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Sounds for hungry ears

Martin Walch, George Khut interview


George Khut	George Khut
photo Simon Cuthbert
George (Poonkhin) Khut is an Australian artist currently based in Sydney after working extensively in Tasmania. His best known sound installation Pillowsongs (see RT24 p46) was first exhibited in Hobart (1998) and has since been re-worked and shown in Melbourne at Temple Studios (1999), Sydney at Gallery 4A (1999) and Darwin at 24 HR ART (2000).

More recently he has been working on a series of commissions and collaborations with performer Wendy McPhee, which will culminate in their new multi-channel video installation Night Shift. The project has received assistance from the Australia Council’s New Media Fund (at the creative development stage and as a new work) for its premiere at the Brisbane Powerhouse in 2002. Khut describes the installation as “incorporating alleged techniques of subliminal media such as split second imagery, sub-audible utterance, and rhythm, in a meditation on solitude and feminine performativity. The sound works are concerned primarily with an experience of sound at a deeply personal level, re-synthesising the ‘silences’ or noises of the urban soundscape into a series of surreal ‘interior tableaux’, and recalling moments of intense and aurally focused solitude and silence such as meditation, convalescence, insomnia, waiting rooms, and late night travel.” I caught up with him during his most recent trip to Hobart where he is working on Censored with McPhee and director Deborah Pollard for the 10 Days on the Island festival.

Poonkhin, how did you get started?

I was born in Adelaide in 1969 and grew up in the inner-city suburbs. I started off noodling around with old cassette players, echo machines and Moog synthesisers in the mid 80s, and this process of tweaking material remains at the core of my creative process.

Your mother is Anglo-Australian and your dad is Chinese-Malaysian. Are there perceivable ethnic influences in your work, and if so, how are they manifest?

Tough question, and without a doubt the answer is yes, but in today’s culture of ‘ethno-fetishisation’ certain aspects could be way over-rated. My father has always pursued martial arts and their associated approaches and disciplines. For example, meditation and notions of ‘chi’ (life force) have been part of my environment since childhood, however they manifest in a very understated and often commonplace manner. Being labelled as Asian carries a lot of baggage that is extraneous to my work. At the moment I’m in a process of transition between cities and a new name. I am changing my first name from Poonkhin to George, my maternal grandfather’s name (laughs)...which is paradoxical in today’s climate of ethnic reclamation. The exoticism can be an impediment to transparent communication when people focus on the messenger rather than the message.

This a pragmatic thing: I call up lots of people in hardware and hi-fi shops, and I’d rather avoid spending 10 minutes spelling my name, explaining how to pronounce it, where it’s from, and where my father’s family (never my mother’s family) is from. Being so linked to the notion of identity, my position on ethnicity is ambivalent and will continue to evolve. I think identity politics were a real issue in the 80s and 90s, and I just want to get on with making things happen rather than constantly being required to describe my position.

Okay, so George, how would you describe your work?

Primarily aural, with an emphasis on developing a sense of presence through atmosphere and spatial awareness. The focus is on aspects of space rather than object. It’s like trying to create a bridge that connects the installation site with the reality of the sound, much like the manner in which cinema establishes a sense of place/character/mood. The works are essentially concerned with various experiences of solitude, and take advantage of the implied solitude of the gallery context. A frequent response from listeners is the observation that the soundscape appears as an analogue for their own internal dialogue, and as such the works deal with the crossover between private and public spaces. They trace the meandering line of the lucid dream, with sounds drifting and emerging/merging. Quiet pulsing sounds, slow undulations and enharmonic drones challenge the listener’s perception, asking whether it is their shifting attention/perception or the work that is generating the ambiguity. I use silence as a dramatic ingredient, exploiting listening habits accustomed to conventional notions of music or an event. It is part of the subject/ground relationship, where the listener waits for something to happen in a conventional musical sense, and not hearing it, the ears become hungry. At this point the listener either decides nothing is happening, or in the heightened awareness driven by expectation they start to enter the work.

What inspires you to create?

Because I have to…(laughs)…no really that’s a very hard question. There are places I just have to be, and making these visual and sound environments is a means of getting there; I am drawn to these places. Each time I revisit them the space unfolds, and there are more corners to turn.

So is it fair to say that it’s not actually the space of first encounter you are trying to evoke, but rather a refraction of the real world seen from an internal space?

Yes. In a way I am trying to provide a portal to a space that was inspired by first hand experience. I start with the raw material, then I tweak it, watching how things change and transform. It becomes a journey where I follow the effects and transformations until the work arrives at a particular sense of place that feels complete. It’s a bit like meandering through the terrain, and reaching certain points along the way where, I might say, I can hang there for a while. Completeness really is a flexible notion in light of contemporary music/remix culture and there is no longer that concrete sense of finality and authorship…(laughs again)…I’d love to see visual artists remixing each other’s work.

In previous conversations you’ve mentioned duration as a key element of your work. Can you describe how it functions?

When you are with a particular piece of sound material for long enough, say between 10 and 30 mins, it will begin to sustain itself well after the actual physical sound has ceased (that’s one of the challenges in an installation context—getting the audience to stay!). It continues on in your head, and in the way you hear your immediate environment…you walk outside and the sound is still ringing in your ears…you actually perceive all the nuances of the material, but now it’s constructed from a combination of your own memory and the noise of your environment. Maybe this has a lot to do with the urban/industrial environment, all those fans and combustion engines, creating this rich blanket of noise that we can build sounds from. Actually I’ve been driven to total distraction sometimes, working in my studio late at night, building these extremely quiet situations and then realising that all the cooling fans inside my equipment are probably making more noise and complex resonances than my own recordings.

Collaborations form a significant component of your recent output. What do you gain from that working dynamic?

The key to a successful collaboration is a sense of mutual and shared intimacy with the material at hand. The best collaborations I have been involved with have a strong rapport as their foundation. I’m genuinely fascinated by my collaborators’ work, and vice versa (I hope). There is such a dominant culture of ‘hot housing’ projects (especially in the performing arts) that it is great to get the opportunity to let projects evolve organically at their own pace. This is important because long term partnerships can nurture details and nuances that don’t get the chance to appear in fast track projects.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 37

© Martin Walch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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