James Newitt

James Newitt’s exhibition ‘Delay’ examines the politico-personal valency of escape and withdrawal. Weaving together film, text, objects and photography, the installation submerges audiences in a dense environment removed from the ‘outside world’. It unpacks experiences of isolation, insanity and paranoia inherent to acts of severance, looking at the links between physical and psychological landscapes and the human predilection for escapism. Artist Profile chatted to the Tasmanian artist about this series.

The exhibition revolves around a 60-minute film, I Go Further Under (2018), which is influenced by the true story of Jane Cooper, who lived on DeWitt Island off the South coast of Tasmania between 1971-72. It’s also inspired by the novels of Adolfo Bioy Casares. Can you elaborate on the film’s relationship with these facts and fictions?
I initially became interested in Jane Cooper’s story in 2011 when I was doing research for another project titled ‘My Secession Party’, where I built and lived on a small island about 100 meters off the Derwent River foreshore for two weeks. I was looking at examples of people who enact forms of autonomy through withdrawal, doing things like setting up micro-Nations or temporary autonomous zones, seceding, disappearing, etc. I read about Jane and was drawn to the story, because of the direction she moved in, away from North, because of her braveness in claiming her autonomy as a 17-year-old woman in the early ‘70s, because of her refusal to justify or explain her withdrawal and because of the conundrum she subsequently faced – if you escape, away from everything, you can somehow make yourself vulnerable or at least exposed to a lot of unwanted attention.

Aldofo Bioy Casares is an incredible author and I was interested in his stories as he consistently deals with ideas of islands, escape, exile as well as using letter writing as a way to describe how his protagonists register their experience and test their sanity. Bioy Casares’ book A Plan for Escape (1975) was particularly important for me when I was developing the film. The story is so disorientating and disturbing to read. Bioy Casares wrote it towards the end of the Second World War. It was a way for him to indirectly comment on the atrocities of the war, not by explicitly naming the violence but by writing about systems and structures that enact power through strange, opaque and seemingly irrational but very methodical means. All this feels relevant and important to think about at the moment.

By depicting a girl who abandons society and relegates herself to a remote island, the work evinces the political potential embedded in acts of alterity and non-participation.
Herman Melville’s book Bartleby represents a classic example of passive resistance through non-participation. While there are many forms of passive resistance, non-participation resonates with me as something that can be powerful and disruptive without being violent and without necessarily being done to create spectacle. I’m interested in this form of resistance but also the paradox of enacting it by going to a remote island, with difficult conditions and no comfort.

The work is also a way for me to think through what it means to be on an island at the bottom of the world. Tasmania may be connected virtually but the reality is that people don’t pass through here on the way to somewhere else; to come here means a very conscious and deliberate movement away. The film looks at extending that movement further south and finding a place that is detached from the rest of the world, while also entrapping you because of its vegetation, geographic position and climate. It was a good to problematise the idea of non-participation by withdrawal.

The project was assisted through Arts Tasmania and the Australian Government. How long did it take to create and what were some of the challenges you faced along the way?
Considering the current funding climate, I was incredibly lucky to receive funding from both Arts Tasmania and the Australia Council, for which I’m hugely grateful. The work wouldn’t have happened without it. I also received research and development support from the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park and Contemporary Art Tasmania, as well as support from the University of Tasmania, where I lecture. All up it was an almost 3-year-long project – there were plenty of challenges in making it. Several times it almost fell over, but that seems to happen with most projects I guess.

The island landscape is a fertile trope for exploring isolation, paranoia, escapism and entrapment. One room in the gallery features a constellation of images and text: letters, photographs, quotes and drawings reflecting on these aspects of the island. Can you tell me more about this installation?
The first space of the gallery is a sort of exploded wall of references, quotes, research images, sketches, triggers and lines from the script. I think about it as a prologue. The film is quite linear in its narrative, but this prologue fragments important references for that narrative across a large space and gives the viewer the opportunity to encounter small details depending on where they focus or see the whole guts of the work at once, spread across a 10 x 3 meter wall. The wall also underlines the importance of text: letter writing, literature, theory, quotes, facts, and geographic coordinates that underpin the work. It treats this text as a visual field, like an archipelago of islands, that need to be navigated before the film unfolds a different form of text in a time-based format.

Being based between Hobart and Lisbon, Portugal, have you drawn on personal experiences in your exploration of the links between physical and psychological landscapes?
Yeah for sure, I could speak about both places being somewhat periphery. Also both places are grappling with their colonial pasts (or still present as is the case for Australia). A movement between two places also allows me a certain fluidity in thinking, for example I like to edit away from the place in which a work was shot, especially if the work has come from a long research and engagement process as I like to create distance and allow space for speculation and distortion to happen. I didn’t seek out Lisbon as a base initially, I ended up there but feel very comfortable there. It’s a beautiful and difficult city to live in, as is Hobart but for very different reasons.

How do you want audiences to experience the show and what do you hope they’ll take away?
I don’t like to expect anyone to take away anything from the work. I put everything into it and now it’s out of my hands. I guess it has this quite demanding running time – an hour – so I hope people come at the beginning and watch it all, but it’s fine if they don’t.

James Newitt | Delay
9 June – 15 July 2018
Contemporary Art Tasmania, Hobart



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