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Walters Prize 2014 finalist Maddie Leach interviewed by Abby Cunnane


<P data-associrn="1450548"></P> <P>This interview took place across a distance, with Maddie at her studio on the Spike Island residency in Bristol. I’ve talked a lot with Maddie by Skype or email; she mostly works on site-related projects, and over the past three years these sites have included Cork, Tasmania, Perth, and New Plymouth. We were laughing about how her works often take her to the far-off edges of places &#8211; to small towns, bleak coasts, to the desert or grey rainy cities. Then there’s the frequency of weather forecasts, radio broadcasts, newspapers, planes, spaceships, boats and the sea in her work; it’s always on the move or happening in several places at once, and then gone. </P> <P data-associrn="1450551"></P><P data-associrn="1450552"></P> <P>Her projects develop slowly, and talking about them as they take shape is habitual, part of the process. Sometimes, as in her recent work <EM>If you find the good oil let us know</EM> (2012&#8211;14), nominated for this year’s Walters Prize, this dialogue becomes part of the work. <EM>The good oil </EM>began with Maddie coming across 70 litres of what she believed might be rare whale oil. After a series of tests found that it was in fact mineral oil, the artist used it to produce a 2.4-tonne &#8211; approximately whale-sized &#8211; block of concrete, later deposited on the seabed off the Taranaki coast. Throughout the process, letters were exchanged between Maddie and 12 ‘companions’ to the project, and intermittently printed in the <EM>Taranaki Daily News</EM>. These letters also formed the basis of an accompanying publication.</P> <P>Maddie has consistently varied the way she resolves her work &#8211; fabricating objects or having them fabricated for her, using text and print media, working with video, performative actions, and systems of exchange. She is interested in the space between what is expected and what happens, and between potential and actual forms. </P> <P>Born in Auckland in 1970, Maddie is based in Wellington, where she teaches at Massey University’s Whiti o Rehua School of Art.</P> <P><STRONG>Abby</STRONG>: To start with, can you tell me about your decision to call what you do sculpture? You put this better another time we spoke I think &#8211; something like ‘how is the sculptural present’ in your work?</P> <P><STRONG>Maddie</STRONG>: I hold on to the term ‘sculpture’ because my practice employs processes of construction and arrangement, and an interest in materiality and transformation that is allied to a sculptural mode of thinking. I think of the way I work as diagrammatic, whereby one thing is set in relation to another thing and, importantly, I consider this a way of spatially organising material components of a work. </P> <P>There’s lots of things I love about sculpture (in a mode more conventional than my own). I never tire of being in proximity to forms and materials that are explored through this language, but I also find that this attraction to ‘things’ is often satisfied in the world around me, say in industry and business and trade. Thinking in this way is also part of a substantial sculptural legacy that comes with learning, as a student, about arte povera, minimalism, and land art. </P> <P>Perhaps I also use the term with an awareness that, in critical discourse, sculpture has long been understood to encompass a radically expanded practice &#8211; making claims to be the forerunner of the contextual and/or transdisciplinary practice that is now de rigueur in many art schools.</P> <P>How the sculptural is present in my work is an ongoing and increasingly challenging question to consider. I work on the principle of asking whether something needs to be made, and if so, what happens to it afterwards. I once heard the brilliant writer, artist, and educator Mick Wilson ask the simple question of art works: ‘Where do they go to live?’ This is really relevant for me because I'm not making art works with a view to a commercial market &#8211; there isn’t usually anybody to buy them on the other side of an exhibition or project, so perhaps I think about their afterlife more actively as they come into existence.</P> <P data-associrn="847704"></P><P data-associrn="1450553"></P><P data-associrn="847712"></P> <P><STRONG>Abby</STRONG>: I’m thinking of the first work of yours I saw, <EM>The Ice Rink and The Lilac Ship</EM> (2002) at Waikato Museum of Art and History (later purchased by Te Papa). It involved sculptural objects in the gallery space &#8211; an 18-metre long ice rink, skating boots, a DVD projection &#8211; but also hinged on sociability and performance, asking people to bring it alive it by skating. I’m interested in how you see the relationship between your work as something temporary, lively, or engaging with people, and its endurance as a document, a static or formal thing that can be bought by an institution?</P> <P><STRONG>Maddie</STRONG>: Well, in relation to <EM>The Ice Rink and The Lilac Ship</EM>, there was a really interesting process of working out what it was that Te Papa would actually become owner of, particularly because they felt that the work would never be able to be installed in their current Cable Street building in its entirety. At that stage, physical parts of the project had been dispersed and recycled, and much of the original equipment had been borrowed from York Refrigeration. So there was just a box of drawings and emails and notes that traced the project’s development, technical and install specs, the handrail that attached to the rink, my pair of skating boots, the video of the ship, and the set of images in the catalogue. </P> <P>But what’s interesting is that I also asked them to acquire the headline poster from the <EM>Waikato Times</EM>, ‘Ice Rink at Museum’, and this has now become one of the most memorable images of the work &#8211; something I didn't produce but came upon by chance. As a document it has both a declarative and archival importance that makes it feel always in the present (‘live’), yet the dates on the page quickly tie it to a historical moment.</P> <P>For a long time, the way I’ve worked has required (‘solicited’ might be a better term) the assistance, advice, and expertise of other people. I love this discursive and practical set of relationships (perhaps it’s where I feel most alive or connected) because I’m reminded that there are a whole lot of other concerns for the people I’m dealing with, and it’s a tussle for an art work to find its place in that world. Often these relationships test the capacity for comprehension and patience of both parties.</P> <P><STRONG>Abby</STRONG>: When I think about works like <EM>The good oil</EM>, I recognise the role of narrative, conversation, even rumour, yet I’m also aware of how much trouble you go to to get the facts right. I’m interested in the place of real things in your work. Nothing is made up. Yet the final work often has the inflection of an anecdote, and is primarily shared in this way. I assume this relationship is an intuitive one, but I’m wondering if you have general rules and limits when it comes to invention vs reality? </P> <P><STRONG>Maddie</STRONG>: Definitely. Perhaps it’s an offshoot of the sculptural adage ‘truth to materials’, but I’ve never been interested in pretence. There have been lots of occasions where I’ve worked with industry and trade professionals and the idea of a façade or material veneer (so something looks like something else, but isn’t actually that thing) is mooted, but I’ve wanted a certain authenticity in the fabrication of objects or materials because that’s part of the logic at the core of the project. </P> <P>Perhaps it’s about being sincere in intention, and giving something the correct level of attention. I guess by the time I’ve decided what to propose for a project I’ve worked through a labyrinth of information, anecdotes, and research to establish the proposition, and usually the result is something that appears somewhat absurd but also maintains a level of plausibility. </P> <P><STRONG>Abby</STRONG>: When I’m looking at your work I often remember something the art historian Peter Brunt wrote in response to your initial <EM>The good oil</EM> letter, about the ‘inexorable logic of substitution’ that project represents &#8211; that is, 70 litres of discredited oil = 2.4-tonne block of concrete. I’m interested in what this means for the sculptural object in your practice. Is its presence always essentially metaphorical, the visualisation of a transaction? </P> <P data-associrn="1450554"></P> <P><STRONG>Maddie</STRONG>: There’s a strong tension between certain materials and actions being exchange-based and therefore substitutive (they are replaced for another thing) and their real, continued passage and movement through the world and beyond the terms of the project. </P> <P><EM>My Blue Peninsula</EM> (2006), the project which involved building a 16-foot sailboat for the roof of Te Papa, is an interesting case in point in that I declared it ceased being an art work once it came off the roof top … and that it should move to the life of being a boat. But I still have it, sitting in my garage, and it hasn’t made that transformation as yet. For a long time it posed not only a practical problem of storage but also held a set of emotional ties (part of the romanticism that inhabits that project in particular) that made it difficult to release it to a life as a boat. In this respect I’ve thought about Duchamp’s idea of an ‘aura’ that is emanated by an art work and then fades after a period of years. I think this work has approached that fade point and it should go to another life and another use now. </P> <P><STRONG>Abby</STRONG>: It seems to me that there has been a gradual process of retreat from the gallery space, culminating in your most recent work. It’s not that the gallery is no longer a significant site, but that it is necessarily limited, and can only contain limited aspects of the work. </P> <P data-associrn="1450555"></P><P data-associrn="1450556"></P><P data-associrn="1450549"></P> <P><STRONG>Maddie</STRONG>: Yes, a process of retreat is a good way to put it, or maybe I’m experiencing a kind of exhaustion with its possibilities. I move between thinking gallery space can be an extremely beautiful, restful, and necessarily sequestered space to a sense of it being closely aligned to a mausoleum or expensive, rarified retail space. Perhaps in relation to the deathliness of these spaces, galleries look for all sorts of ways to enliven their spaces and the ‘visitor experience’ and I'm also increasingly resistant to those expectations and demands on art works. </P> <P>So I think there are challenges to be resolved and I’m still interested in facing those. For example, I like the way artists like Sean Lynch, Simon Starling, Goshka Macuga, and Michael Stevenson use gallery space as a place to assemble a narrative and relay it to others. There’s an expectation of engagement on the part of the visitor and a request to fill in gaps. I can see projects of mine perhaps working in a similar way and accepting the gallery as a kind of space for that narrative process to be laid out. A bit like being inside the pages of a book &#8211; what’s always interesting about the process of reading is the combination of being physically located in one place but processing ideas and images that lead one elsewhere. </P> <P>I think I’ve resolved a position at the moment that tries to see gallery space as part of that diagram I talked about earlier … that it’s not given primacy but is in conversation with parts of the work elsewhere. I guess I’m interested in a kind of levelling that places parts of the work alongside each other and asks for (or offers) more than a singular encounter, or the recognition that any encounter is always partial. </P> <P><STRONG>Abby</STRONG>: You’ve spoken before of a sympathy with Jörg Heiser’s term ‘romantic conceptualism’, the idea that conceptual art &#8211; cool, critical, objective &#8211; is not definitively disconnected from emotional or subjective content, and is in fact historically indebted to it. It strikes me that there’s often a level of elation in your works, a nose for the miraculous, or at least an unreasonable optimism. I’m specifically thinking of recent works like <EM>I was using six watts when you Received me</EM> (2013) and <EM>Let us keep together</EM> (2011): I wanted to ask you about hope, and hopefulness, in your work.</P> <P data-associrn="1450550"></P> <P><STRONG>Maddie</STRONG>: Yes, I think my practice has always revealed its romanticism and a view of things that laces optimism, absurdity, and possibility with melancholy. I’ve often talked about how I start from what I perceive is an overtly romantic position and then enact a process of retreat from it. It’s good to be suspicious of one’s own inclinations and tendencies. Perhaps that’s where I’ve found the inherited framework of conceptualism extremely useful &#8211; as a method to question and ‘check’ the thought process that I might start out with. Finding the logic for what one is thinking becomes an important armature for any project. </P> <P>There’s always an objective from the outset but then the process undergoes various tests as to its ability to be carried out or achieved. I think the idea of belief, or investment, is also at work in that the projects attempt to achieve a passage through certain conditions and in doing so they garner support from others (the different groups of people who encounter the work as it proceeds towards its objective).</P> <P><STRONG>Abby</STRONG>: Finally, I’m curious about endings. With works like yours it seems that there’s inevitably a kind of continuity &#8211; in a similar way that energy is continually undergoing transformation perhaps. Can you tell me if you have moments where things end for you, or is there always the germ of the next project in the previous? </P> <P><STRONG>Maddie</STRONG>: <EM>The good oil</EM> has really tested my thinking about endings. While it certainly had a core proposition, it evolved in an incremental and curious way and I was confronted by a series of extended delays that meant circumstances and conditions changed along the way. Across a period of two years some of the people I was working with on the project lost their jobs, boats were decommissioned, Holcim Cement ceased their used oil recovery programme. It seemed to be a project haunted by endings and pitfalls. </P> <P>I might have thought it ended when that concrete block finally descended into the sea off Cape Egmont and perhaps achieved some sort of stasis, or when the book was published. But then circulating the book has been an interesting process whereby the project’s narrative continues to be interpreted and relayed. The Walters Prize nomination also compelled a reconsideration of an ending, and I embarked on another set of conversations and negotiations requiring reinvention and redirection.</P> <P>Perhaps it’s useful to go back to that idea of things fading rather than ending. Projects hold my attention for intense and sometimes very extended periods of time. They each require a whole new set of relationships to be formed. In some ways this process might have similar qualities to a new love … edged with strong intention, uncertainty, moments of elation, exhaustion, and obsessive thinking. But usually there is a date set down for an ending (the closing date of the exhibition is always a lurking presence), and I often think about this eliciting a continual mode of pragmatic ‘loving and leaving’. </P> <P><BR/><STRONG>Abby Cunnane</STRONG> is a curator and writer based in Auckland, where she works at ST PAUL St Gallery. She has worked in the past with Maddie as a writer on projects including <EM>If you find the good oil let us know</EM>; <EM>The Obstinate Object: Contemporary New Zealand Sculpture</EM> (co-curated with Aaron Lister, City Gallery Wellington, 2012), and <EM>I was using six watts when you Received me</EM> (SCAPE, 2013).
Maddie Leach. Photograph by Jem Noble

Maddie Leach. Photograph by Jem Noble

Maddie Leach, &lt;EM&gt;If you find the good oil let us know&lt;/EM&gt;, 2012–14

Maddie Leach, If you find the good oil let us know, 2012–14

Maddie Leach, &lt;EM&gt;If you find the good oil let us know&lt;/EM&gt;, 2012–14

Maddie Leach, If you find the good oil let us know, 2012–14

image

Maddie Leach, Gallery Six: The Ice Rink & The Lilac Ship, 2002, colour photography,
Purchased 2009.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Maddie Leach, &lt;EM&gt;Gallery Six: The Ice Rink &amp; The Lilac Ship&lt;/EM&gt;, 2002

Maddie Leach, Gallery Six: The Ice Rink & The Lilac Ship, 2002

image

Waikato Times, Ice rink at museum, June 28 2002 Advertising poster for Waikato Times newspaper, New Zealand, 2002, printed paper,
Purchased 2009.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Maddie Leach, &lt;EM&gt;My Blue Peninsula&lt;/EM&gt;, 2006, installed at Te Papa

Maddie Leach, My Blue Peninsula, 2006, installed at Te Papa

Maddie Leach, &lt;EM&gt;I was using six watts when you Received me&lt;/EM&gt;, 2013

Maddie Leach, I was using six watts when you Received me, 2013

Maddie Leach, &lt;EM&gt;Let us keep together&lt;/EM&gt;, 2011

Maddie Leach, Let us keep together, 2011

Maddie Leach, &lt;EM&gt;Let us keep together&lt;/EM&gt;, 2011

Maddie Leach, Let us keep together, 2011

Maddie Leach, &lt;EM&gt;If you find the good oil let us know&lt;/EM&gt;, 2012–14. Photograph by Shaun Waugh

Maddie Leach, If you find the good oil let us know, 2012–14. Photograph by Shaun Waugh