Hany Armanious: In the Heart of the Wood - Art Collector

Issue 38, October - December 2006

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Hany Armanious is an artist whose work synthesizes old world magic with post modernity and in the process comes up with something startlingly original. Andrew Frost spoke to the artist.

There is something at the centre of Hany Armanious’s work that’s a little disturbing. In conversation, the artist refers to Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and its subjective realm of archetypes, to Carlos Castaneda’s concepts of a mastery over awareness and transformations and to something called the “pixie spirit”. Some writers have seen in Armanious’s work an alchemical relationship between materials and outcome while others see a complex recursive language of reiterative forms. Whatever angle you take on Armanious’s wide ranging practice, there is indeed something magical at its core. There is an undeniable beauty in much of what he makes but it would be wrong to assume that the magic Armanious conjures is a Disney-esque twittering of fairy dust; in fact, it is the complete opposite. It is elemental and dark, pitched with a very particular sense of self-deprecating humour.

Armanious’s work deals with themes of commonality, partly spiritual in nature, yet grounded in the basic stuff of life. Recent shows such as Intelligent Design at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney and his work in the Balnaves Foundation Sculpture Project 2006 Adventures with Form in Space at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, presented a highly accomplished practice that encompasses these themes into the metaphoric realm of sculptural forms. Throughout Armanious’s practice there are a series of recurring motifs – vertical and repeated forms, negative spaces, detritus, all of it bound up in the implication of discreet processes, like a machine turned back on itself. Talking to the artist about the ideas that prompt these motifs, he is reluctant to commit to an overall hypothesis of what his body of work is about, or indeed, that all these things really do reoccur, saying instead that each work prompts its own ideas and implications. “That’s all the stuff of sculpture, analogies of life – grappling with the simple fact of our being here,” says Armanious.

The Balnaves work included a large sculpture called Central Core Component from Centre of The Universe [2005] a potter’s wheel mounted on a stand that was itself mounted on balls, all of it holding up a large, elegantly turned and towering object that pressed against the ceiling. How does the potter’s wheel work in the context of the entire sculpture? “The potter’s wheel is a primitive way of creating a form and a structure by asserting your creative will,” says the artist. “Transforming earth into something perfectly symmetrical and pleasing. A lot of my work is about the creative act itself and its aspirations. The wheel is the oldest symbol for people on Earth: a circle with a dot in the middle as a symbol for our existence within the universe. It sounds hippy dippy embarrassing, but there’s no hiding from it.”

Armanious, born in 1962 in the Egyptian town of Ismahlia near Cairo, moved to Australia when he was six and a half years old. He had an early interest in music and drawing while displaying an aptitude for pulling apart vacuum cleaners. “I recently realised that fact about my childhood fascinations as I’ve been pulling things apart again to make moulds and casts of them … and I had this sense of doom that I was going to wreck them.”

Don Mannix, a family friend, helped Armanious discover contemporary art while he was still in high school and he was already a prodigiously talented painter with a keen interest in Australian Modernists Tony Tuckson and Ian Fairweather when he attended City Art Institute [now University of NSW’s College of Fine Arts] in 1981. “Art school was a complicated time because I was exposed to a whole lot of new stuff but I was trying to stick to my own thing,” he recalls. “That created some conflict with some of my lecturers and in the end they thought it would be best if I was left to work through it myself.” The next few years after graduation in 1984 were fraught. “At that time, when I was struggling with painting, I remember saying to [artist] Tim Schultz, ‘I love painting but I don’t know what to do with it. How do you apply it? Where does it go?’”

The next decade would prove to be a period of intense productivity. What was the impetus that helped him find his direction? Any doubts for the artist were allayed by The Readymade Boomerang, the 1990 Biennale of Sydney curated by Rene Block that offered an historical overview of avant garde art from the Surrealists through Fluxus to contemporary European and American art. “That Biennale made me feel a lot more relaxed about what was possible,” he says. “I remember going back to my studio and thinking it’s ok, that I can get rid of everything. So long as I had a clear space in which to work, I could start again.” Over the next decade Armanious established himself as an artist whose work ranged across mediums including sculpture, photography, installation, drawing and painting. His work was included in a number of exhibitions both in Australia and overseas – his work was seen in curator Tony Bond’s Boundary Rider Biennale of Sydney in 1992, Perspecta in 1991 and 1993 and the following year his work was included in the prestigious Aperto at the Venice Biennale. In 1998 Armanious became a Moet e Chandon fellow.

Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art (IMA) is about to stage Morphic Resonance, a survey of past and present work. It will also be the first time Armanious’s work has had such a wide ranging overview. How does he feel about putting all his work together? “The IMA show will be an attempt to engage some newer works with some of the older pieces,” he says. “It’s great to have the opportunity to get a whole lot of stuff out of storage and various collections and have some serious fun.” •

From 21 October to 24 November Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art is staging Morphic Resonance, a survey of Hany Armanious’s past and present work.

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