Dahlsen J. (2000) Thong Totems Wynne Prize 2000

Interview 26th April 2018.

CM: What were the most important events in your life that made you choose a career as an artist?
JD: To start off like that, I am thrown right into considering were there major events? I think there were a series of things coming together that caused me to reflect. My father liked to take charcoal from the fire and sketch. When I was young, an art teacher who saw in me a sensitivity and talent and encouraged me. Becoming aware of my father’s suicide at the age of twelve. I became the go between in a blended family, being close to my younger brother and sister and my older siblings. Reflecting on my secondary school years when I was sent to an all-boys boarding school, I didn’t want to be a doctor and I didn’t want to be a lawyer or a politician and I didn’t want to be a sport star, so all those things that everyone was gunning for, I wasn’t interested in. I loved swimming and I loved diving, playing cricket and playing football and things like that, but I didn’t have the drive to become an AFL player or an Australian cricket player. I didn’t have the drive of my older brother who wanted to play cricket for Australia, but he broke down just after starting Melbourne University because of being abused in the Catholic school system.
CM: Who would you say had the biggest influence on you as a young artist?
JD: There was this guy call Tyra Hutchins, an art teacher at Xavier. I really went in to my own cocoon around this time and there was a bit of bullying and all sorts of things going on, and I copped a bit even though I was a popular guy. Saying the wrong things to the wrong people had me excluded and that sent me into my own artistic side. The drama teacher gave me his office as a studio and Hutchins encouraged me and had a strong impact on my work ethic in my art classes and by accident I developed my own distinctive style. At the Victorian College of the Arts I was privileged to interact with artists that had an important part in shaping Australian contemporary art: Fred Williams, Roger Kemp and Noel Counihan, Gareth Sansom, Paul Partos and others.
CM: How did you find out about the Victorian College of the Arts?
JD: In 1976, my last year at secondary school, I went to view a Surrealist exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. I walked into the coffee shop and saw a beautiful girl sitting at a table and I just took a risk and sat with her. She helped to draw me out of myself. Barbara had lost her boyfriend two years previously in a hang gliding accident and she was still a bit wounded. She was a very, very creative individual, particularly with everything that came out of her mouth. For example, I asked her what she was doing there, and she said she was studying at the “Gumery school” “I said what do you mean the Gumery school?” Barbara said, “I mean the Art Gallery school which is right in here”. Which was the beginning of the Victorian college of the Arts and had been for two years. She asked me what I was doing, and I said I was finishing at secondary school and I had just done a series of Surrealist art works. She said why don’t you apply for the College of the Arts and encouraged me to get an application form. About three weeks later I was in front of some of the most celebrated painters in the country. A couple of weeks after that I was offered a position at the Victorian College of the Arts.
CM: Were you aware of how exclusive The Victorian College of the Arts was at that stage?
JD: To go for it and get in was such a blast. It was the most exclusive place in the country and I think it still is. There were one thousand four hundred applicants and twenty-six people got in.
It was a very creative period for me at that time and I got to know myself as a young man and artist. It was nurturing and rich and I was studying alongside people like Archibald winner Lewis Miller and different people like this and we just had a ball.
CM: What in your background made you pick up the plastics?
JD: That was entirely accidental, I was collecting driftwood from very remote beaches in East Gippsland to make furniture for our new home in Byron Bay and I stumbled across huge amounts of plastic debris washed up on the beach and felt compelled to collect it, intending to take it to the local dump for recycling. The more plastic I collected the more intrigued I became by this stuff and shipped sixty to eighty jumbo garbage bags of it back to Byron Bay and left it on the side of the studio while I made the driftwood furniture. Then I poured it all out onto the floor, the colours, the forms amazed me. I was on fire totally on fire just with the possibilities of what I had discovered.
CM: I have read “Kurt Schwitters in the 1920s and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1960’s” were forerunners for your style of art (Spike, n.d.). How do you feel about this statement?
JD: I would have probably included people like Amaan and English sculptor Tony Cragg. I don’t know whether it was good or bad when I stumbled across these other artists working with plastics. I thought I was the only person ever to consider the idea of working with it. I had the belief that if I was to research and go into looking at other artists then I would be really influenced by them and I didn’t want that. I put blinkers on for the first few years until I had really explored several areas where it was taking me. It was to lead me into sculpture, installation, prints, and assemblage wall works.
CM: Tell me about your totem works.
JD: I came first with the definition of the totem, which was the “symbol of the clan”. I thought how appropriate this was, it is a symbol of our clan, it is also the symbol of the intention of the contemporary human kind to want to make something beautiful out of something ugly.
CM: What are your favourite accomplishments?
JD: Winning the prestigious Wynne prize at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000 and then being selected as a finalist in 2003 and again in 2004. In 2006 I was a finalist in the Sulman Award at the Art Gallery of NSW. In December 2006 I was 2nd prize-winner in Australia’s richest prize: “The Signature of Sydney Art Prize”.
CM: What has been the major obstacle in your career?
JD: I think introducing this form of art into the Australian contemporary art scene. A lot of people didn’t know how to take it. I got a lot of support from a lot of people. Stuart Purves from Australian Galleries was all over it. He really encouraged me to dip my frames in gold to represent mundane trash coming into high art.
CM: Based on your personal experience what advice would you give an emerging artist?
JD: I say to students again and again, learn to ride the energy waves. Most artists and students when they are considering careers as artist must learn to ride the energy waves. You might win a prize or get a grant, but the energy waves will eventually flat line.