Artist Interview: Hailey Atkins

Interviewed by Sarah Thomson

Hailey Atkins / 2015

Shift 2 artist Hailey Atkins creates intimate, vulnerable sculptures that reflect her acceptance of failure. Sarah Thomson spoke to Hailey about her practice, her work for the exhibition, and her plans for the future.

Sarah Thomson: What are the central themes of your practice?

Hailey Atkins: I really suck at this and I always try and simplify it down to something like “it’s about making it okay with being confused and conflicted and feeling crummy about not being able to make decisions.” I guess that’s the through-line in everything; expressing an awkwardness or vulnerability that comes from being ambivalent about pretty much everything. The impetus behind the work often comes from some sort of frustration I’ve experienced that I suspect has to do with my own gender, but I sort of put that down once I start making and it becomes much more simple. I think because of this though, my work is often placed in a feminist framework, which I totally understand but I’m also resistant to that as well because I don’t feel like I am equipped enough to be making statements like that.

ST: So it’s more personal rather than ‘speaking on behalf of…’

HA: Yeah, definitely. But I think it’s still relatable. Everyone has that feeling where you can’t get a coherent sense of yourself together to present to the world. It’s little bits of everything and it doesn’t really come together in a solid way.

ST: You’re currently completing your honours at QCA. Could you tell us a bit more about you thesis topic and how you came to be interested in it?

HA: I guess it’s along the same lines as my work. The aim is to produce a representation of vulnerability that isn’t viewed as a failure. There’s this understanding in society that to be vulnerable or to express displeasure or discomfort is a failure - because everyone is supposed to be achieving happiness. But who’s happy every single second of the day? I think, for example, you can still be a strong person and make bad decisions, and have irrational thoughts and be dissatisfied with things. So that’s what I want to articulate, an expression of vulnerability that can be read positively. I’m trying to do it using humour. Not really overt humour but it comes out in the form of the sculpture.

ST: What form will your work for Shift 2 be taking?

HA: I’m not at the point of making the work yet but it will be sculptural, abstract and figurative. Wonky and weird.

ST: How do you feel that your work responds to the exhibition’s overarching theme of displacement?

HA: I think the feelings and the moments that I’m trying to express through the sculptures are evidence of displacement. They’re the symptoms of being unable to place yourself in a space, a social one, and feel really comfortable there. I feel totally out of my depth when it comes to feminism because I can’t prescribe to one theory and sometimes it really feels like you have to present this strong, united front within yourself before you’re allowed anywhere near empowerment. I agree with one thing and then I don’t agree with another and then I feel like I can’t really say anything so when it’s like that for multiple things in your life, it’s really hard to occupy space confidently.

ST: What is the developmental process of creating your work?

HA: I spend a lot of time thinking about things before I make anything. I’m trying to not do that so much because you never know if anything is going to work until you actually make it. But I always tend to spend a lot of time in my brain before I actually start making things with my hands. Once I have the idea that I think is going to work, I’ll start making something. It never usually turns out as planned though, because usually something doesn’t quite work how I expected so I just have to make do. Or sometimes I just go off on a tangent and it is better than what I was planning anyway.

ST: That links in nicely with the premise that the work is about vulnerability and a fear of failure… even in the process of making the work.

HA: Yeah. Sometimes it’s better on a tangent; sometimes it’s just shit and I have to put it down. I suppose there is a certain degree of fear in the process – but I’m getting better at understanding how failing is actually really beneficial - you learn a lot from it, and it always spawns new ideas. There’s also the pragmatic, economic and apathetic reasons for my delayed starts…but I’m slowly getting quicker. Ha!

ST: In a recent show at The Laundry Artspace, yours and James Barth’s work were both featured as well. Do you see any links between yours and James’ work?

HA: I know the figures are representations of James, and they always seem to be in some sort of vulnerable position - in terms of the way that they are being viewed. I guess in their work they’re trying to develop a sense of self and maybe they’re pushing up against things a lot harder than I have to, but there’s definitely a sense of vulnerability and trying to project something solid out into the world.

ST: Are there any artists that influence your practice?

HA: My honours supervisor approached me at the grad show last year and said ‘you must be channeling Eva Hesse right?’ and even though I took it as a huge compliment I also felt really embarrassed because I didn’t know much about her practice. Since then, though, I’ve had a more thorough look at her body of work and despite a difference in impetus behind the work I can definitely see there’s a lot of similarities in the visual vocabulary. That’s always the way. You make something and then you’re on the internet looking for resources and you find something like ‘oh cool that person’s almost already done that.’ But I guess having come across this connection has been really useful in determining ways that I can use the materials to say what I want. Because even though they are similar they’re saying different things.

ST: What is your ideal place to exhibit?

HA: I guess it depends on what work I’m making. Sometimes when I’m making something I imagine that I’m making it for this really nice timber-floor, white walls, day light space. Because I make my work in daylight, I can’t imagine it in the artificial light of the gallery, but it seems that daylight is reserved for big names and commercial/public spaces, so we’ll have to wait and see I guess. I’ve had a lot of house shows as well so I also have a tendency to think about it being in a dingy, under the house environment, which works well there too.

ST: Do you feel like a residential setting changes the meaning at all?

HA: Come mid June, I’ll have had 3 shows in just over a month in residential spaces, so it’s something I’m thinking about a lot. Having said that, I don’t think it changes the work too much; it just provides a more intimate environment to read the works in. They are quite intimate sculptures anyway so I think it works well. Although the room that I’m presenting in for [Shift 2] is kind of like the white cube equivalent of the residential space!

ST: Do you think you will stay in Brisbane to pursue a career as an artist?

HA: I like Brisbane. People always said ‘oh you’re going to have to move to Sydney or Melbourne if you want to make it.’ That’s why there’s this perception because everyone leaves and then no one’s left. I mean obviously there are people here (the best ones!). I think there’s something really special going on with all the ARIs popping up. It’s a really supportive environment, like a little community. You can make mistakes and not feel like it’s a huge failure. It is like a ground for creativity and there’s way more room to experiment and feel comfortable doing so. In terms of Australian cities I really like Brisbane. But I think I might go overseas next year to maybe do my masters.

ST: There’s been a lot of attention around ARIs in Brisbane at the moment. As an emerging artist, what do you see as their role ?

HA: Just providing a platform I suppose- a place to try things out. Everyone’s in the same boat so it’s great that people are opening up their homes and putting their time into supporting emerging artists and curators. It’s really great!

ST: What are your plans for the future?

HA: If I don’t move overseas for masters I’d like to try and do some residencies overseas. I like Brisbane but I don’t necessarily like being in the one place for a long time. For the last couple of years I’ve bounced back and forth so it’ll be good to get back over there.