Sarah Contos

Unpredictability and ambiguity have become the creative drivers of Sarah Contos’ art-making, as she likes to go with the flow of how she is feeling and thinking when she embarks on each very different project. Her core interests might revolve around identity, eroticism, femininity, popular culture and history, but Australian Experimental Art Foundation patrons this year should simply expect the unexpected.

You mentioned how important it was that you were understood, which is, I believe, something we all want. How does that translate to the work that you make? Are you in a process of understanding yourself, or trying to raise your voice and tell people what you’re about?
There’s one side that I know what I want to make, whether that’s inspired from personal experience or emotion or memory. But then there is another side that occurs through process. I’ll be making something with a definite intention and then it starts to become something else. Or I have no idea of what I am making – I am just doing and then it reveals itself and I go “Oh hello, that’s what I’m trying to do!” I work on lots of things at one given time, so if I’m not clear on one thing I’ll move onto the next and that will inform what is happening there. My hands are like my heart and head all in one.

So, do you begin with a point of reference that is personal, and that becomes part of a bigger picture?
Yes, I take on lots of things I am interested by, like a colour or form or artist and I’ll compile a folder on my laptop. It’s a whole mish-mash of stuff and then from that something will start to emerge. Also, it depends on how I’m feeling, so if I’m down and out what I’ll gather might be a bit dark. Or it could be if I want something; for example in the last show Total Control (2015) at Roslyn Oxley9, was very much about creating works centred around ideas of entertaining and wanting to hold dinner parties or having a cat or garden – because in my life I did not have any of those things. If I can’t have it in real life then I’ll make it. It’s always from me, but hopefully the ambiguities will resonate with the viewer or it might bring up feelings of nostalgia or sentimentality, remind them of their grandma’s house. I like to have that emotional connection.

So less of a process of self-understanding but instead of living outside of yourself?
No, there is always self-reflection happening but there is also a constructed personality that sometimes I use to hide behind. I’m a different person for each show and a part of my process is similar to how a fashion designer creates a different story for each collection. They have a particular person in mind who they design the clothes
for – I do the same but sometimes I’m creating work for perhaps my alter ego, from my alter ego.

Where does the audience fit in terms of that, not to be critical but it’s quite a self-involved process where you are reflecting heavily on what it is you want to present. How do you think about the audience?
I like to keep it ambiguous. I think it’s through material and form and the different processes and I know that comes from me, but I like to think that it’s ambiguous enough that someone else can look at it and think, “Oh this reminds me of this particular moment from my past or a dream I once had.” I think that’s really interesting because that’s not what my intent was or how I saw it. I don’t put my face in my work. It is not necessarily about me, but about an archetype or a persona that everyone has in them. Everyone wants certain things in life or to be able to do this or that, but not everyone can. I don’t think my work is narcissistic. If you read Shakespeare it can be interpreted in so many ways and has been for hundreds of years, words redefined given time, space and context.

There are many loaded terms which are put on your work, by writers and audiences, the idea of “the other”, “ethnicity”, “gender”, “worship” – some big canons of thought. Does this connect to that Shakespearean idea that to speak universally it helps to be specific and have themes within your work?
How do you feel about that?
I just make stuff that I am interested in. It might be sparked from a photograph or a conversation – for example about how the colour yellow wrecks everything in graphic design – and then I’ll be inspired to make a sculpture that is only yellow made from yellow things. My core interests revolve around identity, eroticism, femininity, popular culture, history but my position on these constantly shift.

Are you collecting symbols through a lens of a cultural or social anthropologist? Do you group signs together to comment on one thing, like the 70s housewife or sex and fetish?
Yeah kinda. It’s more like I am compiling stuff to add to my lexicon or materiality language. The PVC or rubber can be seen as having a BDSM feel, which there is, but at the same time it reminds me of playground equipment. I love the duality of the dark and sinister alongside the innocence of play and fun. In Kings Cross there’s a playground that looks like a sex-swing its great and confusing. I like how one material can be seen in lots of different ways. And when you add colour or object or material how does that conversation change, where is the balance? It’s kind of like cooking, different ingredients together will generate a particular taste, and then how does that change with a little squeeze of lemon at the end? It’s taking things from multiple sources and collaging them together and then seeing what happens – what is it saying? What does it taste like? The theatre of space also aligns with my work. The recent show with Roslyn Oxley9 was designed in such a way that as you entered up the stairs the walls were dimly lit and the first impression was emptiness and a bit uninviting, until you turned the corner and saw the warm lights of the sculptures and the glow of the textiles. It creates drama where everything has its rightful place to evoke something.

It’s more about impulse, desire and attraction?
And intuition and play and process.

So what kind of position does that put you in, if you’re not attracted to something for a while?
I have to step away from it and press “reset” on my brain button.

Can you pinpoint why it is you are compelled to do what you do?
I love making and playing in the studio: when you are in that zone and everything is coming together and it’s buzzing – it is the best feeling ever. I really put a lot of energy and emotion into what I do so there’s always a swinging range of feelings swirling about in the studio. It must be annoying to my studio buddies as one minute I’m clapping my hands and punching the air with excitement and the next I’m weeping into my cuppa soup. This is why after each show I get the post show blues quite bad. It’s because I’m not making or that “relationship” with the work and high energy time is over. I feel a bit lost, like I’ve lost my lover or best friend.

Why do you think sewing, ceramics and the ad hoc crafty approaches to making are popular?
Because people miss that in some ways. There’s a tactility we respond to on a base level because they’ve either done it in school or someone they know has made them something from a bit of clay and felt. So there’s a sentimentality and power within the object. I also like the idea of scrap-books, découpage and papier-mâché are a bit “daggy” or perceived as kindergarten medium or old lady-ish. I’m interested in how that responds to art-making in these techno-heavy and polished contemporary times. I also think play is really underrated. When I was super young I use to try to make perfume by crushing rose petals in water and letting them sit in a pickle jar in the sun waiting for it to magically turn into perfume. It always smelled bad. The result isn’t perfume – it’s the act of trying to manifest something through the basics to create something wonderful.

And also in play you introduce the possibility of failure. Not everyone is happy to fail.
Failure is great though. That’s where the good things happen. You come up with something new and break that cycle of repetition. Happy mistakes is the universe interjecting.

Do you have an idea of what thread you will carry through the Australian Experimental Art Foundation show?
I’m still working that out! I’m currently creating a series of low-fi animations of stills I’ve collected from banal books from my own collection and the local library and then juxtaposing these against sculptural objects or textile backdrops. It’s about how the animate and non-animate communicate and what conversations they may be having. So at the moment there is a lot of imagery from silent movie actress, rock formations, epic films from the 1970s, flower arrangements, sunsets, cats – basically a collection of disjointed images that will sit alongside further disjointed forms. I’m really excited about it as it is a project show and means I can really play with the space and try out lots of new things I haven’t had the time to up to this point. It’s going to be seductive and shiny and optimistic.

If you had the opportunity to realise your ideas in a grander, more finished way, would you?
It would lose the punch of the heart. It’s the sentimentality that I like, the old t-shirt that you bring out of the drawer that has a resonance. It’s also how screen-printing has that resonance compared to say digital printing. It raises the probability of feeling a sense of déjà vu or a dream state. And I like to make things myself. I have had pieces manufactured before and it takes me a while to form a relationship with them. That being said, if I had the means to level up with some sexy new materials I would. They would just be another conversation in the process.

I can see how it would be upsetting for people to think that you are being didactic about something such as ethnography, gender or feminism, because it’s the antithesis of what you’re doing.
I’m not in a position to have a stance on anything and I prefer for my work to not have this great big important message. I’m not into creating any work that has a political agenda, and I’m not interested in making work to speak on behalf of anyone else. I’m more interested in the primal emotions evoked and how people respond to it on a base level. I like art that makes you feel first and think after.

Is a ‘democratic appreciation’ of your subjects and the audience experience not limited to a pre-determined group important?
I like contradictions, so a bit of “bogan” culture with craft, a bit of quilting with some S&M suggestions. I like things that are hard and soft and the gap between those.

Why are you drawn to that alchemy?
Because everyone is good and bad. You love and you hate. I like dualities together.

It is easier to express the dark side of human nature if you can balance it with something frivolous, fluffy or popular.
Yes, because it makes it more complex and complex, things are intriguing and dramatic and dangerous. I love that through art, I can express this duality of emotions through materials – rubber with a soft quilted cotton and a splash of bright yellow I think works.

There’s a rebelliousness, allowing that motley set of materials to co-exist. It’s not prescriptive and your category broadens.
I’ve always wanted to be the kind of artist whose works look like they were made by different people and ideally that you couldn’t tell if it was a male or female making the work. Although I’m actually not that kind of artist and you can definitely tell that one person made all the particular works in the show! And that there is a strong yet vulnerable femininity inherent in the things I create. I love how contrasting materials develop a harmony between themselves and I think those relationships are exciting.

Are you inhabiting your space as an artist now? If you’re always thinking about being onto the next, your next project or idea, do you think about yourself in this way as well?
I think about it all the time: who I am and what I’m interested in saying for this particular show. It’s a thread that keeps weaving its way through. I was listening to Nirvana and was thinking of this in the art I want to make. I want it to be angsty, poppy, heavy, soft, familiar and empathetic. I want to be honest in making work about where I am in this moment in time but I also need to keep that childlike fascination with objects alive, and keep playing and experimenting and creating stories in my head of what this form is saying to that form. To keep those both sides of my personality happy and fed, keeps the art-making process fresh and pleasurable and therefore life: lovely.

The Revenge of Alexis Colby
15 April – 21 May
Australian Experimental Art Foundation

Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery


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