‘Placeholders’, a sculpture and installation work, is the latest manifestation of Julie Shiels (B.Ed 1986; MA 2006) ongoing PhD work with the Victorian College of the Arts; an artistic study which utilises the readymade space in clear plastic packaging as an armature to explore our 21st century consumer culture. The first element comprises of 20 freestanding bronze sculptures cast from empty plastic packaging, congregated on pink board where movement traces are marked. The second element features a faux Latin text, known commonly in the design world as placeholder text called Lorem Ipsum. ‘The objects and the text in this work might be familiar but not recognisable’, Shiels says. ‘The bronze sculptures are cast from the empty spaces in clear plastic packaging, but bear little physical resemblance to the toys and implements originally enclosed in those transparent voids. Their origins are obscured and abstracted, just as we are distanced from the industrial processes used to produce the original goods.’

Now showing: Julie Shiels’ ‘Placeholders’

In ‘Placeholders’, Melbourne artist Julie Shiels continues her preoccupation with social narrative and mass consumption, preserving objects, which are either rejected, overlooked or abandoned.

By Lieu Thi Pham

‘Placeholders’, a sculpture and installation work, is the latest manifestation of Julie Shiels (B.Ed 1986; MA 2006) ongoing PhD work with the Victorian College of the Arts; an artistic study which utilises the readymade space in clear plastic packaging as an armature to explore our 21st century consumer culture.

The first element comprises of 20 freestanding bronze sculptures cast from empty plastic packaging, congregated on pink board where movement traces are marked. The second element features a faux Latin text, known commonly in the design world as placeholder text called Lorem Ipsum.

‘The objects and the text in this work might be familiar but not recognisable’, Shiels says. ‘The bronze sculptures are cast from the empty spaces in clear plastic packaging, but bear little physical resemblance to the toys and implements originally enclosed in those transparent voids. Their origins are obscured and abstracted, just as we are distanced from the industrial processes used to produce the original goods.’

Julie Shiels, ‘Lacuna’ (detail) Lomo camera, hammock hook and bike light. Resin casts from the empty space in plastic packaging 400 x 180cms
Julie Shiels, ‘Lacuna’ (detail) Lomo camera, hammock hook and bike light. Resin casts from the empty space in plastic packaging 400 x 180cms

 

In this anthropological exploration, Shiels uses this artistic framework to materialise the fleeting, and often absent, labour process, creating relics in an attempt to interpret the material culture of our post-industrial society.

‘My work is about reconsidering the value of the things we take for granted – if we don’t find ways of describing the ephemeral then I believe history disappears,’ she says. ‘I think when this period of excess is over – we will be stunned at the amount of material consumption – we’re going to run out of resources and we need to find a way of interpreting that prospect.’

With these environmental themes present, Shiels’ work is often interpreted as a comment on sustainability. Although Shiels concedes it ‘can be read this way’, she is clear that it’s not her primary concern.

‘I am not trying to save the planet. I suppose I just want to make work that reflects what we make, consume and throwaway,’ she explains. ‘I think that it [the artwork] is asking how will we understand ourselves as a society in the future. I don’t have the answers because it is only with the passage of time these questions will be understood. But by capturing something about the everyday, we get a glimpse of what that might be.

Shiels’ interest in mass consumption began in 2006 when she was walking around her St Kilda neighbourhood. On this auspicious day, something on the ground caught her eye, spurring a lifelong interest in abandoned objects.

‘I picked up this package, this fabulous coral shaped relic; I didn’t know what it was. I thought I should cast it, I thought I had to have that shape, so it all started from there. I took it to the hardware shop; they didn’t know what it was. Two years later, I discovered it came from a sex shop!’

Julie Shiels, Trace #2 – Linden Centre of Contemporary Arts (photo by John Brash)
Julie Shiels, Trace #2 – Linden Centre of Contemporary Arts (photo by John Brash)

Placeholders joins Shiels’ past works (Traces #1 (2011) Traces #2 (2012), Flock (2009), Rubbish Theory (2009), Sleeper (2009), in its thematic exploration of obsolescence, abandonment and redemption.

Shiels says that in recent years she has developed a ‘more subtle’ approach to her art, but social narrative will forever remain at the core of her practice.

‘I’m not going to leave the social narrative,’ she explains. ‘I think it needs to be there for me. It’s been there since the 1980s. I’d say that it’s too central to who I am as a person.’

Shiels’ interest in her community is evident in her blog projects, City Traces and I Love St Kilda, which act as visual diaries and a source of inspiration. Besides producing work for galleries, Shiels produces street art and public installations, often uncommissioned.

Those familiar with Shiels’ art career will recall her as a founding member of Another Planet Posters, a group in the 1980s that made silkscreens with overt political messages. This was the starting point for her ongoing interest in street art. Today, Shiels continues this guerrilla practice but under a pseudonym.

‘What I see as exciting and liberating about street art is that there’s no gatekeepers; you’re not relying on people to approve or give you space to exhibit. My practice of stencilling hard rubbish with text is so immediate; I see a mattress or a couch on the street and then I think up, or conceive or discover a quote that I want to put on it. My work is very site specific – often the quote, the object and the space will have a relationship with one each other.’

‘As an artist, there are a lot of restrictions, with restricted budget, with time . My unauthorised work which in my case is not illegal is  very spontaneous and it is also democratic in the sense that everyone has access to it. If people don’t like it, they just up end the mattress or couch so the text is obscured or they call council and get the item hauled away – it’s fleeting, it’s immediate.’

Julie Shiels, ‘Lacuna’ (wall detail), Resin casts from the empty space in plastic packaging, 2012
Julie Shiels, ‘Lacuna’ (wall detail), Resin casts from the empty space in plastic packaging, 2012

 

Despite having won countless awards, exhibiting at solo and group shows in Australia and all over the world, Shiels says that being an artist is a constant challenge. ‘It’s a very competitive and difficult environment to work in. You have to find a space to exhibit (I’m not represented). I have to work hard to get shows…that’s the hardest thing.’

Besides teaching in the Art and Public Spaces postgraduate program at RMIT, Shiels is currently undertaking her second year of PhD study at the VCA. She says having Su Baker (Director of the VCA) and Kate Just (Lecturer in the School of Art) as supervisors have been invaluable to her professional development.

Shiels also credits the VCA for enabling her to (materially) realise her latest artistic vision. ‘I made those bronze works myself [referring to her Placeholders sculptures], the access to the sculpture workshop and the technicians who work there have been really fantastic; it’s given me the opportunity to do things that I wouldn’t have done.’

‘Placeholders’, a new exhibition by Julie Shiels, is showing at Platform Contemporary Art Spaces, Degraves Street Subway, Melbourne.

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.