PAUL YORE in conversation with curator Rachael Vance - Michael Reid

PAUL YORE in conversation with curator Rachael Vance

November 20  – December 19
Michael Reid Berlin

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Rachael Vance: Paul, it is wonderful to see how your practice has continued to evolve since we last met in person in Berlin in 2017. At this time your work was included in the group exhibition Mad Love at Arndt Art Agency, Berlin supported by the Australian Government for the cultural festival Australia Now 2017. Your new solo exhibition PATRIOT presented at Michael Reid Berlin, presents your characteristic mischievous visual language where dissident messages and ambiguous narratives intermingle. Looking at these works I catch myself grinning while taking in the wild collection of textile pieces that mobilise such layered discourse.

Australian identity, your nation’s history and place in the world is obviously a key motivation for making work. When you were last in Berlin, I remember you discussing your interest in the cheeky character of Blinky Bill; this mischief making character. I cannot help but view your position as an artist — with your loaded, highly charged imagery — as a true larrikin figure within the Australian art world. Would you tend to agree or perhaps identify with this notion of the maverick in relation to your practice?

Paul Yore: I have always regarded myself as an outsider; growing up gay in a staunchly Catholic household as well as enduring a Catholic boy’s school, I was painfully aware that I did not belong. I actually feel this is quite a typical experience for many young people, who feel excluded because spaces aren’t available for self-expression. As a young teen in the mid-2000’s my politics was formed on the streets of Melbourne, protesting the war in Iraq and the incarceration of asylum-seekers. At that time, I radicalised myself reading Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and a host of more fringe eco-anarchist philosophers. I concurred with their view that ‘mainstream society’ was morally and spiritually an empty vacuum – a view I still hold. It occurs to me that in this increasingly fragmentary and contingent cultural landscape, the usefulness of artists today lies in our singular capacity to inhabit the spaces in-between the cracks. I do identify with the mischief-maker, the maverick or larrikin which are by definition marginal or anarchistic figures, upturning established norms armed with irony, wit, sarcasm and Rabelaisian humour. I believe it is our obligation as artists to expose the absurd underpinnings of the dominant social, moral, economic and political institutions that have demonstrably failed to sustain meaningful human existence, and all the while propose alternative connections, communities and possibilities.

RV: This disruption stems from your interest in revealing the dysfunction of contemporary culture and its societal fissures. I feel this form of agitation is often lacking within societal debate where responses appear so polarised. Ultimately this approach can be extremely constructive. You have described a latent revolutionary potentiality in Australian culture and history. Could you elaborate on this a little?

PY: As a queer person with a background in activism, I am very interested in this notion of radical transformation, and of being as a state of constant becoming. If the delimiting and essentialist categories of being handed down by dominant culture can be subverted, their stubbornly dichotomous grasp loosened, a world of possibilities opens up. This is as much true for whole societies as it is for individuals. The future, its promise and potential is fused inextricably to the past, to histories that stretch back far beyond comprehension. The continent of Australia was invaded against the backdrop of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution; I find it interesting that imperialism was being imposed in Australia at the exact moment it was being overthrown elsewhere. As a result, I feel the Australian nation state is only in its infancy; it must emerge from the bondage of foreign monarchy and colonialism in order to progress. It must reckon with its genocidal past, and confront the resultant problems of today. The longer this process has taken, the more regressive and stagnated the country will become. I do believe art has a role in this process, by visualising marginalised histories and untold stories and by laying waste to the grand old fictions that have propped up the colonial nation-state.

RV: Your hand stitched textile pieces are a unique platform for tackling entrenched ideas head-on. Equally captivating and thought provoking in spectacle and content, PATRIOT consists of intricately quilted textiles, labouriously produced needlepoint works and a three-dimensional soft sculpture; a spectacularly wild collection of statement pieces. When discussing the show, you describe aiming to “deal broadly with the slipperiness of language, the limitations imposed by borders and boundaries, the weight of competing historical narratives and the prevailing cultural climate that feels at once foreboding and yet full of potentiality.” Could you discuss these slippages, specifically concerning the inherent reference to boundaries in your work?

PY: My textile works are essentially quilts comprising many thousands of individual fragments of fabric which are laboriously hand-sewn together. This is a very traditional methodology taken to extreme ends. I am interested in the physical threshold of this process, the temporal limitations and the labour embodied in this type of making. Conceptually, my work is greatly informed by my tertiary studies in archaeology, anthropology and ancient languages. For me, the individual stitches have semantic value: they signify the tenuous, fragile joining together of these disparate images, texts and materials that are held together forming an uneasy and improbable whole. This is kind of a metaphor for the ways in which a text, a trope, a meme or a structure is delicately held in place at a cultural level; fused by repetition but easily unpicked. Borders and boundaries are often represented literally in my work taking the form of maps or flags. But I am also very interested in cultural boundaries, the moral codes that form accepted behaviours and uphold hegemonic power structures that have, in turn, excluded and marginalised minority groups. As a queer person, you experience from a young age these regulatory cultural codes of behaviour bearing down on you; they are strongly socially mandated and ultimately arbitrated through language. On some very fundamental level, explorations of the function of language is key to my work. Language is a kind of entrenched building block of culture which conditions our understanding of reality from a young age. The slipperiness of language is what happens when our linguistically reinforced view of reality is challenged: when a subject is neither this nor that. This space of flux and hybridity is very powerful, but generally seen as a threat in our culture.

RV: The title of the exhibition and word “patriot” also holds the same meaning in German, “der Patriot”, pertaining to someone interested in patriotism and defending one’s country with devotion. It’s a strong term that we decided upon together for the show. In today’s climate as we are surrounded by right and left ideologies and increasing ecological and economic collapse, how essential or even dangerous do you view the idea of a patriot figure?

PY: The word ‘patriot’ is ultimately derived from the Greek ‘patris’ meaning fatherland. For me, the term seems to encapsulate an inherently abusive paradigm; namely the blindly obedient child serving the tyrannical father-figure. Nation-states have emerged and collapsed served by this type of rhetoric, and today the cultural landscape is replete with signs of blind allegiance to self-serving and depersonalised power structures. I do not believe in patriotism because I cannot accept a ‘fatherland’ or the authority of any State or government. All humans inhabit a single planetary biosphere, and we must negotiate life across these arbitrary boundaries of nations, economies, genders, ethnicities, or even species. States and nations are impositions on nature and reminders of how vulnerable we are to forces that seek to control and divide us.

RV: One cannot ignore the cynicism located within your work however, there is also this sense of comic amusement and playfulness. Recurring motifs of smiley faces, cartoon characters, animals, sequins and your flamboyant palette appear to obfuscate and counterbalance the heaviness of your messages. In some of your larger pieces we see snippets of Australiana from found material such as furry koalas and shiny rosellas colliding with the omnipresent promiscuous body. This wit is such an integral element of your work. Do you view this as a strategy to convey your ideas or relate to your audience?

PY: I first started making textile works in 2010 after a serious mental health episode in which I was forcibly held in a psychiatric facility. The trauma of this episode and the resultant ‘treatment’ including mind-numbing medications, left me feeling particularly isolated. I began embroidery as an escape from my thoughts at a time when I could barely summon the energy to get out of bed. I am philosophically a pessimist, however much of my work stems from a need for catharsis in an age of fear and paranoia. Dark comedy, a sort of absurd ‘gallows humour’ combined with a penchant for bawdiness and flamboyance are definitely a strategy I deploy in my work. This has a disarming effect, and is a way to connect with the viewer in a very direct and immediate way. I believe this is particularly important as many people increasingly find contemporary art densely esoteric and therefore alienating. Sometimes I feel the work comprises an endless series of sarcastic one-liners, but this surface frivolity belies the seriousness and urgency of my intentions as an artist. I am heavily influenced by the tradition of queer wit, suggestive double-entendres, and the drag-queen humour of dirty jokes and self-deprecating parody. All these devices carry a powerful means of critique.

RV: I feel like the current pandemic is magnifying pre existing societal problems. Binaries are revealed, allegiances are reinforced. People are taking sides within a climate of political tribalism and things appear to be getting uglier. Your practice distills a lot of these ideas and brings them into focus beyond an Australian context. The suite of needlepoint pieces in the show display a range of imagery and symbols set atop the outline of the map of Australia juxtaposed with short statement texts such as THIS IS NOT THE END, TRUTH ISN’T TRUTH, LET THE WORLD BURN, GOD IS DEAD. National flags are woven alongside Captain Cook’s ship, skulls, the Monarchy’s crown, peace signs and the cross, all weighing in on antagonistic discourse concerning power structures, entropy, cultural identity and nationalism.

PY: My intention in conflating this vast amount of material and imagery into a single surface is ultimately to mimic a flattened culture within which little distinction can be made between high and low cultural forms: art is commerce, advertising is indistinguishable from pornography, the media is a 24/7 sewer overflowing with bored spectacle and half-truths. We float on this endless sea of information, less and less tethered to any sense of the ‘real’, and totally detached from any ethical grounding. My work implicates itself back into this debased cultural economy; the work is a product of the same social processes it critiques. However, I do believe in the possibility of building a new world out of the rubble of dead-end capitalist consumerism. In some ways, my work visualises the process of dismantling and deconstruction that is the necessary precondition for revolutionary transformation. Ultimately, this boils down to an ontological question; we must look inward and discover ourselves anew.

RV: Your diverse practice embraces an anti-formalist approach to materials and methods of production. In the past you have staged some spectacular installations that act as total environments, complementing your singular textile pieces. The inclusion of your three-dimensional suspended sculpture within the exhibition is a small ode to this arm of your work. Could you discuss this soft sculpture piece and its place in the show?

PY: My large-scale, experimental installation works have their origins in frustrations I felt at art-school with the flatness and singularity of painting. At this time, I was reading the American writer William S. Burroughs, who literally cut-up his writing and sticky-taped it back together, much in the same manner as the early Dadaist poets. I began applying this same deconstructionist approach to my art-making, and the soft sculpture is a logical extension of this process. In some ways, it is a quilt in three-dimensions, constructed in much the same way. But it has a physicality that relates directly to the body. My soft sculptures talk to a psychoanalytic reading of the body, as sexual as well as queer, vulnerable, hybrid and somewhat disturbing. This is a deliberate challenge to the monumental, fixed and masculinist traditions of representational sculpture in materials like stone or bronze. The piece was formulated as a response to the space it inhabits in the window of the gallery: a kind of vulgar spectacle hanging like a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop window. I wanted the piece to form an open ended dialogue between the space outside the gallery, and the sort of debased display necessitated by an art context, whether commercial or institutional.

RV: Thank you so much for your time Paul it has been a pleasure speaking with you.