UN­COM­MON THREAD

Sheila Hicks ex­pects grand themes to be wo­ven at the Syd­ney Bi­en­nale, writes Michaela Boland

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

Sheila Hicks is a yarn spin­ner, a tex­tile artist who for more than five decades has strad­dled the dis­ci­plines of ar­chi­tec­ture, de­sign and art. She has a masters in fine art from Yale Univer­sity and a 42-page cur­ricu­lum vi­tae boast­ing group and solo shows staged in cities across the world.

Thrice mar­ried and a grand­mother sev­eral times over, the vi­va­cious 80-year-old artist with a short sil­ver mane comes across a woman who lives and loves well. Hav­ing spent the for­ma­tive years of her prac­tice from the 1960s on­wards in Mex­ico and Paris, Hicks now di­vides her time be­tween the French cap­i­tal and New York, where her hus­band lives.

Even amid the var­ied canon of con­tem­po­rary art, Hicks is unique: she has made a name de­liv­er­ing top-end ar­chi­tec­tural com­mis­sions too nu­mer­ous to note and in­ter­spersed her prac­tice with in­stal­la­tions of wild, seem­ingly chaotic cre­ativ­ity. Just don’t tell her she’s been lucky. When we con­nect via a phone call be­tween Syd­ney and Paris ahead of the ex­hi­bi­tion of Hicks’s The Em­bassy of Chro­matic Del­e­gates, 2015-16, at this month’s 20th Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney, she says her life among the yarn is a ded­i­cated pur­suit. “I just feel smart be­cause you know it is a choice [to do this sort of work],” she says of the work, a mon­u­men­tal knit­ted in­stal­la­tion that will oc­cupy the en­try and in­te­rior at the Art Gallery of NSW. “It doesn’t drop from heaven.” Hicks grew up in Detroit dur­ing World War II and be­gan work­ing with fi­bre when her grand­mother taught her to pick up a thread be­fore the age of 10. She later trained at the Bauhaus, where paint­ing and sculp­ture dom­i­nated, but she never lost her pas­sion for tex­tiles.

At Lon­don’s Hay­ward Gallery in South­bank, Hicks last year in­stalled a se­ries of over­sized, colour-drenched pil­low-like masses on which vis­i­tors were in­vited to lounge. The Hay­ward, ded­i­cated to con­tem­po­rary art, is run by Stephanie Rosen­thal, who is also artis­tic di­rec­tor of this year’s Bi­en­nale of Syd­ney.

Hicks’s work for the bi­en­nale, cre­ated from the same ma­te­rial as that which made up her Hay­ward ex­hibits, will be the cen­tre­piece of AGNSW’s in­volve­ment in the event.

“It’s a pig­mented, very spe­cial fi­bre that peo­ple use for out­door fur­ni­ture and sail­boats, so it’s es­pe­cially good for [Aus­tralia’s cli­mate],” Hicks says.

“[The work is com­prised of] plain colours but the pig­ment comes from Turkey and is then im­bued with acrylic and spun and wo­ven into fab­ric we are us­ing as cords and tex­tiles.” Hicks will also dress one of the grand old sand­stone col­umns at the en­trance to the AGNSW.

“I call it the wel­com­ing col­umn, but I also call it the in­quir­ing col­umn be­cause ev­ery­one who sets foot in the gallery is won­der­ing what they’re go­ing to see,” she says. (The of­fi­cial ti­tle is Ques­tion­ing Col­umn, 2016.)

“The col­umn will tell you ‘Ready, get-set, go’ be­cause you’re walk­ing into Stephanie Rosen­thal’s show.”

Hicks be­lieves in­ter­na­tional art bi­en­nales can be plat­forms to nut out the big ideas, al­though she was unim­pressed with last year’s Venice Bi­en­nale, where cu­ra­tor Ok­wui En­we­zor as­sem­bled what she con­sid­ers to have been an ag­gres­sive show, “con­fronta­tional and off- putting for many peo­ple”. She hopes the Syd­ney Bi­en­nale will move on from En­we­zor’s ex­colo­nial themes and be a plank for dis­cus­sion about global dis­pos­ses­sion.

“Peo­ple do need to get their anger out, but when their anger sub­sides they need di­a­logue,” Hicks says.

The ti­tle for Rosen­thal’s bi­en­nale is The Fu­ture is Al­ready Here — It’s Just Not Evenly Dis­trib­uted.

“She has a provoca­tive ti­tle for the bi­en­nale. It’s all about ev­ery­one not get­ting a square deal in the world, im­bal­ance in terms of the dis­tri­bu­tion of power and wealth,” Hicks says.

Pre­vi­ous Syd­ney Bi­en­nale themes have tended to get lost in the sprawl of an ex­hi­bi­tion that plays out across a host of city venues, fea­tur­ing artists from across the world. The top­i­cal­ity of Rosen­thal’s theme may lend this year’s bi­en­nale a lit­tle more co­he­sion, how­ever.

Hicks’s con­tri­bu­tion was con­ceived dur­ing a sum­mer of im­mense so­cial tur­moil as Europe found it­self in the grip of the Middle East­ern mi­grant cri­sis; and it was cre­ated in the shadow of Novem­ber’s Paris at­tacks.

“There’s no two ways,” Hicks says of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween an artist’s prac­tice and the en­vi­ron­ment in which they ex­ist.

“Artists can­not iso­late them­selves in their stu­dios. You’re part of this so­ci­ety that’s in this tu­mul­tuous, con­fronta­tional quest for har­mony. This is what we’re liv­ing with, in a joy­ful co­hab­i­ta­tion — there’s a trauma ev­ery day.”

Hicks says Syd­ney’s lo­ca­tion on the Pa­cific Rim is a peace­ful dis­tance from the drama of dis­pos­ses­sion dom­i­nat­ing the Middle East and Europe, which makes the bi­en­nale an ap­pro­pri­ate fo­rum for dis­cussing th­ese is­sues.

She views in­ter­na­tional art bi­en­nales as a the­matic con­tin­uum, not­ing that the re­gional and broader in­ter­na­tional political con­text will colour how Aus­tralians view the as­so­ci­ated works of art.

The theme of dis­pos­ses­sion is noth­ing new for Aus­tralia or the Syd­ney Bi­en­nale. Con­tro­versy washed up on the shore of di­rec­tor Ju­liana Eng­berg’s 2014 event when artists and ac­tivists ob­jected to spon­sor­ship from Trans­field — a se­cu­rity com­pany whose af­fil­i­ate busi­ness had been con­tracted by the fed­eral govern­ment to pro­vide asy­lum-seeker ac­com­mo­da­tion at con-

A work by Sheila Hicks on dis­play in Basel, Switzer­land, left; the artist, below

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