Have you seen what happens to a piece of MDF (medium density fibreboard) after 50 years?
No, neither have I, because the stuff hasn’t been around that long. But I can tell you what happens to untreated chipboard over that time. It goes dry and crumbly; flakes apart when you handle it. So there’s every likelihood that time will treat MDF as harshly.
The European two artists who came to Sydney Non Objective studios for a residency during March are not likely to use MDF.
One, Arpad Forgo, from Budapest, Hungary, is aware the pulp-wood is usually held together with formaldehyde glue which gives off toxic gases, and the material reverts to a spongy blob when it absorbs water. So for his work showing at SNO during March-April he’s lovingly crafted balsawood frames, covered with Tasmanian Oak veneer. All that craft work, though, is hidden from sight. Each of the small shaped works are carefully painted with a glorious surface, rippling with colour like a jewel.
Likewise, Riki Mijling from Amsterdam, Netherlands, has respect for honest time-tested materials. She was the second artist in residence at SNO during March and is known for her substantial sculptures in Corten steel or smaller, beautifully finished work in wax-polished steel, often paired with glass. She has created commanding work across Europe, from a Trappist chapel, a resistance fighter memorial, to university sculpture and cruise ship murals. Her SNO show presents a wall mural that includes an intriguing curved glass object. Other work at SNO includes a signature geometric wall relief in steel and a bold, simple monoprint carrying the unmistakable 3D thinking of a sculptor.
The two artists teamed their exhibitions with established Sydney painter and art lecturer, Susan Andrews, whose recent abstract work has examined how we perceive the micro and macro worlds not seen with the naked eye; fluid spaces reminiscent of cells, clusters, galaxies.
The show is the 92nd in SNO’s eight years and part of the centre’s focus on redefining established traditions of abstract art – reducing art to its essential elements of colour and form to create new objects of inherent integrity and beauty. It is part of a wider interest in non objective art, demonstrated with an exhibition at Australia Council, Sydney in January of some 23 core artists of the more than 350 who have been part of SNO since its first exhibition in March 2005.
The Australia Council show continued the growing interest in and recognition of non objective art, part of an exploration of pure abstraction that has continued over the past 100 years – from Suprematism, De Stijl, Constructivism, the Bauhaus and the Art Concret manifesto of Theo van Doesburg in Europe, to Colour Field, Minimalism, Geometric, Op Art and beyond. Unlike the figurative or representational tradition in painting – and, indeed, other forms of abstraction – non objective artists usually do not attempt to reproduce the illusion of objects, or to simplify images from the real world. Instead, they create an entirely new object that the world has never seen before.
Forgo and Mijling are part of a stream of international artists that have exhibited at SNO, as the Sydney group has concentrated on opening dialogue with non objective artists around the world. To expand the conversation, we put several questions to them during their Sydney visit.
Your art is reductive, so could I ask you to select just one event from your art practice that has been the highlight so far?
Riki Mijling: For me it was being chosen three years ago to exhibit at Art Cologne with Galerie Rieder. It’s one of Europe’s most respected art fairs. I’ll be back there after exhibiting at SNO this year.
Really, though, there have been so many highlights and this is a highlight right now being here at SNO.
Arpad Forgo: The 2008 one month residency at Hotel Gershwin in New York – an art hotel, my own work space, a nice room, catered. I met Polish people working in the basement on the water heating and they helped me with some of the practical aspects of my work. The hotel owner took me aside and said “New York is all about size, so you should do large works.” She gave me extra financial support to do big works – using alphabet pasta pieces on canvas.
Is the world your canvas? You’ve both exhibited in many countries in Europe, the US and Asia. Now Australia. Why is this necessary for artists now?
Riki: It’s important to be out of your home town. Here I can focus on my work and get away from all the distractions of everyday life – here in the SNO studio it’s just art, and if there is spare time I can go to galleries, talk with curators, focus on my work.
In Holland people say ‘So you’re going to Australia for a holiday?’ No, it’s work, not a holiday. When I’m satisfied with the work I’ve done here for the show I hope to see some of Sydney and Australia.
Arpad: Some people don’t like to leave home, but I’ve always travelled and wanted to see the world. It’s so nice to be able to get into conversation with other artists here about concrete art. And it’s interesting to find that, like me, artists here don’t have a set view; the whole thing is constantly moving and changing. It’s like that everywhere, which makes non objective art an exciting field to work in.
In Hungary you have to go abroad to see a wide variety of art. In the area of performance the best practitioners come from all over the world to Hungary, but with visual art, very little of the art I saw in New York would reach Hungary.
Artists now are benefiting from the shrinking world, with cheaper flights and internet allowing us to network with other artists globally. Young artists can take their laptop and studio in a suitcase to work everywhere.
You each create work that is carefully reduced to a simple, enigmatic object, but believe in fine hand crafting: shaping, cutting, sawing, grinding and polishing. What is the importance of this obsessive attention to detail, of creating a perfect object?
Riki: In Germany they say: ‘begeistern’. You have to put a soul into the work. It’s not simply cutting, polishing etc; it is ‘touching’ the sculpture, or putting your own ‘handwriting’ into the work. It is a process that gives the work its energy.
It doesn’t need perfection. It is a process of eliminating anything that disturbs the work or does not need to be part of it – getting rid of the imperfections. When you look at that wall (points to the far from perfect white wall), and you see that spot on it, you want to get rid of that spot to be able to see the whole wall. That opens the way to the work becoming monumental… and monumental is not to do with size; it can be small and monumental.
My goal is to get and keep the relationship with my work. In the working process small things change and you try to eliminate what is too much. Less is more is a bit of a dull saying…
Arpad: …but it works!
I started in landscapes and found that I relished stretching the canvas and preparing it more than putting a landscape on it. I respond to the material. It wants me to shape and caress. It’s how the material responds to you working with it that creates the object. I look at a piece of wood and I want to shape it and work it – particularly natural materials like wood, fibre, stone, textiles.
Nothing can be perfect, but you go up to the limit where the material lets you go.. with your hands, I like to do it all myself, not oversee industrial production.
Are you seeking to charge the object with something spiritual, or are you celebrating its emptiness and freedom?
Riki: I find emptiness and freedom spiritual. I really don’t know where I’m going – that’s my adventure in life. Emptiness is full!
I want to show the concept of space because I’m very interested in it and how it inhabits architectural things and zen.
Arpad: When I finish a work I look at it and it looks back. It’s communicating somehow. I treat every work as an experiment and start by saying ‘This is going to be the knock-out work – better than the rest.’ In the end, I like all of them: one for its weight, one for size, that one for colour, and so on.
I don’t give my works titles that will narrow the view of the work for people, as I like to keep them open-ended.
Riki: I start a work with something in mind, but then something can appear in the work. It’s a gift, a present, and often pursuing this results in something better than what you started with…
Arpad: …but not always!
Riki: I make small models from cartons or other material before I work with metal and often other ideas come in at that model stage. So the act of creation is being open to ideas, artists have to be observant to new ways of looking at the work as it evolves. A work remains alive when it carries those surprises into the ‘finished’ version.
What attracted you to non objective art? Why work in ‘concrete’?
Riki: I can’t explain what I’m thinking in figurative painting, text works etc but I can explain myself in the language of non objects.
Arpad: I was always interested in things you could understand with your gut feeling; not reading half a book and then thinking you understand. It’s very, very basic. Like feeling hot or cold. It’s looking at a work and by getting closer to something unconscious you get closer to understanding everything… something like when you are high!
I’m interested in stars and the universe, and reading about them gives an impression of mankind’s size. Again it’s a very basic elementary feeling. So in this way art communicates to similar gut feelings… But there are no stars in my work!
It’s all about colour and surface. You get physical contact when you are in front of a work and I’m trying to make work that gives you a physical, gut feeling of what it’s about. After that you get involved in proportions, colours and maybe you start to count elements in the work – numbers are very elemental.
Supported by National Cultural Fund of Hungary, Parallel Foundation.
The program is realised under the auspices of the Hungarian Embassy.
SNO 92 – ‘Polarity’ opening 6pm Thursday 28 March 2013, closing 5pm Sunday 28 April. Level 1, 175 Marrickville Rd, Marrickville, 12-5pm Fri-Sun inclusive or by appointment firstname.lastname@example.org, www.sno.org.au