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Tricky Walsh

Tricky Walsh makes the unreal solid. Electrical devices fashioned out of wood, designs based on sound mathematical principles that are imaginary, instruments that were planned but never built that come from a real yet alternate history of female electronic musicians: it’s all about what is possible in a realm of fiction. In Artist Profile 56, Andrew Harper visited them in their studio to discuss upcoming works to be shown with MARS Gallery for Sydney Contemporary Online this November.

Tricky Walsh appears on my laptop screen, their voice slightly distorted as we converse over distance through a shaky network from one regional part of Tasmania to another: it’s a Zoom conversation. This is how we get in touch. It’s a bit like science fiction, but it’s also a bit daggy – the future is never quite as good as we might have hoped. Tricky is in ensconced in the studio, tantalising glimpses of new work hovering in the background, in various states of progression. The conversation is easy. Tricky has a tremendous amount to say, their words coming in a cascade that’s punctuated by self-effacing laughter whenever it all gets too high concept, or too self-aggrandising; there’s a healthy dose of self-reflection and humility here. Tricky is a dichotomy: totally prepared to create complex fictions through a lengthy, decades-in-development art practice, yet never losing touch with the real world just outside the door.

For Tricky, just outside is literal. The studio space they live and work in is right in the centre of New Norfolk, a small but exquisite town in Tasmania’s Derwent Valley. Foot traffic is audible from within; there’s an active regional community getting on with life outside, but this is no distraction. Having moved into what was an old printworks, Tricky has plans to develop part of the studio into a gallery space in the near future. Giving something back to the community is an important, and long-running, hallmark of Tricky’s involvement with the arts. A long thread of their career has been running art spaces that create new community events: Tricky was a driving force behind the notorious and beloved 6A Artspace in North Hobart. This short-lived but crucial gallery showed underground such artists like Simon Hanselmann, and created hybrid events that are now understood as early moves in a cultural shift that’s still going on in Tasmania. All the while, Tricky was researching and refining a practice that has exploded in recent years.

But you ask them about it all, and while there’s some pride, there’s also a commitment and an understanding that this is what you do – you find a way to involve yourself in a community, and that doing so is not so much heroic as necessary.

This devotion to social consciousness feeds into everything Tricky does, and manifests in interesting ways. A recent show saw the artist make dozens of small works, that had an aesthetic punch, but also existed to be affordable. Tricky is conscious of art’s economics, and doesn’t want to make work that is out of reach of the community that they live and work in. This is more than a gesture. It’s an essential commitment to the working-class background the artist grew up in.

“Is it fiction?”

“Yeah. It’s fiction.” Tricky shrugs slightly in affirmation. We’ve been talking for a while about their work and arrived at this succinct distillation.
Tricky is a reader, with a library where you might find volumes of the cornerstone alternative comic Love and Rockets shelved near critical theory behemoth A Thousand Plateaus. The distance between these literary worlds, seemingly impossibly disparate, is where Tricky lives: a nexus of complex theory and ideas teased out in fiction. Tricky finds concepts, researches them, reads around them and then converts this into artworks. The process is intricate, arriving at strange questions about the nature of reality and perception.

This deep fascination was a driving concept behind the 2019 exhibition ‘Flatland’ – which began with the strange scientific speculation that our universe might be two dimensional. Known as the Holographic Principle, this theory gained some popularity around 2015, but Tricky made a connection to a book written in 1884 – called Flatland. That novel was set in a two-dimensional universe and was intended as a satire of Victorian class structures and manners, but it achieved a cult fascination. Tricky’s voyage to Flatland was an investigation of these ideas, developed into imagery both painted and sculptural. The work asked what perception was and attempted to make artworks that existed as two-dimensional realisations of three-dimensional spaces, but also wondered about the dimensional spread beyond that.

Tricky leans on their hand and suggests that the process by which they make art is cumulative. One thing leads to another, in an invented system that the artist has explored and refined over years of a complex, evolving practice that has moved through large and convoluted sculptured environments inhabited by tiny humans, fictionalised blue prints, three-dimensional realisations of musical instruments proposed by innovators of electronic composition, and most recently, meticulous images that extrapolate out from advanced mathematical theory. It’s a labyrinthine investigation, but it does all make a particular sense: it’s like reading novels set in an invented universe that doesn’t always feature the same characters, that have no linear narrative, yet all advance our understanding of a space filled with interrelated hypotheticals and experimental fictions.

The investigation of dimensional spaces ended up arriving at the works of Charles Howard Hinton. Hinton was a mathematician who was fascinated by other dimensions, and was particularly obsessed with explaining how a fourth dimension might work. His key text, The Fourth Dimension, 1904, is an examining of the tesseract – a four-dimensional cube. Hinton attempted to produce diagrams of this object, and even claimed he could see it. What’s deeply interesting is that this concept of Hinton’s becomes one that is deployed again and again throughout science fiction ever since – and Hinton himself was an early science fiction writer. The tesseract and its implications about movement in space have been used throughout the history of science fiction by names like Robert Heinlein, H.P. Lovecraft, Madeleine L’Engle and most recently Christopher Nolan, in his film Interstellar, 2014. Tricky is working with a rich tradition – but while this new series of works is in that speculative tradition, it’s also a kind of respectful homage to the drive Hinton had initially to attempt to make images of objects that only existed as mathematical theory.

The application of bright, vibrant colour has been a strong element. Tricky references the scientific diagram or the colour chart to inform their palette. Colours are transformed into a code, given a grammar, and traditionally, there’s been a lot of precision and control. However, a new strategy has recently emerged – chaos. Colour – literally paint – is simply thrown or flicked at the surface and becomes the root of a new image. Following the discovered arbitrary contours and allowing new designs to emerge, Tricky maps new dimensional spaces, guided by randomness. A new order emerges. One thing leads to another.

They’re casual when describing this process, but the excitement is palpable. If there is a single principle to this artists’ output it is not to sit still, but see where the work itself leads, taking greater risks to create more possible worlds out of bright, dancing chaos.
The call has been going for a while and Tricky is starting to glitch. There’s just one more question, one more possibility to sift out: what comes next? Is it all two dimensions from here on in, or will there be more of the complex sculptural devices?

“Yeah. I think there’s one more of those to make. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while I think.”

What?

“A time machine.” Somehow, this isn’t surprising.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 56, 2021.

EXHIBITION
MARS Gallery at Sydney Contemporary Online
11 – 21 November 2021
Online

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