John Dahlsen

Katie Georgiadis (student) – Interview Questions with John Dahlsen May 2008

– What made you switch your media from painting to found objects?

The fire incident – although a major occurrence at the time in 1983, didn’t directly affect my transition to working with found objects, as that period began in my work in the mid nineties. It did though, rock my very foundations as a person and bought me face to face with my mortality, which explained for me my immediate openness to the spiritual path, which had been hindered up until that point. I suppose it made the transition to be easier, when it did happen in the mid nineties that I began to work with found objects, as I became less rigid as a person on hindsight. Looking at these issues helped to transform me significantly as a person and I’m sure helped me to become more open and able to make the required jumps when necessary throughout my life. I found that although I saw this as completely new work at the time, as I hadn’t seen this kind of work before, I had no doubt that it would find it’s place with both the art world and my collector base. I was simply so excited with discovering this new visual language completely by accident and with no influence by other artists before me. In fact I was surprised how quickly collectors embraced the work. I also got a leg up by winning the coveted “Wynne Prize” at the Art Gallery of NSW here in Australia, with the “Thong Totems in 2000.

– What process do you go through to create your found object art?

Well, firstly, I think it important to say that one of the most important aspects in the creative process is the process itself. After many years of painting, I found myself becoming more courageous, and open, to the exploration of new materials and technology, therefore able to stretch myself beyond the realms of paintbrush and canvas. Aside from conscious exploration of new materials and technology I have found that being alert and open to the benefit of ‘accidents’ occurring in my art-making processes have lead to some of the most profound breakthroughs in my work.

My creative medium changed to found art as a result of one such ‘accident’ in 1997. I was collecting driftwood, on a remote Victorian Coastline, with the intention of making furniture and stumbled upon vast amounts of plastic ocean debris. A whole new palette of colour and shape revealing itself to me immediately affected me; I had never seen such hues and forms before. Since then, I have scoured Australian beaches for found objects, which I bring back to my studio to sift, sort, and colour-code for my assemblages, sculptures and installations. As I work with them in my studio I become even more fascinated by the way they have been modified and weathered by the ocean and nature’s elements. My challenge as an artist is to take these found objects, which might on first meeting have no apparent dialogue, and to work with them until they speak and tell their story.

Over the past 25 years I have tried to maintain a pure commitment to contemporary art practice; I have never looked for a safe place to rest. What happens with my art generally runs parallel to my life, meaning that I learn from my art and apply some of these insights to my life and vice versa. When I sense that I am becoming too comfortable in what I am doing I will consciously move on to something new. For example, challenges in my personal life keep me on my toes and help me to extend myself more as an artist. This is how my work is in a constant state of evolution. I see this evolution largely an alchemical one. It is the process of nature’s elements redefining the man-made that creates the initial alchemy, taking the objects beyond the mundane. The second step is achieved through the transportation of these plastics to my studio and the process of sorting and assembling. A further and more vital alchemy takes place as I assemble them. Through using intuition, and personal aesthetic judgments, the objects start to tell their story and become transformed into artworks.

Most importantly, for me, the assembled objects bring to life my commitment as an artist to express social, spiritual and environmental concerns. Comments are regularly made to me about people’s consciousness, while walking the beach, being awakened after seeing my found plastic object artworks. With this in mind, I trust leaving the final alchemy of the work to the viewer with the strong possibility they experience deep perceptual shifts as they interact with my art. While my art practice changes, and evolves, my underlying commitment, as an artist has never wavered. I have always been motivated by a professional duty to be aware of and express current social, spiritual and environmental concerns through my art practice. I get on this razors edge line between fulfilment and frustration, knowing that I am able to only ever provide through my creativity a glimpse of the greatness that is life – a fragment of what is essentially the ineffable.

– What concerns are you trying to raise through your found object art? What would you like people to take away from it?

I have a self-held commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns. This has grown naturally for me as an artist in my development of working with this found object visual language and is supplemented in parallel, with myself as a person having a natural response to world wide ever growing concerns about all aspects of the environment, which now includes the ever pressing need to address global warming and its impact on the environment. I see my latest paintings as being a reflection of these continued concerns. The landscapes featured in my new paintings are the very same places I have roamed over the years and collected detritus and materials for my assemblages and other works.

In the past I have used recycled materials to convey the history and memory of a place, to comment on the human experience of place, beauty and degradation of the environment. In this new series I am emphasising the changing weather patterns witnessed in recent years, through my own depictions of storm activity and beach erosion along the North Coast region in Australia where I live. These works are landscape paintings with a contemporary twist – a sense of foreboding of what is to come, and rather than aspiring to be natural they are highly produced, stylised and have a flat, artificial and detached look, a kind of Apocalyptic Realism with an element of abstraction. They are executed with a certain sense of urgency seen in my handling of paint, due to my ever growing concerns about global warming and its apparent impact on the environment.

I think it’s great that many artists are now highlighting strong environmental issues in their work such as climate change. I believe we need all the help we can get at the moment and if art can help shift peoples awareness in a positive direction, then great. In all honesty, I see the real need for massive social transformations. They are essential, to adequately deal with such crises as the depletion of fossil fuels and climate change. I hope that my own work can be a timely reminder to us about climate change and of the limited supply of petroleum based materials, which is a direct result of our current collective global mass consumerism. In the same way, I hope that the viewing public also embraces the messages, which other sincere artists are conveying with their work particularly when they are expressing strong environmental statements intelligently and with a high degree of aesthetic complexity.

– Do you feel your found object art is making a difference to the environment? How? Do you have any examples of this?

I see that by making this art, it is a way of sharing my messages for the need to care for our environment with a broad audience. I feel that even if just a fraction of the viewing audience were to experience a shift in their awareness and consciousness about the environment and art, through being exposed to this artwork then it would be worth it. This stems from the fact that I believe presently humanity is at a critical point in time, with our planet currently existing in a fragile ecological state, with global warming hastening unheard of changes, all amplifying the fact that we need all the help we can get. This is my way of making a difference, and at the same time I’m sharing a positive message about beauty that can be gained from the aesthetic experience of appreciating art, as well as giving examples of how we can recycle and reuse in creative ways.

These artworks exemplify my commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns. By presenting this art to the public, it will hopefully have people thinking about the deeper meaning of the work, in particular the environmental issues we currently face. I hope these works will act as a constant reminder to people about awareness. I would like them to find enjoyment of the work on many levels and find themselves becoming identified in various ways with each of the artworks they see. I also look forward to the possible discussion that these works may generate. I say these things as being possibilities, bearing in mind as well that comments are regularly made to me about people’s consciousness, while walking the beach, being awakened after seeing my found plastic object artworks, similarly with seeing my recycled plastic bag series, people have marvelled at the creative way I am presenting the recycling theme in an aesthetic way, with this in mind, I have trusted leaving the final alchemy of the work to the viewer, with the possibility they may experience deep perceptual shifts and have a positive aesthetic experience as they interact with my art.

– Where do you see your art heading in the future?

I am open to surprises and they just keep coming. Teaching others about the importance of the environment, through delivering more lectures about my art in public speaking engagements does interest me, particularly as you can see from my web site, I have been a hugely prolific artist over the years and I have lots to lecture about with heaps of visuals. I think this will go hand in hand with creating new work, as I’m also really enjoying the possibilities I see in my re-entry into painting. This excites me to no end at the moment.