Nathan Gray interview | Works: Under 30 Seconds and Things That Fit Together @ Utopian Slumps

Nathan Gray, Things That Fit Together , 2014 (detail)
Courtesy the artist and Utopian Slumps
Photograph: Maura Edmond

"When you're thinking about political strategies and thinking about strategies for sculpture or video, you need to have a really clear idea of what the restrictions are, and to think very laterally within those restrictions to come up with a favourable outcome."

Between work, study, several major exhibitions and a successful campaign to get the Sydney Biennale to end its sponsorship deal with Transfield, it's been a very busy year for Nathan Gray. For his latest exhibition at Utopian Slumps (until 3 May) Gray has negotiated a range of tricky restrictions - both self-imposed constraints together with others that aren't so freely chosen.

Works: Under 30 Seconds (2014) is a series of ultra-short videos consisting of visual gags and unlikely compositions; a man contorts himself into a Swastika, a bag on a chair contains a human head, a belly button is powered by an amp. Meanwhile covering the floor of the gallery is Things That Fit Together (2014), a collection of precarious sculptures assembled from everyday consumer goods.

As the titles make clear, both works are the result of improvisation amid self-imposed limitations. The videos are under 30 seconds in length and took about as long to make. With the sculptures, Gray says, “the rule is simply, ‘things that fit together’. The objects have to hold their own shape. There’s no glue, no screws. That dictates a lot of what is actually possible. It also dictates the kind of objects that I collect.”

“Everything in here was found or cost me under five dollars,” says Gray, pointing to the assorted handles, pipes, tubes and tubs that make up Things That Fit Together. “That wasn’t an explicit rule it was just me being a tight arse.” At the same time, all the materials were “either found or bought from Ikea, Bunnings, Daiso and other dollar stores. So it also traces these precarious supply chains and material flows.”

Nathan Gray,  Things That Fit Together   and  Works: Under 30 Seconds , both 2014 (install) Courtesy the artist and Utopian Slumps Photograph: Maura Edmond

Nathan Gray, Things That Fit Together  and Works: Under 30 Seconds, both 2014 (install)
Courtesy the artist and Utopian Slumps
Photograph: Maura Edmond

Listening to Gray talk, it’s interesting to note how aesthetic decisions, ethical considerations and entirely pragmatic realities come to play a role the production of an artwork and, moreover, how inevitably entwined all those choices are.

On one level, the works are a continuation of Gray’s interest in Fluxus and experimental music traditions, with their mixture of rules (scores, instructions) and play (improvisation, chance). “I always think that free improvisation, as a strategy for making music, is only as valuable as your assessment of the restrictions of the situation.”

On another level, "under 30 seconds" or "things that fit together" are rules that require Gray to make work that’s less work; work that is faster, looser, lighter, less costly, less self-conscious and much less time-intensive. That is to say, artwork that can be made while adhering to all those other implicit limitations we live with on a daily basis (money, employment, study, relationships, civic obligations).

But for Gray, this aesthetic and pragmatic choice is also a political one. There’s an obsession with work in the art world, says Gray. “There’s the work as in the object. There’s work as in working and labour. And there’s to work. Does it function? Is the work working?” People value and devalue contemporary art all the time based on their perceptions about how much labour was involved or not.

With their economy of scale and production, Works: Under 30 Seconds and Things That Go Together are conspicuously un-laboured. They are effortless (in all senses of the word). “They're definitely against art works that make a big show of the amount of labour involved, where that’s central to the reading of it; the spectacle of labour.”

“The average artist’s income in Australia is $23,000 a year. It’s well below the poverty line and half the national average. So my thinking is, why work so hard to be exploited by someone else, when you can be exploited by someone else and make it fun for yourself.”

>> Maura Edmond
>> Posted 22 April 2014

Nathan Gray
Works: Under 30 Seconds and Things That Fit Together
12 April – 3 May, 2014
Utopian Slumps
Wed – Sat 12 noon – 5pm
33 Guilford Lane, Melbourne