Nick Mangan: Seriously Unnerved - Art Collector

Issue 38, October - December 2006

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A trip to Arnhem Land to work alongside local painters profoundly changed Nick Mangan’s approach to materiality. Story by Ashley Crawford. Photography by Kirstin Gollings.

To say that Nick Mangan is having an intense year would be an understatement. In July he spent two weeks in the sweltering heat of Arnhem Land working closely with the Aboriginal artists of Gunbalanya. In November he heads to wintry New York to take up the Australia Council’s Greene Street residency. In between were major installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne.

Part of the intensity of his journey to Gunbalanya was the simple fact that he had never interacted with Australian Aboriginals in the context of their sacred lands. Similarly this would be his first trip to New York. But culture shock has been Mangan’s fodder since he first exhibited.

The journey to Arnhem Land was part of an artists camp organised by 24HR Art in Darwin which involved artists Guan Wei, Kate Rhode, Linde Ivimey and Peter Walsh working alongside local painters of the area Gabriel Maralngurra, Graham Badari and Bruce Nabegeyo who work largely from the traditional rock paintings of the escarpment territory.

“The trip to Gunbalanya was a total head-fuck in the best possible way,” Mangan says of the journey. “It really is different country up there. I think the trip really affected my approach to materiality in relation to its immediate environment. I think I’m still recovering from reverse culture shock.”

Mangan had, early in his career, become renowned for his cool sculptures and installations where the detritus of the 20th Century lay forlorn on the gallery floor, growing odd icicles or strange moulds in a stasis of permafrost. But in a major installation, eXoecoaXis – shown at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art as part of the 2004 group show The Molecular History of Everything, Mangan travelled from Ice Age to Stone Age. A worn Persian rug lay on the floor, its meticulous Mandela’s faded; large ceramic jars were scarred from misuse and decidedly bizarre talismans lay scattered throughout, strange morphings of petrified wood and bone. Cast in resin from real, found objects, cows’ teeth were grafted onto wood, remnants of creatures from another dimension.

Mangan was born in Geelong in 1979 and finished his Bachelor of Arts (Fine Art) at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2001. Since that time he has been creating seriously unnerving drawings, montages, sculptures and installations.

In an exhibition in 2003 at Sutton Galleries in Melbourne, a photocopier lay prone under harsh light with crystalline shards growing from its interior. The lighting of Mangan’s early installations – deliberately harsh fluorescent – was intentionally staged. “I was playing with the idea of (or playing on the word) photosynthetics or evolving/devolving from photosynthesis to photosynthetics. Inorganic things growing under fake light. The photocopier work, elemental exposure, was the catalyst for this notion,” he said.

If anything the works he produced in Arnhem Land were more organic in approach despite the fact that they utilised found materials. It was an ideal environment for an artist who has said he wants to investigate “the possibility” of “hybrid cultural identities.”

Similar issues arose with the 2003 work In the crux of the matter exhibited as part of the 2004 exhibition at Federation Square, Melbourne, where the chassis of a motorbike took on new life with strange crystalline growths protruding sharply at dangerous angles: “The crystal shards, hand tooled from acrylic, speak of regrowth and regeneration,” he said in an accompanying artist’s statement. “Not in the sense of being connected with nature, but rather within the language of fictional science. The material and processes reference an interest in geology, organic formations, mutations and transformations.”

One of the works executed at Gunbalanya he dubbed The Mimibindu Trap, a strange concoction of found objects strung up in the trees, which was made in the context of the Bindinj (Aboriginal) use of such objects as soft drink cans and plastic bottles in everything from mixing paints to fishing. Given the mutated nature of his trap one wondered what he imagined being caught .

“I was completely inspired by the Bindinj use of every day materials and how they appropriated and reinvented the purpose of objects,” Mangan says. “They have an understanding of their material world and the environment that those materials need to function in, that for me reinforced the idea of city life complacency. I was interested in how they assimilated certain objects and materials into their culture, having objects work in favour for them.

“One of the objects I made while I was there was inspired by this use of materials. It was a trap-like object made from a juice bottle, some rope and bees wax that I suspended between some trees. I was playing with the idea of spirit traps, or in this case a dreaming catcher. ”

In such earlier works as The Colony, the use of faux New Guinea artefacts seemed instilled with a degree of nostalgia, based in part on the fact that his parents had those kinds of decorations in the family home. But that position seems to have changed into a more immediate reaction to the degradation of indigenous cultures and the environment.

“At the moment I’m trying to create a space were I can explore these themes on my own terms,” he says. “I am becoming increasingly interested in the political, but I’m adverse to the didactic approach. I’m trying to come at things through materiality and something more symbolic.

“My work often enters an alternate paradigm,” he says. “This paradigm is a reflection of the real world but its logic is deliberately distorted, it becomes a space where things can be teased out and inverted. “I guess I’m finding more and more, as I deal with material and ready-made objects that are either loaded or associated with aboriginality, that there are sensitivities one has to be aware of. One has to take a position on whether to add insult to injury or sympathise with the issue. “Currently I’m exploring the confused notion of Australiana, and the mythical status of objects that exists within that sphere. ” As one example he has singled out the Banksia nut, one of which he “stumbled across in a tourist shop on Swanston Street for $200 a pop.”

”It seemed like a clear follow-on from the faux teak objects I’ve been working with. This strange example of native flora has a beast-like appearance, which, through manipulation I have attempted to amplify and exaggerate in an attempt to echo Australia’s colonial history. ”

It is almost impossible not to take Mangan’s sculptural installations as essentially fantastical, the work of a wonderfully warped mind. But he has commented that it is about “propositions about the environmental effects of culture on nature, intrinsic to modernity and the dubious progress of capitalism”. It is as though Mangan started with a dystopian, sci-fi scenario and found that it has met rather jarringly with reality.

One of the works completed upon his return from Gunbalanya was Barricade, a bizarre structure that hints at the self-protective barbs of the echidna. Beyond its existence as a purely alien life form it wasn’t hard to read Barricade as a highly political work. At the time of Mangan’s visit to Gunbalanya the Australian Federal Government was talking about shutting down funds for Aboriginal outstations – the locations where ceremony is often held. The Health Minister, Tony Abbott was also talking about Aboriginal people spending less time at ceremony, a notion which one elder described as being the equivalent of ripping out pages from the Bible because it was too long.

It was nigh impossible for the Western artists on the journey not to be profoundly affected by the social and political dramas facing the indigenous people of the region.

Elsewhere in his studio is an array of objects that could be arcane weapons or quasi-religious icons from an altogether alien tribe.

An interest in the often turbulent relationship of contemporary consumptive culture with history led Mangan to ongoing investigations of exotic objects and souvenirs to construct hybrid forms that explore notions of identity and cultural representation. These investigations were launched with experimentation with Philippine and Fijian monkey pod-wood faux-artefacts-come-souvenirs found in thrift shops. In his 2005 body of sculptural work titled The Colony, Mangan investigated the constructed western notion of tourism culture, caught between the representation of true cultural identity and the tourism economy’s interpretation of the exotic.

Whether he works with sculpture, montage or drawing, Nick Mangan has justifiably established a reputation as one of the most innovative and unique artists working in Australia today. •

New work by Nick Mangan will be exhibited at Sutton Gallery, Melbourne from 21 October to 15 November 2006.

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