Interview :: Phoebe Rathmell

July 19th 2013

print NOTHING HEAR_floorsheet(1) copy

Feel as though you’ve stumbled into a Film-Noir flick?

                                                   Eerily empty smoker’s corner?

                                                                                       …Opium den?


Don’t panic. This is art and that mist is non-carcinogenic. 

Sydney-born artist Phoebe Rathmell constructs beautifully poignant installations and works exploring silence, meditation and life. She also takes great pleasure in making you feel palm-sweatingly, stomach-squirmingly, feet-shufflingly awkward. The Flog’s Madeleine Clarke caught her between openings for a non-silent chat about her current exhibition at Archive Space titled NOTHING HEAR.



Madeleine (Flog) :: Yesterday part one of NOTHING HEAR opened with a smoke and sound installation. Is there anything specific you hope the audience might have taken away from this particular piece? 

Phoebe Rathmell :: Yeah absolutely. My work’s very process driven and it’s very much about my own personal experience. What I wanted to do last night is try, to the best of my ability, to make the viewer experience what I feel silence is. The space was completely immersed in mist so you couldn’t see the person in front of you and I really wanted part of that intimate personal experience whilst being in a room of friends, but you can’t really see them so you’re a bit disoriented. Even though it was pretty simple, mist, light and a sound installation, I sometimes feel like really simple elements can come together to be really effective.

John Cage is cited as part of your inspiration for this exhibition. When did you first come into contact with 4’33” and did that serve as a gateway into your meditations on silence or did it reinforce a concept you were already developing?

Yeah it reinforced what I was already developing. I stumbled across it about a year ago, I hadn’t heard of it- very ignorant- and I was just blown away. In my art practice i’ve been looking at how other artists explore meditation and silence like Agnes Martin and other minimal artists, I hadn’t really thought to delve into musicians and other kinds of arts. I can’t remember how I came across John Cage, I think I was just reading an article or something about silence, and I actually went online and watched one of his live performances in New York and saw people coughing in the audience and being really awkward- I was totally blown away thinking ‘that’s exactly what I’m trying to capture’. He was very inspired by eastern philosophy as well, so now I’m a huge John Cage fan, I’ve bought all his books. When I recently went to New York there’s a library on him… I’m pretty much his stalker now.

Tell me a little bit about your own relationship with meditation practice and how that came to influence the work…

Growing up my mum was a meditation teacher, so it was always there. She introduced me to guided CD meditations which was a good starting point  for me when I was in my very early teens. I kind of went on my own journey with meditation. I’m quite a highly strung, OCD kind of person. I meditate every morning religiously for half an hour- pretty much before the sun comes up, it’s just a good way for me to start the day and get in touch with my breathing. I just sit in silence, there’s no hocus pocus or anything, I don’t even really like… ok I sometimes like incense… but it’s literally just me sitting there, eyes closed or open, just being. Just being really present, no radio, no distractions. It just helps me get in touch with my real desires, my real truth and who I am, and to be able to really listen to that.

Do you find that that makes you more creatively focused as well?

My research at the moment is looking at how meditation and creativity can go hand in hand. It’s quite interesting because I think there’s a lot of thought out there that creativity is kind of this thing that people are struck by, like I was struck by lightning by this creative idea or whatever, but i think actually for me, creativity is a lot of hard work. The artists that are doing well are in the studio nine to five, Monday to Friday, giving it a hard flog. I feel like creativity is something you really need to work at. So for me, meditation makes my work honest. It enables me to make work that’s true to who I am. I want to create work that’s free of my ego, which is really hard, and not tarnished by what I think I should be creating to be commercially viable or what’s trendy at the moment. I think that’s how meditation effects creativity, it makes me more in touch with who i am therefore I can tap into that creative strain more easily. A lot of people do it with drugs and alcohol, I do it with meditation.

That’s probably a healthier way to do it…

Yeah, more sustainable perhaps!

A lot of NOTHING HEAR is performance and installation based, tell me about what’s involved in the preparation for that.

Yeah so for example, when I was in New York I was doing a toothpick installation and I’ve been working with that quite a bit. Preparation for that in terms of the media- I die buckets of toothpicks. In my mind I’ll have a rough idea, I’ll visit the space, because my work very much responds to the space that I’m going to be displaying the work in. So I’ll visit the space and respond to that in terms of colours I’m going to be using, and in my head I’ll start to think of a rough idea of what I’m going to do. My work’s very much intuitive and process driven so the work unfolds in the moment as it happens, it can change, i try to leave it open and not be really close. Like doing an artwork, it doesn’t really exist until you have someone responding to it- I mean of course it exists- but until someone’s actually responding to it, interacting with it, that’s when it breathes life into it. This is like performance art as well when I’m installing, having people responding to it, and my mood on the day, the weather, the colour of the space. There’s so may factors that it has to be open to change, just like life.


Performance installation

Phoebe performing a live toothpick installation in New York


Silence is a particularly relevant and interesting theme within the gallery space where it can sort of be quite awkward and silent. Have you found that people have a ‘quiet’, reflective engagement with your work?

Some of my wall works I see a lot of people contemplating and being still and silent with it, but really mixed reactions. I think people are really uncomfortable with silence in general. You’re kind of happy to sit in silence with family members, someone you’ve been going out with for ages, or really close friends, but if it’s somebody you’ve just met or in a gallery space you kind of want to fill in the awkward moment. Like John Cage’s performance where one just has to sit there with silence, it can be potentially awkward. It think there can be a really beautiful moment in that awkwardness.

And toothpicks- they’re a recurring theme throughout your body of work. Why do you like working with toothpicks?

I seem to be drawn to really repetitious art-making processes. When I was working with paint doing my Bachelor of Fine Arts and Honours I was applying lots and lots of impasto. I was actually working with icing dispensers, really trying to make the paint thick and heavily textured, and it just wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do. I’m really inspired by the American installation artist Tara Donovan. She works with a lot of everyday objects, toothpicks is one thing she works with and shattered glass, buttons, Styrofoam cups. She transforms everyday objects into these amazing things. So that got me quite excited and I started playing around with a few things- dying some toothpicks and making mandala-like structures on the floor. I felt finally I could express what I was trying to say with paint, and the actual mark of a toothpick is just like a paintbrush, so kind of the same thing but slightly different.

And how does the ephemeral nature of your work link in with the theme of silence?

John Cage said that silence isn’t acoustic, it’s a change of mind. That ties into my whole interest in meditation. I feel like the ephemeral nature of my work is what meditation is really about. And that’s being in touch with the present moment as it unfolds. It’s sweeping, it’s gonna come, it’s gonna go. All of us will eventually die, new babies will be born, and I’m quite interested in doing ephemeral art because I feel this kind of obsession that our society seems to have of having an oil on canvas painting on the wall that you can own and possess- it’s quite stupid really because it doesn’t reflect us as humans. I’ve seen quite a few tibetan mandalas being made out of sand and swept away at the end- it’s such a beautiful experience. So I guess I try and reference that in my work.

You’ve performed installations in various venues in New York. Do you find the reception of your work is different around the world?

Yeah I was actually pleasantly surprised in New York, people were so excited to see something different and see a new media. I got a really good reception, people were just completely fascinated. Having said that, people are like that here in Sydney too. I think it would be different if I was perhaps to do this work in China and use bamboo toothpicks. At the end of the day it’s a toothpick, it’s universally used to get stuff out of your teeth or things like that. It’s taken out of its context and transformed in a way and I think that fascinates people universally.

Where should we be looking out for you after this exhibition?

I’m six months away from finishing my masters at COFA. I’m looking at the moment at venues for my final show, which is very exciting and I’ve been talking to another gallery in Darlinghurst at the moment about having a show. I’m looking at doing a residency in Japan. I’m very influenced by buddhism and eastern culture and I’d like to learn a bit more about japanese calligraphy. I also might go back to New York and do an Australia Council residency there.


WHAT :: Nothing Hear by Phoebe Rathmell

WHEN :: Performance installation- Saturday 20th July (this is tomorrow people) 1-4pm. Exhibition remains open for a week.

WHERE :: Archive Space, 5 Eliza Street Newtown, 2042




Phoebe Rathmell | Madeleine Clarke


Read more from FBi Radio