(1) Where did you undertake your training in art? 

I initially trained in graphic design and typography at Perth Technical College in Perth, Western Australia. That’s like a polytechnic. We shared space with the printing students. It was very raw. This was a pre-internet era so we had to draw and work out type fitting by hand. We studied colour theory, design and did a lot of drawing. But I am a self-taught painter in that sense that I don’t have a degree in fine art, which seems to be the starting point for young artists these days.  

I worked in a small, very unusual art gallery in the late 80s in Northbridge, Western Australia, for several years where I learnt techniques from the exhibiting artists, many of whom were very specialised in particular techniques. In the design course we did a lot of art history though, which is where I developed my interest in painting.  

I have been working with acrylic paint for 2 decades now and think I have a relationship with that medium which is strong. The things that bother some people about acrylic I love. It requires decisions because of the faster drying time. It cannot be done without concentration because lack of thought dries fast. But as a material force, it is up there with oil in my opinion. One artist taught me the importance of working the surface, preparation. So I often do several layers of gesso on my canvas and sand it down. Since I’ve been screen printing on canvas this is more important as the weave can break up the print lines. But I mix drawing and painting into that too.  

I also studies history and sociology, did a First in Sociology in 1999 and then did 3 years of a PhD on online narrative and graphic novels which I left because it was too creatively restrictive. But then that has informed my work. Especially in the research behind each painting. The arts are often limited to the humanities, which I think is important, interdisciplinary approaches appeals to me very much. It seems closer to the truth. 

 

(2) What impact do you believe the Australian light, landscape and geography have had on your work? 

Australia is a bright country. The sun is strong, central. Unforgiving even. There is a link between the Mediterranean and Mexican paintings of the 1920s and 30s which I can see in hindsight. Perhaps that’s why I like Freda Kahlo. She’s depressive and interesting but the light is familiar. Australian light can present an illusion of clarity and lends itself to the literal because one assumes because all is exposed by this powerful light that you can see everything. But of course that just means you can look at a lot, not that you see everything. And if the Indigenous Australians have tried to say anything about this land, it’s that what is real isn’t exposed by this light. It’s actually blinded by this light.

So, I spend a lot of time avoiding it, creating caverns of subtlety in light. But yes, the intensity of the colours in my painting do show how hard that is at times. When I did the 2006 series Sedition and other Bedtime Stories, I worked indoors a lot and avoided the light and gave up colour. It was monochrome. That was interesting.  

 

(3)  What led you to a belief that art and politics 'mix' - and should do so? 

My earliest memories of my family, one of the most powerful, was travelling on a European flight in the early 1970s and being refused food and water by the airline staff because of our colour. My father is Indian and my mother Chinese, so we’re a mix. This was actually an Asian airline, and when it landed my father refused to allow us to get off the plan. He halted the entire air traffic to make a point until the manager of the airline came onto the tarmac and offered his apology and took us all to lunch. We were starved.

So that lesson about both racism and internal racism within communities of colour had a significant impact on me and, I think, my sister’s choice of social justice and politics as part of our creative expression. Because politics is a more organised way of interpreting human drama, human narrative, so in that sense there is no break between art and politics. When we spin something, make a story, justify it, it’s writing a story. Whether or not that leads to good or painful experiences is really just part of the way that story is written.  

Leni Riefenstahl also showed us how creative art can be used to inspire painful experience. David was probably Napoleon’s chief spin doctor and benefited for many years from that job. The artists and designers who flock to create violent video films and video games don’t see a difference between piloting a game and piloting a UAV drone and killing civilians and enemy combatants alike so, we do great injustice by under-estimating the important of art, of story-telling, of people skilled in manipulating our thoughts and emotions.  

As a non-government funded artist, I have worked to support myself for many years in community, private and (recently) state government in various project, education and policy roles. When I use the term politics, I use it with an understanding of the influence of the bureaucracy in that process. Its strengths and weakness are intimate. I’m also bringing my personal experience. My 2006 show Sedition and Other Bedtime Stories was focused on explaining the Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Act 2005 to children. It was the first time I drilled down into legislation and turned it into art.  

My time working for government has been educational, transformational and painful, and an experience that has informed my art. Government in Australia isn’t kind to different ideas or people who think differently. It is a conservative nation at its core. Until you have real, working experience of bureaucratic systems, of power in any form, of the language of government, its processes, then it is hard to define what ‘politics’ has become today. How it is different from the past. How it is changeable and corruptible. Although my day work is not particularly higher-level, it is now easier for me to understand the adage, ‘good people can do bad things’. It can fry your mind.  

From this experience, I have tried communicate the idea of true and false prophets, the good and the decayed and how we can change what we are doing by changing the story of government. Change the language, the terms of reference, and you change the physical world. I do this using history, literature and metaphor but to make political points in my recent series The Assassination of Judy Garland. Art and politics are intertwined in this ear of history. I don’t think we need to wed art and politics together forever, but segregation has always been a policy of failure.  


(4) What political beliefs inform your artwork?

You know I started off thinking of myself as clearly on some mythical Left flank. The education system made great progress when it introduced the history of the oppressed and the invisible Other in the 70s, 80s and 90s. I grew up in this heritage. Then a form of doctrine began to form inside that movement, and I witnessed and experienced new forms of prejudice from within the Left movement. That was sort of startling to me at the time. The reaction was that the ‘Right’ at the time saw an opportunity to recruit a lot of people who were being excluded by these new social prejudices. And then they began to steer their ships into each other for a collision course. They pulled out bigger cannon. Painted harsher war paint on their faces. And amidst this contemporary Armada, most of use are sitting in a lifeboat looking left and right and, to the life of us, we can’t work out whose Spain and Who’s England.  

So we sit down and start doing our hair pretending they’ll never reach us. Because I was neither a government funded artist nor working the market – I was doing jobs in a range of industries where no artists tend to go – I developed this compassion for the ordinary life. I was able to move from viewing life from within the arts sector, which is quite closed in many ways and under siege, to appreciate the non-artistic life.

Also, religion has entered the political in ways we never anticipated would happen again, and I realised that much of what we see today as ‘progressive’ or ‘left’ has a secular bias. And the religion and spirituality has been forced, I think wrongly, into the domain of the mythical Right’.Now I think this is a dangerous move from progressives. To punish people who have spiritual beliefs which are non-violent and peaceful, and to treat them with disdain, has empowered the extreme right to demonize progressive values and social justice as a God-less cause, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  

So in my new series, I have taken knowledge of the genetic military projects that are trying to create the perfect killing machine and imagining the creation of a messianic figure. The idea behind this is to question the nature of God and we write this narrative of God. It is partially influenced by my own beliefs and also some of the valuable narratives pioneered by Karen Armstrong’s writing. This idea that we re-create God for each new era in ways that make sense to us. We re-write the doctrine. So, I think the inclusion of spirituality and religion has become a political process as well and my art is informed by that. 

 

 (5) What is your response to the proposition that art and politics should be and are 'separate’ and that artistry is a product solely of 'imagination'? 

Whether or not you think art and politics should be kept apart they never have been. I suppose those people see art as a religious concept and think in Westphalian terms of a history of nation state. In these terms it is easy to see art being used in these terms and often to no good. So naturally they think it’s a bad idea. But before that art had a long history within the Church and side by side with that in the esoteric arts and with alchemists. And folk and primitive art is a testimony of how communities find meaning in craft that some wouldn’t see as political. But that politics to me is fairly restrictive and often defined by non-art practitioners.

The bureaucratic mind hates political art unless it supports the agenda of government of the day. Politics today isn’t aiming for higher values, so I am sympathetic to those that what to separate the two. There are good reasons, because of the power of art to change reality, but it is not possible. The world has always been political, messy and creative at the same time. Creativity needs mess and politics needs art to reach artistry. So for me artistry and ‘art’ are distinct. 

I think artistry is both a product of imagination and skill. But who is to say that politics is not? We use the term the ‘theatre of politics’ and openly acknowledge the role of performance in successful political achievement. But we are in 2 minds if this is acting or bare-faced lie. As the audience we are complicit in the critique.

John Wilkes Booth, the American actor who shot President Lincoln is perhaps the best example of where the lines are impossible to draw between performance, artistry and imagination. He is a case study both to separate art and merge it-depending on your point of view. Is plotting to kill a president a non-imaginative process? Is writing policy any less like writing a script for a different way of behaving/acting? Is planning a terrorist plot or targeted killing an act of imagination requiring artistry to achieve? Why does the Pentagon hire Hollywood creatives to out-think terrorists? What’s a terrorist? A bad writer?  

These are disturbing questions which have made me much more aware, often unwillingly, of what motivates people to act politically. It makes exploring politics beyond a protest graphic a really challenging intellectual exercise and one I think could be integrated into politics study to rigorously test beliefs outside of a purely textual-legal framework.  

 

(6) What are/is your preferred medium/s? 

Acrylic on stretched canvas. I think I answered this ahead-sorry. I do draw a lot to think out my ideas. I use pencils and ink/pen. Since 2005 I began to integrate screen printing and spray/stencils in sections of paintings while keeping traditional painting technique central to every painting.  

 

(7) What impact on your work and life does being a part of the western Australian community have? 

In my earlier work it was vital because I was learning from artists I knew. I lived in Northbridge and it was a thriving creative community.  

As a mid-career artist many of these people have either given up, died, moved on to other places, a few have gone to great commercial success. So at this stage my contact with the WA community is not as much with the artists as through my friends and family who live here. I lived for several years off and on in Melbourne and have a group of friends there too.  

Northbridge became a developers experiment and they really killed it off. It’s like a tourist mall now. Yes there are artists; the developers have aimed for the young low-brow art scene set. The graffiti and street art scene is very under siege, with specific government programs targeting them as criminals and new laws were brought in to make certain art materials illegal to under 18s. Areas of Northbridge, as a response to increasing crime (which I think resulted in the breakdown of the artist community there) have banned young people after certain hours.

The mining boom has created great wealth among some but increased hardship for others and there is less community value to care about that. So in terms of community, the destruction of the artistic eco-system over 2 decades is pretty complete. Affordable rent space for visual artists is non-existent. I’m using a family space to paint. So are most of my friends. 

It’s a culture of 4WDs and plasma TV screens and if it’s possible WA has become more homogenous in terms of its Anglo-Saxon heritage. At times, it even feels like government policy. That diversity which began in the late 80s got crushed. Racism incidents and killings and later the Cronulla Riots over East, and the popular movement among the mainstream to reject refugees has split the community.

But from another perspective, artists became even more demonized than ever with the Bill Henson incident. Laws were enacted in NSW which inferred an assumption of nudity in art to be paedophilia related first. Like sections of the Anti-Terrorism Act 2005, we have begun the American road to the abolishment of habeas corpus. The Australia which I grew up with, that welcomed my family post White-

Australia Policy in the 1974, of Lamingtons, outback myths, the nobility of the Australian character, has altered so much as to become unrecognizable. Creatively, censorship and a more militant conservativeness has become normalised. 

Western Australia has become a national leader in this trend with dissenting voices silenced and targeted. So the environment I’m in as an artist is rather hostile to ideas of human rights. And so I spend little energy on building an audience here and more on connecting with like-minded people overseas. 

 

(8) When did you begin exhibiting and what was your first exhibition? 

My first exhibition was at a small gallery called Bridge gallery in Northbridge, an inner city suburb of the city of Perth in Western Australia. I had returned from Melbourne where I started paintings in oil and chalk pastel on paper. I did so many; it just came pouring out one day. I was working in Melbourne in 1989 in the fashion industry and had recently lost someone I cared for to cancer. Anyway I came back to Perth for that, and while here finished off the series and walked into a gallery to get some framed. Met a marvellous man called Gary the Director of the space and he just said, I want to show your work. Just bring it in. And so it happened. It was really well received and I just joined this little community at a time when many artists lived here.  

 

(9)  What impact does your background - in terms of ethnic heritage, etc have on your work? 

My heritage is important to me. Spiritually my father was brought up a Hindu and is deeply spiritual, but as an Indian, as you can imagine, patriotic and used to battling racism in the UK in the e 60s and in Australia. So he is marked by those experiences. My mother is beautiful. Chinese. Both of them were second generation born in Malaysia and Singapore respectively. They have always supported me even when they don’t know what I’m painting or why. They are intelligent, well-read, and place a high value on character and honesty. They are flawed, as am I. Life hasn’t been easy for them as post war children who grew up in poverty and I have deep admiration for them both.

My mother has always been creative and used to paint but stopped. I probably get that from her. The research bent I get from Dad. Both cultures are long, old. Have deeply complex histories. Are resurgent powers in the 21st century and have so much in their history that is sometimes iconoclastic and sometimes beneath the surface.  

I did a painting called Viva Las Shiva in 2005 about the Sept 11. The twin towers, in pale blue are afire, people as stick figures are falling from the sky and the Indian God Shiva is hovering over a tower in 18 Century French garments. Creation and Destruction. And in 2008 after Obama won the primaries I painted him facing daleks in conversation with them and the God Vishnu. And really, hasn’t he turned out to be our illusion in some ways – our Maya. But my mother was Catholic for many years too, as was I, and I reference the Christian Bible as well.

The Chinese are, I think, the embodiment of great forbearance. That is both a prize and curse. At some point, we need to say enough. But we need to endure so much that life gives us with a dignity we rarely feel. My mother teaches me forbearance and dignity in adversity. And this is actually so important to artists. It takes years sometimes or never to be noticed. I have been doing this for 22 years. A lot of sacrifice for little promise. So my mother has a deep impact on the strength to continue. And without continual application, it’s just an idea.  

 

(10) What impact does being Australian and living in Australia have on international recognition? 

For visual artists, it’s quite enclosed, isolated and not strongly supported by the Australian culture. They appreciate film, sport but literature and painting? No I wouldn’t say Australia supports its visual artists. The streak of anti-intellectualism is aggressive. It’s a macho culture. Art galleries, the smaller more experimental ones have been great to me, but many have gone broke in this climate. There is a lot of emphasis on young artists and the handful of established names. Indigenous art was strong but is waning a bit. The mainstream galleries hated my politic content.  

I seem to get found by people overseas through my website and that’s been amazing. I discovered that overseas people liked my art and wanted to write about it. At first I was disbelieving at their respect and the intelligent people who wanted to know more. Then I realised I had been ground down a bit and my confidence has steadily improved with more overseas attention. International recognition has been slow but seems to be happening once I just ‘gave up’ on trying to wave down a car here in Australia. I know that I need to spend more time overseas, and I am hopeful that the attention I’m getting from people who aren’t afraid of the content of my work will lead to a relationship with a gallery overseas.

But without a doubt it is tough being in Australia. Not so much being an Australian, because people have been open to that, and I think it’s because people who like my work are focused on the work, not my nationality. In Australia, diversity is token. It’s overwhelmingly white. They hate to talk about the demographics. It was suggested I push my ethnicity to get grants as a multicultural artist and I 

said, you know, it’s not just about that. I’d feel compromised. All that I am makes my work what it is. Being Indian/Chinese, being a gay man of colour, being spiritual, being angry, being sad, and being single.  

 

(11) Do you believe it is possible for an artist to live in Australia and to 'make their name' internationally? 

With the right break, the right exposure and support, yes. Not everything about Perth or Western Australia is that restrictive for me. The people, the society, the government, I can leave those for dead. But the land, the country, the spirit of this place is not something you can quantify in words or numbers. I can’t really describe it but doing part of my work here will always be important. I want to spend time overseas perhaps in a residency once day, but I don’t have the institutional CV for that. So it’s work by day, spend frugally, and make time to paint. That’s my lot so far. I know you’re Cambridge University, but to quote The Terminator, “the future is not set”. 

 

(12)  What took you to western Australia (it appears that you went there to live from elsewhere in Australia?) - was it directly related to your work as an artist and if so, how? (if this is too personal - that is, some personal motivation which you prefer not to divulge led to the west Aust living place, ignore this question. 

My family settled here in 1974 from NSW where we landed first after leaving the UK. So it wasn’t an artistic decision (I was 7).  

 

(13)  You refer to Northbridge in notes on your work. Northbridge was once a 'poor' part of town, roe street inhabited by 'ladies of the night' and persons who would be classified as inebriates and derelicts. what impact does the history of Northbridge and its transition into a thriving multicultural centre (at least restaurant-wise) of Perth have on your work generally? 

Immense. That history of derelict and unwanted created an atmosphere of creativity that people here just don’t get. Drama is undisguised and unfiltered, dirty and diverse. WA has worked overtime to clean up anything which offends the affluent. Northbridge is a victim of that. I came to it towards the end, a moment when it fought back, and then died. I honour all those drug-addicted hookers that talked to me on my way to work, the cultural diversity, and the stories of migrants growing vegetables in their front lawns. I honour them in the spirit of how I work, and the decisions I take to become the type of artist I really am, and not the template on offer. And that’s hard.

But if I had never experienced that living oral history and that tradition in my painting, I would be the poorer for it. In terms of multiculturalism, yes some diversity still remains but the cost of property and the shortage of accommodation means that no-one less than an affluent upper-middle class person has live there anymore. It is a boom mining town. Real estate agents and landlords charge a lot. It is more expensive to buy property in Perth than in New York. So that will influence diversity yes. 

 

(14) Western Australia has a small but vigorous artistic community - particularly in gooseberry hill/Kalamunda (we had a house there when I was a child!) and the darling scarp/range generally, as well as Fremantle. how does this have an impact on your work and survival as an artist?

Kalamunda are still hanging in there. I don’t mix much with them and only met a few in the 1990s, but I know a few of them still. The ‘Hills’ crowd have their own identity. Being more isolated I think they have managed to preserve that community very well. I respect them. Fremantle is only still there but I think has suffered a lot like Northbridge from the tourism makeover, high rents, $4 an hour parking, declining foot trade. The Indigenous art industry is in flux. Of course everyone has been affected by the financial crisis but the role of art has been changing for years. 

For myself, the galleries there didn’t respond to my work. The galleries generally represent the buying public, and audience tastes have narrowed. The younger set has embraced either the ‘Low-brow’ art scene or the university career direction through institutional exhibitions and the funding circuit. So CVs count. Life experience and the non-conventional approach not so much. But this is a global trend not so much specific to Perth.  

Where Perth impacts on vigour and creativity and originality is the lack of diverse audiences and an emphasis on resource sector-not culture-across investment. I have read a lot about the UK arts funding cuts. I think WA is no less affected by the global downgrade in culture and arts. Government and business think if it can assist production, commercialise, it deserves investment. I believe people themselves are still engaged with ideas but are using the internet to interact with the world and are less location-oriented. The idea of art with ideas or using art and culture to stimulate debate, ideas and social movement isn’t at the forefront as much as it once was. At least in the visual art or painter model. 

 

(15) What question/s should I have asked that you would like to answer and how would you answer them? (!) 

Gosh, Jas, the questions really made me think and type. I hope this is enough. I’m a little worried when I read you’re a judge, my replies are not truly academic or legally accurate or anything. I’m an artist really. I mean I try and learn for the sake of making better paintings, but I realise the more I learn, the less I know. And you actually feel less confident the more you absorb. Isn’t it strange? It should be the reverse but it’s not.’ Thank you so much. 

 

Carl Gopalkrishnan in Conversation with Jocelynn Scutt - 2011

Honourable Jocellyn Scutt, UK

Carl Gopal 2011 University of Surrey Workshop Biog PhotoWay back in 2011 (well before Zoom) we just had email and basic chat. Jocelynn Scutt was traching at Cambridge University in the UK in their Politics Department. She has since settled there and is County Councillor for Arbury Division for the Labor Party. Before that she had a memorable career as an Australian barristor,  judge and human rights advocate. So we did questions back and forth on email for an article for an article she wrote about me in the now defunct undergraduate politics journal The Art of the Possible. You an read her final article here.

I have added this colection from the transcript of my answers to her questions because it really says a lot about me and my art practice even today (though I'd like to think I'm more politically and personally seasoned in 2020). It's been a decade since this interview, and I'm less crackly but it's still basically me.