Michael Candy

Michael Candy’s studio is only a short drive from the unapologetic hedonism of the Gold Coast’s pleasure strip of surf and sunshine. However, it could be another world. An unremarkable warehouse, it sits in a street of such warehouses, smash repair shops and storage facilities. There is no signage. We only find it because we have the street number.

When visitors step in beneath the half-raised metal-shuttered doors, they are met with a cross between a heavy-metal workshop and a computer lab ringed with neat box-files as if deposited from an earlier analogue age. Hidden like the nest of a rare egret, at the back of all this, is the sleeping area that Candy occupies when he is not working. But mostly he works. And much of his work involves travel.

Candy is what I call an ‘adventurist’, and his contemporaries include the Port Melbourne-based French artist Mathieu Briand, Singapore artist Robert Zhao Renhui, and Australian Clare McCracken, who recently travelled in a container ship from Melbourne to Shanghai, re-enacting her great-grandmother’s diary from over a century ago.

As we talk, Candy is pulling open small boxes that have recently arrived from another, larger warehouse on the other side of the planet. They are full of tiny drones. A few are already powered up and he lets them fly free, like large stick insects. Some return like boomerangs and he kicks them back across the studio space. They self-right and fly off – who knows where?

This self-taught inventor and creative, who does have a university art school degree, has spent the past two years building a giant, spider-like robot. When complete, it will have several astonishingly high neon lights towering upwards from its shiny, articulated limbs. It moves incredibly slowly, as Candy demonstrates to me, setting its lower body in motion. Like a cross between a giant crab and a Galapagos tortoise, it lumbers sideways, very, very gradually.

‘It is called Cryptid,’ he explains. ‘Basically, it’s just a monumental light sculpture that uses some complex robotics to make the neon bulbs walk. It’s an anomaly. In contrast to a lot of contemporary automata, it has, and shares, a presence that is both radiant and reserved.’

Candy is in enthusiastic demonstration mode, and we next see a miniature submarine which he has 3D printed. He even printed the 3D printer that he uses, if that makes sense. I feel dizzy in the presence of this strange new world he has opened up.

It reminds me of Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman and the character P.C. MacCruiskeen, who uses a series of ever-smaller instruments to build ever-smaller machines, like some demented watchmaker working at a sub-atomic level.

Upstairs in the mezzanine space, we sit in front of one of Candy’s giant computer screens. ‘Here are some images of Little Sunfish, my Fukushima submarine,’ he says, clicking on a grid of photos and video clips. ‘It’s a fully-functioning scale replica of the inspection robot used in reactor Number 3 (at Fukushima nuclear power plant). The plan is to use it as a prop in a fictional film, documenting its escape into the ocean!’

But … while these kinetic objects are remarkable, breathtaking, mind-boggling, it is the projects he choreographs involving human emotion, politics and subversion that place him – for me – as one of the highest ranking of contemporary artists working anywhere in the world today. He is on a par with Simon Starling, Ai Weiwei, Sophie Calle, and especially Krzystof Wodiczko, whose 35mm slide light projections on monuments in the 1980s (in Venice, London, Edinburgh and New York) act like an analogue bookend to Candy’s digital, satellite-enabled devices. With those artists’ resources, and international backing, what might he produce? Yet, perhaps he is at that important hard-scrabble phase for an emerging artist when his best work is made under a tight budget and with a grand vision.

His Digital Empathy Device (2016 – collection Justin Art House Museum, Melbourne) builds on an earlier work he created in a South American gold-mining town, where his contact person was the corrupt mayor, who was also the local mafia boss. ‘It was in a place called Huepetuhe, on the Amazon, in Peru,’ he reminds me when I ask him about it, surrounded by the everyday ordinariness of his Gold Coast studio. ‘And even though I do like to challenge myself, this was the most profoundly hostile environment I’ve ever been in. There were parts of town that were no-go areas. Really dangerous. There was child labour, and prostitution. It was Wild West in the most real sense.’

In the centre of the town, on the back of a gold statue of a miner, he attached a pair of wings that rose and fell through a mercury-driven gearbox device. ‘To the locals, it just looked like an angel. They didn’t get the politics of it.’

The work that followed, Digital Empathy Device, was even more political. He flew to Paris. He booked into a cheap hotel. He assembled what looked like a bomb in his hotel bedroom (but it was the exact opposite). Under cover of darkness, he got through the police cordon in the Place de la Republique where the floral tribute to the Bataclan massacres was situated, and climbed to the top of the Goddess of Liberty statue. Once there, he attached his global positioning device with its syringes and water storage unit, with nylon thread and fish hooks (‘I guessed I could hook it all under the eyelids of the Goddess’s head’). All this he disguised beneath a dirty, white plastic bag, as if blown there randomly. And with a beautiful simplicity underlying all this complexity, when a bomb explodes in Syria, the Goddess of Liberty – alerted by a journalist’s video-feed – starts to weep. How wonderful!

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 47, 2019

WORD OF MOUTH (group show), curated by Dr. Peter Hill
12 September – 26 October 2019
Grau Projekt, Melbourne

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