'Studio: Steaphan Paton' for NGV Magazine
While sitting in award-winning artist Steaphan Paton’s Brunswick East studio,
he assures me that the mess enveloping us is part of his creative process.
‘I’ve always seen my studio as a workspace, and workspaces are not clean’,
he asserts. I believe him. Paton gives the impression he knows exactly where
everything is here. Unlike some studios visits, this does not feel like a
contrived viewing. I do not get the sense that Paton has thought of hurriedly
tidying up. True to his word, his studio is unapologetically a space for making
work; in 2016 he has held two solo shows and been involved seven group
exhibitions, and his studio splashed with work both in-progress and complete.
Paton is unassumingly prolific.
‘I’m in and out of here’, he says, rattling off the multiple jobs, all with
different skill sets, he takes on in order to get by. Today he has just returned
from a shift of archaeological fieldwork. ‘It’s not as glamorous as people think’,
he says. ‘Today I was out in a paddock full of cow shit digging through gravel
and compacted silt.’ He is still wearing his work clothes. After our interview
there’s a university essay to complete – Paton is in the final stretch of a
Master of Contemporary Art at the Victorian College of the Arts. Then there’s
the admin that comes with running the N/A studio and project space in
Brunswick East, as well as the hustle of being an artist in Melbourne.
‘Sometimes I think I might have bitten off more than I can chew’, he admits
with a strained laugh. The workload is not glamorous. We talk about the arts
environment at length and agree that these are strange days for culture. Later
when the word ‘class’ comes up, Paton sits up in his chair, more assertive
than I have ever seen him, and says ‘Nobody wants to talk about this right
I have known Steaphan for a while, but this is the first time I have ever
been to his studio. ‘I don’t show many people my studio’, he says deadpan. A
regular at a cafe I worked at down the road, he’d come in and we’d have
these brief and intense chats about Australia. He Gunai man, and I’m the son
of Turkish immigrants. I recall our last two discussions at the cafe vividly. The
first was just after I had returned from a long stay in Turkey, and I remember
saying to Steaphan, ‘I see this place, our home, with new eyes now, the way
we live here seems strange, but I’m not sure how long this sense will last’.
Our second discussion was about the struggle of being a young artist in
Australia today. ‘We are the last children of the welfare state’, I recall saying.
And so it seems fitting now that we are able to pick up where we left off.
We end up meeting in his studio on two other occasions, but I never
see him in the act of making work. He prefers it that way. It speaks to a
subject we keep returning to – the tension between sacredness and the forces
of industry. ‘Nothing is sacred here anymore’, I lament. It is precisely this
tension that charges his work. Paton is a political artist. He describes in
gripping detail two ‘transformative’ car accidents he survived as a youth in
Gippsland, speaking with gravity about life, death and responsibility. ‘I realised
that your time is pretty limited … What are we doing here? What am I doing
here? What’s my purpose? I don’t know … but I believe my purpose is a
cultural purpose, this (points around his studio) has something to do with it,
but it’s not everything.’
Paton is known largely for his work in the NGV Collection featuring
traditional shields, Cloaked combat, 2013, and for the work made with
photographer Cam Cope, Boorun’s Canoe: Birrarung, Bunjilaka, 2012, at
Melbourne Museum, which tells the story of how he and other family members
were taught how to build a bark canoe by his grandfather, senior Gunai elder
Uncle Albert Mullett. In the studio Paton hands me a boomerang, and its
weightiness in my palm mesmerises me. ‘I make objects not products. Each
object is filled with a level of spirit’, he says. As an artist he refuses to be
simplified, working across various media – painting, sculpture, video and
photography – and without the shackles of a mechanical style. The industry
deems him a Contemporary Aboriginal Artist, a label he rejects: ‘The main
problem is that Australia and everywhere else sees Contemporary Aboriginal
Art as one cultural entity, as a genre, so you have to make work that fits the
genre, that fits the look created by their stereotypes and perceptions’.
Paton’s work is compelling and urgent. He is a seer who does not need
to leave Australian shores to see the country for what it is; there’s a
groundedness to him, an essential way of being. He is able to be while many
of us only manage to do. Is that down to his knowledge and experience as a
Gunai man? It must be part of it. His sculptural work, Wallung Githa, 2015, is
made from the smashed remains of a monument to colonial explorer Angus
McMillan, the man who led the massacres against the Gunai people in
Gippsland. It is one of the more powerful works I have seen in recent times.
I think of Paton as a comrade warring against the colonialist mentality
which still dogs certain aspects of Australia, which acts to narrow and simplify
our collective imagination and works to impoverish our national spirit. There is
the stench of shame and denial trailing us, just one step behind, as we are
flung all together into the future. Paton leads; his work demands a bigness
and generosity of spirit from us all. He is a model for us who strive to add
complexity and colour to our sense of nationhood, expanding our vision to
include the new while also looking back in order to look ahead.
Wheeler Centre excerpt – Deranged Collector
I’d fallen into a strange cave dripping with bric-a-brac stalactites. The faint sound of my steps echoed damply through the air. I sensed I was being watched. There were blow-up sex dolls with startled expressions — mouths wide open and big red lips and arms at right-angles. There were naked mannequins, pinup-girl posters, ventriloquist dolls, a garden gnome, gas masks and military helmets. Everything was obsessively arranged, creating the sense that each item had materialised in position. Feeling more cramped than I probably was, I kept my elbows tucked into my sides as I shuffled through the space, starting to sweat. I didn’t feel like I could touch anything, wake anything up. Even though I’d never liked rings — this probably stemmed from Dad having never allowed me to wear jewellery, men don’t wear jewellery, but also from an irrational fear that they’d get stuck on my fingers — I picked one up and tried it quickly on my little finger before putting it back down. In one corner there were all these beautiful empty tins and boxes flecked with rust — washing powders, soaps, shaving creams, hair creams, face powders. There was brylcream and brilliantine. Turkish adjectives for cleanliness flew into my head. I whispered them under my breath. Piril piril. Tertemiz. Mis gibi.
Shaun Thatcher - Phrenology Exhbition Catalogue Essay
Phrenology represents Shaun Thatcher's desire to unify hand, mind and eye using oil on canvas. For a mind as rampant and curious as Shaun's, this makes for a ambitious task; he is one to throw his gaze far and wide. Here though he has placed an embargo on the eye's voyage outward; he holds steady on the skull and begins travelling inward. What strikes me about Shaun's new work is his willingness to take on the object and let it haunt him. The skulls allow him to open up, to surrender, to attach his signature.
And so if you ask Shaun 'why skulls?' he'll tell you they aren't particularly significant. I take him at his word. But I can't escape the thought that Shaun unleashes the gravity of skulls as a paradox. He takes something loaded and disarms it. He uses something heavy and makes it hover. He convinces us there's nothing more to this, it's just a bunch of skulls. He obliterates the mirage.
I've watched Shaun stand at the canvas—with fresh blue gloves—and unfurl his microscopic eye for the dance of light on bone, of oil on canvas; entering time's tomb where the artist exists embalmed in the immediate moment, levitating in the space where the current sizzles between hand, mind and eye. Here he exists out from beneath the waterfall of ideas and exults in the rumpus room of technique. It's quiet. His glasses resting on the brink of his nose, Shaun peers over the rim and faces a mirroring on the canvas. This could be his cranium. He is turning himself back in on himself. Yet I also saw Shaun fuck up and re-do parts, his mind too busy, his hand a stylus jumping out of the groove. 'Ah fuck!' 'Balls.' It felt good to see him fuck up, it verified the necessity of the project. He was grinding, bashing, smashing against himself in order to levitate, for us and with us.
In conversation we strive for to connect mind, mouth and contact of eyes. That's when things really flow. Painting is surely the same. We try to inhabit a space where communication is ecstatic and true, where there's no deviations, no shadows, no phantoms. Phrenology is honest, Shaun Thatcher is delivering himself to us.
'High Alert' published in Kill Your Darlings #20
The menu read: Tasmanian smoked salmon baguette, Hungarian salami baguette, poached Victorian chicken wrap, corned beef baguette, antipasto vegetable wrap. After a moment’s hesitation I opted for the Tasmanian salmon over the antipasto vegetable – how good could a veggie option at the footy really be? Dad had pressed me into making a quick decision; the queue was getting longer and Tom Jones would be on stage any minute now. I was at the 2014 AFL Grand Final.
This was no corporate box, nor was it the MCC members – where it is forbidden to wear t-shirts or ‘shirts not supported by a collar including crew neck shirts, though skivvies are acceptable’ – but in the Barassi Bar somewhere in the depths of the AFL members’ section. Where once blue-collar and white-collar sat side by side, now high-vis and sleeve tattoos meet strapless dresses and flashy suits. But me, I had my own dress concerns. Not only was it unseasonably warm and our seats out in the sun but my choice of thigh-high shorts, a flannel shirt and Vans perhaps reflected my unconscious desire to appear as ‘Team Australia material’ in the anticipation that, as a bearded man of Middle-Eastern descent at a major public event, I’d be frisked and questioned by swathes of security and police. This seemed a reasonable, though slightly paranoid, line of thought. The official terror alert level had been recently raised to high – ‘A terror attack is likely’ – and the Grand Final had been singled out as a likely target by an enthusiastic press. As it panned out, the attention I received on my way in came not from the old lady who didn’t even watch me scan my ticket, nor from the handful of police milling around, but from a bunch of Hawthorn fans who pointed at me and yelled, ‘Hey it’s Spangher! haha! High five?’
The atmosphere was perhaps a little more jovial than the usual pre-game, there were plenty of barbecues in the MCG car park, as police smiled and chatted, Indian security guards trudged around, Asian cleaners wheeled trolleys and fans placed bets and queued up for beer; the evidence at the AFL Grand Final did not suggest that anyone thought a terrorist attack was likely.
As Dad lined up for beers and baguettes, I made small talk with his friend John – kids, wife, new YouTube clips – and marvelled at the Barassi Bar enclosure. I was a part of, yet observing, a newly evolved species of spectator. Behind the counter there was an espresso machine attended to by young, attractive staff with solar smiles, wearing white pressed shirts and black aprons. The forest-green tiled walls were at first glance stylish – or at least expensive – until my eyes adjusted to the pattern now resembling a wire fence; they were probably still expensive. Plasma TVs were fixed to the walls; we sat on cushioned fabric benches. Many fans, like my dad, were dressed to a level that you’d describe as smart casual, while others were merely casual, and a few were pioneering a new look I labelled guernsey professional, which involved a footy guernsey worn over a business shirt with slacks and leather shoes. The menu on the wall offered not only the baguettes but also a smorgasbord of other options under the headings: soup & salads, bakery, desserts, mini desserts, hot & cold drinks, beer & wine. There was another heading: fries with that? – a reflexive attempt at self-parody that I found unsettling. Who’s behind this? I asked myself, as I became increasingly intrigued by the menu’s distinction between desserts and mini desserts. What had happened, I asked myself, to meat pies and hot chips? What had happened to Chiko Rolls? What had happened to the canteen and the tuck shop and the milk bar and milk bottles and milk buttons and Cadbury dairy milk, what had happened to the suburbs, what had happened to the working class, what had happened to the ALP, what had happened to middle Australia? It had been a comfortable contrivance, my image of the ’burbs from which I had figuratively and physically become progressively estranged. I hadn’t been to a suburban shopping mall in years.
Dad came over with baguettes and three bottles of Peroni. John didn’t want his beer, so Dad and I shared it. ‘I didn’t know whether you’d want the Fat Yak or the Peroni, but I reckon the Peroni will be more refreshing today,’ Dad said. The ambient air temperature was 24 degrees; I agreed that lager was a superior choice to Pale Ale. John had just purchased an iPhone 6, which he informed me does not bend – that’s the 6 Plus – and on it showed us a YouTube clip of an Indian Guru explaining the history and importance of the word, ‘fuck’. He described it as a ‘magical word’, for it has the broadest range of applications in the English language, and is able to convey a range of emotions. ‘It’s not when you use it, but how you say it,’ John added. I looked at the menu, and said ‘fuck’ using various tones. Poached Victorian chicken wrap, ‘fuck’, tart du caramel ‘fuck’, chocolate creme delice ‘fuck’, chocolate creme delice, ‘FARK!’
We were in our seats by the time Tom Jones took the stage.
‘Why’s he facing them and not us?’ Dad asked.
‘He’s facing the MCC,’ I replied, ‘and I guess the main TV camera is over on that side so it doesn’t have to look into the sun.’
We watched Tom Jones not on stage a hundred or so metres in front of us, but on one of the two giant TV screens in the stadium.
‘He looks pretty good for seventy plus,’ Dad said, ‘and his voice is still there. He was big when we got to Australia.’
‘Imagine singing the same song for fifty years,’ I replied.
‘Fourty-seven,’ he said.
‘You know Mum went to his concert when she was nine months pregnant with me,’ I said.
‘And that’s why I stayed in there for an extra two weeks. It seemed a cruel world.’
‘Gee look at him sweating.’
‘He has to keep the blazer and the skivvy on because he’s technically nearest to the MCC members section, they’ll kick him out otherwise.’
Jones sung ‘Delilah’, his big hit from 1968, which tells the story of a man killing, in his words, ‘my woman’, after finding her cheating on him. The crowd took great delight in the song, standing, clapping and singing along. It was as if all it took to allay any fears or anxieties about terrorism or the game ahead was a vintage hit about homicidal domestic violence. The crowd was similarly put at ease by a fleeting return to simpler times as the footy anthem, ‘Up there Cazaly’, was performed by Mike Brady, 65, standing in front of Jones’ stage as it was dismantled rapidly by scores of roadies. I looked to John, not yet 40, staring at his iPhone, almost bending it with his gaze. I looked to my dad, he watched on in glee.
The unmistakable scream of a large passenger jet suddenly rained down on the crowd, to which we all threw our heads back and looked up aghast, all ninety-nine thousand of us, witnessing the plane – an Airbus A330 – slice through the sky at perilously low altitude, as if to say, wake up wake up, welcome to the era of High Alert. Like a good prank, the crowd's initial shock turned to awe, gasps turned to exhalations, some shared a laugh, others felt robbed, robbed of the warm glow accorded by smoked salmon and Peroni and Tom Jones and the unseasonably warm weather they had been basking in. I turned to Dad just as he turned to me – both wide-eyed and speechless. This had been a bad year for air travel, and the low flying plane lives on as a potent symbol of fear in our times. We hadn’t been alerted, but we had been alerted. High Alerted. Likely attack. Later it was claimed by Eddie McGuire that an Australian Federal Police guard for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop – who was in the crowd – had, unalerted, drawn his pistol. ‘This bloke, he went for the gun. I'm serious mate. I don't know what he was going to do with it, pop it out of the sky.’
The plane passed the stadium, rose and turned. I spotted a Virgin logo on it's fuselage and for a moment half expected it to double back and release a parachuting Richard Branson – high-profile, knighted, baby-boomer, aged 64 – who would float down onto the playing surface and upon landing give a big smile and thumbs up to a baffled crowd via the big screens. This did not happen. But who did allow Virgin to pull-off the stunt? Sure, they’re the airline partner of the AFL and this was not the first Grand Final fly-over, but if the Federal Police guard didn’t know, who among the authorities did know? Were the architects of the Alert aware and comfortable with it being overridden for commercial purposes? Did this particular corporate partnership simply fly over national policy? And was this Airbus A330 a supra-governmental force; the manifestation of an Australia that is ‘open for business?’
With the game only a few minutes away I went to fetch us another round of beers, this time not from the Barassi Bar, but from a more typical walkthrough bar with turnstiles and multiple checkouts. This bar had fish and chips and chocolates as well good ole fashioned tap beer. Working the checkouts were distinctly older staff. As I reached in to fetch the beers, a middle-aged man wearing his Hawthorn guernsey professional attire leaned over toward me and bellowed, ‘What’s the fucking best beeeeeer in the world mate?’ I hesitated for a second. He answered his own question, ‘Carlton fucking draught mate!’
‘You’re not wrong buddy, you’re not wrong.’ I offered, amping up my okker level. He then grabbed two cups of beer, bumped them together as if to salute himself, and then poured the entire contents of one cup right down his throat, dropped the cup, wiped his mouth with his sleeve and yelled out, ‘Yewwww! Come on you Hawks!’
I felt better. Like driving back into the city after a long absence and tasting smog again, the rising stench of spilt beer and drunken enthusiasm was perversely welcome. This was football as I had known it: raw and honest.
I took my seat with two minutes to go. An Englishman sitting beside me asked, ‘Who are you supporting today?’
‘No one,’ I said.
‘Well, I’ve become a North Melbourne fan, just moved here. But today I’m with the Hawks.’ He pointed to his faded Hawthorn cap and then to the man next to him. ‘My mate’s a Hawks fan. Who do you normally support?’
‘Carlton. But just hoping for a good game today and a couple of beers.’
‘Oh yeah, me too, it’s my first time to the Grand Final, this is incredible,’ he said, motioning with his hands to paint the immensity of the stadium and then, struck by a sudden thought, whipped out his iPhone to take a panoramic photo, forgetting or ignoring my presence.
The game didn’t start as I remembered big games normally did, that was, with a gradual build up of cheering and shouting to form a manic wall of sound that peaked and fell away a few seconds after the first bounce, but rather with a sixty to one countdown on the big screen. Each number was accompanied by a drum beat as a simulated crowd sound – a laugh track, but with cheering, a cheer track? – pumped through the PA. The PA cut out at the count of zero, the game started sans cheer track, we hadn’t been cheering loudly after all.
The game itself was, what you could call, uneventful. It was as if the main event, the pre-game, was over. Subplots overwhelmed the game itself, which was a one-sided affair – Buddy Franklin cast as the anti-hero took the field against his former team having left a year ago to sign a $10 million contract. Though nobody could blame him for taking the money – the Hawks offered him less than half what Sydney did – it went to script; whenever he went near the ball the crowd came alive, most hoping for him to trip up and cheering when he did. The other villain appeared to be reigning Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, who was booed by many in the crowd each time he got near the ball. When I asked Dad why, he replied that Goodes had ‘staged’ to get a free kick a few weeks earlier, which amongst the crowd seemingly overrode any goodwill he’d garnered through years of indigenous community work and anti-racism advocacy. There was a feel-good story though and his name was Matt Spangher, who played for Hawthorn after missing out on three winning Grand Finals with three different clubs. Spangher wasn’t very good, but that allowed him to become, according to his Wikipedia page, ‘a cult figure… half rock-god, half Jesus’.
As we watched on, drifting in and out of reverie as Hawthorn piled on goal after goal, I was cast back to the 1999 Grand Final I’d attended with my dad to watch our beloved Carlton. We lost that day but I don’t really remember being that sad about the defeat, I was more let down by how dull the atmosphere felt to me given the massive crowd. I recalled Dad explaining to me that while Grand Finals had the biggest crowds, many were neutrals who didn’t care who won and thus wouldn’t cheer and yell. These neutrals, Dad also explained, had corporate tickets. When I asked Dad what exactly he meant by corporate, he mentioned something to the effect of, ‘rich and posh’, in other words, those who might enjoy a baguette and a tart du caramel to go with their Pinot Noir.
Those were the dying days of suburban football, the Docklands stadium, featuring a retractable roof to keep fans dry and cosy, would open the following year. Back then, Carlton still played games at Princes Park, where we’d be able to bring our own ball and kick it about on the ground after the game. There were no Tasmanian smoked salmon baguettes where we sat but instead a man we called ‘the peanut man’ who walked around the perimeter of the boundary fence at each interval and threw waxed paper bags full of warm salted and roasted peanuts up to us as we stood on our chairs and in return we’d hurl gold coins back out onto the field. Sometimes we’d hit him by accident and he’d get agitated, and we’d laugh, though often times he was grinning, pleased at the sea of gold at his feet.
The siren blew. John danced and hugged Hawthorn supporters even though he was a Carlton supporter who fancied Sydney on the day. The Englishman who had been sitting beside me was leaping up and down with joy, arms held high, almost moved to tears. Dad laughed at John’s hijinks. I stood around for a moment as players embraced on the ground and fans did the same in the stands. I thanked Dad for the ticket and his company and walked towards the exit. A mob of Hawks fans swarmed me, ‘Spangher, you beauty!’ There was no use trying to escape, I high-fived the lot of them. One fellow, perhaps the drunkest, crouched down and tried to hoist me up onto his shoulders for a lap of honour. Thankfully the idea gained no momentum, I smiled, as did amused and worried onlookers. The mob was taken by another idea and I was able to make it through the exits and toward the jam donut stand.