Interview: Steaphan Paton // Vault Magazine

If you look at one of Steaphan Paton’s works and can’t quite imagine how it was made, that’s good. Don’t ask, just enjoy not knowing and embrace the theatre of the object. To date, Paton’s practice encompassed a wide range of materials and processes: etched colonial cotton canvas, modified found tapestry, hand-carved timber, stitched and painted parking fines, a virtual reality app, videos of documented actions, bark shields and carbon fibre arrows. Fundamentally, Paton considers all his works to be forms of sculpture. He creates objects in real and virtual space that proclaim ownership of techniques, ideas and materials, and is developing a new vernacular based on ancient knowledge.

Paton is a Gunai/Monero man from Gippsland, Victoria, and comes from a long line of artists and artisans on his mother’s side. He wrestles with the insidiousness of colonial narratives, architecture and imagery, whilst also working through his own personal visual and material language. Paton respects the importance of his own cultural history and its continuation, but resists simply reproducing the objects and designs of his ancestors; he is a contemporary artist rather than an artisan, and this distinction is manifest in his critical engagement with materials and ideas.

Following on from inclusion in major institutional exhibitions Sovereignty (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2016), Resolution: new Indigenous photomedia (National Gallery of Australia touring exhibition, 2017), Murruwaygu (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2015) and Melbourne Now (National Gallery of Victoria, 2013), Paton will present a solo exhibition at the new Gippsland Art Gallery at the Port of Sale in mid-2018.

You work across a lot of different media. Is your studio set-up geared towards a particular kind of making?
My studio at the moment is a mess. Bringing people in to visit and see what I’m working on is a bit of a problem…I have to be resourceful, [which means] collecting as much material as you can and playing with that material. I think of everything as sculpture even though I do painting and 2D work. I have a sculptural frame of reference.

Your work ‘Cloaked Combat’ (2015) involved both a video of a performance and a set of sculptures – pierced shields – that were the result of that action. Can you tell me a bit about this work? Did you have to learn archery in order to make it?
I hadn’t really done archery before, apart from mucking around or whatever. I’d never used one of those high-tech, compound bows. My thinking around it was to show this attack from a foreign weapon, so I wanted to use that high-tech, modern hunting equipment. You find it in the hunting shops down in Gippsland. There’s a huge hunting culture down there.

Gippsland is your ancestral country – does it bother you that people are hunting there in such a different way to how your ancestors did?
It’s very strange, because native animals are protected – apart from ducks. I think there’s a real disconnect for some of the people that engage in hunting now, getting right into the crux of land rights ideas and what rights people have to go out and do that sort of thing…Killing for sport, I’ve never really agreed with that…That’s a totally opposing worldview from our worldview. You don’t kill animals for no reason.

When you were growing up, was cultural practice part of your every day life?
Yeah absolutely, I grew up in Gippsland at home, and it was part of our everyday life. How we engaged with the world, our whole perspective on the world…That connection with country and being out there, growing up there, and living in that world I guess is sort of totally different to people growing up in the city with a Western framework. [Growing up on country] does instil something in you. You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. I know who I am, where I come from, who my family is.

Can you tell me a bit about how ideas around cultural ownership play out in your work?
I like to frame everything in a different worldview and bring that in to contemporary art…I guess by doing that, it’s placing ownership over the practices and over the techniques, ideas, concepts, materials even. In a way, just by doing and acting this out, you’re stating your ownership over these ideas.

One of the materials listed in your works is ‘colonial cotton canvas’. What is that?
‘Colonial Cotton Canvas’ is a product name. It’s an outdoor canvas used for tents, swags, 4WD covers – material that is used to claim country and to claim ownership and rights over country. It’s this idea of the colonial and this quasi-military aesthetic of the colonial. People don’t really realise that when they talk about colonial, they’re actually talking about military. I like to look at that colonial aesthetic and those ideas that are in the materials and the look and feel of these things.

For your recent show ‘Contrecoup’, you made a series of capes or cloaks from bureaucratic documents – can you tell me about the documents?
They’re a whole series of fines that I got over a few years. I was pretty poor at the time, I didn’t have money to pay for these things. I guess also there was an idea to figure out that system and how it works. You might get a parking fine, or a speeding fine, or whatever else – all these things that are directly related to Crown authority and ownership of land and rights for these people to enforce fees for use of land that’s not really theirs. So [I was] just really playing around with these ideas.

What is the story behind your work ‘Embrasure’?
It’s part of an old red gum post, and I’ve cut a small slit in it. An embrasure is an architectural feature, usually on churches and castles and things. It’s a hidden military opening for shooting through. There are homesteads back at home, in Gippsland, that have inbuilt embrasures into the building. I was playing around with these ideas of the fort, and the euphemism of settlement, of this being a homestead with built-in embrasures for people to keep the natives at bay. It’s part of that heritage that has to be talked about.

Can you tell me about the patterns that you use in your work?
I use a lot of the Gunai motifs and markings in my own way, drawing from shields mostly. Some of the older ones are in museums, but my family has been making those forever. I come from a family of artists, and my pop was a master carver, so he made a lot of these things, taught from his elders, passed on from mission days to now, and his son carries that on. We’re that next generation that are carrying that on in our own way. I think the point to make is that culture is not static. I’m not making replicas of old shields or old artworks, it’s not some kind of anthropological study. I bring it into the contemporary art world.

You have a solo show at Gippsland Regional Art Gallery in mid-2018. Can you tell me a bit about what you’ll be showing?
I’ll be showing some older works alongside some newer works. It will be my second solo show in Gippsland. It will be good to show in a bigger institution down there. I don’t give too much away, but it I’ll be working in sculpture, video and installation.

I’m really secretive with my process, because it’s quite personal, and I don’t think that everyone needs to know what my process is. That sort of contradicts what some of the art world wants. They want to know all that stuff. So I’m a little bit secretive with those things. I don’t like to tell everyone about how my brain works.