‘Roots and Rootlessness’: an interview with artist Antonia Dewhurst

Toni DewhurstTo set the scene for our conversation, Toni, can we look briefly back to 2011 as a year which seemed to bring to fruition a number of your projects and seemed a period of culmination – is that how it felt to you? Are you able to name/summarise your highlights for us?

A number of projects did come to fruition that year and I certainly imagined, early in the year, that there would be some sort of sense of culmination, particularly around completing my degree in Fine Art. I had fondly imagined that I would graduate, have a break of a few weeks, take stock and then feel my way into my practice again in the autumn.  It didn’t happen that way. Gratifyingly, I was offered a number of exhibiting opportunities including a first solo show at The Last Gallery in Llangadog, South Wales and, excitingly, the chance to exhibit with Lois Williams at Artisterium, an international art event in Tbilisi, Georgia . As if that wasn’t enough, I also began working as a gallery assistant at Oriel Mostyn.

Yes – congratulations. I came to your degree exhibition and what I remember was your exploration of ‘home’ with images of nests and that wonderful ‘box’ the spectator looks into, to view a cottage room from different angles. What do you call that ‘box’ and can you say a touch more about it, along with the exploration of the themes you were working on then?

I never found a satisfactory name for the ‘box’, I referred to it for ages as the ‘set’ as it was originally constructed as a set to shoot the video in and then seemed too interesting in its own right to just discard. It grew out of a childhood experience of lying on the bed and suddenly experiencing the ceiling as the floor; not imagining it as the floor in a detached intellectual sort of way, but experiencing it as the floor with a disorienting jolt like stepping off a pavement in a dream. I was suddenly in a strange world where I had to step over thresholds to pass from room to room and light-fittings rose on impossibly slender stalks from the floor. It was uncluttered and beautiful. I tried to capture the sensation by actually videoing in the house upside down but it didn’t do justice to the experience, hence the ‘set’ which, after a lot of experimenting with lighting, finally allowed a dreamlike progress round this peculiar and rather creepy world. Freud’s unheimlich/unhomely, the familiar rendered unfamiliar, a deliberate attempt to invoke in the viewer something of my childhood disorientation.

Detail from Preswylio/Dwell installation, Antonia Dewhurst, June 2011
Detail from Preswylio/Dwell installation, Antonia Dewhurst, June 2011

 And have you left behind those themes of ‘habitation’/’inhabitation’? I imagine not, given your more recent very striking ‘huts’ and last year’s big creative adventure, Y Ty Unnos -? It was the huts that you exhibited at Tbilisi, wasn’t it?

No, you’re quite right these themes are an abiding preoccupation in my work, an extension of my own search for what or where home might be, which seems to strike a chord with others. The huts are imaginary structures assembled from dozens of small digital images. They are largely unplanned and evolve from the base up into the final miniature dwelling. They are always dwellings, that is huts rather than sheds, and they are always on their own.

To me each is a little poem about existence, architecture as a metaphor for the human condition.

The huts were part of an installation gimme shelter which was selected for the National Eisteddfod in 2011, in an expanded format, for Artisterium IV in Tbilisi.and again, last Summer, in Oriel Davies’s Testbed gallery in Newtown.

One Room Living, Antonia Dewhurst and Lois WilliamsState Academy of Art, Tbilisi 2011
One Room Living, Antonia Dewhurst and Lois Williams
State Academy of Art, Tbilisi 2011

 

'gimme shelter', Antonia Dewhurst, 2011
‘gimme shelter’, Antonia Dewhurst, 2011

Ty Unnos, Antonia Dewhurst - 5am, 20th July 2012

Ty Unnos, Antonia Dewhurst – 5am, 20th July 2012 

 

Ty Unnos was the culmination of a residency, arranged by Oriel Davies and funded by Arts Council of Wales; it was built, following the Ty Unnos (One-Night House) tradition, between sunset and sunrise and had smoke rising from its chimney at dawn.

I like the sound of your process, in that your direction emerges ‘from the base up’. Does this method of working apply to just the huts (which do need a literal base-up approach, I suppose) or is that how you work more generally i.e. finding your way by working your materials?

Sometimes ideas come into my head fully formed and I simply have to carry them out (Ty Unnos came to me while running at Aber and it was simply a matter of finding materials and a site); at other times I have the tyranny of the blank sheet of paper, then I resort to the tried and trusted method of simply making stuff. Something about the act of making frees up the part of my brain that produces ideas and something grows from the process.

materials for Stable, ADVENTurous, Engedi Arts, Colwyn Bay, December 2012
materials for Stable, ADVENTurous, Engedi Arts, Colwyn Bay, December 2012

The Ty Unnos was a fascinating and exciting project. Could you say a touch more about the Ty Unnos tradition, for readers outside of Wales? Did you plan and build it in a similar way to your miniatures, i.e. in a ‘largely unplanned’ and evolving way, or was there some kind of plan, given the pressure of time to get it built?

The Ty Unnos (One-night House) tradition stated that if a house could be built between sunset and sunrise and have smoke coming from its chimney, then the house could be kept, along with the land as far as a hammer or axe could be thrown from the four quarters. It is thought to date back to the days of Hywel Dda, around the 9th and 10th centuries; it was never law in more recent times but seems to be have been accepted. Around the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th centuries, over 5000 Enclosure Acts were passed and common land passed into private ownership. People lost their traditional rights to graze, collect peat and so on; the resultant poverty and homelessness lead to a peak in the Ty Unnos tradition. The buildings were always intended to be temporary, built out of whatever was to hand, turf, gorse, hazel or willow; once the claim was established then more permanent materials could be assembled and a Ty Newydd (New House) could be built. No original Ty Unnos survives, but clues still exist in house names like Ty Newydd or Corn Helyg (Willow Chimney).

There was no formal plan for the full size Ty Unnos, but, like the miniatures, I started with a base, in this case a raft of wooden pallets, which dictated the shape of the roof to a great extent. I pre-assembled rafters and cut uprights for the wall, so that had a pre-planned height, this sped things along on the night. I knew where the door, main window, and chimney would be, the rest evolved as we built. It was a great privilege working with the team that night and a highlight was seeing people getting into the process and taking ownership of individual parts of the build.

From your work, you seem very interested in exploring ‘the local’ – in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Would this be a fair thing to say? And how much does Wales influence you as an artist?

I haven’t really explored ‘the local’ directly as a topic in my work, but it inveigles itself indirectly as I deal with ideas around home and dwelling and, again indirectly, roots and rootedness or rootlessness.

I suppose it arises more as a series of questions really:

Local to what?

To home? Where’s that?

To where I live? Is that significant? Is it worth investing in emotionally if it isn’t ‘home’? Is that a decision I can make?

My work is an exploration of these questions, but I think I’m more interested in my emotional reaction and the reactions of others, than I am in pinning down any hard and fast answers. In fact my work is always made by ‘feel’ first; any intellectual engagement or justification is always retrospective.

The wider question of Wales repeats the same questions, I suppose, but with an added complication. It’s not sufficient for me to decide whether or not I belong to a culture, other people can have opinions on that too. I feel I fall between two cultural stools in Wales because I was brought up, by my Welsh-speaking mother, to speak English. I suppose this feeling of rootlessness informs much of my work and may be behind my fascination with the Ty Unnos and its theme of encroachment, of building where you are not allowed, but feel you belong.

Above you say: ‘To me each [hut] is a poem about existence, architecture as a metaphor for the human condition’ and I remember you telling me about exhibiting them, stressing the importance of their being on their own separate plinths. What do they say to you, then, these huts, about existence – what do they symbolise for you? Not that I am expecting you to be able to give me a definitive explanation, of course!

The huts are little metaphors for life in the 21st century. They are small, fragile and alone. I think they also have a certain air of defiance about them and, though I shouldn’t say this myself, I think they reveal a certain amount of beauty in the colours and textures of their materials.

Does mindfulness play any part for you in making art and also ‘receiving’ it?

 I said earlier, I think, that I make work by feel first and then tend to find links with concerns and previous work in retrospect, often overlooking quite obvious connections which simply weren’t important during the process of making.

When I enter the studio intending to make work I deliberately induce a state of melancholy mindfulness; I usually play carefully chosen music while in transit (often Grandaddy or Smog – they do it for me) and spend some time in silence before I begin. The work is made in this state and my only ambition for it, I think, is that it will prick the bubble of everyday existence for some viewers and induce the same state in them, albeit briefly. I think that is what constitutes art, whatever the medium.

Rhwng II, Antonia Dewhurst 2009
Rhwng II, Antonia Dewhurst 2009

Do you want to say anything about influences?

We had to give a 20 minute presentation on influences to our contemporaries at college. Instead I made a 14 minute video on inspirations instead. I called it “That Feel” and used a series of Ms as the skeleton:

Music, melancholy, mindfulness, metaphor, magic, mortality

It is these that inspire me to make work. Jimi Hendrix has been a much greater influence than any visual artist,;not just his music, but the sense of freedom and danger. That said, of course I do admire the work of many artists: seeing Helen Frankenthaler’s All About Blue at Tate Liverpool was largely responsible for my return to art and I enjoy the work of Lindsay Seers, Roni Horn and Rosa Barba among others.

And into what stream of (art) tradition might you position yourself, if asked to do so?

I mightn’t – unless there’s a tradition for people who just make stuff.

A yes – well, the root word of ‘poetry’ is poesis which means ‘to make’ – so maybe you’re making ‘poems’?

 I hadn’t realised that, Fiona, but it certainly fits with how I’ve been thinking about Art for some time now; I think it was the Dalai Lama who said “A day where you don’t think about death is a day wasted” (apologies for not having the exact quote). I think, whatever the medium we have chosen to work in, we’re all making poems about death.

 A good place to end. Thanks Toni!

 

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