On a crisp Sunday afternoon in Melbourne, artist Susan Jacobs lets me in through a back gate down a Carlton alleyway to her temporary home, the Norma Redpath Studio. In the courtyard a plastic shopping bag is splayed open like a carcass, stretched across the legs of an overturned industrial bench.
I later learn it will be cast in epoxy and graphite to emulate an oxhide ingot, a late Bronze Age metal slab usually cast from copper that was likely used as a form of currency. Jacobs is in the final stages of producing work for her forthcoming exhibition, The ants are in the idiom, at Buxton Contemporary. Although I’ve interrupted her final push, she has laid out an afternoon tea spread, which she pre-empted by texting an image of biscuits – pistachio amaretti and glacé fruit-laced shortbread, likely purchased, I think to myself, from an Italian grocer on nearby Lygon Street – laid out on a beautiful vintage plate and flooded by a ray of sunlight. Much of the studio’s original mid-century contents remain. In the tiny kitchen, Jacobs makes a pot of peppermint tea, bemoaning the beautiful house kettle that spits hot water at her as she pours it. “God this kettle. It looks so good but it doesn’t work.”
It feels fitting that Jacobs is working at this venue – the former residence and studio of the seminal sculptor Norma Redpath, who was a member of the legendary Centre Five collective. It builds on the tradition of Australian women making art in this important cultural site. Redpath, who worked in Melbourne in the 1960s, rose through the ranks of a male-dominated industry to become a key figure in the history of late modernist Australian sculpture. She spent a lot of time abroad – notably studying in Italy in the 1950s. Jacobs, too, has made a place for herself overseas – she moved to London in 2016, where she now lives with her partner, the artist Scott Miles.
This might seem a surprising move given the depth and longevity of Jacobs’ involvement in the Melbourne arts scene, where she was comfortably entrenched – though perhaps it was this comfort that sparked the shift. In the late ’90s, Jacobs studied drawing at the Victorian College of the Arts, where she met Miles. In the early 2000s she was deeply involved in artist-run organisations, frequenting Conical – where she served on the committee – and Ocular Lab, which was housed in a disused milk bar in Brunswick West. Jacobs recalls the artist Raafat Ishak at her 2007 exhibition, at Ocular Lab, urging her to “take the drawings off the page and insert them into space”, setting her off on a path of spatial investigation from which she has never looked back.
At that time, artists such as Spiros Panigirakis, Bianca Hester and Terri Bird offered exhibition feedback sessions as part of their organisation CLUBSproject Inc. Lou Hubbard attended Jacobs’ Ocular exhibition as one of these informal critics, beginning a decades-long friendship between the artists. “She was my first reader,” says Jacobs. “She’s still my go-to.”
She gestures across the road to the Ian Potter Museum of Art, the gallery attached to the University of Melbourne, where she worked for seven years as one of the front-of-house staff. There she saw exhibitions by artists who would go on to define the contemporary Australian art scene. “The ones that I really remember were the ones that were by women – Rose Nolan, Linda Marrinon, Burchill/McCamley,” she says, recalling the doors these artists helped open for her. Jacobs says that experiencing the early work of these female artists and then following their careers as they experienced major success was hugely rewarding. She remembers that only one year after she left VCA, Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley started teaching in the sculpture department, a previously “male-dominated” area of the art school.
Jacobs also had a studio from 2010-11 at Gertrude Contemporary. It was at the original site at 200 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, where artists often lived for periods of time and toilets were forever malfunctioning. This is where she met Jacqueline Doughty, the curator of The ants are in the idiom at Buxton Contemporary, who was then working at the gallery. Jacobs says it was probably here that she developed her laissez-faire approach to handling her art.
“During the Gertrude days, you were just winging it. You would do it [install] while you were making. Which is probably why I do it the way I do.” She is bemused and slightly embarrassed by the level of care shown by Buxton Contemporary. The works that she sent over from London had to be meticulously condition-reported by gallery staff, which Jacobs thinks is unnecessary. “I’m not going to be up in arms if something breaks,” she says. “I’ll just fix it or not show it.”
Characteristically, much of the work Jacobs will show in The ants are in the idiom has been made with a sense of impermanence in mind. This is not to say that Jacobs does not think about her practice: she is a consummate researcher. For this exhibition, Jacobs examined centuries-old recipes for “spontaneous generation theory” – the idea that life could emerge from non-sentient components. She describes one: “Take a sweaty shirt – a fouled shirt – or sweaty underwear … put it in an open-mouth vessel with grains of wheat and wait 21 days and mice will emerge.”
These recipes are the starting point for The ants are in the idiom. On her laptop, Jacobs shows me drawings kept in London’s Wellcome Collection that detail such immaculate conceptions. They are charming and ridiculous. For Jacobs, they expose the inevitable fallibility of humans. “The idea that thinking lasted for centuries made me think, ‘What else do we not know now?’ ”
She’s not interested in some hippyish revival – rather, Jacobs is fascinated by how humans continue to construct meaning in everyday life, no matter how absurd the meaning may be. “I think people do that to make sense of the world,” she says. “There is this urge to make meaning in retrospect. It can be completely flawed but we hang on to it because it gives us something to believe in.”
We are now in the studio, surrounded by the few items that Jacobs is yet to complete for the exhibition. She points out a delicately cast bronze of a eucalyptus twig and seeds that appear to spell out the word “cope”. She found the original twig during a period of soul-searching, “just at the moment when I wanted to see if I could completely dematerialise my practice again”. I tell Jacobs I can’t see the word in the sculpture and she patiently points it out to me. But these discordant subjectivities highlight precisely what she hopes to convey in her work – how we create meaning out of everyday occurrences. “Maybe I just needed it at the time,” she says.
This experimental, sculptural approach to artmaking is a far cry from Jacobs’ days as a drawing student. Until recently, Jacobs’ work was time-based and performative. In one of her best-known works, the 2012 video Snake Drawing, Jacobs used a literal snake to draw forms in a bed of earth – “I was very much so at the mercy of the creature” – before she cast the resultant patterns in bronze. At this time, she was exploring the limits of drawing as a medium.
With The ants are in the idiom, she has shifted her focus to objects. This might seem like a huge gamble for what will be her biggest Australian exhibition to date but she is shockingly nonchalant. “I haven’t found myself in life dealing with such recognisable, thematic things, and yet I’m happy to let it happen because I’m just working with what’s at hand,” she says. “It is materially a huge stretch from what I was doing in the past. I just wanted to let a lot in.”
I point out that an apple cast in gallium resembles kitsch circa-1996 Lincraft papier-mâché fruit. I immediately regret saying this, aware that some artists take poorly to such literal interpretations of their work. Jacobs beams. “It’s totally twee. Halloween-y!”
Jacobs is clearly having fun. She is less concerned about shaping the viewer’s experience than she is about gently leading viewers down a number of optional paths. Standing over a model of the Buxton Contemporary floor plan, she indicates the free-flowing exhibition design she has devised. “I wanted it to be really porous, so that the path of the viewer is almost the same way as it would be for me moving through the streets and being drawn to certain things.” There is a whiff of Guy Debord’s 1950s theory of the dérive, the idea of ambling around cities in non-determined paths in an apparent refusal of capitalism – but without the hopeless utopianism.
The catalyst for this new direction was leaving the country. “Moving to London, I felt completely thirsty and absorbent,” she says. This shift has been defined by a less-is-more approach. Jacobs says she experienced a deceleration that was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In recent years she has had fewer, though arguably more important, exhibitions, such as a presentation at the 2016 São Paulo biennial and a 2018 solo exhibition at London’s Mackintosh Lane, a space run by Australian artists David Noonan and Anna Higgins and British artist Kira Freije.
It’s clear that Jacobs has been able to gain a lot of perspective with her distance from Melbourne’s small and often cliquey art scene, but she’s far from disowning her Australian roots. The fondness with which she recounts her years as a young artist in Melbourne reveals her undying affection for home. She remains loyal to her original stomping grounds and is enthusiastic to see what happens next.
Jacobs is particularly excited about the many small-scale galleries that have popped up in Melbourne – venues such as Savage Garden, close to Norma Redpath Studio, and commercial space Haydens – which she hopes to visit after her exhibition opens. Often run by early career artists from their backyards, these seem like a return to the ad-hoc spaces such as Ocular Lab in the late ’90s and early 2000s, which bypass the top-down model that led to commercial representation. “It would be great if the bigger institutions in Melbourne would give half a second’s look at what’s happening at the grassroots level,” she says.
I suspect Jacobs is eager to get back to work – though she is too polite to say so – and we slowly wrap up. She offers me a handful of biscuits encased in tinfoil and some parting words from American musician and visual artist Laurie Anderson, which encapsulate Jacobs’ vision for The ants are in the idiom.
“[Anderson] talks about taking the close-up sounds that only the performer hears through the cello and how that becomes the foundation for her music,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I want it to be!’ The small details that we experience on a subconscious, personal level, and then building down from that [to produce artworks].”
Afterwards, walking through the grounds of Melbourne University, I look for a sign similar to Jacobs’ “cope” twig. Perhaps it’s ridiculous, but a couple of hours with Jacobs has shown me that this way of seeing the world – as a permeable threshold between everyday life and the fantastic – is essential to our survival.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Spontaneous means".
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