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In Conversation with Artist Katie Lee

Suddenly seeing strange objects around the Convent, and wondering why? Introducing Cross-Section, a newly-commissioned artwork by Katie Lee! We chat to Katie about her love of Town Squares, what to do if you see Katie mid-roving performance, and why the Convent was the perfect place to explore the idea people just ‘going about their business’.

The concept of the ‘Town Square’ is very community focused. A place where everyone is welcome to gather for all occasions – meeting friends and family, celebrating culturally significant days, and even a place of protest. What was it about the Convent that made you think of it as a Town Square?

I like sitting and watching the world go by and many of my sculptures are based on accumulations of things that I see in urban spaces. Often things I observe recur and my memories of things that I see accumulate and become connected, even if they have been fleeting encounters. These provide a lot of formal inspiration; objects, forms, sounds. However, it is also the social dynamic that influences me. The way people behave and how hard life can be sometimes.

Town Squares are really democratic spaces. All kinds of people come to use them. People deliver things to businesses. People come to work. People come to rest. There is a genuine cross-section of visitors and residents of these kinds of civic spaces.

Most town squares around the world have clocks as central features. I like the idea that watching people’s activities and things that happen in these dynamic city spaces become a form of rhythm and timekeeping in its own right.

Your Cross-Section performances will take place throughout the Convent. For those who are not familiar with roving performances, can you give us a taster of what to expect? And what do you hope people will take away from the performances?

My sculptural work is often reminiscent of equipment or something quasi-functional. In gallery contexts I often leave the potential of these objects to the imagination of the viewer. However, a lot of the time, moving them around, using them – sometimes even making them – can be equally interesting.

In a gallery, any action you perform is very theatrical. And becomes quite dramatic. I like the idea of the performances being more pedestrian. There is no event that people need to gather to watch, or particular space to watch it in. Instead, the objects may pass by as you sit and drink coffee. Or go about some other business at the Convent.

For example, many objects I have made have a surface that are also chalkboards. These have potential to be drawn upon, or to communicate. But they are also beautiful as blank surfaces, like a painting. The dusty chalk, and the act of cleaning the chalk board holds lots of memories, especially in relation to the context of the Covent.

These kinds of simple gestures are what I am interested in, rather than a particular narrative. I suppose what people may take away are questions about what the objects are, what they ‘do’? My response is that if they look like they ‘could’ do something, or that they remind you of something, then that tells us something about human nature. Why do we count, record, instruct and chart things? Why do the objects we use look the way they do? What associations do they bring to mind?

From chalkboards to windsocks and flags, your performances will include a series of ‘everyday’ objects, however eclectic. What was your inspiration behind the objects you have chosen?

Lots of the sculptural forms come from my interest in the visual language of institutions. They are not specific to any particular space or time, but they are familiar objects in relation to schools or sport. Spaces that instruct, keep score, or measure. Flags and windsocks also do this, but they make nature visible. They reveal the already active nature of the environment. Mostly they relate to these kinds of everyday devices. But also to activities. Sitting. Writing. Waiting. Recording. Observing.

Your work will include a series of video installations – how will these relate to your roving performances?

The video installations are accumulations and fragments of what has been happening on the site, captured on video. Partly they are a way of recording and re-presenting what has occurred during the exhibition. But they are also trying to bring attention to other aspects of the space that we may forget about when we are going about our everyday business. Like the nearby river, and all the animals, and birds and trees that occupy the same space. The way the space looks on a bright day, or late in the evening. So it is a way of acknowledging the many faces of the convent. Not just the human activity, but the natural environment. The history. The passing of time.

Talk us through your creative process for Cross-section. What came first, and did the final direction of your work veer far from your original thinking?

The creative process really begun with the idea of the Town Square and wanting to make work that was about that as a cross-section of activity, visitors, rhythms and notions of temporality. The objects I suppose are not particularly different to other work I have made, however I was very conscious of the historic nature of the Convent in particular, so the sculptural work has responded to that. Also, everything for this show needed to move, so everything I have made is on wheels!

Another inspiration for the show came from a beautiful exhibition that my friend, artist Emma Collard, held at the gallery, Substation,called Rooms with A View. She invited a selection of artists (including me) to put work up at the Substation for one day. I made a work called Provisional Peripheries, which was cluster of objects on wheels that could be moved through the space and used as props or to set up a perimeter. A few different artists used them, and moved them around.   Emma used them with dancer Bella Frahn-Starkie in some performances they were working on. Emma and Bella have been collaborating a lot in their own practices and I loved the way they used the objects and adapted them to ideas they had along the way. I’ve invited them to come and develop a work for the Convent too, which will start in the second week of the show, with a performance event on Sunday 21 May between 10 – 12pm .

You’ve created an app-like map for Cross-Section – how will this help people to navigate your work?

The map is a way to help people who might come to the site looking for the exhibition.

Unlike most shows in galleries, this exhibition has really been conceived for an audience who might happen upon the work, rather than come down to see it specifically.

However, I am aware that some people might come down in order to see something, and I wanted to make sure that they could locate elements of the work that might be hard to find. There are four video stations around the site that will keep playing footage of performances and events that have occurred even if I am not here, or if the performances are not occurring.

These are located on the map, so that people who do not know the space, or use the space regularly can come down and find these works. Other things that I put up will also go onto the map as I make them or find homes for them around the Convent. Part of the idea behind the exhibition is that the installation of certain elements is the actual performance. So, the visible work accumulates. Whilst this might work well for the regular inhabitants of the Convent, who watch the work grow and change, I was aware that it might provide logistical problems for other viewers.

What’s the number one thing you’ve learnt as a practicing artist, versus what you learnt as a student?

Well I’ve been a student many times and for many years. So, in some ways I don’t feel like I can ever distinguish between these two positions. However, I suppose I understand more now than I did when I first started studying that it is very difficult for artists to work alone, and that it is important to develop communities of like-minded people to work with. I am part of a collective called ‘Light and Air and Space and Time’ (LAST). And working with people in this way makes the practice of being an artist so much more enjoyable.

What are you most looking forward to about sharing your work at the Convent?

I am really excited about seeing how the work changes and adapts to the space. And inviting others to engage with the possibility of the objects – what they are, how they could be used. I am really excited to see the works activated by the performances of Emma and Bella. And also, of recording the dynamic of the Convent through video. All of it is very exciting for me. It is an incredible opportunity to use a space like the Convent, outside the conventional spaces of a gallery.

What are you working on next?

I have another show that starts as soon as this one finishes – Even a Stopped Clock at the Incinerator Gallery in Moonee Ponds.

In some ways this explores similar territory, but through very different means. Even a Stopped Clock reflects on the way we experience time. I have made an installation of sculptures inspired by a Foucault pendulum, which was a device invented to make visible the Earth’s rotation. I am working with lighting designer, Andrew Sainsbury, to make work that mimics the way the sun moves across a space during the day, and how the rhythms of nature already reveal the environment as dynamic.