T Projects Curator Olivia Poloni talks to artist Peter Atkins about his creative practice and recent T Projects public art commission for the Level Crossing Removal Project at Old Geelong Road
Olivia: First to begin, for people who may not be familiar with your practice, what type of work do you make and why?
Peter: I’m a project-based artist living in Melbourne, working across a range of disciplines including painting, sculpture, printmaking and collage/assemblage. My work is primarily interested in the readymade and centres around the appropriation and deconstruction of abstract forms/elements/fragments that exist in the urban environment. This material becomes the direct reference source for my work, providing tangible evidence to the viewer of my relationship and experience within the landscape. I’m particularly interested in the social and cultural associations these collected forms could evoke within the viewer, especially around personal narratives. I’m also interested in our collective, cultural recall - material that has the capacity to trigger memory, nostalgia or a shared history of past experience.
Olivia: When I think about your practice, the last sentence about collective and cultural recall particularly resonates with me. I love that your work generates a sense of nostalgia and shared history. With each new series I find myself able to make connections in my past that had been stored away in my memory and not accessed until that moment. We see this with your LXRP public art commission. Can you tell us about your work at Old Geelong Road?
Peter: The work for the LXRP public art commission is titled TRACKwork and is based on the designs of obsolete suburban train tickets issued between 1920 and the late 1980s throughout Melbourne. There are six separate ‘tickets’ in total, each one is six meters wide by twelve meters long, stretching across the entire seventy meter long walkway of the overhead bridge - forming one continuous floor based artwork constructed in coloured, glazed tiles. The tickets represent a complicated and fascinating visual coded language that is particular to Melbourne. I’ve deconstructed the six tickets to their fundamental patterns, removing all text, numerals and incidental imagery. What is revealed is an extremely evocative collection of readymade forms that have the capacity to resonate with us all. I’ve concentrated on train tickets that have a particular context for people living in Hoppers Crossing and others further along the Werribee Line. All tickets included in this artwork (except one) are from the Western side of the city – Hoppers Crossing, Altona, Werribee, Corio and Ballarat. It was very important that the artwork was relevant to the site context so that the local audience could engage with the work. The odd one out in the series is based on the ticket issued for Puffing Billy and though it’s not from the city’s west it did seem appropriate to end the series with such a quintessentially Melbourne icon.
Olivia: Can you further elaborate on the tickets?
Peter: I was conscious of the artwork relating to both the local audience of Hoppers Crossing and also, the broader community within Melbourne and Greater Victoria. I wanted to particularly focus on ideas around ‘movement’ and ‘locality’. As well as ideas mentioned before around history, nostalgia, location, mapping, social connections and memory. The train station at Hoppers Crossing could be seen as a connector, transporting locals away to other points in the city - to school, work or visiting family. Conversely, the station is also the place where visitors arrive into Hoppers Crossing from other stations within Melbourne and regional Victoria - to shop, attend work or visit family and friends. Train tickets are objects that have filtered through almost everyone’s life at some point. They could be seen as the great social connectors (as well as social levellers) between anyone of any age in Melbourne or regional Victoria who has ever used the rail network. I expect that when this artwork is experienced, by walking along its length, people will be provoked into a very personal response, perhaps triggering narratives or memories of journeys undertaken with family and friends between particular destinations - specifically around the western suburbs - perhaps to various sporting events in their region, VFL Park in Geelong, Racecourses at Warrnambool or Werribee or to Calder Raceway - or the daily trip to nearby stations to attend school or work. The tickets could also simply trigger memories of broader experiences, shopping in the city or weekends away visiting family and friends. These tickets are like connectors, connecting us all through time and place, to locations, events, friends and family in and around our beautiful city of Melbourne.
Olivia: What medium is used?
Peter: The artwork will be made using specially fabricated colour matched tiles, each one 20cm x 20cm. They are exclusively made by a company in Melbourne which was an important consideration for me. It was also a practical decision as the commission began at the very start of the pandemic in 2020 so it was important that materials were available locally. I was particularly drawn to tiles because they have been used extensively in metro/subway/underground stations throughout the world. Patterned tiling in these locations is ubiquitous and is often one of the first things you think of when remembering particular stations or cities. Tiling is a crucial part of the historical vernacular of train and subway stations. My proposal has been designed to focus on this aspect.
Olivia: Can you tell me more about the artistic process and how you arrived at this particular solution?
Peter: It was a very long process with so many considerations because of the unique site context. For example, addressing potential graffiti was an issue, so the work needed to be easily cleaned and maintained. I needed to consider the safe accessibility of the artwork, especially for the vision impaired and as this is a bridge that spans across a number of railway lines any strobing or flashing coloured lights, i.e., yellow, red, orange would simply be unusable due to the safety aspect and possible confusion for train drivers. I visited the proposed site on three separate occasions and after considering the architect's brief, the design of the bridge and the open space surrounding the site I focused on what I consider the optimum location for my artwork – a floor piece stretching the length of the bridge walkway. This seemed the best solution as it addressed many of the above concerns and does not in any way compete with the design integrity of the bridge structure, which is almost like an artwork in itself – designed by architects Denton Corker Marshall. In many ways the artwork is complementary to the angled geometry of the bridge. Ultimately the work will be truly embedded into the fabric of the structure, relating to the site context. The experience for the user will be twofold. Firstly, when arriving at the site they will have an initial engagement or reaction to the bridge structure itself as well as the open space, as intended by the architects and landscape architects. After ascending to the walkway, either by stairs or lift, the user will then encounter the artwork itself, this is the second part of their user experience. An expanse of bold geometric forms in vibrant colours stretching the length of the walkway. It is only at this point, when the user reaches the upper walkway of the bridge, that the artwork is revealed. A hidden jewel waiting at the top of the stairs. Both experiences for the user are separate (seen and experienced separately) but still complimentary, as both are enmeshed together forming a unifying whole.
Olivia: There are so many considerations when working on public art. Do you enjoy the process and working as part of a multidisciplinary team?
Peter: It’s very different to working in the studio where as an artist I have absolute control over everything I do. Working on large public art projects often require different skill sets including working in teams, being adaptable or flexible, especially over long periods (in this case two years), the capacity to understand specific site restrictions as well boundary constraints relating to materiality, and an understanding of the importance of scale. I have really enjoyed working on this project as it has pushed my practice into interesting new areas. The teams at Denton Corker Marshall, T Projects and LXRP have been a dream to work with. Everyone was so enthusiastic regarding the proposal and really embraced the concept. This has made the entire process not only enjoyable but run very smoothly because we are all on the same page. A lot of research and consideration went into creating the original TRACKwork proposal, which was fascinating in itself. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished artwork in 2022 as well as the public’s response to it.
Olivia: What do you think the role of public art plays today?
Peter: Public art plays such an important role on so many diverse levels. Of course, each artwork operates completely differently, but generally, successful public art should elevate or possibly challenge collective and personal experience by encouraging people to engage with concepts and ideas outside of their day to day lives. In doing so, the experience of encountering a public artwork will hopefully stimulate or provoke interesting dialogues between the viewer and the artwork. I believe more public art opportunities should be encouraged throughout the city, especially with all the new construction happening, as these connections outside of our homes are becoming more and more important.