First published in VAULT magazine, July 2015
We live in a world that reserves a special affection for clear-cut borders and shiny surfaces but Clare Milledge is rekindling my suspicion that mess is the stuff of life. When the artist, whose process-based installations knit together everything from glass paintings, textiles and sculpture to costumes, video and performance in a way that’s both wilfully chaotic and carefully calibrated, returned from a trip to Europe in 2006, an encounter that would see some wrinkle their nose in distaste proved to be the call-to-arms she needed.
“In 2006, I spent some time in Oslo and my friends Kristian and Steinar from the D. O. R. group, a collective of Norwegian artists that I work with, took me to the Berlin Biennale where we walked into this installation by Kai Althoff and Lutz Braun,” smiles Milledge, who’s preparing for a series of exhibitions including shows in Istanbul and Vienna, a group exhibition at her Sydney gallery The Commercial as well as a much-anticipated new project with longtime collaborator, the Norwegian contemporary artist Tori Wrånes. “They had basically just lived and worked in this apartment for a month and everything was painted, there were food scraps on the ground, it was disgusting and it smelled. People were like, ‘why do you connect with this work so much, what do these German dudes have to do with you?’ But it surprised me that it wasn’t a more celebrated work. For me, it was like the ecology of the forest I grew up in, where things feed into each other, rot and then grow again. At that point, I had been holding myself back but when I got back to Sydney I felt so much more connected to my process.”
Milledge greets me warmly when I meet her at the Alexandria warehouse she lives and works in, an orderly space that’s happily impervious to the autumn sunlight, and I’m annoyed at feeling a flicker of relief. In the past nine years, the artist – who paints words backwards on glass in a version of hinterglasmalerei, a painstaking tradition with roots in the sacral paintings of the Middle Ages and whose last solo show, 2014’s Theoretical Regression: A Warm Sheen Against Received Ideas included a sculpture of a cowboy riding a giant dildo in a wink to philosopher Georges Batailles’s elliptical essay “The Solar Anus,” – has produced a body of work that’s so unflinching in its refusal to pander to art-world shorthand that attempting to parse it can feel like tumbling headfirst into a rabbit hole of signs, referents and signifiers. “Most people didn’t really like the first installation I made when I got back from Oslo but I didn’t give a fuck. A friend of mine told me, ‘I saw your work, very ambitious’ and I was like, okay – whatever. There was a radical shift in a way that I’d begun to work. And it was better than being told that your work is ‘very nice.’”
Milledge, who studied painting at Sydney College of the Arts under the likes of the virtuosic painter Matthys Gerber, lays claim to a background that could double as the creation myth for an anarchic brand of superhero and this blissful lack of convention has helped shape her worldview. “Both my parents are environmental scientists and we lived in the bush near the Byron Bay area for 15 years, without a telephone or electricity, in what was basically a converted army tank,” says Milledge, who dropped out of art school to join a blockade for Sydney’s M2 highway, worked for a trompe l’oeil murals company and in visual theatre, before re-enrolling at SCA when she was 27 years old. “When I was a kid, I’d have these parties and there would always be all this fabric strewn around in the bush and lamps and weird costumes and performances and body painting with mud from the creek. My HSC project was so appalling – I was always interested in dualisms but I had no deep understanding and saw it as a black-and-white thing. I can’t remember when I first started making art because I was making shit then that I’m making now. That line of enquiry has carried on throughout my life.”
For Milledge, this line of enquiry is less concerned with seeking one-dimensional answers than it is with creating states buoyed by ambiguous and ambivalent energy, where meanings hover like flotsam and the human obsession with transcendence is unmoored from a binary understanding of the world. Motivated Reasoning: Strategic, Tactical, Operational, a 2013 installation at her Sydney gallery The Commercial cast works such as Future Feminist Cathedral, a fabric sculpture that resembled a shredded, gutted building and a hessian wall hanging emblazoned with the words “The property gods are smiling” alongside a series of coffee tables topped with glass painted with motor oil and made from teak. By exposing the tattered materiality of religious ritual and conflating the domestic with the totemic, she sets up a philosophical riddle in which the things we worship – much like looking in a funhouse mirror – might be joke reflections, something we’d best look for in the black hole of our selves. Last year’s Theoretical Regression: A Warm Sheen Against Received Ideas, takes its title from her personal favourite Bataille’s proclamation that his surrealist magazine, Documents, was a “war machine against received ideas.” For Milledge, who heard the words “warm sheen”, this mildly ridiculous substitution points to the slipperiness of language and the tyranny of a single context. And in Altus Duel: Total Environment, a 2014 show at Melbourne’s Gertrude Contemporary, Milledge transformed the gallery space into a walk-in painting, smeared the Tony Abbot quote “When the suppository of all wisdom hits the weathervane of all seasons” on the glass window and set sculpture, costume and an armour made out of beer caps with to a percussive and spoken soundscape courtesy of Melbourne sound artists Baker’s Delight. In doing so, she calls up the artist-shaman, a figure first conceived by Joseph Beuys, the German artist and thinker who believed that an artist’s role was to bridge the gap between the visible and the invisible to endow viewers with the ‘gift of sight.’
‘Gift of sight’ is a term Rex Butler used once to talk about Hany Armanious’ work and it goes back to that idea of not-knowingness or formlessness,” says Milledge, who wrote on the subject as part of her PhD. “Traditionally, the shaman goes into the animal world or spirit world and brings back a specific vision that’s of benefit to the community.,”she explains. “And although artists like Beuys or maybe Matthew Barney would fulfill that strictly and have positions of authority, I’m more interested in the kind of trickstery artist-shaman, like Mikala Dwyer or Hany Armanious. They bring back a vision showing people how they actually see.”
Perhaps, Milledge’s greatest achievement is the way she inspires us to challenge the reality in front of us and draw strength from the notion that things aren’t always what they seem. “When people walk into a process-based installation, it’s kind of like a forest and there’s this evidence of something happening and it heightens the audience’s ability to imagine,” she says, lighting up at the prospect. “It’s kind of like the clues in a detective novel. I want viewers to ask ‘why is that costume on the ground?’ or ‘What is that sculpture doing there?’ or ‘why why haven’t you put that painting up yet?’ My artist-shaman is dubious and ambivalent and doesn’t ask to be followed but urges you to find your own path, make your own way.”