This is Part 2 of an interview with New Zealand artist Maddie Leach. Click here to read Part 1.
The complexities of the relationships you’re building in your process seem to reflect the way your viewers have to approach your work. It’s sort of the antithesis to the way a lot of artistic consumption happens today, which is in quick, digestible tidbits. The fact that you can’t do that with your work speaks to the level of engagement that you invest in the research process.
My good friend David Cross who’s an artist and a curator always asks, “What’s retrievable for an audience?” What about the backstory, essentially. I often have to find ways to frame these stories in a way that the research becomes apparent to people in different contexts. I can do it as a slideshow within an artist’s talk, or as a publication, but the work itself is difficult if you just encounter a piece of it. I’m thinking a lot about the way my work keeps refusing to be whole. It is partial; you might experience an aspect of it but perhaps not all of it. With If you find the good oil for example, hardly anyone saw the block going into the sea, only about five of us, but there was also a large painted text on the façade of the town’s public gallery and a series of letters and a photograph that appeared in the local newspaper and later a book. I can describe it as a constellation of parts—so the work can be seen in multiple ways, and only some people will manage to see all of it.
In this way my works definitely resist cohesion, and I think some critics would say that type of practice makes it really difficult to “get the work.” I wonder sometimes myself, am I just making this really hard for people? Is there too much work to do on the part of a visitor or audience? You have to go in and read a publication or you have to look at a website, there are clues to follow and imaginative effort to make. It’s interesting how some people will and other people won’t, and I accept that.
What I like about your work is that it doesn’t try and turn your research into an archive.
Through my research process I often discover fantastic, interesting texts and images and think, yeah, I could put this all together! But the question is how to make it into an artwork and not a research archive or display. I return to questions around the connection between things, what are the possibilities of this material, and what is created by leaping over gaps and placing disparate claims together. I’m really interested in the idea of asking an audience to engage their imaginative powers. I think sometimes you can have found material all laid out in front of you, and it’s undoubtedly interesting but you’re not actually asked to undergo a process of active connection between components, because the documentary process has provided everything for you. I think it’s always good to resist that. I’m also aware that heavily researched art is a current trope in contemporary practice and we need to continue to question its effects. You can get really caught up in finding and uncovering remarkable things which are just amazing in themselves. I think the challenge is to say what is the artwork going to add, what does it complicate?
Reading other articles and texts that have been written about your work, the word ephemeral comes up quite a bit. And it got me thinking about whether or not your work is ephemeral. There might be no resulting archive, but you’re making an impression on people’s memories. Even your meetings in Vancouver had people saying “I haven’t thought of that before.”
I often think it’s not about a disappearance, but rather something that moves into another form. A good example of something that didn’t “disappear” is a project I made where I put a custom-built 16-foot sailboat on top of the national museum in Wellington as a temporary sculpture commission [My Blue Peninsula, 2006-07]. It was there for about seven months on the roof. Then the boat came off the roof, and I was left with this large object and a fundamental storage problem. It was a fully functioning sailboat, and I was attached to it. I kept it. I kept it in someone’s boat shed, then it was on my driveway, then in my garage, it moved back and forth. After having had it in storage for nearly a decade, last year I decided to give it away to a friend of the guy who helped me build it. I also gave him the set of plans we had used and we agreed that it ceased being an artwork. It has moved into the world as a boat and it’s no longer My Blue Peninsula. It’s not my project anymore. In this way, the project has ended and has taken another form. There was also One Shining Gum—a project that involved sending one whole Eucalyptus tree (cut into logs) to Chile—that eventually was burned as firewood. There were the barrels of water that got lost in Jakarta [The Blue Spring/Mata Air Murni, 2015] and are still in existence in the world in some form—probably poured out into a river or a drain, who knows where they are, it could still be sitting in its containers in the back of a Jakarta warehouse. So these objects might be seen to undergo a sort of disappearance, but their physical presence is transformed.
One of the most memorable moments I’ve had as an artist was with If you find the good oil. I was sitting with executives from Australian Worldwide Exploration (an oil company with rights to drill and extract in New Zealand waters), in this huge boardroom and I was asking them if I could get my concrete block out to sea on one of their supply boats. But first they had to understand the project and I told them the whole winding narrative of the whale oil that wasn’t whale oil. I remember thinking how amplified the absurdity of the situation was. They all listened very attentively and then said “…Hmm.” I realized at that point that not only had I taken up three men’s time and interrupted their working day, but they had listened to this complicated story about the movement of a substance, and I think it was at that point I became really aware that the work was operative right in that moment, in that imprint of the story. No matter how small, perhaps it’s still something they might recall. I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s about changing hearts and minds, but I’m increasingly interested in these moments of intervention into contexts where poetic concepts don’t normally circulate.
Read more about Maddie Leach’s visit to Vancouver here.