Deb Mansfield interview

Australian artist Deb Mansfield discusses turning tides and armchair travel.

Interview by Casey Hutton
Published June 2014

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i. Bay of Fires Ocean (2014) Photo-tapestry. 150cm x 120cm.
ii. Ibid (2014) Photo-tapestry. 60cm x 60cm.
iii. This is Done (2014) Photo-tapestry. 60cm x 80cm.
iv. The Armchair Traveller (two-seater) (2013) Photo-tapestries upholstered into a reproduction Louis two-seater frame. 130cm x 70cm x 93cm.
v. Tamar Wetland Scrub (2014) Photo-tapestry. 150cm x 120cm.
vi. Cement Mixer (2013) Photo-tapestry. 66cm x 80cm.
vii. Knives in Plasticine (2013) Photo-tapestry. 66cm x 80cm.
viii. The Migration of an ocean (tapestry) into the space between house and fence (2013) Giclee Print. 180cm x 140cm.

All images © Deb Mansfield 2014


What have you been doing today?

Today I've been lecturing at Newcastle University. I'm teaching a subject called 'Light' and I showed my students this incredible video/sound work by Ignas Krunglevicius called Interrogation. I just saw it at the Sydney Biennale three days ago and was so affected and impressed. I've watched it about five times since.

Your practice is a really interesting layering of processes and techniques. Can you talk us through?

I've been a practising artist for about 15 years now, working mostly with liminal spaces and domestic/everyday forms. So, these are the things that I photograph, with whatever is in my hand: phone, or medium- or large-format camera.

For the most part, I use alternative photographic techniques like liquid emulsion, palladium and photo-tapestries to develop the work. These processes are incredibly involved, with lots of hiccups along the way. My most recent work with photo-tapestries relies heavily on outsourcing, which I originally thought would minimise the failure rate (and cost!) but it hasn't­—not by a long shot.  

"I could see in these works an 'armchair traveller', crafting away at this imagined bliss of dolls and Jesus."

What do you think led to your preoccupation with in-between spaces, and specifically with coastal regions and shores (littoral zones)?

Well, it's the same old song really. I grew up near those sorts of geographies (east coast of Australia) and so I seek them out in my art practice. Obviously that's a very simplified version of what's essentially a lifelong love affair with all things tidal, but that's the essence of my curiosity.

I know I'm not alone in that sentiment; the coastline has always featured heavily in Australian experience and storytelling—predominately from a male perspective, but it's there nonetheless. 

How did the tapestry dimension emerge?

I was on a travel scholarship in America to research the Mississippi and its delta, and I kept seeing all these elaborate craft works at every small-town shop I stopped into. I became enamoured with how they were so painstakingly detailed, and yet so gobsmackingly awful. The visual language was like nothing I've ever seen: doll fetishes, Bible-bashing quotes and whatnot.

But I could see in these works an 'armchair traveller', crafting away at this imagined bliss of dolls and Jesus. This somewhat ruthless ambition for altering the domestic experience was palpable in these works, and I find that quite admirable and also relatable. 

I think my photo-tapestries are a bit of a nod to that ambitious futility, and by that I mean they can be seen as an attempt to reconcile my need to be both in the city and on a remote island/littoral brink... both here and there at the same time.

"I like the idea that our best selves are in the littoral zone."

You travel to places like Newfoundland, Louisiana and Tasmania, and then the work emerges from these trips. What’s your process when you’re visiting?

I always go knowing that I'll take about 800 to 1,000 photographs (over a four-week period) and that I'll end up using only one to five images in the final work. It's so indulgent to photograph like that, and there is a sense of glut to the process. However, it's also as close as I get to meditating, which is important to me, especially considering that I do this in vastly different littoral geographies.

When I went to the west coast of Newfoundland, all I needed 'image-wise' was a single photograph of the house I was staying in (it was very Shipping News), but a big part of my process is just getting to and from these places. That's where ideas really start to form. I remember thinking that Newfoundland would be very much about solitude and that I'd have an introverted time there. But, because I was staying in an extremely remote community, small-town dynamics came into play, in the sense that people 'drop by' all day long. Of course, it's not a new revelation that solitude can be found more readily in a metropolis, but I'd just forgotten.  

Do you feel that the finished product relates specifically to these places?

In some works, like my Hush Now, Louisiana series, yes. But with The Armchair Traveller, not so much. 

At this stage in my practice, I make a lot of constructs for the camera when I come back home from a research trip. I'd like to keep going in this direction, but it's still very much reliant on visiting these places, and thinking while I'm there how to insert that experience into my everyday life back home. 

"I remember the moment Dad would say we should turn back before the tide starts to come in."

The notion of islands is an interesting one, particularly if we consider Australia as a big island. Is there an aspect of your work that speaks specifically to the Australian experience?

Ahh that's a biggie!  I was talking with my students today about their relationship with water. We all had pretty strong opinions about the best way to approach the beach—from never swimming at night to only swimming when you can see the sand, and so on. But the interesting thing was that the discussion was incredibly sympathetic. No one argued against someone else's experience, which for any other topic would have gone differently. 

I think a lot of Australians need, and develop over their lifetime, their own beach/coastline ritual. And as a consequence, they are inherently respectful of how others experience those spaces because they understand how special it is. I like the idea that our best selves are in the littoral zone.

I feel like your works heighten or extend the unstable, uncanny feeling you can get from in-between states. I get that feeling from your images of disembodied plane wings, knives and other everyday objects, which you suspend on tapestries of flat colour. How do you choose these objects and how you represent them?

I recently did a cement mixer as a photo-tapestry. I saw it in my sister’s garden (she has a large property in Castlemaine) and it was oddly set against the fruit trees. I liked that it was functional and also incredibly beautiful—and, when you think on it, so are planes, knives and fans. But they're also dangerous.

When I was little and lived in Mackay, we'd go to Far Beach (so named because of the expansive tidal flats) and at low tide we'd walk toward the horizon. I remember the moment Dad would say we should turn back before the tide starts to come in. It conjured up an immediacy of movement—us and the ocean together. Yet, without fail, that's where my sister and I always wanted to go back to—this place where you had to warily keep one eye on the horizon. Maybe that's the same feeling as watching the shaky ceiling fan or a plane take off. 

"On a windy day you don't have to do anything, but you can feel like something exciting or unpredictable is about to happen. That feeling of possibility is how I experience liminal spaces, geographical or otherwise."

Looking at some of your exhibition installations I was reminded in some ways of Anselm Kieifer’s Salt of the Earth, which I saw while I was in Venice in 2011. Can you talk about how you choose to display your work?

Lucky you! I've yet to make it to a Venice Biennale. 

I feel like install is a second language, in that I find it hard to convey exactly what I want, and I have to work very hard at what seems so effortless for other artists. It's an ongoing lesson, and every time I install a show I've inevitably had an 'aha' moment after the fact.

That Sawtooth exhibition [Launceston, February 2014] was a gamble for me, and I was very unsure about how the work was sitting in that context. There was a lot of good feedback, so I've had to take that on, but it was a surprise to me that people responded so well.  

How are you finding balancing your work as a lecturer at University of Newcastle in Sydney with your own artistic practice?

Err... I think I'm managing! It's been hard these past two months, because on my own I've had to move cities, find a place to live, start a new job and do four exhibitions. The other night at my Firstdraft opening a friend said my artist statement needed work and I had to hold back tears.

Having said all that, I love what I'm doing and, at the expense of sounding like a complete knob, I know how privileged I am to be able to make art and have a full-time job teaching at a university. It's literally my childhood dream come true (sans an Academy Award). 

What were you like as a kid? Where did you grow up and where is home?

I should put my parents’ phone number down here because they would have a field day. I grew up in Mackay and Loganholme (Brisbane). As a little kid I was very happy and looked up to my big sister. We would build cubbies, practise bandaging our dog's leg (in case of war) and choreograph dances to Just Hits ’86. I still give her grief though about how she never let me buy the same ice cream as her—she had to be different.

The older I get, the more the idea of home is something I can't pin down. I've lived in—and thought of as my home—Mackay, Brisbane, Nagano (Japan), Melbourne and Sydney, and now I've been one month in Newcastle. It took five years for Sydney to become the home that I love, and I left it on the sixth year. So, I don’t know if ‘enjoy’ is the right word, but I am definitely attracted to picking up and starting again...

What’s your personal experience of liminal spaces, geographical or otherwise?

I can't believe I'm going to say this but my personal experience is that liminal spaces are like the wind (insert cringe here). I love the wind; I don't understand people who hate it. It's the perfect dramatic encounter without the life-crushing fallout. On a windy day you don't have to do anything, but you can feel like something exciting or unpredictable is about to happen. That feeling of possibility is how I experience liminal spaces, geographical or otherwise. Having said that, I also enjoy a hot bath and a cup of tea.

When are you happiest?

Making artwork and being (happily) in love are the bee’s knees. I find the former much easier to wrangle than the latter. 

What scares you?

Being late for something, and cancer.

What (or who) inspires you?

Brave people and people who have a good work ethic.

I really love the art community. I'm always inspired by my artist friends and feel so lucky that I get to work alongside them. They are absolutely another kind of family to me.