Paris-based Australian artist Anthony White (born 1976, Sydney) is known for paintings that are informed by a critical engagement with historical narratives and current social issues – and their relationship to the production of contemporary image-making.
Materiality figures heavily in Anthony’s practice and his works are often characterised by an acute awareness of surface, a preoccupation with physicality and the found object.
Anthony has exhibited widely over the past decade with solo exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne, Paris and Hong Kong. He has been awarded a number of private and public commissions and residencies, including a residency at the Spinnerei in Leipzig, Germany (2010) and The Paris Studio at La Cite Internationale Des Arts, Paris (2009). During 2007, he was the recipient of The Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship to the United States of America.
Thematically, Anthony’s recent paintings consider collision points, blurs, diffusions, shifts and ruptures at the site of geopolitical and cultural boundaries, particularly in relation to global immigration crises. Echoing Edward Said’s identification of “the inextricable links” between Modernism, war and immigration, the problems which these moments of rupture raise for contemporary image-making are rigorously worked over in the artist’s content-loaded gestures.
Anthony’s latest series “Signs of Civilisation”, which will be on display at Sydney’s Nanda\Hobbs gallery from 5 – 21 April, is inspired by Franz Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony (1918) and takes into account political issues in Australia and America. In these paintings, the artist confronts state power and undoes its many signs and symbols by constructing an alternative visual language, one that dissolves rigid forms and colours into something that is free and wild and open. In this conversation, the artist elaborates on the rationale behind his thoughtful and somewhat rebellious “non-representational non-imagery”.
You know, I have had a strange relationship with abstract art. There were moments when I would think—“Well, what’s so special about it?” Still, the “non-image” continued to attract me. I understood the logic of non-representational abstract art mainly through the De Stijl movement founded in the Netherlands in 1917. Right in the middle of war and division, Piet Mondrian and partners did something revolutionary—they crafted an artistic language made up of pure geometry and colour. Yellow was no sunshine, lines were no borders. Not one thing stood for anything. Hence, the visual vocabulary immediately became accessible and applicable…universally; it builded bridges, overcame barriers.
I suppose, in your Signs of Civilisation, you are attempting to achieve a similar effect. You aim at a feeling of unity and egalitarianism by way of the gestural brushstroke—fluid and unrestrained. Through your wild slashes, splatters, smears and scars you go about shattering and violating the seemingly fixed and permanent symbols and signs of our world that so often keep so many enchained and enslaved. You provide an experience alternative to our reality which is so heavily dominated by idols and icons. What contemporary “representational images” annoy you the most and why?
I think the shortest and most concise way to answer this is to speak about consciousness. It’s not so much about abstraction or representation. It’s more about conducting your artistic practice with an awareness that can act as an agency for change. I don’t hate representational images at all, but I am trying to understand the dynamic within the world and using my system of art-making as a counter-protest to that.
Consumer objects have replaced icons and idols of old. Does that matter? Depends upon what you believe and what you desire for yourself. Icons tend to represent an entrenched way of thinking. Humankind’s obsession with glittery objects and consumerism is evident in some sorts of representational painting practices, but that in itself is a statement which points to the status of where people are at. I personally feel like utilising contemporary practice to engage with social ideas from current, recent, modern and ancient history – using abstraction to speak about social issues, forming protest against those symbols and signs that perpetuate popularism and the marginalisation of minorities. I basically want to foster an attitude of inclusiveness.
Now, Franz Kafka—your major source of inspiration for this project. I feel the Bohemian author remains unparalleled when it comes to depicting the consequences of power in literature. The strange torture and execution device that carves the sentence upon the body of the prisoner in In the Penal Colony (1918) is, for you, a metaphor for the Ideological State Apparatus and the tools invented by humans to exert control over others. Tell me more about this “Ideological State Apparatus” that you speak of. What, according to you, are its most prominent characteristics?
I’ve used this as a major reference point primarily because of the nature of the story. This machine is a torture device used to physically control its subjects and inscribe the law onto its victims, pretty grisly stuff really. But the short story acts as a metaphor, there is an intellectual detachedness in it. It distances the reader from the horror of the subject. It allowed me to recontextualise the text into the modern day easily.
I saw parallels with the plight of the asylum seekers in the Pacific. I was horrified to see the length of time that this matter has taken. There has been little resolution. Australian citizens should be questioning the government and the many errors of judgement that have been made. They need to consider the control that the government actually needs to have over its citizens. The handling of Manus and Nauru has been a breach of international human rights and the government is now coming up with a figure to award as compensation towards the asylum seekers. Not only that but it’s contrary to what Franklin D. Roosevelt really intended when he set up the Charter of Human Rights nearly 70 years ago.
Being based outside of Australia I can see recurrent frames of thinking in my home country, and one frame is how much is still hidden in our society. Why has it taken so long for these asylum seekers to receive due process? The characteristics of a Ideological State Apparatus is really any sort of system that dumbs down original thought and crushes curiosity, intellectual rigour and dissent, even the right to protest. Through art we can and should challenge this, especially in light of an international shift towards populist politics in the world today.
There’s a painting in your series New Colossus, another Reza Barati. Both deal with the “apparatus” of destructive and humiliating immigration policies of the modern state. The first one indicates the case of America (it is the title of a fiery sonnet by Emma Lazarus that she composed to raise funds for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty):
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, / With conquering limbs astride from land to land; / Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand /
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand / Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command / The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she / With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
This welcoming piece of poetry has been turned on its head with Donald Trump’s discriminatory executive orders. The second painting is about the situation in Australia (Barati was a 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who was killed on Manus Island in 2014). Why did you choose these two specific instances/references?
I chose these two instances because they illustrate points in the faltering of our democratic systems. When I first starting working on ideas about New Colossus two years ago now I was drawing analogies between the Pacific and what this poem and the statue represent. I knew that the replica stands in the Museé D’Orsay and sister on the Pont de Grenelle. It represents a gift from France to the USA; the value of Democracy. But that was before Trump came to power, and it brings a whole new dimension to the fact that democracy seems to be faltering now. America once was the moderator but now it seems to be giving up. It is uninterested implementing and policing humanitarian affairs.
What, for you, would an ideal immigration policy be like?
I think that an ideal is a hard to achieve situation but the safeguarding of people’s human rights should be ensured. People deserve the right to due processing and need to be dealt with in an efficient and humane manner. This is a complicated issue within the framework of the media portrayals of migrants. If I could point out a suitable example then it would be the liberal democracy of Canada, where migration is seen as positive and part of the solution and a major key to economic prosperity.
Well, I think that the Gutai was inextricably linked with the forging of a new Japanese consciousness after WWII. Gutai shaped aesthetic culture significantly – drawing from Abstract Expressionism but distinctly forging a radical Japanese identity through performance and a strong sense of freedom after being oppressed by a totalitarian regime before the war.
Signs of Civilisation also has something to do with your move to Paris from Australia in 2009. The event was an existential overhaul that required thorough self-examination. Why so?
Because leaving one system – one ideology that is the English Western perspective and then being immersed in French Western ideology, you get to see things from different lens. This combined with the Paris terror attacks that happened in 2015, also London, Berlin, Brussels, etc. affected me quite a bit.
Such unrest stirs the mind to interpret events and to analyse the shifts in the world. Which really led me to the ideas around cultural transmission, capitalism, orientalism, economic foreign policy and intersections in global dynamics.
Things are changing with the rise of populism. How can we as artists create interventions to empower people and bring economic benefit to society? For example in the UK, the creative sector is worth 92 billion per year which is bigger than the agricultural sector, so it says something about the scale of what artists are connected to.
It’s time for artists to get connected and make art a vehicle which can benefit many people and change societies, and reflect history better through the transmission of cultural legacies.
You strongly believe that artists have a responsibility to participate in social and political actions. I feel many artists with good intentions, particularly painters, are unable to get their messages to the wider public/culture because their creations remain enclosed within gallery walls and then the rooms of select few collectors affluent enough to afford their works. So dissemination is limited. How could this situation be changed and improved—that is, without disturbing the commercial aspect of art (which is certainly important and needs to be maintained)?
This is dependant upon the motivations of the artists. Indeed desire is the birth of all things. This is the focus of my practice. You are only limited by your ambition, vision and goals and how many hours per day you would like to work. There is always a way forward. If you believe this then surprising things can happen. Dissemination is affected by a few things: production volume, effective communication and access to capital. I feel with the contemporary art world exploding internationally, artists today have more chance and more tools available than ever before in the history of the world to take their production to the global level.
I read that “the ethics of aesthetics” has been an ongoing concern for you. This is a perennially puzzling area—the relationship between good/evil and beauty/ugliness—how do these four qualities interact and intersect, I still don’t know. What observations and conclusions have you been able to come up with regarding this issue?
These questions are complex and evolving, requiring discussion and debate.
Language is important. I object to “good” and “evil’ because they carry heavy religious overtones. Also, coming out of the political system, “good” and “evil” are loaded to buy votes and shore up support. I believe good and evil are relative terms and dependant upon cultural contexts. It is easy for us to judge another person’s culture as inferior or as savage or in need, as Edward Said speaks, of the mission civilisatrice or to label a land as Terra Nullius but these are fictions made up for our own comfort, to justify what we have done.
In The Apparatus I, you examine “homogenisation”. What does it reflect and mean really?
The squeegee homogenises the surface and physically it actually brings all things together and has a calming effect on the image, makes the surface ready to receive another layer or direct markings over the top. Homogenisation in culture is exactly the crux of what I am talking about. It is through the acceptance of those that are not like ourselves – accommodating Otherness – and the safeguarding of cultural traditions that we can ensure vitality and peace within our culture.
You are more interested in “art as event” rather than “art as picture”. How do you differentiate between the two?
I would differentiate between the two by saying that art as picture would gravitate towards a more formalist approach and art as an event would be coming more from a Rosenberg definition. The life of the artist and his/her psychological state are important to bring art back into the painting. Rosenberg states that he saw the biography of the artist and the act of painting as inseparable. Therefore, the boundaries between the two are broken down. Abstract art has everything to do with life. He also speaks about the four-sided arena where the painter acted as an actor focussing on the inception, duration, direction and the psychic state. I identify fairly strongly with the Rosenberg model, I think that life experiences and grand emotions motivate me to pursue a visual arts practice.
Have you started putting together ideas for your next exhibition?
Yes, most definitely.
Anthony will be participating in the Sydney Contemporary during 2018 and Personal Structures Exhibition at The 58th Venice Biennale 2019. Find him on his website (anthonyjwhite.net), Facebook (www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=566802467) and Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_White_(Australian_artist)).