Deb Mansfield is a Sydney-based artist specializing in photomedia and, more recently, textiles. February was a busy month for Mansfield, who exhibited in Softening (or break the legs of what I want to happen) at Sawtooth, Launceston and Gallery Mercure, Potts Point. Mansfield took some time out to talk art, her childhood in regional Queensland, and what’s happening next.
Jonathan McBurnie (JM): How would you describe your work to somebody unfamiliar to it?
Deb Mansfield (DM): Gawd – that’s the cringe bit at BBQ’s. Normally I would say that I make photomedia-based work about real and imagined islands – because I feel like a bit of a wanker saying that I use littoral geographies to examine spaces of in-between. But to put the self-deprecating tendency aside, I am very interested in making littoral-like or island-like constructs- this can be a physical setup or a digitally created one. I do this after having actually travelled to a remote island – such as Newfoundland, and then I come back home and make work about that place in my backyard or on the computer.
JM: From what I understand, and correct me if I am coming at this the wrong way, littoral zones are the part of a body of water close to shore, and include the shoreline’s high water mark, which is never permanently submerged. So, as you say, spaces of in-between. Obviously there is a lot of potential for metaphor in this notion, and it can be applied to many ideas. What is it about the in-between that captures your imagination?
DM: Yes, that’s right – although funnily, there is actually no fixed definition or periphery for a ‘littoral zone’, as it depends on who is actually talking about it, for example- a military will mark the boundary of a littoral zone differently to say, a geologist. I read a paper a while ago, which argued that the territory between the Great Dividing Range and the east coastline was a littoral zone – which is an interesting interpretation when considering that something like 75% of our population lives in this region. So I think that’s a rather apt illustration of the very nature of these geographies, in that being a space where borders are continually reshaped by land, sea and language, there is going to be a deviation in our understanding and experiences of them. I think a lot of artists would find this instability curious – and I like the ongoing dance I have with taking these sometimes arduous journeys to remote littoral geographies, retreating and then rejecting any sort of pictorial representation of them in my making. That attraction and rejection is pretty fun to play with.
JM: You have been exploring tapestries in your recent work. What are the advantages to this way of working?
DM: Oh I’m loving the tapestry process! The first seven years of my practice I worked mostly with hand applied photographic emulsions, chemically processing photos in situ on gallery walls etc. While it was kind of beautiful – it was also very problematic, physical and toxic. But now I’m working with these tapestries where I mess about with my photos on the computer, and then send files off into the ether. A few weeks later, these mechanically woven tapestries come back to me in the post. I really love the whole detachment side of the process, which I’ve never experienced before. I think people are unsure if I’m couped up in a dimly lit room crafting away or if I’ve got a secret team of weavers at my disposal. I think that uncertainty is a nice nod to spaces of in-between, and there is something interesting about interrupting that image of a woman weaving quietly at home. I grew up with my Grandmother’s large tapestries on the walls of our house – they would take her anywhere from six-to-eighteen months to make. I remember them being mostly European landscapes, which makes sense as she came to Australia as a refugee from Germany. And even though those scenes mean very little to me, I would like to think that we both have a heart song for imagined landscapes.
JM: Which ties back into your littoral zones, and certainly islands as an image of emigration. To me it also feeds back into Terra Australis, which was supposed to be the continental counterweight to the continents of the northern hemisphere. The colonials knew Australia was here for some time before they ever found it, but in a very fantastic and fanciful sense. Are the in-between places in your work based on any particular concept or place, or are they an amorphous body of spaces that change with each work?
DM: Yes, there is always a physical location of in-between that I travel to, which has included littorals like the Mississippi River, Tasmania and Newfoundland. Although I do have biases about the physical in-betweens I pursue, for example – I inherently don’t trust lakes, so I can’t ever imagine bringing that sort of geography into my research. My next project is about this incredible island called Balls Pyramid – which is the world’s largest volcanic stack rising up out of the ocean. It’s pretty fucking impressive – I’ve been poring over images of it for the last year. I’m obsessed with its shape, and I spend a lot of time travelling there as an ‘armchair traveller’, which for me is also another state of in-between, daydreaming about traveling to, and encountering littorals. So yeah, I guess that for me the in-between is both a mindset that I live with – typically for a considerable amount of time too – as well as being a real place.
JM: There is something quite incredible and primal about volcanoes. In Townsville, where grew up, there is this massive red rock in the middle of the city that was once the plug of a volcano eons ago, but it is still there, and people still have to interact with its remnants every day. Even if you live miles away, you see it. Every day it’s just there. How do you come at these ideas in terms or imagery? You seem to use a lot of ‘things’ in your works, objects or images of some kind, even if they end up being somewhat abstracted through photographic or textile process…
DM: That sounds amazing – I didn’t know that about Townsville. I grew up in Mackay and it was all about the sugar cane; seeing it around every corner and smelling it burning. I have this memory of watching the ash snow down into our backyard, and I remember thinking it was like a volcano had exploded nearby. Maybe that was your volcano! I do like forms you can’t escape from – and I think the ‘things’ in my work are in a sense inescapable too because they’re everywhere; a ceiling fan, a bottled plant, a plane etc. I am really curious about how I can make these everyday forms as instable as the littorals I travel to. And hopefully by introducing that narrative, the nature of in-between geographies – in particular, the open-ended potential of such spaces – can be encountered back home in the metropolis.
JM: My paternal grandfather was a cane farmer in the Burdekin region, and burning the cane was quite the spectacle as a child. How was it growing up around that in Mackay? Did you always have artistic inclinations?
DM: Oh – it was great. I was only there as a little girl, from 4-8yrs old, so the small town thing was perfect for that age. We lived in the typical Queenslander on stumps, with a red jaracadra tree out front. My sister and I would always be riding our bikes or building cubbies. Mum worked as a nurse – dad in construction, and we’d go to Pizza Hut for a family dinner once a month – back when it still was a ‘restaurant’. My memories are all very idyllic and I think that kind of setting; a happy family and small town-ness really encouraged imaginative play. My mum cottoned on pretty early that I had artist inclinations as mum’s do. I wrote a lot of stories and had a few characters I channelled. I always thought acting would have been where I ended up, and I did pursue it for a while in my 20’s, doing short films, community telly and the like. I would have stayed the course, but there’s nothing quite so crushing as watching yourself on screen trying – and failing – to act ‘hurt’ or ‘surprised’. At least with visual art, when you fail it’s most likely an object you can point to; “yes, that thing over there failed” – not me.
JM: Acting is a complete mystery to me. I did drama in high school and was so hopeless- I just couldn’t lose myself in it. Hats off to anybody that can act! What sort of things did you perform in? Did you find later that it fed into your art in any way?
DM: Ha! You never can tell with people, I would have bet a kidney that you were an actor at heart- lucky! When I was 19, I was in this short film playing a young woman who falls in love with an older woman. We had to do a big pash and I remember feeling so uncomfortable. That film won a prize I think, but I just remember my face being overly made up and that a few years later I saw the actor who played my brother on a really successful ABC telly series. I did some sci-fi and horror – all short films and nothing to write home about. I found that my years of working as a hostess in Japan probably shaped my art practice more. Only in the sense that we were working this kind of ridiculous job six nights a week, and our days were pretty much empty. So I would walk and take photos – it was the first time I really encountered making as a way of thinking. I did like our Wednesday nights at the bar, which was a kind of cabaret night called ‘Showtime’. I would sing ‘King of the Road’ and similar songs that I grew up listening to in the car – Dad’s mixtape. I do think performing gives you the capability to take greater risks in other areas of your life – art or otherwise, but you would have to put a gun to my head to get me to do that now.
JM: It is hard to articulate just how much we think and process through these things we make in the studio. Do you have any particular studio habits? Do you doodle or listen to music, or work in front of the television, anything like that?
DM: Ha! Just today I’ve spent six hours on the computer working on new images, while the third season of ‘Justified’ played out in the background- I’m a sucker for a swagger. I don’t know about you, but I find I ping-pong a bit – sometimes music is the key, and other times it’s about finding a new space to work in. Coming from a photography background the darkroom also has it charms for shifting thoughts and ideas around. I’m a very process orientated artist and have always encountered conceptual rigour through making, so playing and research goes hand-in-hand for me. I always see on Instagram that you’re drawing at all times of day and night, it makes me think that taking breath and drawing are kind of one in the same for you? I have had periods where I haven’t made so much – normally when I’m falling in love or something overwhelming like that, but for the most part I try to chip away at an idea – even a little bit – everyday.
JM: Didn’t Duchamp say half of talent is luck and half is chipping away? Or was that Plato? I think I am making things up. Are there any dream projects you want to work on? Projects that, for whatever reasons, be it time or finance or resources, you can’t work on right now?
DM: I just visualised Duchamp in overalls, sitting on the edge of a porch whittling… So dream projects are always in my mind – like every artist I’m sure. I really want to work with my friend who’s a carpet designer to create an installation work dealing with colour systems, coding and forms. I think that will hopefully happen in the next four years – fingers crossed. I have been trying to wrangle Paul Adair into a collaborative project for a while, but it’s hard lining up time to make something we’re both excited about – and because we’re family, we can get a little lazy in making it happen. But I think the big dreamboat art projects are always brutally hindered by lack of cash. I know we both have friends in Queensland who are currently dealing with Campbell Newman’s special kind of magic. It’s fucking shameful, and it’s telling that we all know the situation so well. Anyway, on that cheery note – maybe I’ll sell my kidney for art projects instead!
JM: And what’s next for Deb Mansfield?
DM: Whisky. Literally. I’m meeting my friend Emily Parsons-Lord in half an hour at the Shakespeare. We’re celebrating her imminent move to Perth for an amazing PhD scholarship at SymbioticA. And I just found out this afternoon that I got a full time lecturing position at Newcastle University – so I’ll be leaving Coogee and teaching at COFA to head North. I’ve been working as a Sessional Lecturer at various uni’s for the past ten years – so I am wetting my pants with excitement at the thought of being able to have my own teacup and desk. It’s the little things in life Jonathan, it’s the little things. I have loved chatting with you these past days – make sure you come visit me!
JM: I certainly will!