I have always been interested in paradox – chaos and order, yin and yang – and how everything exists or is created in the clash between two opposing ideals.
Garth Knight is a philosopher of the hands. His works derive from what the American writer Richard Sennett has called “making as thinking”. It is the process that lies at the core of craftsmanship: creating good work for its own sake. While one might grasp an idea conceptually in a few moments, making as thinking necessarily takes time to mature.
Combining an interest in Zen concepts, pagan mythology and the traditions of kinbaku bondage with the botanical sculpture of penjing, the science of fractals and his training as an engineer, Garth Knight creates images that explore the ‘big questions’: the cycles of life and death; the harmony of chaos and order; transcendence found in constraint.
In his extensive series, ‘The Enchanted Forest’, he uses ropes, rocks and the human body to construct a series of allegorical installations, which he then photographs. The central motif is a tree, emerging and arching outwards. Each stage in the tree’s growth engages a different body, a different individual who, for the duration of the process, takes on the mantle of metaphor. As the tree grows, the ropes that enmesh one figure are subsumed into the structure that will, in turn, support the next. The tensions are carefully distributed across the network of ropes weaving the body and rocks into the overall design, cradled within the arboreal embrace.
Philosophy and bondage may seem an unlikely combination, but folktales have always been a heady mix of homily and earthiness. And the individual inhabiting, imprisoned in, or born of, a tree is a trope found in many cultures and eras. Today, while we may not anthropomorphise trees in quite the same way, we have come to understand our ecological interconnectedness through the mutual exchange of gases in the air we breathe.
In another strand of his oeuvre, Garth Knight uses digital technology to construct a Bestiary. An insect mosaic may be made up of thousands of small pieces of a larger bondage image, or a mandala digitally constructed from photographs of animal bones. Many of the image fragments have been grouped using software specially written by the artist that employs a process of iteration to create fractal-like swirls and spirals. The images share with fractals the compound scale whereby the larger image is made of smaller images; the smaller of images in turn contain similar even smaller patterns. As the viewer looks into the picture they begin to fall into a mediative vortex of image fragments.
© Garth Knight ‘Jewelled Seahorse’ from the series ‘Jewelled Creatures’
In the case of the series called ‘Jewelled Creatures’ the original fragments are taken from photographs of designer jewellery created by the Parisian jeweller Lorenz Baumer. The craftsmanship of the original objects is visually disassembled and reborn; the everyday luxury of Parisian fashion becomes the ageless world of our collective imagination.
Garth Knight could be said to be an outsider artist in that he creates work outside the mainstream art world. Certainly he is an original who follows his own creative and philosophical path. His independence has led him also to act as his own promoter, dealer and publisher, an increasingly successful strategy in the age of the internet. As a result, he has shown extensively nationally and internationally. His performances have been staged in a number of prestigious venues, most recently at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. A fitting venue, because MONA (Australia’s newest and most unconventional museum) is confounding the art traditionalists while delighting the public and Australia’s younger, more adventurous aficionados.
Alasdair: Tell me about your latest series ‘The Enchanted Forest’.
Garth: These are photographs of installations that I create, where I construct a ‘tree’ out of rope and rocks and bodies. Each installation is complete for the short time that it takes to photograph them. The images have little or no digital manipulation. The trees are a metaphor for human perception, which is rooted in the collective consciousness, drawing from it to form individual awareness which is then released back into the collective consciousness in a continuous cycle.
Talk me through the process of ‘growing’ one of the trees in ‘The Enchanted Forest’.
I start by making a simple tree structure using rope, with one stone suspended in the base. Then I will tie a person into this tree (a process which takes several hours) and photograph the result. When I release the person, I keep the actual rope structure that had formed around them and this becomes the basis for the next phase, when I will add another rock and different person. So, in a very real sense, the rope-tree (like a real tree) grows from what went before and feeds into what comes next; the ropes carry a real physical connection between each stage of the tree and what follows. It is a very organic process involving between five and eight people; each rope added changes how the next one is placed. I am never quite sure how each will turn out, and the final tree is always a surprise!
Are the people in these photographs involved in their creation?
The people I photograph are definitely muses and collaborators. How they interact with the ‘tree’ and how their bodies respond to the process affects the outcome. The photographs are documents of just one moment in the journey we have gone through together in making the work.
What exactly is bondage and what drew you to this form of performative bodywork?
Bondage is the practice of tying and restraining people, usually using rope. It is practised for many different reasons. It can induce meditative states, produce feelings of connection and closeness between people; it is used erotically for heightened awareness and intimacy and, in a sadomasochistic setting, for power play. It can be done using very definite rules, such as the Japanese kinbaku, or in a freer experimental way. Initially, I was attracted to it because it was beautiful and fascinating but, the more I use it, the deeper I am drawn into the psychological aspects; the altering of mental and emotional states induced by act of tying and by being constrained.
© Garth Knight from the series ‘The Enchanted Forest’: [Left] ‘Joy’; [Centre] ‘Francesca’; [Right] ‘Sam’
You have likened your work to penjing and bonsai.
Yes. Much of my work is concerned with meditation and contemplation, both in the process of making and in the object itself. My works are also in the form of constructed tableaux. In the practice of penjing you are constraining and perfecting the form of something wild and untameable in order to imagine a greater whole
As well as performative tableaux (such as ‘The Enchanted Forest’) you have made work that is digitally constructed from fragments. How did that way of working begin?
As with my other work, it began with the process of making. I have always looked for pictures and patterns in seemingly random or chaotic forms and, when I started mixing and matching bodies and rope in the computer, all sorts of wonderful patterns emerged. The computer allowed me to use these fragments to construct two dimensional ‘sculptures’, to play with scale and to explore ideas of self-similarity and fractal repetition. Through the process of making I found I could explore the interplay between order and chaos; the infinitesimal and the infinite.
Tell me about making ‘Jewelled Creatures’.
A Parisian jeweller, who had collected my previous digitally constructed work, suggested that I try working with images of his jewellery. It was an interesting challenge and turned into an entire series. I found the intricate and multi-facetted nature of cut stones compelling, and they really suited my way of working.
[Left] © Garth Knight ‘Jewelled Goldfish’ from the series ‘Jewelled Creatures’ [Right] detail showing jewellery elements
Do you see the digitally constructed imagery as separate from your bondage images?
They may appear very different, but I definitely consider them as part of a continuum. They express similar ideas while fulfilling different needs for me: working with my hands in the real world and digitally in the ethereal world of the not-really-there.
Your various series have touched on subjects such as mandalas, fractals, folk myth, the nature of time, and the dynamics of control and surrender. How much do ideas from philosophy, myth and psychology drive your work and how much are they a means to an end? And what is that end?
That is a very interesting question, and I often wonder about it! These ideas definitely inform my work, but I also like to work intuitively, and not think too much. Later, I compare what I have made with my broader philosophical and mythological ideas. But I think it is all a means to an end, and that end is adding energy to the universal spiritual momentum.
What draws you to the medium of photography; given you also work in the physical arena of performance and the craft of rope-work, on the one hand, and complex digital composites, on the other?
When I was young it had seemed that I must choose between two paths: art or science. In photography I found a beautiful marriage between the two. Photography also spoke to me about the philosophical dialogue between what is real and what is imagined. I have always been interested in paradox – chaos and order, yin and yang – and how everything exists or is created in the clash between two opposing ideals.
You trained initially as an engineer. Has that training informed your practice as an artist?
Definitely. There are many practical aspects to my work that require engineering skills. Suspending several hundred kilograms of stone and body safely cannot be done on a whim! Knowledge of computers and programming has also proved helpful in the creation of my digital works, where I write complex algorithms to carry out repetitive tasks automatically. On the flip side, though, solving creative problems is definitely hampered by a rigorously analytical mind, so I am constantly trying to sidestep thought patterns that engineering has ingrained in me.
You have been seen as something of an outsider artist. Is that problem or an advantage, do you think?
I guess that’s true. The disadvantage is that people don’t know how to define or describe me, or which category I fit into, or perhaps aren’t comfortable because of my subject matter. That can make opening doors difficult. Of course, this disadvantage is also one’s greatest advantage: I am free from the constraints of being defined; I can do what I want. I used to think that the greatest challenge for an artist was to make a living from your art. Now that I am just beginning to make a living out of it, I am realising that the even greater challenge is making sure you continue to stay true to your original vision. The danger is the one gets re-moulded into what everyone tells you that you are.
You have taken a very pro-active approach to your career as an artist. How do those strategies work for you?
I have my own website, which is very important. I have a Facebook page. I self-publish several books, which I sell through my website. These are print-on-demand, so there is no big financial outlay. I don’t make any money from selling books, but they add legitimacy to one’s practice and make compact portfolios. I participate in many group shows and every one or two years I hire a gallery and stage a solo show. I sell artworks directly to collectors, mostly at exhibitions but also internationally through my website. It is important to have many different outlets; though managing it all takes a lot of time and effort. Put together, these various strategies ensure my work is widely visible, and many different opportunities have arisen as a consequence.
Given your own experiences, what advice would you give to a young photographer starting out?
Make your weaknesses your strengths, because they are what ultimately define you.
Garth Knight was born in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1972. He has a Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) from the University of Tasmania and a Diploma in Photography from TAFE NSW, Ultimo, Sydney. His art performances have been presented at a range of events including Iconoclastes Gallery, Paris (2008); Edinburgh Fringe Festival (2014); The Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney (2018); and Dark Mofo, The Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart (2018, 2019). His photographic work has been exhibited widely in Australia and internationally and he has self-published several books. He lives and works in Sydney.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the March 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.