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Juz Kitson on Bones, Buddhism and Bull (Testes).

I hesitantly knock on the flimsy ply door of the Australian National University's Ceramics Workshop residency space and venture in. Usually a blank and uninspired space of mismatched worktables and drying racks set to the audio accompaniment of humming electrical mains, it is transformed by each resident artist into a world of their creation.

This time the room evokes Kubla Khan's pleasure dome; the racks are filled with pearlescent erotic forms that seem to pulsate behind pieces of languidly draped fur that obscure them from view. The floor is covered with work, a matrix barrier that separates subject from self. Sitting cross-legged, all fiery curls and delicate hand movements, Juz deftly places each hand-rolled petal-like form onto its friend, pressing them together at the base, leaving the fronds to wave free. Anemone-like they invite touch but, as with a lot of Juz's work, refute easy classification.

"Nice bull testicles," I say, gesturing at the floor where bulbous pink balloons almost swing in their conjoined union.

"Thanks," Juz replies brightly. "Lucky you didn't think they were hearts. Want to sit outside?" Canberra has been bitterly cold for months and this, one of the first days with a suggestion of warmth, must be made the most of. The sun is delightfully warming, the sky almost electric and the glare? It is so impressive my laptop screen is rendered useless, as are my eyes, which immediately begin to tear. Professional Interviewing 101 right here I think, and resolve to sort-of mostly wing it.

HFB: So, ah, I thought we'd start with some basic background ...

JK: I was raised in Sydney, by my Australian/ Greek family who are hardworking and entrepreneurial, and it was always clear to me from an early age that I had to be able to provide for myself. So, they didn't push a career per se but a path of being self-sufficient. My mum was quite creative, though she didn't have an outlet for it herself, and I'm grateful to her for providing me with resources to explore my own creativity as I grew up. I went to a high school that wasn't academic at all but had a great art and drama department, and I became close with one of the visual arts teachers and she used to give me the key to the photography dark room where I would spend hours outside of class developing images.

HFB: That must have been wonderful, an immersive escape.

JK: Yeah, I could close the door on the world. There was a reality and then an altered reality and that fascinated me. I actually ended up in the Northern Beaches Art Express in my final year and I applied for this prize they ran, the Theo Batten Award for Further Art Education, and I remember I hand-wrote my application and coloured in all the borders ...

HFB: ... spraying it with perfume?

JK: And so, I was at the opening, and I suppose maybe this is a sad story, but I was by myself and I won and it really impressed on me the fact that if you go down the art path you're essentially on your own. I think it lit this fire in me.

HFB: To prove it?

JK: Yeah, to both myself and to others. Everyone is saying "Are you sure?" and it's like, "Let me have the chance and maybe I'll prove it to both myself and to you."

HFB: It's interesting though, because it seems like it's this mix of some level of apprehension and doubt from your family but they had also equipped you with the resilience to resist and to forge your own path in spite of but also because of them?

JK: Totally. So I put that money towards a degree at NAS [the National Art School].

HFB: Straight from school? A baby-faced teen?

JK: Totally, I look at some of those photos now and it's like "Wow". But also that played a huge role in my becoming. There were only three of us in first year who were seventeen, almost too young to do life drawing.

HFB: Too young to drink ...

JK: Exactly. So, to be thrown into that environment, where most of the students are mature age, within six months my crew of friends were in their thirties. I was going to events and parties with people who had not only 5-10 years of art practice behind them but also life experience. So I learnt from my professors but I think I also learnt more from my peers.

HFB: Did you feel the need to catch up?

JK: Honestly, I felt like a sponge. Like I was just absorbing everything. I was in a relationship with an older artist at the time, so I felt like I grew up so fast. Looking back at that period, the undergrad was just incredible; the focus on the studio. Even to apply you had to do a drawing test.

HFB: You still do. I did it a couple of years ago. All the easels are lined up around the edge and there's a cow skull and you're like, "Do I draw? Now? With all these people watching?"

JK: And everyone's got their little case and it's just crazy. Induction day I remember them telling us, "Only 3% of you are going to continue with your art practice and only 1% of you will be successful."

HFB: That's one of those statements where you either see it as a dampener, like, the odds are not in my favour; or you're like I'm going to be that 1% and it spurs you on.

JK: Exactly. So, after undergrad I had a gap year, of sorts, and I sublet space in the basement of a bank vault in Chippendale [in inner Sydney] for $10 a week and it was full of artists just making work and working at making work, and that was really inspiring. It taught me, as art school hadn't, that making art is a real job and you need to have the dedication to put in those hours and do those yards. I was still unsure and awkward of course ... still in the shell, still experimenting.

HFB: So what were your influences at that time?

JK: Definitely Eva Hesse ... I was really drawn, not just to her work, but also to her life. I was interested, am interested, in strong female artists and their way of life ... it's a holistic thing. And of course, I've always been interested in the tortured soul.

HFB: Just to backtrack a little, given the structure of NAS [where students study all workshops for the first year before selecting workshops and working within that medium for a further two years], what was it about clay that made you go, oh, this is the one for me?

JK: Oh, that's interesting because of course, following on from the dark room experience I had gone there to pursue photography ... but I realised I didn't want to spend the next three years in the dark.

HFB: Despite then spending the following year in a bank vault basement.

JK: Precisely. You know, you suss out the teachers and the cultures of the workshops and some workshops had a culture of imprinting on students, and I looked at the work of previous students and you could see the mark of the instructor coming through and that they were building their empires ... and then there was ceramics and it was just really different. I'd be like, "What if I want to dip this in latex?" and they'd be, "Ok", so I'd go, "What if I want to put it in a plastic bag and hit it with a heat gun?" and they were just "Ok". Some of the lecturers didn't get what I was doing, particularly in third year, when smells began to emanate from my studio --burning plastic, spilt plaster and, of course, the introduction of road kill--but they gave me the space to create. And, just as importantly, they challenged me along the way. So again, I was having to prove myself. There's a buzz around ceramics now, a sense of a renaissance, but that wasn't there then. There wasn't that level of interest ...

HFB: ... which perhaps added to the beatnik air that attracted you?

JK: Oh definitely. I always knew that I wanted to take a medium and challenge it and reform it. I knew I didn't want to use the plinth. I didn't want to use the wheel. I wanted to turn it all upside down. And I felt I was doing that as people would come into my studio and just be like, "What?"

HFB: That's what you want, to keep them guessing. So, on that note of studio visitors, how did infamous collector David Walsh [founder and CEO of MONA in Tasmania, Australia] come to buy your Honours work?

JK: I got a call on a Saturday from a friend, she said, "I've got a friend here for a funeral and I'd like to bring them to your studio." They arrived and he wouldn't make eye contact and didn't want to talk and then after four minutes he turned to me and said, "How much is it? I'd like to buy it."

HFB: Did you have to make up a figure on the spot?

JK: I'd never sold a work before. I was like, "Uhhh, give me the weekend." And yeah, two weeks later it was his. After I had finished it of course.

HFB: And gotten it marked and assessed. It must have felt like confirmation of what you had been doing, those years of experimenting ... and the smells.

JK: Totally. And it took him to kind of make other people sit up and take notice.

HFB: I always think that's interesting, that he [Walsh] is quite an intriguing character--he's become this commercial powerhouse in the art world but his taste is so deeply divisive and so personal; it seems strange that he's given this power to reshape what is considered worthwhile and whose works are thus seen as desirable. Do you feel you've been on the same arc since then, or have you been embarking on new paths?

JK: I feel what I was doing then was crude. Technically. The ideas are a process of evolution under the main heading of 'The Human Condition'. I see it as a lifetime of exploration ... in 7-10 year cycles. I work slowly too, even though it may seem like I'm prolific. I work all the time; there's no stop, no down. So I'll have an entire solo show, and there might be one work that's the point of call for the next show. So one thing will lead to the next. There's not necessarily a conceptual basis to each work; some of it is working though the previous ideas, exploring the materiality. How I make my work is how I lead my life. I draw on human experiences, I don't do conceptual research or find a political basis and convert it, it is an experience that I'm living and breathing.

HFB: So a transmutation then of ideas into the tactile, into the touch?

JK: Absolutely. Fundamentally of course it's about life and death.

HFB: A big scope to play with.

JK: There's no limit. I love really polished and finished work that still has the artist's touch. There's a real wave at the moment, both in Australia and overseas, of ceramic artists who are quite naive and fresh and colourful ... and I don't gravitate towards that at all. Something can be small and yet powerful, and in the white of the gallery space--that for me is more profound.

HFB: It does seem that there is a trend now towards both colour and scale in ceramics with a real 'thumb-print' texture that renders every mark in the process visible. It reads to me as being almost intentionally regressive, childlike in that way that artists often visit in an attempt to capture the purity of essence. As a trend I wonder at its links to the perception of handmade versus machine-made--it seems to me that there's a perception that if something is polished then its factory-made, but if its roughhewn then its handmade ... that old potters mark thing. Which of course is so misleading as machines can replicate even the imperfections of the hand.

JK: Yeah, when I was applying for my first grant to go and work in China, I remember there was a lot of scepticism about me going there to learn those hand skills and that level of high refinement.

HFB: In your work, you also use a lot of other materials, bone and hair in particular; is this in a way to bring back or reconstruct these dead materials?

JK: I've always been fascinated with the idea of artist as collector, and I've always had a scientific approach to my practice. I feel a strong affinity for the Australian landscape, both the harshness and the beauty of it, and these moments speak to me ... such as a chicken hawk stuck in a fence. That moment of consumption, collecting a carcass, putting it on an ant farm and then re-contextualising it.

HFB: It's interesting that you say your attraction is to that tussle between beauty and brutal as you take those objects from that context, and while they sometimes remain stark they also become pristine and pure--polished.

JK: I'm fascinated by that push and pull. I'm knee deep in muck and making these very refined things. At the moment, with my work in glass; I'm interested in menstrual cycles, with the glass being like drops of blood.

HFB: But even there, though you've abstracted the base quality of the thing from itself ... usually, if an artist proclaims an interest in menstrual blood, they'll use either blood or an immediately evocative material to create work that is, well, intentionally confronting.

JK: Yes, but I'm not interested in shock value. I'm interested in the essence. The slight suggestion of things not right ... so you know, I might make a heart but it might only have three ventricles.

HFB: I wanted to touch on the scale of your work, which seems to be steadily spreading across the gallery wall--has this been an intentional direction you've taken?

JK: In the early days of my practice it was definitely about making small pieces that people could take home, but I suppose as my ideas got bigger and my skills improved, so did the scale of my work. As an artist you also reach a point where you feel like, "I've done that, I've made that, what's next?" So, for me I started working with a carpenter and we make these structures that can be suspended from the ceiling or mounted on the wall and then I construct off them, using many little forms. I can only build to about 30 cm before the porcelain I use starts to crack or slump so it's necessary to be able to put things together, to construct a whole from many parts. I've always been interested in the sublime and in creating that sense in the viewer and that's why, for instance, I hang my works at 1.60 cm rather than the standard 1.40 cm.

HFB: Is there a religious aspect to that impulse? To create either deity or altar?

JK: I'm interested in that idea of things outside of the self; I'm an atheist but also a Buddhist and I'm interested in other cultures and their beliefs, and I delve into that. I'm constantly immersing myself.

HFB: That element then of being compelled by something but horrified by it?

JK: Definitely. It's the grotesque. It draws you in with beautifully polished objects only to brutally rebut you. I've had journalists over the years say to me, "I'm not sure if your work wants to bite me or make love to me."

HFB: And your response is, "Good ... but don't make love to it."

JK: I feel like I've succeeded when that happens; when there's that emotive response and they might not know what that is.

HFB: I wanted to touch back on how you developed your practice in China, because that seems to have become a prominent part of your work in the last few years.

JK: Definitely. Initially I was drawn to the sense of possibility and the excitement of the place. I also had a bit of an arts school crush on [contemporary Chinese artist] Lin Tianmiao. She was my Bob Dylan, definitely, and so I decided I was going to try and get in touch with her. And within the first week of being there, I said that at this fancy dinner with dignitaries and everything and one of the translators said, "I translated for her two weeks ago, I can put you in touch." And that's how things happen in China. You know, in the West we plan for the next 18 months but in China there's only today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. So, everything has this sense of immediacy and urgency and that's terribly exciting. Within a few days I was sitting down with her in her Bauhaus mansion outside of Beijing and I said, "I have a month left and I want to work for you and I'll do anything you need, you don't need to pay me." And she responded, "You'll need to work 11 hours a day." And so I did. I lived in her attic and worked in this underground labyrinth of a studio with 35 artisans putting gold leaf onto resin cast skeletons and I started with a frog and worked my way up.

HFB: In the Buddhist tradition ...

JK: Yeah. It was one of the hardest experiences of my life; the hours and conditions ... mentally it was challenging; I didn't leave for a month. I wanted her to be my mentor, so I was trying to prove myself, and, well, she didn't want a bar of it. I didn't actually realise for about 12 months how much I had gotten out of it--it really instilled in me an incredibly strong work ethic. She was actually the one who suggested I go to

Jingdezhen. I realised fairly early on that this was it and that I'd found a place where I could realise an idea in a relatively short period of time--make it, have it fired, receive it within 25 hours. Being able to be prolific.

HFB: How did you deal with incorporating other people into your process? It would seem to necessitate a certain letting go of control?

JK: Well I've always been influenced by Patricia Piccinini's work and other artists who have whole teams help them, and their work is fabulous ... and you know, working in the glass department here [at ANU], I could spend four years acquiring those skills myself or I could work with people who already have them.

HFB: And have someone blow you some testicles.

JK: Precisely. I'm open to everything, and attached to nothing. I'm always the last one to touch my work and if I outsource it, it is to have a mould made. We only have two hands after all, and if you want to increase in scale then you have to adapt.

HFB: Did you struggle to find artisans or factories with a similar ethos?

JK: There's definitely no similar ethos. It's a process of trial and error and finding the people that work with you and that understand how you work. I can be neurotic--and a slight tyrant.

HFB: Are the people you work with all individual artisans?

JK: Definitely. I never have anything just produced. I do a drawing and they make it, I always use readymades. The Adelaide Biennale last year was my most ambitious project to date and I outsourced work to 35 artisans ... if I'd made it myself it would have been five years of work. I think of it like peeling onions; it [slipcasting] is not the creative part of the process, its mechanical and time consuming and it's the kind of thing I'd always get a studio tech to help me with. So it's no different. It's why I keep two studios--when I'm in China I think in terms of numbers and scale, and when I'm in Australia I think in terms of refinement.

HFB: So, would you say that the first and last parts of the process, the concept and the finishing, happen in Australia and it's only the meaty middle of production that you do in China?

JK: Yes. It's a lie too to say it's economical [to make in China]; it's about the same, if not more expensive. It's the access to technology and the quality of the materials that draws me there. You know, over there I'm firing a 28-gas burner kiln; I can use this crazy good porcelain called Pigs Fat by the tonne ... it's just incredible.

HFB: You've also been using industrial processes like physical vapour deposition in your recent works, is that something that's only available in China?

JK: It's a form of electro-plating, or chroming. In Australia it's used only as an industrial process but in China it is commonly used in many industries, including ceramics. Any type of mirror surface that's created in China is made through that process. It's amazing though, and I've realised that if you retire the work at 700 degrees, as you would for a lustre firing, then it changes again.

HFB: It sounds like an incredible amount of incredible infrastructure over there.

JK: It is. It's really amazing. There are conceptual artists, and they've never touched clay, but they come with these ideas and they can pretty much just compose. It's a real mix. I've got a friend, she makes the tableware for Neil Perry, and she just buys it there--as greenware--and then decorates it up. It's an eclectic mix with an incredible diversity of makers and approaches.

HFB: We always talk about Jingdezhen as this place of tradition, with makers having been there for thousands of years, but of course at the same time it's not the sort of place that could have flourished during the Cultural Revolution or the Mao years so, in a sense its somewhat recent, having sprung back up.

JK: Totally, and that's why I don't have any qualms in supporting the community over there. I've seen people I've been working with become really quite wealthy from the work Westerners want made.

HFB: Do you think it's a misimpression then, that lingering air of exploitation that hangs over having things made in China?

JK: I think that definitely happens in some industries but not in ceramics. These artisans, they pick and choose their projects. You're the one pitching to them, and you must convince them sometimes to work with you ... they always have work and they won't do anything they don't want to do.

HFB: So there's a lot more independence and agency than might be perceived?

JK: Certainly. There's a huge amount of change happening over there at the moment, both politically and culturally with the rise of new gallery spaces, which sometimes come at the cost of the old ceramics factories. There's this real divide between the decrepit and the new. From my apartment I used to be able to see the mountains and now I can't see anything.

HFB: Do you consider yourself to be primarily China-based?

JK: This year has been the most, probably a 70/30 split. I turned 30 and decided to take some time out and do a residency in Indonesia, which led to an exhibition in Sydney. But aside from that I pretty much told myself I was going to take 12 months off.

HFB: So this is still your rest year?

JK: I have pulled back. I'm making less, and thinking more. The macabre is something that I'll always be fascinated by, but it is definitely been more about life for me now. There are questions of life and the pressures of different stages, particularly as a woman. I've been a nomad for a decade and there's pressure from other people.

HFB: To curtail that?

JK: Yes.

HFB: Of course, there's an element of projected fear with such things. I used to be a lawyer, and when I quit, I had people telling me, "You're so brave, and I wish I could do that but I can't." And on one hand I was, "Of course you could. You just quit." But on the other I understood that they meant more; that there are these common parameters of human experience, like having a single residence and a stable career, and people are often wedded to them. Even if they don't like where that gets them. Which is odd, because we do only have one life--unless you're a true Buddhist of course--and they're often the people shouting "YOLO" on a Friday night. Do you think then that you might pick one place?

JK: I think I will always work in China in some sense. I'd love to have what I have in China in Australia--the set-up and the equipment. We'll have to wait and see what eventuates but I'm definitely planning to keep a foot in China. I'm doing a residency in Berlin next year and after that? I'd love to show in New York.

HFB: So, pulling back perhaps in China but with a view to world domination?

JK: Pretty much.

Henrietta Farrelly-Barnett is a current ceramics major at the ANU School of Art and also blogs about art, life and law at www.

Caption: The artist. Images courtesy of the author.
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Author:Farrelly-Barnett, Henrietta
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Apr 1, 2018
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