Shadow, scale and industrial waste in Kylie Stillman’s ‘Eucalypt’
The sculptures of Melbourne artist Kylie Stillman are a prime example of the way that art makes us question how we as individuals and as a species influence the world around us. Kylie’s pieces do not simply stand alone as human-made objects – rather, a sculpture may appear to alter the very atmosphere it resides in. It’s a feeling that changes depending on where you are standing to view the piece – surely a mark of truly engaging art. Notably, Kylie’s artworks challenge the relationship between natural and artificial materials and the way we humans both use and connect with nature. Now that we’re close to celebrating National Eucalypt Day, these thoughts are of particular importance.
Kylie is the inaugural recipient of the Eucalypt Commission for an outdoor sculpture currently installed outside the Castlemaine Art Museum as part of the Castlemaine State Festival. Remember The Wild spoke with Kylie about her past work, her ‘Eucalypt’ sculpture and the nature-based inspiration behind her art – in particular, the mighty eucalypt.
On your website, you state that both birds and plant life often find a place in your artwork. Why do you think this is?
In 2017 I had an exhibition titled ‘Opposite of Wild’ where I asked myself this very question, analysing the relationship I have with birds and plant life. To me the opposite of wild is to be calculated, something that artists and nature have in common. They both have a reputation for being wild, free and spontaneous, but they are (mostly!) calculated, planned and strategic workers – they have to be or they would not survive.
In that vein, the decisions I make in creating works are quite calculated whilst giving an impression of simplicity and immediacy, just like the imagery I represent: branches, leaf skeletons and birds in flight – formal arrangements that aid survival, quite the opposite of wild and quite calculated, and this relates to how I make things and how I enjoy thinking and planning.
In your work titled ‘Eucalypt Series’, you integrate objects such as books and reams of paper with carvings of eucalypt branches. What does this artwork represent?
I studied painting at RMIT and primarily produced works from found materials using domestic tools and methods, I struggled to be inspired by paint found in a tube and was more interested in finding materials and pigments from the ‘constructed world’ to create an artwork. I see these stacks of books and reams of paper as an extension of this way of working, I carve into objects and create shadow and tone as opposed to using a paintbrush or palette knife.
Primarily the works come to represent absence; in the ‘Eucalypt Series’ we see a collection of branches – in fact they are not branches at all, instead it is their absent form, and this absent form is not just a branch but a record of the movement of the sun; how each twist along the structure is a record of the direction of light and nutrient. Again, quite the opposite of wild and quite calculated.
This is a conundrum too, as the representation of trees is created by the removal of trees through paper manufacturing. This absence of the trees is not accidental, it is a lyrical prompt for the viewer to reconsider the origins of the materials we use and dispose of daily.
Explain the outdoor sculpture that you’ve created for the Castlemaine State Festival. What inspired you to create it and in what way does it celebrate the eucalypt?
The Eucalypt Commission ‘Eucalypt’ 2019 is a stack of recycled plastic HDPE sheeting that form on one side a solid and impenetrable wall and on the other side reveal the negative form of an iconic eucalypt silhouette. The form that is removed from the material, and the resultant shadow lines and revealed textures, create the pretence of a tree that is in fact not there at all.
‘Eucalypt’ is a chance for people to consider the importance of the natural world. The intention is to create an experience, an artwork that represents a recognisable tree form but presents it in an arresting way as the viewer is confronted with an absence – a void, not empty but filled with light and shadow creating an illusion of form. The dimensions of the work mirror the standard sizes of our constructed world. Building materials are commonly available in sizes of 2400 mm and 1200 mm; these sizes become regular occurrences in our built world environment, determining the heights of walls, sizes of rooms and doorways.
This notion of human scale, generous and accommodating when used internally (within the home), become surprisingly dwarfed when competing with nature’s own constraints and the awe-inspiring experience of being amongst trees, whose size is based on survival aids determined by the availability of light, water and the stretch of their root systems. In response to these concerns of scale ‘Eucalypt’ is presented on this site to draw contrast and reverence to the natural world and its proximity to ‘town’ life. The scaled-down eucalypt here reads as an ornamental folly alongside the monolithic specimens of eucalypt found in the area.
The materials selected too, whilst not wood as it may be read from a distance due to its light timber colouring and ‘plank-like’ building site formalism, have additional significance to the work and the role timber and plastics play in our daily lives. The environmental impact of the source material contributes to the reading of the work: created from recycled material, this plastic sheeting is produced from post-industrial waste. According to the plastics manufacturer, every 50 kilograms of this material represents the equivalent of 12,500 plastic packages that would have created 0.17 cubic metres of landfill.
What do you hope the public will take away from experiencing this sculpture?
My hope is that the viewer feels rewarded by the experience of standing in close proximity to the sculpture. That they can get up close and see the individual cuts that go into making the work and see the effect these cuts have on how daylight falls on the work.
Based on the inclusion of various natural elements in your work, would you call yourself an environmental artist?
I have not actively intended to create environmental art, I make the work that interests me using materials I find have integrity to the kinds of works I want to make. What I enjoy about art is how it has the ability to be different things to different people and I enjoy that my work addresses issues relating to the natural and urban environment.
When working on your sculptures, does your process involve any kind of immersion in the natural world? If so, can you describe this immersion?
I don’t seek out immersion in the natural world to any great extreme, I find it important to form observations for my artworks in everyday experiences with nature from urban to suburban environments. Walking in the natural world is my primary way of engaging with nature and not just a means of finding inspiration but of importance to me in maintaining physical and mental health.
Finally, do you have a favourite species of eucalypt?
I have a soft spot for River Red Gums that keep me company on my daily walk – they have served as muse for my artworks for many years.
Banner image: Kylie Stillman, ‘Eucalypt’ 2019, hand-cut recycled HDPE sheeting and steel 240 x 240 x 30 cm. Commissioned and created with the assistance of Eucalypt Australia, La Trobe Art Institute and Castlemaine State Festival. Photograph courtesy of the artist and Utopia Art Sydney.
Rachel Fetherston is currently a PhD candidate at Deakin University investigating the impact of Australian ecofiction on readers' environmental attitudes and behaviours. She is also a freelance writer and the publications manager at Remember The Wild.
Originally published, 21 March 2019: