Adam Stone: Grace, could you introduce the thematic concerns of the book and how you went about developing the suite of works in which it contains? As an outsider on the project, it seems quite ambitious to have created such an enormous volume of new works—are you quite prolific in your making? And therefore, is editing a significant part of your process?
Grace Wood: The title The hand of an armless statue refers to the Venus De Milo. I've been obsessed with the Venus De Milo statue, and all its reproductions, for such a long time. The idea was that the title speaks about these lost remnants of history (things you imagine as existing somewhere, but perhaps they never did) like Venus's hands. For me, this is like the way archives and collections of images work—there are always things missing, imagined, lacking.
The book uses my obscure archive of collected images to work through the strange connections that I have observed in art history. I have sought out, formed, and developed these connections. The works I have made with these images are a collection of attractive historical clutter, assembled for the viewer’s consumption.
In a rambling and disorganised way, the book traces accidental similarities between instantly recognisable artworks, their legacies, their makers, and consumers. I tried to think about the way easily discernible artworks have been repurposed and commercialised, like a Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons collaboration handbag with a Fragonard painting on it, or a Moschino dress with a Mondrian painting on it. These fashion objects are then consumed en masse, and the creators of the objects, and not the original artists, are those who reap the profits of cultural currency.
The book continues my compulsive practice of mining the internet for images, recontextualising them, placing them alongside other images they have never been next to before, giving them new meanings.
I was very excited about working in this small scale and wanted to make works that would be read similarly to a magazine, the scale being conducive to creating artworks akin to the advertisements for art and luxury fashion in contemporary advertising. I wanted the works to be playful and have links that carried throughout the 100 or so pages, but also for each double paged spread to stand on its own as an artwork that could be placed open and considered independently.
AS: How did the process of making a book differ as opposed to an exhibition? You have an astute sensibility for materiality and the conceptual weight and connotations that different photographic mediums or outputs have—how did you find the medium of a book carried these and were there any concessions or adjustments you had to make during the process?
GW: The biggest difference was the scale. Normally I work to a really large scale. I look at the size of the room, the architecture of the space, the lighting etc, and then formulate the installation of the works in relation to their surroundings with a strong focus on how viewers will interact with the works when they visit the exhibition space.
For the book, I was constrained to a very small size, which in some ways gave me a lot of freedom in the work I was able to produce, because I wasn’t restricted by having to source images that could be blown up and printed at such a large size. The works, although quite detached from my day to day life in their subject matter, have a closeness and intimacy for me because of the amount of time I spent with them and the closeness I was working at.
Usually because my works are larger I spend a lot more time on the composition, knowing they will be viewed from afar before they are inspected closely (if they even are). With the works for the book, I went into the process knowing I had a kind of captive audience who would be sitting with this object, and flipping through it at a close proximity from the beginning. This gave me freedom to focus more intensely on creating a flow from one image to the next and balancing the composition of the book as a whole instead of image by image.
Usually I create a body of work around a distinct colour palette that has emerged through the sourcing of the reference images and artworks I’ve accumulated for the project. With the book however I felt freed to have an image that was very dark, or quite blown out, or with colours that completely clashed from those in the image on the previous page.
In a way the book was more conceptually resolved for me than my exhibitions often feel. Maybe this is also due to the length of time I had to spend with the completed works before we actually went to the publishing phase - there was so much back and forth in the editing phase that I kept changing and refining the work for a period of about 6 months after I’d already created it. The turnaround for exhibitions is quite different as once I’ve finished the works I send them to be printed and then I step into the next phase of building and installing, where I use the finished artworks as a kind of source material to construct the exhibition environment.
AS: You were also working on a solo exhibition at the gallery in conjunction with your book, which was your first in the gallery’s new Richmond space. You responded to the architecture with a major spatial intervention. How was the process of making the works for the exhibition and how did it differ to the book.
GW: I was very excited to have my first show in the new space because I love considering the architecture of a room and how my works can sit within it. I usually don’t start making a work until I know the dimensions of the space it will sit in, as working with digital media it’s important to have the final works to the right scale, as I often work with different sized images within the collages and need to consider the final sizes of the works.
I started considering using a structure to divide the space and wanted to work with the idea of a bed or mattress. I had recently given birth to my daughter and was completely in the throes of navigating parenthood for the first time when I was making the works for the exhibition. With a newborn baby, so much of the past six months of my life had been structured around sleep (and lack of), and I wanted to consider the loaded nature of a mattress as a place where relationships are formed, built, and changed. I ended up building a freestanding wall to sit in the middle of the space that was a similar size to our mattress at home, but painting it a blue colour that was reminiscent of the walls of the hospital I visited so much during my pregnancy.
Two works hanging from the ceiling in front of the wall were then printed on cotton and to me brought a lighter, airier feeling to the show that balanced against the weight and girth of the wall.
I really enjoy the challenges of presenting image based works in a physical space and for me making a show like this is so enjoyable, I love the process of painting and building within the space. I find it gives me time to sit with the works in a different way and consider their relationships to each other, and how the space can enhance that through the painting of walls or building of structures.
AS: The imagery in your exhibition Thirsty, provided some departure from recent bodies of work, this time reflecting inwardly on your experience of motherhood. It felt like the works in this exhibition preference a sense of vulnerability and personal experience over academic critique of image culture and theory—is that a reasonable observation? And where has it led your practice?
GW: I find I have the tendency to mythologise my own life. I am constantly playing a join the dots in my head between what I'm experiencing and what I’ve read in books, and seen in artworks and film. The idea of motherhood as an extremely loaded topic that’s been considered over and over again in art and culture, and I felt I was able to use my own experience to add to the narrative.
I assembled, digitally flattened, and printed my works onto silk, cotton and paper for this show. They depict fluids dripping onto artificial foliage, murky water cascading from fountains, and plants growing in impossible configurations. Found photographs and my own iphone snaps sit amongst digital reproductions of historically significant artworks. Commonly recognisable paintings and sculptures are recontextualised and transformed into vessels for flowers and background scenery for gardens which I hope are simultaneously beautiful and unnatural.
Due to my daughter being born very small, and subsequent medical issues, I breastfed almost constantly for the first 6 months of her life, and this completely pervaded my works. I looked at the idea of the fountain of life and the fountain of youth in mythology and art history, and the way artists have used water and fountains in artworks. One of the works features an image of an installation Olafur Eliasson made at Versailles of a huge jet of water shooting up into the sky, which I find very phallic and masculine but also soft, with its liquidity. This eruption of water sits among pink flowers and roses, symbolic of gender and youth, a little manufactured Garden of Eden. On top of this is an old water fountain, from which spurts of a white substance are dribbling. For me, it is milk, although there is definitely a way of reading this as another bodily fluid. There is an element of the abject in these works that I have tried to use to subvert the sweetness of the flowers and cherubs that float throughout.
In another collage, one of the most instantly recognisable artworks of the twentieth century, Duchamp’s Fountain, has been redrawn digitally and is placed among a garden i’ve photoshopped from the bouquets of flowers I received upon my arrival home from the hospital after my daughter's birth. The hardness and grossness of a urinal, bringing with it the baggage of being the symbol of the “birth of the readymade”, sits among photographic mementos of this life changing time in my life, being the creation of a human being. And all of the bodily messiness that comes with that.
The myths of The Fountain(s) of Life and Youth have been regularly depicted throughout art history and continue to pervade popular culture as symbols of birth, youth and regeneration. I used the ideas of the fountains in the works for this show to examine fertility, growth, nourishment and transfer of life source. The fountains are reimagined as being responsible for cultivating strange gardens and creating unusual growth, in gardens I’ve collaged using my own images and those I’ve found.
So, art history is definitely still prevalent within the works, but the lines between art history and my history are more blurred than usual here, and my own experience and the correlating images I’ve taken do feature in the works more heavily than they have before.
AS: You’re currently working on a large scale photographic installation for Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), are there any specific thematic concerns that this work is addressing?
GW: I’ve been working on this project for almost a year now and it’s one of the most rigorous creative processes I’ve ever been through, with a lot of back and forth with the curators, exhibition managers, and NGV staff, and a lot of changes required to my works. To a large extent I think this is because of the requirements that come with working with the archive of such a large institution.
For the commission I have been given access to the NGV digital image archives, and am utilising this expansive archive (which features over a million images) to source images for my works. The images used in the installation include recognisable artworks, my reinterpretation of artworks within the NGV collection, documentation of artworks, images which are narrative tools, and become archival tools for the NGV’s conservation department.
I previously worked with the Royal Botanic Gardens digital archive to realise a suite of works for the PHOTO 2021 Festival. Their archive was considered as a resource for knowledge and documentation of the history of the gardens. The NGV archive is completely different as it holds documentation of internal processes and conservation practices, and includes pictures of rare and famous artworks in differing states. It has been so interesting to navigate this and learn about the way these images can or cannot be viewed and used by the public.
I am unable to keep many of the images that I had originally used from the archive in the final works, due to copyright or privacy concerns. Because of this, these images have then formed the basis of a set of strange composite images I’ve created, using images in the public domain and from my own collection to create collages that are copies of the images removed. I have made new images, which look very similar to the originals but are completely constructed from other unrelated images.
These hybrid Frankenstein images have come about from the necessity of keeping compositional balance in the collages without being able to keep the images I used to construct them. This process has been borne out of the institutional constraints however now is very much an important part of the work, which I've found fascinating to see unfold. It speaks to so many things I am interested in—the way image archives are created, preserved, protected and kept, and the way this affects the viewing, understanding and usage of the images contained within them.
The commission is a series of six large images, which will be installed in the gallery as three double-sided hanging structures hanging from the ceiling with wire and rope. The hanging structures have fabric installed on one side and photographic vinyl printed on the alternating side, and there is a lot of play between the materiality of the objects found in the images, the images themselves, and the way these images have been printed. The series is titled “Slide”, and whilst referencing the medium of slide film, it interrogates the 'slippery' nature of contemporary images and the way they resist categorisation.
For instance, in one work I have used a David Shrigley drawing of a man as inspiration, but redrawn the image in my own likeness. I have then used this drawing as an outline which I've “coloured in” using photographs of different fabrics from the NGV collection. This work is printed on photographic vinyl. On the other side of this work, sits a fabric work which has as its focus an old Robert Adamson photograph of a woman from the NGV collection which I’ve altered and put alongside some text sourced from David Shrigley’s original work.
This layering and evolution from the source imagery to the presented works has been a really interesting way to work. The works are still changing now, two months out from the opening of the exhibition, as they continue to undergo reviews from different departments within the NGV.