Scratching the Veneer: An Interview With Cushla Donaldson



Scratching the Veneer: An Interview With Cushla Donaldson

Cushla Donaldson is an Elam School of Fine Arts Graduate who also graduated with an MFA from the highly acclaimed Goldsmiths College in London 2007, as a recipient of the University of Auckland’s Anne Reid Scholarship. Donaldson’s practice exhibits both erudite technical skill and exploration of form, as well as rigorous but wry conceptual interrogation. In recent years, she’s become known for her witty and subversive engagement with, so as to accentuate the inherent limitations of, the gendered hierarchy of aesthetics. Her large-scale sculptures (a field often dominated by male artists such as Oldenburg or Koons) engage a contemporary feminist conversation about late capitalist domestic spheres and the women who were expected to shop to fill them; her multimedia collaborations find new ways of asserting female agency and gaze in nominally male environments like the corporate box and the rock show. Even very exhibition titles toy with, then subvert, their expectations -  ‘Feminine Touches’ (a show that in part dealt directly the notion of ‘masculinity’ and its relationship to male mental health.)

Although largely based in Auckland, Donaldson has exhibited regularly throughout both NZ & Europe – with recent solo exhibitions including ‘Feminine touches’ at Ferari gallery in Auckland (2012); ‘Cushla Donaldson and Fisher and Paykel present the Truth’ at 30Upstairs in Wellington (5-27 July 2013) and ‘Supergroup’ at Auckland’s Audio Foundation earlier this year. I stole a moment with Cushla to talk about her artistic intentions; the issues she tries to address in her practice; the creative process, and what the future holds in store.

Although currently based in Auckland, you’ve previously lived, worked and studied overseas. Have you found there are different restrictions or, conversely, opportunities for practitioners here in NZ - as opposed to in London or Europe?

We live in a fascinating time where we are able, as artists, to have meaningful interactions in other countries without being present via social and other media. I think it is a mistake, however, to believe that this holds as much power as physically ‘being’ in a place and interacting with it and the people.

Communication through action and face-to-face interaction are important to me - and I think there is much more to be exchanged when one is physically present than can be done via the internet. The internet is a medium and a tool, but I see reliance on it for art making as problematic. It is similar to relying too much on your medium or singular aesthetic which is a modernist or formalist approach. Just because technology is now available it is not the be all and end all of information gathering and presence, although it is an important change. I see the ‘internet’ aesthetic being used by some artists currently as a shorthand aesthetic for being modern and current. I think you can achieve a similar statement with the latest model dishwasher.

 Where it does get interesting however, is in exploring areas of privacy… again the personal is political in full force! As was shown recently with Nicky Hager’s release of Dirty Politics, the impact of personal information and the possibilities of accessing this has become epic.  I think people need to know how that works; what rights they do and don’t have; what is being slowly taken away from them in terms of privacy and how to negotiate that. Governmental spying and interception of private letters and communications are nothing new. But the opportunity to access these have become vastly greater.

As a side note I found it wonderful that Nicky Hager will be at New Zealand’s Venice Biennale opening in his role as researcher for Simon Denny’s exhibition. It takes what can be seen as the careful neutrality of art (as with sport) and places it firmly within a political discussion. This has recently been unfashionable in an overt way in contemporary art here.

As far as opportunities go, the market for art overseas is of course larger and it has been fascinating for me to begin to understand how this market is negotiated in different ways by various artists. I find it actually quite entertaining and I enjoy making work that expresses some of the humour when the world of finance and the world of art meet. It is a micro-expression of the position we find ourselves in from birth: a constant, humbling and sometimes courageous negotiation between ourselves and the world.

How do you conceive shows – what’s the initial spark or starting point?

Urs Fisher said there are only up to 3 essential interests or motivations in any artist and all work leads back to those. The work I am interested in making will always include some negotiation with an authority structure, be that patriarchy, capitalism and political system or the systems of display itself. It also has a negotiation with beauty, the body and experience. I think all art holds these things! However I want to highlight the process of individual negotiation within them. Art is always personal and to use the feminist concept again: the personal is political.

 When conceiving of work or exhibitions I often discuss things I am thinking about with others around me and try to ‘feel the temperature’ of what I am considering. I then follow my nose in terms of being lead to what are the elements I want to push forward and what I want to hold back or have quietly simmering. I usually think big then discern where to hold back. My favourite artists are masters of holding back their own genius in places. I find that thrilling. It’s like with music, you can’t go full noise all the time, or you can’t hear anything. Stripping back and editing effectively is very difficult and I have only seen one or two artists who do this well from the outset. I think it is usually a developed skill.

On this, what and or who do you draw on for inspiration - even insofar as a means to depart from -in your practice/research? An immediate reference that may come to mind with your works is Claes Oldenburg. I believe you’ve also mentioned Franz West and Paul McCarthy? When you were younger, before you actually studied art, what would spark your imagination?

I was an intense reader from a young age. I was lucky to be brought up in a house full of interesting and diverse books. I got in to them from the age of 10. I had a period of pretty serious depression when I was around 15 and I basically stayed at home reading philosophy, sci-fi and dystopian fiction- I was especially interested in existentialism being a child of the 80’s! I was also very interested in Psychoanalysis; Jung; the use of symbols and metaphysics. I also watched a lot of films. I went on to study these things alongside my BFA at Auckland Uni. I think because I absorbed basic philosophical concepts quite young and the idea of ‘otherness’, it was a natural progression to look at artists who negotiated the ‘abject’ and aesthetics.

The artists you have mentioned all do this alongside Albert Ohlen, Rosemary Trockell. Even Damien Hirst’s early work was a big influence in this way and is underrated now. Other artists such as New Zealand painters Brent Wong, Toss Wolleston and Rita Angus have also influenced me. There has to be a bit of wrong to make it right in my favourite artists.

I really like the Oldenburg parallel, though! Although I came to make some large food sculpture through a lateral avenue and see it here as having a strong feminist and contemporary conversation embedded within it. My work is concerned with re-contexualising the conversation of gender and consumerism in the 70’s and 80’s – a conversation that is becoming increasingly relevant again globally. I knew Oldenburg’s work and love it, but I also enjoy the fact that he’s a big male sculptor and I’m a woman artist from NZ. It seems to make sense that I am the artist that sometimes makes big food art in a completely different context. Does this make sense?

Indeed! This is perhaps a chance to individually focus on a few of your most recent shows. Feminine Touches at Ferari (2012) was a multimedia installation constituting - very simply put - a number of large sculptural works (such as pastel painted wicker chairs, a large scale potato chip, a commanding aluminium fridge full of VBs) interjected with smaller paintings and wall works (including a portrait of John Kirwan and replicas of marble figures/statues) – as well as a sculptural intervention just outside the gallery itself. What were the motivations/ intentions driving this show?

At that time I had just arrived back in New Zealand and was catching up with old friends. I had been thinking a lot about the re-energised feminist conversation (which was met with a puzzled reception from many four years ago) and how we are all caught up in gender politics - both men and women. I had been doing some research into feminist readings of Nietzsche as well, which is useful as it’s such a good example of negotiating oneself in relation to an apparent enemy.

It seemed that quite a few men I knew were dealing with mental health issues whilst maintaining, or striving for, an external veneer and having some success in their chosen careers. The garage at Ferari, as a prescribed ‘male’ space, encouraged me to make a show about male mental health and its relationship to my ideas around feminism.

I also wanted to explore, or perhaps bring into conversation, how women can be led to ascribe to particular ideas of masculinity – i.e. womens’ own traditional methods of aggression in female misogyny and passive aggressive behaviours. These ideas were married with my own negation of the gendered hierarchy of aesthetics. It was not a lecture on these issues, but I saw it as an externalised conversation and experiment, and I learnt a great deal from the show.

"Cushla Donaldson and Fisher & Paykel Present the Truth" at 30Upstairs in Wellington (2013) was a similarly eclectic show – although on a larger scale. What was of concern here for you?

In some ways this show was drawn from ideas around universal principles (i.e. science and mathematics) that are regarded as empirical truths. In fact, I designed the show around the idea of a Fibonacci spiral, which strangely fitted very well in to the unconventional layout of the gallery. At that time I was thinking a lot around ideas of truth and honesty and how, in my work, to present relationships that are often hidden as seemingly un-aesthetic or un-artistic and treated as necessary evils by many artists and institutions.

For me, the relationship between commerce and art and what I am required to do, as an unrepresented New Zealand woman artist living in this time, in order to be able to make and present work, also inspired these thoughts. I was going through a period where honesty with myself, with my relationships and the world had become an important personal issue and one I wanted to explore. I had also started a new relationship- which always requires a self-evaluation - so in some ways this 30Upstairs show was a very personal and introspective one.

In this way I found the evident juxtaposition of this personal journey with something so ‘in the world’ as a well-known NZ household name company in the title as quite funny. From the moment we wake up we are asked to negotiate products and corporations, so where does this fit in to our ideas of mediation and honesty? Even in our domestic spaces and private moments we are both subtly and overtly aligned.

Supergroup at the Audio Foundation in Auckland (2014), featuring not only large scale sculptural works by yourself; but also video works by recent Turner Prize winner Laure Provost and a live musical performance by all female band Las Tetas, has unfolded as perhaps your most multifaceted show to date. What were your intentions/ motivations for this show?

This show was a bit like coming home for me. At Elam I studied ‘intermedia’ with Phil Dadson, Lisa Reihana and Julianne Sumich which was fantastic. I don’t think any other department would have allowed me to explore the things I was able to there. Phil has a lot to do with the Audio Foundation and is world renowned in experimental music. The openness of the department had me combining installation, performance and painting with regularity and I was never asked to limit my choice of mediums.

The skills I picked up working for Anish Kapoor in London as far as large object making were also expanded upon in this show. With this show, I felt I was able to comfortably marry the various rigors of the chosen media and create a unique world around a conversation about the nature of mediation, collaboration and symbiotic relationships -hence Supergroup. Also being able to include the wonderful work of Laure Provost was a big thrill. I had talked about her work with my students at Elam and others, but it was the first time it was shown in New Zealand and it added something essential to the conversation.

 It was a complex show that looked to highlight aspects often hidden in art production (such as monetary support or sponsorship) and, conversely, looked to hide areas often more apparent or obvious. It was a vast amount of fun and the people at Audio Foundation were incredible to work with. To be honest, I have sometimes wished I could hone a single medium and just be the painter in the studio. For the first time I felt all the work I’d put into various techniques were singing together. It was like composing a piece of music...which is appropriate considering the venue!

In a recent talk with Janet McAllister you mentioned that for you, art is perhaps most interesting when you are free to explore areas that are problematic or uncomfortable/difficult/confrontational and address them head on. In this, one consistent concern raised throughout your practice seems to be an awareness of yourself as a female artist. There’s a desire to highlight, in order to discuss or perhaps invert/confront, expectations re: femininity and or other perceived gender roles - not only within your work but art itself.

This is certainly evidenced directly in the title of your Feminine Touches show at Ferari and perhaps most notably in your recent Audio Foundation show that traded heavily with gender: deliberate role reversal and inversion with the use of female performers/objectified male nudes, with female practitioners across various forms ‘leading the charge’, so to speak. What are your motivations/ interests here?

Awareness of gender, and myself as an underrepresented minority in terms of being a professional artist, is certainly an element in all my work. It would be there whether I explored it or not, just because of whom I am in society. I don’t find it difficult or uncomfortable to discuss but other people are sometimes questioning of it.

Experiences, statistics and readings clearly communicate discrimination against women artists and obviously women in general. It gets complicated by what I see as inured female misogyny; the lack of confidence in women art students and the historic systematic leaning towards traditional male areas of interest. Raw emotion and personal experiences are seen as less viable and often too uncomfortable to negotiate. They lack the ‘coolness’ of less emotionally invested work.

However, this is changing. In very cynical commercial terms, we are a great investment - the prices of our work, which are currently significantly less than male counterparts, will slowly become equivalent. Therefore it’s a case of choosing carefully and doubling your money as a collector. There are quite a few collectors now focussing solely on women artists.

It may be seen as unartistic and impolite to talk like this and a couple of people in the art world have said I should ‘focus on the work’. I say to them that I am, though. It’s a vital element of the work, from its very ability to be made at all! I aim for a panoptic view of art making and collecting, and recognising that our processes of production do not exist in a vacuum.

Scale is also a huge (pun intended) characteristic of your work. And more often than not you work with objects/products of desire – like potato chips, beer, pizza and banana splits. Do you see ‘scale’ as a means to draw direct attention to and/or emphasise such issues as corporate involvement and gender roles that underlie your practice?

Scale has been used throughout history to symbolise power. It relates directly to our body as humans. In a very basic sense it gives us a sense of awe and can return us to a childlike state of wonder and sometimes confusion. I have always acknowledged the power of scale in my practice  - even early on where I made room installations. My first large sculpture was a giant bird’s nest at the Manawatu Art Gallery. I then became interested in the smaller scale of the domestic and back again to large scale work while working for Anish Kapoor.

Large work is boorish, aggressive and confident. I recommend every artist make large work at some stage and see how they feel -especially women artists. I find it terrifying yet wonderful, like power itself. I love working large scale. It turns me on. It demands a conversation about gender, corporate power and money. When I make large work it is, for me, how I imagine it must feel to be the head of a large corporation.

Although your shows are indeed solo exhibitions, collaboration is another significant feature of your practice. In Feminine Touches and again in "Cushla Donaldson and Fisher and Paykel present the Truth" at 30Upstairs, you invite and play on the idea of a clear collaboration with corporate companies – even to the extent, in the latter, of attributing them as artistic collaborator/sponsor in the very title.

In Supergroup, this collaborative element explicitly used other performers working in different mediums, but it also used a very direct foregrounding of the show’s corporate sponsors. Becks and Sal’s Pizza were celebrated via the larger than life homage object sculptures that constituted much of your contribution to this show. What is it about this collaborative process that you are drawn to? Once you’re using sponsors this way, is collaboration even a fair reading of what’s going on?

Everything could be called a collaboration I suppose. In Supergroup I wanted to highlight what it takes to create an epic, memorable event - the ‘spectacular’. I wanted people to look at how this can be done and in what other circumstances it happens. I was concerned with the creation of history, myth and memory and how this is used for political, social and financial motivations.

This is a tricky one, though. On the one hand it’s a homage to the collaborative actions and art around feminism in the 70’s and 80’s. I loved, loved, loved, ‘We Will Work With You’ at the Adam Art gallery. I thought it was one of the best and most moving shows I have seen since I’ve been back in New Zealand. On the other hand, actual collaboration can be a total nightmare! It takes mediation of the work to the next level and you really have to let go of things. It is a confrontation with your own ego and how much, as an artist, you are willing or wanting to play God. It is good for me to collaborate. It is also good for me to work alone at times. At some point I learned to identify when I have to say no. I have no problem saying no to things that don’t feel right these days. It doesn’t mean they are good or bad - it just means at that time and that place for me it’s not meant to be.

As a tangent – this Supergroup show was, at the level of the audience also very interactive and performative. Is that a constant or an increasing trend in your work?

The concept and idea directs the form of the work. I am not a formalist. However it appears that as the work grows larger it draws more people in to being involved. I don’t know if interactive is the right term… it makes me think of art with touch screens or being forced to do something which I don’t like to do to audiences. I guess I’ll wait and see if it is an increasing trend! Not for me to say really.

When we talked about this interactivity around the time of Supergroup, you were adamant that it is not a practice of relational aesthetics, nor is it a matter of theatre or accentuating  ‘the spectacle’. Why this assertion?

I have no problem with accentuating the spectacle if it is necessary to the idea. In fact accentuating the spectacle seems like a good idea…too make it obvious. Therefore it doesn’t function as the dangerous enveloping beast it can be because it is collapses on itself.

Relational aesthetics was a mistaken theory of someone trying to rewrite history and selectively ignoring things that didn’t fit the thesis, namely the feminist performative work of the 70’s and 80’s. Theatre is great, though, and the lines are blurred between art and theatre all the time. Shakespeare was interactive if you want to take it that far. The ‘theatrical’ is a different concept in terms of ‘pretend’. I never want to pretend that something is what it isn’t or make art to look like art or illustrate theory. That to me is theatrical in a negative sense.

What’s in store for the remainder of 2014 and looking ahead to 2015 for you?

I am looking for the right place and circumstances to work on some research that has been brewing for a while now. I am in Europe in September to have a look around. I have a large scale outdoor work coming up for the Sculpture in the Gulf exhibition on Waiheke Island which I am thrilled about. I also have a body of work I want to make that is just me in my studio – which I am drawing up the courage for. Being alone in the studio is both challenging and magical, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Main Image Photo Credit: Cushla Donaldson during the Supergroup installation, 2014 (Taken by Johnny Egdell)
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