Daily Review is thrilled to present actor Neil Pigot’s series of free, 60 minute podcasts in which he interviews artists from a range of disciplines about making art. To listen to episode four with visual artist, Hannah Bertram, click here and to hear previous episodes click here.
As I leave an artist after recording a conversation for this podcast series I am trying more and more to listen for an instinctive voice, a clue that might shed some light on the direction this companion article will take.
What I guess I’m trying to do is allow something of that first impression, that quiet yet clear inner sense to guide the thoughts that will appear on this page, so that the article becomes more than just a didactic response to that interaction.
To be honest with you, when I started to make this series of podcasts and write these articles I wasn’t really sure what shape this particular thing would take.
The idea behind it is a simple one. A desire, on my part, to achieve some insight into the process of creating things, artworks, call them what you will, because frankly, I’m not sure about my own process. And because I asked that fairly loose question, “What is it to make art?” as a stepping off point. I feel I can engage in a little creative dance here. The truth is, I’m making it up as I go. I know I have a set of skills but “what to do with them?”
As I search for what I am looking I seem to be getting closer each week to knowing what it will be by developing an understanding of what it will not be. And as I slowly develop a sense of what I am not looking for the process is beginning to change.
This of course is an example of Meno’s paradox. Meno, a rich Greek fishmonger (I just made that up, he may well have been a greengrocer) asked Socrates how you search for something you are ignorant of. Socrates replied that you can’t search either for what you know nor what you don’t know. One, because you know what it is, the other since you don’t know what to look for. And so was born one of philosophy’s great paradoxes. How do you find something new when you don’t know what you’re looking for?
I confess that I don’t know what I’m looking for and yet as I left the studio of the visual artist Hannah Bertram, all I could hear, all I could sense was a quiet voice saying “It’s okay not to know”. To be for a while in a place of discovery that may have no answer. A place that Hannah actively embraces. despite at times finding it uncomfortable.
For the past 15 years Hannah has devoted herself to a creative exploration of that most ubiquitous and ephemeral of mediums. Dust.
I met with Hannah in her studio in Elizabeth Street in Melbourne and if I were to describe her in a word picture the first word that would be ‘alive’. When she approaches, you are aware it is a living thing that takes your hand, one with a curious mixture of openness, vulnerability and confidence.
You feel in the presence of someone who is having a life. but one for whom having a life means being interested in others and allowing herself to be uncertain. She’s stands straight although not rigid, with a fast enquiring eye that seems to be looking for fun, perhaps. Quick witted and yet deeply thoughtful, sometimes fast to answer and at others slowing to think; a paradox in some ways herself.
As we sat to talk she handed me a list of things she thought we could cover. “I don’t want to waffle on”. I chose to largely ignore it and she later confided that it wasn’t waffle she was worried about. The fluid nature of her practice and her life at this moment means she spends a lot of time not knowing the answers.
“I’m getting better at enjoying it as a part of the process of making work but I must say I find it difficult in life.”
For the past 15 years Hannah has devoted herself to a creative exploration of that most ubiquitous and ephemeral of mediums. Dust. Her work has travelled the world like the dust that is at its heart. Over the past six years she has split her time between working on her PhD and completing 15 solo shows here, in the US, Asia and Europe with perhaps the biggest at the prestigious Palais de Tokyo in Paris (pictured above).
“The problem with becoming a mid-career artist in Australia is not so much money, it’s a lack of critical mass. There simply aren’t enough galleries or shows to go round. You end up having to look for opportunities overseas.”
For Hannah, that was as much about finding ways to explore new ideas as it was about showing her wares. To talk with her is to understand that a search for new ideas and a determination to understand the intersection of life and art is at her core. As is an acceptance, an excitement even, at the notion of a life being a series of ever deepening questions. A gift she credits to her father.
“I remember when I was little, really quite little, and I was walking with my father and he was talking about ‘now’ not being a thing and I remember saying “Yes it is. It’s now.” And Dad said “But it isn’t ‘cause it’s just gone.” And I remember being so excited and frightened and intrigued by that idea all at the same time. I feel very fortunate to have grown up with a man who always questioned things.”
A questioning that has stayed with her and in adulthood manifests as a love of poetry and philosophy, something that she sees as nourishment.
“Understanding the human experience helps me make sense of things in life and art. I’m interested in the world more broadly and how those philosophical ideas around the human experience have changed through time and in different societies. It gives you a window into thinking about thinking. And it’s the same with poetry. There are things I think and feel that I can’t articulate to myself, things I can’t say. I find that poetry and philosophy help me understand the truth in my experience and allow me to open that up and expand on it.”
It was that “opening up” that led her to quit her first love, painting, after ten years that just “hadn’t done the thing I wanted it to do. I can’t tell you what it wasn’t doing. I can only tell you it wasn’t doing it”.
Instead. she started exploring the idea of ephemera; temporary pieces that would allow her to consider art as a lived experience. Slowly work began to emerge that mirrored the constant change that surrounds us in a world that is always moving, a world that is fluid despite our attempts to create certainty and permanence. And she did it using a material that is perhaps our only constant, the apparently worthless stuff from which all life sprang and to which all things will eventually return.
“Initially it was that it was overlooked, discarded material. It’s also specifically about places, although at the same time it isn’t. But it’s changing for me now. It’s become a more complex relationship.”
An understanding of dust as a marker of time was part of her original thinking and her work began to explore that passing of time. When dust settles over our domestic existence it quietly suggests time passed, or alternatively, when it’s removed it creates an illusion of timelessness. Hannah’s work became intentionally designed to decay and exist in fluid states of being and disappearing. Over time, this has developed into a deeper investigation of the tension that exists between our desire for permanence and the inevitability of our mortality.
‘There’s a paradox there that appealed to me. The desire to hold on to things even though it’s futile. Which I understand but there was something compelling about the idea that we attempt to preserve when we know that nothing lasts. Dust was teaching me that that was an idea I was interested in.”
And the works are often beautifully ornate. Dust, this annoying patina of life transformed into objects of richness and beauty.
“Decoration is something that exists, something that has its own agency, it sets things apart as special, we notice the difference. A beautifully cut crystal glass is of more value to us than a plastic cup. It speaks to us differently. But it is a value we place on it and values change.”
By way of explanation she gave me a potted history of lace. Originally made by hand, wearing lace was a sign of wealth and prestige. But the advent of the industrial revolution saw it suddenly being mass produced and while it was still relatively expensive, it was affordable by the middle class. With its lack of exclusivity, so went its value, its cache. And it has slid further down our value scale to a point where we now think of it as simply tacky or at best, quaint. “And yet lace itself hasn’t changed.”
Over a number of years she combined her ideas of decoration, the ambiguity of value and the nature of time and popped them in her “toolbox” slowly deepening her practice. Each work in some way informing the next.
“You carry with you the traces of all the work you have done previously. All your thoughts. Ideas that you play with and don’t do anything with often come back. Sometimes years later.”
A breakthrough of sorts came in the mid noughties with a work that had been slowly developed and refined in this way. ‘An Ordinary Kind of Ornament’, a series of oriental carpets made from dust attracted huge interest. Not just here but overseas. The successful coming together of what Hannah now sees as the second stage of her journey set her on a rapid rise. Shows in New York, Paris, international representation, all the trimmings.
But it came with a cost. For a number of years in Australia she was constantly asked to repeat shows on the same theme. By her own admission she began to feel lost. “I thought, dust carpets, maybe this is it, maybe I’m a one-trick pony.”
She settled in to writing a PhD to “change things up”.
“I love teaching and they said if you want to teach you need a PhD so I did the PhD and of course, you finish. It was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever had to do and there are no jobs, or they want a Cert 4 and you just…”
The finishing of the PhD led to six months working in a call centre. “I was really struggling to get there and then I decided I could make some work while I was on the phones. I started doing drawings on the back of bills, other minutia. I called it my studio B job.
”It was a tough period, her daughter left home, her dog died and her marriage of twenty years collapsed. She freely admits finding life a struggle. Even the work stopped providing solace. ‘I was stuck’.”
Main picture: Hannah Bertram’s Pheonix in Ruins at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris