Artist Interview: Joel Bliss - Art Collector

14 March 2011

Joel Bliss talks to Australian Art Collector ahead of his forthcoming exhibition Return of The Bigots, crediting two-minute punk songs, zines and DIY mechanics as the sources of inspiration behind his new sculptures.

Joel Bliss, Blast Beat 2, 2011. Steel, grip tape and paint. 55 x 50 x 50cm. Courtesy: the artist and Brenda May Gallery, Sydney

What ideas are you exploring in your most recent work?

My latest work continues my interest in the punk aesthetic and is an experiment with how I translate that into sculptural forms. I have revisited my involvement with the Australian punk scene and in particular, revisiting the music that my band, The Bigots (1996-2006), created from the mid-1990s.

At this time, I developed my ongoing interest in old cars and motorcycles and my obsession with what I would call the barely legal variety, the rat bike – motorbikes that needed constant work and creative and imaginative mechanical repairs to keep them running.

My involvement with the punk subculture is directly related to my sculptures and the particular aesthetic I am creating with them is based on the rat punk attitude.

You will be distributing a zine on rat bikes at the exhibition. What are rat bikes and what do you find interesting about them?

Rat bikes are motorcycles that have been maintained only to the point that keeps them rideable. As a result of the process of DIY maintenance, the appearance of the rat bike is completely different to the motorcycles that you see coming out of motorcycle factories. For example, rust, oil leaks, bodgy repairs, gaffa-tape, loads of fencing wire and missing paint do not concern the rat bike owner but are something that is almost like a badge of credibility.

Riding a rat bike is riding a one-of-a-kind motorbike that represents the unique mechanical ingenuity of the individual rider. The rat bike is often cut back to the bare minimum: farings, plastic and unnecessary components are removed, bright colours are spray-painted matt black. It is up to the owner only to put their personal touch into the look of their rat bike.

The use of any professional mechanic is definitely considered a no-no. The appeal of riding a rat bike is only heightened by the disapproval of others, for example when you pull up at the traffic lights and other motorists look at your bike with disgust and disapproving expressions.

Above right: Bliss's band The Bigots on tour, SA desert, 1999. Photo: the artist.

As a zine maker, how has the DIY culture and aesthetic influenced your work?

In 1999 myself and the other member of The Bigots (Tim Bigot) produced the Rat Bike zine: a one-off response to the other zines that were being produced within the punk scene and as a response to commercial motorcycle magazines. The punk zines were generally very earnest productions with serious left wing political and environmental discussions and opinions.

On the other hand, the motorcycle magazines were full of the latest motorcycles which were often splashed with bright, colourful designs and clearly out of our reach financially with loads of articles about sensible riding techniques and what fashionable motorcycling accessories you needed.

Rat Bike zine was a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek response to all of this seriousness. We included articles on home engine rebuilds using the very lowest of standards (bodge) and clearly useless, worn out parts; motorcycling fashion tips suggesting that a rider should wear greasy jeans that you never took off, hole-filled, crappy t-shirts and the helmet that you found in the bin … DIY was a cool term at that time, unfortunately since then multi-nationals and big businesses such as Bunnings Warehouse have completely destroyed the real meaning of the term do-it-yourself.

These problem-solving experiences using nothing but what was at hand has lead me to appreciate the one-off and uniqueness of art making and also the large amount of self-generated drive and self-reliance needed to keep an art practice going in Australia.

Above right: Joel Bliss, Blast Beat, 2011. Steel, timber, stainless steel, rivets and paint. 85 x 60 x 30cm. Courtesy: the artist and Brenda May Gallery, Sydney

Death and decay seem to recur in your work, from your piece I Will Live Till I Die to your description of your sculptures as creating “a feeling of an impending threat”. I find that your use of timber and steel, combined with the sheer scale of your sculptures, is at times reminiscent of medieval torture devices. What draws you to these themes?

Death and decay and the subsequent rebuilding of a new order are recurring themes in punk music and the punk subculture.

I have explored the idea of the apocalypse in my previous sculpture where I have used an imagined narrative of an apocalyptic event to think about what materials would be at hand and what we could make, rebuild or invent in order to survive a new and threatening environment.

This would be an environment that is post-mass production and one in which you must rely on your own creative ingenuity and mechanical skills to survive.

Joel Bliss, Untitled, 2010. Courtesy: the artist and Brenda May Gallery, Sydney

As an artist with a punk background, do you find it difficult to reconcile your left-wing concerns with the commercial realities of presenting your work in a gallery environment?

No, because I think most artists, whatever their particular background, are dealing with similar issues when it comes to selling work. The whole notion of selling out is just such an old debate, I think we have all moved on from that, even in the punk world.

Artists nowadays, whether they are visual artists or musicians, are finding ways of making a legitimate living from what they are passionate about.

I have no qualms about selling something that I have created if it means that it finances my next art project or my next recording. If I was using my art practice to buy myself Rio Tinto shares then that would pose a terrible ethical and moral problem.

Have any Australian artists drawn your interest lately?

Yes, the recent rise of Australian street art is interesting. The political and environmental issues often explored by street artists are shared concerns of mine and have long been issues that the punk subculture has been singing about and concerned with … I think there are obvious parallels, where street culture and subcultures are now influencing and inspiring contemporary art makers.

The music and the imagery that I am inspired by comes from a particular subculture. I might create abstract sculptures but in my mind, these sculptures are inspired by and very much linked to my experience within the punk subculture and rat punk music scene.

Stephanie Lau

Return of The Bigots opens at Brenda May Gallery on Tuesday 15 March 2011 and continues to 9 April 2011.

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