I was looking for some answers from the east. People don’t understand much, especially here in Australia, how important for me was living almost one year here with Aborigines. This was essential for my work. I learn so many things about presence, here and now, about temporality of our life, about the connection to nature and so on. Right here in Australia my entire view on the world changed. So that was very important history. And coming back now is such nostalgia and I really have this all memory back how it was. Because the hidden nature is incredibly powerful. One thing is the city but just going to outback, going to place where you just see the earth, the sky, it’s just incredibly important.

Ian Howard facilitated you doing that trip to the desert.

Yes. Nick Waterlow who actually give us the letter that we have to bring to Phillip Toyne. Phillip Toyne was a lawyer in those days living in Alice Spring and he was busy with the Aborigine land rights and I remember going to Phillip Toyne and he say ‘what do you want, you want to be like another bloody tourist want to take advantage of the Aborigines? Get out of here.’ And he throw us out. And then he said to us, ‘if you want to do something for them, then let me know’. So he literally won’t to talk to us, and he was very, very angry. And then we left and then we asked for the grant of the Australia Council which we get the year after. And we get the grant, we got second hand Jeep, we went to Alice Spring and we say ‘Philip we are here, what we can do?’ And he was so surprised that we went back, and he say, ‘OK now we’re going to talk’. He was making the book on the land rights, and I could do photography and design the book, and all I could make them up, so territory, so we both help for like two months in Alice Spring doing this and after we done he say, ‘OK, now I give you permission, now you can go’, and this is how the beginning of this. It was really, really important. We invite Aborigine medicine man to come to Amsterdam and do performance with us which really happened. We had the two of them and then one. It was such important. We really established the friendship with them. Andrew Crocker was another man, he was the first one who brought canvas to the Pitjantjatjara, the tribe, and actually helped them start painting. I was right there. At the beginning of all the starting of the Aborigine artist doing things. So that period of my life was very important for later development of my work.

Did it give you a connection with nature?

Connection with nature but also Aborigine ceremony is the way of life; they actually live through ceremony and they don’t have physical possessions, they don’t care about possessions, they just live in the present. And that’s for us the base of performance art because performance art is immaterial form of art. You have to be there to experience physically. You can’t just, like a painting you put nail on the wall you hang the painting, next day it’s there. Performance is not. If you’re not there, you miss it. And then is immaterial form of art, because it’s something that you have to experience, you have to feel, you can’t touch it, you can’t have it, you can’t hold it. Aborigines are very similar.

Did you witness ceremonial events in the desert?

First of all, lots of interesting things happened. Oh God, I could write just a book about. Ulay was living with the men and I was living with the women because they were strictly always separated. With women I was doing lots of things with the dreams because they played their own dreams. There would be always older woman in the morning that come on the hill and with stick she would draw the dream and we all have to play her dream. And If there’s 10 women in the tribe we will not finish all day the dreams. So next morning there will be more dreams and more women from last night so there will be endless dream actually re-enacting which was so beautiful. And we had a certain early initiation, not a very high one, and this was like, it’s lots of very strange stories which you can’t even explain because they’re supernatural. It’s another world. But anyway it just influenced my life very much.

Who went out there to meet Phillip Toyne?

Ulay and me. Just two of us. With the letter of Nick Waterlow, which is so tragic what happened to him. I can’t believe this. I remember going with him, we went to the market and buy spices and cook the dinners and it was so wonderful. And another person I really want to see is Mike Parr which I love. Such important artist in my point of view. I love his work and he was an early performance artist and he was such a great, you know. And when we came to Australia in 1979 we slept at his house. I remember saying my God this is the end of the world. (laughs). Mike is lovely and his wife, all the family are really nice.

What is your hope for this project? That it will have an on-going effect?

You know, the thing is after I finish Artist is Present for me was very important, what is my legacy? When you came to a certain age, and I am next year 70, it’s like so much age, what you do? And I was not interested in creating a foundation. Like most of artists create a foundation to protect their own work. But my work is so immaterial, so I was thinking I would like an institute, something that really could help young artists with the residency programs to develop their work but also to archive the performance heritage. Because there’s so few performers. There is hardly anybody my age who’s still performing. So I really feel that preservation performance art. Because performance art when it’s really good performance can have an incredible transformative energy and that’s something that other art is not the same because this is living art and this is why it’s so hard to be mainstream art, it was always non mainstream, and only recently which I really hope I contribute to become mainstream, and is now in the museums and people can look seriously. It took me 40 years to actually come to the position that people can listen to me, because nobody was even thinking this could be take serious this form of art at all, it was more like entertainment. So I think the performance art is serious business. So I wanted to work in institute to deal with the idea of how we can see the future, how we can see connection with art, science, technology, and what is the future of art today, and what is the function of an artist today. Because this old fashioned way of the artist who be drunk and full of drugs and then create the work.  We have so much more duty to really contribute to society because our society as it is now is not good, we have to do something , and artists have to in their own way create work who can enlarge the consciousness, who can really see reality in different way. Ask the rights questions, and to reflect the future. The good art predict the future. This is why institute is just about all this, and my contribution is to create a method that can be like a base for the people to start reflecting on their own self. Simple things, like what is your function in being born on this planet. Just understand the temporality of our existence, which is so important because we always behave like we’re forever, but if you include the idea you can die any moment any life, then you understand that actually you have not much time, and you should not spend time with bullshit. Really focus. That’s the idea that performance can bring this kind of awareness.

Are you hoping that a lot of children come to your Sydney project? (It is open to people of 12 and over.)

You know what I am incredibly pleased that I am one of the few artists today in the world to have extremely young public. And somehow my public is not any more art public. It’s became mainstream public. After Artist Is Present something emotionally happen, that I start having the type of public who normally don’t go to museum but they come for this experience because this experience really talk to them. This kind of the method which I’m offering here, it would not be possible 10 or 15 years ago. It was not ready but now we are so lost, and we need now more than ever. And this is right time and I really want, for me the young people is the future, they’re the ones we have to address. My generation, it’s too late! The youngest that can be in this method is 12, so my public’s from 12 years old on. And when I give speeches I have this incredible young people come in. I just want to show you one image that really talks to you. (She shows me lots of images of young people, and of other ages, with their headphones on just lost in themselves with their eyes closed.) You have these images that really touch my heart, because I know it’s function, I know it’s working. We’re talking three generations (in the picture there are three people standing together holding hands and lost in reverie). They’re completely in themselves. This is something I am so proud that I can give them the tools that bring them to this point of concentration. This kid never had headphones without coming from them unbelievable loud music. You know, when I put headphones on this kid he said to me, ‘but doesn’t work’. I said, ‘exactly, doesn’t work. This is silence’. He never understood what means silence. It’s simple. I ask them to count the rice, I ask them to walk slowly. It’s the simplest you can imagine but we forgot simplicity. This is all about going back to simplicity, and the people all get there and they get there in different ways. I live for this; it means my purpose on this planet is worth it.

In your 1974 performance, Rhythm 0, you stood in a room and allowed the public to do whatever they wanted to you, with the aid of 72 objects on a table. The objects included a knife and a gun and a bullet. (Members of the public cut Abramovic and one loaded the gun and pointed it at her.) Why didn’t that put you off people forever?

It’s a really interesting thing, I’ve realised now because I’m much wiser than I was then, that I actually wanted to prove that performers, because we’d been so much criticised that we are masochists, and sadists, and performances are just voyeuristic, I was completely dressed, and I didn’t do anything , very calm, and the public was the possibility to be gentle to me and to be cruel, and they choose to be cruel, so it’s not me who is masochist and sadist, it’s the public. And I also understood that if you give the public tools to put the spirit down, they do. But if you give them tools to lift the spirit, they do something else. So in The Artist Is Present, I actually bring the best out of the public. And in Rhythm 0 I bring out the worst.

The potential for harm has reduced over the years in your performances. In the Kaldor project, it is gone.

I don’t need any more. I think it’s about bring the spirit up because it’s so much easier to bring spirit down.

 Elizabeth Fortescue, June 24, 2015


Juz Kitson in the Redlands Konica Minolta Art Prize at the National Art School: “It’s not about the shock factor, and never has been”

juz kitson portraitJuz Kitson was selected for the Redlands Konica Minolta Art Prize, on now at the National Art School (until May 23, 2015).

Kitson’s work, titled Something Sacred, is a mad bouquet of strange, seemingly half-formed, animalistic objects. It is suspended from the ceiling and hangs clear of the floor, globular and vaguely confronting. Artist Sophie Cape selected Kitson to show with her in the Redlands Prize, which was curated by artist Tim Johnson.

Kitson was selected to exhibit in the 2013 Primavera exhibition of young artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

She grew up in Sydney but lives in the Yarramalong Valley.

Here’s my interview with Juz Kitson:

Elizabeth Fortescue: Sophie Cape selected you as the artist she wanted to show with. I couldn’t imagine two more different artists. 

Juz Kitson: Well, that’s the thing. When Soph approached me it was at the beginning of the year and we’ve known each other for about six years. We studied together at the NAS but about a year apart. Our work is very different aesthetically, but we both have this burning desire to create and to challenge our physical being in the type of work we do. We both work in the Australian landscape. The constant collection of bones and using the environment to not only physically inspire the work but also taking resources from the immediate environment. For me it’s important. I spend a lot of time in the central west like Hill End and Broken Hill, physically going out and collecting road kill and taking different animal carcasses back to my property on the Central Coast, putting it on to the ants’ nest and letting the ants eat away at the flesh and letting them be weathered by the extremes of summer and winter. In terms of that we share a lot in common, but the aesthetic is very different.

You also share a Chinese connection.

I think she once did a Chinese residency.  I have a studio in China and I’ve been working there for four years and developing my own practice within a traditional porcelain city which has been producing for over 2000 years.

That’s incredible.

It’s phenomenal, working alongside artisans. Facilities, mould making, slip casting, PVD (physical vapour deposition) which is a form of chroming, different techniques that are just inaccessible to me in Australia. So I create the foundation of the works while I’m in China.

It’s amazing I’m back five years after graduating at the NAS. NAS was a huge influence in that because they gave me a residency in partnership with Tsinghua University. I went over and spent three months working in art and design (department) of Tsinghua. And inevitably things just evolve and happen. You’ll meet a curator and a week later I’m having an exhibition at 798 art district.

(Kitson was also influenced by the Chinese performance artist Lin Tianmiao.)juz kitson close up

I got in touch with her and asked to be a studio assistant. She let me live with her in her home on the outskirts of Beijing. I lived upstairs and worked in her factory with 25 other female artists, no English, 11 hours a day, seven days. Towards the end she was quite interested in what I was doing and said I needed to go to the ancient porcelain city, Jingdezhen.

juz kitson art work(Kitson first went to Jingdezhen in 2012.)

It was inevitable that I end up there. I spend half the year there.  I can’t get enough of it.

Can you talk about Something Sacred?

This piece was specifically made for the Redlands. I wanted a sense of it being a still moment, that it is going to start breathing. Or bite you or pull you in. By taking something like the horns and road kill, lifeless and inanimate, but to give it new life. And there is a sexual connotation to a lot of the pieces. This one’s quite subtle in terms of the previous work I’ve made. it’s not about in terms of shocking. I want the work to quietly provoke, and people to be drawn to it, or inspired but also repulsed. But quietly. It’s not about the shock factor, and never has been.

Nature has always been a huge influence. I remember as a child always collecting leaves and sticks and constructing pieces out of that. There’s always been an absurd, obscure fascination with even insects.

David Walsh of MONA bought your work?

In 2009 I was half way through the finished installation for my honours project and Emerald Fitzgerald invited David Walsh to come by my studio unexpectedly. He walked into the space and saw the work unfinished. Within four minutes he said ‘how much?’. That was really the pivotal moment.

You were censored in Art Dubai?

They took down nine objects out of 68 objects. Initially I thought it was the form being sexually suggestive, but it was the hair being classed as erotic.

Elizabeth Fortescue, March 30, 2015