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Continuing our Artist Interview series in 2015, Juliette Furio talks to installation artist Hannah Toohey about her work – past, present and future…
As I sit at an outdoor table in late November, opposite me with an empty coffee-cup to match my own, is Hannah Toohey, installation artist and one of NAS’ brightest up-and-coming graduates.
She is all smiles, black hair escaping from a big grey hat as we chat past, present and future.
JLF: If you were to describe your artistic style in 10 words or less, including method and material, what would it be?
HT: I think I can distill it to two; sweatshop work! It’s unskilled and there’s a lot of it, all the time.
JLF: Unskilled, do you really think that?
HT: They are skills that are not recognised as much as they should be. Like embroidery, I get called ‘craft’. That’s a good one actually; craft, aesthetic and sweatshop are probably the three that get thrown at me most. I love detailed work. I view it as a gift; a lot of it you can’t sell because it’s too big, so it’s there to be enjoyed and experienced. I go to great lengths to make sure you don’t notice how it’s installed.
JLF: How many hours goes into making the entirety of these works?
HT: I don’t think I’ve made anything that was less than 200 hours in a while, and then to install is another eight. That annoys me about a lot of art – the craftsmanship is gone. I care about doing something well. For the Jellyfish Swarm it took me ages to track down the right bamboo knitting needles, to stick them on and get them perfectly parallel and perpendicular to the wall. It had to be perfect! You don’t notice it and that’s what is perfect about it.
JLF: That leads me onto a question about your audience; whom exactly do you create for? Is it the general public, or do you create for a specific person at any one time?
HT: I’ve struggled with this one so much this year – I’ve been told my work is too accessible. This is a fantastic irony of art school! ‘Beautiful’ got chapped around as if it were a criticism. Art is just what I really like to do, and it’s self-indulgent. If I can make work that a broad range of people enjoy on different levels, I think that’s fantastic and that’s where I ended .
JLF: Have you had any memorable moments with your audience?
HT: I’ve met a lot of people because I’ve taken a cast of their nose or a picture of their face . I got a massive kick out of those pieces because they were supposed to be exploring isolation; the individual getting lost amongst so many – but then people would pick each other out talk to each other. I have a little bit of a problem though; as I work in multiples, some of them get nicked! I had the Skuttle piece at Gaffa as part of a group show and I came back with 6 less. I don’t get upset about it because whoever stole them obviously wanted to covet it – these little guys look so animated! I like to think they scuttled off on their own accord.
JLF: From the fact that you work in series, what’s your angle on mass production?
HT: I’m interested in it, sickened by it; I struggle with it. Where I grew up, brands and consumerism is everything. I have to be cynical or I will fall victim. I enjoy aesthetics, maybe too much. I would love to live a curated life.
JLF: Do you think being seduced by material goods is necessarily a bad thing?
HT: Do you know how you just constantly want to be better? I’m interested in why I like clothing – and why my choices are almost identical. I have a certain uniform and that’s the thing; I’m so closely linked to what I look like that if I put something else on, I lose myself. That’s a problem. I have been looking at Marx; how an item removed from the labourer takes on a life of its own, and then we attribute value to it. I wrote it on my window for my suburban neighbours as much as myself.
JLF: What makes up your heritage?
HT: My mother is Austrian and my dad was born in Hong Kong. I’ve had a very Asian upbringing. We have a bowl with oranges and joss sticks that is an offering to the gods, Chinese New year is a huge deal and we almost exclusively eat Chinese! I don’t look Chinese at all but I’m really comfortable with that culture; certain things are sacred, other things are not. I’m a mixed bag of everything, so I just say I’m Australian. I’ve lived here all my life. There is no ‘what is Australian’ anymore.
JLF: A question I would definitely like to ask you, in terms of the beginning to now, is whether there was a particular trigger that lead you to take art seriously? Have there been unexpected developments?
HT: Up until year 10 I thought I would just play bass, forever. I started drawing a lot – stupid fan art of Pink Floyd, etcetera, and figured out that I had a knack for it. Soon, what I was reading would trigger an artwork in this really natural flow. In year 12 I had the opportunity to make a major work. I did the bare minimum of required classes and that gave me a lot of free time to make in the art rooms. I could just work for hours straight, not eating, and love it! I cruised through the first two years of art school, thinking that it wasn’t really for me after all. I used to be so good in high school; here they just break you down. But then in second year – this was a trigger that made me take it very seriously – I won a prize for printmaking. Thing is, I didn’t try. What would happen if I did? So for third year I decided that even if I were to never make art again, I would put everything into it. You have a year to just make art, and that’s a gift. From that moment on I worked like a demon to make my ideas happen – and it would just spark off more of them! Third year came to an end and I got the Parker prize as well as the Saatchi&Saatchi prize that lead me to do Honours and it just hasn’t stopped since. I’ve been trying really hard and doing really well, now I can’t picture doing anything else. There’s almost a fear – people say, ‘I don’t know what I want to do’ – it’s even worse to know what you want to do and have it denied you. So now, I’m trying to network and get myself out there. Let’s do this!
JLF: Do you have any shows coming up?
HT: Yes! From December 7th until January 24th my work is in M. Contemporary in Woolhara, upstairs.
JLF: Is there anything you want people to know of you as an artist, or just as a person? When people think of Hannah, is there something you wish could come across instantly?
HT: No, because I don’t know who I am. Anything that I am trying to put forward, I’m still unsure of it. I want to be a good person. That’s it really. I would like people to know that I’m actually really nice! It’s important to talk to a person to get to know them; it’s the only way it’s going to happen. So, if you want to talk to me – talk to me. I do like personal space, but if you want to have an intelligent conversation, I’m all for that.
Juliette’s posts are also available at her personal blog.