The Herman Miller x HAY collection, in conversation with Caroline Choker, co-founder of Sydney design studio, Acme.
Beyond Site: An Interview with Kate Newby
Kate Newby draws in the land. She closes her eyes and stains the earth with a notable grace. Her works seem to be created out of complex layers of the deeply personal and the vastly organic. And like the best art, it feels at once conceptual and utterly, almost spiritually, alive.
Consider Had us running with you (2023) or Réclamer la Terre (2022). With both, Newby shows us that she is an artist of considerable native power, a ‘natural artist’ in the de Marian or Holtian mode, someone whose site-specific gestures of copper, brick, bronze, clay and glass reconstitute the way we see the world. Filling empty spaces to disrupt latency, her work explores the ever-changing dynamics between the natural world and the built environment. The 44-year-old artist grew up in Auckland, Aotearoa, where she spent her childhood building forts and huts, creating liminal spaces for her imagination to soar. Now based in Texas, she embraces a sense of wonder, always listening with curiosity, like a searchlight piercing the unknown. As she works on a new series for a show at Fine Arts, on Gadigal Country in Sydney, Newby contemplates the mysteries of nature and the intersection of art and architecture.
RACHEL WEINBERG How are you, Kate?
KATE NEWBY I’m good, thank you. I’m living in Texas these days, and the summers can be really brutal. Probably similar to Australia, actually.
RW How come you decided to move to Texas?
KN I’ve been here for about two and a half years. I really love it. I was in New York for about ten years, but I felt like my world was just getting repetitive there.
RW Do you find the community in Texas similar to those in Australia or New Zealand? Or totally different?
KN It’s pretty different. I’m living in rural South Texas, so I’m not in Austin or Houston, which are more cosmopolitan. I’m based on a 150-acre old ranch and everyone around us is part of the ranching community. It’s completely different from anywhere I’ve lived before.
RW Compared to New York, has Texas informed your work in a different way?
KN Yeah, big time. That’s why I left. In New York, I was working out of Greenwich House Pottery. Every time I made stuff, I had to carry it home on the subway in my backpack. It was always brutal. I had these giant Ikea bags full of stuff – they would weigh twice my body weight. There’s always a sense of physicality when you make work, but in New York I also had to carry it everywhere [laughs].
RW You were one with the work [laughs]. KN Yes! And in Texas, I’ve got lots of space. I work out of the ceramic studio in San Antonio with an architectural ceramicist and I’ve got my own studio on the ranch. It’s been interesting to be around people who work with clay on a larger scale.
RW How do you incorporate texture and material into your work?
KN For me, texture is a way to really pull people into the work. You know, when I’m walking around a contemporary art museum and I see objects, I often want to get to know them through touch. Obviously, for a myriad of reasons, that’s not usually safe for the viewer or the artwork, but I still want to invite people to really get into my work. I don’t want to risk people looking at a piece for three seconds and then moving on. So, I often create physical obstacles for people to move or walk around, use their bodies, get to know it. I want my work to be a situation you really have to immerse yourself in.
RW Are you trying at all to make art more of an approachable discipline? Bring it down from that higher echelon?
KN Absolutely. I’m not as interested in the higher echelon as I am in making my work accessible. Although I exhibit my work in museum and gallery spaces, I’m often creating work outside too, in more peripheral situations. I want my work to exist in conversation with everyday environments.
RW When you’re looking around, what materials intrigue or inspire you? I’m sure Texas is quite dry. How do those natural elements influence your practice?
KN I’ve actually just come back from West Texas – I was there for the Agave Festival in Marfa. One of the discussions I attended took us all down to El Cementerio de los Lipanes in Presidio, on the border of Mexico. We were walking around this really dry, arid town. There was a lot of adobe, raw iron and brick – materials used to keep out the heat, keep the cool in. Some of the buildings had fallen in on themselves. But I like to see things break down and crumple. That’s when they become personal.
RW In nature too? Or only industrial settings?
KN That’s a really tough question. I often think about nature and the outdoor environment, but I almost need the intersection of people and the natural environment. I need that tension. I don’t want just one or the other. I think that’s why I’m interested in things breaking down and changing or deteriorating with age. I love the cause-and-effect relationship.
RW I assume the works are always changing on site? How do you balance intentionality with spontaneity?
KN I’m a huge planner – in my personal life and in my artistic life. I’m often working with new people, in different countries, so I always have to plan. I need a type of infrastructure in place so other parts of my practice can really go wild. And while I usually have a strong intention for a work, I sometimes need to adopt another plan. For example, at the Kunsthalle Wien, I created a brick floor with around six thousand bricks. When I first arrived in Vienna, the bricks were impossibly hard to work with. They were unfired bricks and I thought I could come in and manipulate them, but they had been completely dried out. So, I really had to chisel and chop at them, which changed all the mark making I thought I’d be able to do. I kind of loved it though. It had a different energy because all I could do was hack. Once I’ve committed to a new plan, I say, “Okay, this is happening.” I ask, “How can I work with that?” I like that neutral position. That’s when the work can be responsive.
RW When you travel to new places do you evolve your ideas, or are you quite regimented?
KN No, I often change. I was working in London last October  and before I arrived I had ideas – I had brought some materials and fabricated some work – but I didn’t know how it would all come together. I only figured it out when I was in the space. A lot of my work is actually only made when I arrive in the space. For a part of the exhibition I knew I wanted to create a large scale tile mural. I worked in Derbyshire, at a tile factory without knowing what the clay was going to be like and what kinds of colours could be produced with glaze. It’s not until I got everything into the space for installing that I made a lot of my decisions. So, I always try to stay open and not get too caught up in anything. At the same time, I try not to get too serious. I want to give myself the opportunity to experiment. I often think that if I’m a little bit uncomfortable and a little bit embarrassed it’s probably a really good sign – I’m out of my comfort zone.
RW It’s about embracing vulnerability. Even if your practice is developed and your ideas are firm, you can still stay open.
KN I like the balance. I don’t want to be an expert. I want to learn.
RW What do your colleagues think about your curiosity?
KN I have a genuine curiosity about who I’m working with and what materials I’m working with. Last year I was working on a glass project for the Palais de Tokyo, and I was working in Chartres, a small town just south of Paris. I thought I knew how I wanted to make the work. Bruno, the artisan I was working with said, “Okay, yes, we could do that, but I usually do it in this other way.” I said, “Wait a minute, tell me more!” And I went with his suggestion because he was a expert with this technique and I was trying to force a process that I knew from other studios, but didn’t make any sense in this context. It changed the movement of the work in a way that I never could have predicted. He showed me this whole other way of working with glass that I had absolutely no idea about. I love other people’s voices and value these opportunities to keep expanding.
RW Changing course slightly, how are the disciplines of architecture and art similar or different?
KN That is a giant question, Rachel [laughs].
RW Take your time [laughs]. As an artist, you’re taught to see through principles of colour, line, shape, form. Maybe those elements bleed into architecture too? Perhaps in a more rigid way?
KN Yeah, it’s quite interesting. I think there’s a mobility to art that architecture doesn’t necessarily have. I literally make work for people’s pockets – it can move and transform. But both disciplines always come back to form, and both always respond to light and context and environment.
I really like it when my work is able to infiltrate architecture. Sometimes I feel like it undermines it. And then there are other times I feel like it’s a stepping stool or pedestal for the work.
RW What makes the intersection between art and architecture successful?
KN Probably when they both question each other. I like the rebuttal, the tension, the dialogue: “We need each other, but we also want to get away, but we’re also co-dependent.” It may not be the clearest example, but I always loved Isa Genzken’s giant metal rose at MoMA. It was in the garden courtyard and about two stories high. You could see it from multiple different view points as you moved up the different floors of the museum. You were able to stand directly next to it and then look down onto it from the top floor. It almost looked like a pole, but it was in fact just a giant rose. I thought it was a pretty successful way of interacting with the building. I like when art can come into architecture and pull out the unexpected.
RW Thinking about Genzken, how do you approach the relationship between outdoor and indoor?
KN I always want both. I’ve used this term a lot, but I see the relationship as a ‘necessary reliance’. One can’t exist without the other. My work couldn’t exist without the hole in the ground.
RW Is that something you were always aware of?KN I basically grew up in the bush. I didn’t grow up around concrete or sidewalks. I wasn’t really exposed to suburban life until I moved to the city when I was about 17 or 18 years old. So maybe I was acutely aware when I finally had paved sidewalks to walk down.
RW It’s so interesting how we develop our sense of the world from our childhood – how we are taught to see and then how we teach ourselves to see.
KN It is and I want to think about that more. When I was young, I was so invested in creating spaces. Even in my bedroom, I would cut up sheets and hang them around the room to divide the space. I think I’ve always needed to create my own environment within other spaces. Nowadays it happens within a museum or gallery. I never want to be subservient or passive within the space.
RW Do you think it has anything to do with privacy? Is it about having something that’s yours, that you can go into alone? Do you ever think about that in your work?
KN Definitely. I’m not making an object in space, I’m creating a type of atmosphere. The intention is always to expand the museum or gallery by using spaces that you wouldn’t expect to find artwork, or to limit it by being very direct about how this work is navigated. In 2020 I made a huge blue floor in Aotearoa at the Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery out of a lightweight screed that viewers were invited to walk over. It filled up the entire ground floor space of the gallery and this provided a viewing experience that was very much guided by how you personally wanted to explore the work. When the show was over we cut it up and gave it out to people. It’s now in people’s gardens as stepping stones and whatever else they chose to do with the pieces. This was a way of continuing the work well beyond the exhibition.
RW What new directions are you interested in pursuing in your work?
KN I’ve got a show coming up at Fine Arts, Sydney. When I was in Sydney at the start
of 2023 I collected a lot of broken glass, and have made some work for the show with that. I’m pretty excited about the exhibition – some components of it have been with me for seven years. There’s going to be a large metal suspended sculpture in the show which had been hanging in Long Island City, New York for about three years. I guess I’m currently exploring how to make work that’s not always made on site or always brand new. And at the same time, I really want to explore what being a land artist might mean in 2023.
RW Can you expand on that?
KN I’ve always been really interested in land art and Arte Povera. I’m on this vast amount of land right now and I always ask myself, “What could I be exploring here? Why do I need an exhibition to do it?” I think I need buy a really big ladder and just go out there into the fields. I have the things around me that I need. I spent two and a half years laying the groundwork here. I’ve got a great foundry, a glass workshop, a ceramic workshop. So my question is: what can I be exploring for the benefit of the work, not for the exhibition.
RW Most of the land art I’ve been exposed to is in nature. Do you see your work existing in more natural spaces or do you think it will exist predominantly in the metropolitan zone?
KN No, I think it’ll be out on the ranch.I like that nature isn’t stationary or stable. For example, I hung my wind chime work for my Fine Arts, Sydney exhibition outside a few weeks go. Within an hour of installing, there were gale force winds that came through, torrential rain and then a huge storm with thunder and lightning. Nothing broke! The next morning each chime had a drop of water that hung off the bottom, catching the light during the sunrise. When there is work outside, there are unpredictable and unexpected moments. I want to find out more about the possibilities of these.
RW I like how your work has its own identity. It stands for something beyond its creator.
KN Yeah, I think it kind of leaves me. I make these tiny little clay dishes with pieces of found glass. I feel like they’ve got nothing to do with me. Because when they’re fired in the kiln, they go through such an incredible transformation I’m not responsible for the end product. I’m responsible for putting the ingredients together and seeing where it goes from there.
RW Do you think you’ll stay in Texas for a long time?
KN That’s the million-dollar question. It’s so brutal and hot, and so hard in so many ways. But I’m really fascinated with the possibilities of being here. I feel like I’ve come here to understand what making art in the world should look like. I feel like I’m hunting something down.