Q&A with Alex Seton - Art Collector

Alex Seton: The Island (18 February to 7 May 2017 at Newcastle Art Gallery). Photography: Mark Pokorny. Courtesy the artist and Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle.

Alex Seton speaks to Art Collector about his current exhibition at the Newcastle Art Gallery entitled The Island which runs until 7 May 2017.

Your current exhibition The Island speaks to Australia’s role in the asylum debate. How has the work been received?

The reception for the work has been quite sombre. This is not surprising when you consider that Australia is many years into its strict and brutal policies of deterrence and mandatory detention for asylum seekers and for whatever reason the issue has faded from national spotlight psyche and spotlight; likely from some combination of lack of information and accountability in the public press, ambivalence, fatigue and a sense of helplessness.

Do you believe the length of time in making art matters? Your works are painstaking in detail, physicality and repetition.

No, I do not believe it is relevant to viewing and understanding the artwork. That said, if my labours can demonstrate the sincerity of thoughts and feelings upon the subject that's not a bad thing. The materiality of the work asserts itself upon the viewer and insists where other mediums are more impermanent or easily ignored.


Alex Seton: The Island (18 February to 7 May 2017 at Newcastle Art Gallery). Photography: Mark Pokorny. Courtesy the artist and Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle.

How do you perceive the apparent disparity between protest culture and asylum seekers against the context of the gallery space?

They are two different spaces. Protest culture suffers at the moment from being well understood by governments local, state and federal, and protest is tightly controlled and muted. It is factored in as the cost of enacting policy.

This makes the need for socially engaged work in gallery spaces more necessary than ever.

The gallery space is a far less controlled and inherently more flexible public space. It is an inclusive space that can do more than just entertain, it can reflect and challenge. I'm not convinced of its efficacy to change policy in the moment, but it can contribute to the cultural dialogue and demonstrate what matters to us now. Art takes the longer term view and asks larger questions of who we are as a community and what this may mean for us in the future.

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of the singer Nina Simone: “An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” The asylum seeker issue and how we respond to it continues to be one of the defining issues of our day.

In a previous interview with Art Collector, you used the example of Ai Weiwei posing as a drowned Syrian refugee to highlight how “awareness-raising” art has the intrinsic possibility of being insensitive. How do you manage this tension?

Every artist navigates this for themselves and with their own conscience, hopefully with an awareness of their own privilege.

The work I have made is very specifically about Australian refugee and asylum seeker policies and Australian privilege as an Australian citizen. To reflect the circumstances and to ask the question why we are so reluctant to extend good faith and charity to those specifically asking for our help when we have so much? To highlight the need for empathy and to not accept the politicization and demonization of the asylum seeker in public discourse. To remember that there for the grace of circumstance go you or I...


Alex Seton: The Island (18 February to 7 May 2017 at Newcastle Art Gallery). Photography: Mark Pokorny. Courtesy the artist and Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle.

What is coming next for you?

At the end of April I will be going to Wattwiller, France to install my work in the
Talents Contemporains exhibition at the Fondation François Schneider, as one of the six winners of the Wattwiller Prize.

On May 4 my exhibition
Monument will open at Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney. The works take Warhol’s declaration that all monuments glorify their maker, as its starting point. The exhibition looks at notions of monumentality, vanitas and memento mori via personal explorations of transience, vanity and the finite.


Marcus James



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