Z.O'Mahoney SUBPRIME, 2015, detail, poster and text. Courtesy: the artist

By Joel Mu

“Don't know what I am supposed to say about SCA [Sydney Collage of the Arts], the latest casualty in this utterly corrupt city, as vulgar as it plainly is to lament the demise of an art school in these times. I never experienced the same connection to the former COFA (though I did to its student body), but even those first steps into an education without discipline, a non- or pseudo- education, gave me my life back after I had been so ill, hope for the self-determination that had seemed so impossible. And the prevailing culture (especially at COFA) took so much away throughout that process of assimilation and indoctrination, networking and art prizes, in place of the impulse that had driven us all there that I still believe is the unifying force, however naive or superstitious that may seem against the spectacle. I am unconsidered in my exegesis, attempting a masters for some reason, without any pretensions to adding to "discourse" as they call this particular debasement of philosophy (which was normally ludicrously patriarchal to begin with), and unable to understand why I should create so much less, be less prolific in the name of some one-liner, in order to present myself accordingly. Frankly, I am bored with all the hostility directed at those expressing real criticality, and feel that those with anything more to say for themselves than that which they have learned by rote to manage the world in terms of their hopelessly redundant milieu, would tend to prove more generous in their approach to debate than those that I continuously am chastised by. Fuck what has become of art and all its schools. SCA was a good place for a time, a safe place, and I am more grateful for the generosity and support of the faculty and technical staff at SCA than I think they will ever know, but this is Sydney, where nothing like that even matters. Back to praying to the gods of accelorationism like nothing better ever happened to me. But it did. I do not want to live only to leave here, but I am struggling.”

Z.O'Mahoney, Facebook, 25 November 2015

Via Facebook I read a story with the headline: “Sydney University abandons art school at Callan Park”. Afterwards, I read your post above. Why did you write it?

I suppose the context is important. It’s funny that the art school posts are always somehow the most relatable and garner the most attention, when it was as much about Callan Park itself, the community group that has (since the 1970s) been fighting to save this very beautiful sandstone building and surrounding park lands that used to be a mental asylum (with a very mixed history of horrors coupled with instances of good works, as far as I understand). There is a pervasive attitude of “it’s not for you” applied to the poor and even middle-class against sites of specific beauty in this city, but really many heritage sites only remain because of the green ban movement in the 1970s, when the Builders Labourers Federation went on strike and shut down any developments that they voted unsound environmentally or bad for the community … before they were quite violently quelled (even resulting in the disappearance and presumed murder of one of the protesters involved). For a while, even though the movement had been dismantled, it lead to a culture of community consultation around development, which is being slowly eroded.

Z.O'Mahoney, Secession Piece (In Honour of the SCA Callan Park Campus), 2015. Organic lime wash, enamel and pastel on canvas, dimensions variable, comprising the following paintings (clockwise from right): Study for Ceremonial Upskirt, The Graduand, Habeas Corpus (trans.: you should have the body), and Anne Geddes' Spermatazoa, installation view, SCA Painting Studios, Sydney, 2015. Courtesy: the artist

I am interested to know more about your thoughts on artist education and your own artist training. Maybe the term artist isn’t important?

The solution to fostering cultural development, as far as the universities are concerned, has been an across the board move towards design and technology, specifically those that do not require many facilities or much space (and the counter-movement of ceramics having become incredibly trendy). This is because universities are big business in this country, like everything else, and abstract values such as those of education, social services and art are not only treated as secondary but forced to justify themselves in economic terms. SCA functions perfectly well as it is, and has facilities such as glass blowing and a workshop that actually allow for the teaching of marketable skills, the only issue with the Callan Park premises is that if they become disused it will allow for the reassessment of the protections that currently stand and eventually will become possible to sell it off to developers, this is what stops it from being economically viable as far as the university is concerned, and why the art school should secede from the university.

In terms of my own experience, I always think back to a trip/residency I was one of the recipients of (to Cardiff in Wales with Richard Goodwin and the British Council for the Arts in 2009). I met certain mutual friends of ours (Andrew Haining and Talitha Klevjer, both of whom I still work with) that really changed my life in their capacity to tear everything down and start again, which I find immensely productive. But it was also invaluable just to be confronted with the culture of design schools (as COFA would become- from the College of Fine Arts to the UNSW Art & Design, or UNSWAD), where design students were encouraged to see themselves as artists but with actual skills, which was very funny to me, and very easy to undermine, because most artists don't get to be artists, and designers are only ever elevated to the status of artists for very real achievements, for a lifetime of iconic work. Richard Goodwin did everyone the service of opening the whole thing up for debate. But, yes, the term “artist” probably isn't very important, what is important is to have bought back a little bit of time from the system to be able to contemplate things and learn on one’s own terms.

I think your comment about one-to-one relationships and supportive social contacts would resonate with many people. Can you talk some more about the body of work you referred to early and is there a particular work you consider a touchstone?

I recently interjected in a talk that my supervisor, Matthys Gerber, was giving at the Museum of Contemporary Art about why anyone would bother rebelling against someone that they didn't already agree with, which is possibly the nature of our relationship. I suppose that is true of a lot of my relationships with older artists. I feel like the Facebook form only has a resonance for me because of Christopher Barnett (who I became aware of through Ian Milliss), an Australian (living in self-imposed exile in Nantes) who wrote an entire poetry book in his feed, which I was reading on the ferry to Cockatoo Island during the last Biennale of Sydney, just balling my eyes out ... he had written about the death of a young protester (shot in the back by the Israeli military) as though he were his younger self and his son (When They Came For You: Elegies of Resistance) ... it made a lot of the blockbuster work of the Biennales seem as redundant and humourless as it actually was.

I suppose a touchstone work would be
Monument to a Deserter (after Paul Thek) which I performed/installed as part of Serial Space's Time Machine Festival in 2012. I was given space and a budget, and a cheap studio, and I finally was able to make an effigy of myself out of soap I made from used fryer oil and caustic soda, installed in a coffin I redesigned to be a slimmer line. I gave my first hour long performance at the height of a really emotional time … cried, and made most of the audience cry at the same time ... it was pretty funny ... I still can't quite look over the writing because it was the end of something for me, I had been alone for so long, in and out of illness, and no one had ever given me a real opportunity before. But yeah, 2012-2013, there was a lot of interest in my work, which is not the case now, though, I feel like it has really matured, the writing is a lot cleaner, and I have been doing a lot of painting, which I love, and which reminds me of why I became an artist to begin with.

Z.O'Mahoney, Monument to a Deserter (after Paul Thek), 2012. Performance, installation view, Time Machine, Serial Space, Sydney, 2012. Photo: Alex Davies. Courtesy: the artist and Serial Space, Sydney

Recently in Berlin, you gave me a small book of interviews by Jason Dodge. On the cover is a grainy black-and-white picture of Leo Tolstoy. At the time, I thought it was a flick and forget kind of book, but I find myself returning to it because it’s so inspiring and a pleasure to read. I also remember attending the event After the Eclipse with you because we wanted to see Aurelia Guo and Hamishi Farah read. Guo read from sheets of printed paper and Farah read from a handheld. Can you talk some more about language, poetry and writing, and your own artwork, like SUBPRIME from 2014?

I actually just chanced upon the bookstore/publishing house Archive Kabinett and decided to go to the relaunch of that book, which had been the most popular in the series
Drawing Room Confessions. They were trying to unpick just why it had been so popular, Jason Dodge was there talking about who he had chosen to interview him (some poet friends of his), and the series of poetry books he had been editing and producing with poets that he was interested in ... he said something to the effect of how he tended to prefer the poetry of poets to that of artists (since poetry has recently become so fashionable in the art world), which made everyone laugh appreciatively ... I felt like I had gone to heaven, just being somewhere where everyone understood the references but in an inclusive way, not like there was any intellectual bullying going on, which tends to be your two options in Australia. But it was really obvious, whatever it was that was special about that book ... perhaps just the obvious generosity of Dodge ... it is actually a pretty great example of how art can come out of anything ... like one could write off all zines being impossibly daggy, but then there will be one that makes you grateful of the existence of the entire genre. As a poet, particularly, one has to believe that to be the case, because poetry is bad more often than not.

I tend to just see all of these devices as tools without feeling the need to anthropomorphise them. I write blogs in order to self-publish, which I suppose would have been more difficult in another era … But then it seems as though publishing is under so much pressure these days that it has become more conservative than ever, and so I have all but given up on it, which might not have always been the case.

Subprime was possibly the purest work I have ever produced ... it was just a really resolved text (that I read out off of an iPhone with an LED sign accompaniment to an audience of about 15). It was a sort of theatre, though I can never seem to produce anything with a true narrative structure: there are just themes and refrains that might suddenly amount to something, in the way that human perception is just that hopelessly superstitious: searching for patterns in chaos as though they are proofs. To that end, I have never been sure whether anyone could possibly get anything more off of my entire oeuvre than they could off of reading/listening to 10 minutes of it (I always measure in minutes because I am particularly attuned to time in reading and the work is always best read out aloud). I can't help but keep producing it, anyway ... even if it has become redundant.

Z.O'Mahoney, SUBPRIME, 2015. Performance, poster, LED sign, installation view, Artspace, Sydney, 2015. Courtesy: the artist

Last month a painting exhibition opened in Munich, ambitiously entitled Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age. The reason why I am bringing it up now is because I recently read a Frieze d/e interview about the exhibition. Another reason is because they bring up the terms transitivepainting. I haven’t seen the exhibition, but the interview reminded me of a painting you did and, in particular, the painted texts: “transaction painting” and “reaction painting”. Can you talk about this artwork and what these texts mean?

Trans-Action Painting and Re:Action Painting: It's funny that you bring those lines up ... I had to think for a minute what paintings they were ... they were actually a part of the one mural that I did when a performance artist, Yiorgos Zafiriou, paid me to paint, daily, to his instructions, while he was fasting in an enclosed space behind the canvas in the SCA galleries … Instructions such as “write a line of poetry” and “paint with your feet”... it was a pretty intense experience, and strangely gave me a way forward, in being an excuse to paint again (being told what to do in a way that I could then subvert). And I believe I have been simply working against instruction ever since.

Z.O'Mahoney, Untitled, 2013. Performance, organic lime wash on fabric. Courtesy: the artist

Lastly, in your recent painting, Walking, Fucking Quadriplegics, from 2015, you make a references to saving labour, why?

I am all for labour-saving devices and scientific advances of all kinds, but I seriously doubt all claims to the development of art, the elevation of the human condition. How can we say that what is new is good in an era in which we could conceivably feed and house the world, but don’t? I am really just trying to expose the kinds of prejudices that have characterised the European mind, turning its histories and discourses against the European as subject. I do not claim to know what the answer is, though, and thus, I am focused purely on harm-minimisation, and perhaps making a few things that people can just live with, that I can live with.

Z.O'Mahoney, Walking, Fucking Quadriplegics, 2015. Mediaeval banner painting series (organic lime wash on discarded quilt cover), 440 x 180 cm. Courtesy: the artist

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