Inside the studio with conceptual artist Stuart Ringholt. By Kate Holden.

Artist Stuart Ringholt

The morning I meet Stuart Ringholt, Melbourne nearly blows off its block. Gilded summer is shredded: trees are wrenching under a dark grey sky. Along Hoddle Street cars jiggle at red lights under the force of the wind. Flurries of leaves and plastic bags threaten to plaster themselves over the windscreen. By the time I gust in through the door of Ringholt’s studio in Thornbury, the sun has come out, but I am wind-strewn and staring and the first thing he says is, “Made it here all right?”

Ringholt, grimacing, pulls the door closed and we are sealed inside the raw concrete walls of an industrial park opposite one of those ragged bits of remnant countryside Melbourne specialises in —vacant lots, long grass on the verge. Somehow, I doubt Ringholt chose this place for its emerging fashionability. It’s a working space, occupied by crammed shelves, stacks of timber and wooden crates, folded foam, plastic pipes, a long bench and the half-empty steel carapace of what is to be an enormous clock. On the wall are some snapshots of his family, a collection of empty drink cans, a bottle of sunscreen, a brass statue of a grazing deer, and a painted wood figure of a buffoonish peasant, grinning ruefully. Ringholt, mid 40s, with a freckled Flemish face and deep eyelids and rough short dark hair, wears shorts and Blunnies with thick socks, and offers me a cup of tea. The metal roller doors of the studio shudder and boom in the wind.

Ringholt is someone who says interesting things, I was told before I met him, and he is as much philosopher as craftsman. “Five years ago I was so blind,” he says. After a lifetime of various jobs to support his art career, he returned to study for a PhD and woke to a consciousness of privilege and problematics. He is uncomfortably aware, and quick to acknowledge in every discussion of his work over the next two hours, that he is a standard-build white male of English-Scottish ancestry. He doesn’t use social media or follow literature. He prefers science fiction, privacy and paradox.

“It’s tricky” is a refrain. “It’s tricky…” And he grins ruefully, like his little peasant, rubs his hair with a big, callused hand, and gladly draws us into another dilemma. Gallery funding models. Artists depicting nudes. Artists depicting children. Whether his agonising over the oppressive and reductionist male gaze isn’t just another form of male indulgence and preoccupation. Does it matter if the work continues but you’re no longer credited as the artist, as when a major collecting institution apparently steals your conceptual art event of a nude gallery tour? If you move to the city where your parents grew up and unknowingly buy a house opposite a relative’s home, can you claim an ancestral spirit of place on land from which former owners were violently dispossessed? If you had a severe mental illness in your youth, must you still check your white male privilege or do you get a badge as a minority, too? It’s tricky…

Anxiety and embarrassment are the landscapes he most obviously excavates in his work. For Conceptual Art Improved My Embarrassing Life (2003) he created and performed 10 of the situations that mortified him most, walking around with an op-shop tag on his jumper or toilet paper trailing from his pants. He wrote a book about his psychosis, induced by hashish, which culminated in wild sexual fantasies about his mother. Dilemma seems his engine, and catharsis not quite a celebration but a product.

Ringholt’s work deals, thoroughly and alertly, with vulnerability and its allowances: the chatty cheer among strangers in an anger workshop or naked in a gallery gift shop. He demonstrates with collage how precariously eyes process information and shows tremendous glee, as the artist, of manifesting surreal composite objects that never existed before. He creates in performance the chance to let people be kind to their bodies. He’s not afraid of ugliness, but he makes things that are tender.

The giant clock, years of work, is a companion to his remarkable installation in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art: a nervous clock that ticks 45 seconds to the minute, giving us hastier moments but more yesterdays. The new one will grind divorcees’ wedding rings and drop lollies, shove energy around, tick slowly. But in the ebullience of same-sex marriage reform, he doesn’t want to kill the party. He is conscientious of offence. Like his work, he is alert, wants to be alert, needs to notice how things feel. It’s tricky.

Ringholt is restless across forms, doing collage, concept, installation, performance, sculpture, hung works. He writes and lectures. When we meet, he is preparing for a new show at Neon Parc, a series of what he calls “theatre stills”. Ringholt loves the theatre, would love to make theatre. He believes in working to understand art, and that artists can’t abandon morality in their work. He likes to push but to find the line. What do you think, he keeps asking. “What does it mean for the foot to walk from blue to red?” he says, of his naked participants passing a geometric abstract. “When you wear shoes you don’t have those conversations. What does the heart mean when it moves from blue to yellow? What does it mean for the mind or the head or the mouth? I find that very interesting. Whether anyone else does is another thing.” He laughs. “These conversations you can’t have while wearing clothes.”

We are wearing clothes, and we are in a concrete box. I think we’re both surprised by the conversation. It’s been two hours. We’re tired-eyed, dry-mouthed from so much talk, so much admission. I leave him to his work, and outside the wind is throwing sunshine around, time has passed, as full as his hollow clock.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 24, 2018 as "Ringholt, who goes there".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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