in conversation with Georgia Reed
New and old Canberran residents and visitors alike have admired the National Capital with its distinctive architecture and unique fusion and integration of bush and built environments. Often ignored however, as we wander within Canberra’s scenic and peaceful public spaces, is the complex presence of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Headquarters, the Australian Signals Directorate, Parliament House, the War Memorial, and weapons manufacturers. Australian interdisciplinary visual artist, Katy Mutton, has produced public projects which have illuminated the concealed and complicated aspects of Canberra itself, aspects of which its residents are often unaware.
“Canberra is a really multi-layered place (…) its illusions and façade are interesting (…) so much is hidden, and you can choose to peel back those layers or not. I choose to look underneath, and I still appreciate it for what it is.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
Mutton is quiet, perceptive, and intelligent with a fascinating understanding of the world. Her artwork is captivating and thought-provoking, discussing dark and intense subject matter, ultimately evoking important conversations about the world we inhabit. It is her unique and well-researched perspective that motivates us to explore who she is as an artist, what has influenced her, and what drives and inspires her to make these works which foreground complex issues.
To Katy, Canberra is home; a vision of a utopia in its planning and development but
“I still love where I live but I see the problems. I see the hypocrisy and I think you can love somewhere and also find it problematic in the same way you can love someone and also have that be problematic.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
Katy’s fascination with planned and purpose built cities and communities has resonances in her exhibition ‘The Picket Sentinels’ (2018) which was derived from the Post War Project. This exhibition, which explored intergenerational trauma and the impacts of war, focussed on Red Cliffs, a purpose-built community of settlement blocks for returning World War One soldiers.
“I’m interested in purpose-built communities as well, like purpose-built cities or anything that is established in that particular planned way(…)”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
Katy has also been invited to contribute to the larger ‘Canberra Brasilia Project’ which involves curating across culture and distance. These cities exhibit renowned and unique architecture and picturesque landscapes whilst integrating and hiding the mechanisms of government in plain sight. Katy can envision many synergies between Canberra and Brasilia despite their distinct populations and politics. She views Brasilia as complicated, in much the same way as she views Canberra.
“I imagine it [Brasilia] in a very connected way to Canberra and part of that is because I also see it as a utopian vision and, in this idea of a planned city, there is a similar vein to the way which it’s built up.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
Katy appreciates the differences in populations and politics between Canberra and Brasilia but also perceives synergies between the two cities despite physical and cultural distance. Her response has been influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, as she highlights how our perceptions of cities and daily interactions have been altered.
“(…) the pandemic has really muddied the way we see cities, humans, countries, and interactions.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
This pandemic has dictated huge areas of our lives. In Canberra, we have been lucky. Throughout last year, within the artistic community, Mutton emphasises that although she hasn’t interacted with as many people as she normally would she hasn’t felt like she’s lost a sense of community.
“I just feel like we’ve all been going through this thing together-apart. I feel like it’s been more about internal journeys for everybody. For many people I know, it’s been a time for more introspection and reflection on what we’re doing.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
For artists, their reaction to the pandemic has been to redirect the path of creation and reset areas of exploration that they have previously been devoted to. The pandemic has had a huge impact on how Mutton has felt about her research especially in relation to topics on privacy. The COVID-19 app in Australia has raised issues regarding privacy which she has previously explored in works considering surveillance, anti-surveillance, and forms of dissent.
“It’s quite strange to have a year unfurl in the way that it did (…) In times of crisis governments will often roll out different systems, so for example wanting to surveil populations for purposes like health, but when they put those pieces of legislation out, it’s often quite hard to wind back because they are often quite broad. They [governmental legislation and systems] can be extended or used in ways for which they weren’t necessarily designed.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
Whilst the pandemic has greatly reduced the capacity for in-person artistic collaboration, the value of collaboration has not changed. Mutton is a trained printmaker (printmaking being collaborative in process), and she has also produced large public projects which require the work and contribution of multiple people.
“If you can find an artist to collaborate with, and it’s the right connection, it’s the most amazing opportunity for an exchange of stories and insight into other worlds.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
Collaboration offers a unique opportunity to learn from someone else. As an audience, particularly an Australian audience, we have a lot to learn from Mutton herself as her research-informed works and exhibitions provide valuable insights into hidden aspects of our world. Social justice is a central theme that runs throughout her work. She has a passionate concern for humans and vulnerable people, and she considers ideas around privilege. She has explored trauma relating to conflict, intergenerational trauma, privacy and its rules and infringements and human rights, which all connect back to themes regarding humanity.
“I’m very interested in humans, humanity, and us; not really nation-to-nation but as humans. There are just so many layers to that, so often in my work I go off on lots of different tangents depending on what’s going on in politics or what’s happening with technology.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
Mutton has incorporated military aviation as a symbol to discuss drones and the communities that live under them overseas. She recognises that many Australians are unaware of our military involvement in world conflict, our mechanisms for surveillance, and their implementation within broader campaigns of terror. Within her work she often aims to highlight Australia’s responsibility and involvement, however her motivations for emphasising this is much broader; discussing universal humanitarian issues.
“I want to highlight that Australia spends a lot of money on weapons of war and is deeply intertwined in surveillance and all sorts of actions all around the world. In some ways because we’re on the Big Island and we feel quite separate to the rest of the world, sometimes it’s easy to pretend that we’re not involved.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
Her interest in military subject matter and aviation has stemmed from a moment during her late teens at her grandfather’s house in Sydney. While browsing through her grandfathers’ old books, Katy opened one with an inscription on the first page which she remembers as “To dear little Kenny, with love George”. George, her grandfathers’ older brother, died in a plane crash during World War Two.
“I can consciously remember that moment, it stayed with me…”-Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
“(…) that is an example of something that seems quite small, you pick up a book, you open it and see a reaction from a grandparent and then suddenly, 20 years later, it changes the course of your whole practice.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
Mutton’s interest in contemporary and military aviation stemmed from her grandfather’s role as an Air Observer.
“(…) before you know it your whole practice is becoming defined by something that you never expected. It’s kind of interesting!”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
She has been driven to inspire and challenge, to provoke a response to her work, whether that is negative or positive. But how does she address such a broad audience? How does she invite audiences into pieces that are inherently complex in nature? One of the ways she achieves this is by welcoming them through the use of accessible colours such as pinks, purples, whites, and blacks. These provide a safe entry into her works and introduce viewers to themes and works of art with which they might not have ordinarily connected.
“I certainly have used them [accessible colours] as a device to draw audiences into work that’s inherently darker in subject matter.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
Many of the public art projects, such as In Plain Sight (2016), Pattern Logic (2017), and Conspicuous (2019), have largely dealt with the military, surveillance, and camouflage, and these softer and accessible colours, such as pinks and purples, aren’t usually associated with these subjects.
By inviting audiences into a particular colour space and consequently involving them in a discussion about social justice and humanity, Mutton’s works have introduced viewers, both visually and emotionally, to intense subject material. Her work can have extraordinary impact by exposing Australia’s involvement in conflicts and surveillance to the Australian public.
My interview with Mutton has changed my personal perception of politics and Canberra itself. As a life-long resident of Canberra I have never considered just how integrated and embedded military and defence elements are, and how surveillance technologies are increasingly seeping into our public and private lives. Furthermore, exposure to Australia’s response to military and humanitarian issues is veiled and often hidden from the public and thus freed from public scrutiny.
“One artist can’t change society; you’ve just got to be part of the conversation.”Katy mutton, 1st of March 2021
Artists such as Mutton are playing a vital role in exposing social injustice and are speaking from a unique platform which has the ability to educate and evoke debate. This conversation is crucial and has the potential to contribute to Australia’s future.