Gabriella Hirst: Force Majeure

To my eye, no doubt informed by my own career in the arts, Force Majeure is a no-holds-barred satire of the artistic life. It’s as broad as you can get and refreshingly direct, an elegant slice of Gothic slapstick. Sydney-born, London-based artist Gabriella Hirst speaks to the gap between expectation and outcome, between what we imagined and planned for and what we find ourselves enduring, day-to-day.

Stage one is development. The artist prepares her materials. Thinks. Waits for inspiration. She’s alone in a desolate place. The locked-off frame reveals a clifftop and the ocean far below. It’s windy and the sound recording distorts a little, as tends to happen outdoors. The blank paper on the easel in front of her dominates her thoughts as much as the landscape itself, her subject. It’s not easy to be here, in this moment. It hurts. The only cure is to begin. She’ll pick up her palette and brush. She’ll make a mark on the paper, soon. She is an artist so she’d better begin. Everything is ready. Everything is as it should be. Art is about to ensue. It’s all fine. It’s fine. Any minute now.

We shift with a jolt into stage two, production. It’s a sudden cut, the only one used in the piece, and we find the artist absent from the frame. Her easel has fallen over and she enters the frame to rescue it. The wind is overpowering now, the distortion unpleasant. What was born in innocence comes to bloody fruition, revealed in its true shape. A living nightmare. Chaos. Unpredictability. The elements are indifferent to her suffering. Her smock billows around her as she battles a dark cloud that threatens to engulf. She persists, yet can’t even get the easel to stay upright, let alone think about what she’s doing, let alone create. She’s stopped asking herself, ‘What do I feel? What do I want to express?’ Now she only wonders, ‘Can I carry on?’ But of course she does. There’s no choice.

‘Artist’ is an identity with a set of established behaviours attached. Work hard. Explore. Endure. Go deeper. But what if you can’t get out of the starting blocks, so to speak? What if your trajectory is not from triumph to triumph, from project to project, but to oscillate between depressed anticipation and the quagmire of making, with nothing in between? What if, after all, there’s no safe space? No way to avoid the messiness? And just think, everything you’ve schemed over and hoped for might be a mistake. It might be blown away without warning. Your position is more precarious than you’ve been willing to admit up until now. But you’ve got to laugh. Briony Kidd

Since graduating from both COFA (College of Fine Arts, now UNSW Art & Design, 2010) and the National Art School (Honours in 2012), Sydney-born artist Gabriella Hirst has established an international practice extending her training in painting and drawing into conceptual modes of video, performance, sculpture and installation. Via email she told RealTime about her trajectory since her art school days in Sydney, her creative impetuses and what living, studying and working in Paris, Berlin and London has brought to her art-making practice.


The road to performativity

I completed a BFA in painting at COFA in 2010, and then went on to do Honours in drawing at NAS in 2012. I had started out pretty singularly focused on painting, on being a ‘painter’s painter,’ but slowly my focus shifted towards a more performative, less material-specific way of working. I think this started when I went on student exchange to Italy to a research-heavy laboratorio-based uni during my undergrad, which COFA enabled. But I would say that it was not until Honours (in Drawing, in a very expanded sense) at NAS that I became more comfortable with working in a cross-disciplinary manner where research and adopted medium are in constant interplay.

Art schools & arts ecology

It’s also so brilliant to see the communities that have been formed by those with whom I spent those formative art study years. I’m geographically separate right now, but when I visit and am in touch through friends it’s obvious from my point of view that such a huge part of the arts ecosystem starts out within the art schools. It seems so simple but art communities thrive on communication and a healthy art school system provides the time and space for those conversations to start, and those conversations become exhibitions or publications, or bands or radio stations or festivals without which a city’s cultural life is unimaginable. The more years pass, the more I see my former art school colleagues at the helm of the Australian cultural community, the more I value these original meeting places and believe they need to be supported and valued.


Into the world

I was very lucky to receive the Marten Bequest travelling scholarship [in 2013], which enabled two years of living overseas, during which time I undertook a residency in Paris and then gradually moved to Berlin. Those first two years in particular I was like a sponge just taking everything in, jumping all over the place to do projects with people I met by chance. I stayed in Berlin for almost three years and I really got stuck into work. Contrary to what some may imagine the city to be like, Berlin really allowed me to focus on my research, to dig in. I moved to London in September to begin studying again and this has been super-transformative. Being here, more than anywhere else, has already pushed me to experiment and untangle my work — a combination of the class being made up of a dynamic group of artists and London’s crazy pace.


The appeal of the failure of representation

For a while something that occupied my work was my experience of distance — how the perception of physical distance is condensed and stretched. In relation to this I started looking into star-gazing and archeology, a longing to bring closer what is intangible, and through these routes I became interested in Romanticism and the failure of representation, but taking all of the grandiosity of these traditions with a large grain of salt, focusing on the humour or at least the absurdity of these gestures. I tend to get stuck on super-poetic narratives that I come across and pull material out of them to reinterpret or inhabit.

The failure of representation in general is an ongoing concern and sooner or later all the video versions of Force Majeure will corrupt and disappear too. So you can take the edges of one way of doing or making and see how they blur into another field or format, and then you see this fatigue in human effort and activity (in the Western art historical canon at least) that just keeps on going and going. It’s not even failure because failure requires an end, when at best you just have a momentary pause, and then someone picks up a new tool and tries to accomplish the same thing with that.

For more about Force Majeure, which was shot on the island Rügen in northern Germany where Caspar David Friedrich went to paint in the early 1800s, visit Gabriella Hirst’s website which shows the ‘finished’ paintings installed with the video.

Force Majeure was commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Melbourne, for the exhibition NEW16 curated by Annika Kristensen, 5 March-8 May, 2016.

6 September 2017