Portrait of Dean Sewell © Tamara Dean, 2004
By Renay Ringma
“I love that area that exists between the mainstream and the underground. I can do a guerrilla-esque type illegal sculpture installation and drive it through mainstream.”
We are sitting in the Courthouse. On the bench is one of Australia’s most awarded photographic artists.
Dean Sewell is admitting to illegally postering Sydney’s new Louis Vuitton building with 3.7 metre high black and white photographs.
Luckily the Courthouse we are in is a favourite watering hole, the Courthouse Hotel in Sydney’s inner west, because the Louis Vuitton confession isn’t the only one Sewell is making today.
Representation by Charles Hewitt Gallery, winning two consecutive Moran Contemporary Photographic Art Prizes and a forthcoming major exhibition at the Museum of Sydney has not softened Sewell’s activism.
Sewell talks about the restrictions of formal gallery spaces and why art goes underground.
Renay Ringma: What are some of the limitations of formal gallery spaces, whether commercial or traditional galleries?
Dean Sewell: Traditionally, guerrilla art just didn’t rate economically. A commercial gallery is economically driven. They’re there for a purpose, to sell work. If you go back 20 years, street art was not economically viable. It’s really taken a big swing because they realise its popularity.
In more traditional hoity-toity establishments, a guerrilla-esque artwork and the issues that it addresses are not the types of work that people are going to buy and put on their walls. People with money are conservative; they will go for the more conservative types of art. That’s probably the biggest limitation, is the economics of art.
RR: For artists who aren’t into political or challenging content, but still want to look outside of the gallery structure, is it economics?
DS: Big names, like Swoon, Banksy, Kill Pixie, people have seen how their work has transformed from just purely street work into thousands of dollars, millions of dollars in the case of Banksy.
So a lot of people are realising that there are opportunities for them to make a name, to gain exposure by putting their work on the street. It wasn’t an option years ago. But it’s changed so much now. One good example is a young Australian guy, Dan, who goes under the auspice of Ears. He started the Oh Really Gallery in Enmore. That’s now folded because he’s made that transition through street art into a mainstream gallery.
RR: So it’s a stepping-stone?
DS: Yeah. People see it as a really viable way to bypass the bullshit, like having to schmooze and piss in people’s pockets to make your entry through the commercial set; they use the streets as a canvas to gain recognition. If you can harness that recognition you’ll have people knocking on your door.
RR: Melbourne artist, Bianca Hester, who works a lot on the street, talks about [traditional] gallery models as violent – a totalising model that everyone has to fit into and as a result people bastardise their practice.
Do people adjust their practice to fit into the gallery framework?
DS: Eventually they all move over. They have to because you can’t have such a transient form, how do you make your money from it? Once you develop the reputation, it starts changing. It’s like a lot of street artists. Their stuff goes straight onto a wall. Once they get a reputation, all of a sudden it goes on the canvas because it has to sell.
“The visual arts can play a more important role than just satisfy one’s narcissistic tendencies.”
RR: Art takes on different attributes when it moves from a white-walled, white-cubed, formal space to where it’s competing with everyday life.
Is that attractive for you?
DS: Well I do things for different reasons. The visual arts can play a more important role than just satisfy one’s narcissistic tendencies.
Certain art forms belong more in the public domain than others. They’re more appropriate to be there because of the issues they’re addressing.
A lot of the stuff that ends up in galleries is purely aesthetic. It’s all that really drives it. There’s no greater meaning behind it. Of course they’ll spin it to give it meaning but that’s always post production. Essentially what people want and what they’re willing to pay for is just the aesthetic.
RR: You’ve done an illegal installation in Sydney Park, your [David Hicks] Hills Hoist installation. What was the attraction of doing that outside a formal gallery?
DS: I’m just not satisfied with being a passive observer on the sidelines of the political process. I want to be an active participant. I want to be able to influence people and counteract spin by governments.
The spin that we had on the Hicks issue was one that I just couldn’t tolerate. My purpose was to give people a moment of pause like a circuit breaker in the spin cycle to allow people to think about an issue.
I’m not going to get an installation like that in a high-end gallery. I’m not recognised as a sculptor or that type of artist. Imagine me trying to have a Hills Hoist put in the MCA? If I was the right person, sure.
So my only outlook is the public domain. But that’s where I want to be. I’ve got the opportunity there, to really influence public opinion. I can drive it through the media.
I love that area that exists between the mainstream and the underground. I can do a guerrilla-esque type illegal sculpture installation and drive it through mainstream.
RR: There’s lots of ways to do political protest but you’re utilising an extension of the medium that you’re familiar with. Is that because of comfort or because you know that’s going to get people’s attention?
DS: It’s the beauty of the visual arts. The visual arts can play a more important role in helping people to interpret complex political social environment issues. I’m just not happy leaving it up to the political flunkies, bureaucrats and spin doctors to tell us, this is how it is.
There’s a role in the visual arts and it goes beyond just the aesthetic. From the outset, I wanted to have a role in the political process. How could I do that? By having the ability to change public opinion through the visual medium.
'Howards's Dirty Laundry' - mixed media installation in Sydney Park 2006 by the ' Lonely Station ' collective to Protest the Howard Government's handling of David Hick's incarceration © Dean Sewell, 2006
RR: What is your experience of artist run initiatives that are either squatting in buildings or utilising buildings that are zoned for manufacturing or for other purposes. What’s the reason for them establishing?
DS: The collective really works. It helps just associating yourself with other people for lots of reasons. You bring a whole new audience to your work.
The two collectives that come to mind are Salmagundi and Tortuga Studios. They came about by the breakup of MEKanarky, which used to be in an old Streets ice-cream factory. They started as an anarchist art collective and had about 30 odd artists. When they split they couldn’t find a place big enough in Sydney to come together. So they formed two new entities.
“Let’s face it, how many anarchist art collectives are thriving in Paddington? Not a lot.”
RR: Is space the attraction for those communities or is it more monetary?
DS: Definitely monetary. 10 years ago there were a lot more collectives habituating the inner city. They’ve been pushed out.
The physicality of your immediate landscape is really beneficial to your practice as well. Let’s face it, how many anarchist art collectives are thriving in Paddington? Not a lot. That’s why industrial complexes are really good for collectives, like big warehouses, because you can have artists working all night with residents not complaining.
As cities rezone, it becomes harder and harder for big collectives to have spaces like that because they get pushed further and further afield to a point where it’s fine if you’re working in Campbelltown but how many people are going to go to Campbelltown for a night to see a show of relatively unknown artists? Not many.
RR: What are the implications?
DS: The truly creative people, the people that have real vision, they’ll always find a way to make things happen somewhere. But what happens is people are attracted to areas because they’re creative. But then they force out the very thing that attracted them there in the first place.
The creative side of things gets pushed to the peripheries.
We’ve lost heaps of collectives, little collectives because they got squeezed out of the inner West areas – like Redfern, Chippendale – those areas where all the warehouses are now converted into apartments.
RR: Frasers who are doing the Brewery site, are lobbying Council to retain studio space for artists and all the laneways around the area because that’s a selling point for them.
DS: Yeah. One of the actions we did was put some photos up on a building in town. It just looked so perfect, a complete empty façade. There were four photographers I got together to put up four big panels, at 4:30 in the morning, 3.7 metre black and white photos.
When we put it up we were hassled by the building site managers when they started work at 6:30 in the morning. The guy said to me, who’s your contact in the Council? I ended up saying Vivienne Westwood and the guy said, who’s that? He goes, do you realise who’s building this is? I said no. He said it’s the new Louis Vuitton building. Oh really, who’s he? He goes you don’t know who Louis Vuitton is? I said, well if you don’t know who Vivienne Westwood is…
So we got the hell out of there. The next day they had it all ripped down. But Louis Vuitton are now actively chasing us.
RR: They want you to reinstall?
DS: No, because they think that we’re some rogue advertising company that is riding off the back of them to push through some message. It was just art for art’s sake, nothing more. There was no political message behind it. We just thought it would be a good place to put some photos up and that was that. Now I feel like going back.
RR: I was going to ask, what’s your next illegal art act?
DS: Well it’s probably going to be that because funnily enough, I’ve got a show in the Museum of Sydney next year on culture jamming. So I figured it would nice to have something a bit more current.
RR: Can you tell me about that exhibition?
DS: It’s basically on a group of guys that was just starting a serious culture jamming group. I started documenting their works; it was all very political.
We call it second-generation art because you’re using what is an artwork already to create a secondary piece of art.
For me I actually crossed the line from observer to participant. I essentially morphed into what I was documenting. So some of the work is purely my own concept, ideas and creative process.
“The problem with the art world is they pigeon-hole you. You’re not allowed to step outside of that square without getting flogged.”
RR: You’ve had large exhibitions in very commercial galleries but at the same time you’re holding this underground illegal practice that gives you a very different voice.
DS: The problem with the art world is they pigeon-hole you. You’re not allowed to step outside of that square without getting flogged. So in the end my only means of doing certain types of artwork are outside of the formalised, gallery thing. Who’s going to run sculpture like I want to do or something with projections?
We had a little group, two or three of us; we used to call it the Guerrilla Projection Squad. We’d go round with a projector, laptop and generator and just set up anywhere and project onto the wall at night time.
Some nights it would be purely for art’s sake, just basically aesthetic. Other times it was really hard core political.
We had the Iraqi civilian death toll ticking over in real time on the wall in Darlinghurst with images of kids with their heads blown off with quotes from Howard saying, the most important civil liberty both you and I can have is be free from death and violence.
RR: That’s a good example of what Bianca Hester was saying, that galleries limit artists’ practice. You’re funnelled into the construct of the gallery and that’s a violation of your rights. So people explode sideways and go off and doing something that’s meaningful.
DS: Yeah, because really there’s not a lot of meaningful work that ends up in mainstream galleries. There’s just no place for it. Who’s going to buy it? Is anybody going to have a gallery in Woollahra with a picture of an Iraqi child with its head blown off on the wall?
Tamara Dean is represented by Tim Olsen Gallery, Sydney and James Makin Gallery, Melbourne