Like Rapunzel in her tower, renowned Sydney-based artist and lecturer Mikala Dwyer confesses she is suffering a bout of cabin fever. At the time we speak, Mikala is halfway through a two-week install of her mixed media exhibition, Drawing Down the Moon, on show at the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) in Fortitude Valley until April 4. She is dossing in the studio apartment above the IMA and – while she needn’t rely on any prince charming to rescue her – Mikala admits she’s hardly left the building as she obsessively sifts through the truckload of objects freighted to Brisbane from her hometown of Sydney.
Mikala Dwyer is carefully remaking – piece-by-piece – five different installations she has exhibited over the past few years. The sprawling show will take up the entire IMA floor space and, she hopes, give viewers “a spark”. “I hope it’s a place you can walk through and it’s not like anywhere else you’ve ever been; some sort of adventure,” she proffers modestly.
Mikala is known internationally for creating playful and intriguing large-scale installations and public art out of a hodgepodge of objects, from discarded vacuum cleaners to lampshades, as well as a mix of materials such as clay, metal, glass, fabric, plastic and porcelain. Her work incorporates performance, sound and sculpture, so you can appreciate the install for her exhibition is an elaborate mission.
Her last retrospective was in 2000 at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “It’s a huge thing for me,” Mikala starts, chuffed with the opportunity to revisit her work on such a large scale. “Because you start to see your thinking under one roof. It’s strange seeing your brain on display like that.”
Mikala’s brain has been on display for the past 20 years as she has explored diverse yet interconnected themes of architecture and the phenomena of space, gravity and physics. More recently, it’s been the paranormal and occult – think totems and clairvoyance, Ouija boards and seances. Throughout her career, Mikala has bravely nudged the boundaries of installation, sculpture and performance and earned a reputation as one of Australia’s most important contemporary artists. Her work is held in prestigious collections, including at the National Gallery of Australia and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Yet when asked if she considers herself a success, Mikala is humble. “I think that’s for other people to judge,” she deflects, suggesting that there are many contemporary artists flying under the radar who are far more deserving of the accolades she receives.
As a child, Mikala’s dream was to be a glass blower. “I’ve no idea where that came from,” she laughs. In retrospect she credits her parents for influencing her creatively; her father was an industrial chemist and her mother a silversmith. She describes her younger self as “a bit of a wayward child,” and she was expelled from school before she finished Year 12. “It was probably because I was dyslexic and bored and not fitting into school, you know. I was very restless.”
She returned home from Europe at 21 to study art as a mature-age student and in 1983 graduated from the Sydney College of the Arts with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in sculpture and sound. “It was fantastic,” she gushes of her tertiary adventure. “I was really lucky. I went through Sydney College of the Arts at a time it was on fire in a way. We had the most amazing lecturers – it was quite a radical time for art practice.”
Mikala moved to London upon graduating and recalls that one of her first sculptural installations involved a pulley system and weights to explore ideas about gravity and physics. She says she wasn’t conscious of pushing boundaries. “I was just experimenting and doing what I wanted to do.” Yet in the early days of exhibiting she admits self-doubt was crippling. “But I often think the doubt is important to embrace, to be part of the work … It makes you care and it’s also like ground zero so you keep reinventing yourself. Doubt stops you from being too lazy.”
Mikala is constantly motivated to make new work but recalls she nearly gave up on her art career in the early 1990s. At the time she was working three part-time jobs to support her art making. “I was so tired and I wasn’t going anywhere.” She intended to become a chef but, as fate would have it, philanthropist Cynthia Jackson invited Mikala to exhibit in the first Primavera show at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992. “And life got easier after that,” she recalls. “I was lucky that year – I just happened to make a work that went down okay … It changed everything in a way.”
Asked why she cares about what she does, Mikala says: “Because art is really important – it’s the imagination part of society … Life is quite flat and boring if you don’t have creativity in it. And the beauty of it is that it doesn’t quite make sense … it’s not a neat fit into everything else. It’s the one bastion where you still have some kind of freedom.”
And in keeping with that theme, the words of wisdom she lives by are equally as inspiring: “Try to get those judges off your shoulder and try to get to some truth, either with yourself or the world around you.”