Artist Mikala Dwyer on en­gag­ing with her ther­apy

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Steve Dow.

“I wished I could have gone into art school when I was 12 … All the kids who don’t want to do aca­demic-type work, they should go to art school.” Mikala Dwyer

Mikala Dwyer meets me at a wire mesh gate to an artists’ stu­dio com­pound at the south­ern end of Car­riage­works, on the site of the old Eveleigh rai­l­yards in in­ner Syd­ney. The 58-year-old stand­ing here on the gravel this Satur­day lunchtime is be­spec­ta­cled and wears a head­scarf. She is clothed in black.

Dwyer likes to work from floor level, from the ground up. But she has had long pe­ri­ods of late at­tached to an in­tra­venous drip, de­ter­mined to wel­come the in­dus­trial on­slaught of chemo­ther­apy, then ra­dio­ther­apy, to her body.

A friend at­tuned to her re­cent phys­i­cal dis­com­fort gave her a lamb­skin, upon which she sat, her eb­bing en­ergy only al­low­ing her to make a gag­gle of clay coil forms that seemed to her ugly at the time but are her favourite works now, be­ing “sludgy totems of time and em­blems of ef­fort”.

She is feel­ing much bet­ter and her prog­no­sis is good. We climb stairs one flight to where var­i­ous artists work, in rooms sub­di­vided just be­fore win­ter, the thin, pale wooden par­ti­tions still smelling new. Nat­u­ral light streams in from large win­dows. A train runs past now, bound for Red­fern sta­tion. Here, col­lab­o­rat­ing with other artists, Dwyer may be taken for an art­world in­sider, but in high school she was a shy out­sider mis­taken for a ring­leader.

Dwyer’s room is a riot of mixed me­dia: a tyre slapped with white paint hangs from the ceil­ing, re­call­ing a child’s swing; a tall, thin wooden sculp­ture is painted in yel­low; a large sheet sports black, red and yel­low ge­o­met­ri­cal shapes. The floors, walls and win­dowsills are filled with an eclec­tic as­sem­blage of stone, sil­ver neck­laces and ce­ram­ics. When we meet, much of it is wait­ing to be packed off to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where Dwyer’s new and re­cent works fill four rooms.

Dwyer is con­tem­plat­ing a new, live per­for­mance

– a sim­ple ex­er­cise based on telepa­thy. One pre­vi­ous live and filmed work in which she par­tic­i­pated, Gold­ene Bend’er, at the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art in Mel­bourne in 2013, con­sisted of a cir­cle of masked bal­let dancers defe­cat­ing into clear Per­spex con­tain­ers. That work car­ried “cer­e­mo­nial decor, voodoo-like vis­ages and priestly chore­og­ra­phy”, wrote Ed­ward Col­less, head of crit­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal stud­ies at the Vic­to­rian Col­lege of the Arts. The rit­ual whiff lin­ger­ing in Col­less’s es­say has less to do with Dwyer’s mother, a re­li­gious ag­nos­tic and sil­ver­smith with a pen­chant for clean lines, than with her fa­ther, a Catholic mass tra­di­tion­al­ist and in­dus­trial chemist with a po­etic mind­set.

One new work, The Sil­ver­ing (2017), is a new ver­sion of a Dwyer ex­hibit pre­vi­ously seen in Ber­lin, Bris­bane, Mel­bourne, Dublin and Paris. More than 200 sil­ver bal­loon 0’s are teth­ered to sil­ver My­lar sheets, float­ing high. She calls it “kind of a noth­ing sculp­ture com­pris­ing gas”.

My­lar was de­vel­oped to re­flect heat from the sun. Above it in this sculp­ture is he­lium, a gas be­com­ing ex­tinct on this planet, Dwyer notes. The work is big bang the­ory meet­ing noth­ing­ness.

Numer­i­cal 0 or al­pha­bet­i­cal O bal­loons? “I usu­ally try to get the numer­i­cal 0. It’s in­ter­change­able; a cir­cle with a hole through it,” she laughs. “They both are a kind of void, giv­ing form to some­thing that’s a zero. The al­pha­bet­i­cal O has an ab­stract qual­ity as well, a vowel and an ‘oo’ sound. When you pro­nounce it, you think of a pas­sage and not so much an ob­ject.”

If the work reads too much like party bal­loons, it will have failed. “I’m try­ing to do a magic act where it trans­forms into some­thing of it­self. Hope­fully there’s a sense of the he­lium as a ma­te­rial. Its mass, but also its lev­i­ta­tion. Ideally, I like to have it un­teth­ered. I had it in the Ham­burger Bahn­hof in Ber­lin, which has a fan­tas­tic, huge, high ceil­ing space, but it was right next to an Andy Warhol por­trait of Mao, so I had to tether it, be­cause they were wor­ried it would dam­age the Mao.”

The ti­tle, The Sil­ver­ing, re­calls Dwyer’s late mother, Dorothy, whose mod­ernist jewellery aes­thetic was an­ti­thet­i­cal to the em­bel­lished art of her daugh­ter. In 2013, Dwyer ex­hib­ited Hol­low-work (ring­ing), her large, in­dus­trial-size re­makes of sil­ver rings Dorothy de­signed. There will be a small replica of her mother’s work in the new show.

Dorothy had grown up in wartime Den­mark, raised by aunts while her own mother was away earn­ing a liv­ing. “I’ve been re­belling against the mother all my life,” Dwyer says. “My mother was quite crit­i­cal of ev­ery­thing. Not just me, but her peers as well. They were quite ter­ri­fied to come and talk to her about their work.

“If she came to an ex­hi­bi­tion of mine, she’d just walk in and sneer at it. I hated it. I didn’t in­vite her very much. But se­cretly I think she was quite proud, in a quiet way.

“I found, af­ter she died, go­ing through all her stuff in her work­shop, there were lots of lit­tle mod­els she might have been go­ing to make into jewellery form. Some of them were iden­ti­cal to sculp­tures I’d been work­ing on; mine were just larger and clum­sier. She had great fine mo­tor skills, be­ing a jew­eller, whereas I don’t.” Had the daugh­ter per­haps un­know­ingly in­flu­enced the mother? “I doubt it. It’s some­thing like DNA, that you in­herit. A kind of for­mal logic.”

Dwyer’s late fa­ther, Peter, a staunch Catholic church­goer un­til Vatican II, was the more em­pa­thetic par­ent when it came to her work. “It was odd, be­cause he was much more a man of sci­ence, but he had a nice abil­ity to day­dream. He helped me with works early on.”

Peter in­vented a polyuretha­ne for­mula that can be trow­elled ver­ti­cally, which he’d had to aban­don and sell off when he fell ill with Parkin­son’s dis­ease. Dwyer has used that polyuretha­ne, but spar­ingly, so far. “There are some ma­te­ri­als so evoca­tive and [emo­tion­ally] loaded,” she ex­plains, “that I’m not ready to use yet.”

Peter did have a limit, how­ever. He was not en­am­oured with his daugh­ter’s end of third year grad­u­a­tion show at the Syd­ney Col­lege of the Arts, which in­volved her ly­ing in a pit of ashes among live rats. Hav­ing come ex­pect­ing to see his daugh­ter chip­ping away at mar­ble, he stum­bled away, suf­fer­ing three angina at­tacks on the walk home.

Mikala Dwyer’s high school was sit­u­ated in bush­land over­look­ing the Lane Cove River, cater­ing for stu­dents from Syd­ney’s in­ner west and north shore. Her mem­o­ries of the set­ting are hazy be­cause she was rarely there.

“It was renowned for be­ing the school other schools sent naughty chil­dren to. So I was at the bot­tom of the bot­tom. Even though it was in the re­ally rich sub­urb. It was a very druggy school at that time. I re­mem­ber com­ing into first year and some­one say­ing, ‘Hey, do you want to buy some pot?’ and the [ice-cream truck] sell­ing smack to the kids, and bikies com­ing down and sell­ing drugs.” Did she par­take at all? “Oh yeah, to­tally. I was right in there, straight away,” she laughs. “It was great. The best part of high school was the drugs.”

One day, at a public as­sem­bly, the school ad­min­is­tra­tors sin­gled out Dwyer, then 15, and pos­si­bly one other stu­dent – she can’t re­call, ex­actly – for chronic tru­ancy. In front of the whole school, Dwyer learnt for the first time that she was to be ex­pelled.

Dwyer spec­u­lates she’d been mis­taken for a ring­leader, some­one whose lax at­ten­dance could in­flu­ence oth­ers. “I thought, ‘You’re giv­ing me way too much credit.’ ” Dwyer re­mem­bers stand­ing at the as­sem­bly, con­tem­plat­ing that she was to be made an ex­am­ple of, think­ing: “That’s bizarre.”

Her mother tried to get her en­rolled in TAFE, but she wasn’t ready to com­mit to study. For sev­eral years, Dwyer worked in var­i­ous jobs, in­clud­ing aged care, where she’d been work­ing part-time since the age of 14. That ex­pe­ri­ence gave her a re­spect for the el­derly, whose life ex­pe­ri­ences she feels are dis­re­garded by so­ci­ety, as well as a healthy ac­cep­tance of bod­ily func­tions, with bed­pans and ban­dages and fae­ces mak­ing their way into her later art.

Dwyer even­tu­ally trav­elled to Europe, vis­it­ing lots of mu­se­ums, prompt­ing her de­ci­sion to go to art school. Re­turn­ing to Aus­tralia, aged 21, she ap­plied as a ma­tureage stu­dent. “I got in, sur­pris­ingly. It was just fan­tas­tic. I wished I could have gone into art school when I was

12. It just made so much sense. It’s easy: all the kids who don’t want to do aca­demic-type work, they should go to art school.”

Dwyer has been with her hus­band, postal worker David Cor­ben, a bass player and found­ing mem­ber of

The Cruel Sea, for 30 years. “He’s won­der­ful. My great­est sup­port and barom­e­ter. I re­ally know the work is bull­shit or not if he comes in and says yea or nay.”

She says she’s still shy, and doesn’t par­tic­u­larly en­joy the obli­ga­tion to pro­mote her work. It’s pos­si­bly why many so­cially awk­ward artists de­velop drink­ing prob­lems, she says, to gather courage at art func­tions.

Dwyer fin­ished ra­dio­ther­apy two weeks be­fore this in­ter­view, which fol­lowed chemo­ther­apy. Her ex­pe­ri­ence with can­cer had led her to think a lot about chem­istry, al­though alchemy has been a life­long fas­ci­na­tion. “I was try­ing to un­der­stand what the drugs I was tak­ing were, and what they chem­i­cally looked like,” she says. “To un­der­stand the cy­borg I was be­com­ing. It be­comes such a big part of your life. On a ma­te­rial level, and philo­soph­i­cally, try­ing to play with that.

“Try­ing to make some sort of friend­ship with it, be­cause by re­sist­ing it, it just made it worse. Try­ing to find some sort of gen­er­a­tive pos­si­bil­ity in it, too.

It’s re­ally weird stuff that pulls apart your DNA, and ar­ranges things and puts it back to­gether again. It did def­i­nitely creep into the work.”

The new­est of Dwyer’s works for her Art Gallery of NSW show is Di­vi­sions and sub­trac­tions (2017), which in­cludes a large yel­low-painted ar­ma­ture, red Per­spex crys­tal-like struc­tures and chromed metal struc­tures that sup­port glass­works sus­pended with coloured la­tex tiles, all pre­sented in a cir­cle.

“This time I’m think­ing of clos­ing the cir­cle so you can’t get into the in­side of it,” she says, hav­ing ac­crued the ob­jects over a long pe­riod. “It re­ally hap­pens in the gallery. I have no idea what it’s go­ing to do or how it’s go­ing to feel.”

Dwyer has in­vited other artists to cre­ate works and col­lab­o­rate on a “weird com­mu­nity of ob­jects made by my com­mu­nity of friends”, in­clud­ing Hany Ar­man­ious, Nick Dorey, Adri­ane Boag and Matthys Ger­ber.

Ste­vie Field­send, who is contributi­ng glass­works, is also a welder, so Dwyer asked her for in­struc­tion on weld­ing. “It was very ther­a­peu­tic at the time. Learn­ing to weld was prob­a­bly the chemo­ther­apy ther­apy; you know, the ther­apy to get over the chemo,” she says, laugh­ing. “It was ac­tu­ally re­ally good, to have to do some­thing where you have to be so phys­i­cally present.

“I think the chemo was def­i­nitely the worst part. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to make work again. So to come out and ac­tu­ally start work­ing again and have friends to come and ac­tu­ally help me get started… It gets very com­pli­cated when you start invit­ing peo­ple in to help, be­cause they’re all very strong artists in their own right. It’s like en­ter­ing some­one else’s mind. They’ve just helped me come back to life, and get go­ing again. In­fect­ing my own de­ci­sion-mak­ing process with theirs, and then you come up with mu­tant forms, and that’s re­ally great.”

Artists, she says, can be re­ally tough on each other, all the time. “It’s like a war zone,” she says, still amazed at the head­lines in which painter John Olsen seemed to be per­son­ally af­fronted by the Mitch Cairns paint­ing that won this year’s Archibald Prize, which Dwyer thought was an ex­tra­or­di­nary, stun­ning work. “It’s good to have a com­mu­nity of ar­gu­men­ta­tive and crit­i­cal peo­ple, but,” she says, per­haps re­minded of late of the spec­tre of mor­tal­ity, “it’s also good to just re­lax and lighten up a bit, too.”

STEVE DOW is a Syd­ney­based arts writer and the au­thor of Gay: The Tenth An­niver­sary Col­lec­tion.

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