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At the very beginning of your career, after studying at CalArts, you moved to New York and, together with artists Jeff Koons and Peter Halley, showed at Meyer Vaisman’s artist-run gallery International with Monument. This group of artists was then labeled as “Neo-Geo” and exhibited at Sonnabend Gallery. I remember you saying how you felt distant from them, both generationally and artistically, and closer to painters such as John Currin and Richard Phillips, whom you met as their (very young) teacher at Yale.
I think it was as a result of being a bit too precocious and driven that I ended up being identified with a group of artists that were quite a bit older than myself. While I very much liked the work of some of these “contemporaries,” and there was certainly a healthy inter-artist dialogue in place, I never liked the way the media built a tight, restrictive little space in which I was now supposed to stay and behave. Being both British and American, literally and culturally, and also hanging out with what amounted to a sort of British mafia when the YBAs made their first forays into New York, I was one of the natural landing strips. For a great moment there was quite a scene, mostly centered on the loft of fellow Brit and curator Clarissa Dalrymple as well as several favorite bars in south SoHo and the East Village. They were all there—Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, et al.—and for some reason, they held the work I was doing at the time in very high esteem, higher in fact than it was held by the establishment in New York at that time. It was also at this point that I came into contact with the Yale crowd. I had gone up there to give a lecture and studio critiques and was bowled over by the group that was then in the graduate program. This was a class that included Matthew Barney, Michael Joo, Michael Joaquim Grey, Sean Landers, John Currin and Richard Phillips. Pretty soon these two groups, the Brits and the Americans, were mixing it up socially and artistically. It was a very vibrant and heady moment, and I found myself right at the heart of it all.
After leaving New York, you lived in Brazil before finally establishing yourself in Bali. While many people see this as a Gauguin-like escape, I actually see it as a comeback, considering the fact that you were born in Barbados and spent your childhood in Hawaii, raised by your father, an anthropologist and linguist, and your mother, a writer. Can you describe the influence of these places and people on your work?
New York was a necessity; the connections and networks I built up during my twelve years there are still the primary ones that serve me to this day, almost a quarter of a century later and all the way on the other side of the world. I love New York madly, but I always knew I was not made of the stuff to survive northeastern winters and great shrieking metropolises. Indeed, as the child of an anthropological linguist, I had lived most of my peripatetic childhood on a series of tropical islands. I knew one day I would have to move to a climate and circumstance that better suited the tropical creature that I always was. By 1993, with a market crash, a divorce, and my career suddenly floundering, I thought the time was right. My original plan was to travel with no particular destination, carrying two suitcases: one for personal items, the other for art supplies. I was going full vagabond, living in hotel rooms and rented villas, and just making drawings and small paintings for the foreseeable future. I ended up down on a beach in the jungles of Bahia, Brazil. It worked for a while, but there were some logistical problems with communication, obtaining art supplies and shipping work out. There was also another small matter of a local Bahiana girl and her angry gangster boyfriend. I decided I better make tracks, with the girl in tow, to the other side of the world. I knew Bali well, knew that getting art supplies would not be a problem, and that the export business was flourishing, so there’d be no issues shipping out work. My original idea was to keep it all dead simple, just paint and surf every day.
You once said, “When I lived in New York I used Canal Street and its Chinese vendors as an extension of my studio; now I use Balinese gift shops the same way.” Can you explain your relationship to what is vernacular, kitsch and decorative?
It wasn’t so much the Chinese vendors as it was the various non-artistic utility and hardware shops that flourished there on the edge of Chinatown. Very much influenced by the likes of Donald Judd and the California plastic artists like John McCracken and DeWain Valentine, I was looking for anything that was not the traditional paint and canvas. Canal Street was like a big candy store, with all manner of fasteners, spray guns, industrial paints, laminates and hardware on offer. All these stores were clustered around the famous Pearl Paint, the largest art supply store in the world at the time. Years later, when I had been in Bali quite some time, I started using the same sort of thinking again in the fabrication of new work. The difference now was that they did not have the industrial style hardware so readily available on Canal Street. Here, they had a veritable explosion of handicraft items made for the tourist and export markets. So I just applied the postmodern language of contextualization to a new set of objects. It would be a mistake to say I had abandoned old practices simply because this newer work looked so different. It was more akin to Paul Gauguin’s “Oceanic” work looking wildly different only because he had wildly different subjects to work with.
Since your arrival in Bali in 1993, your relationship with the local scene has changed. If the beginning was characterized by isolation, I see that now you have a strong presence and that you nurture dialogues with the leading artists in the country, such as our common friend Entang Wiharso. How do you see yourself in the Indonesian art scene? Will you ever move from Bali to, say, Jogjakarta, where most of the artists live and work?
It is true that when I first moved to Bali I had every desire not to go down the road of what I saw as so many wispy ex-pat Gauguin-wannabes. They painted “smaltzy Balinesia” and quaint local folkloricka with globules of impressionistic pastels. It made me ill. Now you might be wondering, isn’t Bali supposed to be a hotbed of thriving artistic community? Well, this is just another one of the silly fictions of tourist brochures. There are about five serious artists on the whole island; all the rest who have any real drive or ambition have hightailed for Jogjakarta or Bandung on Java, or even further afield. What Bali does have is a thriving handicrafts community, an industry catering to the throngs of tourists that wash up on these shores by the millions each year—hardly a desirable source of nutrient for the serious contemporary artist.
But that was then, and a hell of a lot has changed in the twenty-two years that I have called Bali home. The single biggest change is of course the Internet, which has allowed the international art world to spread in a big way. With Hong Kong and Singapore becoming important hubs, one realizes that one could actually have a long and successful career without ever having to include New York City in the mix. With the Internet and the new energy in Asia, I began to break out of my self-imposed isolation and started making regular forays to Jogjakarta and the other centers. Jogjakarta was a revelation, a real pulsating metropolis that hosted a truly vibrant and surprisingly bohemian art scene. Like New York all those years ago with the British invasion, artists are just drawn to one another like magnets. It was not long before I felt as much a part of this world as I had felt in the others before.
Lucie Fontaine is a self-described “art employer” running a space in Milan since 2007 and a satellite space in a traditional house in Tokyo since 2013. In 2014 she opened Kayu, a branch in Bali.
Ashley Bickerton (Barbadian, b. 1959) is an artist who lives and works in Bali. He is represented by White Cube, London/Hong Kong/São Paulo; Lehmann Maupin, New York/Hong Kong; and 313 Art Project, Seoul. Bickerton’s upcoming projects include a group exhibition at Museum Brandhorst, Munich, from 13 November.
Photo credit: Dustin Ederer