Hannah Bertram interview

Melbourne artist Hannah Bertram’s complex installations made of dust, ash and detritus explore our relationship with ornamentation and the preciousness of fleeting experience.

Interview by Casey Hutton
June 2013

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i. An Ordinary Kind of Ornament, Chelsea, 2013. Dust from studio and ash from Australian bushfires and New York pizza ovens.
ii. The Silence of Becoming and Disappearing, Pomonal, 2010
iii.  Emerging from and Disappearing towards Nothing, 2013. Dust, ash and dirt collected from the Incinerator Art Complex. Winner of the Artecycle Environmental Art Award 2013.
iv.  Emerging from and Disappearing towards Nothing, 2013. Installation in progress.
Untitled work. Dust from studio vacuum cleaner. The work was later destroyed by people blowing the dust from the tabletop.
  The Silence of Becoming and Disappearing, Malvern, 2010. Installation.
vii. The Silence of Becoming and Disappearing, Malvern, 2010. Destruction by rabbit.

All photographs © Hannah Bertram 2013

Tell me about your practice.

I use worthless materials, decoration, absence and temporality to question preciousness. Materials such as dust, ash, scrap paper, dirty water and grime are salvaged from the overlooked remains of life in motion. These are then transformed into complex decorative installations, which exist briefly and are then swept up, washed away or otherwise disposed of.

"Ornamentation has provided me with a vast catalogue of reference material to consider the ambiguity of what we value." 

The visual language of ornament is at the centre of much of your work. What attracts you to this tradition?

It began with an admiration for the intricacy of lace, and trying to make something that was equally as delicate. Later, when I began reading about the history of lace-making, I became fascinated by its relationship to status within the European courts and its function – to display wealth. Once lace could be machine-made though, it became more accessible to the middle classes so the wealthy began dismissing it as gaudy.

This shift from being revered and desired to being discarded occurs throughout the history of ornament, and so ornamentation has provided me with a vast catalogue of reference material to consider the ambiguity of what we value.

Your artist statement talks about your methods illuminating 'an extraordinary ordinariness, and the preciousness of the incidental'. What types of ordinary things do you consider precious?

Lists. At the time I wrote that statement, lists weren’t what I was thinking about, but now I consider them to be ordinary precious things.

Shopping lists, to-do lists, checklists, bucket lists – these aren’t just banal tools to get a person through the day-to-day; they are intimate records about who we are. These mini-documents talk about the people in our lives, what we want to be, what we need and desire, what interests or bothers us, what we think about, how we prioritise our living, what opinions we have, and how we hope to live. Like photographs, our lists bear witness to our everyday existence. They are portraits of a specific individual but many people can also identify themselves within a list. I’ve been collecting and archiving them for years but I haven’t worked out what to do with them yet.

"Yes, I feel a sense of loss when the works are swept away. I also feel a sense of completion and calmness. I never regret it."

Why do you choose to work with materials such as ash and dust?

The physical properties of dust incorporate the final deterioration of all matter – from the microscopic debris of our built environment to grains of sand and soil caught in weather, from specs of burnt meteorites to skin and hair unknowingly shed from our bodies. It is worthless. By transforming dust into very decorative installations I’m hoping to present an ambiguous value of art.

Intrinsic to the production of dust is time. It evolves/devolves over days, years and centuries, accumulating slowly and quietly. When it settles it reminds us that time is passing. For me, dust is a material that is simultaneously evolving and devolving, and so I often use it to consider the tragedy of mortality.

Your installations, while painstakingly executed, are often temporary. Can you talk me through a typical process?

Firstly I have to collect the materials. This is usually an unpleasant, dirty activity involving sweeping or vacuuming dust from some pretty filthy places. I then go through a process of sifting it through different sieves. The first sifting is to remove large particles such as hair, food, litter and other more revolting detritus. The next sifting separates out fine from course. As an example, the white flecks of ash are finer so the first sieving separates this from the grittier black ash. I then pound the larger particles of ash in a mortar and pestle. Once I have a black and a white I can mix a pallet of grey shades.

The design for the installation is usually researched and drawn to scale in the studio. I then go through a process of tracing the design to establish the individual stencils. These are then transferred onto card and I cut them out. The work usually takes three to five days to install in the gallery but overall it takes about a month’s work in the studio.

Do you feel a sense of loss after a temporary work has 'disappeared'?

I normally reply to this question in one of two ways: either by explaining that the fleeting nature of the work is a fundamental part of the content (emphasising that it needs to be swept away in order to be complete), or by laughing off how great it is to no longer have the unsold painting graveyard under my bed. Partly I say these things to stave off the inevitable deluge of suggestions about how I could make my work permanent.

But the more guarded secret answer is… yes, I feel a sense of loss when the works are swept away. I also feel a sense of completion and calmness. I never regret it.

You have just returned from an Australia Council residency in New York. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Oh God, I love that city – just love, love, love it. And the Greene St Studio in New York is more than you could ever dream of. It’s a huge converted loft – vast acres of space, massive windows looking over Soho, a stipend to keep you afloat, and months of time to work and play and dance and look at art. Every day I would wake up and try to hold onto the thrill of having that opportunity.

During my time there I was fortunate to have a solo show in Chelsea at chashama, and had an open studio event in the loft. One of the unexpected events though was a salon series that I hosted. I invited artists, musicians, writers and dancers to use the studio to present experimental works or works in progress. Each salon presented three to five artists (a mix of Aussies and New Yorkers) and they were each allowed to invite five to ten peers to come and give them feedback (it wasn't open to the public). At the end of the evening we had a meal together in the studio, which gave people the chance to meet each other and talk properly about the work. It was great for me to be able to host these events as I believe it is important to give back to any community that you consider yourself a part of.

"Every day I would wake up and try to hold onto the thrill of having that opportunity."

What differences do you find working in New York as opposed to working in Melbourne?

You know, I used to come back from New York trips and feel like I had to explain to people why I was so besotted with that city. I would try to find examples that highlighted the differences between each city, and I would weigh the positive aspects in favour of NYC to justify my own longing for it. But in my attempts to articulate the differences between places I alienated people, because I would create a harsh divide between a city that I had been to that I felt was ‘better’ and the city that they were living in, which I cast as ‘lesser’. Suffice to say I’m not sufficiently eloquent to make a ‘for’ or ‘against’ comment about either city – in fact, I don’t want to try anymore. I love New York and I have no rational excuse.

Can you tell me about your project The Silence of Becoming and Disappearing?

A few years ago I developed a project in which I created temporary artworks in private homes. The residents of each home were responsible for choosing both the duration of the installation and who the audience was. This meant that, rather than the work existing for a mandatory three weeks as happens in most gallery shows, the works lasted for two hours, a few days, three months, 18 months, and in one case still sits in the drawer of a home several years later.

The imagery created for each work was influenced by decorative elements in the homes, such as wallpaper, carpets and family heirlooms, and through stories told to me by the residents. It was a ridiculously ambitious project in terms of the amount of work required but the results were surprising and challenging for me, and also very rewarding. I have a file of stories, notes drawings and photos from this project which one day should become a book.

What is your relationship with ornament outside of your practice as an artist – in your own home for instance?

From time to time I try to ‘pretty up’ our house, but it’s an old rental property that is falling into disrepair and it makes me despair. So, other than books about ornament that sit on the bookshelf and the rack of floral dresses in my bedroom, there’s very little decoration in our home.

"The imagery created for each work was influenced by decorative elements in the homes, such as wallpaper, carpets and family heirlooms, and through stories told to me by the residents."

Do you feel that your work explores Western traditions in particular? How do you think these ideas relate cross-culturally?

My work isn’t grounded specifically in Western tradition; in fact, decoration and the demise of the decorative is something that can be located within any culture at various times in history. Sometimes I think that it is a very basic human inclination to make ‘special’ the objects that surround us. My interest in creating ephemeral works is also understood as a more Eastern idea, and relates to Buddhist mandalas or Indian kolam or rangoli. More recently I have also been reading about wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic and philosophy which acknowledges and accepts the process of everything emerging from and disappearing towards nothingness.

What are you working on now?

Too many things to list perhaps: some drawings using dirty water; paper cut pieces using scraps of drawings from the studio; a tattoo project that uses the ephemeral material of a human life; 24-hour drawing projects; a limited edition book called Attempts Towards; silly and playful creative projects that only my friends get to see… And lastly, I’m learning Norwegian in preparation for a wonderful residency in Dale, Norway where I’ll hibernate in a studio for three months while a northern winter darkness blurs time.