INTERVIEW: Sheridan Coleman

Words By: Freya Hall


Sheridan Coleman is a Perth artist, writer, and PhD candidate at Curtin University whose solo exhibition Wilderness User opens at Paper Mountain on 5 June.

Sheridan’s doctorate and current practice concentrate upon the evolution of landscape art and a consideration of its cultural role in our digitally dependent, contemporary society. Wilderness User is an artistic embodiment and extension of these themes, with a particular focus on the way people perceive and access the natural landscape through contemporary modes of technology such as Google Earth.

I got in touch with Sheridan to talk art, nature, Google Maps, and their curious interaction.

Wilderness User opens at Paper Mountain on 5 June, can you tell us a little about it?

The exhibition is the result of several months of online journeying in which I sought out wilderness locations that are almost impossible to physically visit (or at least very unfeasible), and explored them using Google Maps and Google Earth interfaces. There are six specific wilderness locations including the Moon, Bouvet Island, and the Antarctic Pole of Inaccessibility.

On one wall is a large work called Wilderness User Disambiguation, which is a cacophonous arrangement of miniature acrylic paintings, drawings, watercolours, and photographic collages hung in a long cluster. The small artworks depict the aerially-viewed landscapes in detail, points of interest, and scenic beauty, as well as the various processes and tools that are superimposed on the Google interface, such as the little orange man, pink teardrop marker, measurement tools, and of course pixilation and digital errors.

On the opposite wall are a series of works that depict the plight of the artist who uses the Internet as their wellspring. Five photographs provide idealistic depictions of beautiful young women in nightgowns peering romantically into their computer and phone screen in darkened rooms. Alongside this is a video of myself, the artist, which depicts the reality of working on a computer for long periods of time: sedentary, solitary, exhausting, and tedious.

Wilderness and technology are intrinsically polar, yet increasingly intertwining, concepts. How have you sought to explore the burgeoning interconnectedness of these themes in Wilderness User?

The show pivots around the relationship between the two polar aspects of online landscape exploration: on the one hand, projects like Google are ambitious, quixotic endeavours that seek to open up the world’s landscapes for anybody to see. Phrases like ‘pristine wilderness at your fingertips’ are exciting and indicative of a kind of utopian level of digital access to the most scenic and geographically interesting places on earth.

On the other hand, being online takes us away from the real world, and this substitution and imperfection actually does not bring us any closer to the natural world. Google Earth is full of errors and glitches and blank spots. Being online is a problematic, even pathetic, version of being outside.

The show doesn’t definitively support either one of these ways of looking at online exploration, but rather admits that they both are present and powerful characteristics of the activity, existing side by side, and in this show hopefully there will be a real humour and familiarity there – people will recognise their own frustrations with using technology, yet at the same time might be able to daydream of real landscapes through the work.

 Did this focus on technology arise spontaneously as a result of your own experience researching and exploring the concept of ‘the landscape’? Or was it an explicitly premeditated interrogation?

I have been working and researching the notion of contemporary landscape for a number of years now, trying to develop a picture of what that phrase means, and what landscape could be in the 21st Century. An interest in far-off, distant, and unexplored landscapes gradually turned into a kind of investigation into how we see places that we can’t see in person.

Art and artists have always acted as visual intermediaries between real environments and patrons in a gallery, passing on a vision of the natural world. There is no denying that digital technologies are a default ‘window’ over the world’s various landscapes, and that we connect to far off places through these increasingly communal and online and handheld portals: travel photos, social media, travel websites, Skype, MMS, data roaming, GPS. These technologies were ‘at hand’ for me, they almost naturally and logically became intertwined with this narrative/history I was developing about how the average Western urbanite connects with land on a daily basis.

Can you explain how you formulated and settled upon the title ‘Wilderness User’?

 The show is a kind of narrative told from my perspective – the artist/online explorer/digital research – in the form of little artworks that resemble pages from a notebook or even open windows in an Internet browser.

The ‘user’ is an interesting technical term for this person roaming around in the online landscape, and I wanted a title that reflected the personal yet very recognisable processes of zooming, clicking, using search commands, and so on. It is wilderness, but only ever within the limits of a digital interface that requires a user with skills and adaptability.

 You work across a wide range of mediums including photography, sculpture, and mixed media – do you have a particular preference?

This show is in some ways a return to quite detailed and miniature drawings and paintings, which you could say is my home ground. However, in this show the multimedia aspect was important because I needed to translate the online exploration experience in a way that spoke about multiplicity and complexity.

Do you have any advice for other young Perth artists who are interested in exhibiting their work and/or breaking into the industry?

Seek out honest and critical perspectives on your work from people who are experienced and unhurried, as often as possible. This process will help to ensure that what you’re reading/researching/thinking about is visible in the work. Writing about your work, even if just for yourself, is also invaluable.

Wilderness User runs from 5 June to 21 June 2015 at Paper Mountain, Northbridge. If you’d like to learn more, Sheridan will be conducting an artist talk and virtual tour at 5pm on opening night.