Written and Interviewed by Cassin Demnar & Seamus Platt
As we debut a series of conversations with artists and creative industry professionals alike, it only makes sense that alongside it we offer first-hand insight into what Brisbane's art scene itself, feels like. We’ve all had some funny moments, awkward encounters and seen some incredible work. It is our hope that sharing these stories will encourage those who are feeling hesitant about entering the local exhibition scene, to feel confident joining the community in Meanjin.
In order to offer a range of perspectives and garner a better understanding of Brisbane's art scene, we selected three artists from varying backgrounds to interview. Bella Walker, an emerging painter currently undertaking her Bachelor of Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art, told us about the wealth of support and community on offer in Meanjin and how to tap into it. Mark Du Potiers, an established sculptor, delved into the unspoken and familiar anxieties we share and how he turned them into artworks. And Matt Newkirk, A PHD student who has been on the Brisbane scene since the early 2000s opened our eyes to a grungy, live-in, DIY scene that once thrived in Meanjin. All the while making us laugh with his stories of working Sexpo and hoarding dildos.
Talking to these remarkable makers led us down a nostalgic avenue. Many young Brisbanites' love for art began, we discovered, with formative and in some cases a little mischievous, QAGOMA excursions. Mark:
I remember back in school we went to QAGOMA to see Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition. The one with the room with the black lights and the water. I went to a private, all boys school and something about the mirrors and the trippy colours in there made them think it was a fun idea to spit in the water. We were trapped in there and I thought okay, great… I want to get out now. Matt: I remember when I was in year eleven or twelve, we went to the Surrealism exhibition at QAG, there was no GOMA at the time, it was a really significant exhibition. They had Margritte, Man Ray, Dali that you could see in person and that was pretty inspirational for me. They also had a program where they were showing surrealist films in one of the cinema theatres for free and I remember we would smoke some weed, go in there and watch these super weird, totally bizarre films. Some from the thirties and forties and some contemporary. I remember my friend and I being some of the youngest people in the audience and just feeling very like… ‘art’. Very… adult. Taking all of this stuff in, like yeah, I get this man.
Our artists revealed to us that while they absolutely thrash it when it comes to their work, cringe is real and happens to even the best of us.
What’s the cringiest thing that’s happened to you at a show or an opening? Bella:
I had one instance where I was exhibiting and someone was talking about my work to their friend not realising that I was the artist right next to them. They were like “ohh I don’t like that piece” along with a few other criticisms haha. My friend came over, I was praying she wouldn't talk about my work, I was hoping she would just talk to me. But she started congratulating me and the people realised. It was a bit awkward… ok, it was very awkward.
Cringe? Usually it’s me. Ruminating after the fact, thinking… Why did I say that? Or was I awkward? Did they think I’m a stooge? I’m going through all of those emotions with my work at the moment, making installations that deal with all of that mental health stuff. The wrangling of, am I a good person? Am I saying the right thing? Am I doing the right thing? Am I being good or bad? All that kind of shit that has no right or wrong answer. Wrangling that anxiety of whether I’m a stooge.
When I was in my twenties, I was mostly showing or going to see work through friends that curated a space. Something was uncomfortable about going to those places and not having been to university or not being a part of the scene and I just felt a little bit uninvited or sometimes a little bit snubbed. I was probably carrying a skateboard or had a longneck in my bag or something like that. There were times that I often felt out of place. Even if I was with a couple of other friends it was kind of like, ‘oh the skateboarders are here’, it felt very cliquey. I think the art world has a lot of elitism and it is very cliquey. So being dressed as a skateboarder, looking quite young it was like… ‘what do they know about art.’
What’s your first memory of starting to attend shows in Brisbane on a grassroots level? What was it like? How did you find it?
I’ve been finding it really good when it comes to support! Obviously when you’re first doing shows, you’re not really familiar with bump-ins, bump-outs, what you need, what you should bring with you. So I feel like it’s been good being surrounded by other artists that are exhibiting. They’ve been really accommodating. I’ve found it really positive when starting out and that there’s a real sense of community. There’s no one that’s trying to single themselves out as the best, everyone’s just really helpful which is good. I’ve met a lot of really cool people and found them very supportive. Mark:
I remember the awkwardness. The feeling of, wow, I’m going and seeing stuff that I’ve always wanted to do and I’d usually turn up with Tim, my partner and we’d bounce off of eachother with our feedback of what we thought of the show… and soak up the free booze.
Mark cheekily grins and winks at us, knowing very well we ourselves have soaked up a lot of that booze.
In the beginning it was that feeling of, yeah we can look at the art or chat about the art, but god I wish I knew some of these people.
When I first started showing work it was very grassroots. The people I surrounded myself with were other artists or they were experimental musicians, you know, sound or noise and a lot of it was D.I.Y. There were a lot of car park gigs or for example, a friend of mine had a solo show in the Laundromat on Hardgrave Rd… Lots of vacant lots with generators… things like that. That was probably to do with the culture in Brisbane at the time.
I was a part of a loose collective at 610 studios and the top of China Town Mall, next to Birdee’s now. It was a recording studio upstairs and there were artist studios downstairs. I used to work out of there. That was in the early to mid 2000s. So I saw a lot of really exciting, experimental and D.I.Y. things.
Those rooms that we had there were supposed to be rented out to artists but we didn’t pay our rent and slowly but surely we knocked all of the walls out and it became this big open space, essentially it was a DIY venue. We’d have bands play and performance work going on. It wasn’t like a gallery setting. There weren’t track lights. There weren’t things hanging on the walls. It was different every weekend… Every time there was something on it would be really different.
At this point our eyes widen with excitement as Matt describes a Brisbane we could never have imagined existed. Like your parents telling you about their younger selves, far from the people you know now, we were aching to know more.
Matt: There were a few other places, probably more than my memory allows really... The White House was a place above or below the old Dendy on George street. There was a lot of conceptual performance work that went on there. The Studio that I worked out of at 610, that became the headquarters for the SOOB (Straight Out Of Brisbane) Festival which happened between, I think 2002 and 2006. It was a fringe festival that showcased visual art, music, sound, performance and that was really eye opening. It didn’t cater to the average joe. It really was a fringe festival.
So those times were quite exciting I guess because I was a part of that studio… It was like my second home. I slept on the couch there more nights than I did in my own bed.
There’s a large social aspect of attending an exhibition opening which can be really daunting. How do you navigate going to a show, perhaps in a more local or emerging scene, when you’re on your own or you don’t know too many people?
I still struggle with that. I struggle to approach people and ask like ‘hey is that your art?’ or tell them ‘I follow your art page on Instagram’. I would say I currently still kind of just keep to myself and walk around exhibitions but if I do spot a face I know, I try to say hello. Mark:
I guess I’ve kind of fallen into networking in those situations. Coming back to study as a mature age student, but also having some art experience and knowing what I want to do and where I want to go has helped the way I navigate going to shows. I can imagine if I’d done it ten years younger I wouldn’t have had the courage to do what I’m doing. My advice to people who want to go to this stuff but aren’t sure.. Find someone to go with but you’ll see the art crowd are really lovely and welcoming.
I often attend shows on my own. In saying that, I’m pretty much guaranteed to run into someone I know and that comes from being a part of the culture and scene in Brisbane. I think for someone that’s not as social, my advice would be to go to those shows, one way to become a part of the scene is to go to the shows, to be there and have your face seen. It might not happen the first time you go and check some shows or the second time, but the third time, people who do visit those openings regularly will be like ‘oh there’s that person again…’ and if you haven’t made conversation before then, it generally will happen. I don’t think that’s just because I’m a social person, people are there to see the art and if you’re talking about the art, that instigates conversation.
What’s it like on the other side when strangers come to talk to you at your show?
It’s really good because it solidifies the fact that you’re making it in the art world even though you’re still a small artist and still emerging. It’s reassurance that people do notice your art, people do follow your work and enjoy it. It’s quite inspiring, it keeps you going and doing a little bit more. Mark:
It’s really lovely, I’m always really flattered that people feel something, have something to say or have the courage to say hi. I don’t bite. But even from the other side, there’s still that self-doubt, like, ‘oh my gosh, am I saying the right thing?’. I think it’s a real privilege and a pleasure to get feedback from other people and to get the response that the work is doing what it should. That It’s working the way I designed it to be. To invite and encourage discussion about the stuff I talk about; cultural identity, anxiety, mental health, being queer and all of that kind of stuff. At the end of the day, that's why we do what we do. To know that it’s a talking point and that it’s happening the way that I’ve envisaged it, is really fun. It’s also really affirming and a real honour I find.
I love it when people come and talk to me about my work. I think that sort of feedback is valuable because as an artist you have a message that you’re trying to convey and that gives you a bit of an idea as to whether you’ve been successful or not. If they come back with something completely different, that goes in the bank too you know.
Something people have voiced they worry about when attending exhibitions is the fear of not understanding what the art means. Do you think it’s important to have an immediate understanding of the concept behind works?
Nah. I think it’s important as an artist to have a concept for the work but I don’t think it’s important for the viewer to necessarily see that. I think it’s all up for interpretation. You can always read the didactic and be like ‘oh that’s what this is about.’ Or you could happily just look at it and be like ‘Oh this is what I get from it.’ I think it's pretty important for the viewer to have their own opinion. Mark:
I’m going to be honest and say that a lot of it… is a bit wanky really. I would say to those new to the art scene, don’t feel pressure if you don’t get art. That sometimes it can be so pretentious and it doesn’t need to be that way. Turn up, enjoy yourself and just pick out the parts you like.
I don’t think it’s important to understand it immediately. As far as people not understanding, or being afraid of not understanding art, that’s all contextual. Art’s there for people to look at and you can take whatever you want. You can be someone who is blue collar, who has no background in art and still go to a gallery and be like ‘oh I like that and this is what it makes me feel.’ Or ‘this is what I get from it.’ I think that’s what is really beautiful about art.
Do you ever revisit work after the show?
Yeah, definitely. I often find myself revisiting it, going back online to look it up or going on Instagram. I haven’t really found myself going back in person to revisit a show but I’ll definitely go online to find out more. Studying art, I find it helpful if I have gone to an exhibition to draw on that for assignments and further explore those artists in that context. Mark:
Yeah! On the odd chance it’s a great privilege to go back and see it without the chaos, good chaos, that is an opening. It is a luxury though. I like that you get a second perspective. If the first time it didn’t grab you, or something that you thought was really great and you went back to it and it doesn’t grab you in the same way. Matthew:
I do. But it’s more important to try and hit exhibitions on their opening night because that’s the celebration, that’s when everyone is there and I think that’s a really important part of art… There’s a lot of ceremony that surrounds that. That ceremony is really important in our creative arts scene. It’s kind of like our church. We know what happens, we know the deal, make it special and get dressed up, have some drinks and talk about the work. For me I need that social element of art, I need that feedback, I need to be able to bounce off other people because that’s where my ideas grow.
How do you keep up to date with upcoming exhibitions? What’s the best way for people to find out what’s on?
What I did when I started… I had an exhibition with Bad Olive and then I basically just went on to everyone that they’re following and followed them all. Just follow, follow, follow as many people as you can and then you can see who they follow and what they repost. That’s kind of how I figured out what I like to keep up to date with. Mark:
Once upon a time it would have been through BNE art and I’d have to seek that. These days I have the pleasure of so many wonderful friends and acquaintances that I follow on social media, I also have the luxury of word of mouth or things turn up because of the algorithm. Matthew:
I have to say that the way I find out about works is generally through the internet. Love it or hate it, Facebook is a tool that many of us use. Being on mailing lists too. Make sure you’re on the mailing list for all the galleries in Brisbane, even if you have to make an email account that’s just for mailing lists. You get to see all of the artists that they are showcasing and everything that is coming through. That really helps. BNE Art is another really good one or by word of mouth. Keep your ear to the ground. But Facebook and Instagram are probably the most used ways to find out what’s going on.
Is there a local space that comes to mind you would like to work with in the future?
Yeah I would love to have my work in QAGOMA just because of the amount of people that come in and out and the amount of exposure a gallery like that has would be quite amazing.
Are there any local artists you have your eye on?
Oh you’ve put me on the spot. But I had a coffee with them the other week and I really adore Amelia McLeish’s big, big, brain. Oh my gosh, they are just so wonderful to talk to. I think the reason why I point out Amelia is because their practice is engaging in a way that is different to what other people are interested in. Amelia is really interested in the dynamics of curation, not so much curation itself. Looking at institutions in Meanjin and how they all interact, how they want to be inclusive and they document all of that. In the 80s and 90s, the ARI community in Brisbane was really thriving as a response to Lord Voldemort [Joh Bjelke-Petersen] and there have been really wonderful attempts to document that in the past. I feel like Amelia is picking that back up and continuing that in our current context. They’re a recent graduate of QUT, they’re doing their Masters now and have the new intel, the lay of the land. Amelia’s interest is in making but also in all of the semantics. I think it is something you don’t see often. C&S:
Have there been any standout shows you’ve been to recently or are looking forward to?
One show that really stands out to me was last year when I had some work showing at the QCA galleries alongside a show with Andy Willis. He’s a bit of a go-to guy at QCA. He’s a sort of jack of all trades. If you’ve studied at QCA you may not realise that he’s a really considered artist who does a lot of sound and video work, particularly machines that are kind of outdated and considered obsolete.