Over the next few days we will be introducing you in turn to our seven resident artists who will be exhibiting in the June Mostra on Friday 17 June. With the mostra opening in four days we spoke to Joseph Griffiths about how his time in Rome has influenced what material he chose to work with, as well as how living at the BSR stimulated his creative process.
Joseph Griffiths (Australia Council Resident)
Joseph Griffiths’ drawings, sculptures and site-specific installations include reconstructed sandstone ruins, archaeological illustrations, improvised living structures, and carved sculptural artefacts. They are camouflaged replicas of imagined parent-objects, which condense the ancient and the present, the natural and the cultural, growth and decay. His Fountains assemble travertine, marble, water, moss, light and sound to form an ecosystem – a fragile network of relations between the significance of water in ancient Rome, the geological formation of Travertine and the acoustic territory of church bells, with cycles of entropy and regrowth.
As part of your residency you have been in the field with the Archaeology department of the BSR, how does this interest feed into your work?
I worked with the Archaeology department doing a geophysical survey near Portus, with the aim of locating moles and a Pharos associated with the Claudian port, that was built there. What interested me about the GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) is that in order to map the subterranean landscape, you actually have to traverse the full surface at a one to one scale dragging the antennae. You make an image by moving through space, it becomes a physical drawing tool, with a lot of potential for my work. As archaeologists, we were looking for man-made forms, trying to detect from the GPR images human traces amongst basically natural substrate. Instead we found very distinctive and expressive lines of geological banding, left behind by centuries of retreating coastline. It’s plausible to imagine that such natural occurrences were influenced by infrastructural projects, the diverting of water sources which were crucial to ancient roman city building.
How does your interest in this translate into your art?
The history of Rome is known more than anything else through its material artifacts, and what artists and archaeologists often share is to try to understand people’s behaviour through their objects, images, material culture. The archaeological work was an important transition in my thinking, as it showed how the the historical binary between nature and culture are often merged or interdependent. By not finding the man-made thing, not being able to delineate a straight line or something associated with the man-made, but yet finding these other marks that look very textural reminds you that a culture like Rome was making these infrastructure changes like rerouting rivers, they were contributing to their landscape as well as being influenced by it. The geological banding that we found in this particular case may not have been caused by Roman history, but it could have been, which is what made it interesting for me.
I have been working with travertine, which is a stone which is formed by the geothermic processing of calcium-carbonate in groundwater seepage though the bedrock. It was used prominently in Roman architecture and in today’s streetscape, and this notion of seepage became interesting in its relation to the radar, seeping through the layers of the earth and forming an image of the hardest material, of the most resistance. For the upcoming mostra I’m making a series of ‘fountains’ which are about as simple a fountain as you can make; it’s basically a roof leak and a puddle. However, this is in reference to this formation process, trying to deal with this seepage and the cycles of geological decay and formation, which have produced the travertine tiles which form part of the installation.
Have there been any sculptures in Rome that have inspired you?
In terms of travertine I think that it has been the abundance of its uses and its endless variation, the way that the oxygen and moisture escapes from the stone and leaves it with a beautiful surface, superficially I am very attracted to that. However I am most interested in how the same material is used in both the most sophisticated and elaborate monuments, but also in street pavements and very perfunctory things, and how often it is in a state of disrepair – there are chunks of it laying around, you gain a very immediate understanding of the weight of it. Even if you don’t have access to use the material itself you can move it in the street, there is an immediate connection between the influence of the materials and how the weight of something determines how you position it.
Has your interest in these materials been inspired by your residency at the BSR?
I certainly wouldn’t be looking at travertine if I wasn’t in Rome, and I don’t think I would be looking at fountains either. The presence of water and the value of water, not just as a life source, but also as a symbolic triumph or trophy. The fountains herald the great civic achievement of the empire and there is a very interesting relationship when you confront this. The ancient waterways were in need of constant maintenance because of the huge build-up of calcium carbonate from the water.
What has been your favourite thing about your time as an award-holder at the BSR?
The whole process has allowed me to be exploratory and I have the time and support to challenge myself to work in ways I normally wouldn’t and with materials that I am not used to. Part of that is to do with the impossibility of imposing too much on Rome, so my work has become quite light of touch here. But it’s also been to do with this complete privilege of time and space that you wouldn’t get when you are at home in your own studio and with the normal day-to-day requirements of life. It’s really the time we have as artists at the BSR that is so important. In terms of the BSR itself it has to be the conversation; the collection and community of people who are here at any one time has been amazingly fruitful. Edmund [Thomas, Balsdon Fellow]’s talk about the Pantheon threshold got me very excited at the beginning, and from working with the archaeology department, with Steve Kay [Archaeology Officer] and Sophie Hay [Geophysics Officer]. The depth and quality of having a conversation ongoing for three months, with the other artists here and scholars is very unique. I can almost map all the moves I have made here based on those conversations and influence I have had from the great people here.
Joseph’s work will be exhibited alongside the other six resident artists in the June Mostra; open 16.30-19.00, Saturday 18 June until Saturday 25 June 2016, closed Sundays.
Photo by Antonio Palmieri, interview conducted by Katherine Paines.