Melbourne-based artist Peter Hennessey’s practice owes much to his architectural acumen. On the surface, there is the immediate connection between art and architecture in the materiality and resolved construction of his scale models. Hennessey’s preoccupation with scale, while a pragmatic, mathematical question in architecture, acquires a conceptual, perceptive quality when applied to his art. Hennessey’s works begin with a story and materials: “If I can’t use a work to tell an interesting story them I’m really not interested. There has to be more than the thing. Even if it’s only obvious to me I need that extra layer.”
VK—What was it like growing up in Sydney in the 1970s? Was it an optimistic time and place?
PH—As a kid, I was pretty unaware of the general mood of the world around me. I was very much wrapped up in my own head. What I remember more was the mid 1980s, and the anti-nuclear marches and the general fear of an imminent Armageddon. In some ways, I think that the overly optimistic attitude towards climate change held by many of the older half of the population has been very much skewed by nuclear war’s fortunate failure to materialise.
VK—You went on to pursue a BA in Architecture. What was it about the field that called out to you?
PH—I like the combination of practicality and intellectualism that exists in the idea of architecture as a discipline. Even though I have never practiced, I have to say it was great training for what I do now.
VK—Has studying architecture been advantageous for an inroad into the art world?
PH—Architecture taught me how to work with people and with processes that I didn’t necessarily know. It was very much about coming up with a solution to a problem and working out how to make that appear in the world. I approach art in a very similar fashion, except that now the problem is less pragmatic and I get to be my own client. I think there is also a shared focus on materiality which really crosses over.
VK—Your work lends itself well to architectural commissions – how do you approach these tasks?
PH—I think the only really meaningful distinction is the understanding of audience. A work in a museum or gallery is going to be seen by a person who is both motivated to see it and somewhat aware of the art historical context that surrounds it. The audience for a public sculpture may not be either of those things. That doesn’t mean you have to dumb down the work, but you have to give that non-art audience a way into it. I think that is the key thing, along side actually making a work that is aesthetically and conceptually satisfying.
VK—Hanabi, 2014 is an installation of large-scale, brightly coloured flowers made from aluminium with staple-like joins that deliberately points to the flowers’ inorganic structure and materiality. How do you strike a balance between conceptual integrity and essentially, making art as decoration?
“I am fascinated by this idea of scale and its fundamental role in abstracting the world in order to explain it.”
PH—For me it is simultaneously a riff on the idea of ‘nature’ in space like the city and also a play on scale in architectural representation. The flowers themselves are based on native orchids that might once have grown on the site, and they are also 100 x life-sized. This means that when I present the technical drawings to explain the work, they are actually life-sized in that particular world. I am fascinated by this idea of scale and its fundamental role in abstracting the world in order to explain it. For me, that is what the work is about, but I’m OK with it being ‘decorative’ on top of that. Also, I think the art world fetishises the ‘unaesthetic’ to a degree which renders the whole dichotomy a little facile.
VK—There’s a very pleasing technical aspect and a precision to your works. Did you always have an interest in models and model building?
PH—Yes, I did it all; plastic models, Lego, D&D. All the cool stuff.
VK—Are there any other ways that your practice crosses into architectural territory?
PH—I think my practice is very spatial. In fact, my interest in re-staging objects springs from a very architectural fascination with the disconnection between representation and actuality that inevitably occurs within the design process.
VK—You’ve recreated satellites from different countries – is there any one that has struck you as particularly bizarre or beautiful?
PH—They are all pretty fascinating. Theoretically, these objects are all solutions to same engineering problems, and as such tend to converge. However, you can tell an American one from a Russian, which suggests that even the ‘objectivity’ of engineering is infused with cultural assumptions.
VK—Here be dragons speaks of a nostalgia for Earth’s undiscovered places which have all but been mapped and photographed. You’ve managed to flip that and by creating life-size replicas of satellites (which have erased the hidden places), making the machines whimsical instead. How did you want to position these objects?
PH—I guess I like the ambiguity of these objects, in the sense that they are things that people know about but don’t actually know. They know satellites are up there or Google cars are driving around but they have no idea of the reality of the objects themselves. The figures quite easily transform these objects into scale models of something else in a way that really brings that home. There is no such ambiguity in a television for example.
VK—Your work reminds me that we are beholden to technology and that it will render much of human labour obsolete, however, there’s nothing overtly dark or critical there. Would you be optimistic growing up today?
PH—I have two young children and I really worry for them. I think they will have it a lot harder than I did, and that isn’t fair. In some ways, I think I search out the most optimistic objects and stories that I can precisely because I am so pessimistic. I think we need things to remind us that people can sometimes do good things; that benevolence is possible.
VK—How did your collaboration with Patricia Piccinini for the group exhibition New Romance (at MCA last year) come about?
PH—Patricia and I have been living and working together since 1988, but in the past we’ve always drawn pretty clear distinctions between our separate practices. However, in 2014 Penny Clive approached us and asked if we’d be interested in collaborating for a new space she was opening in the Hobart Mercury building. The result was The Shadows Calling at Dark MOFO 2015, and the work at MCA called Alone With The Gods followed on from that. We were interested in how far we might push each other’s work and what would change. We’re quite different in the way we work, but after almost 30 years we are also pretty much experts on each other.