Hannah Quinlivan’s practice is concerned with materializing structures of feeling. Her work explores processes of remembering and forgetting, and attempts to understand how affect holds together and functions. Developing a method she terms ‘spatial drawing’ after Monika Grzymala, she interrogates how our individual, internal processes of feeling and remembering are related to broader social moods or atmospheres.
Quinlivan is currently pursuing doctoral research at The Australian National University and will be a visiting artist at Colorado State University in 2017. She has exhibited in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, United Kingdom and Germany. She is represented by Flinders Lane Gallery, Melbourne, and .M Contemporary, Sydney.
Interview with Hannah Quinlivan
How do you describe your work to others?
I usually explain my practice in concrete terms. I say that I consider my work to be drawing, but that I interpret ‘drawing’ very broadly – anything I can draw a line with is a drawing material. I like to draw in two or three dimensions, and that more recently have been making drawings from human movement and sound.
If I pressed and I’m asked exactly what I draw, I say that I use abstract drawing techniques. Abstraction is important for me, because I’m interested in materialising structures of feeling. I’m not trying to represent something clear cut and concrete that has a simple meaning or can be represented in a straightforward manner. Instead, I’m trying to visualize something that is more like a diffuse field, the push and pull of affects in relation to each other. Abstraction allows for multiple levels of interpretation. I like the way that conceptual ambiguity allows viewers to develop their own relationships with the artwork.
Do you have a preferred medium?
I generally work in drawing, and have an ever-growing palette of materials that I use as drawing media. This stretches from traditional materials like ink and graphite to materials that allow me to draw in three dimensions, like wire, steel rods, adhesive tape. More recently, I’ve begun experimenting with the human body and voice as ‘materials’ for drawing lines, transferring my ideas into movement and breath. I’ve also been experimenting with salt recently, as a technique to crystallise the fleeting into the present while still remaining true to the contingent and fragile.
Even though I find it very stimulating to experiment with many different media, I do seem to keep coming back to drawing with wire. Wire is probably the single material that is closest to my heart and the material in which expression is most natural and effortless. I like its properties as a material for making, and I also like its mobility. I tend to carry a roll of wire around with me, so I can keep making whenever and wherever I have a free moment.
How do you begin new work?
More and more, I have been making site-specific work, and this has changed how I get started on new projects. On site-specific artworks, I like to go and spend time in the space and observe it. I’m interested in how the space is used, and try to understand the ebb-and-flow of daily rhythms in that location so I can make a work that interacts with that space and its atmospheres. After spending time in the space, I then return to the studio and try to find a way to transform the diffuse notions and observations into material form.
Do you tend to work in series or do you see your body of work as a continuation?
It is always simultaneously both. I think of my art practice as something like a river, that as it follows its course incorporates new materials. Even though its character changes from project-to-project, sometimes rocky and turbulent, sometimes slow and calm, it is still fundamentally a continuity, the same process unfolding over time and space.
What attracts you to your subjects?
I’m not sure if it’s true to say that I find my subjects. I often feel that my subjects find me – I wish I knew what attracts them to me! They emerge with such a force of compulsion that I feel no alternative other than to engage with them – I can’t just let them slip by.
What do you use as reference material?
All kinds of things. A photograph, a sketch, a snatch of music, a found object, a recalled conversation or reflection – anything that moves me into the subjective state I am trying to pursue. This material isn’t so much visual documentation to be referred to as an affective archive, a collection of things that help me to grasp a particular structure of feeling.
Do you work intuitively or more consciously?
I tend to work intuitively and let meaning emerge in the making. I think of meaning as surfacing during the dialogue between the artwork and myself during the making process. Although there might be a conscious starting point, the work may end up in quite a different place to where it began. In a way, this is why I make. If I knew at the outset what I knew at the conclusion, the artwork itself would almost be redundant. It is the not knowing where the work will end that compels me to take the journey. For this reason, I like to let the work unravel and realise itself, rather than following a map to a pre-planned destination.
What’s your favourite colour to work with?
I tend not use colour much at the moment, as I find it a bit of a distraction from the goals I am trying to realise in my work. For me, using colour is a bit like trying to think over the sound of a noisy cockatoo squawking. So I prefer to avoid colour in order to focus on the issues at hand. But this is a pragmatic decision rather than a conceptually-driven one. If colour will help me to achieve the affect I am seeking, then of course I will use it.
Where do you create?
Anywhere and everywhere. As I mentioned, I like to carry a roll of wire around with me so I can work anywhere. I like my art-making practice to be integrated with the rest of my life, rather than being partitioned off. I’m happiest when multitasking and sneaking a cheeky little bit of art making into the middle of doing something else.
Do you have a studio ritual to start the session?
I’ve never had trouble getting started – I just jump right in.
Do you enjoy coming up with titles?
I have a difficult relationship with titles. Because I intend for the work to contain multiple meanings and for audiences to draw their own interpretations, I feel like the act of titling forecloses interpretative possibilities. So I struggle find to titles that walk the fine line of being suggestive without being prescriptive. I try to find titles that create a starting point for engagement with the artwork, rather than having the final word.
What’s your favourite part of creating?
I’m never so happy as when I am in the zone making. There is something that happens and I become completely absorbed in the process – it’s an altered state that’s like a drug I just can’t get enough of.
What advice would you give to your emerging self?
Trust your instincts and go as hard as you can. Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.
Have you ever worked with a mentor?
I’ve been lucky enough to have Monika Grzymala, a Berlin-based artist, mentor me on and off for the past three years. She is an amazingly generous and insightful artist and teacher – she’s given me the opportunity to watch her work and learn from her own experiences, as well as guiding me in my practice at a crucial time. Whenever I encounter obstacles in my art making or professional practice, I always ask myself what she would advise and I know right away what to do.
How do you alleviate the down times?
I don’t do down time.
What is the most memorable exhibition you have seen and why?
Probably Tokujin Yoshioka’s show Crystallise at MOT in Tokyo in 2013. I walked in off the street knowing nothing of his work and it completely overwhelmed and consumed me. The sense of transcendence he developed using luminosity and sound were completely new to me, and are something that I’d like to approach in my own practice one day
If you could ask any artist any question, what would it be?
I would ask Gertrude Goldschmidt if she could share a week with me. I would have loved to have known her.
What does the future hold for you?
So many things! I’ll keep you posted.