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MUMA Screens #4: Gabriella Hirst, Force Majeure

Gabriella Hirst
Force Majeure 2015–16
single channel high definition digital video
14 minutes 59 seconds
Monash University Collection
Purchased by the Faculty of Science 2016

For the fourth episode in MUMA’s ongoing MUMA Screens Program, artist Gabriella Hirst and Shelley McSpedden, Senior Curator, Shepparton Art Museum, discuss Hirst’s video Force Majeure, 2016, in a pre-recorded conversation that precedes an online screening of the work.

Hirst’s Force Majeure was originally commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art for NEW16. The work’s title comes from the legal term ‘force majeure’, drawn by the artist from ACCA’s artist contract. The term, which translates from the French as ‘greater force’, refers to unforeseeable circumstances or ‘acts of god’, including fires, earthquakes and catastrophic storms, which might prevent someone from fulfilling a contract, in this case the commissioned artwork.

The work depicts the artist’s repeated and at times comic attempts to paint a storm—in the midst of one. Force Majeure was filmed on several occasions on the island of Rügen, in northern Germany, a location selected by Hirst for its connection to painters from the German romantic tradition, including Caspar David Friedrich. The work critiques the European romantic landscape tradition, and questions artistic practice itself.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic it seems timely to revisit Hirst’s work. With the increased use of force majeure in ‘COVID-clauses’ in legal contracts, the work’s title resonates more strongly than ever. The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the creative and cultural sectors and has highlighted the precarity of employment for casual workers in these industries. Even though maintaining an art practice has never seemed more tenuous, artists continue to persist in the face of great adversity.

Gabriella Hirst is a Sydney-born artist currently living between Berlin and London.

Shelley McSpedden is Senior Curator at Shepparton Art Museum (SAM).


Shelly McSpedden:

Hi.

Gabriella Hirst:

Hi, how you going?

Shelly McSpedden:

Good. How are you going, Shelly?

Gabriella Hirst:

I'm great, Gab. So, thanks for meeting me today. I am calling you from Wurundjeri Country here in Melbourne.

Shelly McSpedden:

I'm on Cadigal Land here.

Gabriella Hirst:

Testing. Where are you holed up? Cause you're in lock down, aren't you?

Shelly McSpedden:

Yeah, I'm at my, I'm very lucky to be safe at my parents' place, but it is a very full house, and there's lots of music being played and Olympics being loudly, cheered along too. So I thought that the safest place to have this call was on planet outside.

Gabriella Hirst:

(laughing) Excellent. And I must apologise if you can hear some very loud children in the background. I'm also cooped up in lockdown. We've just gone into lockdown 6.0 here in Melbourne. So, and I'm in a tiny little townhouse in Melbourne, so there's a lot of love going on.

Shelly McSpedden:

So yes, where should we start Force Majeure?

Gabriella Hirst:

It's funny you bring this one up from the archive it's...

Shelly McSpedden:

Yeah, well maybe you can tell us about the title of where it comes from.

Gabriella Hirst:

Okay. Force Majeure is a legal term that I came across on the contract of this commission that I had with ACCA to make this work, and it is a clause in the case of Force Majeure, like a vast and overwhelming event that prevents you from making work or showing work or delivering a work. Then you are exempt from the terms of the contract, and it can be, I think it can be like a flood or a fire or, or a sickness.

Shelly McSpedden:

or a global pandemic

Gabriella Hirst:

Global pandemic. Exactly. But it's, I think it's termed also as like an act of God, but there was just something so theatrical about the term Force Majeure in this legal contract. It was an intimidating commission to make at that time, and I remember reading that and being like, so if everything, if I can't make this work, then, you know...(laughing)

Shelly McSpedden:

I've got it now.

Gabriella Hirst:

(laughing) I got it now. There's some kind of act of God. So yeah. And so Force Majeure, the piece is kind of framed around the simple premise of me attempting to paint a storm in the middle of a storm. And it's kind of this action of making whilst the work is being unmade at the same time, the wind and rain wipe clean, or even prevent kind of mark making on this watercolor canvas of watercolor paper that I was making a seascape on. But what, in the process of making this work, I didn't realise is that it's not actually so easy to find a storm and to find yourself amongst it, to be able to perform this act of like Force Majeure. And so what I had come up with as a kind of very basic idea, ended up taking multiple attempts over many months.

Shelly McSpedden:

It failed. (laughing).

Gabriella Hirst:

So much failure.

Shelly McSpedden:

So much failure, in your efforts for failure. I like it.

Gabriella Hirst:

Exactly. And so that's kind of the first part of the film is what is the outtake of so many outtakes of me in different locations waiting, like totally...

Shelly McSpedden:

For the perfect storm.

Gabriella Hirst:

Trying to wait for a storm. So many failed storms.

Shelly McSpedden:

So, you know, across all of your work you seem to have a real interest in this idea of, sort of grand attempts to depict nature, or to capture the things that are happening, the grand sublime or inspiring things that are happening around us and somehow take hold of them, grasp them. Do you want to talk about that a little bit, or why is that something that plays on your mind? What is it that you're exploring there?

Gabriella Hirst:

So, I guess I was really fascinated by this idea of like go out like a painter, like an artist with a capital A going out into the world and like trying to kind of capture this vast phenomenon, like a storm or the mountains, or like in Australia, like go into like this very problematic idea of going out into this vast inland area and capturing what was out there. I mean, there's so like my work since then has kind of gone more into kind of like a so-called Australia kind of focus on thinking about the romantic here. Here on, I mean, where I am on Cadigal country, but like here as in this so-called Australian continent.

But beforehand when I was in Germany, I was still kind of like more abstractly thinking about some of the 18th century romantic painters, I guess like the most well-known would be Caspar David Friedrich, this kind of like poster boy of Germanic romanticism. So when I was in Germany, I went to Dresden and I saw, I went to see a show about romanticism Caspar David Friedrich show. And I remember being really disappointed. Oh, it just like, not disappointed, but just taken aback slightly, that it's so small. (laughing)

Very little. So I hadn't ever seen reproductions beforehand, and I remember going in the gallery and being like, "oh, they're really little" finding it kind of absurd that these, this idea of this individual, being confronted by this big thing and then squeezing it into this little canvas. And I think that's some of the things I was thinking about with Force Majeure, this kind of the hubris of trying to kind of still, or contain a dynamic world within like a seemingly kind of like still image.

Shelly McSpedden:

I like there's this other really great, I guess, aspect of the work in the sense of you going out into the site, you know, being in nature. So it's not just about the majesty of nature itself, but about this kind of heroic, epic expedition of the artists out into the world. So tell us a little bit about how you made it and you know, where you made it and what that was like.

Gabriella Hirst:

I was looking for a particular image of a seascape that I guess was referencing some of these paintings. And I'd been thinking about certain artists at that time. I'd been thinking about a French artist called Iso Rae, who was a female Australian impressionist painter who had gone to live in this very romanticised artists' commune in the early 1900s. And also this painter called Ivan Ivanovski, who was a Russian court painter who famously made 3,000 very big seascapes, or maybe they're little, I don't know, I've never seen any. They're very big on the monitor. (laughing)

Yeah, kind of very heroic court paintings with storms, but he painted them all from his very plush studio in the land. And I just thought that just as this, what does that mean for a kind of idea of Western art of capture that it's kind of all done with this kind of cushiony distance? So that was some of the things I was thinking about, and I guess I couldn't so even ask you I guess he was based around like Crimean Peninsula. And so I went to France where Iso Rae had been. It was trying to chase where a storm was, and of course there was just like, I went there with my partner and we'd set up my little easel, and it just turned out to be... It was in November, but it just turned out to be the most beautiful weather. (laughing)

Shelly McSpedden:

How disappointing.

Gabriella Hirst:

And I just.. And then I went somewhere else, but I eventually ended up on Rügen, which is the island that Caspar David Friedrich would go to to paint in the north of Germany, former east as well, really interesting place. And we went to this town called Loma, which is very close to the famous chalk cliffs there and rented out a kind of a little holiday house, very small little holiday house out of season. So there was just no one there except for me and a couple of friends and again, just waited for storms and went like had this little car, I was driving to different parts of the island and just kept missing them. I had like every storm where the app with notifications on my phone, and we just kept missing everything.

It's actually starting to rain outside. (both laughing) So yeah, on that last day, there was a storm, a windy storm that was forecast for 5:00 AM that morning. And so by that time it had gotten into December, and it was really cold. I had this wetsuit that I was wearing on this kind of clothes that I guess is just my clothes, but started to be a bit like a costume. And so I got up at, before dawn. Everyone had left, and I had put my little camera in this waterproof kind of cylinder thing and used a truck strap and strapped it to a tree and set up my canvas, with my wetsuit underneath and was just waiting and it didn't come and I needed to move out of that place that day.

And it was just so disappointing, and that's the first section of the film. And then I went inside, took everything down, like packed up everything and had a hot shower and got out of, and had resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to make this work. And then this storm started to rise up, this act of God (laughing) and so I got dressed again really quickly and took everything outside and set it up and it's on this cliff edge. It looks a lot steeper than it is. That's actually, I shouldn't say that. It's still steep.

Shelly McSpedden:

It's very steep. (laughing)

Gabriella Hirst:

It's very, it just doesn't cut off. It looks like if you fell down, it would take you quite a long time to fall to your death as...

Shelly McSpedden:

I suppose. Yeah.

Gabriella Hirst:

Yeah, and then that's when.. That's when the film was made, yeah.

Shelly McSpedden:

Yeah, and it's kind of wondrous to think about this venturing out and this kind of quest to get the perfect weather and be in the right site and be in the site that is so imbued with all these histories and romanticism, and the epicness of nature, particularly at a time when we feel so trapped and so disconnected from sites like the possibility of traveling to the other side of the world and filming on location feels very...

Gabriella Hirst:

Yeah, it's absurd.

Shelly McSpedden:

Distant.

Gabriella Hirst:

Looking at this film thinking, I've just been thinking so many people who were signed up to produce and show certain works over the last couple of years, just have become public, become familiar with this term in a way that they usually would never have had to, well, hopefully would never had to. And yeah, Force Majeure is definitely, as a term and as a kind of a part of the creative industries, has become such a bigger thing. And yeah, I wonder how this work in its own, right? It's that not being able to make as well, that element of it...

Shelly McSpedden:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gabriella Hirst:

How that's on a different resonance.

Shelly McSpedden:

Well, I think looking at me watching it now has a different residence because in some senses, prior to this pandemic, I probably would have focused on the absurdity of it all, the hubris and the absurdity, but in some senses now it almost feels like an ode to resilience to keeping on keeping on.

Gabriella Hirst:

Yeah.

Shelly McSpedden:

In the face of adversity.

Gabriella Hirst:

Absolutely, which is nice that that's what it has taken on that resonance, because I guess the thing is at the end of the day, the film was made and...

Shelly McSpedden:

Yeah.

Gabriella Hirst:

Whether or not the character on screen made the painting, the film was made, this double layer.

Shelly McSpedden:

Yeah.

Gabriella Hirst:

So it's interesting, and I'm curious to think about how this work that's been, it was made, it feels so long ago now. It wasn't that long ago, but it feels so long ago because of the circumstances in which I was able to make it, to think about how it might be in a real time of Force Majeure.

Shelly McSpedden:

Mm.

Gabriella Hirst:

Well, I mean, of course they're have always been people in these times, but in a time where perhaps those of us who have had the luxury of not being in such a...

Shelly McSpedden:

Yeah.

Gabriella Hirst:

Beforehand, how we now start to kind of approach, think about making.

Shelly McSpedden:

Absolutely. I guess one of the interesting things about watching your practice evolve and some of the themes that have come out is I feel like there's a real focus or an interest, I guess, between sort of life happening in the world and how artists, but also institutions kind of interplay with those things and try to fix them or contain them. So it's kind of interesting thinking about your work and how it fits in the collection now, how this work sits in MUMA's Collection and what that means.

Gabriella Hirst:

Yeah. I mean, I was talking to someone the other day about this work, but also about my most recent work 'Darling, Darling', which we worked on together, which is about the conservation of a painting, which also is other body of water of The Darling River. Within the art gallery New South Wales collection, and about the conservation efforts to kind of keep that painting at us contained visually in a certain way, through kind of its cleaning and tending and the kind of maintenance of its varnish layer. And I've been thinking about that film in regards to humidity and how within that gallery, what was required to keep that image still, and kind of contained and preserved is to maintain the water levels in the gallery, but also to kind of repair the cracks that are made from the different layers moving because of humidity in the gallery.

And then thinking about Force Majeure in a kind of more abstract way as also being a kind of attempt to contain humidity. If you think about an individual trying to kind of like still, visually, a seascape, so I guess thinking about my practice in terms of a kind of high hydrofeminist kind of ideology of water containment, of containing bodies of water, whether that be through pictures or looking at a kind of hydro institutional critique or something like that, of containment of water.

Yeah, it's interesting to think about that. And then to think about how this, the film has, is now stored in MUMA's Collection, and what are the, how is that work then kind of kept dry and kept watertight in kind of different ways? How was it stored so that in this kind of time where we have this climate that is, we don't know what's going to happen in the future, in terms of fluctuations of climate that we, that might be different from what we've kind of had to handle before. How is that object contained? So, yeah, it's kind of from Force Majeure ideas of climatic and kind of visual containment of bodies of water has kind of expanded and has become more and more developed and perhaps more complex, but maybe I need to kind of return to just going out and painting in a storm occasionally (laughing) to get out of my head. I realised that I can't control it at the end of the day. It's all going to come back at me.