|Michael Buzacott is a Sydney sculptor who trained and studied at the National Art School from 1969 to 1973, where he was taught by the sculptor Ian McKay among others. He has been showing since 1975 in various galleries in Sydney, Adelaide and Canberra and has participated in numerous group exhibitions including Painters and Sculptors (1987) at The Museum of Art, Saitama, Japan. He is currently a lecturer in sculpture at TAFE, NSW. He was interviewed for seriousart.org by Harvey Shields during his exhibition in December 2005 at Chase Contemporary & Tribal Arts in Annandale, Sydney.
School of Fish 2004
Patinated mild steel
109.5 x 70 x 52 cm
HS: With a work like this (School of Fish 2004), I can’t help thinking of Gonzales, and some of the others have aspects of David Smith.
MB: It is all part of the one tradition, people say, so and so reminds me of X, but you’ve got to say X was accused of reminding people of someone else, this is living history. There will be three or four sculptures destroyed to make these elements.
When you say destroyed, you are saying you might take it right back…..
No, it is complete destruction, it is complete chaos, and until you are in a situation where it is complete chaos and you don’t know what you are doing, nothing will happen.
The parts are figurative material, every little shape and bit you are lodging in your brain as an extension of your body. So there is a pile on the floor and you are standing around for hours in complete darkness, then after four or five hours of becoming more and more frustrated you get rid of all your conscious thinking because it is holding you back, and as soon as you do, you start making connections; something happens that will be completely instinctual.
But with sculpture you always have to be conscious of the structure, keep coming back to it, don’t you?
No no, that runs on automatic.
How do you circumvent that? You are saying that all the things to do with gravity and balance fall into place automatically.
Yep, yep. The technique of working which we are all trying to discover is to become conscious of the unconscious, you’ve got to put yourself into a space where you’re ego is told to butt out, just go away, and you’re just an observer but a completely detached observer.
So you’re the maker and the observer at the same time. So there are two things happening?
Yep. There is always a strong subject behind it; I mean I walk down to the canals towards Rozelle Bay and I look at the tide coming in and out of the canals and I see the canals filling up with fish, and over the year I see them growing from little fish to huge schools of great big fish, meandering; that’s subject. I am delighted by that, you are looking at it all the time, and you can feel the earth turning; you can feel the bigger thing, what belongs to it and somehow these fish represent something to you. So most of these sculptures, most of them involve in some way or another water as a background subject; but that’s just like a conscious thing later. I don’t make something to fit in, I’ve got a shape in my hand and if it seems to fit in somewhere, so I put it there. Then you become aware of a subject, usually just at the very end.
Diana Bathing Surprised by Acteon 2005
Patinated mild steel
85.5 x 43 x 26 cm
The idea is that the more intuitive the better. Like a writer who is making notes to himself all the time, recording little snippets of conversation that he can use in a later piece, so you really are opening up your mind and gathering information and allowing a subject to sort of float to the top, the conscious level.
No I don’t know about that. This is the big brain and this is the little brain, there isn’t a brain and a body.
So it is not Cartesian, there is no mind/body dichotomy?
There is no mind/body; it is all body, it is totally body, and you tell your mind to go away, so that all the mechanics, all the physical things that have to come together come together. The mind is constantly sub-dividing, the eyes are uniting things and the brain is trying to split it up and fracture it all the time, so you have to draw the brain away from it so it can just be seen as body material.
So sculpture is just a paradigm for the body, it is the way it stands, the way it feels, there is some sort of substitution happening.
When I am working I am blind, I think sculpture is a blind art, I think that when you tell the mind to rack off, it is just in the hands and you are just delighting in the shapes, you are just watching for the affinities to occur. It is purely physical and these affinities will suddenly just delight in each other, so you go with that. You don’t tell it where to go, it tells you where to go. It is not the mind. The mind is for afterwards, for reflection, but it is not alien to or separate from the body. So when Paul Hopmeier said to me at the opening, “what is it now it is outside of you?”, well he stunned me because I don’t know what it is, because I don’t even see it as outside, it is internal to me. This is why this whole public/private debate is incomprehensible to me.
Well thinking of that, the combination of the mind and body becoming one, producing something that maybe represents your state of being at a point in time, what about if we take something like this and we scale it up.
You can’t do that. I’ve never made a drawing for a sculpture, I cannot make a plan, because the plan is mental, I absolutely reject it. You can’t be authentic and copy something, every time you do something it’s got to be that thing specifically; it can’t be something that has already happened. This is why I admire Caro and David Smith because they have never made an edition of anything. They’re acting authentically.
Horse and Rider 2005
Patinated mild steel
86 x 75 x 48 cm
In the Garden 2005
Patinated mild steel
104.5 x 43 x 41.5 cm
Things of the Deep 2005
Patinated mild steel
94 x 61 x 53 cm
Jolly Reaper 2005
Patinated mild steel
78 x 56.5 x 24.5 cm
The sculpture Horse and Rider, which you said was based on the Roman equestrian sculpture of Marcus Aurelius, how did that come about?
I didn’t set out to make that, I thought I was making a nude at the time then a certain number of decisions happened, then you simply go with it. No one was more surprised then me, but if I have a powerful experience, and if I get out of my own way, that powerful experience is going to be expressed. I’ve been looking at photographs of my mother, they might be early photographs, and these things might hang around for years, the moment will arrive when it is the right moment to say all that.
Is it because sculptures fail that you destroy them?
It’s not complete, there is no such thing as good or bad, it’s not complete, it doesn’t fully occupy itself. This is the definition of the body, this is the definition of a sculpture, it fully occupies itself. It arrives at the maximum value of its own volume, clumsy words; you can’t add on you can’t take away. It is not about perfection, it is about fullness; I don’t like the word perfection, or failure, or anything like that.
Resolution, would you use a word like resolution?
Well that makes me think of the word to realise, to realise ourselves, the way Cézanne expressed it. Cézanne, I am always amazed how much delight I get from him.
But do you think it is just the thought processes; you are aware that he is going through a lot of thought processes?
I think it is just identifying the body with the painting, that is just body being expressed, it is only nominally a motif, a landscape, but it is actually him adjusting himself to the world, so that he can fully absorb the world, so it is always him being fully present in the world. He loves that hill, he loves that precise shape, but he is not going to copy that shape because he has to make all of those shapes find analogy or delight or relationships in the painting. I read somewhere the act of seeing is outside, but what is seen is inside. People think that when they see something they think they are seeing something external, but they’re not, they are seeing something inside.
Well, seeing has many levels, it’s an interpretation. We started off talking about photography and photography sees sculpture in a totally different way to the way the eye does. This is why sculpture exists because it can be so pleasing to the eye.
Can I jump into a social level here and say that most art today aspires to the condition of photography and this is why it is bad.
I would tend to agree with that, because it is really reducing everything down to surface design.
All performance and installation events become photographs and they are designed to be a photograph.
So someone like Bill Henson, when he cuts his photographs up, is he is just adding to the design?
No no, he is putting his body in there in the way the photograph is not allowing him to. But he is using quite old language.
Well that’s right. I tend to see it as a bit fragmentary. Maybe he is just trying to make it cinematic, you know in the sense of multiple time, and it is interesting he hasn’t tried to evoke sculpture.
Well you have said that photography has been detrimental to the way people see, we have become a very visual society because we see things in terms of images.
It’s not tactile, there is no body there.
We’ve lost the ability, like when you are young, you run, jump in water, have all these sensations, this is the sum total of your being, your experience.
They’re haptic sensations, muscle memory, and it is like, where’s the tactile in photography, there is nothing there. It is perfect for a conceptual period for it is a distancing devise, it can be good visual décor without in anyway involving you.
To be dumb.
To be dumb?
Yes, to be dumb. There are several bits of good advice that Ian McKay gave, but the two most important I don’t mind sharing with you.
His advice was to keep it in your hands as long as possible, in other words never settle for down, side, across or anything for as long as possible, the orientation of the sculpture should be at the very final moment. So that is keeping it in the hands, in other words I am completely without location, up or down when I am working. I have no concept of image, I have no visualisation to what it may become I have no idea.
The other thing he said was, do the dumb thing. In other words just bypassing your intentions. Intentions are terrible.
So you’ve got to forget about making great sculpture.
Someone can’t make great sculpture. If you make a great thing, that’s because that’s what you made, that’s the person in it, it’s not a separate thing where you say I’m going to make a great sculpture and do this, this and this. I look at Matisse’s cut-outs all the time, and during his time people just thought it was childish, but the cut-outs are really great because Matisse was doing exactly what he wanted to do.
One thing I would like to say is that one of the most destructive things that probably happened in the 60s and 70s was with painters like Kenneth Noland who were working in series. Matisse didn’t work in series; every single cut-out is its own subject. There is one thing that might strike people about this show which they are not quite used to, is that this is not work based on a pattern which is then run on variation, which is mostly what you get to see when you go to a sculpture exhibition these days, it is simple, everything is its own subject.
The other definition of great art is that you don’t have an afterthought. When you look at that work you don’t have an afterthought. If you look at something and you’ve immediately got another thought crowding in on you, or you’re looking for something around it, it’s a failure. To make another distinction, it is an event not a process, process refers to a kind of social space. When people talk about art process, or art practice, what they are talking about is the socialisation of this activity, so that you never have to confront the unconscious, so that you never have to confront yourself as an individual. So you are giving it a social purpose, you use words, words that you then master, and you think by mastering the words you’ve mastered the subject. On that basis university art schools are a disaster and art shouldn’t be taught in them. Post-modernism is a preparation for dictatorship.
That’s a heavy statement.
Well it is true when you think about it. It is making people cynical, confused, materialistic, fragmented from themselves, so what you start looking for is the strong person. The next strong person comes along, yep vote for that person, the person who will tell you and give you the answers to everything. Because as soon as you say there is no value, there are no fundamental truths, you get dictators and that is what Post-modernism is all about. When you look at the stuff, it is not deep enough, it is not archetypal enough, it’s just thinking whatever the thought fashion was at the time. It’s like too much of an illustrated act. You can’t have an intention, you can’t know in advance. The Surrealists always had intentions, and the Post-modernists are just a new version of the Surrealists. They say what it is they are going to do and they will illustrate it, they wouldn’t necessarily go into their unconscious to do that. They would say they were, but if you have an intention to begin with, you prevent that from happening. That’s not technique, they’re using words as part of their technique. The technique in the deeper sense, is really what everyone should be looking for. It is what they are trying to come to terms with, it is what they are trying to discover, what constitutes technique. By that you don’t just mean the physical act of welding, or modelling or carving or something. It is how to gather all of yourself, all of the fragments which are yourself and to make them all usable, doing it, that’s technique.
Well that is what conceptual art is all about, they are thinking about the art process, they are thinking about how art is made, and then they say, well the making of art is not important, the object is no longer important.
They’re so wrong and they’re hypocrites as well, because funnily enough what Post-modernism does is replace art with objects, exactly the opposite of what they are saying. They make objects, which are manufactured. They manufacture objects to stand for their thoughts. Usually the essay that goes with it gets longer and longer and longer.
So what you are saying is that they are just trying to illustrate their concept.
In the long run it is visual décor, and this is why people are very confused because they’re not having an aesthetic reaction, an aesthetic reaction happens despite yourself, you have no control over the act of it, you like what you like, but people are saying, no like this, in this way, and people say I’m supposed to like it in this way, I’ve read the essay.
So it becomes another form of propaganda, really.
Absolutely. What do people say, “oh that’s interesting”, that’s the height of praise these days.
Whale Breaching 2005
Patinated mild steel
66.5 x 34.5 x 30.5 cm
Portrait of My Mother 2005
Patinated mild steel
72 x 56.5 x 24.5 cm
Lovers in a Niche 2005
Patinated mild steel
101 x 89 x 19 cm
Let’s move over to this sculpture here (Whale Breaching 2005). This one got me really curious.
I kept seeing pictures of whales on the news in Sydney Harbour, so on one of my days off, I went down to Bronte and was standing on the cliff with a pair of binoculars, and this thing, this shadow, came out of the water and absolutely shocked me, it breached and jumped out of the water four times, it was just amazing. So I came home, and the very next day I made this. That was a very strong experience, and this thing here is a result of having had a strong experience. Now I’ve just got to get out of my way and let it come out but that’s what provokes the act in the first place. Once again I have no visualisation, it all happens with the material in my hands.
So it didn’t start with the stand?
Oh god no, that’s the last gesture. It’s all a solution to some issue or problem. It’s in the hands, it’s any which way, and if it’s not going to find itself and it’s not going to work, it goes back on the pile. So stuff is going through your hands maybe three or four times. As I say, I usually go crazy for three or four hours standing on my feet, in desperation, pure instinct, anxiety or whatever it is. Then something goes with something, some affinity is found, something takes delight in something else and it just makes itself. Then I just step back after maybe three quarters of an hour, and look at something that is on the table and say to myself, “where the hell did that come from.” It all happens very quickly, if I have to come back to something it’s very rare.
There are conscious decisions, the spacing there, a little bit of articulation there, that is not conscious?
Well what’s conscious? Another rule is never say no to yourself, when you’re working, never say no to yourself. It’s taken me twenty five years to learn that, if you say no to yourself when you are trying to make a decision you are just frustrating and repressing yourself, so when you are working, the fundamental thing is to get out of your own way and never say no. So when something tells you it’s right, go there.
But it doesn’t look very incidental, it looks very calculated. It’s as if you could not have chosen better, the way this goes with this. It is quite inspirational.
To throw a bit of light on this issue, I’m always reading Greenberg’s essays. In the late writings, he said something like, sometimes an Apollonian mind is making Dionysian work and vise versa, so I don’t know whether I’m an Apollonian…
…or a Dionysian.
I’m both, but I don’t know if there’s a priority. In other words I might be an Apollonian making Dionysian work or might be a Dionysian temperament making Apollonian work, so when you say calculated and everything else, it doesn’t stand alone, it goes with the dance like frenzy of using the material, it’s not separate from it. So when you get the two things working together, which is psychologically, what is happening?
So you would lay this out on the bench and what you’ve got is three sections…
No no, start with a shape, how does that shape…what does that feel like…what happens when I do that. If that feels ok, how do I extend the feel by finding more affinities between stuff, because to make something work it needs a certain amount of stuff, you are always aware it’s a syntactical issue.
It’s more like modelling than construction, the way you’ve described it.
No no, this is the other thing, which is frustrating, whether we are modelling or carving, we are doing both. Maybe with the modelling and carving the carving is Apollonian, maybe; observing the edges of something. Modelling value is about the infinite extension; there is no limit to it. The carving value is that it is an externalisation and objectification of something, and it also requires a limit to be put on itself, the physicality of it has to be final. So you’ve got this crashing together of two different purposes between modelling and carving. It has nothing to do with clay or stone, it might have something to do with how good people use both those materials, but if you combine them both, that is when you make great constructed sculpture. It totally satisfies both sides of me, I feel I have more freedom because it is not going to fall apart on me. I can make these connections with the tiniest little tack and if it’s not working I rip it off with my hand. I try not to grind, or try not to cut things up. My sculpture has gotten better because in the last few years I got rid of the oxy-acetylene. I have not oxy cut anything for a few years. That’s drawing.
This is like a performance, which is forcing you into a way of working.
Yep, if you don’t have that sense of resistance you’re not going to make anything and the idea that material allows you to do it easy, is crazy. Unless that material is resisting you all the way, where’s the fun?
But with all material there are constraints, there are certain things you wouldn’t do.
It just needs a certain amount of stuff, for example, it may have reached a point where I can go no further so I walk away from it. It’s not quite working, then I come back the next day and it is possible. I put that on, and I put that extra circle in there because there was too much light coming through, so I blocked that off, then I realised there was something still not working and it irritated me, so I did the dumb thing and just did that.
So you’re creating a composition as well as a sculpture.
No, I wouldn’t call it composition, I would call it anti-composition.
Yes but you’re talking about controlling the light, the way photography uses it; there is not enough light so you burn it in a bit…
It is just visual weights, it is the movement, like how does this movement…how does it work together.
Well this is what fascinated me with the way you’ve organised the detail of your pieces. It’s like Romanesque churches, you just go in and you look at the detail, how it is organised, and how it develops, and soon you’re into the whole story, and that is what they are about, telling the story of the Resurrection, Hell, or the Last Judgement.
I pick up an element and somehow physically I want to see it somewhere in a particular relationship with my body, or in space, and when I can make a sculpture that feels exactly like it was when I first picked up and recognised that element, then it’s right. I can’t explain that.
Isn’t it amazing, out there in the art world we get criticised because of the material we use, we get so designated…
…yep, people don’t get called acrylic painters or oil painters, as if that explains what they’ve just done. You don’t say Emily Kngwarreye is just an acrylic painter. Emily has the right to say it means a whole lot, and I have a right, exactly the same right to say it means a whole lot. I have a spiritual mind too and this means a whole lot, and I shouldn’t have to say anything more than anyone else from any other culture.
Yes it is very hard just to be dismissed as a steel sculptor. It’s like being sent to Siberia, your life as an artist doesn’t count for very much, people see it as history now.
People are in their head, they cannot experience the world properly through their body, so they are alienated from sculpture, sculpture is the most demeaned art and the most ignored. This is why the Art Gallery of NSW won’t have anything to do with sculpture, because the partisanship they’re demanding is more a kind of socio-political thing with objects. That’s the way I see it. They buy stuff they’ve already seen in books to elevate the value of what they buy.
Beauty of Lauren 1989
Bull Calf 2005
Patinated mild steel
40.5 x 60 x 31 cm
When you think of your contemporaries, people who have influenced you, is there anyone who comes to mind?
All of them, particularly Olitski, Olitski because he it still growing.
So the latest paintings which were shown at Annandale Gallery?
Was it just the colour or the way he used light?
The way he used his body, total joyfulness, this man is absolutely flying, he is giving our time its greatest art.
But he is seen as an historic figure.
How was Matisse seen at the end of his life?
They still haven’t learnt, they still promote the second and third rankers, because the truth of it just cuts across too many of their fixed ideas, and their propagandist intentions. It is too delightful, too real.
PS Jules Olitski died at the age of 84 on Feb. 4, 2007 in New York. During his lifetime, Olitski held more than 150 one-man exhibitions worldwide. In 1969 he became the third living artist to have a one-man show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I have been trying to makes nudes, an authentic nude. The number of times I’ve failed is just incredible, because the subject means so much, there is something deliberate about it, and if you are going to make a nude you’ve got to be deliberate it. I’m delighted with this sculpture (Woman in a Shower 2005), because I’ve been trying to make something like this for years.
The nude is so specific and literal; to make it actually work is just so difficult. I’ve been trying to make things about this scale for a long time. Things I really love, Matisse’s Reclining Nude III and his Double Figures and the Serpentine, but not to the same extent, they are among the most beautiful sculptures in the 20th century, and these are small private sculptures. Sometimes, to indulge myself, I want to make something that is really good, that is small, about the scale of that Matisse.
If I can make something that looks easy, simple, than I’ve succeeded; but to get there is not easy. You can’t fake anything; you don’t put something on just to make it look better. A lot of sculptors, and it is partly to do with their influences and especially young sculptors, have not been told the difference between composition and making. They make compositions but they don’t necessarily find subject.
The other thing Ian used to talk about, which is a major, very important thing, is this concept of differentiating the sensations. You’ve got to make a sculpture that differentiates the sensations, separate, contrastable things. A lot of people when they are composing, try to make the same sensation, over and over again, as long as they can get away with it. I think in terms of conflict between, contrast between, then when you find affinities between these things that have no affinity you feel joyful, because you have found a way if using things that have no connection. The greater the contrast you have to reconcile the greater the joy when you’ve done it.
That becomes subject?
Yeah. Sometimes I make things and I can’t decide whether I like them or not. I keep it around for five years, then I stumble across it and I think my god, that’s terrific, why couldn’t I see that before. You’ve got to acknowledge you’re not where you think you are and you’ve got to respect the fact that if you edit yourself prematurely you’ll destroy something, you can do yourself immense damage. You can’t set out to make masterpieces, all you do is make yourself, and to put this other super ego layer on, saying you have to make the greatest sculpture anyone’s ever made, is to give yourself an unbearable burden.
All art is formalist because formalism means technique. I just refuse to let people demean the word technique, technique is everything, and without technique you can’t access your unconscious. All art of any kind, of any category is formalist; it’s about the technique of being creative. That is what our task is, that is our professional obligation.
copyright © 2006 Serious Art