INTERVIEW
 

Nicholas Uhlmann interviewed by Greg Johns

May 1st 2011

Greg Johns
So ah yeah with the work Nick I like the idea of a chronological viewing of things. Just initially what did you look at sculpturally?

Nicholas Uhlmann
It was more like a gestural feeling …like doing a quick gestural stroke..a quick sketch and then spending the next month making a sculpture out of that…to retain the spontaneity was the important thing.

GJ
Yeah I think that has been quite a strength. I think you have had an innate sense of the three dimensional qualities in your work. Do you think that… call it the more formal aspect..do think that has been an important quality in your work?

NU
I think discovering the technique of layering in repetition on the armature gave me a kind of discipline to follow. I had this really energetic spontaneity to create these first strokes that would determine the interior form…I used to bend..I used to get a length of metal…and I would feel..visualise the form in my body and I would literally bend the metal with my hands and quickly weld it together. Then I had the skeleton there and upon that skeleton I had the meditative repetitious process of layering so it became a balance of process and serendipity.

GJ
So that sort of gives them a sense of freedom about them and almost a bit of a playful aspect.

NU
Yeah..but also a containment. Went I first went to art school I entered thinking I was going to pursue photography/drawing and in drawing I felt I had so much energy that I felt like I was almost ripping through the paper. ..and my lecturer(Bruce Nuske) at the time said I should try sculpture. I think with sculpture you are up against material and the energy can get focussed in, especially with a particular technique of making to follow.

GJ
And I think with sculpture the fact that simply you are not restrained by those two dimensions you can go in virtually any direction you want to. I think it sometimes kills painting in that direction even though sculpture is often considered second rank to painting.
So ah..does your work have..I get the feeling it does have quite a strong conceptual idea side to it..and I get the feeling that it is often around the notion of engaging with the void?

NU
I guess I’ve always had this sense of trying to find the truth underlying consciousness and starting to make sculpture I brought that desire to find meaning into making the work through the process and the interaction with the materials. I have been especially interested in the conceptual question that arises out of the layer upon layer technique..when a sculpture is made up of layers when is it actually complete? And when it is complete why does it look more than the sum of its parts? As I make more and more sculpture I sort of play with that question and in the process I get informed about consciousness and how we project our own truths onto external materials.

GJ
Often it seems that quite material aspects of sculpture look more solid and they confront that void in some of the works I’ve seen of yours as well..again it reminds me a little bit of some Buddhist type thought and ideas in relation to the void.

NU
Definitely. I have been very much affected by some of the teachings on emptiness in Tibetan Buddhism. Early on that was a really strong influence in my work..probably the main influence in my work in the beginning.

GJ
Then at the same time the work seems to look contemporary at this point in time and also seems to have an historical past that it comes out of…linked with a historical lineage of sculptors…no?

NU
Again ..like..when I first started making the forms I can honestly say I wasn’t consciously influenced by other sculptors that had come before. It has only been later on that I have become interested in other sculptors like Brancusi, Henry Moore etc..and making the links with what they were trying to find like Antony Gormley at present.

GJ
But at the same time I think the works..they seems to have..they sort of look very contemporary..they look like this point in time. They don’t look like replicas of works in the past..there is a bit more of an unfolding story to the works.

NU
It was really important for me to do something that I felt hadn’t been done before, to make a contribution. On discovering the layering technique..that is why I have felt passionate about following it because I felt it to be a new take on making sculpture. I can put my own personality into it and be informed by not just other sculptors but life in general, my experiences through travelling, meditation and reality in general.

GJ
Yeh, perhaps that notion of the times we live in to some degree..to have the meditation and silence as an aspect of contemporary life..perhaps that’s an interesting aspect to your works as well.
And materials? You actually employ quite a range of materials from plastics, stainless steel, wood, copper and lead etc. Do you think a range of materials is important to the work?

NU
Yes..just coming back to the idea of emptiness..bringing colour in and the thing that sculpture can do that painting can’t like you were saying before. With sculpture you can create an illusion just like you can in painting. You can create an illusion..but the great thing with sculpture is that you can then systematically destroy that illusion through the physical reality of the work. And for me by bringing colours and different materials and components into the work there becomes so many chances for the mind to comprehend the changes within the overall illusion of the complete sculpture.

GJ
So notions such as popular culture and such clearly don’t interest you right now. So conceptual notions that interest you with sculpture are more around some of those Buddhist notions and notions of the void?

NU
Yeah..it might sound a bit simple but I keep on going back to the same point. I think there’s a huge potential for sculpture to address those basic ideas of how we view reality. They might be really simple ideas but for me they are really profound. It is very important because everything, from the way we treat each other, the way we treat the planet..all come from the way we perceive reality and sculpture can help us question how we do that.

GJ
Yes and funny enough with sculpture..it’s a question I ask myself..I think sculpture can ask big questions and big philosophical questions as well and I can’t see why sculpture can’t take those things on. Perhaps you’re hinting at more timeless questions conceptually.

NU
Yeah..it’s like what the Dalai Lama has said about us humans being in the same position psychologically as we were thousands of years ago. Regardless of all the technological advancements we seem to have the same issues and problems. So obviously something we need to work on is our consciousness.

GJ
And some of the titles for the work like 'Voyage of the Beauty Hunters'?

NU
The earlier works were really purely gestural. I had this huge energy within me to make these gestural strokes and the technique and discipline of layering focussed that energy into the process. The more I made the sculpture a narrative started emerging in the work and I felt I wanted to draw the audience in somehow by creating a bit of a story to these works. So I started thinking in a more poetic way about the journeys we take in our own consciousness to perceive reality and so ’Voyage of the beauty hunters’ is a whimsical take on our habit of projecting all our attachments and aversions upon how we view the world.

GJ
And ‘Voyage of the damned’?

NU
That’s the same thing. In the voyage of coming back to truth something has to be lost..that parts the ‘damned’. Part of us is damned if we want to realise emptiness… its like being on the edge of a cliff with the potential of being destroyed.

GJ
And do you see the works scale wise as time goes by are you interested in larger works or works inside or both?

NU

As far as scale goes, for sculpture the ideas you have for a certain work need to be built in the right scale whether or not that’s tiny. Like Giacometti said of his tiny figures not being small people but just normal sized people viewed from a distance.
Sometimes you’ll see a work and it’s obviously a maquette for a larger work and then other times you’ll see a work exactly the same size and you’ll go ‘wow’ that’s holding its own space because it’s the right scale for the idea.

GJ
It’s like out at Palmer were there’s this really big landscape and you can engage the landscape with very small things as well.           

NU
I love that about Palmer because sometimes there’s no difference to sculptures that are 5 meters or half a metre.

GJ
How do you see your work in context with other sculptors around right now, just broadly across the world? Any connections? How does it fit in contemporary wise?

NU
I am inspired by the work of Anish Kapoor in particular and Antony Gormley, Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon… the British sculptors. It excites me when they are addressing the similar issues of emptiness and the void. Geoff Bartlett has been an influence as well..bringing the different components into the work. When I see other sculptors addressing similar issues of spirit and such it excites me and gives me a sense of camaraderie amidst the huge drone of popular culture.

GJ
Yeah, I feel strongly the same that questions of spirit are actually quite important. It hasn’t been particularly popular ground to walk upon probably for the last twenty years. I think it is really important and something that can be included in sculpture as well. It’s an important aspect and an interesting one.
And some of the sculptures seem to have an almost animal type feel to them. Almost a little critter type thing that comes into them sometimes?

NU
(Laughs)..That’s mostly unintentional.

GJ
It’s funny though isn’t it because I think at times with sculpture when you start to discover a bit of a language for yourself and all these different forms start to appear and they start to reflect constructs in nature.

NU
Yeah..it reminds me when I am making sculpture that I am part of nature..it reminds me of our interconnectedness, that we are not separate. I was thinking about that the other day how people often say my sculptures look like birds. My rhythm language through the work looks very flowing, streamlined and aerodynamic and when you look at birds..the shapes of their heads and things have evolved so they can be more streamlined when they fly through the air. So overall my work doesn’t consciously take from bird shapes but through the evolution of my sculpture language some of the works take on streamlined, bird like features.
A figure form has also emerged in the last couple of years as the language of my sculpture and the vocabulary has increased.

GJ
Yeah as time goes by.

NU
That really interests me… it’s kind of like I’ve now got this sentient presence, these figures in the work that I can talk to (laughs).

GJ
Right now I think there’s this real speeding up of time but sometimes with sculpture you need a slower sense of time and process to incorporate and use and tap into as well.
So right now as a sculptor working in 2011 what do you see as challenges for sculpture now and into the future?

NU
Just picking up from the point you just made about things speeding up. What I see with sculpture now is people want a quick fix, something that is immediately recognisable and likeable and I think that attitude is tied into things speeding up. People want things on demand and everyone seems to be a lot busier than they used to be and as a result there is not that contemplation time. There’s not the time to appreciate sculpture where you need the stillness to appreciate the depth in the work.

GJ
And things develop slowly… looking at your work going back perhaps twelve years ago…there’s now more complexities..your work has become a lot more three dimensional and it’s moving a lot more..there’s little subtleties getting built into it. Just the other week when I was up at Bert Flugelmans..Bert taught me and he’s eighty eight now..you could still see little subtleties in the making that I can still learn things from myself..just little ways he puts things together.
Do you think those subtleties are important to the work?

NU
Definitely I think with the more work I make. In the beginning it was all very spontaneous but now I know what I am capable of and having seen more work the subtleties have become more and more important.

GJ
Yes, it is bit by bit.
And work in the landscape, just out of interest is that important?

NU
You’ve had a great influence not only with your work but also through your Palmer Sculpture Landscape. Palmer has been my first real engagement with the landscape as far as making work for that particular landscape. Having a bit of a history with Palmer now I can bring that space into my mind.

GJ
With those great skies and the void aspects like that it’s really interesting.
You’ve now got clearly a big range of materials working in relation to each other and perhaps the works are a bit more poetic and the range of materials has increased with that as well.

Greg Johns is a leading Australian sculptor of international renown and has been both mentor and friend to Nicholas Uhlmann for the last twelve years.