Kit Wise: Wise Guy - Art Collector

Issue 34, October - December 2005

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Kit Wise takes liberties with the "found object" and finds his discreet object of desire. Edward Colless gets wise to the artist's moves.

When Kit Wise embarked on his solo show Roarers at Melbourne’s Ocular Lab gallery in Brunswick, earlier this year, he applied a simple but demanding rule to his work. Anything and everything he used for the exhibition had to be found within a one-mile radius of his studio. No imports. No trade outside the zone. Only things scavenged from the backstreets, dumpsters or two-dollar shops. He would go out foraging daily, on an almost primeval hunt that marked out his turf and territorial pathways. The Ocular Lab gallery was within the perimeter, and so the gallery itself became part of the work – not just in the sense of it being the fabric for an installation, but as a found object, a staked claim.

Wise had moved into the semi-industrial suburb of Brunswick about a year earlier, when he was appointed as a lecturer in the art and design school at Monash University, after finishing an artist-in-residence there, and was given charge of the Drawing department and the Honours program. Getting from home to work each day in peak hour means traversing the entire metropolitan sprawl from west to east in what can easily be a two and a half hour trip – each way. Limiting his travel for the Ocular Lab show to a relatively tiny bubble of space and time, with the studio as its epicentre, was like taming his transit culture. Although, if this sounds like an effort to come down to earth, what came out of it was hardly a sentimental or intimate portrait, up and close and personal, of his neighbourhood.

On the wall, facing you as you walked into the show, was a coloured blot at head height made from a vinyl soccer ball – a cheap and out-of-date FIFA souvenir from a local store – that had been unstitched, flayed and flattened out. It could have been the diagram of a microorganism, or the organisational map of some secret federation of states, with each of its polygonal cells stamped as a country’s flag and forming meandering chains like tape worms radiating out from a control centre, the panel where the pump went in. Along one branch, the UK joins Switzerland which joins Japan. The connections are arbitrary and meaningless. It’s just one way of undoing the three-dimensionality of the world and laying it out as a series of conjoining insignia. Globe may look like a symbolic mandala, with its neutral white core or umbilicus ordering a sort of sacred geometry of international community and prestige … but only as a joke. It’s more like a disgusting splat on the wall, as if the earth was a big bug whacked by a fly swat.

Kit Wise has seen a lot of the world, and he’s made a lot of his art about how he has handled that experience. Born in the UK, Wise studied sculpture at the Ruskin School of Drawing at Oxford, and then went to the Royal College of Art in London to do his Masters from 1997 to 1999. He arrived just after the wave of YBAs, or Young British Artists (such as Damien Hirst), had peaked in notoriety and success. The Brit Pop phenomenon – with bands like Pulp – was also in full bloom. The benchmark was high: British art had an international profile and sex appeal comparable only to the era of swinging London in the 1960s. Hip, contemporary style demanded an in-your-face branding and eccentricity matched with sharp entrepreneurial flair. Instant and immediate iconic power, combined with conceptual innovation. In the art schools a counteraction was starting to be noticed, as newer artists showed signs of an interest either in the sorts of convivial cultural introductory services that became known as “relational aesthetics” or by a renewal of faith in the studio through a penitential hand crafting or manipulation of the found object.

Wise’s own response to the artistic scene was to push both the hand and the eye into complex and ambiguous almost baroque interactions, to create wryly comic objects that were instantly recognisable but also optically and conceptually sly. Hero, an early work from 1997 at the Royal College, was an old stained mattress found on the street, laboriously emblazoned with meniscus that covered two thirds of the surface. A heroic sex object, as Wise calls it, taking “seventy-five thousand pricks”! This mattress’s shimmering metallic, scaly skin is a scab over the erotic flesh wounds delivered by an obscene swarm of Cupid’s arrows. A true labour of love.

“I like amplifying my fingertip handling of things into larger forms that become monumental and architectural,” he explains. “It’s a process of extrapolation, and of desire.” And that process can induce a startling anamorphosis of the hand-made, quite often like an erotic mirage. Statue, shown in his 2001 solo exhibition at CAST in Hobart, confronted the viewer as an immense marble carving of a woman’s lips – almost three metres long and a metre and a half high – as if it were a fragment from an archaic monumental sculpture. The lips are those of the artist’s wife, whom he had met during a residency at the British School in Rome after finishing his Masters degree, and who had invited him to Hobart. Intricately scaled up using a profile gauge and a computer to 40 times their actual size, these lips had a hyperrealist presence, recalling in their fetishistic overstatement Dali’s famous lip sofa (based on Mae West’s lips). But their swelling solidity is unstable. Shift position even slightly and this gigantic devotional object is revealed to be a micro-veneer of polished plaster and bees wax.

“I’d just been in America and had gone up inside the Statue of Liberty,” recalls Wise, “… a phenomenal iconic form. Liberty is known all around the world. Then, I was in Hobart with my new love, so I made a pair of lips that were twice as big as Liberty’s. When I was polishing the object I’d lose track of the scale … it was like a wonderful dream: a moment of desire where your bodily sense of scale shifts. Like in sex, when you’re only aware of someone else’s skin, and that’s your entire world. A floating world.” A year later, when they had moved to Melbourne, Wise took even more liberties with his object of desire, scaling up an image of his wife’s eyes (a tiny detail in a photograph taken at the party where they had first met) to an anamorphic, translucent digital print on acetate over 13 metres in length, displayed in the window of the Faculty Gallery at Monash University, and using the gallery space as a huge light box.

In Wise’s work desire travels a trade route between sensation and sign, as the world simultaneously expands and contracts like Alice’s Wonderland when object of consumption becomes an object of veneration. Eat me, drink me, work with me. The artist is both a tourist and a trader. Back in the darkened interior of Ocular Lab’s converted corner store shopfront is a miniature and washed-out city of minarets, onion domes and exotic spires all glowing in a pallid haze that blooms upward from a bank of fluorescent tubes set horizontally beneath a white acrylic table top. “It’s a fantasy world of desire,” says Wise, “inspired by Prada display cases I saw in Rome in January.”

But far from the couture accessories in via Veneto boutiques, this architectural toy town is made up from the bizarrely diverse consumer bric-a-brac Wise collected in his studio’s vicinity: cheap German ceramics, Japanese saki bottles, Italianate vases, Chinese tea cups, plastic caps, American soup cans, Iranian soap. Containers and objects perched precariously on top of each other to form the clustered towers of a mini-majestic floating city, reminiscent of Hayao Miyasake’s utopian ruin on the clouds in his anime movie Laputa, or the science fiction metropolis that hangs in sub-orbital space in the Star Wars episode The Empire Strikes Back.

The ingredients of this international bower of kitsch appear to be able to bond together in any number of permutations and configurations, like modular components of Lego…as if, despite their colourfully assorted origins, they’ve been manufactured according to a secret global standard of design and trade. At this elemental cultural level, everything is equal and co-valent. Anything can copulate with anything. Each of the assemblages look like a comically decorative skittle or cutely improbable bottle storing a genie, but they also have a slightly sinister animation erupting as stalagmites from a matrix of sterile genetic material. Is this the world in a microcosm of desire? If so, it’s been unearthed from the commercial archaeology of a Melbourne suburb. And it resembles a mysterious control panel on the bridge of an alien spaceship. The more Kit Wise tries to settle down, the more he takes off.

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