As a younger man, Liam Garstang once spent a night, from dusk until dawn, on a hilltop doing 300 or so drypoint etchings. The wind and rain were ferocious, and the fire he had set went out of control. He used his drinking water to put it out. He then became dehydrated, he cut his finger, and he had nosebleeds. Blood dripped on his etching plates. In all, it was a dramatic night – yet he had gone there imagining drawing contentedly under the stars.
There are sheep with demonic eyes, looming in the darkness; trees that seem to beckon us towards death; witch’s wells and ghost houses; punches and things that ricochet; gaping, perforated surfaces posing reminders that some wounds never heal. He uses video, ceramics, printmaking: whatever works best with the feeling or idea he is exploring. Unusually, he often starts with a title for an idea, and then works out how to best articulate it.
Sydney-based Garstang grew up in a farming community called Downside, north of Wagga Wagga, and his mother, deeply involved in the arts, took him to unexpected places when he was young. “I was around a lot of artists and studios and exposed to a lot of interesting ideas,” he says. The groundwork was done and he knew it was important to him to express things visually. He talks about excavating emotions, shamanic influences, and the way tragedies experienced in early life cannot help but come through.
It doesn’t seem surprising that when he reached the Sydney College of the Arts in 2005, and was enrolled in print media, he experimented with materials, incorporating video, performance and painting into his work. Then, last year, he won the Macquarie Group Emerging Artist Prize for his large print The twin hanging trees. The other new works he is showing at Dominik Mersch Gallery give many hints not only about his psyche and his personal history, but also about the very thoughtful approach he has towards art making.
Take his work There’ll Be No More Shepherds, initially a 2011 video work in which he spent a night recording sheep in a field, the camera on night-vision, a mode often associated with attempts to record paranormal activity à la The Blair Witch Project. Armed with a torch and camera, he tried to capture something unseen. The animals’ eyes are aglow and we get more than a strong whiff of shamanism – especially in the 10 stills he has selected from the work to show at Mersch, forming the starting point for the rest of the show.
Other images, spectral and evocative, emerge. He talks of eerie old houses, water divining, the suspenseful sounds used in sci-fi and horror cinema, creaking noises, a post-apocalyptic aesthetic, and the powerful image of the twin hanging trees that he relates to the high suicide rates experienced in regional communities.
He also discusses his experience of finding some unusual ceramic vessels among his late father’s possessions. Using a camera looking down upon these vessels, he has used a complex process of continual casting and transferring to set up a sort of loop of imagery and repetition that might be read as a form of heredity or inheritance. After all, he says, he has been dealing with ideas about death and “concepts of space and time” since a young age (his father took his own life when Garstang was six months old).
It makes sense, then, that for one of the new works he collaborated with a taxidermist to produce a small flock of crows, which will be arranged looking into a sliver of mirror. Audiences will be able to place their heads alongside that of a crow – gazing into their own eye in the mirror. It’s unnerving but potent and it makes sense when he says that, at 19, he went to a shaman – a profound experience that has remained with him and has formed the basis for a number of his works.