dialogue

interaction as a sculptural strategy

I have been privileged to witness the development of Nicole Voevodin Cash’s work over the last 10 years, from her first solo show Hiatus at Noosa Regional Gallery to her most recent show SOFTscape at Albury Regional Gallery. At Noosa I immediately recognized a regional artist who thought deeply about contemporary art and whose practice transcended the invisible but deeply restrictive boundaries regional artists face in making it in the serious art world. For me the role of a regional gallery director or curator is to open a debate with artists in order to give them space to consider their practice within a wider national and international context. Therefore, it seemed highly appropriate when Nicole asked me to write an essay on the history of her practice, that the essay is in the form of a conversation.

Kevin: When I think back to Hiatus, your interest in interactivity and furniture was already deeply embedded in your practice and you were concerned about how audiences navigated the gallery space. What were you trying to achieve with this work?

Nicole: I was hoping to achieve an exhibition that made people stop for a while, hence the title Hiatus, and to consider not only the objects within the space but themselves and their relationship with these objects and space. So if I used objects that were like furniture then people would be less inhibited and take their interaction to another level from just seeing to touching. I produced a soundscape for the show to assist the audience to interactively explore these objects. The soundscape was made up of human sounds which created an eerie quality…but basically its aim was to anthropomorphize the furniture. I took this further in my next show ……so you want to be touched! by dressing up stools as a way to animate them. I have always been fascinated by the stories of how teddy bears and other toys came alive at night when you were asleep and obviously stories like Beauty and the Beast where household staff were transformed household furniture and utensils. These ideas influenced me and my work.

Kevin: But what strikes me about your first show Hiatus was that the interaction was focused on individual body parts – different works asked you to use different senses – touch, hearing etc. There was a kind of fragmentation taking place. It was still like a traditional gallery show with discrete objects offering different experiences, except here were a range of sometimes familiar kinds of furniture spread around the gallery space. This fragmented experience was very different to the immersive experience of the cinema where many of our senses are engaged simultaneously and we are pulled into a different mental space. I think you achieve this in your current Albury work where the audience’s sense of space and place is changed in a more whole of body experience by different size ratios of work, the concept of spaces within spaces and the sound of blowers that remind one of industrial or domestic spaces.

Nicole: In Hiatus, the interaction between object and subject raises the connection between viewer and artwork to an intimate level. The spaces, drawers, cupboards, sounds and holes create for the viewer a relation between inside and outside which requires activation by the viewer to give it full meaning. Touching is very much encouraged. So even though the body of works were fragmented for me it was to make the audience engage with a more bodily experience, albeit a minimal one. That minimalism might be simple like putting their fingers in through holes and touching things they weren’t normally allowed to touch (the art object). By only being able to touch something without knowing what you are touching looks like, relies heavily on the individual’s association of touch. Yes, I was still treating the gallery as an architectural space to be filled with objects that were objectified within that space. Now I challenge the idea of what the landscape of a gallery is, as each work collectively creates an intervention that effectively transforms a previously familiar landscape/object/space/habitat and our relationship to them. The works in the show SOFTscape in Albury were all site specific works aimed in their production to harness the concept of the invisible touch. That is they aimed to develop for the viewer/audience via engagement an intuitive response that creates new modes of communication that are sensorial and intensify the experience of the artwork (art, craft, design), its site and its audience as an exploratory gestalt.

Kevin: I guess I understand what you mean by an invisible touch; it’s like a learned or expected understanding of what to expect. But I am not sure what you mean when you say it then creates for them new modes of communication. Do you mean
that they have to use their physical senses more than their brains to experience the artwork?

Nicole: No, it is not one or the other but to connect the mind and the body in the experience and this ensures this experience will be different for each individual viewer.

Kevin: After Hiatus and …so you want to be touched, you embarked on a very different project in a non gallery commercial public space – a young girl’s dress shop in the Valley. The Retail Therapy project seemed to be a turning point for you?

Nicole: In this project I was not just making the furnishings that go into a gallery space and not just making a piece of furniturethat behaves differently to a normal piece of furniture for a shop. I was more interested in a pure sense of engagement based on Merleu Ponty’s idea that it’s not until we engage with an object through our skin, through our touch that we understand what it truly is. So if I only allowed people to see the work it would only be read on one level but to put objects anywhere to be touched and to be engaged in would provide greater understanding. So the fabrication, the surfaces, the textures became extremely important. In doing this work it was a chance to work in a very different public zone and in a site which was steeped in history. It was a butcher shop, then a massage parlour and now a little dress shop for slender young girls.

Kevin: So how did people respond to the work and what was different about this space to the public foyers in the Judith Wright Centre that you used in the later Lobby Play show. I am still not clear on how it changed your practice.

Nicole: Retail Therapy made me truly understand a space as a site, artwork as landscape. I produced a sculptural work that functioned as a seat titled Meet Seat. It was to act like furniture as you need a chair/couch/lounge in a boutique and it was based on the notion of the love seat, a Victorian style love seat where you sit back to back and side to side so intimacy was a given. Many a time I would see a young couple enter the shop and she would try on clothes while he watched. So I embellished the seat further by making one side HOT the other side COLD, making the interaction unsuspecting and random, but relevant to the landscape in which the sculpture was placed.

Kevin: Nevertheless people have been attracted to the way your gallery works are also clever furniture. I am just wondering whether the invitations to take part in a range of furniture design exhibitions in the years following Retail Therapy have been a major factor in your continuing use of furniture in your work and also your definition at times as a designer rather than fine artist.

Nicole: Yes, I imagine this is so, though I have never fought against this labelling. It is other people who have problems not being able to pidgeon hole me. If I feel that I am getting too focused on furniture as the object I refocus my motives in using them and consider other directions. I am much more interested in the consideration of space or landscape rather than objects per se. I am more an architect in that sense than a furniture designer. Although I use the semiotics of furniture to help engage the audience on a sensory level, they will more freely engage with a perceived piece of gallery furniture than an object of art. I am dealing here with the development of a new landscape while investigating and reinterpreting the old.

Kevin: What about your outdoor works, particularly the Lempriere and McClelland works. They were fairly traditional plonk sculpture events and so obviously presented new challenges for you to be able to continue your interest in furnishings, interactivity and site-specificity. How did you maintain your conceptual parameters in these events?

Nicole: The Lempriere work RUG was still a furnishing. I wanted it to be interactive but l needed to make it out of something people could interact with but not know that they were interacting in it. That’s why it used the gardenscape because people could walk and lie on it but it subverted that landscape just as in the following year Joyce Terrain in the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane subverted the landscape of the gallery. It wasn’t just your normal gallery space or your normal gallery furniture and it’s not your normal grass turf area and it’s not your normal garden. You can actually sit and lay in it. The McClelland work Invasion was indeed furniture but it was more a play on me being a designer or how people interpret me as a designer. I was having a bit of fun with that. The other imperative was the freight issue i.e. the huge cost in sending large three dimensional sculptures. How could I send this work like a painting in a crate and for it still to be a sculpture? So I drew the sculptures making them look 3D when in actual fact they were 2D flat metal works. But it was still furniture; it was what many Australians have in their backyard, a BBQ.

Kevin: Do you feel more at home in the gallery than you do in other spaces i.e. making works for the gallery as opposed to public art works?

Nicole: Yes only because the gallery has all these kinds of rules and I like to flout rules and play with the way the gallery defines meaning. I find O’Doherty’s seminal 70’s book the ‘White Cube still very relevant today. He investigates the modern gallery and how it deals with the art object, how it influences the object as subject and how the gallery’s context overrules the object becoming the subject. Also as much as I decry the precious object syndrome of the gallery l also want to make precious objects and use the concept of preciousness. People tend to treat these objects in a gallery differently and this offers a kind of safety net for me, whereas with public artworks they are roughly treated and become more utilitarian with more limited meaning due to a whole set of other rules that govern our public domains, so these rules, too I can flout.

Kevin: I thought your strategy of placing works in different locations both in the IMA and in various foyers in the Judith Wright building for your Lobby Play show was an interesting strategy, particularly in the way it problematized the art object and its relationship to furniture or in a broader sense art and its relationship to design. Firstly, is it an issue that the audience might only see a work as furniture and not as an art object, and secondly does the gallery context turn everything into an art object even supposed furniture?

Nicole: Yes it is an issue but then it’s not. What overrides that duality for me is the engagement that people have with the work. Obviously there are different sets of rules in the gallery than other places and, for example, with the work Joyce Terrain, I had intended it to be an artwork that grew out of the gallery itself, to view art from, a kind of furniture if you like, but once people interacted with it, it became the artwork and the people became part of that artwork and in so doing created their own artwork and meaning. In this sense it mediated and created a different space compared with the works in the foyer spaces which as spaces required a more limited kind of activity. But having said that, all the Lobby Play works at the IMA were about waiting - waiting in a gallery, waiting in a landscape. These hybridized works focused on the mnemonic quality an object/space/place/habitat/ furniture holds for the individual. For example sensory experiences are stored as memory and via engagement with other objects, materials, spaces, textures, sounds, smells; memories/experiences/aspirations/feelings can be unlocked. The question raised is how do I feel when I am within this space?

Kevin: But I guess I am thinking of the people who walk into a gallery and generally understand that you look and don’t touch. Wouldn’t people have walked into the gallery space and seen Joyce Terrain as a kind of white sculptural landscape? Wasn’t putting the ballet dancer into that landscape emphasizing it as a landscape to be looked at?

Nicole: I have no problem with that. In that sense it became a true landscape and the sculptural object I aimed for. But on mass interaction it didn’t, but then it still did. I had kids there who interacted with it like a playscape and is that any different then to a green landscape? Each audience perceived it in a different way and putting the dancer through it was one way of showing a responsive interaction and emphasised how the works deal with the body through its absence. Interaction by necessity (having to sit or stand or roll over, the meeting place of art and design, of the aesthetic and the functional) leaves a human residue, mediating between the body and culture. The fact that touch/interaction is socially and culturally constructed therefore sets the ground rules for how we interact and react. Ideally the emphasis in my work has always been to enhance and to experiment with our lack of use for the tactile and dependence on the optical. I have always aimed to create an awareness of the body, its experiences and sensations, and strive to create stimulations that ease rather than stress, as a direct response to our over stimulated public and private lives.

Kevin: I’m still interested in the notion of integration. It’s not so much the context of the art gallery that gives it meaning, which of course it does, but the way the art gallery integrates anything into its space as O’Doherty explains in The White Cube. But what l find interesting about Joyce Terrain is that seems to be part of the space not as furniture and not as an artwork – it seems to grow out of the space. It compares to the grass work called Watermarks outside the Department of Primary Industries – it just seems to naturally grow out of that space. That sense of being integrated or part of the space was Joyce Terrain’s strength as opposed to the other works in the Judith Wright building which seem to me, to be more like furniture.

Nicole: Yes, I think Joyce Terrain was successful in that sense and for me another turning point in my practice. Though I do think the works I produced outside of the gallery and in the Judith Wright Centre also grew from these spaces especially Reception Disc in Arterial’s office (not functional) and Into You (functional) for the theatres foyer. Lobby Play obviously helped inform other works that have since been produced outside of the gallery such as works like Watermarks at the DPI in Brisbane and RUG produced for the Helen Lempriere Sculpture Award. These I believe are ‘inside-outside’ works, meaning inverting ideas from an interior space and re-creating them outside.

Kevin: So after the IMA show where did things head for you?

Nicole: Well Lobby Play was a culmination of 18 months of production after coming back from the Australia Council studio in Milan, Italy. This involved expensive and intensive research and finding sponsors for materials. After Lobby Play I returned to the studio with the assistance of an Australia council new work grant. I again embarked on another 18 months of experimentation to develop further the intervention my landscape works create within the exhibiting space.

Kevin: How did your residencies assist in your development?

Nicole: I think they helped me to understand the landscape more. I mean the broader landscape, not the physical outdoor landscape but the landscape of design, the landscape of worldliness and me within that worldliness. My work came back from Milan more sophisticated and more streamlined. I felt more confident about my work and comfortable in a practice that flowed from one context to another.

Kevin: What about Bundanon?

Nicole: Bundanon was a dream. I had a whole month for me – no T.V, no kids, not having to stop and make dinner, go to work or bed at a certain time. I was able to immerse myself in my work and of course within a beautiful natural landscape. Plus it allowed me the privilege to re-examine the landscape on a painterly level. The work I produced and left for the foundation was an ephemeral response to the site. A work titled A Slice of Heaven that faded over time but will be forever present in the minds of the audience.

kevin: I would imagine that your public art commissions would also have had an effect on your interest in landscape or place

Nicole: Public art has made me more grounded in the concept of landscape. I have actually gone out into the landscape and had to deal with it, but its not that I have done lots of public art works. I have only had one full commission and am currently completing my second, but I have been paid concept development fees for about 12 different projects. I actually love getting these concept design projects because they pay you to come up with designs that I use and re-use in my practice. Even the one commission l did get to construct Watermarks, the turf work for the DPI, required intensive knowledge of turfs and drainage for such turfs. It gave me a huge library of resources and information that l can draw from and use for other projects whether it be other public art commissions, my own practice or for my own home garden

kevin: So let’s return to the Albury show. Where did the blow ups come from?

Nicole: Artists create and design things for specific reasons and places. Joyce Terrain was a massive landscape work with 52 pieces and was something like 1 by metres in size. Where do I store it? I would have loved a gallery to buy it but it wasn’t to be, so I had to take on off site storage which was costly and put pressure on me and my family. So for the last 18 months I have been cannibalising Joyce Terrain. It was not only the storage issue that I had to deal with but the perennial problem artists face with freight costs. I had to ask myself how do I resolve the issue of the volume of material. It became a design issue. The idea of the blow-ups was a way of resolving the volume problem.

kevin: So when you started cannibalising the foam works what made you carve the foam into decorative pieces that seemed so distant to the minimalism of Joyce Terrain?

Nicole: Joyce Terrain was totally machine made and l would have loved to have made it myself by hand. As an artist when you are using your hands in the making you are in your element. So as a strategy I wanted to see what I could do with my own hands (my own interaction) with this hard and dense foam, so I decided to cut it and carve it and then resurface it.

kevin: But another element of what you did was also to return to a much more intimate kind of art. So where did you start with this? Were you trying to make three dimensional representational objects or simply exploring decorative surfaces?

Nicole: Well the recent works I sent to Dubai, flowerBEDS and WALLflowers were very much about decoration. The flowerBEDS were hand carved with beautiful flower designs taken from 19th century Chinese designs into slabs of foam, flocked white and then placed flat on the floor with a pillow. They became the objectification of furniture and bedding, a reinterpretation of the landscape (inside) of the bed through the embellishment of pattern to create a landscape (outside) within a gallery.

kevin: Was this also a response to the gallery?

Nicole: Yes, MONDO Arte Gallery in Dubai is a white minimalist space designed by Phillipe Starke and I wanted to insert or grow my work out of this space as a response to the gallery, and to that city and country. So it had to be white and it had to be highly decorative. I chose flocking as a textural surface specifically for its softness and its plushness. However since l have been carving these designs in foam I have explored all kinds of other surface treatments from sprayed on rubber to thin skinned upholstery and felting.

kevin: Let’s return to the blow up works. You have said they were partly a response to the freight issue of moving around large solid works. What else led to these works?

Nicole: I wanted to make some really large works and move away from the solidness of form not only for freighting issues but for aesthetic reasons like their tactility, size and accessibility to an audience. So after spending 12 months experimenting with blow-ups and failing many times before I got things to work physically I discovered that these works had their own vulnerabilities. So what was I to do? I embraced this vulnerability – especially the concept of deflating as they evolved into living organic objects that with air further changed their reading as an object/space. In the current exhibition SOFTscapes at Albury Regional Gallery I began from a response to the site, the city and its architecture. I responded firstly with a red foam carved work – Landscape 1 based on a 19th Century sofa. I removed its legs and pushed this shape as far as I could by reinvestigating it times in different mediums and different sizes. Landscape 2 was the first re-landscaping of this object made in PVC creating a sealed inflatable twice the original size. Then Landscape 3 was made larger again but relied on a constant air flow to create its form, and was made of spinnaker cloth, hand painted and attached to a small blower. Landscape 4 was the last work in this re-landscaping. It was large and round taking up a major part of the gallery space and a work in which you could investigate the interior landscape of this object rather than just its exterior. These progressive investigative works moved from the solid to something that moved, breathed, lifted off and was connected by a kind of umbilical cord to its life blood – AIR and where you are able to walk inside the object/space. The shape of this object changes through this progression as it grows and takes form in different materials. The conical form that creates Landscape 1’s seat back eventually becomes inverted in Landscape 4 to physically fit it into the gallery and becomes its spine to hold it all together, bringing the outside in and visa versa.

kevin: In this last show you have again started with the furniture idea and I know it was partly in response to the public art residency you did here in Albury. But it seems to have morphed now into a different way of looking at space compared to the IMA show. The large work in particular seems to posit the inside and outside space as interconnected. The inside spine is connected to the outside surface and you can touch both inner and outer surfaces. It creates a kind of expansion of spaces especially when you take the space of the gallery also into account. For me you have now come full circle from your first show back to a new kind of interactivity, where spaces are confused and where surface and inside touch can be one and the same, so where to from here?

Nicole: More blow-ups and inflatable’s, I love the way they take on a life of their own. Though I haven’t quite finished with the foam carving and am halfway through another landscape series titled DELICATEscapes, which are stiffened and crocheted geometric forms and detailed lasercut flocked foam shapes, clustered to form a landscape of objects that re-enforce my obsession with the precious gallery object. I will continue to present the audiences for my work with the challenge of defining the landscape that they find themselves in, whether in an art gallery or in other public spaces, and their own position in that landscape.

kevin wilson

currently Group Leader Cultural Services for Albury City and formerly the Director of Noosa Regional Gallery

O’Doherty B 1976 ‘Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space’ London. University Press.

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hiatus

Hiatus, 1996

hiatus

Hiatus detail, 1996

Bedside table Ranger

Bedside table Ranger, 1997

Bedside table Tower

Bedside Table Tower, 1997

Bedside table Cart

Bedside Table Cart, 1997

Invasion

Invasion, 2007

Couch

Couch, 2005

Stool2

Stool2, 2000

Meet Seat, 2001

Meet Seat, 2001

Into You!, 2004

Into You!, 2004

Joyce Terrain, 2004

Joyce Terrain, 2004

What If, 2004

What If, 2004

Dimple, 2004

Dimple, 2004, 2004

Rug, 2003

Rug, 2003

A Slice of Heaven, 2006

A Slice of Heaven, 2006

Wallflower Lily detail, 2006

WALLflower Lily detail, 2006

FlowerBEDS Orchid detail, 2006

FlowerBEDS Orchid detail, 2006

LANDscape 1, 2007

LANDscape 1, 2007

SOFTscape, 2007

SOFTscape 1, 2007