Jessie English: I guess the question I always want to ask you is where the prepossession with the material of coal slag began. Because as long as I've known you, that is a material that has featured prominently in many of your installations and work in general.
David Connolly: If you look at the original backstory is such a childhood memory coming from Wollongong from a place called Mt Keira, Wollongong is a city between the mountains and the sea, about two and a half miles and it's steel city.
JE: Interesting, over time your work has always been painted with some discussion of territories and colonialism and the kind of extraction of natural resources by an external country or an external force on a particular territory and I wonder- why?
DC: I'm interested in natural resources being extracted and now they’re coming from different parts of the world, particularly, Coal. When coal is processed for electricity coal slag is the derivative after the process. While coal is a natural material it turns into a synthetic and then it gets used for various different areas of industry primarily. So I'm interested in the material going from a natural to synthetic and where the resources come from. It does get into a little bit of the Colonialesque discussion in a sense that we're still doing the same things we've been doing for centuries but now we're using other resources and from other countries, that are cheaper to process.
JE: Was the coal being mined in Mt Keira for Australian for use within the country or did you know at the time where it was being shipped too?
DC: Yeah when I first started using coal slag in 2009 the Port Kembla Steelworks closed or the majority of it did. So from my personal histories, you walked out my driveway and there was coal in the mountain.
Coming from Australia, you would drive through coastal areas and the mountains and you’d see coal being used to hold up the mountain, I literally saw it everyday day of my childhood as I walked out of my driveway, you'd see these giant chunks of coal and then slowly, in the eighties, jobs went overseas. My father used to paint the steelworks and I remember when he lost his job, that was the first change socioeconomically that I was aware of.
JE: Interesting that the current panels like so much of your work deal with the idea of white western businesses, colonization of commodities in smaller countries, which is interesting to me because I do also know there's a particular fascination in China as a huge consumer of the natural commodity. I wonder where that connection is and then once you answer that we'll get to the new work.
DC: So the connection between China, my past, coal, socioeconomic power the white businessman
JE: Yes, Colonization and all that.
DC: I think it's all intertwined; it's really more about a shift, a tonal shift. I don't think it's necessarily addressing the work of the white person or the white business person, I think it's just the shift in world economics that the power is gone from the western style of business to the east, so I think that there is a seductive quality about natural resources that you don't see.
I think it's this power shift between China and traditional western economics because I was there for a little while and this is the new economy and China is in its modernist period much like the US in the 1950's.
JE: Their industrialization boom.
DC: This is very much modernity at work.
JE: Now the new panels at first glance feel like aerial images of some kind of territory but a fairly raw territory and I'm not sure that was your intention when you began?
DC: I think one of the things I wanted to achieve was to be less specific about the place while still using some of the same materials, the same themes that are not as up front. You are correct in that I was interested in aerial photography, landscape photography. I think for me there this fascination about flying over the landscape. So the work was based off Southern California aerial photographs, as a start, and then doing some research into what mining has or is being done in those areas and low and behold literally by chance it was coal again.
JE: So again it's following you around.
DC: Yeah. And it's something that I'm definitely interested in. I think particularly with this work being 4ft x8ft panels used as building materials, which is something else to consider, but it's not the primary role of it. The idea that the panels are seductive yet repelling once you actually know what the material is it gives it a different meaning. So at the initial glance, they have something.
DC: yeah, very seductive things and then when you find out what material is coal, you go oh!
JE: Which these days are a politically hot point in America. It has always been an environmental bugbear for environmentalist and climate change affirmers that coal is the devil and a big problem.
DC: Yeah and it is and it's not, because we're still seduced by it.
JE: It still pays for the lives of millions of workers involved in the industry.
DC: So it gets into some political territory just by your own experience viewing the work.
JE: Quite apart from that erasing all of the social and environmental and economic implications. Coal is millions of years old, compressed organic matter. Used to be trees that used to be animals used be whatever, which is romantic and kind of bizarre.
DC: Right. We don't see it. I mean it's taken out of context.JE: Because now it's been downgraded to a commoditized artwork.
DC: Right. Which on the commodification front, the materials were bought on Amazon. That's kind the funny part of it.
JE: (laughing) Ha!
DC: They are all compounded into dust and particles and that's what these sculptures, I mean they're not paintings other than in the sense that they are two-dimensional. There is physicality to them as well as fragility, as well. Again it plays on this idea of seductive yet, being repealed, strong yet weak, is that about the economics of what's happening? Or is that just the material? Or both?
JE: Well that's kind of why I started with a question about the primary material, as you and I have spoken about the boringness of the academic art world’s complete obsession with underlying intent and being able to corroborate your influences and all that, and I'm more interested as you are in thinking about intuition, whether there is any particular material calling you to work with it then leave it at that. The work becomes an object in the world that then everybody else gets to think and talk about it.
DC: I think all materials have meaning and there's language within it, particularly with this material, as it's open. It's open to some forms of questions and that's all I'm asking of the work is a question. I don't have an answer on what we should do with our environmental concerns and our idea that we're still holding on to the raw material, but it is an idea of reverse engineering on how you start your work.
So maybe it is material you like or you want to work with that material and then go from there. Maybe it's an article I read or usually, someone going “David you should read this” has sent it. The idea of intuitive creativity is something I'm a very firm believer of and start with that and see where so we go.
JE: Are you drawing the line between creativity and academia?
DC: No, Academia has its place. That type of art can be, really interesting and exciting. For me, I have difficulty with “where is my entry point?”, how am I going to be immersed into this work and a lot of the times there's not a lot of clues or points of recognition for how I get into the work.
JE: Cerebral is the material.
DC: It's very much that work of that ilk can exclusive, instead of inclusive and I'm not interested in making that type of work. Often artists attach other people’s writings to their work and often it can be problematic.
DC: I think they use theories and author’s writings to support their work and I often see a disconnect in that relationship.
JE: A justification kind of maybe.
DC: Yeah that's kind of a different little bit of a different discussion but yeah that's true and then there are other artists I really admire that can do it both ways. I'm not a material based artist; I'm more project-by-project.
JE: But, the processes and the materials come into play because when you first started routing the 4 x 8 boards, it reminded me of your drill drawings from years ago when you put a pencil in a drill and let it do its thing and they came out kind of like bizarre territory and topographically maps.
DC: Yeah that's right and my palette is pretty limited the lack of color is a choice that I make.
JE: Is it a choice? That’s the thing I'm getting at I guess. I'm not sure those things are a choice, something invites itself in and that's there's an aspect of intuitive and almost absent making which is completely in everyone's practice whether they admit it or not and that's really interesting to me, that coal keeps coming up. It came from your childhood. I'm sure you didn't think of it consciously the first time you used it.
DC: I mean I kind of did know a little bit. In all honesty, I'm not the only person who uses these materials, other people have. One of the reasons why I use the material, that it can allow you to explore different ways to use it post originally thought. This is what I'm trying to speak about. I think to try to map everything out to be from point A to Point B to point C is limiting your audience. I have a different history you have a different history.
There are lots of people in the world that have different histories. You don't have to cater to everyone but the structures need to be in place especially if I'm only asking a question and I'm going to close it off. I don't think that can be successful.
JE: You said that earlier and I wanted to come back to that. When you say you're asking a question what question are you asking? Is it specific or is it several questions?
DC: For this particular work, I think it's a question of the role of raw materials from a natural to synthetic in positions of their origin where they end up. And what's our role in it?
JE: What’s the visibility?
DC: I think the role is that we are implicit in the process and as a society, we are not doing that much about it. That's the way I look at it.
JE: When you say things like that it makes me think you're on the side of Trump bringing back the coal industry.
DC: No not at all. I think the discussion within politics here in the states, is that it's more of a mourning of a part of history that's not going to come back. It's not! And that's what was sold to the people that produce it. We're going to bring this back. Its sailed, it's gone. The materials for this work, the coal and iron come from different parts of the world.
JE: Now you are using red iron oxide.
DC: Yeah, again that iron oxide from the earth. So again it's gone from the natural material to a synthetic. Now it is much more delicate as it's only in a powder form.
JE: Is it a byproduct of something as well?
DC: When iron is converted from a natural it becomes a synthetic.
JE: What is the title of the works. I have never known.
DC: I don't have a title yet. I'm thinking of "Untitled" I know it's boring but I think it will focus a little more on the material. I'm not putting a specific place on it. The other one is “Ashes of Flags.”
JE: Just to close out; knowing that there was some consideration of China’s role and colonization of global materials, it’s a funny coincidence that the work is headed back to China... sending more natural materials from around the world back into the Chinese market. Do you want to comment on that?
DC: That hasn't been lost on me in the fact that the coal from West Virginia, parts of the coal slag is from Pennsylvania and then parts of it are from Venezuela and Brazil and their all going to China and that China is the largest importer of natural resources in the world. And so yeah this work is then shown in the Chinese gallery in Beijing.
JE: Thanks David for talking with Standard Practice Gallery and congratulations on the work.
DC: Thanks, Jess.