The Golden Flower Pot began as a conversation between Cybele Cox and Ali Noble about the merits of ornamentation and imagination within their respective practices. The exhibition title originates from the tale of Hoffmann, with its similar inquiry into the poet’s vocation. Like the tale, the exhibition proposes a separation of art and life, the poet’s need for Atlantis; the retreat from reality into a realm of entities and powers in hyper reality. Nina Stromqvist chats to them here about imagined realities, vagina plinths, and their latest exhibition at MOP.
The Golden Flower Pot, from where the title for your show derives, is one crazy surreal piece of fairy tailing. Even the most banal act of pissing into a chamber pot results in the protagonist metamorphosing into a meerkat. Hoffman describes his process as an opening up of his internal self, but at the same time he was committed to locating his stories in the everyday. A modern fairy tale in a contemporary setting that would be recognizable to any citizen of Dresden in the 19th century. Do you take your cues from day-to-day existence at some level? Or are you striving for something that sits completely apart from your reality?
Ali Noble: Although there are recurrent themes throughout my work, my cues are often a mystery and I like that. I don’t feel the need to wholly ‘understand’ my practice because I’m at risk of rationalizing the feeling out of it. Meaning often arrives retrospectively for me.
Cybele Cox: My work is about reclaiming my imagination. I don’t remember ever having one. I think it must have been capsized by excessive TV as a kid. It’s been a vital point of reckoning, discovering a channel to the unconscious. I find reality and most aspects of mainstream culture completely banal. And I don’t want to comment on it at all. I want to construct my own narrative devoid of human insanity and filled with wonder and mystery. Some things do come from reality like the crazy love I have for my pets. From endless observation and adoration of them I see them in all animal forms. Animals are a primary feature in my work. They are flawless in their nature by comparison to humans. On the other hand I stare at people a lot. And make drawings from my imagination, particularly things that make me laugh, like big noses, bags under the eyes and frown lines.
Your works and materials are very different from each other’s but share a similar atmosphere. You’ve been in shows together but only really by proxy. There is a tighter dialogue at play here. In what ways have your styles influenced each other for this show?
AN: The exhibition initially grew out of a deep personal affinity - we very easily fall into long and often absurd discussions about feminism, astrology, motherhood, art - I was a bit worried that our ‘connection’ wouldn’t translate aesthetically, but I feel it has. Stylistically I see a link between our mutual interest in ornamentation, archetypes and women. But the real interplay for me has been loosening up and trusting in the process. Cybele operates very much from instinct and has really influenced me to do the same.
CC: At the onset of making this show together, I was attracted to Ali’s psychedelic colours and soft felt material which I believed were completely contrasting to the hard glassy glaze and muted colours, that I use. Ali and I are intuitive makers and that connects us more than anything. But now that you ask the question I realise I’ve started the next body of work, making cutout wall pieces, which has a strong correlation to Ali’s. Perhaps the next show will be me on the walls and Ali on the floor.
The way your works occupy the space together makes me think of a theatre set rather than a gallery. Every complex character and scene is condensed into Cybele’s totemic personages, while Ali’s fluorescent cloud arcs over the set like a surreal weather report. There’s nothing timid about this. Lets face it, it’s a poetic blizzard. Tell me, are you even interested in reality?
AN: That’s a great description! My brain gets bent trying to answer this question because I find it tricky to invest in a fixed notion of ‘reality. In my art I am not interested in reality. I don’t’ perceive this as escapist, I feel its expansive and explorative, and full of possibility. In my daily life and interactions I am all about reality, self-responsibility, the here and now. But, this is where I get tangled up because I don’t believe in compartmentalising as for me everything in life is interconnected somehow. Sooooo at the interpersonal level I am into reality, you know ‘keeping it real’, but when it comes to creative output I am not drawn to works that deal with the banal, or that are didactic. I do tend to like works with some drama, weirdness or perversity. I am also intrigued by the paranormal and mystical. I’m a trained homeopath, so I live at the witchy-poo end of the spectrum. I definitely have Witchy-poo Spectrum Disorder.
CC: Theatre set is a big complement. I do hope to create an atmosphere of expectant wonder. Reality is EVERYWHERE; I want to peek through the cracks, its far more interesting.
Cybele, although your totems are drawn from mythical and dream like places, they hold a steadfast loyalty to the figurative. It’s as if the morphing and sorting of body parts is a way to push away the functional aspects of the body, freeing it up as a site for experimentation. They’re funny too. Its not every day you faced with an ornate vagina-faced plinth. Do you think we’ve lost our sense of humor when it comes to our bodies, and the world we live in?
CC: I’ve always tried to fathom being inside my body, my gender, my identity, since a child. All my work is a kind of psychoanalysis. As a teenager I remember being told by my brother’s friend I had thunder thighs…this notion repeated ad infinitum, following me everywhere as I looked in the mirror each day, as I walked into a room. Being a narcissistic teenage girl with deep-seated insecurities isn’t fun. It’s a kind of unconscious alchemy working with the figure, a way of transforming negative neurosis into magical transcendence. And if you can’t laugh about it, you remain neurotic.
Ali, all those years ago when you cut your first circle, carefully placing it ready for the next, I was in awe of your neatness and order. Your assemblages, carefully considered repetitions of shapes and colors. I’ve always been a bit anarchic though, and because of this I was particularly drawn to your clusters. An unexpected patch of circles loitering in the corner. All the rebels joined together out of line. Over the years your work has evolved into more sculptural forms allowing for a deeper experimentation of space and form. Do you feel a sense of freedom since you’ve started working at this larger scale?
AN: No circles were cut to make this work! Moving into sculpture feels like the right progression from the felt assemblage work I have been doing. This is the biggest autonomous work I’ve made and it brings with it a great sense of anticipation for the work ahead. Installation, immersive works really appeal to me – they are physically interesting to make and play around with, and they involve the viewer in a more bodily way.
When you get older, your world shrinks. Fewer friends, fewer relationships, routine sets in. This becomes especially apparent when you have children. For creativity this can be a very stifling time. Do you agree that your imagination has to work even harder to counter the banalities of the every day? Or am I merely projecting.
AN: Ha Ha. You’re projecting! Projecting correctly. Since having a child I have this terrible tension between having less time but more desire and ambition to create. I actually think my work is getting better since having a child and I’ve observed this in other female artists. There’s no time to fluff about and the drive towards authenticity and risk taking increases. My guy is also very supportive which is not to be underestimated in the pursuit of art making.
CC: Its true that little children plunge you into the everyday, and your practice has to be super strict to get anything done but as they get older, such as mine is now, they add to your imagination. Their imaginations run riot because they’re not doing any of the every day routines, it’s all done for them – you’re serving them! But the more banal life becomes, and that includes socializing and daily routines, the more I hold my practice as a treasure trove. I would go so far as to say it’s the sacred part of my everyday. When I’m not practicing I’m a complete bitch. It’s a necessity!
Nina Stromqvist is a writer, artist and curator based in Sydney.