I’ve often thought of Matthew Bradley as a survivor, ever since he scaled the tallest tower in the plains of suburban Adelaide, with a video camera gaffer‑taped to his helmet, because it was there. He took the wide view, a view that could be experienced only by doing it: preparing for and making the climb, at risk (May Dawn, 2001). Around the same time we had one of those brief intense conversations that can occasionally be had at an exhibition opening. David Hicks was in trouble, and Matthew said, “That could’ve been me”. There’s never more than a hair’s breadth between one world and something else – be it the paradoxical nothing or another kind of world.
In search for Sci‑fi takes on survival I’ve watched The Martian, Ridley Scott’s 2016 future‑now fiction where gaffer‑tape is the survival tool par excellence. The protagonist, marooned alone on Mars, uses it to stop‑up life threatening oxygen leaks. He needs to grow food to eat – “Mars will come to feel my botanist powers”—and to do that he uses what he has at hand, his oxygenated shelter and the wherewithal to break the rules and make fire in space in order to water a crop of potatoes fed by his own body waste.
Potato, the ubiquitous food of survival, and a rhizome, is also key in Marlen Haushofer’s astounding post‑catastrophe novel The Wall [Die Wand]. The primary takeaway from The Martian, and Haushofer’s tale of a woman as solitary human survivor in the Austrian Alps (perhaps) is that, despite the most‑sophisticated technology humankind has yet been able to muster, survival in the non‑time of catastrophe is always a matter of wits, working with what’s on hand, starting without design, repurposing, failing, solving problems as they arise, and trusting a pattern will emerge if careful attention is paid.
Matthew Bradley, unlike Ridley Scott’s everyman on planet Mars, has more in common with Haushofer’s apparently lone female survivor in a local setting; there’s a humility in his approach which resists the muscularity of the heroes in American films. Bradley works on problems related to shelter, nourishment and social connection. Of late, his work has been about fire, the sun, life force and connections amongst sentient beings captured as thoughts, actions, histories and chance occurrences. His work harnesses the energy of fire and the use of materials that are recycled, shared and/or purchased from Bunnings, setting in play the transmutation of materials from one state to another. These forces are about time: cosmic, geological, and human.
Of Andromeda (2016) Bradley wrote, “the golden leg armour of a superbeing, Andromeda, is an artefact from a world in our nearest galaxy. My friend Tom says that ‘a galaxy looks a bit like a shin, at least from some angles, some points of perspective’. Is there a vulnerable being inside it, which is being protected? Perhaps not, perhaps it’s the thing in itself, a thought form, a vital force, or a potentiality of being that is transversing matter. Andromeda is a vehicle, through which I have speculated on latent potentialities present and extant within matter itself. Might we, or do we already enter into assemblages with matter that extends our abilities or further, enable unlimited access to manifold forms of being?”
“My thinking is that all my work is on a continuum. For example, the vessel project is not neatly sectioned off. It flows out of the furnace, itself a project called The Year Of A Thousand Suns which services other projects. The vessel work also incorporates a kiln. They are all part of a larger series of work that investigates the creation and control of fire and heat and fire as a catalyst for the imagination and civilisation broadly. This also flows into the baking of pies and the little stoves I’ve been making and extends outwards as well into non‑fire related areas—apple trees, rainbow lorikeets, geology, astronomy, topography etc., in an uninterrupted flow.”
It has been a busy year for Bradley, starting with Destroyer of Worlds in April–May at the Greenaway Art Gallery in Adelaide, a conceptually ambitious and accomplished installation. Comprising four elements, Remnant, One Hundred Vessels, Andromeda and The Year Of A Thousand Suns, it proposed a meta‑narrative around worlds, temporal zones and civilizations wrapped up implicitly in handmade, backyard, and DIY techniques “My attempt to summon the presence of time on a geological scale — all times coexisting simultaneously.”
The sun came first; he wanted to make a sun. An experienced metal caster advised, “You won’t know anything about casting until you’ve made at least a hundred”, so this became the challenge. The first cast vessel looked as if “stuck in some ancient geology”, and made Bradley think about vessels throughout history, “how they’ve changed relative to different kinds of technology, as a timeline of civilization; these things that influence the design of vessels, there at the beginning of commerce, as symbols of power, magic. I’m not interested in the vessels per se – it’s become part of a much bigger process … you’ve gotta be totally in synch with the materials, the temperature, the timing, the entire physics of the process”.
In response to Bradley’s work, I’m also thinking of technicity, that tools make us as much as we make them. Homo faber, the (hu)man, who makes and fabricates, has been given a lot of thought by philosopher Hannah Arendt. Writing in a context of work/labour, she distinguishes art as “the non‑mortal home for human beings”, an elegant secular‑inclusive elucidation for an innately human capacity to make useless things in response to thought.
The cosmos and earth’s place in it, has always figured overwhelmingly in Bradley’s attentions. From The Aesthetics Of Amateur Astro‑imaging (2010) to the playful and neighbourly domestic Space Chickens Help Me Make Apple Pie (2012). “The rainbow lorikeets started it all, [I felt] an urgency, they can’t eat them all, I want some. An attention and awareness of the ecosystem I’m part of, it’s not living up here at the top of the hierarchy—it’s living on a smooth flat plane where everything is immanent—potential.”
Prefiguring the work with suns, and A Forest Of Lightening (at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation, in 2016), Gobi Formwork (2015), exploits another mystery, the evolution of form, “an ecology of form, becoming form and amorphous blob and then emerges again. Implicit explicit: things that are between words, between sound, there’s this amorphous state of being”. In Gobi Formwork daily additions of crystal‑producing liquid was an attempt to mirror something that was happening at the actual Gobi Desert site where the mysterious form was being reclaimed by “alluvial flows of silt and sand”, by time itself. It’s indicative of much of Bradley’s work where duration plays a key role, during the short exhibition window the play of time and transformation is given free reign.
Bradley’s steadfastly gallery‑based practice is of an existential nature and remains that of homo faber, the making of material matters giving form to thought. Something in his approach to the natural and technologically mediated world always remains elusive, both in terms of the arrangement and the manufacture of objects. It’s this amorphous something that keeps drawing one back into the aesthetic and practical mysteries of his work.
Teri Hoskin is an artist who writes philosophy. She is the inaugural participant in a year‑long Noela Hjorth residency at Clarendon in the Adelaide Hills. Her latest work, Fire, Snake, Wethers: What Happens Now, is in a forthcoming issue of Runway (runway.org.au) curated by VNX Matrix.
A Forest Of Lightning: Matthew Bradley, is on exhibition at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 27 October – 10 December 2016