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Artist Interview: Conversation with Spence Messih

Murray Art Museum Albury

Spence Messih is an artist living and working on Dharawal land. Through sculpture, glass and text their practice speaks broadly to sites of pressure, materiality, and language and more specifically about this in relation to their own experience.

This email exchange between Messih and Michael Moran, Murray Art Museum Albury Curator, discusses Messih’s major installation Minor truths, commissioned for the Museum’s Atrium. The conversation occurred during October 2022.

Q: Imagining this project, what do you hope an audience member feels as they approach the work in Minor Truths?

This is a great place to start. I think one way to stay open to a multiplicity of meaning, belief and experience (both of others and our own) is through curiosity. My initial thinking for the show circled around notions of truth. This led to thinking about how knowledge is formed and disseminated, and in what ways do stories, either fictional, factual or in-between, help us make sense of ourselves in the world? These things—truth, knowledge and story—are all plural. I'm interested in the ways that language, architectures, bodies, power and ideas of truth are all malleable, vulnerable, impermanent, perhaps contradictory and essentially unable to be contained.

Whether it be a curiosity based on materiality and perception, noticing the way light absorbs into the jarrah armatures, reflects off the glass and is refracted, at certain times of the day and from particular angles, onto the floor and walls of the Atrium. Maybe it is a curiosity of attempting to make sense of the forms, their scale, material or imagery. Or maybe it is experienced as a spatial problem—of how to navigate through the works to get to the other side of the building. I hope these initial curiosities of materiality, form and architecture can then move into a kind of commitment to knowing each of the works better, or in new ways. Maybe this commitment helps someone to notice textural undulations, the sites where air has become trapped in the glass or the way certain colours overlap and bleed into each other. Maybe multiple surface textures are uncovered, or repeated forms and imagery are recognised. This is a commitment of being with the forms, not necessarily of finding out or knowing any more about what the work is ‘about’—not so much a promise as it is an offer.

There are two other components of the show that I feel are important to introduce here: an audio composition made with Archie Barry that features the resonant sounds from a series of shells, and a text titled Keep the line/bleed this by Hil Malatino. Both components are paired together in the space and aim to introduce other narratives to sit alongside the glass works. Hil’s text presents an account of the life of Michal Dillon, possibly providing context for the surrounding works. The work is exploring reflection, refraction, absorption, and resonance—both in and through text, between people and through the materiality of glass and sound. Both text and audio are playing with time, working against linearity and oscillating between archival or scientific truths and fictions. These components, in company with the five glass works offer myself, and I hope others, opportunities for both curiosity and commitment, relation and recognition—a way to sit with it all.

 This is a commitment of being with the forms, not necessarily of finding out or knowing... what the work is ‘about’ — not so much a promise as it is an offer.

Spence Messih

Q: Perhaps we will circle back to the glass and jarrah works later, but let’s stay with the audio for the moment. The composition that is playing through the space is a recording of a conch shell. You’ve mentioned stories – fictional, factual or in-between – as ways that knowledge and truth is formed and shared. The sounds of conch shells are very much emblematic of this idea. When we hold conch shells to our ears we imagine many different possibilities of where that sound is coming from. We imagine the sound of the sea, or perhaps believe that we are listening to the reverberations of blood flowing through our own ears. Can you elaborate on the process of making this recording with Archie Barry and what it reveals about truth, knowledge and shared storytelling?

Recording the shells with Archie was a bit comical. We booked in to record the seven shells in an anechoic chamber but of course we didn’t hear anything—the space is designed to stop transmissions of sound. We held the shells to our chest to see if they would resonate with our heart beat and lungs but…nothing!

The chamber was at a university so we went down stairs and set up the shells in an empty lecture theatre, which now thinking back is much more of an appropriate space. The lecture theatre is a space for proposing ideas, or speaking truths, thinking and by design, listening. Over time, ideas of what the sound ‘is’ has oscillated between science and fiction, mythical and rational—and we really want to wind it right back to the fantastical when we bring a shell to our ear. As you said, these ideas have ranged from the sound of the sea and the sound of blood pumping through our heads to also being the voices of the dead and dying, messages from people across the seas and news of shipwrecks.

Even when you listen as an adult, you want to believe all these other stories rather than it being the reverberant noise of the space you’re in. I guess it's nice to vocalise and sit with this experience of doubt. After we recorded the shells Archie edited the tracks into a composition. On this they told me:

"The editing process was a really immersive philosophical zone for me... trimming, duplicating and fading the different shells together into a composition and thinking about the impossibility of extracting the room from the shell... how the architecture of each shell and the lecture theatre produced a unique tone... and how editing the sound is like customising a story or a body, extracting some parts (our voices saying “take one, lecture theatre, big to small shells”, bird calls, a phone message tone), amplifying the salient notes and building arcs of momentum and resolution. Some fiction and some physics!"

So what this all says about truth, knowledge and shared storytelling—that we need something to reverberate off and with! And maybe that depending on who we are (think in terms of lying to children about the sound coming out of a shell) we hold different truths or different tones of understanding

Q: Adjacent to this idea of tones of understanding is a consideration of mastery. Specifically, approaching mastery as opposed to attaining it. This plays out in multiple ways through the artwork. One is through collaboration. Including Archie, you’ve worked with artists, makers, writers and others in conceptualising this work and in realising it. This provides the work with multiple approaches and specialities, each informing your own, which is often situated in the realm of respectful novice. I’m thinking of the glass making process here. Can you speak a little on your processes of bringing others into the making of this project – how it informs the works and how it plays out in the final pieces?

Cultural worker and organiser Rosza Daniel Lang/Levitsky makes a call for identifying with rather than as. They say: ‘Identifying with not only those who wear the same label, but with the landscape that gives that label meaning’.[1]

I identify with this sense of identifying with. I feel it affords us our own difference and opacity and resists a normalised or one-dimensional ‘transness’ while also allowing space for critique, cynicism, humour and subversion as well as—and alongside—solidarity and recognition. It also acknowledges history and complexity and agency to make more spacious that identity, while also acknowledging a need for reciprocity and relation. This framing, which is also kind of a politics, allows us to think about multiplicity and opacity and to question how we can hold contradictory modes of embodiment, and histories, without seeking recognition from institutional powers or taking each other down—how we can invest in ourselves and in others, in this difference.
Mastery was something Michael Dillon spent a lot of time both trying to articulate and attain. I took as a starting point his 1957 collection 'Poems of Truth'. It's a complicated text of poetry and accompanying prose works where he says things like ‘Life must be lost that Life may be’ and ‘Frustrating thus the sacred Planner’ and the 20 poems have titles like ‘SONNET ON A SLEEPING WORLD’, ‘AT-ONEMENT’ and ‘THE IDEAL AND THE REAL’ (all written in capitals).

Early on in the process of developing the show I met with my friends Vinnie and Lu to talk about these texts. We quickly spiralled off to his broader life as a mechanic, WW2 fire-watcher, surgeon, naval officer, member of the British aristocracy and novice Buddhist monk. We spoke about who he was through all those experiences and who he becomes in relation to us, here now. We were taken by Dillon’s great sense of optimism and his personal search for mastery as a form of self-dissolution and expansion (rather than control) and how all these seemingly contradictory things were at play for him—very much invested in his body and being embodied, but also rejecting materialism and seeking the dissolution of ‘I’. He also had a commitment to reading widely and did bold things like publish his writing (some may think) prematurely—for example, he published books on Buddhism about 6 months after arriving in India and moving into a monastery. There is of course a lot more to say about this latter part of his life as a white man moving to a monastery in India in the late 50’s to seek truth. Hil speaks to some of these complexities in his text. Maybe Dillon was a respectful novice too. Inspired by his momentum and seemingly endless limits for learning I decided to try some new things out, and in the case of the audio re-do a work of mine from 10 years ago, this time collaborating with Archie.

I’ve been working with leadlight since 2018 and have come to feel a bit constrained by its preciseness. I still wanted to work with glass, but in more of an intuitive way. Which is funny because the works in Minor truths kind of look like leadlight works without the lead came, and it was very much a similar process of cutting the pieces of glass against a template. I then placed scrap pieces from the intentional cuts as layers on top. I worked on the glass works with the incredible glass artist Kirstie Rea at Canberra Glassworks. It was so fun having these conversations of mastery with her as the works were tested and made at scale—how humour, doubt, letting things be, material edges, and always new discoveries are part of these conversations too.

It was great to work with the process of kiln forming to see what it does differently to other ways of working with glass that I’m familiar with, as a way to understand material in new ways. Perhaps the glass works, when looked at by a kiln former, may not look finished, may be too big and unruly or not technical enough. In a similar way the beautiful jarrah armatures Celeste Stein has made feature little quirks where things didn’t go to plan, knots in the wood, or joins that are purely aesthetic—kind of also poking fun at ideas of mastery, support, containment and utility.

I often work with trans archives and have an engagement with my peers—through texts in amongst work, or through conversation. I do this to try to resist a singular commodifying or ahistorical meaning or truth—to create multiple entry points for people to connect with the works—and to retain a sense of openness for myself in relation to the works too. I think with trans things or work about trans things…which are often also conversations/work about power, embodiment, futurity, autonomy (or a lack of) (to name a few thing)…there is an impulse for the marketisation of identity (a kind of self-censorship or self-disciplinary hole that we can fall into, just as much as others try to neatly pop us away there too). But I still want to talk about these things—doubt, searching, recognition, privacy, bodies—because they are complicated and important…but I want to do so beyond a 101. I want to talk about identity without falling into ID politics. Identifying with helps me here.

Q: In 2019 your work was presented in a project I curated titled Certain realities. A key part of my conceptualisation of that show was an idea of multiplicity, with the certain of the title being a qualifier meaning both absolute and particular. I like the often imprecise qualities of language and I’m interested to know if this is something that echoes in the minor of Minor Truths.

For sure, I like the doubt that minor introduces to the following truth. It's also important, not contained within brackets or separated by more than a space. And it's a title, no less. Like the certain, it is something specific, but still not explicitly named, maybe a little bit annoying for its ambivalence towards these lofty and contested things like realities and truth. But maybe spacious for those who think otherwise?

This major new commission was made possible due to grant funding by the Australian Government's RISE fund. The RISE Fund was established to support the arts and entertainment sector to reactivate following COVID-19.