Peter Hennessey: Making it Real – Sharne Wolff

Peter Hennessey, My Lunar Rover (You had to be there), 2005, plywood, steel, canvas and Velcro, 298 x 206 x 396 cm. Private collection, Melbourne. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide

Peter Hennessey, My Lunar Rover (You had to be there), 2005, plywood, steel, canvas and Velcro, 298 x 206 x 396 cm. Private collection, Melbourne.
Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide

Billed as the first comprehensive survey of Peter Hennessey’s work, Making It Real opened in March at the University of Queensland Art Museum. The exhibition features a selection of work from the last decade of Hennessey’s practice, including scale reproductions of a Humvee, a Google street view camera and an ejector seat. Sharne Wolff spoke to Hennessey about his art-making process, the relationships between an object and how it is represented, and the role of art in reflecting the world around us.

Making it Real surveys art made across the last ten years of your practice. Can you describe the work selected for display?

It’s a huge show both from the point of view of the scale of the works and also their number. The works selected cover the main themes of my practice, including the relationship between science and art, ideas about mapping and information, questions about the difference between knowledge, experience and information. There are video works that look at explosions and time, and large-scale sculptures that re-enact space probes and military vehicles. There are also small bronzes and drawings and documentation of me performing a low-gravity moonwalk.

Peter Hennessey, My Burnt Frost (Explosion event III), 2008, c-type photograph,80 x 100 cm, Collection of the artist.Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide

Peter Hennessey, My Burnt Frost (Explosion event III), 2008, c-type photograph, 80 x 100 cm, Collection of the artist. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide

With regard to the sculptures, how do you choose what objects you’d like to recreate? Are they intended as replica or homage?

I look for objects that are visually interesting and that connect to interesting and important stories about the world. I consider them ‘re-enactments’, in the sense that they attempt to embody and express the object as fully as possible without attempting to fool anyone into thinking they are seeing the real things.

All your work is made to scale, which means that there are some very large sculptures exhibited in the Museum – for example, My Humvee (Inversion therapy), My Lunar Rover (You had to be there) and My Voyager. Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating these works? How involved are you in each step?

I’m very deeply involved in every aspect of my work. They are very much DIY projects. I start with research into the objects, which I use to design the ‘re-enactments’ in a 3D modelling program. That step is the most difficult actually because I have to design hundreds of flat parts that will all fit together into the final object. Those parts are laser cut and brought back into the studio where I assemble them into the sculpture itself.

Peter Hennessey, The explanation (Cockpit voice recorder), 2014, plywood, ABS plastic and wax, 17 x 34 x 20 cm. Collection of the artist. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide. Photo: Andrew Curtis

Peter Hennessey, The explanation (Cockpit voice recorder), 2014, plywood, ABS plastic and wax, 17 x 34 x 20 cm. Collection of the artist. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide. Photo: Andrew Curtis

One aspect of My Voyager is the accompanying audio piece My Golden Record (Fitzroy Mix). Can you tell us about this work?

This video is my reworking of the Golden Record that Carl Sagan created to accompany the original Voyager space probe. I was struck by the optimism and open-heartedness of that gesture, particularly in the contrast to the Australian government’s attitude to the foreign ‘aliens’ who seek refuge in our country. So I went around my local area asking people who spoke a language other than English to record their own greetings to space aliens. I was really touched by their sincerity and generosity.

Your work has certain romantic elements – many of us grew up watching the space missions and moon landings – but by making these sculptures and videos, are you also trying to separate fact from fantasy?

I wouldn’t say ‘fact from fantasy’. In fact, I think that the interconnection of objects and the stories collect around them and how they resonate is very interesting. I am, however, interested in the gap between things and their representation through media, the difference between standing next to something and seeing it on TV, which are really two versions of ‘reality’.

Peter Hennessey, My Hell's Gate (North of the river IV), 2010, c-type photograph, 100 x 100 cm. Collection of the artist. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide.

Peter Hennessey, My Hell’s Gate (North of the river IV), 2010, c-type photograph, 100 x 100 cm. Collection of the artist. Reproduced courtesy of the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, and GAGPROJECTS/Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide.

In the past you’ve described your work as ‘performances of objects’ – what did you mean by that?

I call my works, particularly my sculptures, ‘performances of objects’ because it points to a particular relationship between the works and the objects they represent. When we see a performance of a piece of music for example, we are seeing an interpretation of something. That embodiment of a piece of music is not the ‘original’ but it is nevertheless just as real or valid. It is a particular embodiment of something that is both true but also disconnected from the original. I guess you might even say my works are a bit like ‘cover versions’.

In the catalogue essay that accompanies the exhibition, curator Samantha Littley notes that the ideas in your work “revolve around social justice and the political systems that dominate our lives”. In the end, is it these ideas that motivate you to make art?

For me, art has to do two things: firstly, it needs to show me something visually compelling, something that can draw me into the object itself. Secondly, it needs to tell us something about the world we live in. That is what makes something more than just pretty.

Would you describe yourself as an artist, or a ‘frustrated architect’ (as some writers have previously done)?

Definitely an artist.

Peter Hennessey: Making it Real, Mon to Sun 10am-4pm until 12 July 2015, James and Mary Emelia Mayne Centre (Building 11), University Drive, The University of Queensland, St Lucia; (07) 3365 1111, artmuseum.uq.edu.au