An Interview with up-and-coming artist Sebastian Warne, conducted by AHD. The interview was conducted last week at the conclusion of Sebastian’s show. Below are brief notes on Seb’s responses to each of the major questions I asked.
A full recording of the interview is available in five parts at the bottom of this post–all up over 30 minutes of recordings. Parts 1-4 are fuller discussions of each of the four questions I asked, while Part 5 includes a broader discussion of Canterbury University’s School of Fine Arts in general. I apologize in advance for the recording quality: it turns out that when the exhibition space is across the road from the Bus Exchange, there is quite a lot of street noise!
If you would like to contact him regarding his work or anything else, please leave a message in the comments box and I’ll pass it on. AHD
1) How do you feel your background informs your art?
In terms of background to my art practice I guess I can talk about visual phenomena that have resonated within me for as long as I can remember, that would be landscape obviously, scale and calamity I guess. At different times of my life I’ve enjoyed playing with replica models and worlds, such as lego, warhammer and diorammas. I guess with all these things and imagination you can create worlds of landscape, scale and calamity.
2) I enjoy listening to your band, The Unfaithful Ways, and I notice a similarity between your current exhibition and your ‘alt-country’ band, drawing heavily upon American influences. Are you interested in mythologies of nationhood? Is it the grand scale that interests you? How about the Chinese elements of your work?
I’m very interested in mythologies of nationhood, NZ is a fascinating country–I feel–to grow up in dealing with such heavy issues as nationhood that politically, at least, we outwardly embrace, as if to make up for a perceived lack of culture or nationhood. This such ‘laidback’ and potentially apathetic attitude and culture I think draws me to the visual nationhood of America, and China, as clichéd ‘East and West’, but which both play on such a great scale in so many ways. And it is definitely the scale that attracts me, politically, economically, culturally, physically, materially and historically.
As far as the music goes, part of that is vague coincidence of the collective tastes of four young males who appreciate musical history. The link however is ostensibly the ‘mythical’, that of a vast, far off, rough yet inspiring land that houses physical yet creative heroes with a story to tell. The thing with country, or alt-country music, is that along with heavy metal and hip-hop, not only it is such a polarizing art form, but it also possesses such a strong and recognizable visual language and vernacular. As a musical act one is inevitably linked with this visual language, just as the Western cinema genre is.
My conceptual concern with the classic western landscape as an artist, however, is removed from this myth of ‘cowboy’ and ‘tale to tell’. It deals with a wider geographical and political contemporary position of American might and ‘progress’ at this very point in history, and history to come. And how I, as a New Zealander, viewing these things from a First-World, Western and ostensibly ‘neutral’ viewpoint, could, should and would react to this position.
Music is just as important to me as art, and half of the work titles are lyrics or inspired by them.
3) As you know, I am particularly interested in the ‘South Island Myth’, of which Landfall during the Brasch era was a major mouthpiece. John Newton defines the South Island Myth as a view of the South Island as, ‘An empty, inimical southern terrain’, ‘which a staunch settler heroism is only now subduing’. He further suggests that this ‘naturalizes European occupation and mystifies its historical mechanics.’
Perhaps you hadn’t thought of your artwork in these terms, but dominant representations of the American landscape that you draw upon have a strong tradition right here in Aotearoa, but especially in Christchurch. I’m thinking Rita Angus and Bill Sutton especially. Care to comment? Do you think it is fair to identify a continuity with this very tradition — even if, perhaps, it does not come with the same ideological need?
I think ‘settler’ is very important word, the American landscapes are ‘iconographical’–if I can say that–of the push West and search for grand-lands and resources and vast landscapes. Implicated in this is the search for happiness and prosperity, which one views in so many classic Western films of the American political and cinematic ‘power era’ from 1945 to around 1970. This whole ethos reflects on that age of ‘settling’. The gaze through which we look at the ‘far East’, as Americans or New Zealanders, is that of an exotic and fetishised ‘other land’, far off and mystical, the position from which we view it is ‘settled’.
I find that there is a link to NZ’s own ‘South Island Myth’ in that I feel this has been so dealt with and very solidified in 20th century NZ literature and art. I guess the continuity is in the fact I feel so connected, visually and physically to the South Island Myth that I feel it is time to look at other landscapes that inform our visual consciousness, and have been fetishised in their own way, so much so especially in the American cinematic scape’s place, it is perhaps more resonant to our eyes and visual language now because cinema is so much more of a present and popular media than that which Angus and Sutton inhabit.
4) One of the charges levelled at Chinese art, and especially the current official art-historical narrative, is that it privileges what some scholars call the ‘Chinese romantic sublime’ ahead of other art forms. Part of this, to my mind, is a policy of denying the impact of Chinese development upon the climate and also a denial of alternative artistic traditions that deny Han hegemony.
When in your final piece–if I may call it that–you have a mountain of compost growing out of a billboard with nanotechnology symbols laid upon it–do I sense a frustration with representations of the environment that ignore the impact of human interaction? In drawing upon the romantic sublime but subtly undermining it, are you undoing the work of New Zealand Inc.’s attempts to market our country as a clean, green fantasy land populated by mythical creatures but not humans? Or is this an overreading?
While being aware of these issues, I’m not overly concerned with the inner politics of China and Han hegemony, nor a Chinese art history, it’s something I’m not researched enough in to confidently deal with.
The logo in that piece is actually a fertility treatment company logo, but similarly to the nanotechnology logos, I use it to deal with issues of corporate science and ‘man playing god’, or mother nature. This piece was a fairly tongue-in-cheek proposal to what the landscape would do when it has had enough of this human impact, namely the synthetic plastering of advertisement on a grand scale. It certainly isn’t an over reading, I appreciate any reading and believe it valid and important. The visual pun of fertility logo on fertilizer is underhanded enough, though not directly aimed at New Zealand’s clean,green brand, a brand all the same as a forefront-of-science American corporation. If I had to take any position on my concerns it would be that this body of work is mournful but cynical of ‘the blight that man was born for’ and the landscape we take with us, perhaps even slightly prophetic. But the position is definitely in a propositional sense, in that I’m letting my knowledge and imagination construct proposals for where these issues could all go next. That’s why America and China are so important, and the huge scale they operate on, which is why I guess at the end of the day I want it to be all a bit apocalyptic.