Verso speaks to Julia Robinson, an artist who works in the field of sculpture and installation, about winning The Advertiser Contemporary Art Prize in 2016. Robinson's practice has long been focused on themes she feels are inherently human, sex and death. She explores how humans negotiate these concepts through ritual, religion and fear. In her new body of works she focuses on fertility and life, particularly in relation to the cycle of the seasons. Robinson is interested in how this seasonality may speak to ideas of sex and procreation being a primal urge.
What was your involvement in SALA last year?
Last year I had a solo exhibition at GAGPROJECTS that was registered as part of SALA. I was also a finalist in the Advertiser Contemporary Art Prize. For a few years now I have also been a part of the SALA advisory panel, which is a group of artists, brought together by Penny Griggs and Kate Moskwa to give feedback on SALA. We discuss the progress and direction of the festival and try to offer up new approaches to events and advice on how to keep artists involved and keep the festival responsive to the evolving arts ecology.
How long did it take you to put the show together?
I am going to say it was about 8 or 9 months. I started it in November or December 2015 and it opened in late July 2016.
How did you become nominated for The Advertiser Contemporary Art Prize? How does the process work?
It is a prize that you apply to be part of. The criteria are you have to have a show registered with SALA and you have to submit a recent work to be displayed in the Advertiser office foyer. Every year SALA has a range of awards available, but the only one I am really eligible for is the Contemporary Art Award, based on the media I work with and where I am in my career, so it was exciting when I was shortlisted.
When you found out you were nominated for the award, from a career point of view, did you have a good feeling about it? If so, why?
It was wonderful to have a shot at The Advertiser Contemporary Art Prize because previous SALA shows I had been in had been eligible, but I didn’t have a work available at the time that could go into The Advertiser office. When you are working towards a show for many months, finding a recent work that’s not part of that show to display elsewhere isn’t always an option.
It is also exciting to have a prize that celebrates South Australian artists during SALA but is inclusive in terms of age, career level, media or thematic concern. To find an art prize where I can choose what I want to display is quite unusual and it was great to be involved.
How has The Advertiser Contemporary Art Prize benefited your career?
It’s a high profile award for SALA and for Adelaide, so it gave me some great publicity and probably boosted attendance for my GAGPROJECTS show, The Song of Master John Goodfellow on at the same time. For any artist, exposure is of course valuable. It’s potentially of long term benefit to my career, and it’s always a great feeling to be acknowledged.
It’s also a monetary prize so it directly supports my practice. Artists, I’ve found, can be quite uncomfortable talking about money. I often feel awkward or embarrassed about it (for example if I sell a work), like I feel this need to justify it in some way, when really I should feel proud because I work hard. But as with so many artists, for the most part, I fund my own practice. I occasionally get grants, which I apply for in competitive rounds and I’ve been incredibly lucky and had a lot of support from Arts SA and Australia Council for the Arts. But while that’s money for exhibitions or particular career opportunities, essential for my practice to operate, it’s not day-to-day running costs. So winning a cash prize is - let’s be honest - bloody amazing. It’s like a little well done for all your hard work.
Have you received other art prizes?
No, I haven’t – not since high school! But this year I was a finalist in my first official national prize, the Guirguis New Art Prize, which is an acquisitive art prize held at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. The Guirguis New Art Prize is a nominated prize. You do have to apply for it but you have to be nominated first by a curator. And just recently I found out I have been shortlisted for the Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize. So things are changing!
What advice would you give artists who are preparing for their first SALA show this year?
Their first SALA show? It’s probably the advice I’d give anyone preparing for any show: make the best work you can make. But specifically for SALA, make the most of it, get out and see stuff! Support your colleagues as you hope they will support you. Attend events if you can, like artist talks and the Artist Voice Forum.
I think the thing with SALA is to get into the spirit of it! It’s a time – like The Fringe – where Adelaide is flooded with art. It’s a great time to sink your teeth into it and be a little overwhelmed, because it is a huge festival and it's growing every year, but it’s great for a month to just indulge in it.
In short put your best foot forward, work hard and show your best. Especially if it’s your first SALA, it’s exciting to get your name in the catalogue because you don’t know how many people are seeing it!
How many SALA shows have you been involved in?
Gosh, I don’t know… probably several including group and solo shows. You can’t do it every year because it’s not always good timing and you might have other commitments either side of August. But I engage in SALA every year whether I am exhibiting or not.
Tell us what being an early-career artist means? What opportunities are available to you?
I guess I identify as an early career artist. I know those categories are evolving all the time but I think it is important to have more levels than just emerging and established artists.
For me, one of the biggest things about being an artist is that it’s like running a marathon – it involves endurance. That’s not a bad thing because it means you are in it for the long haul, you're in it to sustain a career. I am not interested in fading out - I want to be an artist my whole life. So, being in the early stages of my career means I am getting recognition where I want it and I feel I have my career pointed in the right direction - but you still have to keep pushing. Arguably at every stage it’s like this. For me, it’s always about making good work, the best work I can, at every stage of my career and for every opportunity. But really, I am at the first leg of the marathon; my leg warmers are still fresh! It’s still tough and hard work but that's what it’s about.
What steps did you take to get to being an early-career artist?
The most important thing I thought about when I left art school was taking and making my own opportunities; specifically, the right opportunities for me. It’s a cliché I know, but I thought about being at the bottom of the ladder I wanted to climb. So, for me it was deciding what direction I wanted my career to go in and seeing a vision 20-30 years in the future of where I wanted my practice and my work to be. From there it was about working hard and identifying and pursuing opportunities that I felt would put me on the right path. I hope that I’ve always made the best work I can - I haven’t always loved every show I have done, but that’s par for the course. You are sometimes going to look back and think ‘oh, that’s a patch I’m not really sure about now!’ but at the time I would have been putting my best out there.
I truly believe in working your hardest. I think that’s the thing about being an artist, you’ve got to be prepared to keep working and keep working and keep working.
Have you got anything planned for SALA this year / What’s on the go at the moment?
Participation directly in SALA this year hasn’t worked out for me because it is bookended by two other exhibitions. I just had a solo show at Artspace Ideas Platform in Sydney and now I am making work for the Tamworth Textile Triennial in October. So I am pretty much flat out at the moment. But I will go to a lot of events and I am on the SALA advisory panel still so I will be attending the Artists Voice Forum. Perhaps most excitingly though, I recently wrote an essay for this year’s SALA monograph on the remarkable Christopher Orchard. That will be launched during SALA – my first writing gig – so it will be wonderful to hold a copy and share a little in Chris’s joy.