Kevin Todd: Multi-valency Rules OK

Kevin Todd’s professional activity profile is not altogether unlike that of many artists practising in Australia today, combining a mix of gallery-based exhibitions and installations, public art, corporate commissions and teaching.

Like many mid-career artists, his life as an artist is characterised by the necessity to balance this often-demanding range of activities and requires also that he adopts a proactive role in order to maintain a steady and regular flow of work and to realise his ambitions. But Todd seems to thrive on a broad range of projects running simultaneously — “I enjoy projects where I work with others and have a few things cooking.” The culinary analogy is perhaps appropriate for Todd since; while the final dish is being presented, the kitchen is alive with the mess and activity of ingredients in production and the chef (artist), may be found to one side devising an entirely new menu, or simply tasting and noting textures and combinations for application at some future time, or from which whole new dishes may emerge.

Discussions with many mid-career contemporary artists consistently reveal that, at a time when one might expect that they would be in a position to focus more completely on simply making their work, they are in fact working harder than they ever have at any other time, and that a considerable amount of this work may be spent in activity designed to develop and promote projects and to generate funds for the production of work. The vision of the artist whose practice is based in traditional single or related media, steadily producing work for a primarily gallery-based presentation to a receptive buying audience is still relevant of course, and many of these artists have settled their career into that comfortable cycle.

Kevin Todd’s practice reflects another contemporary reality in that it is not focussed into one point of distribution and ranges across a divergent set of media. His trajectory is also more that of the generation of artists who began showing through the contemporary art space network and who prioritise the conceptual development of the work, and their career, over the production of signature work for a market. His engagement with his practice is also predicated on exploration of the potentials within new media forms and realising major pieces outside of dedicated art spaces and galleries.

Like many mid-career artists in Australia today, Todd’s work seems to sit in a difficult zone – not difficult to apprehend or to comprehend – but difficult to place easily within any of the existing tropes of art production or contemporary conceptual currents. It is not difficult to imagine the frustration which can arise when one’s work sits in a space other than that which might be attractive or appropriate to the agendas of the curator/gatekeepers of major survey shows, and yet is too challenging or incomprehensible to a more object-focussed and commodity-oriented art market. Yet artists like Todd continue to explore new personal challenges, continue to contribute fresh ideas to the field and continue to play to a smaller audience than their work really deserves. In fact the practical and conceptual worlds in which Todd circulates, and with which he interacts, are many and varied and art is the connective mechanism he uses to engage with them all.

A brief consideration of Todd’s development is instructive in considering where his work and ideas sit today. Unlike many younger artists, he did not simply move into art straight from school, and has not remained tightly entwined in the centres of art institutions and groups. Born in Cork, Ireland in 1960, he had always considered that he would attend art school and pursue a life in art, but in a economically depressed, pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland where unemployment was running at 29%, studying art in a major European institution was simply not an option.

The opportunity did not present itself until after he took time off from his work as a draughtsman in Ireland and visited Australia in 1981, after which he worked at his photography in Bristol as a member of Watershed for a year. Making the decision to emigrate and pursue his career in Australia, he used photography to explore and interact with his new environment. After graduation in Sydney, he enrolled in the Master of Fine Art program at the Tasmanian School of Art, graduating in 1993. This was the first Masters program in Australia and at this stage one of the few in existence.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a pivotal time, both in art schools and in the medium of photography. Courses centred around a much more sophisticated theoretical base; art schools were now demanding a more serious engagement with cultural theory and relevant philosophies, and this rigorous program enlivened those who valued the conceptual basis of practice as well as opening up a wider intellectual framework. Then came a major sea change in the nature of photographic practice itself, and its relation to other media. The rise of the digital and the connections across media, ground-shaking at the time, still reverberate today and Todd embraced these issues more wholeheartedly than most of his peers at this time.

Todd has always been an early adopter of new technologies and communication systems and has consistently pushed them as far as he could into new modes of practice. The expansive nature of his vision has always chafed under constraint. (Even with the relatively simple technology of the fax machine, Todd conceived a trans-global event in which cumulative faxes by artists were sent to Antarctica, shown there, and then faxed on to Inverness in Scotland — all in real time). He was one of the first artists in this country to see beyond photography as a set practice and to extend out into other mechanisms of production.

It could be said that, with a comfortable understanding of technology and a readiness to engage with new and existing tools, once this door was opened there really was no limit to where it might lead. Explorations of MRI scanning and other medical and scientific technologies followed, as did a growing familiarity with computer-based systems but this was never a hysterical or uncritical engagement with technology.

In retrospect it is clear that Todd’s work is ideas-driven and the technology employed is always at the service of a concept. It also reveals the interesting give-and-take that technologies provide. These have their own languages and character, even their own traditions, and, as with any invention, (the flat brush, paint in tubes, the camera, for instance), a new technology opens possibilities within art for those attuned to its forms and character. If, as with Todd, there is an active desire to become really conversant with technology, this leads inevitably to engagement with the disciplines within which those technologies are used. In this way common ground can emerge and discussions across disciplines can take place.

As he puts it: “I have consistently sought to make my work in contexts that are appropriate to my interest and not just thinking about it but interacting.” He has interacted through his work with a number of institutions and groups such as the Australian Antarctic Division, the Australian Museum, the Launceston General Hospital, ITM Malaysia, the Australian Pulp and Paper Institute, with architects and also with various groups through residencies in Australia, Ireland and the US. All of these points of contact provide an encounter with different work cultures, values and technical possibilities. They also offer the potential for fruitful engagement with a variety of cultural and community practices and values.

It is vital to note that while such encounters are usually cast as valuable at the ‘macro’ level in that they extend the world of art and artists into other places, their real significance is at another level. As Todd states: “I feel that a creative life is an uncertain one and this appeals to me on a personal level. There is an adventure in being an artist and I feel privileged to have the range of experiences I’ve had so far, (and to meet and work with creative people). We tend to discuss art at the macro level of ideas, social influence, cultural/historic movements, etc but its real importance is at the micro level of enriching the individual life of the artist. It is important as an activity for the artist. We never teach this ...”

This is a highly significant point. The journey artists take in their lives are often more wide-ranging than that of other careers. They are led in their practice through a series of encounters, which in turn open up ever-new possibilities. The unpredictability of this career path is of course daunting to many, but for the artist it is actually a key component of the adventure, risk and fulfilment that significant encounters and engagements can bring with them; a constant sense of becoming balances the financial and even psychological stresses which often attend such an approach.

Todd: “My work has evolved and I have travelled with it and I don't have a vision, just a commitment to what I do ... and the conviction ... and tenacity.” A retrospective view of Todd’s work does elicit certain clear directions. Picasso’s assertion that: “I only know what I have done after I have done it”, is partly true in this case. Artists are also attracted to what they do not know, both about themselves and about the world. What emerges in Todd’s oeuvre to date is an interest in the relationship between natural and  constructed realities. He is engaged in a constant dialogue about dualities and binary oppositions, for example the nature of the rational vis-à-vis the spiritual but is at pains to state that he does not see the world in terms of dualities. 

“Possibly, I am concerned with the imperialism of a technical/scientific relationship to reality but rather than opposing it with (artificial) emotional/mystical/spiritual clichés. I am concerned with finding or opening other spaces within the paradigm.” An interest in Islamic and Celtic cultures has reinforced for him the negation of dualism and brought about the desire for an integration between the rational and the spiritual, as these are not antagonistic in such cultures.

Much of Todd’s recent work has been in a public realm. These range from sites such a sports ground (the Gabba in Brisbane), a hospital, a primary school, a city building entrance, an airport and an institute of technology, to name a few. These have all been produced during consultations in which the artist engages in a very determined dialogue. Fully aware of the limitations of a committee-driven art process, Todd has always produced public art through an active and even ‘agonised’ process which results in works which can both stand as statements and engender dialogue. As always, a range of technologies appropriate to the idea and the site are employed. This move into a public realm is not surprising given his mode of practice — these are just different communities and spaces of engagement.

As well as responding to existing briefs that interest him, Todd also maintains development of a number of major self-generated projects, such as his Neva project inspired by the shared histories of Tasmania and Ireland. These memorials, to be placed in both countries to commemorate the wreck of the Neva in Bass Strait carrying Irish free settlers, are abstract sculptural forms designed to create a keening sound as wind passes through them. Some of these self-generated projects are still speculative, and in some cases are now entering production. They involve major investments of the artist’s time and even his own finances, and they are often years in development and more years in the realisation; all of the project development, management and entrepreneurial aspects fall to the artist himself.

Of working in this realm Todd says: “I try to make work that operates at various levels, work that an artist would find satisfying but also that say my parents, would relate to. The relationship between the public and contemporary art is complex, however I feel that while many in the arts feel that they are, (or represent), the broader culture, the arts is more like a sub-culture ... or a collection of sub-cultures.” He also notes: “We overestimate the importance of art and underestimate the importance of design in people’s lives.”

Todd is well aware that much Australian contemporary art, (including public art), is reliant on Government sponsorship at some level and this is partly why he also actively seeks engagement with private sources in the development and funding of work. His experiences of working in other places, (such as Malaysia), have made him aware of the value of the relationship between enlightened private patronage and an artist, and that it can offer a constructive alternative to the predictability of the government-based institutional models so prevalent in this country.

In terms of his current activity Todd still maintains a range of ways of working, from individual exhibitions which specifically explore particular ideas and technologies, such as The Organic Rationalist, an installation of computer-generated images which was part of a larger project at New Greenham Arts in the UK involving a residency, computer workshops for artists, links with industry and a seminar. The computer-generated works are intriguing and could exist at both a micro or macro level. The visceral nature of the forms and their interrelationship is suggestive of an energy, which is part of the form/pattern. The works are concerned with the limits of scientific rationalism and seek to collapse the dichotomy between art and technology; between the technical and the organic. The SLS (selective laser sintering) objects were built directly from computer files and are concerned with the potential of new technologies to generate and build organic forms.)

Self-developed and driven public projects, artist consultancy work, and various government-funded site-specific public projects also form core aspects of the range of Todd’s practice. He teaches at the University of the Sunshine Coast. He works hard (if one is to be effective as an artist, a teacher and a functioning and contributing member of a family, one must work hard). He engages with intellectuals in many disciplines and he has yet to become rich or globally recognised. He instigates new projects and stokes the flames constantly under developing ones. He combines this work regime with an innate tenacity and maintains a positive and constructive attitude. He is creative and unrelenting in pursuing the ideas and projects he believes in, and is persistent in establishing his position and his point of view.

Some mid-career artists might detect a resonance here, for no doubt this is the general scenario for an artist who has kept faith and energy, often apparently against, or more correctly, in spite of, the flow of fashion and the interest of relatively few. The critical respect which Todd has earned from an arts and non-arts audience alike is recognition of his unique contribution. He senses its value generally, but more importantly as he himself insists, the real engine that drives him is what art can do and be for the individual.