Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Q & A with Jess Johnson

(Above: Maurizio Cattelan with Jess Johnson in Tate Modern)

1) How did the Hell gallery come about and what are the aims of the gallery?
I run a gallery called Hell with my friend Jordan Marani. We are both artists as well. We built the gallery on the ground floor of our house is early 2008 using materials scavenged from the skips of larger art institutions (where we work as freelance art installers). The Hell domain consists of Hell Gallery, Hell Toupee (miniature gallery), studios, performance stage, outdoor TV’s, Bar, BBQ and garden courtyard. Hell’s stolen motto is “ “Build it and they will come”.

We built Hell as a reaction against the rather insular activities of the art scene in Melbourne at the time. Our big beef with the artworld is that it can get quite stuck up its own arse.  Everything was very serious and slick and people seemed to be carefully following the rules mapped out for them. Hell was born from our joint aversion to boards, meetings, agendas, cv’s, funding applications and writing exhibition proposals. All those things that can hammer the inspiration and fun out of any art space. We thought if people wanted to do things with us we would just invite them over for a chat and cup of tea. As for the gallery, Jordy and I wanted to create an environment that we could be relaxed in… and hopefully other people would relax in it too. We wanted art to be way more inclusive. And to make friends with music, food, footy, gardening and dancing along the way.

2) Are things currently going well?
Actually we’re shifting gears a little. The momentum of the last couple of years has been rather crazy so we’ve decided its time for a little breather. The gallery quickly became this little monster. We seemed to full some niche and things took off like a rocketship. We started to draw these pretty big crowds and got a bit of media attention. Then we started to get invited to do artist residencies and take Hell to other parts of the country. We also got invited to contribute to exhibitions at big art Institutions like the National Gallery of Victoria (Aus) and the Tate Modern (as part of No Soul For Sale). We sat on lecture panels and gave talks and appeared on TV a few times. The checkout staff at our local supermarket started recognizing us from TV this year and it all got a little weird. So basically we’ve decided it’s been a blast but we now need to take time out to re-assess things.  We might decide we’ve done what we set out to do with Hell and it’s time to let it slip away. We might decide to start a new project. Change things up to keep it interesting for us. Dunno yet.

3) Do you like this quote, "Free your mind and your ass will follow"? Do you think it's a funky thing to say or just annoying? Umm the sentiment is a good one. But I might find the dreadlocked white dude who utters it rather annoying as a person.

4) Do you feel freer now than you've ever done before?
 Yes I do. I feel good and able to do good things.

5) Einstein claimed: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious". Do you relate to that way of thinking? I’m not the deepest thinker in the world and I couldn’t dredge anything up for this one sorry Harry.

6) When you turn on the radio do you hope to hear the DJ will play something old that reminds you of your youth or, something new that you didn't think you'd like? Both are good. Hopefully there are just some surprises in the mix.

7) When you walk into a room are you more likely to turn a TV on or off?
On. I love TV and am pretty grimy in my tastes. I enjoy reality TV shows like Brat camp and America’s Next Top Model. Currently I’m watching the Aussie Laddette to Lady. Its sublime. People fascinate me. I enjoy watching them comb their hair on reality TV then later I enjoy watching them get annihilated by giant CGI waves or zombies or virus plagues in late night movies.

8) What is the role of art? Is it to seek out, illuminate and grapple with what is authentic, what is difficult and what is real - or not really?
I think of ‘Art’ as simply this problem thing that brings like-minded people together. I’m more interested in what happens around art, then the art that is made. To be honest, sometimes I’d rather have a conversation with people that make art than look at the art itself. I like the communities that grow around art scenes and enjoy the discussions that happen when people get together on the pretence of looking at art. A big premise for Hell was that ‘Art’ didn’t have to be at the centre of everything… it could just be an interesting guest at the party. As an artist, I mainly like to create off-beat situations for getting people together and then seeing what happens.

9) "Beckett and Giacometti are good. Jake and Dinos are bad." Discuss
Nah I don’t agree with that. They’re all choice.

10) Susan Sontag suggests that "real art has the capacity to make us nervous". How often are you are scared by the work of artists you represent or make yourself?
I can’t say I’ve ever been scared by any artwork I’ve seen. It’s always much more of a slow burn… more a vague unsettling that won’t go away. The stuff that doesn’t fit easily with what I know is the good stuff for me. There’s so much art in galleries that looks like copies of everything else. I think one of the crappest things happening in the artworld is how so much new art just references other art. Its like this prolonged inside joke that wasn’t very funny in the first place. I think the kids coming out of artschools read too many art magazines and try to consciously make ‘art that looks like art’. It gets so removed from anything tangible or real. I wish teachers would just tell art students to get out and look at their world, their families, what’s on the walls of their bedrooms at home.  I’d like to replace all the art mags with comic books and nature anthologies.

11) Can you name a few artists from NZ or OZ that deserve a bit of exposure and a few back slaps?
There’s a really exceptional bunch of artists and musicians in Melbourne who have been forging this very bonded and unique scene over the last few years. They’re all close friends and support each other like this backwoods Texas Chainsaw family. There’s Brendan Huntley who is one of my favorite artists and people (he also happens to be the singer in an awesome band, ‘Eddy Current Suppression Ring’). Dan Moynihan who is this wonderful dreamer of giant ambition. Jensen Tjhung who walks on the dark side. Marty Bell whose wonderful art I can only fondly describe as batshit insane.  They’re a very special bunch that I’m very grateful to know.

12) Can you see yourself getting more right wing as you get older or more religious?  No way, quite the opposite. All I can say is that my older brain has developed more of a social conscious.  I’m certainly aware more of my responsibilities and duties as someone who has been given a voice, simply by virtue of doing something that people look towards. So I think more about whom I support and why; how I put my money back into the community etc. I used to be very reckless and self-interested when I was younger. I consider things a lot more now.  These days I only want to contribute to worthy things that benefit the greater good. I’m a hippie.

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