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Isabella Darcy Interview

BACKWASH 1 Sept – 22 Oct 2023
Drill Hall Gallery

Who are the writers who have been most important in your life?

Three works stand out: Joke Robaard’s Unconditional Love: The Repertoire of Poverty (in Archive Species. Bodies, Habits, Practices, 2018), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory Fiction (1986), and most significantly Sad Sack (2019) by Sophia Al-Maria.

Robaard considers the history of imitation and identity in the marketing and manufacturing of clothing. Her dissection of “the hole” in clothing is particularly pertinent to my practice.

Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory Fiction directed my focus to what practices of use and wearing may reveal about cultural structures and gender politics. Le Guin challenges the Anthropocene. Her ideas on systems of care open up the potential for divergent examinations of the history of the body and clothing as an architectural framework around materials and identity.

Sophia Al-Maria is a Kuwaiti-American artist, writer and filmmaker carrying out research around the concept of Gulf Futurism (a term she has coined). Al-Maria’s focus is on the isolation of individuals through technology, reactionary religion, consumerism and industry, and the erasure of history. Her poem Sad Sack is an important work, and one I love. In it she re-examines Le Guin’s image of the carrier bag as an asset to the survival of human civilisation. Al-Maria poignantly turns this notion on its head through her focus on the dystopian and real ideologies of the plastic bag. Le Guin’s anthropological vessel, her structure of care and support undergoes a metamorphoses of mythological proportion in Al-Maria’s poem. The bag is now a single-use waste product, a weapon, a destructive force against nature and life on earth:  ‘…this thing that pulled us upright out of the depths of time is the thing that’s causing new great dying.’ 1 Al-Maria’s interest in the plastic bag stems from her theory of Gulf Futurism. Plastic is a bi-product of oil. The eradication of culture and subsequent erasure of identity is a bi-product of the wealth and power of the Gulf oil industry.

1. Sophia Al-Maria, ‘Sad Sack’, in Sad Sack: Collected Writings, Book Works, 2019

How do found materials or ‘poor materials’ influence your approach to making art? 

Using found materials gives contextual significance to my work. Found materials carry their own cultural associations, symbolic meanings and history. By incorporating and layering different found materials, I am able to tap into their inherent narratives, creating a palimpsest of meaning. The unique textures, colours, shapes and patterns of the plastic bags I use direct the work. When I started to use found materials it was focused around ideologies of consumerism. I unpacked these ideas using mass-produced materials (plastic bags, jeans, towels, envelopes, discarded textiles). Over time my familiarity with these materials has grown and I have now found a way to use them to shed light on form, pattern and colour as well as ideological concerns. Working with these kinds of materials often involves embracing chance and unexpected discoveries both formally and conceptually. They also reflect a psycho-geographical plain – they signify where I have been and what I have seen whether it be on the street, while I am shopping, at home. The waste materials that form my work are societies’ backwash.

Do you have any thoughts on the commerce of art and the art market? Or on consumerism and its social affects more broadly?

In my photographic project Reworked (2019) I collected photographs of people in public spaces, cropping the images to focus on bodily gestures and clothing. The project honed in on subcultural trends and correspondence with consumerism through fashion and culture. Likewise the materials I use in my painting practice – plastic bags, jeans, towels – are closely related to my own observations on consumerism. Using byproducts of mass-production speaks of the harm caused in their production processes and the social and economic demands of consumers.

What was your earliest intimation that you were going to be an artist?

When I was in my final year of secondary school I was so certain that I wanted to pursue art that I applied to three different university art schools. I didn’t feel like I was a proper artist until I went on a university exchange to Italy for a semester. Experiencing contemporary art on an international scale opened a door to the possibilities of contemporary art and pushed me to explore and define my own practice. The Fondazione Prada made a particular impact. Seeing art on that scale in such an institution revealed to me the power of art. 

Which artists (any field, not just visual arts) have influenced you longest and most deeply?

John Nixon was a close friend and mentor. I always look to his work for inspiration. Recently I have been compelled by the work of the German artist Rosemarie Trockel. I relate particularly to her knitted wall works. Other influences include Alex Vivian, Alexandra Bircken, Joke Robaard, Andreas Exner, Elisa Van Joolen, Eugene Carcesio, and Susan Cianciolo. I feel an affinity with the arte povera movement and believe my work shares attitudes of abstraction, modernism and postmodernism.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.