Olivia Lacey, City Gallery Publicist, has a chat with Melbourne-based artist Jason Maling who is heading to Wellington with his project The Physician
1. You were raised in Wellington, can you tell us how that may have influenced your work as an artist…
I was born in Christchurch and moved to Wellington when I was six. Two of my strongest memories of growing up in Wellington were attending swimming lessons at the now derelict Boys Institute – it was an old 1930s indoor swimming pool – bleak as hell. The pool had no shallow end so they put packing crates on the bottom which became black and slippery with mould. A crusty old military guy called Mr Mclean barked at us until we nearly drowned. I forgot my togs one day and had to swim in my underpants – scarred me for life.
I used to adore the old National Museum with its long rooms of cabinets and pullout draws. It was my favourite place to visit. I don’t remember much about the art, more the curious arrangements of objects and animals which seemed so logical yet poetic. We lived in Eastbourne and my parents always encouraged me to draw and sent me off to classes at the Dowse Art Museum. I think that’s where I got a taste for the business.
2. There seems to usually be a comical element to your practice – is comedy something you have always been interested in? Are you ever concerned you will not be consider a ‘serious’ artist?
Comedy and satire have the capacity to disarm and disrupt. When done well they can open up spaces where difficult truths can be observed. Not all my work is humorous but in cases where people are choosing to commit and engage in a more intimate relationship with me and the project, it helps if there is a light hearted entry-point.
Yes, one risks not being considered as a ‘serious artist’. But that term is a myth that a voracious art world needs to believe in to keep things rolling. Hopefully those who engage with my work will realise it is a highly considered interplay of performative, sculptural, linguistic, graphic, social and contextual elements.
“Art is serious play” someone once said, and if we’re completely honest, ‘the arts’ is a nonsense industry. It’s about underpaid, self obsessed people making stuff up and pretending that it matters – what’s not funny about that?
3. The Physician was recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney – tell us about that...
The Physician was resident at the MCA Sydney as part of their refurbishment opening celebrations and a large number of people streamed through to check out the new building. I was there for two weeks and observed all manner of conditions. There was a high degree of Hegemonic Irritability which roughly translates to “where are the bloody toilets?” and “Can’t architects these days just put up some decent signs?”. There was a notable prevalence of Mystification Threshold Stress or “I’ve had enough of this bullshit but my girlfriend thinks it’s good for me”. These people are a delight to work with as they have something to prove.
The MCA has some vast gallery spaces and a personal highlight was a woman with Severe Analytic Disdain whose self-realised treatment involved skating on felt pads through the gallery while blindfolded.
4. What are your expectations for New Zealand patients and how do you think we’ll compare to those from Australia?
New Zealanders have a pathological need to believe that they are as good and secretly actually better at most things. I’m curious to see how this manifests itself. I’m speculating, but there is a stoicism that runs through the culture that may mean a reluctance to admit certain feelings or recognise symptoms.
We are told that interest in contemporary art throughout the western world has never been higher which seems to be in keeping with recent studies that indicate 1 in 5 visitors to major cultural institutions experience Nuance Hypotaxis and its sister condition Perceptual Narcolepsy. There is no reason to doubt the data and we can only hope that New Zealand is fairing better.
5. Have any of your own experiences with the medical profession influenced your methods?
I find the ‘theatre’ of medicine and therapy fascinating. It involves an act of faith in the culture and methods that surround a very intimate social ritual. There is submission, trust, honesty and hope – as well as strange interiors and very sculptural equipment - all powerful elements. Art can learn a lot.
Every time I have to see a medical ‘professional’, including practitioners like naturopaths and shiatsu specialists, I observe their clinical technique very closely. At the moment I’m really digging this acupuncturist in Melbourne who has a supremely cool and detached manner yet you still feel he cares. There is something about the way he rips open the wrappers on his tiny needles and applies alcoholic swabs that is deeply mysterious and beautiful. I’m sure a lot of doctors would agree that half the act of healing is done through the subtle power of a well developed bedside manner.
Once, at a particularly dull sporting event, I had a revealing chat with a St John’s ambulance medic. He told me it was all about how you look when you’re waiting for somebody to need you. It’s in the readiness, the gear, clean and neatly arranged, crisp sheets on the stretcher bed - a well stocked kit of bandages. People feel better just knowing you’re there. The hardest part of the job for him was always being ready.
I like to think of The Physician as the St John’s ambulance of the contemporary art world.
6. What do you hope patients will get out of a session with The Physician?
The Physician is appropriating a convention from one social field and seeing how it plays out in another. Galleries are places of reverent restraint where to some extent we are told to take our medicine - this is what you need to be a fully engaged member of society - culture is good for you. Institutions are the sticky syrup which can help the medicine go down but sometimes you can’t disguise the taste.
One of the challenges of the project is shifting people’s expectations of what usually happens in a gallery. I’m interested in exploring processes where the commonly understood roles and function of the artist, audience and context are dissolved. In a gallery, we’re used to being objectively removed from the ‘art’ that is being presented. One can certainly engage with The Physician from a distance and consider it a conceptual joke, but I’m hoping people will be intrigued enough to commit further and really enter into the work, by that I mean book a time to see me. I spend a dedicated period of time with each individual and it’s during this time that we have an opportunity to develop something unique. It’s a playful negotiation of you, me, the tools, the space, what, why, if only, so what?
7. Any words of wisdom or mantras to help us battle our cultural maladies on a day to day basis?
“The world is blue” – Yves Klein
8. Can you tell us about some of the other projects you’ve been involved in?
Perhaps the project most directly related to The Physician was The Vorticist where I offered my services as a public anomoly for three years in Melbourne. People came to see me via recommendations from past clients. They would visit me in a tiny nun's cell in a convent and a very specific ritual would take place. For a highly secretive project it generated a lot of interest. Over the years the mythology around my ‘services’ took on a rich life of its own. I published the notes from the first year of appointments in a book that was launched at the Royal Society of Science.
In Australia I work with a collective of artists under the moniker of Field Theory – we’re a type of advocacy group for difficult projects. Lately we’ve been developing a form of performance journalism that blends admin with the absurd - We’re hoping to to build a social monument to the abandoned Lancaster Park in Christchurch later on in the year.
There’s plenty more about my other disguises at www.jasonmaling.com
Jason Maling will be at City Gallery from 1-12 March, book now for your 45 minute appointment with The Physician.
Photos: Heidrun Lohr