While preparing for my latest exhibition, Auxlang, I was looking for a phrase that would express communication in a different way to everyday speaking, and I came across the phrase ‘auxiliary language’, which is abbreviated to auxlang. An auxiliary language is one that is used by two speakers who don’t have a first language in common. For example in Europe, a Russian and a French Speaker might use English as an auxiliary language. I guess sculpture, and art more generally, can be considered an auxiliary language that we use to say things that are difficult to express in words.
The thing with auxlangs, though, is that not being our first language, often people are not as expert as they would like to be in expressing themselves. Sometimes the message that is received is not actually the same as the one that was sent in the first place. This can have amusing results. I remember ages ago when I was studying science, one of my lecturers used to sit on United Nations panels discussing marine issues. Apparently the protocol there was to translate everything into a particular language, transcribe it, and then translate it into the languages of everyone present. Vernacular phrases tended not to survive this process intact. The Professor gave the example of somebody saying in English ‘out of sight, out of mind’, which eventually came back re-translated as ‘invisible idiot’.
Obviously this sort of thing was not quite what the UN was aiming for – indeed misunderstandings like that could have quite serious consequences when it comes to international relations – but when it happens in art, when somebody receives a different message to the one the artist had in mind, I actually think it’s a bonus. It is broadening the range of thoughts that happen in the world. It happens because we have imaginations, because we make associations, things remind us of other things. Two hands thrown up in the air will mean different things to different people, and in different contexts.
I must confess I don’t have a very good understanding of how electronics and modern digital communications work. But I was interested to read recently that the old telephone wire I use in my work, which is PVC coated copper wire, has been replaced by optic fibres in many instances around the world, because it suffers from something called ‘crosstalk’, which is where unintended signals jump between wires and circuits where they’re not supposed to go. It seemed like an appropriate characteristic for the material I am using as an auxlang.
Hands appear in my work quite often. Hands are very powerful signals for us humans. We have a lot of nerve endings in our hands compared to many other places in our bodies, and a great deal of brain space devoted to processing the nerve signals that come from our hands, and to controlling the movements of our hands. We have been wired through evolution to pay attention to what other people are doing with their hands, as well as to their faces. Our survival often depended upon it. Most of us these days spend a good deal of time sending digital signals with our hands – by typing on a computer or a smartphone. Thousands of years ago, people were also spending a good deal of time sending digital signals with their hands and fingers, as they communicated silently while hunting, for instance.
The connection between the digital and the digital has often been on my mind since I started working with telephone wire a few years ago. I was fortunate to acquire a stash of telephone wire from another basketry artist whose son used to work for Telstra and who had lots of offcuts lying around the yard. I was attracted to it because it was waste material, which I always like to work with – a lot of my work is actually about the wastefulness and excesses of modern life. I was also attracted to the wire because of its bright colours, and because of its slenderness, which mean I can use it to draw quite fine lines in the air.
When I draw on paper, it is often with fine lines – similar thickness to the telephone wire actually – so as a medium there is something about it that just feels right to me. Because it’s very slender, it’s not strong enough to hold its shape easily, which makes it necessary to use a lot of it, make a lot of lines, to create a form with enough strength to stand alone – and that also attracts me because I’ve always liked complex, detailed drawings and forms and patterns. I’m also a bit of a scribbler, on paper, which is probably why I like random weaving, which is a kind of directed scribbling.
In this post I have dwelled somewhat upon the subject of misunderstandings. Part of why I make art is that I feel it’s hard to make myself understood a lot of the time – I am the very cliche of the misunderstood artist – but funnily enough I don’t mind if people misunderstand my art. By which I mean, they don’t get what it was that I was trying to say, but will take something different from the work. As long as somebody likes looking at my work, I am happy to take the role of the invisible idiot.
My exhibition is on at Clara Street Gallery, Erskineville, until 25 June 2017.