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Spencer Lai Interview

BACKWASH 1 Sept – 22 Oct 2023
Drill Hall Gallery

Image: Untitled, 2023, foam core, spray paint, beads, house fly, pom pom, nail polish, pencil, ink, fabric, nails, resin. Courtesy the artist and Neon Parc, Melbourne.

The exhibition is titled ‘Backwash’, how do you interpret this idea in relation to your work? Or what comes to mind?

‘Backwash’ brings to mind the need to make sense of the material and immaterial stuff that fills our lives. As an artist working and playing in the cultural muck of Melbourne abjection resonates with me. It is freeing and containing. There is a yearning to be free, to emancipate oneself through knowledge, through identification, through the fulfilment of desires known and unknown: the desire to love and be loved; to care for one another; to have people remember our birthdays; to guide and be guided; to better oneself through education, skill, labour; to achieve virtuosity through our appearance and physical expression. To do what is expected of us. To become formed through instruction, as we are shaped by many hands.

‘Backwash’ also brings to mind something unhygienic or tainted, a shiver down your spine at the threat of your drink being ruined, invaded by someone else’s saliva. In this case backwash can only be accepted by those closest to you. An infant learning to drink, the vessel heavy, the motor skills undeveloped, the mechanics are wrought. Bacteria swells, invisible inside the vessel. The contents can be consumed or thrown out.

Are there aphorisms, or words of advice you were given which you sometimes bear in mind when you are making a work?

I think a lot of Cathy Wilkes’ reflections on her installation Non Verbal (2005):

The objects are toys, it was very important not to make objects, to avoid production and to show concentration and openness without further action (production). To show a lack of making, or a different way of making – (like waiting (with the bowls and trays), or playing) the work shows the objects as toys, it is expressive that they are intimately related to, in that way, as toys. 1

The idea of toys, of playing and waiting resonate with me and my practice. I work in two methods. The first is driven by the desire I feel for certain objects, their materials and textures. Here I let my subconscious guide me. I then let the work gestate in the studio. I digest it. The work sits around for a while like an unloved toy until I am ready to animate it, play with it, and put it to work. Maybe it becomes something else in the process.

1.  Cathy Wilkes, Non Verbal, 2005, as quoted by The Modernist Institute,

When you make a work, what are the qualities you would like it to evidence?

I usually approach a work starting with a base material or form that I allow to influence the attitude of the overall work. I tend to enjoy shapes – the cube, square, rectangle, box – and the language of containment. I work in many methods with a lot of different materials so having a logic or rule can help to reign in the form and stop the possibilities of what it could be overwhelming me. From this point of containment I hope to achieve a quality of openness. I don’t enjoy being told what to think or feel when it comes to art so I aim to construct a scene in which the viewer can enter from various points, without being strict or didactic.

The desired qualities of individual works depend on what attitude I want that work to convey. This attitude is based on me – my mood and what is going on in my life at that time – and on what I insinuate or infer from the materials through an exploitation or contradict of their innate language, attitude and tonalities.

How do found materials or ‘poor materials’ influence your approach to making art? How do they facilitate the visual language within your work? How do they direct its form and structure?

When I started making work in art school found objects and in particular ‘poor materials’ – foam-core, felt, balsa wood and other craft materials – were a means to an end. My budget dictated what I could make and what I made reflected what I chose to spend money on at the time.

Over time my connection to these materials changed from being a necessity to an inspiration. I became interested in the language of readily available materials, particularly the configuration and reconfiguration of units. The restricted and designated design of the unit (the pre-fab material) provided a contradiction to the openness and freedom of creative endeavour. This extended into an interest in possession and choice, for instance the clothing we chose to wear and how that acts as a faint skein of a being. The fading edge between object and being prompted the question: what constitutes a person? Where do they fade into nothing or distil into an essence, an attitude, a form, a unit?

The chance pairings and situations that occur in everyday life, at an antique store, rummage sale or the op shop, influence how I compose my work. They speak of intricate codes of language and their infinite possible combinations. The material language of the unloved and desecrated sits with me on a personal level. And so too does the pure form of the unit. The combination of the two excites me. 

How do found materials or ‘poor materials’ Do you feel that your art questions the traditional structures of visual art?  Are there particular flashpoints in the history of visual arts that have been an inspiration to your work?

Structurally my work sits comfortably within the language of contemporary art. I grew up in the 1990s and 2000s. The culture, graphic design and aesthetics from that era naturally influences my work. So too does minimalism, art povera, vernacular/folk art and the Cologne scene. I remember thumbing through a Phaidon book on arte povera as a teenager, Giovanni Anselmo’s Untitled: Sculpture that Eats (1968) totally blew me away. Jannis Kounnellis, Marisa and Mario Merz and Alberto Burri are other favourites that I return to quite often.

Was there a specific artwork, piece of writing or music, which revealed to you the power that art can have?

In my adolescence I was transfixed by Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero (1985). It was one of my first experiences of a piece of writing that made me feel something that I hadn’t before. It made an impact on me. Since then I have been inspired by writers Dennis Cooper, Peter Wächtler and Ottessa Moshfeg. Artists who have made an impact include Michael Haneke, Cathy Wilkes, Richard Tuttle, Mike Kelley, Kai Althoff, Carol Rama, Jordan Wolfson.

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.