Words by Anthony Thomas
The way I see it, Alex Winters is an integral part of Brisbane’s burgeoning creative community. Woven into the fibres of the scene might sound like a slight exaggeration but it isn’t far off the mark. I first met her back in September after running a feature on her event Current, Rising, but it wasn’t until crossing paths at Spool Collective’s and hearing her talk about some of the concepts behind her work that light bulbs started going off in my mind. Behind her more than amicable persona, I saw a visceral energy for the arts simmering away just below the surface. Standing before me was a thinker with not only fresh but relevant ideas. With the right amount of guidance and support structures, they are ideas that will play a significant role in shaping Brisbane’s contemporary art scene. I’ll warn you, the interview below is quite in-depth in comparison to those I typically conduct but when you’re talking to the future of Brisbane, it’s hard not to get carried away.
MM: I might as well begin at square one. Where did art start for you?
AW: My parents enrolled me in art classes ever since I was about 40cm tall, so whenever I wasn’t at school I was doing something arty. Then, Year 12 for me was ignoring my art teacher’s lesson plans and saying to her, “I’m going to work on my folio” while everybody else sat there and did life drawing. From there I did my Fine Arts undergraduate degree at QCA and by the time that was up, I wasn’t in the mood for honours, so I just went out into the world.
Has that worked out for you so far?
Yeah! It’s a bit like projects don’t come for six months and you’re sitting there unemployed and broke or you get them all at once.
What does art mean to you?
It means a career that I’m not going to get sick of, and projects that actually mean something. I guess I’m personally invested in Brisbane in particular because it lacks so much. Therefore, you can play with it more or find little niches that haven’t been tapped into yet. Having said that though, there isn’t a lot of money around to do that, so it remains a bit of dream.
Where do you see it going in the next five years or so?
My personal philosophy is that the real estate market is killing a lot of opportunities for young creative people. Using Melbourne as a comparison, things last there because the community and real estate invest in little creative endeavours, whether it be cafes, bars, art spaces, whereas here, if it’s not going to make the real estate money it is just going to shut down after one or two years. That is why Brisbane is so cyclical in, an awesome place might open up but it doesn’t last. It’s the same with artist run initiatives, the turnover is so high and unless it is being housed in something, like Metro Arts, that receives funding and has some kind of stability in its real estate then it’s not going to last. To me that’s why there are so many pop art spaces and one off events, which are great and it’s a start. Unless something can happen with the real estate though, it’s going to stay like that for a while.
So the way you see it, there is a lack of focus on long-term planning and sustainability within the industry?
If you look back to IMA’s history, to my understanding it was considered an alternative space and upon received funding in the mid 70s it built itself up into the institution is today. That was a long time ago and we haven’t seen art institutions pop up like this since. There are arguments that Brisbane can’t support any more, or too many ARI’s but I don’t think that’s the problemGo down to Melbourne and they have lots of institutions like that. I keep comparing everything to Melbourne, but they’ve got it pretty much sorted. We’ll get there.
Your entire life seems to revolve around the arts. There must be something that drives you?
It has always been the first platform I go to, to communicate things. You have to choose to see it this way but art reflects a lot of societal trends, whether they are political, social, etc., and it can be an extremely powerful communication tool if the right messages are included.
What sort of messages have you communicated through your work before?
I stay away from wishy-washy ones like peace and love. If I went back to the whole Current, Rising thing, it was about supporting not-for-profit organisations and volunteers. My messages are usually related back to if I was working on a project. If I was working on an artwork that would be related back to my own philosophies, [it would be] less about societal trends and more about how viewers interact with art. More of a social experiment than commentary.
What is it about interactivity that intrigues you?
I think people are too passive. Whether that is how they live in their own lives or if they are viewing art. I want to catch people out, if they are just going to an opening just to stand there and look at some art [then] why are you there? If I can force interaction upon a viewer, I will try and do that. I want to make it challenging and make people think why they are actually there.
So you want to make people appreciate the work rather than being at the show because it’s the “trendy” thing to do?
They don’t even have to appreciate; they can hate it, as long as they think about it as not just a painting on the wall. I guess they have to be open to other ideas and if they’re not, then [again] why are they there?
Do you find a lot of people who go to shows and openings to be quite close-minded?
Not close-minded, no. I find myself even doing this. My motivation to go to certain exhibitions is to see if I could do it better or I have a preconceived idea about how it is going to be. So when I do attend one and it blows my mind, I’m like “Woah!” I think a lot of people do have preconceived ideas about what the show or artwork will be like and maybe that’s why they are so passive when they attend these things. If I can push them that one step further and make them think about the artwork or the show as a whole, I will make them do that. Same as a viewer, when I go to an exhibition thinking, “I bet you this is going to be shit,” and I get there and it’s not, I always think, “Why?”
What Brisbane artists are you into at the moment?
He’s a close friend of mine but I love Liam O’Brian’s stuff. He is into exploring the idea of pack mentality and he’s very interactive as well. He actually started out as a photographer but then he went into this whole performance mode, and it’s awesome.
Are you more into installation type work rather than say, painting?
As a medium for myself, I generally go to site-specific installations and things like that. I mean, I did painting at QCA but it’s more something I do on the side to make some extra money. But even then it’s not just a piece of crap, it always relates back to my body of work. That being said, I can definitely appreciate other people’s painting like Nat Coyarma, and Archer Davies. The list always grows around grad show time as well. I always really like Zoe Porter’s work, which also site-specific performance based.
What is it about installation and sculpture that you find particularly interesting?
If you go back through art history, ready-mades and site-specific work have only happened recently. So I find it to be more contemporary and relevant. Not to say painting is dead, but in a world where you are overrun by imagery and advertising, a painting on a wall could be so easily lost. When you have to navigate yourself through or interact with a space, though, you actually have to engage and think.
Do you think these new art forms are the only way to come up with fresh ideas these days?
Definitely. You can have so many different combinations of elements and objects in a sculpture. Everyone says that we’re all just re-working the wheel these days but I don’t think that’s true.
Maybe everything’s been thought before but that doesn’t mean it’s going to look the same when someone presents the idea. The concept might not be a new one but the way it’s presented, or the way someone brings their own personal ideas to viewing it means they will walk away with a completely different result. Just because the concept has been thought before doesn’t mean that someone else’s interpretation, understanding, or delivery of it will be the same.
If I was to ask the single biggest influence over your work, could you answer?
It has to look good no matter what; aesthetics really are everything. You could have a cement mixer and a light bulb next to each other and it could mean something amazing, but people still have to want to give it the time of day and, I mean, that’s hard to try and do. Visual appeal is almost more important than concept to me. You may have this brilliant idea but if nobody wants to look at your piece of art, then no one is going to appreciate that idea. Beauty or grotesquity, it doesn’t matter but people still have to want to look at it.
When I was looking at some of your past work before our interview, I noticed a lack of colour. Is that part of your niche?
I guess so. I like light and its gradations more than colour. Through varying lighting scenarios, I try and create different memories and experiences. It’s actually something I want to study. I have to either A) become an electrician, or B) undertake some theoretical lighting study, to figure out how I can use light more effectively. In my painting works I do use a lot of colour but in my installations it’s definitely more light based.
Why light? What draws you to it?
In my critiques at uni, everyone used to say it looks like those mirrors you used to get back stage, so I do find it very theatrical. Especially if you put that lighting element into an interactive artwork, you’re making the viewer feel like they are on show. It makes the person who is interacting with the artwork feel that they are a physical presence within the work, and I don’t believe that would happen without using light.
Does it tie in with what you were saying about creating a more proactive audience?
Definitely. It’s great if you can have a one-on-one experience with an artwork, but the other element of it is other people witnessing the interaction, and I think that having lights put them on show, too.
I read a quote by you where you expressed a “compelling dissatisfaction with the 2D plane.” What’s with that?
I personally have a dissatisfaction with the restrictions that are attached to making 2D art (i.e. painting). That’s not to say others’ use of the 2D plane can’t be amazing if they have talent in that area. I like the idea of reminding people that painting is an illusion – some people can become very masterful at making something look realistic and have depth and dimension on a 2D plane, but I like to skip that step by making a 2D illusion actually into a 3D art object. I am referring to the artworks I create with the cutting of paper and presenting it in a traditional painting format – in a frame. The easiest to explain is the tumbling rhombus pattern or tumbling blocks. Illustrated in two dimensions, the pattern is an optical illusion that appear to be three dimensional cubes that are either tumbling or like climbing blocks, depending on how you look at it. So the imagery I am taking reference from is 2D, but it is also an optical illusion, so I take it to the next level and actually make it 3D with the use of cutting and folding paper. I personally want to explore the possibilities of taking the illusion of painting to the next step; where it’s still an illusion, but instead of the viewer wondering how good of a painter the artist is, they are thinking, “Is that 2D or 3D?”
Do you find a lot of people do critique art based on the talent behind the art and not the art itself?
I would assume a lot of people probably walk up to those paintings and say, “Oh, that must’ve only taken her an hour to do,” when actually it doesn’t; it is quite time consuming. Just because it’s lines and colour and 2D versus 3D, it doesn’t look as time demanding or tricky to pull off.
It seems crazy that people actually critique art on the time invested.
It is but most people do, especially if they are looking to buy.
Does it make you sad?
I’m really not too fazed. Perhaps if I was a painter I would feel jaded but because I lean more to the sculpture end of the scale, selling artwork is not high on my to-do list.
You’re about to jet off overseas next week. New York and London are in the itinerary. What’s the plan?
I’m definitely going for inspiration. I’m super keen to check out Detroit, actually. It is being run by young people at the moment. It’s like a ghost town, the city anyway. It looks almost lawless and you would think that would backfire but really, there are heaps of people coming from New York, etc. and making it into this crazy, young, arty mecca. The music scene is booming, the restaurant scene is taking off, rent is dirt-cheap. I’m super keen to check it out for myself.