Clayton Blake on art, activism and building at Burning Man
Clayton Blake is a Queensland artist who has taken his artwork all over the world. His artwork for SWELL this year, Transparent Connection, represents the connections and relationships we have are the single most important aspect of our lives and we must strive for greater transparency with one another. The artwork encourages us all to reconnect on a deeper and more authentic level. In a world dominated by social media we need to be more honest and authentic in our dealings with others.
Writer Matthew Halton spoke with Clayton about what inspires his art practice, his connection with the modern world and community.
What got you started as an artist? How has your career developed over the years?
I realised the significance of storytelling through art late in life and discovered that I had developed a capacity to create thought provoking and interesting things. I didn’t possess the necessary attributes to create art publicly until I had experienced my own share of pain, suffering, self-doubt and loss. It is a result of these traumatic life experiences that creates the necessary drive, courage, humility, determination, self belief and resilience - all essential qualities for those considering a serious commitment to any artistic practice.
Over the years I have explored and experimented with different materials and methods. I’ll never stop learning, growing and making mistakes. Giving myself permission to learn from my mistakes and failures allows me to develop and evolve as an artist and a person.
What does the SWELL sculpture festival mean to you?
This is my 6th SWELL Sculpture Festival and my favourite public exhibition in Australia. SWELL has enabled me to develop my artistic practice, increase my public profile and provide opportunities to take on large scale public art commissions.
SWELL was my first large scale public exhibition and my first leap of faith at doing something in the public realm. I have always felt very welcomed, encouraged and supported, and can confidently say that many special friendships have come as a direct result of being involved with SWELL.
How would you describe the piece you’re making for SWELL?
The artwork is called “Transparent Connection” and is constructed from 180 clear acrylic tiles. It is an interactive, inhabitable, transparent and reflective installation designed to cast unique shadows that change throughout the day. My artist statement reads - “In a world dominated by social media we need to be more honest and authentic in our dealings with others. The connections and relationships we have are the single most important aspect of our lives and we must strive for greater transparency with one another. The artwork encourages us all to reconnect on a deeper and more authentic level”.
Where did you get the idea for the piece, or the first hint of an idea?
The idea for “Transparent Connection” began decades ago when I used to play with interconnecting timber tiles as a child. I loved the versatility and freedom to create countless shapes and objects.
How did it develop from the initial idea?
I created multiple variations of the artwork taking into consideration the shape, form and function. After many attempts I settled on what I thought to be the best representation of my idea. It’s not an exact science. For this project I identified a material I was excited to work with, then created the meaning or the messaging around it. But sometimes it’s about telling a story and then working out how best to convey that story and engage with the audience.
How does the Currumbin setting inform the piece?
Most projects are normally site-specific. Before creating the artwork I evaluate the site and consider how the location will impact on the final piece. I’ve put some smaller pieces into SWELL over the years and felt as though the art and the message was diminished. So scale’s is critically important to me and the artistic process when considering the Currumbin backdrop. The Surfers Paradise skyline was also a consideration when I was finalising the shape of the sculpture. The artwork will mimic the high-rises towers and feature the “glow” of Surfers Paradise which will be seen through the transparent acrylic tiles at night.
Your work has a very tactile quality. How do you create that sense that your work is interactive, that it’s in a relationship with the viewer?
Wherever possible I aim to create inhabitable, interactive, participatory and multi sensory art experiences. I aim to include and envelop the spectator in the surroundings of my artwork. My art is always created with a focus on the viewer and their involvement and interaction.
Your work is often very whimsical and playful, but you’re also interested in creating art that engages with serious social problems like over-consumption and human trafficking.
I will always attempt to expand the definition of my art to include a form of social engagement. Whenever possible I use my art to promote discussion, encourage debate, and raise awareness about injustice, inequality and social change.
You’ve created art for Burning Man USA - how does that compare to the beach?
Burning Man is my “Artistic Everest” and the largest outdoor sculpture event in the world. It is the most challenging and unforgiving environment imaginable with no water, no power, no food and no shelter provided....everything must be considered and transported to the Nevada desert before the event. There is not the luxury of a hardware store close by if you run out of supplies, and the dust storms reduce visibility to only a few meters. Burning Man is a trans-formative experience that teaches the true meaning of radical self reliance.
What other modern artists inspire you?
Many artists have inspired me over the years. I’m constantly in awe of their passion, courage, commitment and discipline. Louise Bourgeois with her large scale sculpture and installation art. Her Spider and Maman pieces are stunning. Inge King and her role in pioneering Australian sculpture. Her timeless piece called “Forward Surge” at the Melbourne Arts Centre is a favourite. Richard Serra is an American sculptor best known for his large-scale abstract steel sculptures that force viewers to engage with his monumental corten works. Anish Kapoor and his work with highly reflective surfaces which reflect or distort the viewer and surroundings. His piece titled “Cloud Gate” in Chicago is beautiful. Chinese artist and activist - Ai Weiwei who calls attention to human rights violations on an epic scale.
Matthew Halton is an emerging writer from South Brisbane.