Alex Seton: This is what it looks like - Art Collector

Issue 70, October - December 2014

Over the last few years, Alex Seton has through his marble works engaged in one of the most hotly debated Australian political issues of recent times – asylum seekers. Andrew Frost speaks to the artist about his latest response.
Alex Seton, photographed for Art Collector Issue 70, October - December 2014. Photo: Zan Wimberley.

On a large white board in Alex Seton’s studio is a drawing of the works that will be seen in a trio of exhibitions to be staged between October and December 2014. For anyone who knows Seton’s recent work, or is familiar with its evolution over the last few years, its subject is familiar. Seton has engaged with one of the hottest political topics of the last decade – asylum seekers.

Across the two floors of Sullivan+Strumpf gallery in Sydney, Seton plans to install an array of marble sculptures, some simulating the life jackets used by both asylum seekers and Naval personnel, others offering a far more acerbic take on the situation in the form of pool toys and other fun inflatables. Seton’s exceptional skills as a sculptor and his fidelity to the exact reproduction of objects is the crucial conceptual play of the show. The tension between the actuality of something – an event, an object – and the way it can exist both as something literal, and as a metaphor, is the idea that lays at the heart of Seton’s art.

“This whole body of work is an extension of the work I did at the Adelaide Biennial
Someone Died Trying to Have a Life Like Mine,” says Seton. “That was the creation of 28 life jackets in marble that were scattered around the floor, a replication of the life jackets that had washed up on the shore of the Cocos Islands in May 2013.” Seton explains that his motivation to make the Biennial work, and this new series of sculptures, comes from a desire to understand and recognise his own role as an observer of these events. “I’m an artist,” says Seton. “I retain the right to respond emotionally to a political issue. I don’t claim to have political answers, or answers at all, but what I had often wondered when I listened to people talking about ‘turning back the boats’ [was] what does that look like? This is what it looks like. That’s the object.”

Upstairs at Sullivan+Strumpf the exhibition features an array of full-scale marble facsimiles of pool toys including play-version zodiac life boats – whose full scale cousins transport Australia’s border protection forces – and palm trees atop a fake island of marble rubble. Seton describes this suite of works – that sit alongside a trio of replicas of life jackets – as a “sickly sweet satire” that stand in contrast to the drama of the other works. “The way we treat outsiders in our society has always been of interest to me. The asylum seeker issue had been something that I’ve been thinking about for a while and that’s because it speaks more to who we are.”

Seton’s exhibitions propose a conceptual tension between real objects and their representations in marble, a material associated with wealth and status. “In the past I’ve used marble to look at things like symbols of empire or the memorialisation of the everyday,” he says. “There’s a privilege that goes with these over-manicured pool toys but [the exhibition] is also about the material of marble being a signifier of wealth that’s held over other people.”

Does Seton wonder whether people who buy his work are in some way communing with his point of view? Or is it an aesthetic response to the very tactile and luxurious quality of the work? “I bloody well hope it’s the latter,” he says without hesitation. “Preaching to the converted isn’t of interest to me. In and of itself, my work doesn’t take much of a political stand; it’s simply laying bare the humanity of an issue. I hope that comes out. I try to remain neutral about it. I don’t want to knock people over the head with it, but the context is undeniable. I try to create a context around an object. I’ve developed a trust in the audience and that they will understand in some way.”

Andrew Frost
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