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Recovering from chemotherapy, Mikala Dwyer is using her highly personal installations to reflect her own chemical journey towards healing. “It’s really weird stuff that pulls apart your DNA, and arranges things and puts it back together again. It did definitely creep into the work.” By Steve Dow.

Artist Mikala Dwyer on ‘befriending’ chemotherapy

Mikala Dwyer
Credit: © AGNSW, MIM STIRLING

Mikala Dwyer meets me at a wire mesh gate to an artists’ studio compound at the southern end of Carriageworks, on the site of the old Eveleigh railyards in inner Sydney. The 58-year-old standing here on the gravel this Saturday lunchtime is bespectacled and wears a headscarf. She is clothed in black.

Dwyer likes to work from floor level, from the ground up. But she has had long periods of late attached to an intravenous drip, determined to welcome the industrial onslaught of chemotherapy, then radiotherapy, to her body.

A friend attuned to her recent physical discomfort gave her a lambskin, upon which she sat, her ebbing energy only allowing her to make a gaggle of clay coil forms that seemed to her ugly at the time but are her favourite works now, being “sludgy totems of time and emblems of effort”.

She is feeling much better and her prognosis is good. We climb stairs one flight to where various artists work, in rooms subdivided just before winter, the thin, pale wooden partitions still smelling new. Natural light streams in from large windows. A train runs past now, bound for Redfern station. Here, collaborating with other artists, Dwyer may be taken for an art-world insider, but in high school she was a shy outsider mistaken for a ringleader.

Dwyer’s room is a riot of mixed media: a tyre slapped with white paint hangs from the ceiling, recalling a child’s swing; a tall, thin wooden sculpture is painted in yellow; a large sheet sports black, red and yellow geometrical shapes. The floors, walls and windowsills are filled with an eclectic assemblage of stone, silver necklaces and ceramics. When we meet, much of it is waiting to be packed off to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where Dwyer’s new and recent works fill four rooms.

Dwyer is contemplating a new, live performance – a simple exercise based on telepathy. One previous live and filmed work in which she participated, Goldene Bend’er, at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne in 2013, consisted of a circle of masked ballet dancers defecating into clear Perspex containers. That work carried “ceremonial decor, voodoo-like visages and priestly choreography”, wrote Edward Colless, head of critical and theoretical studies at the Victorian College of the Arts. The ritual whiff lingering in Colless’s essay has less to do with Dwyer’s mother, a religious agnostic and silversmith with a penchant for clean lines, than with her father, a Catholic mass traditionalist and industrial chemist with a poetic mindset.

One new work, The Silvering (2017), is a new version of a Dwyer exhibit previously seen in Berlin, Brisbane, Melbourne, Dublin and Paris. More than 200 silver balloon 0’s are tethered to silver Mylar sheets, floating high. She calls it “kind of a nothing sculpture comprising gas”.

Mylar was developed to reflect heat from the sun. Above it in this sculpture is helium, a gas becoming extinct on this planet, Dwyer notes. The work is big bang theory meeting nothingness.

Numerical 0 or alphabetical O balloons? “I usually try to get the numerical 0. It’s interchangeable; a circle with a hole through it,” she laughs. “They both are a kind of void, giving form to something that’s a zero. The alphabetical O has an abstract quality as well, a vowel and an ‘oo’ sound. When you pronounce it, you think of a passage and not so much an object.”

If the work reads too much like party balloons, it will have failed. “I’m trying to do a magic act where it transforms into something of itself. Hopefully there’s
a sense of the helium as a material. Its mass, but also its levitation. Ideally, I like to have it untethered. I had it in the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, which has a fantastic, huge, high ceiling space, but it was right next to an Andy Warhol portrait of Mao, so I had to tether it, because they were worried it would damage the Mao.”

The title, The Silvering, recalls Dwyer’s late mother, Dorothy, whose modernist jewellery aesthetic was antithetical to the embellished art of her daughter. In 2013, Dwyer exhibited Hollowwork (ringing), her large, industrial-size remakes of silver rings Dorothy designed. There will be a small replica of her mother’s work in the new show.

Dorothy had grown up in wartime Denmark, raised by aunts while her own mother was away earning a living. “I’ve been rebelling against the mother all my life,” Dwyer says. “My mother was quite critical of everything. Not just me, but her peers as well. They were quite terrified to come and talk to her about their work.

“If she came to an exhibition of mine, she’d just walk in and sneer at it. I hated it. I didn’t invite her very much. But secretly I think she was quite proud, in a quiet way.

“I found, after she died, going through all her stuff in her workshop, there were lots of little models she might have been going to make into jewellery form. Some of them were identical to sculptures I’d been working on; mine were just larger and clumsier. She had great fine motor skills, being a jeweller, whereas I don’t.” Had the daughter perhaps unknowingly influenced the mother? “I doubt it. It’s something like DNA, that you inherit. A kind of formal logic.”

Dwyer’s late father, Peter, a staunch Catholic churchgoer until Vatican II, was the more empathetic parent when it came to her work. “It was odd, because he was much more a man of science, but he had a nice ability to daydream. He helped me with works early on.”

Peter invented a polyurethane formula that can be trowelled vertically, which he’d had to abandon and sell off when he fell ill with Parkinson’s disease. Dwyer has used that polyurethane, but sparingly, so far. “There are some materials so evocative and [emotionally] loaded,” she explains, “that I’m not ready to use yet.”

Peter did have a limit, however. He was not enamoured with his daughter’s end of third year graduation show at the Sydney College of the Arts, which involved her lying in a pit of ashes among live rats. Having come expecting to see his daughter chipping away at marble, he stumbled away, suffering three angina attacks on the walk home.

 

Mikala Dwyer’s high school was situated in bushland overlooking the Lane Cove River, catering for students from Sydney’s inner west and north shore. Her memories of the setting are hazy because she was rarely there.

“It was renowned for being the school other schools sent naughty children to. So I was at the bottom of the bottom. Even though it was in the really rich suburb. It was a very druggy school at that time. I remember coming into first year and someone saying, ‘Hey, do you want to buy some pot?’ and the [ice-cream truck] selling smack to the kids, and bikies coming down and selling drugs.” Did she partake at all? “Oh yeah, totally. I was right in there, straight away,” she laughs. “It was great. The best part of high school was the drugs.”

One day, at a public assembly, the school administrators singled out Dwyer, then 15, and possibly one other student – she can’t recall, exactly – for chronic truancy. In front of the whole school, Dwyer learnt for the first time that she was to be expelled.

Dwyer speculates she’d been mistaken for a ringleader, someone whose lax attendance could influence others. “I thought, ‘You’re giving me way too much credit.’ ” Dwyer remembers standing at the assembly, contemplating that she was to be made an example of, thinking: “That’s bizarre.”

Her mother tried to get her enrolled in TAFE, but she wasn’t ready to commit to study. For several years, Dwyer worked in various jobs, including aged care, where she’d been working part-time since the age of 14. That experience gave her a respect for the elderly, whose life experiences she feels are disregarded by society, as well as a healthy acceptance of bodily functions, with bedpans and bandages and faeces making their way into her later art.

Dwyer eventually travelled to Europe, visiting lots of museums, prompting her decision to go to art school. Returning to Australia, aged 21, she applied as a mature-age student. “I got in, surprisingly. It was just fantastic. I wished I could have gone into art school when I was 12. It just made so much sense. It’s easy: all the kids who don’t want to do academic-type work, they should go to art school.”

Dwyer has been with her husband, postal worker David Corben, a bass player and founding member of The Cruel Sea, for 30 years. “He’s wonderful. My greatest support and barometer. I really know the work is bullshit or not if he comes in and says yea or nay.”

She says she’s still shy, and doesn’t particularly enjoy the obligation to promote her work. It’s possibly why many socially awkward artists develop drinking problems, she says, to gather courage at art functions.

Dwyer finished radiotherapy two weeks before this interview, which followed chemotherapy. Her experience with cancer had led her to think a lot about chemistry, although alchemy has been a lifelong fascination. “I was trying to understand what the drugs I was taking were, and what they chemically looked like,” she says. “To understand the cyborg I was becoming. It becomes such a big part of your life. On a material level, and philosophically, trying to play with that.

“Trying to make some sort of friendship with it, because by resisting it, it just made it worse. Trying to find some sort of generative possibility in it, too. It’s really weird stuff that pulls apart your DNA, and arranges things and puts it back together again. It did definitely creep into the work.”

The newest of Dwyer’s works for her Art Gallery of NSW show is Divisions and subtractions (2017), which includes a large yellow-painted armature, red Perspex crystal-like structures and chromed metal structures that support glassworks suspended with coloured latex tiles, all presented in a circle.

“This time I’m thinking of closing the circle so you can’t get into the inside of it,” she says, having accrued the objects over a long period. “It really happens in the gallery. I have no idea what it’s going to do or how it’s going to feel.”

Dwyer has invited other artists to create works and collaborate on a “weird community of objects made by my community of friends”, including Hany Armanious, Nick Dorey, Adriane Boag and Matthys Gerber.

Stevie Fieldsend, who is contributing glassworks, is also a welder, so Dwyer asked her for instruction on welding. “It was very therapeutic at the time. Learning to weld was probably the chemotherapy therapy; you know, the therapy to get over the chemo,” she says, laughing. “It was actually really good, to have to do something where you have to be so physically present.

“I think the chemo was definitely the worst part. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to make work again. So to come out and actually start working again and have friends to come and actually help me get started… It gets very complicated when you start inviting people in to help, because they’re all very strong artists in their own right. It’s like entering someone else’s mind. They’ve just helped me come back to life, and get going again. Infecting my own decision-making process with theirs, and then you come up with mutant forms, and that’s really great.”

Artists, she says, can be really tough on each other, all the time. “It’s like a war zone,” she says, still amazed at the headlines in which painter John Olsen seemed to be personally affronted by the Mitch Cairns painting that won this year’s Archibald Prize, which Dwyer thought was an extraordinary, stunning work. “It’s good to have a community of argumentative and critical people, but,” she says, perhaps reminded of late of the spectre of mortality, “it’s also good to just relax and lighten up a bit, too.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 16, 2017 as "Dwyer traits". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

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