Mari Hirata is a young Australian contemporary artist based on the Gold Coast in Queensland. She graduated from Queensland College of Art at Griffith University with a Masters of Arts in Visual Art in 2002, and since then has gone on to exhibit her photographs in numerous solo and group exhibitions.
In 2010 Mari was included in two major group shows in Queensland. Early in the year ‘The State We’re In – Contemporary Queensland Photography” at the University of Queensland Art Museum. In April/May “Flying Colours” at the Gold Coast City Art Gallery celebrated ten years of alumni at the Queensland College of Art. A select group of six successful Gold Coast locals with national reputations (including other well-known artists such as Michael Zavros and Abbey McCulloch) were included in the exhibition.
To date Mari’s practice has mainly been focused on photography, although she has recently begun to take some of the themes from her photography and incorporate them into new sculpture works. Her work has evolved quite naturally by using and developing the same core themes of dislocation, alienation and personal relationships whilst experimenting with different materials.
The particular work for which Mari is most closely associated with, a colour print entitled Blue Cliff (2003) has evolved into her latest series of black and white works entitled Shadowplay. All the while Mari has used various types of shoes as a device to enable her to explore meaning in her work. I had a conversation with Mari recently and asked her some questions I’d always wanted to know about her.
I’m sure you’ve already answered this question dozens of times but lets start with the obvious –why the shoes?
You’re right. I have answered it hundreds of times so I can do it with my eyes closed. Do you really want to know?
Yes definitely. It’s a good story.
Okay. I was working as a Japanese interpreter for a company on the Gold Coast who arranged weddings and sometimes we would also organise wedding photos of the bride and groom. Most of our clients were Japanese and they often purchased a “photo package “. This basically meant that as the assistant I had to go out in the heat and traipse over sand dune after sand dune so that these happy couples could have their wedding photos taken on the beach in hired white wedding shoes.
The shoes we used for the bridal party became worn out and the company decided to get rid of them. At the time I was an art student and being a bit of a hoarder and a lover of “multiples” of objects, I asked if I could keep the shoes although I had no idea how I would use them at the time. I was thinking about a sculpture of some kind. As it turned out, the idea popped into my head one day to take the shoes back to the beach in a kind of ironic twist and take photos of them in the beach landscape. I got some very strange looks from beach goers at the time, but I was quite happy with the photos I managed to take and “Blue Cliff” has definitely opened many doors for me.
Were you aware of the infamous Queensland ‘white shoe brigade ‘when you began your work?
No, funnily enough I had no idea. After I’d done the first series of photos, someone mentioned it to me and I thought “Oh dear” but it was all too late by then. I guess in another twist, the idea of the gaudy or the tasteless has actually complemented the meaning in my work so over time I’ve embraced the idea rather than rejecting it.
You’ve always lived on the Gold Coast. Do you think this has helped or hindered your artistic process?
It’s a bit of both I guess. When I moved to the Gold Coast from Japan with my parents at the age of 10 I felt very much like an outsider. But as someone who was of mixed ethic background in Japan I’d always felt like that anyway. The kids at school in Japan used to call me “gaijin” (an alien/outsider). If I hadn’t been living on the Gold Coast I definitely wouldn’t have had the inspiration for my original series of works so I have to be grateful for that. It’s been my home now for many years.
Mari Hirata Lustre, 2010
Courtesy of the artist.
Commentators on your work always refer to you as being Japanese-Australian. Does this description bother you?
My father is Japanese and my mother was of Dutch and Sri Lankan descent so I don’t really feel “Japanese” although my work has definitely been influenced by Japanese tradition and Japanese art. I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider wherever I have been, and I think that’s quite obvious when you see my artwork. I definitely feel more at home in Australia that I have done anywhere else.
I understand you still use a film camera in your work? Why so?
I have two cameras – both use film and I generally use a Seagull TLR (twin lens reflex) Medium Format camera with 120 film which I bought from a good friend of mine. Most of my early work was taken with this and I always develop my own prints. I like working with older more traditional methods because it seems to give a true quality to the images that I’ve been unable to achieve digitally.
Can you tell us about the process you used for the works in your last series of work “Shadowplay”?
Yes. The works in this series are all photograms so I haven’t used a camera at all. There is no film and no negative. Although the process itself is quite simple the work is very slow. These works use lots of clear plastic shoes that I found in a discount shop and bought in bulk!
I play with the balance between light and shadow and the designs I have created are very symmetrical based on the idea of the Rorschach inkblot test. I’ve arranged the shoes and set them on a large piece of paper until I’m happy with the design. Then I make a “map” of the design so that when I get into the darkroom I’ve got some direction of where I want to go. It’s quite difficult to work in the dark but once I’m happy with the shoes laid out on the photographic paper I expose the shoes and paper to the light using a torch. After removing the shoes, I develop the paper. Each shot becomes a ‘one off’ in the sense that although I can reproduce the design, every work is a different exposure and therefore not the same as the last. I love the dark little lines that are created on the paper by the refraction of light on the clear plastic. They are totally individual and unique.
And the Japanese influence is there again in these works?
Yes definitely. I’ve always loved collections and multiples of objects. I started experimenting with the shoes in my original work but after doing several series of works based on the white shoes and my own Japanese heritage, I decided to explore the Japanese woodblock method in my more recent work. The Japanese name for this is Ukiyo-e which roughly translates as ‘pictures of the floating world’. The concept of the prints is to make quite a flat two-dimensional surface and, for me, the most important part of the work is to explore the positive and negative space.
Your photographs have been compared to that of Olive Cotton as a result of the formality of composition, their femininity and perhaps because you’ve often used domestic settings for your work. Are you fond of her work? What do you think about the comparison?
Well I am a little embarrassed by the comparison but I do love her work. I think she is one of Australia’s best photographers and “Tea Cup Ballet” from 1935 is definitely a favourite of mine.
Some of your work, particularly the earlier photographs are quite surreal and I also found them rather funny. Do you agree?
Oh yes, I definitely think they are. Works in the Domestic Bliss series, for example like “Heels Hoist #4 (Play)” and “Last night’s dirty shoes” were obviously designed to be funny – to point at the ridiculous whilst attempting to make quite serious comments about cross cultural issues and feminism to name a couple. I guess some of my work could also be considered surreal in that my intention is to disorient the audience with a kind of fantastical image. By confounding the viewer, I am trying to make people think a little more closely about the subject matter itself. Or at least I hope that’s what they do.
Your work has kept the same core theme overall but you have been very inventive with the process in a Kylie Minogue or Madonna kind of way – that is to say, the evolvement has been slow but always interesting, and it’s definitely kept us on our toes. Where to next?
Well I’ve been experimenting with sculpture of late, using the shoes once more. The only problem is that if I start making sculptures from the shoes I have, I won’t then have an ongoing supply for other photography projects in the future – so it’s a bit of a double edged sword. I love the challenge of working out where I will travel to next and I have a lot of ideas so… watch this space.