Artist Agatha Gothe-Snape talks about mak­ing work from text

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“There will al­ways be a cri­sis that pre­cip­i­tates an ac­tion. It’s a pretty vi­o­lent and un­sus­tain­able way to work emo­tion­ally but it does cre­ate oth­er­wise unimag­ined out­comes.”

Agatha Gothe-Snape

We­myss Lane is a dodgy alley in in­ner Syd­ney. It con­sists of the backs of build­ings, wheelie bins, milk crates, a dis­carded iron­ing board and a lone pi­geon. There is the slight pong of rub­bish.

There are also 14 phrases painted enor­mously up and down the small pas­sage. Some are hor­i­zon­tal, some are di­ag­o­nal. One word crawls up the wall. The paint is white and thick, the sort used on roads to tell peo­ple to slow down.

One phrase reads: “Her right hand up­raised.” Oth­ers read: “In­clu­sions and mis­prints.” and “A sin­gle stamp.”

Down near “Feints and rep­e­ti­tions”, three men are stand­ing at the back of a mo­tor­cy­cle shop. One shrugs when asked about the phrases. He of­fers a ner­vous laugh. “I’m neu­tral,” he says.

“No opin­ion,” says an­other.

“I like it,” a red-headed man says con­fi­dently, step­ping for­ward. “I like the way one of them goes up the wall. I thought there’d be more of that.”

He says he has a sheet that ex­plains what the phrases mean. The sheet is ac­tu­ally a let­ter Agatha Gothe-Snape wrote to lo­cals, ex­plain­ing what her art meant. “I thought, be­cause it’s in a public space that is used by these peo­ple, it would be gen­er­ous to give them some in­di­ca­tion of my logic,” the artist says. “And that’s what the let­ter was. It was also just a lit­tle friendly hello.”

Gothe-Snape is used to peo­ple not “get­ting” her work. She works flu­idly, us­ing im­pro­vi­sa­tion, in­stal­la­tion, per­for­mance or pro­jec­tion. She writes text on walls or badges or win­dows. Some­times she pro­vides au­di­ences with in­struc­tions on how to en­gage with what she’s done. She draws on pa­per – re­peated curves and lines, a form pop­u­larised by Ru­dolf Steiner. There is video. There are of­ten col­lab­o­ra­tors. There are Pow­erPoints and dance. Fre­quently what she does is spe­cific to the site. “I feel like I’m in a strange place,” she says.

Her in­spi­ra­tion is eclec­tic. She’s co-de­signed an enor­mous sports court at Monash Univer­sity, where balls bounce and stu­dents play on bright blue bi­tu­men em­bed­ded with an as­sort­ment of white words – Cool, Ex­hi­bi­tion­ist, In­dif­fer­ent – which she found in psy­cho­me­t­ric di­a­grams for self-anal­y­sis.

The We­myss Lane phrases, a Legacy Art­work Project cre­ated dur­ing the 2016 Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney and now in­cluded in the City of Syd­ney’s per­ma­nent public art col­lec­tion, were partly borne from dance. GotheS­nape and dancer and chore­og­ra­pher Brooke Stamp per­formed as part of a public walk, a Si­t­u­a­tion­ist-in­spired dérive. “We have no qualms about some in­ter­pre­tive danc­ing,” she jokes.

How does Gothe-Snape de­scribe her art when she’s in­tro­duced at a party? “I say, ‘I make the kind of art you would roll your eyes at.’ ” She laughs. “‘And if you have an im­age of the art in your mind that you don’t un­der­stand and you think it’s a bit of a wank, that’s the art I make.’ ” But for some­one who makes “roll your eyes” art, the artist – as she sits in her stu­dio at Artspace in Syd­ney, bare­foot, wear­ing a green jumper and a no­tice­ably large silver chain – is un­pre­ten­tious, en­gag­ing and quick to laugh.

A per­former by train­ing, she is hy­per-con­scious of the viewer ex­pe­ri­ence. “She’s very in­ter­ested in the way art meets its au­di­ences,” says An­neke Jaspers, a cu­ra­tor at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One critic de­scribed her re­cently in­stalled quote from art critic Robert Hughes at the Art Gallery of NSW and recita­tion of one of his speeches from me­mory as “nerdy”. But oth­ers see her work as wry. As Jeff Khan, director of Per­for­mance Space, says: “It might look aus­tere on the sur­face but there is al­ways a hu­mor­ous per­spec­tive lurk­ing un­der­neath there as well.” When I talk about her work be­ing funny, she joshes: “That’s good. Be­cause I think I’m quite funny.” Later, she adds: “To have a wink in your eyes is a re­ally… It’s an in­vi­ta­tion to play.”

Since leav­ing art school in 2011, Gothe-Snape has had a slew of ex­hi­bi­tions and per­for­mances across Aus­tralia, as well as com­mis­sions from the likes of the Art

Gallery of NSW and the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art. In­ter­na­tion­ally, she was in the 2014 Ber­lin Bi­en­nale, and has had shows in New York, Ja­pan and New Zealand. Her phone just keeps ring­ing; emails keep ar­riv­ing of­fer­ing com­mis­sions.

Gothe-Snape did an arts de­gree at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney, where she was par­tic­u­larly drawn to re­hearsal stud­ies. On the side, she was do­ing what she re­luc­tantly de­scribes as an “avant-garde theatre prac­tice”.

Re­luc­tant, as she doesn’t want to sound like a wanker.

She moved to Mel­bourne, where she stud­ied act­ing at the Vic­to­rian Col­lege of the Arts but was kicked out af­ter six months. “I couldn’t sur­ren­der, I couldn’t act,” she says, laugh­ing. “I can’t act.”

Back in Syd­ney, she opened a vin­tage cloth­ing store but re­alised re­tail wasn’t her fate. She stud­ied paint­ing at the Syd­ney Col­lege of the Arts, where her work quickly took on a post-dis­ci­pline tone. “Al­though I did a paint­ing de­gree, I think I picked up a paint­brush for maybe one month,” she says. It was in 2011, when she was put in a con­cep­tual art show at the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art in Mel­bourne, that she be­gan to get a sense of where she fits.

With her per­form­ing back­ground, Gothe-Snape is into col­lab­o­ra­tion. One of her long-term work­ing part­ners is Brian Fu­ata, who uses per­for­mance, con­ver­sa­tion, mo­bile phone text mes­sages and emails in his own work. The pair re­cently did a show prompted by the phrase “I am a Branch Float­ing on a Swollen River Af­ter the Rain”.

The line came from the sculp­tor Michael Snape – Gothe-Snape’s fa­ther – and he heard it in a dream.

Fam­ily is sig­nif­i­cant in Gothe-Snape’s work.

Her mother, Jac­que­line Gothe, teaches vis­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Syd­ney. Gothe-Snape’s part­ner is the pain­ter Mitch Cairns, who won the Archibald Prize last month with a portrait of her. Of their two-year-old son, Roland, she says: “Be­ing a door­way for some­thing else to en­ter the uni­verse has been a re­ally amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Gothe-Snape says it is ran­dom prompts – such as her fa­ther’s dream, an over­heard con­ver­sa­tion or a par­tic­u­lar colour – that are the core of her prac­tice and in­spire new work. She re­trieves a large, creamy-coloured book, a re­pro­duc­tion of Syd­ney poet Christo­pher Bren­nan’s 1897 Mu­sic opo­e­matographo­scope. Dis­cov­ered at Rozelle mar­kets, it ended up be­ing the ba­sis of her show Volatile Medium at The Com­mer­cial, the gallery that rep­re­sents her.

Gothe-Snape of­ten goes to a space not know­ing what she’s go­ing to do, which can be stress­ful. “It’s al­ways dark­est be­fore the dawn,” she says. “There will al­ways be a cri­sis that pre­cip­i­tates an ac­tion. It’s a pretty vi­o­lent and un­sus­tain­able way to work emo­tion­ally but it does cre­ate oth­er­wise unimag­ined out­comes.”

In 2013, she was in­vited to Christchurch to do a res­i­dency at the Physics Room and didn’t know what she was go­ing to do. It was in the af­ter­math of the earth­quake and Gothe-Snape re­calls it as a sen­si­tive time. “The cu­ra­tor kept tex­ting me go­ing: ‘Where are you?’ And I’d kind of made friends with dif­fer­ent artists and I was try­ing to get to know the place and I texted back say­ing, ‘Oh, we’re hav­ing deep times.’ ”

As she made the show, she re­alised “deep times” was ac­tu­ally per­cep­tive, in terms of “think­ing about ge­o­log­i­cal time and how in a mo­ment with an earth­quake, some­thing is hap­pen­ing in a time spec­trum that we’re not ca­pa­ble of un­der­stand­ing as hu­mans”. She ended up putting the words “Deep Times” across the gallery win­dows, which was re­flected onto dif­fer­ent parts of the space as the sun moved across the sky.

Gothe-Snape has a pen­chant for text, phrases and state­ments, and has long used Pow­erPoint. She ini­tially liked that she could work quickly and eas­ily, email it, and now ap­pre­ci­ates how as the soft­ware up­dates, the ear­lier changes look “old and clunky”.

Her col­lec­tion of Pow­erPoint dig­i­tal art­works, which are up­dated ev­ery year, are sold as an edi­tion that con­stantly grows. An­other piece is an in­struc­tion man­ual on how to put up one of her text works on a wall. An­other is a se­ries in which an artist tries to name ev­ery artist they can think of, while Gothe-Snape tran­scribes this list on a large piece of pa­per. It is called Ev­ery Artist Re­mem­bered – a kind of ru­mi­na­tion on the lim­its of the canon and the un­end­ing process of for­get­ting that forms the flip­side of rec­ol­lec­tion.

At the cen­tre of Gothe-Snape’s work is per­for­mance. Ev­ery Artist Re­mem­bered is a doc­u­ment on a gallery wall but it only ex­ists be­cause of the per­for­mance that pro­duced it. “It could be … crit­i­cised be­cause it’s kind of draw­ing us into this ex­pec­ta­tion of the world be­ing a con­tent provider for our lives,” GotheS­nape says. “‘We need an ex­pe­ri­ence so we go to the gallery. We have the ex­pe­ri­ence, we fill out a feed­back form that says, ‘Yes, we’ve had an ex­pe­ri­ence.’Yes, it’s slightly com­mod­i­fy­ing these prac­tices. But what else is the gallery for?” she teases.

More se­ri­ously, she’s also aware of the fick­le­ness of the art world and, hav­ing been raised in the scene, how she could go out of fash­ion. Then again, she’s also still not sure what she’s do­ing. Per­haps she’ll find a dif­fer­ent home. “I’m re­ally in the state of not know­ing what kind of artist I am. I don’t even know if I’m an artist – if it’s art that I’m mak­ing. I’m not en­tirely sure my­self. But I’m

• not go­ing to stop be­cause of that.”

JACKIE DENT is a jour­nal­ist and cu­ra­tor of talks for Clear Spot Club.

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