Reflecting the anxieties of our times through marble sculpture: Australia’s Alex Seton – artist profile

Through his distinct sculptures, Alex Seton explores the tensions between form and substance.

Art Radar takes a look at some of Alex Seton’s recent exhibitions at Sillivan+Strumpf gallery in Sydney and the Newcastle Art Gallery.

Installation shots, Alex Seton, "The Island", Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia, 18 February - 7 May 2017. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Alex Seton, “The Island”, 18 February – 7 May 2017, Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Alex Seton is a Sydney-based artist who works across installation, photography, video and sculpture, and is especially known for his carved marble sculptures and unexpected forms. His work examines the relationship between form and substance through the reimagining of materials. For example, he transforms blankets, hoodies, inflatables and national flags into stone, provoking questions about what is permanent and what is transient. Through this process he merges the rich heritage of classical statuary with contemporary issues.

Installation shots, Alex Seton, "The Island", Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia, 18 February - 7 May 2017. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Alex Seton, “The Island”, 18 February – 7 May 2017, Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Monumentalising the everyday

From 11 to 27 May 2017, Alex Seton’s exhibition “Monument” is on display at Sillivan+Strumpf in Sydney. The exhibition explores the concept that stone monuments have traditionally been used to represent unchallengeable truths that are placed in public spaces to reinforce certain discourses. Seton challenges these discourses through a series of works that monumentalise the everyday, querying what realities are being represented.

Installation of Alex Seton, "The Island", Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia, 18 February - 7 May 2017. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Alex Seton, “The Island”, 18 February – 7 May 2017, Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

The starting point of the exhibition is Andy Warhol’s statement that all monuments glorify their maker. Seton explores this premise by deconstructing notions of monumentality, vanitas and memento mori, juxtaposing the transient and the finite.

This method of creating a dialogue between the temporal and existential truths is something that Seton has developed in recent years. His creative practice combines references to popular culture and personal experience with a deep knowledge of his craft and its history.

Installation of Alex Seton, "The Island", Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia, 18 February - 7 May 2017. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Alex Seton, “The Island”, 18 February – 7 May 2017, Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Installation of Alex Seton, "The Island", Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia, 18 February - 7 May 2017. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Alex Seton, “The Island”, Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia, 18 February – 7 May 2017. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

The asylum seeker debate

In a recent exhibition at the Newcastle Art Gallery, Seton explored Australia’s role in the asylum seeker debate, questioning how this debate is part of a longer history of immigration that is wrapped up in cultural and moral concerns. The recent exhibition, entitled “The Island”, uses images such as life jackets and poolside toys as a potent reminder of Australia’s polemic policies on asylum seekers and question the ease of contemporary life that is often taken for granted.

Installation of Alex Seton, "The Island", Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia, 18 February - 7 May 2017. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Alex Seton, “The Island”, 18 February – 7 May 2017, Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Newcastle Art Gallery Manager Lauretta Morton described the importance of exploring humanitarian issues in the current global context:

You often read in the media the importance of ‘humanising’ refugee issues, and this exhibition truly shows us the power of great works of art. When you think about it, these works are made largely of marble – a material more commonly seen in commemorative statues of great statesmen – not unknown asylum seekers. With these sculptures of life jackets; paper boats or inflatable palm trees – the literal heaviness of the materials is quietly poignant.

Installation of Alex Seton, "The Island", Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia, 18 February - 7 May 2017. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Alex Seton, “The Island”, 18 February – 7 May 2017, Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

The issue of seeking asylum is relevant across the world, especially evident in the European refugee crisis of masses of people displaced by war and conflict. The public discourse has shifted from the idea that immigrants could be a means to drive the economy of nations to a fear that they are dangerous and need to be kept out.

Installation of Alex Seton, "The Island", Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia, 18 February - 7 May 2017. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Alex Seton, “The Island”, 18 February – 7 May 2017, Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Seton uses his marble sculptures and installation pieces to reflect on the change of attitudes towards immigrants and refugees. For example, the piece Someone died trying to have a life like mine (2013) consists of a large number of life vests strewn across the gallery floor as if washed up on a beach, echoing the event when 28 life jackets were found on a beach of the Cocos Islands in Australia, their wearers invisible and missing.

Installation of Alex Seton, "The Island", Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia, 18 February - 7 May 2017. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Alex Seton, “The Island”, 18 February – 7 May 2017, Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Reflecting the issues of our times

Seton sees the gallery space as a unique place that encourages open debate. In an interview with The Art Collector, he observes that

The gallery space is a far less controlled and inherently more flexible public space. It is an inclusive space that can do more than just entertain, it can reflect and challenge. I’m not convinced of its efficacy to change policy in the moment, but it can contribute to the cultural dialogue and demonstrate what matters to us now. Art takes the longer term view and asks larger questions of who we are as a community and what this may mean for us in the future. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of the singer Nina Simone: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” The asylum seeker issue and how we respond to it continues to be one of the defining issues of our day.

Installation of Alex Seton, "The Island", Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia, 18 February - 7 May 2017. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

Alex Seton, “The Island”, 18 February – 7 May 2017, Newcastle Art Gallery, Newcastle NSW Australia. Image courtesy the Newcastle Art Gallery. Photography: Mark Pokorny.

The choice of materials, working in stone or marble, reflects the weight of the concerns of Seton’s subject matter. Speaking to The Art Collector, he observes that “the materiality of the work asserts itself upon the viewer and insists where other mediums are more impermanent or easily ignored.” There is a tension between the supposed buoyancy of objects like life jackets, and their construction in stone, perhaps mirroring a more somber reality of the current refugee crisis. One thing is certain, the weight of these works is not easily ignored.

Claire Wilson

1693

Related topics: Australian artists, video art, installation, gallery shows, events in Sydney

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