Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In Conversation: Cameron Robbins

Cameron Robbins is a conjurer of natural forces, a corraller of wind and waves. Working predominantly with large kinetic sculptures he works in collaboration with forces generated by the weather, the environment and motored machines. For Composing Common Worlds we were excited to exhibit some of Cameron's photography and a very subtle, but weighty, new sculptural work. A fortnight ago, Cameron also conducted our very first Kids Drawing Session in the foyer of the Arts Centre and guided a group of eager young artists in the production of two large scale abstract drawings. We recently talked to Cameron about his work, his music and his engagement with the forces of nature, looking to unpack some of the driving energy of his own creative will.

Cameron Robbins talking about his work with the audience on opening night
THG: We’re excited to have a series of your photographs in Composing Common Worlds, from your Mt Jim project. I enjoy describing them to visitors as an integration of performance, drawing and photography, and I can see people trying to mentally retrace your pathways in the images as I talk about their making. You’re well-known for building kinetic sculptures that create drawings but in this instance it feels like you took more control of the process and you allowed your body to be the driving mechanism of the work’s creation. What motivated you to put your own body, invisible as it is, more at the heart of this series?

Cameron Robbins: Walking and mapping with the body in motion are historical subjects in art. In fact, the Older Volcanic high-plains area of “Mt Jim” (elevation 1818m) is also home to the Falls Creek Artists Camp, which I have participated in for the last 10 years and which evolved from bushwalking and camping with other artists. So this work has grown out of both an international and local history of artists camping and walking.

My work often involves a technical approach to bring out images or marks from otherwise invisible forces/energy. The ideas I develop have their own technical needs. For instance, the wind drawing machines grew out of simple experimentation and got more complex, rotary, engineered; so I had to learn some skills to express these ideas.

‘Mapping’ is a familiar word in art, but I really am doing that at Mt Jim. I wanted to try and visualise the shape of this very localised special magnetic force on a remote rock outcrop. So I had to think of a way to do it, how to actually outline this force field, make a drawing of it, maybe a sculpture. How could I walk 3 hours into the mountain in a backpack, camp for 3 nights, and come away with something to show?

I realised that a way I could draw this field was to begin making outlines by day using the compass, and with a small lightbulb trace them out at night during long exposure photographs. I developed a system using more or less lines to express intensity of the field.

I like the idea of experiencing this place with mind and body. Despite there being little or no scientific basis for the idea of geomagnetic–field influence on the person, I couldn’t help wondering if something strange could be felt, sleeping up there. What’s the Indigenous take on the place?  Even the name has been lost, replaced with this off-hand and ridiculous nickname. Every trail we walk is part of the most ancient map.

Cameron Robbins, Mt Jim Anomaly Loop 1 (2012), (c) Courtesy of the artist.
THG: Well, speaking of navigating trails and invisible forces, you have a fully functioning compass setup in the gallery. It activates the space in a very intriguing way, making it somehow energised by articulating a force not normally acknowledged in galleries. Can you tell us about the construction of this sculpture, with its gorgeous rock support and sextant/oil rig looking construction on top?

Cameron Robbins: The experience up on the magnetic mountain stirred my enquiries into geo-magnetism. For some time I've been looking to present a geomagnetic piece in a show. I really like the way the compass links to the greater earth outside the galley; it has always awed me to think of the whole earth, the molten iron core, south and north poles, when you look at even the tiniest compass or a cork and needle in a bowl of water. It's a fantastic reminder of scale: the earth and a person.

On Mt Jim I used a compass to map out the magnetic anomaly. I noticed that on particularly strong field areas there, if I lifted the compass vertically the needle would turn right around, indicating that the fields are twisting in vertical planes. I feel a lot more work could be done up there.

It occurred to me that using strong magnets and a very low friction bearing and nice balance, I might be able to create a large scale sculptural compass. So I used non-magnetic materials - brass, tungsten, glass, to make a sculptural instrument which relates to landscape. Magnets, iron and iron filings provide the motive force.

It's very important to have the presence of basalt in my piece.  It is that material that binds the work together, the photographs and the sculpture, the locality and the physicality of the site. The whole volcanic outcrop at Mt Jim is basalt, most likely with the presence of magnetite creating the anomaly. This stone in the exhibition is from a different region, and from much younger lava flows to the near north of Melbourne, and was collected from a marginal site on the stonemason's land.
Cameron Robbins, Outcrop (2014), photo by Jim Lee Photo
THG: Can you tell us a bit about your working methods? You often make these wild and complicated machines for your sculptures that ultimately produce drawings. What led you to making these and how do you experiment with them in the studio with a view to their on-location positioning?

Cameron Robbins: Actually I started working with boats to make abstract 'automatic' drawings in 1990. I recorded their responses to waves, wind and tides by directing them to draw on the walls of the boatshed via simple devices of wires, weights, and pulleys. 

I was reading about Benoît Mandelbrot, the mathematician who developed fractals and chaos theory. The variations in natural energies and processes that he was describing struck me as an analogue to art-making: the way nature takes an energy and kind of riffs on it, developing endless variations a bit like a jazz improvisation. 

I began to work on a series of rotary wind powered drawing machines - which I am still working on and find endlessly exciting - that could draw something like a planetary orbit, complete with non- repeating cycles and the capacity for flexibility within my parameters; skeins of lines relating to the Poincaré maps of chaos theory. The drawings really interested me; I had found a way of working with the world that reflected my observations and was my own thing. For me it also offered a nice side step over vexing issues like self-consciousness in art making.

Over many years I have worked on methods to create devices in the studio and test, using electric motors and fans, for interesting motion and reliability, before taking them out environmental energy sites - including galleries, ocean and mountains.

THG: You mentioned jazz improvisation, which helps me segue into a your audio instrumentality. You’re a musician and on occasion you’ve incorporated your music with your art - the audio with the visual. How do you see that relationship playing out for you, are these things intimately entwined or is there a division in your mind?

Cameron Robbins: In the last few years I have very consciously tried to bring the worlds of art and music together, creating improvised performances using the sounds of drawing machines together with bass clarinet and other musicians/sound artists. Around 1998 I started making really musical artworks, such as the pipe organ works connected to bonfire steam generators, ocean waves, blowholes, and waterfalls.

From the age of 15 I studied classical music formally at High School and jazz at home, with my dad on piano teaching me how to improvise and play by ear. So especially older swing and New Orleans jazz has a place in my heart and soul. I have a professional life as a musician on clarinet - I play a weekly gig with some great musicians.

It was very separate for a long time, because it often felt awkward playing in art circles because of the different expectations of music. The traditions of jazz can be quite demanding and sort of conservative too, and I had difficulties making it work with art. It feels like a very different space, working with old jazz tunes, or making art with wind machines and waves in the landscape. I hope one day to make something that brings these more together. It must have some relevance or currency when you think about it - a person doing both these activities here and now, a cultural occurrence of this time and place.

THG: You’re about to head off to Japan very soon. What are you going to see and do over there? Visiting some interesting geography?

Cameron Robbins: I'm in volcanic Japan looking into geothermal steam vents as a potential driving force for a drawing machine or art thing. There is a residency program for artists here in Beppu, the project called "Mixed Bathing World"! Beppu is on the island of Kyushu in the western end of the archipelago, the same island which is home to Nagasaki. This town is the second most geothermally active place on the planet - pouring out of the earth is 100 million litres of hot water a day, and steam vents everywhere.

I applied for the residency but got knocked back, but contacted them again and found there is the Platform 5 project you can apply for, a studio residence you can book for any time period.  Apparently the steam vents are powerful, fast and very hot of course - so I will see how it could be approached. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

In Conversation: Juan Ford

In a recent unofficial poll on the social media page of a well-known Australian art critic, the answer to who is Australia's best realist painter threw up the name of Juan Ford from a multitude of respondents. Juan's self-portrait was featured on the front cover of the Archibald Prize catalogue this year and his work is driving an increased fever of interest from overseas collectors - as well as major arts institutions and private collectors in Australia. 

Beyond the spectacular nature of his imagery, and the sheer mastery of his technique, Juan's artwork grapples with some of our contemporary culture's most pressing issues and concerns. There is a philosophical weight to his work lurking below the surface beauty that offers serious contemplation to the curious mind. Taking time out from his intense studio activities, Juan discusses the ideas in his art, his working processes and mountain biking as inspiration.

Juan Ford with his sculpture The Synesthetic (2014)

THG: What seems to strike most of our visitors is the incredible realism of your painted images. A significant number of people believe they are photographs at first and you can hear them audibly exclaim ‘oh wow - look David, it’s actually a painting!’. What’s behind your efforts to present your images with such verisimilitude?

Juan Ford: An obsessive, perfectionist personality? I only apply that aspect of my being to my work, and let real life to be free from such impositions. I also just want the experience of looking at a a painting to be as extraordinary as I can make it. It's my gift to the viewer.

THG: That’s an under-represented idea I think, in art. That really at the core, the artist is actively wanting to connect to the viewer. There’s a genuine joy in that. In Composing Common Worlds We have three paintings of yours that depict different native plants wrapped up in red and white striped fragile tape. They are potent images full of ideas about the way we treat our environment, a mixture of consumer-driven destruction and culturally-driven protection. But when sitting with the work for some time they end up feeling more like portraits than landscapes or still-lifes. Do you think the character of the artist finds itself represented or infused in the things they make or the images they produce?

Juan Ford: I do intentionally make the paintings portrait-like, and they do observe some of the characteristics of portraiture. In fact they're very self-consciously a mash up of the 3 most uncool aspects of the 'Australian art canon' (whatever that is exactly, I'm still trying to work it out). These three aspects being no-go zones for contemporary art practice: Figuration, botanical illustration & landscape. Mash them together and you have something new.

Juan Ford, Entwine & Implode (2012), oil on linen (c) Courtesy of the artist
Naturally the paintings I make are a reflection of my personal being somehow, but they're not really a portraits in and standard portrait format. I prefer to think of them as standing in for the human figure more generally. However the paintings do reflect my views on where we stand in our ecology, how we relate to 'nature', and ask questions about whether there really is any difference between what we deem 'natural' and 'human'. Personally I think this destination exists entirely in our heads, but we act out as if were not the case, with serious ramifications.

THG: We’re excited to have a sculpture of yours in the show too. It’s one of the most popular pieces with people drawn to immediately and responding quite audibly. You’ve shown some terrific sculptures of late in Bendigo, Melbourne, Langwarrin and Fitzroy, in various galleries - how do you see the relationship of your sculptural work to your more widely-known painting practice?

Juan Ford: The sculptural work I've been making over the past 3 years is the result of a long-standing interest in sculpture and installation, and the fact that I just like to build things. I was doing so much painting, all day almost every day, that it all reached a tipping point. I had to dive and break the mould that was forming around my practice. In doing so, it just washed over my practice, like a king tide, changing everything and leaving behind interesting new bits.
So it began as an imperative, to explore other creative shores; to keep my mind and practice active and unpredictable. I loathe predictability in my art; if it doesn't surprise me, how can I expect it to bewilder a viewer? 

Juan Ford, The Synesthetic (2014) (detail)

Since then, constant application of installation and sculptural media to various projects has generated a force that now moves as if by its own volition. I often reflect on how my art works are the distilled results of thought, will, and bodily interaction with a medium. The medium itself is part of the thought process. I'm trying to say that the whole artistic process for me involves thinking beyond mental confines, thinking with the body, through time, with the medium, all together at once. This is why I don't exactly know what I've done until well after the fact, when I can consider it all in a more detached manner. 
So when I change the medium, the process on thinking through a mind/body/medium interaction is altered. Inevitably I all arrive at different results. I think that if my sculptural work were some simulacrum of my paintings, that would involve stylisation, it'd be somehow dishonest.

So while the resulting sculptural artwork is unpredictable, it is arrived at through a similar process to that which generates the paintings. It shares common concerns with my painting, and hopefully they subtly emanate in all the work, in spite of their physical/visual difference.

THG: Your work clearly engages with nature as a subject, and often builds a tension between a wilderness of natural growth and an imposed cultural control/influence. I’m thinking of plants wrapped up in tape or covered in paint, broken up trees screwed back together. How do you engage with nature and the wilderness? Is it through source material like books and film, or do you get out of the city to be in the wilderness, or do you find the wilderness within the urban context?

Juan Ford: I try to interact with wilderness directly, on a weekly basis. I go mountain biking in the many spots around me and beyond, and have been doing so in one form or another since I was in my early teens. It started off as simply riding a bmx through bush trails with mates when I was young, having no idea that we were a preempting a whole coming subculture. Now I ride on slim windy bush trails, to experience nature and feel my being in a completely different way.

I look forward to being hypoxic at the top of a climb, to speeding through sections on the very edge of my ability to concentrate, to just survive in the experience. Sometimes it begets thoughts of art, but most of the time I'm unable to think of anything beyond what I'm immediately doing. This is really important to art making.

While I have always interacted with wilderness, throughout riding, camping, hiking, bushwalking, it took over a decade to figure out just how to incorporate it into art, without being clichéd. I tried in art school, and it just didn't work. I just needed to stop trying and just be. Then it came.

I live on the outskirts of the city, near the Yarra, in bushy surrounds. I find nature here. I often go well beyond the city and of course find nature there. I can now read the paper, have a conversation, or go to a hardware store; I find nature there also. We are a product of natural forces, and even though we try to delineate between us and wilderness, there is no difference. How we affect it affects us; in this sense there is no 'it' or 'us'. We can choose to poison, or augment our collective selves accordingly. And we do.

In reading, I've been influenced by Arne Naess' principles of Deep Ecology. He was a true pioneer, and now more relevant than ever.

Juan Ford, Rock'n'Roll (2012)
THG: Your paintings must take you an awful lot of time to complete. Get up close to your work and you can really see the care and diligence in the most minute of detail - insect infestation on a single leaf on a tree, the way light passes through opaque plastic tape and reflects off its rumpled edges. There’s a level of precision evident in your work that’s not easily achieved by putting a liquid substance onto a surface with a hairy implement. You’ve clearly got a strong work ethic and a focused studio practice, so how do you discipline yourself to maintain the attention you need to make your work?

Juan Ford: Before I began to study art formally, I was taking a break from an electronic engineering degree. I have a techy brain, but hated the way it was being fashioned into a small component in a large machine. Creativity was crushed in this field, which is a shame. That said, I learnt a lot, and was subjected to a brutal work and study load. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Kids Are All Right

As part of our public programming for Composing Common Worlds we ran our very first Kids' Drawing Session on Saturday. Artist Cameron Robbins was our instructor and conducted the session with a mix of controlled chaos and artistic guidance. The session was terrific fun, with lots of running about, scrambling across giant pieces of paper, spritzing the air like rain and relishing in the joy of the unabashed energy that comes with kids let loose with pencils and pens.


It was the first sunny day of spring so it was extra nice to see a cohort of young artists join us for Cameron's session. Working in a fashion similar to Cameron's own art creation, the kids were provided with a series of drawing and erasing implements to build up layers and layers of scribbles and scratches and dots and lines. The resulting large scale images are really great drawings and we'll be looking to find a place to put them up for all to see in the coming days.


Encouraged to shed inhibitions, along with their shoes and socks, the kids moved freely around the paper and over the landscape of their efforts. Cameron guided them to work on particular sections, make star shapes and to think about mark-making without worrying about representation. Perhaps following the idea of Picasso, "It took me 4 years to paint Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child", the freedom that comes with a child's energy is like a vortex of its own. Cameron guided the corralling of that energy like a whirlpool or magnetic force. 

Stay tuned for the next iteration, it's certainly something we'll be re-staging as part of the public programming that we run alongside our exhibition schedule. Our sincere thanks go to Cameron Robbins for taking the time to plan out and run the session too. Little do they know, but these youngsters have just made a large-scale collaborative drawing with one of Australia's most intriguing artists!

Friday, September 5, 2014

In Conversation: Stanislava Pinchuk (MISO)

Stanislava Pinchuk works in Melbourne and Tokyo, and is somewhat of an itinerant artist, moving from place to place while maintaining a prolific output of work. Her artworks have been bought up by the NGV and the National Gallery of Australia, and she has recently tattooed fellow artists Del Kathryn Barton and Miranda Skoczek, among others. Stanislava is well known to those in the Melbourne art scene, and to street art aficionados, as MISO - purveyor of finely crafted paper paste-ups. Quietly spoken and diligently productive, Stanislava makes work that is both light and heavy in equal measure.

Generously taking time out from her work, and conducting the interview across both Melbourne and Tokyo, Stanislava opens up about the ideas in her work, the terrain she covers and the nature of her labour.

Stanislava Pinchuk in her studio_photo by Alex Mitchell
THG: Your work is incredibly delicate, with its hundreds of tiny little holes in paper making up the imagery.  And yet, at counterpoint to that is the sheer weight of geography present in your work - mountains, pathways taken by protesters in Kiev. What led you to this way of working with paper, to this method of drawing?

Stanislava Pinchuk: Well, anything pedantic, time consuming and difficult… I’m there! I've been wondering lately why I’m drawn to any medium that takes it out of me. I suppose it’s just something in my character, but I also really love works that have really been lived with, you can tell they've taken up the artist’s life while they've been created.

I like the subtlety of the process, the aesthetic - it feels really considerate to me. Basically, just paring back, paring back until you get to the bare minimum of what you need to make an impression on a surface.… also, maybe I’m just afraid of my own shadow!

Stanislava Pinchuk, Mountain (Tokyo Forming) 1 (left) and (right) (2014)
THG: We've also got a series of polaroid photographs in this exhibition, taken of tattoos that you have given people. There’s a connection with the pin-prick drawings in the process there, as you use a stick and poke technique for your tattooing. And a simplicity, as you mention, in imparting something really significant to that person with a minimum of expression. How do you see your tattooing in relation to your drawings, and the relationship with the personal nature of tattoos and the public nature of ‘gallery’ works?

Stanislava Pinchuk: This is what I really, really love about the process. For me, both are hammered - dot by dot. Working on paper is incredibly physically demanding for me, whereas tattooing is a little more painful for the subject - ! So they are both very much about the tension between physical pain in creating something beautiful.

I think the reference point for me has been historically considered “womens’ work”; things like embroidery and lace-making, that are so subtle and beautiful, but are incredibly technical and require incredible physical stamina to make. They look effortless, and I think they are often dismissed as being decorative, a bit vain. But I really do love the tension of those objects and that history - that’s something I really hope my work carries.

And that’s exactly what I see with tattooing. In most cultures that ritually practice tattooing, like Moroccan Berbers for example - it’s considered “women’s work”, and it really is women tattooing other women within the community. While it carries the decorative extension of their jewellery and textile work, it’s also a huge rite of passage - the way people see themselves and their bodies within bigger belief systems and their community. Especially with the Berbers, so much is putting the landscape, the future, aspiration and superstition back onto the body. Also, the physical pain aspect is really up there!

Stanislava Pinchuk, Karlee_Highline (2013)
So both mediums are for me about putting more contemporary ideas, very different content, my own mapping - into something that’s valued as decorative, and a nice nod to the history of “women’s work”, that really particular delicacy and aesthetic.

What I also love is the difference between the two mediums. The paper work is archival, and will have a long time after me - it will travel between museums, countries, homes. It’ll stay in the world, it has a public life, which is such a cool thing. I’m so grateful to have that.  But the tattooing is a lot more private - it’s carried with the owner, they live attached to the artwork, and then it’s over. And that’s such a nice contrast to me.

It’s also becoming a way to give my friends really nice artworks, who couldn't always afford the paper works - so it’s something created especially with them. It’s a very cool way to make artwork, to have a bunch of drinks and meet halfway with someone and have them live with it. It’s not something collectors want, you know?! It’s really putting your money where your mouth is! Whereas the studio work, that’s really just mine - it’s not compromised by anyone else’s input. So it’s a really nice balance that I have in my life lately, I feel like both challenge me so much and make me think, but for different reasons - and bits of both end up crossing over. Maybe the contrast keeps me sane! I think I’d feel a bit crazy if I had to do just one thing.

THG: Your work integrates the human with the landscape in a very beautiful way. How do you see the relationship between humans and their environment, are we just another element in a big soup of the universe?

Stanislava Pinchuk: Yes, totally a speck of dust! But I am really interested in the way we navigate and ingest experience in cities, and the blocks of memory we create. Like a mix of emotional and city landscape.

Stanislava Pinchuk, Mountain (Tokyo Forming) 2 (2014), detail

The last five years or so, I’ve been a bit displaced and travel for a really good majority of the year. I’m not home much at all, and kind of between two cities - so it’s been on my mind a lot, something I’m constantly getting thrown into the mix of. And sometimes it can be really wonderful - it really suits me, but sometimes it can be really difficult. But it’s been really good to sit down and map everything, geographically and emotionally, and digest it all in my work. Above all, I’m just really fascinated at how we attribute huge meaning to cities, from incredibly particular and hazy memory blocks, and very particular and niche experiences that are unique to us, as part of the city - to a bigger idea of the place.

So I suppose that’s the ‘psychogeography’ of it. But more particularly with the last works I made - one of which is in your show, I have begun mapping a bigger landscape. The big white galaxy - it’s actually a map of all reported and documented instances of violence in the Maidan during the protests that led to the Ukrainian civil war. It was made between January and May of this year, updated every day from the BBC and Guardian live coverage, all possible video and news reports. So every day, another few dots in the right place - some days, too many dots.

Being Ukrainian - and particularly, from the East, it’s been incredibly difficult seeing civil war in my home - and given the time difference Melbourne and Tokyo have, this year I've been waking up pretty much every morning to bad news, text messages, new reports. And every morning, it’s been the first thing I've done, is to add to these maps. So it’s been on my mind every morning, it’s how I've started my day. Really angry, really sad. But I still wanted them to be really beautiful to look at, but to also explain, more poetically, about what civil war and militias forming might look like. So these are the layers of the landscape for me, lately - a personal psychogeography, a public psychogeography, a feeling of distance, and still wanting to make something really beautiful to communicate a very ugly and sad thing.

Stanislava Pinchuk, Galaxy (Aerial map of violence in the Maidan) (2014), detail
THG: Your practice has navigated some interesting terrain in its own right, from paste-ups around Melbourne to commissions for Chanel and recently you’ve had your art acquired by the National Gallery of Australian and the National Gallery of Victoria. How do you find dealing with these different aspects to your work?

Stanislava Pinchuk: To be honest - it’s not something I really think about. But it’s something other people always ask me about. I really just love making. I’m such an avid fan of anything creative, and am interested in so many disparate things and just follow my feet with what feels right, for my ideas at the time. The right medium for the right idea. So it’s all a part of me and the bigger ideas that I’m interested in.

And I really love making different things for different audiences, making those cross overs - it’s such a cool thing to be able to do, and it gives me so much inspiration. Working with fashion and architecture has inspired my art work more than anything, to be honest. The restraint, pattern and plan making in creating even the most basic structural form, the intense consideration and precision - it really changed and still inspires how I work.
So I don’t like to be a ‘purist’ about art - I think it makes you miss out on a lot, culturally.  I think that mentality is still really pervasive in the fine art world, and to be honest, it seems really counter-productive and a bit embarrassing to me.

THG: Your studio is right in the heart of Melbourne, with views down over the main arterial street of the CBD - Swanston Street. And you’re inside a building with a great history of creative studios. How do you find being in that environment influences your work, whether it’s the processes or outcomes of it?

Stanislava Pinchuk: I really love The Nicholas - I feel really lucky to have found such a great space there, with so much light. I love being in there, and I love the community in the building - it’s such a special place.  And some of the friends I’ve made that are also tenants… we’ve begun working together, which is really cool.  But I don’t think it really influences the content of my own work particularly. I can work anywhere, really! 

Monday, September 1, 2014

In Conversation: Sam Leach

Composing Common Worlds brings together a very exciting cohort of Australian artists - all of whom work quite prolifically. In the first of our In Conversation interviews we catch up with the inimitable Sam Leach - Archibald Prize winner, Wynne Prize winner and all round highly desired artist of international repute. With his first solo show in Melbourne for a number of years being staged at the Melbourne Art Fair, curatorial involvement with the alternate art fair that he co-founded in 2010 NotFair, work exhibited in the Melbourne Nite Art event, and a solo show at Tinning Street Gallery all showing around the time of his inclusion in Composing Common Worlds, Sam is in high demand on a number of fronts. 

Generously giving his time and his thoughts about his art, Sam answers some our probing questions about the ideas underpinning his beautiful and stimulating work. Get yourself a cup of tea and come with us on a journey into the heart of Sam Leach's art.

Sam Leach in front of some of his artwork in Composing Common Worlds

THG: There’s a lot of science going on in the artworks you have in Composing Common Worlds - 3D printed asteroids, telescopes, paleolithic tools. What draws you to this exploration of science in your work?

Sam Leach: At the beginning of the 21st century science has become a dominant cultural and social force in liberal western democracies and, arguably, the world. Nonetheless, science frequently comes under attack from political interest groups, for example in recent attempts to undermine the science of climate change or critiques of biogenetic engineering from environmental groups concerned with the potential of science to disrupt and corrupt “nature". Yet, as the impact of climate change grows increasingly severe, scientific research is more critically important than it has ever been.

There is an inherent tension between the practice of science and the communication of scientific discoveries to the broader public. While the scientific process requires scientists to conduct dispassionate and objective research, effective communication necessarily requires some emotional connection with the public. This tension is echoed within the laboratory as researchers balance intuition and enthusiasm with method and reason. I am very interested in how aesthetics might reveal these tensions and the paradoxical way that  the detached position adopted by researchers ultimately results in a deeper understanding of the subject with the consequent potential for stronger empathic connection. 

THG: That idea of effective communication of important information is very interesting. Sometimes extremely complex data needs to be translated and made easily digestible which results in a highly refined visual language of graphs and symbols. The abstract shapes, colours and compositions in your work hint at this while also appearing to reference  the language of ‘high modernism’. What’s the process for you in selecting and incorporating these visual elements?

Sam Leach: There are direct influences such as D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s ‘Growth and Form’ which informed much of Richard Hamilton’s early work  and Edward Tufte’s ‘Visual Display of Quantitative Information” which has had a profound effect on graphical representation of data since the mid 1970s. But really the last decade has seen data visualisation expanding rapidly becoming increasingly sophisticated. Large amounts of data which  previously would have been difficult to access and even more difficult to handle is now readily available and relatively simple to work with. This has resulted in some amazing work being produced in the field. It is fairly early to suggest that this is having much of a broader cultural impact, but it seems like there is an increasing level of interest and statistical literacy in the public. Hopefully this will be bad news for vested interests who have historically sought to manipulate and misrepresent statistical information! 

Sam Leach, Hohle fel b (2013)
I think there is a strong relationship between the visual language of high modernism and techniques employed in data visualisation. Many of the painters I admire from the period: Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, Sol leWitt were concerned with quite rigorous analysis of the formal properties of paintings, the relationships between colour and form, support and surface, figure and ground, the artwork and the gallery. The works combine methodology with intuition and the best works are really revelations. So I don’t think it is a coincidence that when very talented designers turn their attention to data analysis, an activity which also involves combining methodology, rigour and intuition, the results have share some visual traits with high-modernist or formalist art. 

In my work I combine shapes and forms from both data visualisation and modernist painting with images, often of animals or landscapes but also of human made artefacts. Usually I begin with a specific idea about data which relates to the image, or an abstract painting which seems to relate to an image. However once the painting is underway the internal logic of the work prevails and both the representative and abstract components are warped and changed.  It is fascinating to see how simple forms often match up to and reveal unforeseen aspects of a representative image: a link to an earlier understanding of formalism that did not exclude imagery or content. 

THG: There’s a strong sense of historical influence in your images - you mention the likes of Johns, Kelly, LeWitt, and your landscapes reflect seventeenth century Dutch painting techniques - and yet you’re investigating very contemporary ideas and research. What’s the relationship for you between the historical styles you utilise and the contemporary ideas you explore?

Sam Leach: I think the paintings of the 17th century have something quite significant to tell us and we still haven’t quite worked out what it is. If I abandon my reasoning stance for a moment, I have to admit that I experience a strong emotional reaction to the paintings that I cannot adequately explain. Thousands of books and PHD dissertations have been produced trying to figure it out.  I think there is a connection is between the emergence of modernism as we understand it in the 17th century and the zenith of modernism in the 20th century. The scientific revolution of the 17th century shaped the way the world was viewed at the time, just as changing world views at that time created the conditions for the scientific revolution. We see this world view emerging, especially in the Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century.

Painted landscapes are no longer backdrops for religious or mythical parables, but rather bring the non-human world into focus. Still life paintings begin to emphasise a world made up of individual and unique objects, any of which might be available for study and contemplation.  The refutation of hybrids and the separation of the world into something that is nature and something that is social is essentially modern and this is the impulse found in minimalism and 20th century formalism. 

Sam Leach, Axes (2009), detail
THG: Tools/instruments appear throughout the works we have in Composing Common Worlds - Palaeolithic axes, vulture bone flute, telescope. I see this as a reflection of your own use of paintings as objects. You approach your paintings like tools or instruments, incorporating objects and sculptural parts with paintings, presenting paintings in grid formations like units and also allowing the thick surface of the resin on your paintings to build up a sense of object-ness. How do you navigate the tension between painting and sculpture or do you see this division as unnecessary?

Sam Leach: I think the division between painting, especially representational painting, and sculpture is critical. As a viewer, we move between the virtual space inside a painted image and the physical space of the gallery.  The resin surface does emphasise the quality of the paintings as physical objects occupying space in the gallery and also marks a physical barrier between the image and the gallery. So while it is possible to see the painting, it is impossible to directly touch the surface. With the sculptural works, by contrast, there is  certainly a physical object occupying space which can be touched and handled. Even when the sculpture is itself representational, as with a model of an asteroid, there is no equivalent to the mental projection that occurs when looking at a painted image. Abstract painting is slightly different since there is no illusion of space (at least in the works I have in this show), although they derive from data visualisation so still have a representational quality it is symbolic rather than iconic.  So with the works that combine abstract painting there are two types of symbolic representation at work but only one we can really touch or put in our hand.

As you point out, tools are a very central concept in these works. This stemmed largely from Heidegger, especially by way of Graham Harman’s reading of him, and the concepts of ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. Most tools are, ready-to-hand, so we use them without theorising or aestheticising them. However when they are broken, or perhaps displayed as a sculpture, they are present-at-hand. Things cannot be both at the same time, so humans (and for Heidegger this is only for humans) can experience the world as a transitioning between the two. Harman expands the idea to non-humans and objects, which makes the universe seem a much richer place, with objects having agency and experiencing each other: bring on panpsychism!

Sam Leach, Vulture bone flute (2013)
THG: On the topic of non-human, animals commonly find their way into your art - in this show we have two mouse deer making love, a bird’s foot with a telescope, a vulture bone flute and a horn. Given that there’s a lot of cultural content in your work, with rich philosophical undertones, what’s behind the inclusion of animals?

Sam Leach: Non-human animals have been very important in my practice. In a sense our relationship with non-human animals goes to the heart of the strange paradox of science. Early scientific experiments were often shockingly cruel to non-humans (and indeed humans). The mechanistic view of the world as articulated by Descartes - the whimpering of a kicked dog is no more than the squeaking of cogs in an automaton - seems to give permission for indifferent treatment of non-humans. But over the course of several centuries of research and increasingly sophisticated examination of non-human animal behaviour we have come to recognise that there are very few differences between humans and non-humans and the level of empathy and respect has significantly increased. The recognition of the reality of animal’s experience and point of view opens the way for an ontological flatness that I think is both appealing and important. We should understand that the world is not contingent on human thought, technology does not just benefit or disadvantage humans but also has benefits and disadvantages for non-humans. One of my favourite devices in recent SF was Charles Stross’ lobster AI: scan a lobster brain, get a learning engine! Why not give the non-humans a singularity?