On 18 April 2013, MCA Young Ambassadors were invited to a private viewing of Sydney-based artist Hayden Fowler’s studio. The artist who is currently participating in the MCA Touring exhibition, The Wandering: Moving images from the MCA Collection, was joined by MCA Assistant Curator (Collections), Megan Robson, for a discussion on his recent exhibition NEW ROMANTIC at Artereal Gallery, Rozelle, and his wider practice.
Megan Robson and Hayden Fowler continued their conversation for the MCA website.
Megan Robson: Hayden, broadly your practice, which encompasses video, photography and performance, investigates humanity’s relationship with nature. Many of your works are technically complicated productions that involve constructing elaborate sets in which domesticated animals, such as chickens, goats, lambs and rats, and more recently, humans, perform a series of repetitive or ritualised actions. These often highly political works, engage with broader ethical, scientific and religious discussions, including ‘freedom, loss and desire and the romantic hope for a return to nature’.
An ongoing exploration within your practice is how our understanding and engagement with the natural environment is influenced by wider historical and cultural concepts. For instance, in the New Romantic (2011) series of photographs a number of references are made to the depiction of the landscape by the Romantic painters, writers and poets of the 18th Century. What was your interest in this particular movement and its relationship to nature?
Hayden Fowler: My interest in this movement is its early questioning of both the industrial revolution, and the rationalisation of nature that came out of the enlightenment – questions and ideas that have been largely ignored or dismissed as ‘romantic’ or anti-progress. The relevance of Romanticism seems even more acute 200 years later and at the point that industrialisation has now brought us in relationship to the environment. Population has increased in this time from one to seven billion; there has been a dramatic amount of environmental destruction and degradation, the emergence of climate change and the increased alienation of humanity from the natural world. It seems that maybe the Romantics were right. In Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818), the figure looks out to an endless vista of wilderness, an uplifting sense of freedom pervades the image, but also a sense of nostalgia, as if the artist was already looking back in time, to what was already lost. This I guess leads us to the rationalisation of nature, the dismissal of romanticism and the systematic undermining of the human emotional and spiritual relationship to the natural world. These are thoughts that leave me hollow.
Like a lot of people, I remember springs I used to drink out of as a child, that are now built over, on land that I no longer have access to except from a car window. I remember the day that a factory emptied something into ‘my’ stream and I discovered hundreds of eels contorted and dead for hundreds of metres along its banks. It is a type of sadness that is barely discussed, that we don’t really have a language for. Romanticism for me is deeply political, and also by its nature, deeply pacifist and gentle – using the language of art, poetry and writing to articulate these losses.
MR: A key reference point within your work is the presentation of flora and fauna within the contemporary urban environment, for example the dioramas of taxidermied animals in the natural history museum or the animal enclosures in a zoo. Could you talk a little about how these constructed experiences of the natural world are visually explored in your work?
HF: I am very drawn to these cultural artifacts and visit zoos and natural history museums anywhere I’m travelling. They are emotional evocative experiences that play into human biophilia – offering us a momentary outlet where we can feel beauty or awe at nature, or even imagine being overwhelmed or overpowered by it. I feel that these experiences trigger instinctual responses to nature, where our brains and senses work overtime to capture the diversity, depth of field, movement, colour, smells, or danger. Of course, the powerful and undermining contradiction here is that this instinctual sensory excitement, our hopeful sense of awe or beauty before we catch ourselves, is left disappointed and empty. In the contemporary zoo, the hollow illusion of space and freedom is just that – it is difficult to ignore the high walls and electric fences unsuccessfully hidden by a fake waterfall and some well-planted bamboo. In fact, even if you desperately, for a moment, want to believe in the waterfall, the sound of a water pump or the sight of some badly disguised PVC plumbing can leave you feeling more empty than before.
The natural history museum diorama is even more confronting. Maybe surprisingly, it’s not the stillness of the stuffed, dead animals that affects me so much – I guess in my mind they are already extinct. Instead, it is the painted backdrop of the diorama which, no matter how well or badly executed, always draws me in, brings up emotions that want me to believe, to be drawn through the surface into this endless, untamed, unexplored wilderness. In those flashing moments where I forget my disbelief, I feel I become fully human and animal again, I have my freedom back. And then nostalgia and sadness as the surface of the wall in front of me slides back into focus.
These conflicting emotions are what I am most interested in working with in my practice and the way they can be explored, manipulated or experienced through the recombination of the ‘real’ and the ‘artifice’. In creating my work, one of my primary concerns is the emotional response of the audience. Not simply for reaction, but to raise questions within the viewer around this nostalgia for nature and how this relates to their own sense of freedom. At the same time however, I aim to retain hope in the work, and also a sense of enjoyment. That someone can be drawn in, just for the simple pleasure of watching the animals within the work. In New World Order (2013) I was particularly conscious of this, wanting to create imagery where there was a real sense of freedom, autonomy and wilderness displayed by the birds, even amongst what appears as a lifeless, grey, maybe even post-apocalyptic forest.
In terms of the set construction in my work, I am obviously also very interested in the techniques and devices used in zoo and museum dioramas, particularly the ones that sort of, or partly fail – the things that reveal the artifice. In similar ways I am also drawn to the ethnographic diorama, especially in photography, and to botanical gardens, especially glasshouses – although plants are somehow experienced as much more hopeful.
To find out more about Hayden Fowler, visit his website.
To find out more about his exhibition at Artereal, visit the gallery’s website
The Young Ambassador program is supported by Ray White
Posted by Kelly Stone