Charlotte Drayton in conversation with Hana Aoake

A series of responses and/or questions by Hana Aoake for Charlotte Drayton on her show A slow dance to elevator music at FUZZYVIBES (May 20 – May 30, 2015).

Hana Aoake (HA): When I entered A slow dance to elevator music the first thing that I noticed was the carpeted stairwell. There was something so inherently familiar and nostalgic about both the colour and texture of this carpet. It reminded me of spaces I encountered during my childhood, especially the motels I stayed in all around Australia in the 1990s. It had a very corporate, ‘90s, middle class interior. This was especially evident through the use of the curved light fixtures, the blinds, the title of the show, and the choice of serving Lindauer at the opening. Yet it was a space marked by absence. It seemed incomplete. It was funny to me the way some people didn’t seem to even notice the carpet. I think that a lot of people unfamiliar with the space would not have immediately registered any change. I really enjoyed standing at the bottom of the stairs during the opening and watching whether those who entered noticed. I kept thinking that perhaps if I had not been privy to the construction of this work perhaps I would’ve had a similar experience.

Charlotte Drayton (CD): I think there are often aspects of my work that people miss, unless they are particularly interested or observant – but these things do still work together to build up a particular tone or mood for the space, even if this only registers peripherally. I like to provide material lists for this reason, as a means of pointing out where the work stops and the gallery begins, if the viewer is curious.

HA: Despite how sparse this space was it had a theatricality much like a half-dressed movie set. I liked the use of Spanish white paint. It seemed to me at least, a subtle jab at the white cube. This is because it is a colour that isn’t quite as austerely white, as say gallery white.

CD: I think firstly it is important to note that FUZZYVIBES is normally grey, not gallery white – which gives an entirely different tone, and would not have worked in well with the work I was making – had it been gallery white, I may have left it. I am not directly interested in critiquing the white cube or the institution, as I think plenty of people have already done this in more interesting ways, though I understand that altering spaces in this manner can lead to those kinds of conversations. I am probably more interested in Spanish white for its ubiquity in its real-world context (renovation, home décor etc.).

HA: Oh yes, I realise FUZZYVIBES isn’t normally white, I just meant in terms of the colour of the paint. Why Spanish white?

CD: Spanish white is a kind of motif I have used several times in my works. I initially became interested in it when my grandfather organised to get a house he partially owned with my dad painted and chose quarter Spanish white based on a recommendation from the painter (Spanish white is the most popular choice for rental properties in NZ). My dad hated the Spanish white and decided to repaint the entire house before moving in, in a more grey-white tone (called alabaster). I was kind of interested in how this kind of seemingly simple action became so contentious, and how Spanish white became kind of symbolic of these kind of clashing tastes, and the values associated with these tastes.

Although my interest in Spanish white emerged from this very personal thing, I like how the shade is so ubiquitous – I am interested in how these things which come from something very particular to me, that hold specific associations, can become entirely anonymous and generic. Most people seem to know the colour, even if not by name.

All of the aspects in this work, except for the configuration of the space, refer to places I have lived or experienced intimately – the blinds, the wall sconces, the arched doorway – but they are also very rooted in a kind of wider narrative of middle-class New Zealand and renovation culture, which I think manifests in both public spaces (waiting rooms, offices, funeral parlours, churches) and private spaces. They have an aspirational quality, but they are just out of date – not enough to have cycled around into fashion again, just enough to stick out slightly.

HA: The title A slow dance to elevator music and the aesthetic of the exhibit seemed to me to refer to Twin Peaks. Is that a direct reference or am I just envisioning that scene where Audrey Horne dances slowly to elevator music?

CD: When I was making this work I was listening to a lot of The Carpenters, which acted as a kind of provocation. I liked their easy-listening vibe, they have a kind of comfort and familiarity but also feel as if it could drive you insane if you listened to them too much. Elevator music is supposed to be a kind of neutral music (but never actually achieves that goal), without too many highs and lows that can easily be looped back; it is familiar, endlessly repeatable. I have spent quite a bit of time in rest-homes in the past few years, as my Grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and you hear this kind of music a lot, combined with a similar décor – it has a wistfulness to it, a sense of aspirations not-quite-achieved, whiling away the time. I liked to think of the work as a setting for someone who might listen to The Carpenters in the background.

I have been asked by a few people whether a slow dance to elevator music was a line from a David Lynch film or Twin Peaks, it isn’t consciously. But I like the way that Lynch uses these very normal-seeming suburban settings in Twin Peaks, and the lurking darkness that sits underneath the surface. When I was planning the work I did have this image of the staircase in Laura Palmer’s house with the ceiling fan moving slowly above. This cut – like the song that Audrey dances to in the diner (called dance of the dream man, or Audrey’s song at various tempos) – is returned to throughout the series as a kind of motif.

HA: This subtlety was also evident in the slight alteration of the space and that reference to that at home ‘DIY’ culture. The interior renovation within FUZZYVIBES was very minimal, but then incredibly ambitious and meticulous. I could not stop thinking about your physical labour in the construction of A slow dance to elevator music. How long did it take to plan this project? Is this the most ambitious project you have ever undertaken?

CD: Yes it did involve a lot of physical labour, and it may have been a little overly ambitious – it was not something I could have achieved on my own, and was only made possible by my very generous friends and family and my gracious hosts at FUZZYVIBES. It is a little tricky because I can’t really do anything until I am in the space except plan carefully and planning for that show was particularly hard because it is very difficult to measure anything, so each wall was kind of custom built off the wall before it to accommodate for the unevenness of the space. I have found out that builders are usually pretty more-or-less though, if you pull the GIB off most walls, you will find bits of wood wedged in to make things fit properly, that is also why skirting and coving are used in houses – to hide the unevenness of everything. I like how buildings, that often seem so solid and seamless, are actually often manufactured in such a haphazard and approximate kind of a way.

HA: One thing that I noticed about this show in comparison to say earlier works, such as the painted stairwell in Succulents and Concrete and another tiling project was the use of smell. There was of course the allusion to sound in the title and the gallery smelt of fresh paint. This isn’t meant as a criticism I guess I am more curious about the way you sometimes use sensory devices to evoke a sense of nostalgia.

CD: I think I have perhaps used scent more in the past, like painting Jif or laundry liquid on walls to evoke a kind of sickly-clean scent. The scent of fresh paint in this show was more a by-product of its making, which I liked, but I think it added to the sense of something newly renovated. I like how scent has such a potential to trigger memory, but it often goes unnoticed, it’s like the carpet – many people would not have noticed it, but it softened their entrance and hopefully shifted the encounter of the space whether or not it registered consciously.

Images courtesy of FUZZYVIBES.