New perspectives on painting from the former designer-turned-artist.Read more
This is the second instalment in a special, four-part interview series featuring contemporary Australian artists selected by Museum, supported by Calvin Klein. Here, we interview Alex Seton—who often works with marble—a two-time finalist in the Wynne Prize and a winner of the Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize.
In ancient Greece and Rome, pure white marble—then known as ‘shining stone’—was the favoured material for high art and architecture. Derived from pressed limestone and the bones of sea-creatures past, the translucent metamorphic rock has been carved throughout art history to convey god-like solemnity—stony symbols of humanity’s somehow impenetrable mark on the earth we inhabit. The Parthenon dedicated to Athena, the now armless Venus de Milo, towering biblical David, and the tormented lovers in Rodin’s Le Baiser, all of them immortalised in waxy white.
The snowy stone bares the weight of centuries of unrivalled significance—though for Australian artist and sculptor Alex Seton, there are lessons to be gleaned from history. Seton’s practice draws on video, photography and meticulous installation, he is best known for his skill with marble. His oeuvre to date does not include winged warriors, chiseled roman gods or ornate columns. There are paddles, life jackets, deflated rafts, blow-up palm trees, tarpaulins, skulls and plastic chairs—all rendered exquisitely in the material. It is a reference to the weight of local humanitarian issues: Australia’s refugee crisis, the lasting myth of ‘the lucky country,’ and a call to address our sinking past and present in order to carve a better future.
Seton, who is currently sourcing and sculpting white and blue-grey marble on the northwest coast of Italy, spoke with Museum about quarrying marble at age eight, digital carving technology, an enormous wearable hairpiece effigy, and the greater message in the marble.
SAMMY PRESTON Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell me a bit about growing up, school, study, maybe your first experience with art and the artists that inspired you?
ALEX SETON The details of my life are quite inconsequential [laughs]. I’ve always wanted to say that before answering personal history questions. I’m one of four boys. As you can imagine that comes with a whole bag of issues—my brothers were my whole world growing up—and somehow drawing, writing other creative endeavors became the way we competed with each other. My IT parents raised us off-grid in a house they built by hand on a bush property near Wombeyan Caves, on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. Along with the sawdust toilet, they built a shed and filled it with all kinds of books. My mum’s books of Pharaonic sculpture (she is from Egypt) and dad’s books on Renaissance sculpture transfixed me. The nearby creek had workable clay and Wombeyan marble was quarried close by. I received my first stone chisels at the age of eight after ruining my dad’s wood chisels on the marble.
And so if that all sounds too neat it’s because it probably is. While all true, these are cherry-picked moments from a packed childhood of experiences that could have taken me in any direction really. Whilst I’m always pretty suspicious of personal histories and retconning the present, I feel most influenced by the peculiarly Aussie form of 70s post-hippie, conscientious, Walden pond work ethic and self-reliance of my parents’ life.
PRESTON OK—so was there a specific moment when you decided you would like to become an artist?
SETON Not that I can remember. I would bore everyone and anyone that I met with the news that I was going to be an artist long before I appreciated or understood what that meant. There was a particular important moment when a family friend—who was raising six children on a playwright’s income out in Taralga—implored me to give up the idea of being an artist up if I had even the slightest of doubts, [as I’d have] an easier life. Even my 12-year-old mind recognised that wasn’t about me, but probably good advice nonetheless.
By the time I went to the College of Fine Arts in Sydney, I was very aware of how much catching up I had to do with contemporary art practice, having been exposed mostly to art history books that ended in the late 60s.
PRESTON You’ve been working especially with marble for some time now. What’s buoyed your interest over the years?
SETON Working with marble now has this interesting connection to the history of artmaking and storytelling. Marble embodies western history of effigy, monument and pernicious ideas of empire that still have a way of playing into our daily lives—even now from this remove. To make marble statuary to political events and social concerns of today is to push back against that history and attempt to redefine what we consider important. This may be tilting at windmills somewhat, if only to demonstrate how suspect the art object—particularly a public one—actually is.
PRESTON More technically, I’m always keen to understand the relationship artists have with material—sometimes lifelong, otherwise it might be more intermittent but probing. Do you feel you’re still learning or pushing the boundaries of marble and stone? Will you ever tire of it?
SETON Marble is actually just a material really suited to carving. I am very comfortable with marble as a material; it’s a natural material that is relatively benign to the human body and the environment. Almost all other materials are toxic, in effect and as waste. I am constantly learning from the material, and technology assists me in pushing it in new ways.
I know it sounds laughable but it’s somewhat of a martial art, in that is requires concentrated mustering of the mind and body’s coordination and conservation of energy. It seems to suit me well, and the act of carving naturally follows my own thought patterns trying to distill an idea to its best form. Having said all that, there are so many carved works you can make and I’m not so interested in punishing my body any more.
PRESTON What new materials are you working with now?
SETON I’ve made a number of digital animation pieces and am excited for an upcoming collaboration with the digital artist Josh Harle. We’re running a VR Workshop together with brilliant artists: Joan Ross, Jason Wing and John A Douglas. I’m hoping to use AR technology to animate existing sculptures of mine. AR tech is about to hit all of us in our phones very soon, so I’m reluctant to use this for novelty value—though the opportunity to make some of the nuttier thoughts manifest is compelling.
Digital carving technology is slowly coming into its own, but I’m reluctant to bring it into my practice without distinct reason. Right now the tech is good for generic reproduction of existing work or removing the hard labor of roughing out. I love the mechanical digital palette—I’m currently working in Italy where a nearby factory is making an extraordinary bonsai tree. The possibility of reproducing any object captured in 360 by any video footage, even your favourite film, is very exciting.
PRESTON Since you made Someone died trying to have a life like mine and Refoulment, much of your work has been expressive on or channeled towards Australia’s devastating asylum seeker and refugee human rights crisis, and the global retreat towards nationalism and borders. I remember then it was a call for empathy, to recognise our privilege, maybe even to underscore the lasting local myth of ‘the lucky country.’ Why does this issue continue to resonate with you and your work—especially given recent developments in relations with the US?
SETON For one, my mum and her family always emphasised the idea of gratitude and giving back after the welcome they received [in] Australia in the late 60s after fleeing the authoritarian regime in Egypt at the time. That stays with you. The idea that we no longer extend good faith—[nor will we] have it returned in the same way—has driven me to continue to make work that looks at the innate privilege of borders. Empathy is to recognise that there for the grace of circumstance go you or I, and I still want to make work that creates expressions of this.
It is seriously alarming to see the rise of closed border nationalism across the globe … I remember the enthusiasm that the coming internet age of the late 90s promised in removing the idea of borders and nations altogether. National borders are still the single biggest cause of inequity.
PRESTON I loved the work exhibited in I WAS HERE at Freemantle Arts Centre this year. Can you tell me about the significance of the video piece Left Turn at Albuquerque?
SETON Left Turn at Albuquerque takes its name from Warner Brothers cartoons. Bugs Bunny would pop out of tunneling a hole and exclaim, ‘I knew I shoulda taken a left turn at Albuquerque!’ Albuquerque is in New Mexico in the USA, and Bugs was seemingly always on his way to holiday in Mexico. In the video I tunnel through a stone wall from one side to the other—a slow and laborious action. The arbitrary act and the arbitrary wall stand in for all real and proposed arbitrary walls, either along a national border or in our minds.
PRESTON In the description of Proof of Absence you call out history as opinion over truth: malleable and able to be revised. Can you tell me more about this piece, how you learned about Sandy Island? Do you believe there are certain histories we need to forget to be able to move forward?
SETON Actually Proof of Absence was a call for truth through scientific inquiry. The best of human knowledge at the day is constantly being updated, and sometimes our knowledge is simply outdated or based upon error or outright untruth.
Sandy Island, for instance, was an error on the map reproduced so many times that it occurred even upon GPS overlay data. Thanks to the research explorations of Maria Seton [and] her geological research team aboard the Australian surveyor vessel RV Southern Surveyor in November of 2012, the island was proved to be nonexistent. Maria Seton happens to be my sister in law, and the family was very proud and excited. I was super pleased that to receive three pieces of underwater limestone from the expedition that family Christmas!
I was particularly taken with idea of the fragility of knowledge and the implication that history could do with new scrutiny—far from a call to forget. Australian history could do with a healthy dose of scientific and historical enquiry to look its history more squarely and fairly in the eye, and wipe away the romantic and white-washed textbook versions we have grown up with.
PRESTON What do you like to wear while you are working—do you have a sort of uniform that works best? How do you overcome the marble dust?
SETON I tend to triage my clothes. From super good ‘going out’ clothes, to everyday clothes, to studio working clothes. Eventually everything ends up as studio clothes. I’ve been known to sculpt in an old dinner jacket with industrial breathing equipment and earmuffs. Nothing quite like a dusty tux, I highly recommend it.
PRESTON Can you tell me about your first interaction with fashion and with Calvin Klein? An advertisement you saw, or perhaps or something you’ve owned.
SETON I think my earliest awareness of the brand were the early nineties ‘Marky Mark’ Wahlberg campaigns. I remember being a little dude confused as to why this guy had two first names, and suddenly all my schoolmates showing the elastic waistbands of their undies, even if they weren’t wearing Calvins.
PRESTON Lastly, what are you working on now and what’s coming up next for you?
SETON I’m currently working on a large vanity piece here in Pietrasanta in Italy. It started as a 30-ton block of marble here five years ago. It’s now about 15 tons of enormous wearable hairpiece effigy. Hopefully one day I can display it somewhere with good floors. And next up for me is Art Basel Hong Kong with Sullivan+Strumpf gallery.
I have also joined the board of Art Month and we’re gearing up for a revitalised Art Month festival in 2018 with a renewed focus on celebrating Sydney talent and the entire ecology of the art scene there.