A Chat with Artist Ashley Bickerton in Jogjakarta

Ashey Bickerton is an American visual artist based in Bali and self-described “dancing poodle for the one per cent”. I spoke to him in Jogjakarta last year whilst he was in the last stages of finishing his’ Mitochondrial Eve/Viral Mother series, which was exhibited by Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York.


Ashley Bickerton photographed at his studio in Bali by Bobby Fisher, 2011

From the beginning of his career Bickerton has challenged traditional art forms. In the early 80’s he embarked on what has become a career-long process of experimenting with the hybridization of forms, materials and methods that blur boundaries between painting, sculpture and photography and the artwork as commodity.

He oscillates between abstraction and figuration, but always with a conceptual base, and is increasingly exploring the differences between representation in western and non-western cultures.

Bickerton worked with Yogya Art Lab (YAL) for a period of over 12 months to develop his’ Mitochondrial Eve/Viral Mother works, derived from models he created from organic materials and a series which one colleague described as “some of the more important contemporary sculpture produced in the next 10 years”.

When the lab first saw the prototypes for the pieces, it appeared as some of the most liveliest art they had ever seen. As art Technition Hungerford explained: “touching these works in the process of creating them, has also been part of a process of realising how important they are in the world of contemporary visual sculpture. I believed when I first saw the prototypes for the works, that if we could even get close to what they looked like in their conceptual state, then the sculpture community will be in awe”.

In the beginning, the intention for these sculptures was not for the creation of individual artworks per se as Bickerton explains, “they things had been sitting in my studio. They were part of a process where I’ve attempted to find some perfect triangulation between painting, sculpture and photography. These heads were the sculptural part, and were really built just as part of a process towards another end, pieces you might get in a performance, props in a sense”.

The “Heads”, as he called them, were composed with organic materials and were in a state of decay, but everyone including respected friends and colleagues who passed by his studio continuously attempted to convince him to preserve the decaying works:

“The lemons were rotting, the flowers were wilted, butterflies with broken wings. But still everyone was like ‘you’ve got to make these things’. And I kept hearing it again and again from all sorts of people. But I didn’t really know how to build them. I knew how to make the parts I made but all the little bits were made of so many things that were temporal and going to die or rot away”.

Bickerton’s art is known for its’ cynical representations of life on the Island of Bali, from the excesses expats suffering midlife crises, to an island losing it’s traditional beauty to the perils of capitalism and rapid development. But these works  are somewhat of a departure from the harshness of the themes of previous works, representing what he described as “the mitochondrial eve, the mitochondrion DNA passed from mother to child. But not literally. It’s a figure more felt than reasoned”.

In light of matters felt, Bickerton was surprised throughout the process of creating the Mitochondrial Eve figures by the many emotional responses he received, with several friends and colleagues commenting on the emotions and spiritual intensity coming out of “the heads”. He understands where these responses were coming from, but he analogises the spirit or “spiritualisms” coming from the works as probably closer to the reflection of an experience much more intimate, “a spiritualism that comes from the turmultuousness of a life lived outside the well trodden paths of crass, consumerist spiritualisms”, which made sense looking at the works close up.  As he explained:

“You could analogise it to a path that could come out of something closer to Lou Reed floating around on his way to harlem to buy his next hit, rather than something of the Eat Pray Love position. It comes from more of an anti-spiritualist position, in the sense of the way that spiritualism is crunched in popular culture today. Some of the sculptures could look like what they might have ben at the moment of inception where our direct ancestor was born. At that direct point, that one moment. But, I don’t want to put the weight of too much meaning onto them. Just leave the thoughts round it sort of free flowing. not too hard and fast”.

This reminded me of an explanation he shared with Kisa Lala at The Huffington Post about the suffocation of meaning that occurs once the weight of interpretation is applied too heavily to art, when it becomes too much of a science:

“It’s like an Edith Piaf song – and she’s wailing away and it’s beautiful and mysterious and evocative, and suddenly you go online and try to translate it into English, and it’s like, ooh baby yeah … and you go, oh god… I don’t want to know what things mean. I don’t want to know what my own work means. If it gets nailed down in fluourescent lights on a white formica slab in the lab, it’s no longer art, it’s science. Art has to somehow flitter in the half-light, in a sort of phantasm, just out of reach.”

Born in Barbados, Bickerton was raised in Hawaii and grew up in several locales as a child through his father’s professional travels as a linguist. He made a name for himself in Manhattan in the 1980s as one of the Neo-Geo group of artists and now calls Bali home, where he has been living for the past 18 years. 

Gajah Gallery in Singapore will hold a solo exhibition of new works from 26 April to 25 May 2014 as the artist returns to the medium of painting to create provocative works that comment on his two-decade’s experience of life in Bali.

Author: kategrealy

Australian singer songwriter, PhD candidate, Mum

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