Gary Carsley

At the time of my interview with Gary Carsley, events are unusually upended. Scheduled programs in the arts have been postponed, globally, with the outbreak of COVID-19. Carsley is adapting. His planned intervention into the historical collection held by New York’s ICAA (Institute of Classical Architecture and Art) of plaster casts on permanent loan from the Metropolitan Museum will not take place – or rather, will occur online.

So did you have plans to come to New York, with ICAA?
It is going to be a while before things get back to normal, but right now I am not very mobile. Which is sad, I really like the north-east corner of North America. Some of my finest physical memories are of the upper Hudson. My project at ICAA deals with the foundational, acquisitional objects of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met and Art Gallery of New South Wales were founded less than a year apart. When you reflect on these kinds of things, it reminds us of just how unimportant visual culture is to Australians, for example the reaction around support for communities during COVID, given the huge number of Australians who work in the creative industry sector, how little attention is given to them, how invisible they are in the community despite those museums.

One of the most visited art museums in the world is in Australia. So it’s not that audiences are not engaging but there’s this ideological unpreparedness to acknowledge the really important role that visual culture plays, in all its personifications: musical culture, theatre, cinema are well supported by comparison, with frequent reviews of new openings, which contrasts strongly with the coverage given to visual culture.  Art institutions have made what we do a profession and not a vocation. It’s all about professionalism not imagination.  I am also very resistant to the orthodoxy of our (queer) community and the very deep lack of individuality in what people do here. You know, people wear suits at art schools.

I have seen that once or twice. Well, maybe they’re coming from the office. Something that really struck me is how dispersed your practice seems. You’re living in Australia, born in Australia; showing in the Netherlands, showing in America, showing digitally, showing physically. You make artwork, you also have your artistic persona. These divergent outlets are overlapping in an unusual, a-linear way.
It’s a horizontal practice, resistant to the requirement for specialisation. When I went to university you couldn’t do an Honours degree unless you had a second language. Could you imagine that insistence on cultural depth in the present moment? I’m the last of the generation required to have a deep understanding of interrelatedness; the strange understanding that the West itself was a tribal construction; art as a sacred process that was common to all people; the very early secularization of visual culture in the West ruptured that link.

I grew up in Brisbane. When I was a kid, The Art Gallery of Queensland had maybe forty or fifty works. And also art reproductions were so expensive. So that moment where I acquired my relationship to the world of making was located in the world of literature rather than the image. For lots of (queer) kids like myself the library was the only safe place. I find it alarming that we still don’t tolerate real difference in Australia’s queer communities, it has to be about the body, it has to be about the difference that can be located simply in a sexual act.

You use bodies in some of the works that I have been looking at, your own body and the bodies of classical busts, antiquated bodies – is that something that comes from your observation of queer sub-culture or from another place?
It’s about the collapse of literacy. These busts are very complex objects, they involve lots of codes. You can say things now from the perspective of erudition because there is shocking ignorance in our own community about anything that antedates last Tuesday. The busts are a sort of silhouette.

It’s very satisfying, the way you’ve flattened them visually. You tend to lean on illusion in creating meaning – in coded optics of your performance and AV artwork Purple Reign (2018/20), as well as the wordplay inherent in this and other titles. You’ve even integrated Morse code into some of your artworks as a substitution for language.
It’s the way someone from fashion might talk about the silhouette. The rupture of capitalism’s art-historical memory is a really unexplored area of resistance. I come from a working-class family, which is not to valorise anything, but there is a difference between erudition and material privilege. Many things these days are materially resourced. I’ve chosen to resource things by resort to memory and scholarship. My images for The Regency Made Me Blind (2018), at the National Gallery of Singapore, were large photocopy works all produced on an office copier – thousands and thousands of sheets of coloured paper. I want to rewrite the narrative and produce new things that are not so contingent on capital. I’ve tried to look at other solutions that are less hostage on those mechanisms.

Maybe it is changing with moves into a digital space, with COVID?
They said the Internet would enable everyone to be an author, but many of those positions just led to a lot of hate chat rooms. I am a little worried by the upside of this. It is so easy to crowd out positive things with aggression. To have a subversive practice you really do need detachment and discipline, and a kind of coldness that at this present moment is very difficult because everyone is angry.

Being very complex is, for me, a way of resistance. Things require explanation, they require patience and they require the feat of watching. Take something simple like one of these portrait busts. If you understand it fully, it requires a form of literacy and that literacy is not about material privilege.

You’re critical of reductivist tendencies in the contemporary art market, saying ‘the complex and the difficult are now the new pornographic and obscene.’ I’m conscious that the interview mode has historically been driven by much the same impulse, to snapshot something for a defined audience. So we are talking within the paradigm we are talking about.
Knowledge is power that is invisible in plain sight. It requires intergenerational transfer, through teaching and learning. When I begin my lectures I not only acknowledge Country, I also acknowledge my queer ancestors. Growing up a gay boy in late sixties Brisbane made it very necessary to code. And capital
doesn’t want people to have a memory.

Tell me about your upcoming exhibition, for ICAA.
I was going to do an art bar at ICAA, which was postponed. It was going to be called Maven Haven; a safe place for complexity. Lots of institutions reached out to artists to develop online programming during COVID and Chromophilia (2020) will take the place of gallery-based programming. In the work I employ ‘Karen’, the Australian accented text to speech application in Apple’s system preferences. The ICAA provided me with the complete object biography of works from the Met and shared their images archive which I’ve used as research. The video works will be accessed by a hyperlinked GIF, an animated image, with transcribed text into Morse code which Louise Loh used for the basis of her soundscape. To do something so refined in its subversive agency is really delicious.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 52, 2020

Gary Carsley
27 October – 28 November 2020
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Gary Carsley: Chromophilia
17 August to 15 November 2020
Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, New York (online)

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