Q&A with Aly Aitken - Art Collector

Aly Aitken, Artist Unknown, 2017, oil on canvas, cardboard and discarded packaging, dimensions variable, 25 pieces. Courtesy of the artist, Matthew Stanton, and MARS Gallery.


Aly Aitken sits down with Art Collector to discuss her recent solo exhibition, Artist Unknown, at Melbourne's MARS Gallery.

Can you elaborate on your use of factory painters?

Conceptually the installation attempts to discuss the use of out-sourcing in art practice; to address the divide between those who ‘do’ and those who ‘do not’, both contemporarily and historically. Is it mine if I didn’t make it?

The 25 paintings were purchased online, over a 10 year period from faceless Chinese painting factories, from countless anonymous artists. I chose factories randomly, the process being as far removed and commercialised from my own practice as was possible: one click of a button and any masterpiece from any time in the history of the human race is delivered to your doorstep, rolled up in a cardboard tube, 6 weeks later.

The adoption of these out-sourced elements as integral to a work of my own devising was a significant part of the investigation. Past work has included only what I was capable of constructing myself, created from materials around me, or those I was able to source. My only physical contribution to
Artist Unknown was in the construction of the cardboard frames.

In many ways the work was an experiment, a test of my response to the handing over of responsibility for the physical construction of a piece of work that I would write my name on, to another.

Many contemporary artists are often more directors than producers, outsourcing the physical production of objects and materials to others. Is your art about extracting and owning the concept, or is it something else altogether?

My practice has always existed in the microcosm; in the world of small things that surround me. Domestic Romanticisim is probably an appropriate descriptor.

Most of the time I think my work has served nothing more, than as a panacea to my misanthropic reserve. Everything that I have made has been created so that I never have to walk out the front door. I have always populated my environment with lumpy golems, cobbled together with bits of stick and string, and fancies rescued from the hard rubbish – everything conceptualised around materials I was able to source and skills that I had at my disposal or knew I could teach myself- always the producer, never the director.


Courtesy of the artist, Matthew Stanton, and MARS Gallery


Artist Unknown in many ways was a breach of the seclusion of my invented reality. Is there a rationale behind your choice of reproducing Jan Van Eyck’s 1434 The Arnolfini Portrait?

Artist Unknown endeavours to consider the role of representational painting and the philosophical divide concerning its relevance in the contemporary world.

I love The Arnolfini. It is an exquisite jewel of a painting, but in many ways my choice of painting was of little consequence; any other instantly recognisable ‘Old Master’ would have served the same purpose. The aim was to question why we continue to admire paintings created centuries ago; is it the mastery of medium and subject matter or is it really just art as commodity? What is the value of the original against a dexterous copy? It was an interesting exercise to place Van Eyck, who is credited with the invention of oil painting, alongside the bizarre development of contemporary factory production.

Your cardboard frames and appropriated paintings seem to question the value of materiality. Yet the frames in particular challenge medium too in their sculptural quality. Was this something that was intended?My choice of cardboard to provide the literal and figurative framework, through which this issue is viewed, was a deliberate one. Cardboard is a throwaway material, the antithesis of widely admired, gold-framed museum pieces. The juxtaposition of materials asks the viewer to consider the value ascribed to oil-on-canvas as opposed to the immateriality of disposable cardboard. The cardboard also contributes to the title of the show as it questions the validity of the making of cardboard frames as ‘Art’.

The ‘artist unknown’ relates to me, as much as to the nameless factory painters. The concept of anonymity is at the core of this work as equally significant as the idea of artist outsourcing. The work is Jan Van Eyck versus the factory painter; it is a portrait of the faceless artist whose output and value is not determined by the cult of personality, versus the artist-as-superstar.

You have stipulated that the 25 canvases in Artist Unknown are treated as a single work rather than individual pieces. Why?

As single paintings these works would be nothing more than pretty knock-offs in wonky handmade frames. As a single works they become something other than their component parts. I have always regarded Artist Unknown as a sculptural piece. As a composite work it forces us to consider the different interpretations of the same work, to unpack our ideas about the original and to perhaps address the nature of contemporary figurative painting.

Courtesy of the artist, Matthew Stanton, and MARS Gallery

Art critic Ashley Crawford alerts us to the fact that by treating the 25 paintings as a whole work, private collectors are unlikely to have the space to display this artwork. How do you view the notion of ownership?

The scale of the work was not deliberately intended to exclude private collectors any more than it was made to suit display in an institution. To be honest, ownership is something I never consider when conceiving of, or constructing work. I just keep making things. It is always a surprise to think of anything I have made belonging to another person's collection.

Can you tell us what is coming up for you this year?

I am part way through a body of sculptural pieces called The Unbearable Weight Of Things That Are Lost, an army of figures that describe my irrational fear of losing my mind. I hope to have these completed and on show in the latter part of next year.


Marcus James



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