An interview with Deb Mansfield

Interview with: Deb Mansfield

'Ibid' (2014) Photo-tapestry. © Deb Mansfield

When looking at your work, particularly your recent work such as Softening (Or break the legs of what I want to happen) and The Armchair Traveller, I get a strong impression of the way that you are drawn to landscape, geography, and place, why do you think this is?

The other day I went for a drive on my own. Just to get out of the house for a few hours. I’m new to the town I’m living in, so it was a bit of a blind mission as to where to go. But instinctively I took roads that hugged the coastline or where I could see paperbarks and wetlands out the window. I’m not trying to avoid your question but I think that’s the best explanation for why I preference geographical spaces. It’s an instinctive attraction that I draw on all the time, whether that’s to shift feelings of unease/boredom or to make artwork.

The depiction of people in artwork, particularly in photomedia based work, has always been slightly difficult for me to enter into. I can breathe easier in a people-less space. I have always loved the trajectory of the 19th century scenic wallpaper industry. The designers of these wallpapers started out creating panoramas of popular geographies (like the banks of the Seine etc.) and you could see in these scenes people picnicking, strolling and whatnot. But in the later years of production (around the 1850/60’s) designers removed people from the wallpapers altogether, the focus become about creating incredibly detailed wood-blocked botanical scenes. There were no alter-egos directing the viewer - just a 360 degree geographical panorama to fall into.

It seems a people-less, empty space gives you the freedom to explore the landscape in a way that allows for a sense of the in-between, and as you say, a way to direct the viewer towards the essence of a place rather than someone inhabiting that place. Is there a particular geography that you find you are drawn to? It feels like the coast, the ocean and islands seem to recur across your work, that you have a strong desire to return to these spaces.

I’ve never been to the interior. I feel like it’s something I want to see and should see, but the emotional pull is underwhelming. Coastlines and islands on the other hand I find magnetic. Judith Schalansky’s 'Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will’ is an incredible read for understanding that island pull. I’m currently working on a project with the writer Belinda Howden where we are looking at the ‘lost island’ of Nobby’s Head (a Newcastle landmark). This island was lost – not to the sea, as you might imagine in that ‘Atlantis’ sort of way – but to the land. Over a thirty-year period rocks and earth were thrown into the ocean bridging the gap between Nobby’s Island and the mainland. It’s a somewhat theatrical if not heartbreaking vision: the loss of an island to the mainland. But it’s also a familiar sentiment: the loss of identity through assimilation or connection.

'Castle' (2014) Photo-tapestry. © Deb Mansfield

The idea of lost islands really speaks to me as a way of thinking about the transitory nature of space, of time and the earth. One of the things that I read about Iceland that always sticks with me is the way it is one of the only places in the world still growing, forming and changing. One of their islands off the coast was made in 1967. The whole continent itself is very new in geological time. I always think of the photograph alongside that idea, that it is an attempt to freeze or hold onto something that is always in motion. A lot of your work plays with the idea of the photograph as object, is this something that you wanted to draw attention to?

I didn’t know that about Iceland. It’s amazing to think that my parents are older than that island! (I am going to be thinking about that island all day now.) But yes, I’m always thinking about the photograph as object and its relationship to the image I’m making. There are artists who are doing it much better than me (off the top of my head, Kate Beckingham and Paul Adair). Adair’s work Artificial Spatial Systems (2011) really resonated with me at the time in that sort of ‘ah-ha!’ way. When I first saw it installed I felt like I was inside a colour enlarger or a c-type print. It was amazing.

I think the photograph as object is always going to be responding on some level to the paper-form. There is a tendency with some photomedia artists to let their research be determined by ‘international sizing formats’ (8x10” etc.), which I’ve always found quite odd. Early on in my career I removed the paper-object altogether. I worked with photographic liquid emulsion and architecture; chemically exposing large panoramic photographs in-situ. It was exciting to see my photograph destroyed/washed-off the wall at the end of an exhibition. Although, the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane must have been cursing me for a while afterwards, because my mangrove panorama kept reappearing through the white paint. I thought it was ironic that I’d been trying to avoid the ‘photographic object’, but the wall kept coughing the image back up in my face, like a never-ending-nightmare Deb Mansfield exhibition. The gallery installers (some of who were friends) were a bit ‘argh!’ after all the failed painting/cover-up attempts, and ended up having to apply a toxic sealant to hold the image back.

'I'm so sorry' (2014) Photo-tapestry. © Deb Mansfield

I think that adds a whole other unexpected layer to the work, the idea of an image that can’t be erased, like a memory, and ends up having to be removed multiple times, and even then still exists a few layers down. That links to my next question in some ways, because I’m interested in the idea of photography as a form of longing, do you feel like there is an emotive aspect to your works?

I’d like to think there’s an emotive aspect to my work. Longing has a bit of a negative connotation to it, but I think the state of longing can be quite seductive. It’s a sort of space of in-between, a precipice of something that is about to happen, or has the potential to come into fruition. I think that state relates directly to islands – this thing that’s out ‘there’ waiting. Longing is the heart and soul of the armchair traveller.

The way you talk about it, it seems like there's a kind of tension between a sense of motion, of movement and travelling, and yet still being a kind of travelling that takes place from the armchair, from a moment of rest and stasis.

Yes, I’m impatient as all hell, so I love moving forward – physically and mentally. But do you know what’s weird? I suffer from vertigo. Six years ago, I caught a virus that left me bedridden for several months. I had to learn to walk again - not because my legs wouldn’t work – but because my brain did not know where I was in space i.e.: what I was seeing was not where I was existing, so to speak. So I would attempt to walk across the room and end up walking into a wall that I didn’t know was there and fall down – and even then I still wasn’t entirely sure that I was on the ground. It was fairly traumatising. But even before the virus, I had always suffered from too much movement (I’m the one who holds everyone’s handbags while they go on the chair-o-plane).

In 2011, when I went to Newfoundland for an artist residency, the house I stayed in was very ‘Shipping News’, every night the wind was so strong and loud that it would rock the house, and I had to wear earplugs to bed. Anyway, one night I woke up seasick from it – or house-sick would be the correct description. I had to go downstairs and lie on the kitchen floor to regain equilibrium. And the kicker is, that I can’t seem to help myself – the next body of research I’m working on is based on a 3-hour (open sea) boat trip from Lord Howe Island to Balls Pyramid Island. If funding goes to plan, I’ll be working with Kate MacDonald (choreographer) to create a dance/movement piece based on this ‘sea-journey between two islands’ I think I’ll forever been seeking out movement just to be at the complete mercy of it.

'All you cruisers' & 'This is Done' (2014) Photo-tapestries. © Deb Mansfield

I imagine that being bed-ridden for such a long period would only make that need to keep moving all the more powerful once you were able to get back out again. I read recently about how people are more likely to get land-sickness, rather than seasickness, when they come off a cruise. I think that’s kind of curious, the way your body adjusts to the rhythms of the ocean and then can’t account for the stillness of being back on land.

That visual of hundreds of cruise ship people walking around the oceanfront all wonky-like, makes me think of dancing. I have always played around with dance and movement, although I saw it as quite separate to my art practice. But since moving to Newcastle, I have been going to this thing called Just Dance, which has changed my thinking about it all. The women who runs it (who also happens to be an artist) was talking with me about how initially it’s perceived as a ‘fun’ or ‘silly’ thing to do. But once you’ve been dancing for a while, you become very aware of your own form in space, and that has the potential to bring up all sorts of vulnerabilities. It’s an interesting way to explore and think about movement; that it oscillates between intent and exposure – just like the sea voyage.

What made you decide to use fabric and textiles to display your images? Is the tactile experience of the artwork something that you wanted to bring to photography as a medium?

I was a bit wearied with the work I’d been doing with emulsions (liquid light and palladium) and the digital print was irking me too. I’m a huge fan of the print medium but I get bored easily. Working with digital photo-tapestries has basically altered the way I think about making images. The tactile experience is quite dominant in these forms, which has been effective in addressing ideas of longing. My work Folded Littoral Zones has caused me havoc because some people just can’t help picking them up and unfolding them – which is irritating, but in a way understandable. I remember about ten years ago in Melbourne, touching Patricia Piccinni’s panel-van in Sandman – the security guard told me off – but I couldn’t help myself, the interaction with the artwork was (for a moment at least) beyond thought.

Detail of 'Blue Lava' (2014) Photo-tapestry. © Deb Mansfield

Yes, I would think that the tactile aspect of the work would be extremely inviting to gallery visitors, in some ways I think that’s great that they were so drawn to it! It’s also interesting that textiles and fabric are associated with the feminine and domestic space, is this something that you’ve thought about or is it just kind of an inevitable comparison?

I’m happy for people to read my work as an extension of the female/textile history, because that’s a rich history – but my work is really about responding to the armchair traveller – a visual idiom that has both positive and negative associations (i.e.: an inquisitive day-dreamer or a lazy person opting out of the real thing). I am interested in the armchair traveller’s longing to be both here (home) and there (the ‘island’) while never being wholly content with either place.

I like this idea of an in-between space, something on the edge, or borderline, neither here nor there. Do you feel that your use of textiles seems to gesture to the past, a historical context, to a colonial idea of the representation of place? I’m thinking that the Australian landscape in itself is already an uneasy in-between space given its colonial history, and the anxiety surrounding authority to the land itself.

I agree – the Australian landscape is an uneasy in-between space. I would say that Australia is an uneasy space. I sit somewhere between feeling very troubled and guilty as a white Australian, and a female artist in a culture who I believe, views women, and artists, as a joke. Have you seen the documentary Nostalgia for the light by Patricio Guzman? He makes this poetic comparison between astronomers working in the Atacama Desert in Chile, searching the skies for the ‘big-bang’, and a group of women who survived the Pinochet regime. These women physically sift through the desert sands, looking for remains of their families, who were executed by the Chilean Army during Pinochet’s dictatorship. Both the astronomers and the women do this ‘needle-in-a-haystack’ task of looking every day – an ongoing ritual attempting to link past, present and future.

I don’t know why your question made me think of that film, but I think as an Australian, it’s hard to pick up anything – idea or form – and not think about the historical, political or social context.

Installation document of ‘Firing on all cylinders’ Firstdraft Gallery. Feburary – March, 2014.

It’s great that you bring that up! It is one of my favourite documentaries, and you’re right, it really draws attention to an act of looking, whether we look up or down. One of my favourite parts of the film is the idea that astronomers look for the past in the sky and archaeologists look for the past in the earth. I like the idea that the past is exposed by the natural living space around us.

I love that you’ve seen it! It’s such an unusual documentary in its pacing. Those quiet parts in the film where it’s just the landscape – they’re so meditative. And I think it’s a wonderful idea – that the natural living space will eventually expose the past; everything comes to surface sooner or later (just maybe not at the pace we want). I think one of my favourite memories to do with landscape is standing in a mangrove forest at low tide looking up at the high-tide mark on the trees – which was a meter or so above my head. The idea that a few hours earlier, my self would have be engulfed by the sea, was so easy to visualise that the experience of it has stayed with me for years. I’m probably sounding like a sap because language is not my strong point. Did you by chance get to see Gemma Messiah’s work The distance between us at MOP Projects last year? She wrote a sort of love letter to the landscape – I cried when I read it. She gets the sentiment and she has the language for it. She’s amazing!

Yes I did see Gemma’s work, and you’re right, there is such an emotional aspect to it. It’s interesting because it goes back again to the landscape of Iceland, which I think has a really specific impact as a space on the work of artists, musicians and writers. There is something about it that is unlike anywhere else!

I will really have to make inroads to go there. You’ve really planted a seed in my imagination about that new island. Maybe I’ll aim to get there for its 50th birthday – that’s only three years away...

‘All you sailors’ Photo-tapestry. © Deb Mansfield

Interview by Naomi Riddle

Deb Mansfield is an Australian photomedia artist whose area of research looks at liminal geographies and spaces of in-between. In particular, interstitial sites that problematise assumptions about the nature of boundaries. She has completed several artist residencies both locally and abroad (Cataract Gorge: Launceston, Full Tilt Newfoundland, Artisan: Brisbane) has received several awards and public art commissions (Australia Council of the Arts, COFA Travel Grant, APA Research Scholarship, Siganto Travel Scholarship, Aged Care Capital Works QLD Health: Wondai and Redlands, Museum of Brisbane: Wild Suburbia and Silver) and has exhibited consistently since 2000. She currently lives in Newcastle where she works as an Associate Lecturer at the University of Newcastle.

Naomi Riddle is a Sydney-based artist working across the mediums of analog photography, archival film, text and video. Her practice explores and develops the notion of the image as a wound, an incision, a cut on the subject that leaves an ever-present mark: a scar that is never fully healed. She completed a BA (Hons) at the University of New South Wales in 2009, and is currently undertaking a doctoral thesis on place and space in the work of three Australian authors. She has exhibited at Gaffa and Gallery 2010, whilst her writing has appeared in Whole Beast RagVoiceworksSoutherlyDas Platforms Online and the American literature blog HTMLgiant.