What does it mean to be Australian? Examine national identity with Clayton Tremlett

Australia has a complex history. Marked by a violent settlement, enriched through multiculturalism and set in one of the most spectacular landscapes on earth, reflections on our national identity rarely result in simple answers. Ripe with questions of who we are and who we aspire to be, whether you celebrate it or not, Australia Day can’t help but inspire contemplation. 

Clayton Tremlett, a recent addition to Art & Collectors, explores Australia's historical narratives. An investigation into who we mythologise and why, his work compels us to look anew at criminality, identity and heroes. In this interview with the Castlemaine-based artist, Tremlett traverses what is accepted and what we should question about our “lucky country”. 

'Queen Truganini'

'Stamp acknowledging Australia's first trial by Media'

From bushrangers to native fauna, your work often features Australian iconography. What interests you about these subjects? 

I am interested in questioning how we collectively perceive our Australian Identity. I frequently examine and reuse Australian history (and how it has been presented) as a vehicle to challenge the accepted version of our identity. For example we have an entire species of native plants called 'Banksia'. Is it right to continue to acknowledge Joseph Banks just because he chose to name several plants in a foreign country after himself? If I make a work that draws attention to that, does it help us to reconsider our history and its relevance today?

'Oryctolagus Cuniculus - Eco Terrorist'

'Stamp acknowledging the extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger following the introduction of the Merino sheep in the 1830s'

You’ve discussed a desire in your career to always seek new knowledge. How has this acceptance, even seeking of the unknown, affected your practice?

I heard a saying once that stuck with me and it goes something like: Science is the business of disproving what is known to make progress and Art is the business of bringing into being something unknown. My view is that Art reflects experience in a myriad of ways. Artworks can be objective or non objective depending on what the artist is attempting to communicate. As an artist, I enjoy the challenge of developing new techniques... to push the boundaries of what is possible. As an educator, I seek to challenge the viewer to question their understanding of our cultural heritage.

'You make your own Reality'

The exhibition Beards and Influence saw you model your facial hair after infamous bushrangers. What was it like embodying these historical figures? Did it change your understanding of identity, whether personally or culturally? 

Doing the Bushranger series was a great learning experience on many levels. Assuming the guise of 12 different bushrangers over 4 years helped me understand that much of my work is about questioning my identity as a man and an Australian.

How you present yourself is how you are judged, and when you regularly change your appearance, the perception of who you are changes internally but also how you are treated externally. I've learned that we all project a version of ourselves that we THINK is who we are, but that when you change that regularly, it makes people unsure of who you really are. 

Culturally it was an experiment in beard options other than Ned Kelly which led to fascinating research into bushrangers as individuals outside their recorded history as criminals. Several wrote books on their experience, some were gay, some escaped and some died of broken hearts.

'Study for Self Portrait as the Bushranger Ned Kelly'

'Self Portrait as the Bushranger Harry Power'

'Study for Self Portrait as the corpse of Mad Dog Morgan'

Unlike most of your work, 'An Exploration of the Square using the Colours of a Galah' is abstract rather than figurative. Why present this subject as abstracted? 

I started out at Art School in the 1980's as a non objective painter focussed on the use of colour. This approach broadened over time and I have found myself utilising materials and techniques for their individual qualities and either figurative or non figurative approaches depending on the intent of the ideas driving the project. 

I have returned to non objective practice several times, however the 'Galah' series was for a project titled 'Transference' which I instigated for the Castlemaine Art Museum. In essence it was a group show of 4 contemporary artists who explore printing processes using pure colour. I produced 4 screen printed works, utilising the 5 key colours that make up the appearance of the Galah. I wanted to add an Australian twist to the historical conversation of non objective art working with the square as an aesthetic challenge.

'An Exploration of the Square using the Colours of a Galah #1'

'An Exploration of the Square using the Colours of a Galah #4'

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