PENELOPE CAIN: In conversation

A conversation with interdisciplinary artist Penelope Cain on their current exhibition 'Dump' open now at Kudos Gallery.

Could you tell us about your interest in Kudos Gallery and your interests in your works?

I was really interested in the Kudos Gallery space because it’s a nice large clean space and there is an opportunity to use walls and the central gallery space. It’s an opportunity to be a bit more experimental and expansive in relation to materiality, scale and spatial occupation.

My broader interest is in landscape- both through the museum gaze (the history of landscape in art), and its cultural and spatial understanding. I’m especially interested in landscape as a cultural construction, and even of placemaking, as described by the historian Simon Scharma, who proposes that ‘Landscapes are culture before they are nature’. (1 Simon Scharma, Landscape and Memory, 1995, p61.)

I find this idea interesting- that landscape is an experience, (as opposed to isolated land and space) and does not exist except as its being touched, experienced or viewed by human. There is this nineteenth century German word, ’Kulturelandschaft’ that means landscape made by culture, as separate to untouched land-scape. I feel as if this term is even more relevant now, in the post-colonial, late-capitalist Anthropocene, where almost everywhere on earth bears the marks of humans, through climate change and environmental residues of human activities.

Could you tell us about your work in Kudos Gallery?

Across last year, I was reflecting on 19th century colonial landscapes to kind of pivot and talk about contemporary landscapes and issues of land and power. Through that research I came across a small piece of compelling colonial history- Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s holey dollar- which seemed to resonate with the research I’d been doing. The early colonists ran out of currency in the Sydney colony – there had been no thought around infrastructure for a local economy as it was just a penal colony. So people were trading in rum, IOUs and residual foreign coins, until Lachlan Macquarie shipped in a consignment of Spanish silver peso and then had a hole punched in the centre. This made the one coin into two coins and like some kind of act of currency magic, he doubled the amount of coins he had. Each of the coins had a different value. The inner coin was called the ‘dump’ and that’s where the name for the show comes from, as well as being a pejorative term for crappy land.

For me, this coin contained an intriguing narrative around colonialism, trade, extractive economics and power, that extended across time from then to now, so I used it to take a different tack to kind of mapping the cultural and temporal landscape around the coin.

What would you say is the purpose of your art? Is it to produce a narrative or is it more related to social commentary?

I think it’s probably a mixture of both. Because of my science background, I’m interested in opening a line of inquiry- this includes framing and then testing the original idea, much like testing a hypothesis. In this particular instance, I am partly trying to test the idea that Macquarie’s silver coin could initiate such a broad a narrative journey between these elements of land, money and power, but that it could also link narratively to the contemporary anthropogenic landscape that we are surrounded by now, and touching on environmental concerns that weigh on us all now. But there is also just this kind of simple curiosity in testing a proposition.

So just to clarify, your science background is from your university studies…

Yes, I did a veterinary science degree and then I went and worked. I always wanted to get to Art School -so I eventually returned to uni.

How would you describe your art practice in three words?
1. Curiosity
2. Propositional- so this idea about coming up with a hypothesis and testing that.
3. Materiality-I’m quite materially lead- I try to respond directly to the materials and let them be an experimental locus.

What kind of advice could you share to a younger artist who is unsure about what kind of materials they would like to practice in? 

I think that its sometimes a good opportunity to make yourself feel uncomfortable with materials. I undertook my undergraduate degree in print making in Canberra and found learning etching and lithography to be really technical and process driven, and sort of painful. Often times, though, the most interesting things occurred when the materials went wrong having to struggling against a problem in the act of printing was where the best experimental outcomes occurred. So for example I was always trying to work my way around how not to etch on paper and I ended up experimenting with fabric and felt. Sometimes the challenges thrown up by materials are really worth digging into.

So I guess your advice would be to really grapple with your struggles and embrace them…

Yeah, don’t be afraid to fail but look at where that struggle is because that’s often where the innovation occurs.

Interview conducted by Suji Shin as part of the White Cube Volunteer Program

Image: View across the hill (biomapping with bees), video still, 2018