Simone Slee: The Business of Failing - Art Collector

Issue 52, April - June 2010

Simone Slee’s sculptures are only finished when they fall apart. As she tells Ashley Crawford, these are the sorts failures that remind us of what being human is all about.

In Simone Slee’s work everything is vulnerable. A rotting cucumber causes a sculpture to collapse. Sections of clothing are removed to expose unexpected skin. It’s all about the body and the things the body makes and calls art. For Slee, a background in urban design and landscape architecture has led to an obsession with space and the way we occupy it.

Slee’s best known project – the On sequence – handmade suits exposing the belly button, developed from her background in design and a fascination with human vulnerability, interaction and interdependence. Her intrigue with these issues also led to a darkly humorous performance piece titled How Long Can I Hold this Up in which the artist is photographed in a public zone holding a piece of cardboard over her face.

“Time is one of the key elements in sculptural practice,” Slee says. “That work also deals with weight and gravity – other sculptural issues. It seemed hilarious to me, when the work first commenced, to ask the question how long can I hold this up, when it is just a light piece of cardboard. In previous works, such as Make a sculpture, Watch it fall down, a piece of cardboard props up a circular cardboard sculpture. When the sculpture fatigues it falls over. There was another version with a cucumber again functioning as the prop – when the cucumber began to rot the sculpture would roll over. The work became a sculpture at the moment it fatigued. The issue of how long something can be sustained is also located in these works. I have dragged this same piece of cardboard around the world.”

Process has always played an important part in making the work, she says, leading to how much of the work became performative. When asked how long indeed did she hold the banner she responds: “That is for me to know, however, just to add – it is not over yet – I’m still holding it up.”

There is also a strong sense of the ephemeral in Slee’s work in the use of detritus such as cardboard, which raises questions about art as commodity. “I am attracted to the immediacy of materials that are at hand, cardboard, paper out of the printer,” Slee says. “I like the resourcefulness of using what is lying about and the speed in which something can happen or be produced. It has to be easy. Much of the work is about testing an idea or an impulse, grabbing what is nearby to see if it works or has potential. Then it grows into something.

“Is it a comment about art as a commodity? It is pretty hard to make a justifiable argument critiquing the commodification of the art market with ephemeral work, don’t you think? Since conceptual art/arte provera and all were so well consumed into the museum and the market (even though they were a critique of them) it is almost impossible to exist outside of it.”

In another work – HOUSES THAT ARE HAPPY TO HELP WITH AT LEAST ONE OF THE POSSIBLE PROBLEMS OF ART – Slee mounted a placard outside a house asking “Are Your Materials Honest?”

“Again I was keen on playing with one of the elements that has preoccupied sculpture and more broadly art, particularly coming out of modernism, and that is the idea of truth to materials,” she says. “So in the title where I reference the possible problems of art, I am thinking of the problem in the sense of an area of enquiry or investigation and the business about truth to materials may still be one of those areas. What amused me was when the question was mistakenly rephrased – asking ‘are your materials honest?’ – that there was a shift in consciousness and that materials themselves could choose to be honest or equally potentially deceptive.”
“So the signs/sculpture with the text I really see as thought bubble questions. And the house is a kind of readymade that gets coupled up with the form of the thought bubble question.”

Slee’s best-known works remain the stomach constructions. “When I made the On body suits, I was really thinking about the different parts of the body,” she says. “The stomach interested me because it seemed like the location where anxiety or vulnerability is stored in the body. A lot of feminists and performance artists had already looked at the sexualised body and the stomach and belly button orifice had not really been addressed. I saw the On suits as some kind of life jacket, where exposing a vulnerable part of your self allowed you to get to know someone else (the suits as well as exposing the stomach region had velcro tabs which enabled you to link up with anther person). I was interested in the idea that a jacket or suit, which normally covers or protects you, could simultaneously expose you. My sister joked when I first made them that they would make good maternity wear. I was personally a bit alarmed – it had not consciously crossed my mind until that moment. As it turned out there was a baby soon on the way. So I don’t know.”

At their core, Slee’s works carry a powerful commentary on human frailty. “Yeah, I am much more interested in where things go wrong – vulnerabilities, modesty and the business of failing, the bits that make people or things human.”

Simone Slee’s next exhibition will be staged at Sarah Scout in Melbourne from 14 April to 8 May 2010.

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