On the Radar

Crappy Imperfect: in conversation with anna gleeson

Crappy Imperfect Anna Gleeson | Where My Heart Leads

I think of so many things in my life as a practice and I really like that idea.

It’s like I have an art practice. I have a yoga practice. I have a meditation practice. I have a parenting practice. It really works for me to think of things in those terms because it’s just like just keep showing up for it just keep showing up. And it’s not about like how it went today. Because if I make it about how it goes today, I can get really miserable because it doesn’t always go that well.

Anna Gleeson

I met Anna at a group show that Emily Sarnel organised. And then got to chat with her at a show she put up at Plantation by Teakha. Anna’s art works drew me in. Over the years, I’ve found that she’s a very interesting person and am excited to share our chat-like interviews in two parts with you. Anna is from Australia, lived in Germany, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong; speaks French as well as Japanese and founded a really ground-breaking publication, more specifically a zine when she knew no one in Hong Kong. Her art speaks for itself. Let’s begin!


Karen Tsui, Where My Heart Leads

I’m interested – what do you realise when you look back?

Anna Gleeson: When I look back…

And how that relates to the series of works that you’ve been creating. A lot of them has to do with body, body image … 

So specifically about their cardboard vessel ones? 

So they kind of came out of nowhere. Or they seem to come out of nowhere. I had a bunch of cardboard corrugated cardboard in the studio, and I’d plan to make these like, big shallow relief-painting sculpture things; like relief paintings that would hang on a wall. And I tried some and they were awful. Like, I was just like, okay – and that happens a lot in the studio. Like, I have an idea, I think it’s fantastic. I try it, and I go, “Oh, no, no, not at all.” 

But this particular day, I was really like, oh, and I was just like, “I suck.” You know, I was really like, “man, I suck at this. Who am I kidding?” you know. So out of nowhere, I guess I also had like a bunch of drawings of different vessels. It’s just like a thing that I like to do, because it’s calming and comforting to go and look at ancient vessels in museums, and I would always sketch them. So I had these sketchbooks full of these things.

And so then just like on an impulse, I just pulled out one of the sketchbooks, opened it to a page and started trying to make that vessel out of the cardboard. And I made one, and it was just like this kind of pathetic looking thing, you know, but it was like, “Oh, it’s got something,” and I put it somewhere in my studio. And then because my husband goes through my studio to have a shower in the morning. And he was like, “I really like that. I really like that thing.” 

And I was like, “Yeah, it’s got something right?” So I started making a bunch more and the process is really, it’s a little bit cathartic. It’s like you’re trying to take this material that doesn’t want to go into this shape and you force it in. I would be like on the floor, bending the cardboard over my knee or around my thighs to try to get the round shape and it was like this clunky kind – it would never be perfectly round. It would like bend here and then there.

So I just found like, I was just making them and I was really lost in the making of them. And I hadn’t made any sculptures before and it kind of – I think it freed me up because I felt like “Well, this is obviously not my work. This is obviously just me arsing around in the studio.” So I was just going with it and I made a bunch of them and then I really liked them. 

Crappy Imperfect – Fragile Beauty

And then looking back on them after they were made, I was kind of trying to articulate what it was about them that I liked –  

I noticed that they were kind of, they’re kind of pathetic and fragile looking. They’re like bad copies, you know, of these original antiques, which were absolutely gorgeous and beautifully crafted, and worth millions of dollars probably and then there are these crappy replicas – but that was what I liked about it. 

I liked it that they were crappy and imperfect, and fragile and beautiful. And so what I saw in it afterwards was that they had come out of me feeling crappy, and pathetic, and imperfect in a studio, like that day where I was like, “I suck at this!!!” And then I sat down and made one. So looking back at it, I was like, “Oh, it’s like, the works are teaching me that I’m imperfect. I’m still beautiful. You know, I’m still like, you can keep me, you know, don’t throw me away.”

So that’s what I realised, looking back at them. And I’ve noticed that when I’m working in the studio, I don’t know what it’s about the thing that I’m making, I never know what it’s about. It’s just like, I operate on instinct. And there’s just something that pulls me in a direction. 

Like, I’m curious to see what if I, I could kind of see, sometimes I can see where it came from, what it’s about, you know. Possibly I’m just making up the what it’s about, because it’s like, at some point, you get to the point where you share something on Instagram, and you have to say something about it, or you put it on your website, or you need a little essay in a catalog or something. So you have to find something to say about it.

You mentioned something about body image, and your relationship with your body as you were growing up.

I have an ongoing interest in the way that we look at women. So there’s definitely that in a lot of my works that are with women. They’re not about women, they’re about the way that we look at women, the way we objectify women.

“I used to be Good Taste”

I feel what is interesting is the pieces you’ve made has a sense of Japanese-ness to them. 

Yeah, I think so too. I did make them after having lived in Japan, and I do look back at the work that I made in my early years in Hong Kong, and you can feel the Japan in it. You know, you can feel the Japanese-ness and the colours are really subtle, there’s a lot of grey and … and it’s totally gone now. I’m just doing these books with these horrible clashing colours. It’s just like, “Whoa, this is Hong Kong! This is Hong Kong now!”

Like I used to be kind of “good taste.”

So what’s your taste now?

I don’t know. I’m really into colours that hurt your eye a little bit or like, (China colours!) you know, It’s like it is a little bit of Hong Kong. Like I’m into a little bit of ugly. I’m into like hot pink and …

When did you start delving into textures, and the materiality of things.

I do I remember there was a specific moment, and I don’t know when it was. But when I was younger, I wanted to be an illustrator. I was always working for “Destination- scanner.” 

Everything I made was like, “It’s gonna go on a scanner, it’s gonna be a digital file, and it’s going to be on screen or it’s going to be in print.” 

And there was a moment where I went, you know what, I’m sick of trying to be an illustrator, I suck at it in any way, I’m just going to be an artist and just do what I like. 

And part of that decision was everything doesn’t have to end up on a scanner bed. I can make things that are impossible to scan now.

F**k you guys! 

And so that’s part of what you’re seeing is this move towards materiality. And that I really enjoy. And I’m still working on paper, but it’s true that I have made a lot of work since then that they need to be photographed, or they need to be. I’m not really using the scanner so much anymore.

I think that was just me exercising one of my fantasy other jobs that I might, you know, in another life, I think I might be a ceramicist. Or own a cafe or, you know, how you always have those fantasy other things like, “Oh, I could totally be a, you know, I could totally be an earring designer.” So I was just having fun with that. 

Those earrings, I could see people wearing them.

I would totally wear them also. Yeah, if they were real size. 

I think I sold one or two of them. But they were a little tricky to sell. Because they weren’t really designed to be worn… because they were fragile, because they were kind of like, you couldn’t sell them as art because if you hung them on the wall, they’d end up squashed and mouldy. You know what I mean? 

They were just made of paper, you know what I mean? Like they were never gonna last. So you couldn’t really sell – you couldn’t sell them like you could a bronze sculpture. They are paper too, but they are a lot more robust just because they’re corrugated cardboard. And I’ve sold one of those. I think that my pricing reflected that because it’s still an ephemeral thing to some degree, like they’re not like some like archival, corrugated cardboard; it’s an old cardboard box. So they’re a lot more robust than the paper earrings, but still I don’t expect them to live longer than me. Or they might. 

I don’t know, but I feel like it’s an unknown. And so if I was selling a sculpture that was cast in bronze or some kind of proper arty material, then I would be selling something that I know that …

What are you working on? What are you exploring?

It’s kind of a secret. I never really talk about what I’m working on now. Sorry.

So how did you get to this point? You grew up in Australia, you lived in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, how have the people you’ve met, the culture, influenced who you are? 

You’re also fluent in English, French, and you comprehend Japanese too. 

Yeah. 

For example, what you said about reading the newspapers (of different languages) you noticed that they have different perspectives.

I almost feel like you have an edge to see thing in more than one way. 

I think that’s definitely true. But I think that’s something that is easier to see about other people than about oneself coz it’s kind of like you can’t really see the culture that you’re in. It’s kind of invisible. It’s like an invisible soup that you swim in somehow, you know. 

Looking back, I can see how things affected me more easily than I can see what’s going on right now. Although there is, you know, what we just said about colour, like in Japan and Hong Kong. 

Do you see yourself as an Australian artist?

I don’t mind being called that – I think. I don’t know. It’s like, I feel I’m deeply Australian. And that really is who I am. But there’s something about Australian-ness, that’s a little fugitive, or it’s a little like, if you try to hold it up to the light, it doesn’t… It’s not like French-ness, where it’s like “we all know what that is.” Australian-ness is a little…, but it’s definitely a thing.

Australians say things like, “Oh, we don’t have culture, we just, you know, we just take culture from other places.” Or it’s kind of like, “Well, that is culture – the culture of taking cultures from other places is a culture.” You know what I mean? 

Australian-ness is just a little hard to see or define somehow. And then I guess the other thing is that, well, I have been away for like, 15 years now. So 10 years in Hong Kong, and I don’t know exactly how long I’ve been away. Let me think. But you want to know? It’s gonna age me. (Hahaha)

So in terms of how Australian I am – every second time I go back, I think, “I love it here. Everybody gets my jokes. I can talk to anybody. I just love this landscape. I feel so at home here.” And then, the next time I’ll go back, I’ll be like, “Ah, I can’t stand it here. These people are so Australian, and I don’t fit with this. And everything has to be a joke. And no conversation can be serious.” I get like culture shock every second time I go there. And then other times, I’m just like, I feel so … I don’t know. It’s weird.

Third Culture-Normal

I guess there’s a lot of people that I know in Hong Kong, most of my daughter’s friends are like, their mother’s Russian, their father’s French. And they you know, we have neighbours where the mother comes from Shanghai, the father comes from Switzerland and the daughters are born in Hong Kong. And so that kind of having a toe in a bunch of different languages or cultures, or in places geographically, is just normal. It’s just normal for me. I like it. I think there’s something about learning foreign languages that even if you’d never get … however far you get with it, it gives you another point of view on the world.

You say different things – it’s like in Japanese you meet someone you say, “Please look favourably upon me.” It’s a completely different emphasis. It’s about how you see me. Whereas in English you say, “I am pleased to meet you.” It’s all about me. 

Anyway, I guess that the same is true in, you know, images are a language too and colour is a language too and it’s harder to talk about, but different ways of seeing and different ways of representing things, styles – they all give you different points of view also. 

So that’s definitely something that I enjoy in terms of – I don’t really want to have a style, that’s mine and then all my work looks like that, because I just get bored. 

So I guess I am probably doing a little bit of, looking at something like a Japanese person would like with those dresses where everything’s really pared down and neutral colour palette and kind of refined and delicate, or like looking at something the way an Australian would, but I’m not really aware of it when I’m doing it. But it’s one of the things that I sometimes look back at and go, “Oh, that’s like a Japanese woodblock print, or that’s like a Hong Kong hair salon ad or you know?”

Idea experimentation

What keeps you going as an artist? 

Curiosity.

It’s curiosity. I want to see how it’s like. I have some glimmer of an idea, and I want to know, what’s that gonna look like. 

It’s like, I’m never doing something that, “I know what this is gonna look like, and I just need to execute it.” 

Or if I am, It’s never good. So it’s really just about, yeah, curiosity. Like the spotty fruit ones were just, I was thinking about “Yeah, we’ve got this box of organic fruit delivered every week for a while. And then we’re just gorgeous.” Every time we open the box and we’d be like, “Wow, it’s so beautiful.” 

I was joking with my husband, “Argh, I’m gonna end up like being a still life painter now. Because we get these fruits delivered. It’s all your fault.” (Because he ordered them.) And then I had this thing in the back of my mind about the half-tone dot when you print something with a Risograph, or old newspapers the way they separate colours or tones, and then it’s like dots. 

Kind of like Roy Lichtenstein, right? 

Yeah, he totally did that. He blew them up. And I really, I blew it up even further than, I’m bigger than Roy. I am going big! But I actually really love Roy Lichtenstein. Not the works that he’s best known for. But I really love the – he’s done a series of Greek ornamentation, and a series of brushstrokes, or like woodgrain. He’s done these ones that are just like mirrors that I just like, I love them. 

The ones I always see in museums are the ones done with dots also, but the subject matter is different. But the ones I always see in museums are taken from comic strips and it’s like, I’ve maybe seen them too much. I don’t really react to them. And the other ones I’ve only seen in books, but anyway, blah, blah yadda yadda. What was I talking about? 

Oh, yeah, so I was lying in bed. I was lying in my daughter’s bed trying to get her to fall asleep one night. I’m lying there in the dark, which usually goes like, “Pep per, pep per pep per…” And I’m like, “Okay, time to stop talking now close those little…“ “Pep per pep pe pep per..” you know, like that for like up to an hour. 

Just lying there in the dark, I just had this lightning bolt. 

Pomegranate and Pink Lady, Anna Gleeson c.2018

Like, I wonder what it would look like to make those dots huge on a picture of still life, on a picture of those fruits. And I was just like, that would look crazy. I’m gonna try that! And then so that’s where it came from but it’s like, if I knew what it was gonna look like, I wouldn’t go – I wouldn’t do it.

When you make your work, how do you decide what you don’t like or what you don’t like. Or what is successful? What is not? What goes into that, like I’ll look at it later.

I don’t know what it is that makes it work or not work. But, I just know. It just hit some nail on its head or it doesn’t. 

Failure and Success

What do you do with that pile in your drawer? 

Yeah. So I have a drawer. There’s just a “Meh, that didn’t really work” drawer.

It’s just like, “meh this isn’t really doing it for me” drawer. I shove it in there.

And sometimes I’ll get it out like two months or six months later. Sometimes when I get it back out, I go, “Oh, this is actually, actually, I like this now. It’s not what I thought I was making.” I think sometimes what happens is, if you have too much of an expectation of how something is going to turn out, then the expectation stops you from seeing it. 

You look at it, and you only see how it falls short of your expectation. Same goes for husbands, friends. 

I think what I’m explaining is, that’s why the drawer works, because you shove it in a drawer. And by the time you get it back out, you’ve forgotten what your original expectation was. 

So you see it with neutrality? 

You see it with new eyes. And yeah, something like that. I think it also works to not have expectations and to operate based on “I don’t know, what’s this crazy thing even gonna look like?” I don’t even know, then you don’t have an expectation – is ideal.

How does that apply to other aspects of your life, that drawer?

I think I do it with my wardrobe. I have a “I don’t look as good as I think I thought I would, so I’m just gonna put this up in this top shelf for a while,” and then I’ll get it back down later on. And maybe I’ll be like, “Actually, this goes really well with…” Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if I do it so much in other parts of my life.

I feel like when you mount your shows, you’ve mounted quite a number of shows, you seem to just go with it. 

You mean, I just like exhibit anything? 

I definitely let things be a little bit unresolved. 

Like I will go into an exhibition, not completely confident or feeling a little vulnerable, even, about the work I’m showing. However, if I hate something, I will not exhibit it. If I’m really clear, like “This isn’t…” then I don’t, I don’t exhibit it. 

There was maybe one time where I set up an exhibition before having made the work. So it’s like I committed to it, and I was like, as an experiment to see how that would work. And it didn’t work that well. You know, I wasn’t as happy with the work that time. And since then what I do is I just work. When I have a bunch of stuff I like that kind of fits together, then I go commit to an exhibition or something. 

Why is it important for artists to show their work? 

It’s exciting. It’s artists’ communication. Yeah, it needs to land somewhere. Also, I love the conversations that you have with people around it.

Yeah, I mean, it’s yeah, it’s communication. It’s about making connections with between people. And that happens in exhibiting. I feel like the making art I can’t live without and the exhibiting art. I just do because it’s fun. That’s for me. I mean,

I really,

I want to be building community, also. You know, I want to have that dialogue with other artists and with people who are looking at art, and I love all those conversations. 

And I’m not going to have them alone in my studio. Or I do sometimes if we’re honest. But it’s more fun when someone else…, you know, so yeah. So that’s it.

Last last last question (as Anna had to shoot off to her next appointment). What is success for you?

It’s not something I really think about much. I think that I feel like I’ve chosen a career that’s more about, more about my relationship to failure. You know what I mean? It’s like, I feel like the extent to which I can be with failure in my life, in my studio, In my work

is

that’s what my whole art practice hinges on. If I can’t be with my own failure, I can’t work somehow. I don’t know. So I guess I think more about failure than success. 

Wow.

Yeah. Success, I guess, there’s just so many narratives existing in the culture and in the media around success and that I’m like, “Meh.”

So you focus on the process.

Yeah Yeah!  

And I think of so many things in my life as a practice and I really like that idea.

It’s like I have an art practice. I have a yoga practice. I have a meditation practice. I have a parenting practice, you know, and it’s like… It really works for me to think of things in those terms because it’s just like, just keep showing up for it – just keep showing up. And it’s not about how it went today. Because if I make it about how it goes today, I can get really miserable because it doesn’t always go that well.

Okay. Thank you. Awesome. Thank you so much.

All images are from Anna Gleeson except otherwise noted.
Gleeson’s earrings work photos from website of Australian Embassy, Tokyo.
Date of interview: 17 January, 2019 at Fringe Vault.