Interview by Ng Hui Hsien –
A cartographer-turned-photographer, Michael Whelan has his hands full. In Issue Six we featured his project Fragments, and I recently spoke to him about his upcoming exhibition, his exploration of photography and sculpture, and robots.
NG Hui Hsien: We are excited about your project at Coalhouse Fort, Essex, and upcoming group exhibition New: Defence. Can you tell us more about it?
Michel Whelan: That’s nice to hear, I’m also super excited! It’s been in the pipeline for almost a year, so it still doesn’t feel real and probably won’t until the exhibition opens! In short, it’s a large-scale group exhibition of mixed media artists showing new or existing work relating to the theme of ‘New Defence.’ There’s a mix of installation-based work, painting, sculptural pieces, photography and video.
There is also a summer of residencies and workshops, along with occasional pop-up shows and screenings, and in the background, we are digitising a selection of Coalhouse Fort’s artefacts. The artefacts are a mix of historical objects such as maps, photographs and postal letters as well as objects that have been extracted from the ground during archaeological digs from Coalhouse Fort.
HH: Can you talk about the aims of New Defence, and your experience working with curator Gemma Padley to achieve them?
MW: New Defence was set up to create a wider understanding of modern conflict and to activate both Coalhouse Fort’s unique exhibition potential, and to bring to life the rich cultural artefacts that are held in storage by Thurrock council. The project immediately evolved when Gemma Padley became involved as curator. Her ambition grew it into something much larger and more dynamic. Gemma has been instrumental in driving forward an exciting visual identity that reflects the artists that we have selected for the show. These include acclaimed photographer Alastair Thain and sculptor Samuel Zealey.
The exhibition marks the start of a wider vision to create a mixed-use creative space and eventually, a permanent exhibition at Coalhouse Fort.
HH: Speaking about the space, Coalhouse Fort comes with various connotations. It is a historical coastal defence site, stands within a conservation wetland site and is associated with paranormal activity. How does your own work in the exhibition relate to the space itself?
MW: I have spent quite a lot of time there and there is something very eerie about the enclosed spaces where some of the artwork will be. I would love it if some of the audience had some sort of paranormal experience whilst visiting the work, wouldn’t that be incredible!
The series I am working, The Destruction of Former Generations, is about the impact humanity is having on the planet. I explore this by combining plastic waste with photographic and sculptural processes to talk about the Anthropocenic age that we have recently entered, which reflects the dominance of humanity on earth and how it is now barely sustaining. I started the research by seeing what objects are washed up along the Thames Estuary, and are commonly found at the bottom of oceans, whilst keeping inside parameters set by an old military map found in Coalhouse Forts archives. I try not to get too hung up on the intricacies of contextualising my work as it eliminates a large part of your audience from understanding or enjoying its simplicity. It is essentially site responsive and continues to explore the impact and influences we are having on our planet by dissecting the result of decades of humans dumping plastic.
HH: What do you hope to achieve with the work?
MW: I hope that the work raises awareness and becomes a catalyst for change, whether that’s chroming mountain peaks to talk about the environment or providing a platform for artists to get together and exhibit new work. Human behaviour is contributing to a different type of modern conflict that is destroying our environment, the need to protect and defend our planet becomes more prevalent every day.
HH: Let’s talk the chrome mountain peaks you mentioned. Can you share with us your thought process behind the making of Fragments?
Fragments started the same way as all my work about landscapes: submerging myself in the contours and sounds around me and thinking about what I am trying to capture. I had considered all the usual elements such as film and camera choice, and all I knew was that I wanted the series to respond to the way landscapes can influence people. It’s about dissecting mountain peaks and exploring how to visually represent what a mountain peak is, including their much celebrated spiritual and geological connection.
This curiosity prompted me to collect some objects that I found in nature. I took them to my studio to experiment and play with their contours, exploring ways of dramatizing a scene, rather than just documenting it. By framing the individual peaks, removed from nature, photographing them using 2D technicolor analogue techniques and chrome dipping the sculptural pieces to render them as three-dimensional objects, my intention is to elevate the mountain peak landscape to a more desirable and iconic status.
HH: Why do you want to ‘elevate the mountain peak landscape to a more desirable and iconic status’?
MW: To try to show how we are impacted by our environment. It would be amazing if world leaders and top business people understood that for humanity to be more civilised towards neighbours, we need to understand that the planet can no longer survive under the pressure we have subjected it to, and that unless we live with a more harmonious connection to nature, there will be catastrophic repercussions for future generations. The wellbeing of humanity starts from how we treat our planet and each other, and there appears to be a lot of powerful people who are in control of corporations and countries that don’t seem to understand this.
A slight tangent on this is the reality that robots will eventually transform everything. Wouldn’t it be better to live in a world where robots carry out all undesirable work? And the companies that would cause job losses by producing, maintaining and operating these robots be taxed accordingly to truly benefit society? If this happens, we could all live happier and healthier lives.
HH: Yes – it would be interesting to see that idea gain more foothold. I am also curious about The Lost Fisherman. Can you tell us more about it?
MW: It was made whilst I was researching on memory. I was travelling along an area of Essex and spending a lot of time at Leigh-On-Sea. I began tapping into communities and families that have been impacted by the loss of the fishing industry in that area, which I found reflective of what had happened to my hometown.
I wasn’t happy with the initial portraits I made, and had been looking for the right environment to create something simple. I was trying different things but didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. On one of my trips, the sea fog was so dense that you could barely see anything, which for my landscape work is ideal. The weather elements for the series suddenly became obvious to me. Having large empty areas in the images is healthy for viewers’ imagination.
HH: It can be tough to work in the photography industry. How do you balance your commissioned work and artistic practice?
MW: Ah the golden question…I’m happier when busy, so I’m always looking for opportunities, chasing potential jobs and making work.
It’s important for me to enjoy making work. The moment I feel like I’m not, I stop and do something else. I think it’s healthy to walk away from it for a while and see what comes from taking time out.
I’ve got two exhibitions this month, along with travelling between London and Lincoln to lecture a few days a week. Sometimes you have to say “no” to commissioned work. That said, I told myself at the start of this year that I would say “yes” to all the opportunities that come along just to see where they would take me, which meant that I’ve been super busy so far. My next ‘yes’ will be to having a holiday.
New: Defence will be opening 28th April.
To see After the Fire in print, grab a copy of issue six at: www.loupemagazine.com