Wemyss Lane is a dodgy alley in inner Sydney. It consists of the backs of buildings, wheelie bins, milk crates, a discarded ironing board and a lone pigeon. There is the slight pong of rubbish.
There are also 14 phrases painted enormously up and down the small passage. Some are horizontal, some are diagonal. One word crawls up the wall. The paint is white and thick, the sort used on roads to tell people to slow down.
One phrase reads: “Her right hand upraised.” Others read: “Inclusions and misprints.” and “A single stamp.”
Down near “Feints and repetitions”, three men are standing at the back of a motorcycle shop. One shrugs when asked about the phrases. He offers a nervous laugh.
“I’m neutral,” he says.
“No opinion,” says another.
“I like it,” a red-headed man says confidently, stepping forward. “I like the way one of them goes up the wall. I thought there’d be more of that.”
He says he has a sheet that explains what the phrases mean. The sheet is actually a letter Agatha Gothe-Snape wrote to locals, explaining what her art meant. “I thought, because it’s in a public space that is used by these people, it would be generous to give them some indication of my logic,” the artist says. “And that’s what the letter was. It was also just a little friendly hello.”
Gothe-Snape is used to people not “getting” her work. She works fluidly, using improvisation, installation, performance or projection. She writes text on walls or badges or windows. Sometimes she provides audiences with instructions on how to engage with what she’s done. She draws on paper – repeated curves and lines, a form popularised by Rudolf Steiner. There is video. There are often collaborators. There are PowerPoints and dance. Frequently what she does is specific to the site. “I feel like I’m in a strange place,” she says.
Her inspiration is eclectic. She’s co-designed an enormous sports court at Monash University, where balls bounce and students play on bright blue bitumen embedded with an assortment of white words – Cool, Exhibitionist, Indifferent – which she found in psychometric diagrams for self-analysis. The Wemyss Lane phrases, a Legacy Artwork Project created during the 2016 Biennale of Sydney and now included in the City of Sydney’s permanent public art collection, were partly borne from dance. Gothe-Snape and dancer and choreographer Brooke Stamp performed as part of a public walk, a Situationist-inspired dérive. “We have no qualms about some interpretive dancing,” she jokes.
How does Gothe-Snape describe her art when she’s introduced at a party? “I say, ‘I make the kind of art you would roll your eyes at.’ ” She laughs. “ ‘And if you have an image of the art in your mind that you don’t understand and you think it’s a bit of a wank, that’s the art I make.’ ” But for someone who makes “roll your eyes” art, the artist – as she sits in her studio at Artspace in Sydney, barefoot, wearing a green jumper and a noticeably large silver chain – is unpretentious, engaging and quick to laugh.
A performer by training, she is hyper-conscious of the viewer experience. “She’s very interested in the way art meets its audiences,” says Anneke Jaspers, a curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One critic described her recently installed quote from art critic Robert Hughes at the Art Gallery of NSW and recitation of one of his speeches from memory as “nerdy”. But others see her work as wry. As Jeff Khan, director of Performance Space, says: “It might look austere on the surface but there is always a humorous perspective lurking underneath there as well.” When I talk about her work being funny, she joshes: “That’s good. Because I think I’m quite funny.” Later, she adds: “To have a wink in your eyes is a really… It’s an invitation to play.”
Since leaving art school in 2011, Gothe-Snape has had a slew of exhibitions and performances across Australia, as well as commissions from the likes of the Art Gallery of NSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Internationally, she was in the 2014 Berlin Biennale, and has had shows in New York, Japan and New Zealand. Her phone just keeps ringing; emails keep arriving offering commissions.
Gothe-Snape did an arts degree at the University of Sydney, where she was particularly drawn to rehearsal studies. On the side, she was doing what she reluctantly describes as an “avant-garde theatre practice”. Reluctant, as she doesn’t want to sound like a wanker.
She moved to Melbourne, where she studied acting at the Victorian College of the Arts but was kicked out after six months. “I couldn’t surrender, I couldn’t act,” she says, laughing. “I can’t act.”
Back in Sydney, she opened a vintage clothing store but realised retail wasn’t her fate. She studied painting at the Sydney College of the Arts, where her work quickly took on a post-discipline tone. “Although I did a painting degree, I think I picked up a paintbrush for maybe one month,” she says. It was in 2011, when she was put in a conceptual art show at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, that she began to get a sense of where she fits.
With her performing background, Gothe-Snape is into collaboration. One of her long-term working partners is Brian Fuata, who uses performance, conversation, mobile phone text messages and emails in his own work. The pair recently did a show prompted by the phrase “I am a Branch Floating on a Swollen River After the Rain”.
The line came from the sculptor Michael Snape – Gothe-Snape’s father – and he heard it in a dream.
Family is significant in Gothe-Snape’s work. Her mother, Jacqueline Gothe, teaches visual communication at the University of Technology Sydney. Gothe-Snape’s partner is the painter Mitch Cairns, who won the Archibald Prize last month with a portrait of her. Of their two-year-old son, Roland, she says: “Being a doorway for something else to enter the universe has been a really amazing experience.”
Gothe-Snape says it is random prompts – such as her father’s dream, an overheard conversation or a particular colour – that are the core of her practice and inspire new work. She retrieves a large, creamy-coloured book, a reproduction of Sydney poet Christopher Brennan’s 1897 Musicopoematographoscope. Discovered at Rozelle markets, it ended up being the basis of her show Volatile Medium at The Commercial, the gallery that represents her.
Gothe-Snape often goes to a space not knowing what she’s going to do, which can be stressful. “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” she says. “There will always be a crisis that precipitates an action. It’s a pretty violent and unsustainable way to work emotionally but it does create otherwise unimagined outcomes.”
In 2013, she was invited to Christchurch to do a residency at the Physics Room and didn’t know what she was going to do. It was in the aftermath of the earthquake and Gothe-Snape recalls it as a sensitive time. “The curator kept texting me going: ‘Where are you?’ And I’d kind of made friends with different artists and I was trying to get to know the place and I texted back saying, ‘Oh, we’re having deep times.’ ”
As she made the show, she realised “deep times” was actually perceptive, in terms of “thinking about geological time and how in a moment with an earthquake, something is happening in a time spectrum that we’re not capable of understanding as humans”. She ended up putting the words “Deep Times” across the gallery windows, which was reflected onto different parts of the space as the sun moved across the sky.
Gothe-Snape has a penchant for text, phrases and statements, and has long used PowerPoint. She initially liked that she could work quickly and easily, email it, and now appreciates how as the software updates, the earlier changes look “old and clunky”. Her collection of PowerPoint digital artworks, which are updated every year, are sold as an edition that constantly grows. Another piece is an instruction manual on how to put up one of her text works on a wall. Another is a series in which an artist tries to name every artist they can think of, while Gothe-Snape transcribes this list on a large piece of paper. It is called Every Artist Remembered – a kind of rumination on the limits of the canon and the unending process of forgetting that forms the flipside of recollection.
At the centre of Gothe-Snape’s work is performance. Every Artist Remembered is a document on a gallery wall but it only exists because of the performance that produced it. “It could be … criticised because it’s kind of drawing us into this expectation of the world being a content provider for our lives,” Gothe-Snape says. “‘We need an experience so we go to the gallery. We have the experience, we fill out a feedback form that says, ‘Yes, we’ve had an experience.’ Yes, it’s slightly commodifying these practices. But what else is the gallery for?” she teases.
More seriously, she’s also aware of the fickleness of the art world and, having been raised in the scene, how she could go out of fashion. Then again, she’s also still not sure what she’s doing. Perhaps she’ll find a different home. “I’m really in the state of not knowing what kind of artist I am. I don’t even know if I’m an artist – if it’s art that I’m making. I’m not entirely sure myself. But I’m not going to stop because of that.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2017 as "Everyday artist remembered".
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