Matthew Harding: Thinking Hands
INTERVIEW by Steve Proposch
I took an instant liking to Matthew Harding. Meeting for the first time at his workshop in Trentham, he struck me immediately as the kind of guy I’d enjoy chatting to over Friday frothies at the bonfire-side. We’d drink proper beer like Carlsberg or a good hard cider, and talk about cutting firewood, growing veggies, protoscience and Dostoyevsky.
Harding shows me a pitch he has prepared for a new approach to Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport and I am stunned at the scale and daring in his design – a rolling, writhing column of stainless steel tubing, twisted along the roadside, leaping high to arc across a proposed bike track, and lit for night time in blues and pinks and greens – which he tells me was originally done in mostly orange hues, until the client intervened. “I was thinking ‘why not’? We had the Yellow Peril, this could be the Orange Twisty!” he laughs. ”But they were very definite: no orange.”
Harding has been working with public sculpture since the mid-80s and his works adorn public spaces far and wide, from the 70th floor lobby of the Four Seasons Tower in Guangzhou, China (Neo 2011) to the busy corner of Burke and Elizabeth Streets in Melbourne (Mercury Rising 2009), or a lonely outpost of the Pilbara (Chrysalis 2010). The front entrance of MONA is also one of Matthew’s (sculptural entry façade 2011) and his works are fairly dotted around Canberra, where he lived and worked for a decade. His list of awards is equally prodigious, including the McClelland National Sculpture Survey and Award twice (2007, 2010), the National Sculpture Prize (NGV 2003), the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award four times (2003, 2004, 2006, 2008), and Sculpture by the Sea six times (1999, 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011).
Harding uses a range of materials and forms in his work but has a consistently organic approach to his conceptualisation that springs largely from a background in house and ship building that led to his interest in wood carving and the concept of ‘thinking hands’, which for him: “opened a path to understanding the world through problem solving, aesthetic decisions and finding ways to shape meaning from the materials at hand”.
Your work borrows from nature, what is the most inspiring landscape for you?
Matthew Harding: I think it is forest, where there is some sort of chiselled character to the landscape, through human intervention, or just nature’s processes. I’m most attracted to that idea of decay and regeneration. I like fire scarification … the idea of the phoenix rising from the ashes, whether as a metaphor for the human condition, or the regeneration of the environment. There’s always a balance between growth and decay.
Well the Australian bush especially is sort of built to burn …
MH: Obviously, seedpods feature a lot in my work. I like the way they represent that latent quiescence, that encapsulation of life. And the Australian landscape often requires the condition of fire, that idea of release …
You work with a variety of materials … some traditional such as stone and steel, and some more unusual such as monofilament …?
MH: That’s a fancy word for fishing line (laughs). I come from a mariner background, and there are fishermen in my family as well. My father used to build boats, which I think has led to a lot of the curvilinear aspects in my work. It’s funny but I often think about my great, great grandfather who captained ships, and I think how we seem to have these genetic dispositions to certain things, like the ocean, and even the way we think of things, even forms, shapes. And in saying that I think theres a characteristic of fluidity and vortices, and those things you would associate with water, often comes through in my own work.
It’s interesting how the influence of work, which we think of as primarily external, through successive generations can become internalised.
MH: Even down to the way I run my workshop now. I’ve had to upscale a bit over the last couple of years and – where I used to do everything myself – I’ve now got a few people helping out, some skilled friends and labourers, but still all the work is made here, and I often think it feels like being the captain of my own very small boat (laughs). Mutiny all around (laughs).
A small boat perhaps but making big things …
MH: Yeah, we’re building Arks here, trying to save ourselves. … I love working across media. Since moving to Melbourne I’ve been pigeonholed a bit with this type of lineal, stainless steel structure, but I’ll take any opportunity to push other materials, which are more my background in a way. I’m really a carver at heart. That’s been my forte but it’s never really been taken to full flight.
Is it about being pigeonholed do you think, or rather a recognisable style that’s developed, where people can tell from a mile off – that’s a Matthew Harding … is that a good thing?
MH: Yeah, I think that’s a good thing actually. I just never wanted to be one-dimensional. So it’s having that as a persona, but then having the undercurrent of what we actually are. We are all multi-dimensional, other than what we’re generally perceived as by the community, or often by even our loved ones on occasion (laughs).
Tell us a bit about working on public sculpture projects, the difficulties and compromises …
MH: Look there are compromises, but it’s mainly the challenge of problem solving. I actually enjoy the challenge of a brief. It’s almost exponentially more difficult making work that doesn’t have to respond to those things such as public liability concerns, heat, glare, magnets, longevity, and on and on and on. There’s a whole list of things. I find that really challenging and it sort of narrows the focus. It’s a bit like a form of concentration, and I think I need that because I have a kind of lateral brain that thinks too broadly, too abstractedly, taking me in too many directions. So I think a brief is something that reins me in and I almost need it. Perhaps that’s why … I mean I have a lot of ideas for exhibitions, but when somebody says ‘why don’t you have a solo exhibition’, it’s just like a cascade of … a cumulus of neurones just … my brain turns into a neural soup of ideas.
Can you talk a bit about your collaborative processes?
MH: I don’t get to collaborate as much as I’d like. I’m particularly into cross-cultural collaboration, particularly with the indigenous cultures from other countries, traditional skills, tradesmen or artisans. What appeals to me about that is the idea that skills are like bridges and are almost non-verbal. Trades can bridge cultural barriers and if you think of the way that skills are handed down culturally, by people within the culture – cooking, sewing, it’s about observation and sharing, and that’s a really important part of culture that is being undermined, or morphed away from its traditional associations. And I think it’s still a really valid point of inter-generational connection. There’s something lost when we’re not handing down these non-verbal things so much.
Travel – you produce much of your work from this studio in Trentham but you have worked in other places – how does that broaden your experience?
MH: One great thing about the work I’ve been doing over the past decade is that it is quite nationally based, so I get to travel, both to fabricate and install, there at the coalface all the way through, to sign off on the installation. Yeah it’s a default way of keeping open to experience and stepping outside of your comfort zone. I think artists and creatives by nature are people who draw associations between all aspects of their environments – people, places, objects, things, events. We draw metaphors and associations or inspiration from all around us, so obviously travel is a great flux for creativity.
You came here from ACT, where you had made quite an impression on the public sculpture landscape …
MH: Yeah, before I got run out of the place (laughs). No, not quite. ACT is not a bland as people perceive. There’s a REALLY strong arts community. There’s two sides to the coin. All communities have an undercurrent of creatives. It was greet to be a part of all that, the educational side of art there was excellent and just the scale of the community, the fact that you can know people, and be networked. It’s sort of the optimum scale, isn’t it. Maybe something like that happened in ancient Greece, where there was not too many people to bump heads, but not too few either.
Do you think that contact with … sort of … leadership if you want to call it that, has helped progress your career?
MH: Well … no. I’m originally from Newcastle and sort of grew up in a very working class situation. I’m a carpenter by trade, and it was all about getting a trade in those days. I left school at fifteen to get a trade and I think that puts you in that school of hard knocks, where your driven … in my case not driven to succeed, but driven towards expression. I can’t turn it off. I can’t sleep, can’t stop. It’s your blessing and your curse, your vice and your virtue, your nemesis and your friend. It’s inescapable.
Matthew Harding is opening his Trentham (VIC) studio to the public for the Daylesford & Macedon Ranges Open Studio (DMROS) weekends, along with 26 other artists, 31 October – 1 November, 7 – 8 November, & 14 – 15 November 2015 – dmropenstudios.com.au