Interview with
Damian Smith

(Damian Smith has an exhibition of new works in February 1999 at the Fitzroy Gallery, Fitzroy Street. Melbourne)

Where were you born and when?
"I was born in Australia, in Melbourne in 1968"
What art school did you attend if any?
"TOP which is a Foundation Year at Victoria College and then I did my degree in painting and printmaking at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) and then I studied two years of art history at the University of Melbourne"
When did you first come to England?
"I left Australia at the end of 1994, came to England, didn't like it, travelled, came back because I could work like most Australians on a two year work visa and I arrived in Martello Street shortly after that in 1995."
Why did you move here?
"A friend told me that there was a studio for rent in Martello Street at MT studios."
Were you helped by an organisation?
"No, I wasn't"
And how did you fit into the local area?
"I would say that I didn't like everybody else"
Did you feel then that you were part of an artistic community?
"Yes, definately"
Can you remember the train of events that led up to you living in the East End, the reasons, the impetus that started your move?
"I left Australia, I knew one person in London, I went to see her, her boyfriend said to me that there was a studio going in Martello Street and thats pretty much how I got it."
Do you exhibit work in the East End?
"The Whitechapel Open, at MT Studios and The Hidden Art of Hackney. I did a show that Jane Clark set up in Broadway Market at Bradbury's the hardware store which was about life in East London Fields.I have had other shows in London, I have just had a show at Australia House which was quite interesting. "

Damian Smith at Australia House

Between You and Me

Why do you think so many artists collected in the East End between the years 72 and 97?
"I don't know a great deal about the history of the East End but the only thing that I can think is that it is cheap."
Has your work changed during the period that you have lived here?
"Immensely yes. I was coming from making very refined artwork to making work that is much rawer, it is much more immediate. Life is extremely busy for me in London, far busier than it ever was in Australia, so the work I produce I try and produce as quickly as possible. If I cannot say it in five minutes then I find another way.Its speeded up, I've also become much more aware about being Australian, whatever that means. I am interested in the figurative tradition and I have worked for the Australian figurative painter Arthur Boyd and I now run the Sidney Nolan archive."
Why did you stay in the East End?
"Well I live in a squat so I don't pay any rent, and its two doors from my studio which costs £4.50 per week. we pay the rates on the studio to Hackney Council"
Has the local council been helpful?
"Through their negligance they have been helpful. What happened with the MT Studios (30 Martello Street (MT standing for Martello Terraces) is that about 15 years ago people squatted it and started paying the rent and the rates and the council accepted that. Then the roof started leaking so people said they wouldn't pay any more rent until the council fixed it. The council said fine, don't and that has remained the agreement for donkeys years now. So their negligence has been helpful."
What do you think happened to this area between 1972 and current time, if you have an opinion?
"I don't really know, I can speak about the last few years, the change here has been really dramatic. It appears to me that the money that was obtained to spend on this area has been spent too quickly, not thought through. The council has no appreciation of what they have here. I think this is an amazing area, I mean in the last century it was Paris Left Bank, this century at this point there is nowhere in the world like this part of London and I know that.That is something very unusual. I mean they have put these live work spaces around the corner and I don't really see them being rented out. They are very nice, I actually quite like them, it would be great if they were full, but they are not."
From when you first lived here until now what do you think has changed?
"Its kind of weird
, because there is all this newness, but there doesn't seem to be any substance in that newness. With Ellingfort Road, they have moved all these people but now its gone pear shaped with half of the street now living in caravans. Its as if the local council are doing what they are doing and everyone else is doing what they are doing and there is no cohesion."

Is there no other Way
Collection of: Shillam+Smith3

"Having moved from Australia to London I realised very quickly that artists in the UK were very much trapped by certain aesthetic and economic conventions that are difficult to deviate from without becoming marginalised.
It was very freeing to be outside of this situation so I decided to really experiment with what I could do. What emerged from this work for me , both in the materials and in the images themselves was a narrative on transience and multiplicity. Partly this was to do with realising that understanding oneself in terms of traditional societal values is no longer possible. Living in Hackney where people are re-inventing themselves all the time has re-inforced this positiuon for me.'Dog Man' embodies some of the feelings about living in such a fluid environment but also about trying to hold it together. In 'Mirror Man' the sense of internal and external space has become indistinguishable, a kind of loss of self, disintegration.
Making use of surfaces that I have found around my studio has been fun but I did'nt want to take this on like say Rauschenberg had because basically it had been done before. But I am interested in art being something of a bi-product of living. I'm sure this is not a very fashionable idea but I think that's because no one really knows what art is supposed to be. So there appears to be some anxiety about letting it define its own context.
I'm aware that the idea of multiplicity is receiving a great deal of press these days, especially in the context of post-modernism. But for me, the actual daily experience of it can be quite frightening which in part informed 'Cyclical Murder' and 'Is there no other way'
What I really enjoyed about making these images has been letting go of the idea of the end product and just doing it regardless"

Do you have a particular memory or ancecdote?
"Yes I do and its really weird. When I first moved into my studio and before I lived in this house I lived in a house at the end of the road. It was a really hard time in my life, I was very fragile blaa, blaa. I was making images of a murder and you can see that the body ends up underground.

Cyclical Murder

Anyway my housemate went to Australia and became a born again christian . Then he came back and confessed to murdering somebody and burying them in the basement of the house. So, the police came along to dig up the basement and they found the body . When I heard what had happened the first thing I did was hide this painting (Cyclical Murder as above)
Anyway later they came round to my studio regarding a break in and said the murder happened years ago. I showed them the painting and they said that they weren't surprised as people always pick up on those things.
So for me it was a kind of gruesome confirmation of approaching art in an organic way and I'm not talking about post structural linguistic theory, I'm talking about my experience with myself through the body.It shows that we operate in a non verbal way and that that is what visual communication is about
Can you list any artists that have been influential in your work?
"Bill Traylor an American artist, he is classed as an outsider artist, he died in 1949. He walked off a plantation and started making work in a doorway which was his studio."
How influential do you think this area has been on current Bristish art and do you think that influence has been recognised?
"It has definately not been recognised by the establishment. I spoke to the art critic Stewart Morgan about this issue and he was very encouraging about writing up the area.
I think the Saatchi/Sensation phenomenon is very much linked to a re-imaging of Britain as young, white and cool. But the significant artists of an era are not always known in their own time. There are lots of fine artists in London Fields who are not yet known. I talk to Jane Clark, Herve Constant and John Frankland about art, they all have very different focuses.

Damian Smith and Jane Clark

For me this area is quite extra-ordinary and in a way I am too busy to notice that because life is very expensive and I can't sign on. The confluence of artists that I have met, the Reclaim The Streets parties that spontaneously turn up (150 cycles silently outside my window as I am about to set off for work) are amazing.Yes it is a very special area"
Interviewed Saturday February 21st 1998

Dog Man

Other Educated Persons

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