National Association of the Visual Arts (Australia)

Interview between Cassandra Parkinson (Artist Career Project Manager) and John Dahlsen

Artist profile John Dahlsen

NAVA: You’ve gone through several distinct phases in your career, creating a diverse body of work. What led you to change your approach?

JD: A fire destroyed my studio in 1983, taking seven years work with it. It shook my foundations as a person and brought me face to face with my mortality. It influenced my transition through a fairly diverse range of art practice and made the later transition to found objects easier, because I became less rigid as a person. That was also the point when I began to work with my own issues revolving around my fathers’ suicide, which took place three weeks before I was born. After many years of painting, I became more open to exploring new materials and technology, and to stretching myself beyond the realm of paintbrush and canvas. Being open to the benefit of ‘accidents’ in the art-making process has led to some of the most profound breakthroughs in my work. My creative medium changed to found object art after one such ‘accident’ in 1997. I was collecting driftwood on a remote Victorian coastline, planning to make furniture, when I stumbled on vast amounts of plastic ocean debris. A whole new palette of colour and shape revealed itself.

NAVA: To what degree does a commitment to the environment inform your process as an artist?

JD: In the mid 1990s, my visual language developed across broad areas through the found object work, which encompassed such disciplines as sculpture, assemblage wall works, public art, digital prints, installation art, painting and drawing. During that time my work took on strong environmental themes, offering a vast field of exploration. I see the term “environmental artist” as being very flexible. Because I live with the environment, I have no choice but to tackle environmental issues and represent my commitment to contemporary social and environmental concerns in my work. This approach has grown naturally for me through my work with found object visual language.

NAVA: What came first – the decision to live in a seaside area or the decision to focus on environmental art?

JD: I live in a seaside town called Byron Bay and the decision to live here came before the decision to focus on environmental art. As a result of living here, my creative medium shifted. The landscapes in my latest paintings are the same places where I have roamed and collected detritus and materials for my assemblages and other works. In the past I used recycled materials to convey the history and memory of a place and to comment on the human experience of place, beauty and environmental degradation. I have executed my new paintings with a certain sense of urgency, because I have become increasingly concerned about global warming. But with these works the environmental message is more subtle.

NAVA: How difficult has it been to strike a balance between your “local” life in a small town and that which engages with the rest of the world?

JD: I’ve found an easy balance with my local and broader commitments, which have unfolded naturally over the years. I began to represent myself from the late 1990s, coinciding with the growth of the internet and more convenient travel, so it was easier to maintain contacts from a distance. Living in a regional area has helped me reach out to the international market and creating an early internet presence worked wonders in gaining international exposure and demand. That made it easier to decide when to work with dealers and galleries and it had unexpected results, such as having my work become part of the syllabus in parts of Australia, the US and the UK. It’s also important to have a good balance in your life, to get plenty of exercise, have lots of harmony with nature, meditation and a quiet place to work. I live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. These things all benefit me as an artist living outside a major metropolitan centre.

NAVA: Ultimately, what do you hope viewers get from the work you’re producing?

JD: I hope viewers get a sense of oneness with everything from the work I’m producing. Making this art is a way of sharing my messages about the need to care for our environment and about the aesthetic experience of appreciating artworks. I believe humanity is at a critical point, with the planet in a fragile ecological state and global warming hastening major changes. I hope people enjoy my work at many levels and can identify with each piece in various ways. I also hope the viewing public can embrace messages in other artists’ work, particularly when they express strong environmental and social statements intelligently and with a high degree of aesthetic complexity.

Educated at the Victorian College of the Arts and the Melbourne College of Advanced Education, John Dahlsen is a contemporary environmental artist. He exhibits regularly in Australian capital cities, regional Australia, and internationally. He has won many grants and art prizes including the Wynne Prize (2000), second prize winner in “The Signature Of Sydney Prize” (2006) and a prestigious award for mixed media/new media at the Florence Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2003. In 2004 he represented Australia at the Athens Olympics of Visual Arts ‘Artiade’ Exhibition. John is represented by major public and private collections in Australia, Europe, the USA and Japan.