In What is Art, Leo Tolstoy wrote that art is a human activity, one that when conducted consciously, passes on by external signs the feelings lived by the artist to an audience who is in turn, “infected by these feelings.” When encountering the work of multidisciplinary artist Sarah Contos one is often moved by surprise or curiosity, or caught off-guard by something dualistic, nostalgic or contradictory.
The artist has had a stellar run of late, taking out the coveted Ramsay Art Prize last year with the large-scale textile work The Long Kiss Goodbye that sampled moments from her career, in what was more mix tape than survey. This year Contos adorned the foyer of the National Gallery of Australia with complex hanging works that drew on silent film, theatre and internet fandom for the Balnaves Contemporary Intervention Series.
VK—Where did you grow up? What did you enjoy doing as a child?
SC—I grew up in Kalamunda in the Hills district in Perth. We lived next door to an enormous amount of bushland and I played there a lot – pretending I was an archaeologist on a dig, or a space captain with a fallen tree as my spaceship. I also made a lot of mix tapes pretending I was a radio announcer, or I designed fashion collections.
VK—Were you given the freedom to pursue your interests when you left school?
SC—I didn’t do any of the HSC equivalent subjects while at high school so years 11 and 12 were all art, media, theatre and smoking pot. After leaving high school, I went to TAFE and completed a diploma in art and then theatre design at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. I always knew I wanted to be an artist of some sort and luckily my family have always been very supportive of that.
VK—How do you approach your work? Is the process intuitive or do you tend to work more methodically?
SC—My process is firstly research-heavy – looking and reading anything that catches my eye or I am curious about. This starts to form a pattern connected with current personal positioning and then it’s to the studio to work it through. I’ll spend a good amount of time just playing with materials without responsibility or too much self-critique.
I work better when I can jump from one thing to another. My studio is usually divided into spaces for sewing, sculpture, messy work, clean work, installation play, thinking/resting and failed stuff. I find new things start to happen when these areas converge. Then comes the hard part of being objective and making sense of what’s started to emerge.
VK—In Nikola Tesla Sends Theda Bara to Mars, you’ve positioned yourself as a director, presenting an unfolding narrative of cinematic tropes. It appears that creativity is something that not only encompasses different mediums for you but also crosses genres. How do you see your practice?
SC—My first formal training in art was interdisciplinary studies and then theatre design – both share the same methodologies. In theatre design or production design, a script is studied from multiple frameworks before determining ways to communicate it visually.
The work was such an enormous undertaking that I needed to adopt the role of a director in order to make sense of it. Theatrical devices or cinematic methods such as characters, sets, frames and camera angles were substituted with screen-printed imagery suspended in stainless steel mobile frames. This enabled the foyer at the National Gallery of Australia to be transformed into a massive analogue ‘motion picture’ replete with multiple viewing platforms – the audience standing in as the role of the camera. I’ve always wanted an art practice that could cross genres and mediums.
VK—Your works tend to speak of interiority, of both your shifting outlook and as a record of your aesthetic interests. It’s interesting though that the work sort of explodes outwards with an exuberance that is quite declamatory. What do you make of the inside/outside dichotomy to your work?
SC—I love art best when it has an energy to it that is real and almost dangerous, like when an actor pauses and you think they have forgotten their line – but they haven’t – and you realise you were holding your breath that whole time. There’s the impact of a dramatic pause. Drama and theatrics are very much a part of my work whether that is apparent in the outcome or by the stages of process in the studio.
VK—Do you find that there a tension between wanting to be seen as an artist and yet to remain private and inscrutable in a way?
SC—I don’t think it’s any secret that I wear my heart on the gallery walls so to speak – firstly, in the conversations I have with myself that manifest through the process, and the final product is an evidence of that. I don’t share a studio and so the relationship I have with making art is very private and intimate – if I treat it right, it will treat me right. Sometimes using personal experiences or memories is a very exhausting, lonely and sadistic way of making – and I would love to be more removed and objective, but I don’t know how to do that.
VK—Emotion and nostalgia are driving forces in your work – yet the works also appear tough and gritty, and even sexy, with chains, studs, and the female form. Have you needed thick skin as an artist?
SC—I wish my skin was thicker. I think my work plays on assumptions and offers other angles to view these from. All the use of chains and hardware have a duality – a playful quality to them – something you would see in a playground as much as what you might find in a BDSM room. The intention of meaning is not either or, but for inclusivity through ambiguous material dialogue. I find there is a protection in straddling the fence. I don’t have thick skin and am very emotion-led so the objects, materials and forms – even my use of using historic imagery, allows a sort of filter between me and my work.
VK—American art historian Alexander Nemerov has studied the intrinsic link between art and emotion – your works operate on the level of ‘knowledge emotions’, eliciting interest, confusion and surprise. The use of your materials relays information that is contradictory – gentle-aggressive, playful-dangerous, objects that appear soft and tactile are inert. What are the experiences that you want to communicate to your audience?
SC—The push-pull between materials speaks to my interest in duplicity and achieving some sort of collective familiarity or emotional memory. Because the experience of the world is individual and perception of it changes, the cultural markers say of music or film or fashion are definite signifiers of a particular time. I like work that reshuffles these histories and represents them without clear boundaries of explicit intention. Materials, images and smells have so many associated memories attached, and debatably fabric is up there with having a huge emotional resonance – we clothe our bodies in it, sleep in it, create our identity through it. I like materials that we come into contact with that are taken for granted because they are easy to manipulate and resituate the meaning of. Emotional memory is a powerful thing and this can be triggered unwillingly.
VK—There’s a DIY punk aesthetic to your work – is there a particular era of music and culture that you are drawing on? What attracts you to it?
SC—There’s an interesting tension when something is not made by the hand of an ‘artist’. It has the possibility of being really great and really bad at the same time. There’s a humility to it and an inherent honesty. I’m drawn to that way of making because of its intimacy and immediacy. Lately my work has really been playing up to that ‘scrapbook aesthetics’ of the ’80s – that graffiti aesthetic on pencil cases or on the cover of school books. Most people would have scrawled their name or weekly love interest on their hand or ruler – there’s a shared experience in that. The romanticism of youth is super powerful and it’s a nice state to try to conjure up again.
VK—What Is next for you?
SC—I’m in a group show in December at Wollongong Art Gallery called The TV Show. It’s curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham and it’s going to be a really nice way to end a great year. And then I’m off to Paris on a residency at the Cité internationale des arts. It’s been a while since I’ve done a residency and there’s nothing better than being in a beautiful city, drinking and eating beautiful things and absorbing as much art and culture and newness as you possibly can.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2018 print edition of Art Guide Australia.