Fellowship a boon and a challenge

Frances Hodgkins Fellow Nick Austin with his work Travelling envelope #5. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Frances Hodgkins Fellow Nick Austin with his work Travelling envelope #5. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
''The Liquid Dossier'', the result of Nick Austin's year as Francis Hodgkins Fellow at the University of Otago, opens at the Hocken Library on Saturday. Charmian Smith talks to the 2012 fellow about his work and his forthcoming exhibition.

Since he graduated with an MFA in 2001, Nick Austin has worked part-time to earn a living and pursued his art practice when he could. However, it was a challenge as well as an opportunity to have the University of Otago Francis Hodgkins Fellowship last year which allowed him to work on his art full-time, he says.

''It's been a huge challenge because it means there's a vastness that I've never been in. I became so used to making work in small pockets of time and this residency allows one to have this distance, to step back and look at what you are doing and think about what you are doing, which was very hard, actually,'' he says.

However, it's meant Austin has been able to do things he would not otherwise have done. A big studio has also enabled him to make larger works, and the Hocken exhibition has allowed more scope than usual. Last year, he had a solo exhibition at the Hopkinson Cundy gallery in Auckland, which, he says, was a sort of rehearsal for what he's done since and what he's going to show at the Hocken. The exhibition is a collection of disparate things - some sculpture, some painting and some installations, including a DVD slide show, he explains.

''We say these things are all quite disparate, but I feel they are all very similar in that they are all arrangements of two or three elements done with different materials.''

Austin feels it has a resonance with the Hocken environment because it involves collections of objects and the works are often like images of images - pages from books, photographs from the internet, envelopes.

''All those things are in relationship to the function of the Hocken, but it's not directly about anything at the Hocken,'' he says.

There's a work entitled Dentists on holiday that involves a dentist's chair on which is projected a slideshow of men riding jet skis accompanied by a soundtrack of jazz music with chainsaws.

''I don't know where it came from - I think it came from this situation that the more money you pay a dentist or anyone, the bigger smile you receive back from them. It's like thinking about what a dentist's recreational activity might be. Anyway, I designed this work in my head - there was just a vision floating around in my head and I did it when I felt I had to do it, when I couldn't not do it.''

However, he says, the explanation of how the work came about is not important, although he likes to set the tone of the work by giving it a title.

''[The work] is meant to set up a situation where a viewer can make up their own associations or think about the situation of these materials,'' he says.

''I think my motivation for making works is quite a private one and I don't think the work is trying to do something, gratify the viewer or anything like that. The work is there and the viewer can take it or leave it.''

However, Austin feels his work operates within a triangle of funny, sad and strange.

''These are the qualities in life that, for whatever reason, I enjoy and respond to, so I think my art is just reflective of these qualities that exist in life - that's the territory,'' he says.

''I think the work is just reflective of being an artist, but it's not grand and I embrace its purposelessness.''

Austin grew up in Auckland and studied at the Auckland University of Technology then did his master of fine arts degree at Elam. The master's programme was really a process of unlearning, he says.

''My initial learning was an opportunity to try many different things, which is what art school should be. When I did my master's, I suppose my interests changed.

''I think the work became a lot more self-reflective and I started using the process of making as a subject, things which maybe before then had been invisible, were not seen as important.''

He had adopted a mindset in which bigger was better and made a large 2m fibreglass sphere which he originally thought he might make into some kind of kiosk, but the object was not important to the vision of his intentions for it, he says.

''I had this big thing in the studio and I realised the thing itself was really fascinating. I felt I needed to do something with this thing. I had no idea what I was doing but I took it to the beach. I rolled it around on the beach then my friend and I thought we'd take this sphere into the water. It was a very placid day, and this thing was floating around, then all of a sudden there was this gust of wind and this huge but incredibly light sphere was beyond my fingertips and sailed out to sea.

''That was somehow a significant moment when I think I learned I could use chance and failure and also the issue of materiality and immateriality. They became interesting and the process of doing and thinking somehow aligned themselves.''

Austin, now in his mid-30s, his partner, fellow artist Saskia Leek, and their 3-year-old daughter, Agatha, intend to stay in Dunedin this year rather than return to Auckland.

See it
''The Liquid Dossier: Nick Austin'' is at the Hocken Library from Saturday and runs until April 13.

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