CJ Tell us about the impetus for your current exhibition "It Holds Us All" ...
JM For the last few years, I have been possessed by a compulsion to paint and create sculptural forms of volcanoes and glaciers. I was naturally drawn to the ceramic medium and the idea of returning clay to the form of its geological origin. For me, this series is a contemplation of geological states of becoming as reflections of the erotic experience, and are a way to resist the moral, pornographic and possessive meanings that have been ascribed to the erotic. Moreover, the series offer an alternative approach to engaging with landscape; through a personal encounter with the sensual, bodily qualities of geological flux. By avoiding direct depictions of the body, my work seeks to express the erotic beyond the confines of gender and identity.
CJ Can you discuss the firing process and the fragility of the objects?
Wood-firing is an intensive process that often feels powerfully ritualistic and even mystical. Loading the pieces is performed with great care and consideration for the passage of the flames through the kiln. The firing itself takes 5 days of steady-to-constant stoking. There comes a point when I have to surrender my expectations for how my pieces are going to come out, and focus all my attention and energy on keeping the fire steady and full – controlling the temperature is crucial to survival of the work. The whole kiln is suffused with flames that carry ash from the burnt wood, ash containing tiny, mineral particles that turn into a natural glaze on the work. A deeply spiritual aspect for me in making volcano forms is that the kiln reaches temperatures of 2100 - 2300 F, which is the same temperature of magma. Inside the kiln, the sculptures become white hot and begin to liquefy. The material transformation that occurs at this temperature structurally turns the clay back into rock. Though the pieces that emerge are hard and still, they retain evidence of violent action. I have come to contemplate this transformation as a kind of death that is also deeply erotic.
CJ From what sources do you draw inspiration?
JM I try to maintain a perspective of vulnerability within the world where everything is sacred. In this state of mind, one is always in love with the world so I become accustomed to heartbreak as a fairly constant part of that experience.
The experiences I have when engaging with nature are really incomparable, sometimes pleasantly banal and sometimes utterly awe inspiring. I always let my curiosity take over so I can feel myself dissolve into the world. I think about this as an erotic experience. I have no limits to what inspires me in nature; it is endlessly wondrous.
The scope of human consciousness, inventiveness and potential to find meaning in the world is also constantly astounding to me. I find travel wildly stimulating, the process of submitting to being within an unfamiliar culture and environment has transformed me in unpredictable ways. I am inspired by, or perhaps motivated by, difficult cultural encounters – usually this happens when I see us as a species failing in our responsibility to ourselves, each-other and this planet. Often I find that I am the one failing.
Working with the material world is the way I find a response to all of the experiences listed above. The material itself is also my master, and learning from it is generative, especially when through a process of transformation meaning is found. The experience of being in service to the work is mysterious and humbling. Developing the work happens through conversations and intimate friendships made possible by being an artist, these are always such a privilege and inspiration to me. It is crucial for me to remain engaged with my community of artists, both in Australia and here in the US. Being an artist is really such an inspiring way to exist.
CJ Do you think being from Australia gives you a unique perspective on natural systems?
JM I’m not so sure about a unique perspective, but I would say that growing up in rural Australia did give me boundless access to what I think is a remarkable natural environment. When I was child in rural Australia, I had the good fortune to encounter two contrasting explanations of the landforms around me. The aboriginal elder, Nundjan Djiridjarkan, would take all the children in our area on walks through the bushland and teach us indigenous creation stories from ‘the dreaming’. Parallel to this, my father, an earth scientist, gave me rich explanations of the geological processes present in the exact same rocks and landforms. Instead of working in conflict with each other, I comprehended these two creation stories as enmeshed. The dramatic natural processes present in the landforms can be recognized in indigenous dreamtime stories, which in turn tell us how we exist as part of the natural forces of the world. This experience of the Australian environment showed me how multi-dimensional one’s perception of the truth becomes when mythological and scientific narratives are overlaid.
CJ Do you see value in neo-pagan rituals and concepts such as animism and panpsychism?
JM Yes. In my appreciation for the plasticity of human consciousness, I consider these ancient world views, and their persistence as ideas today, as optimistic examples of conscious potential. I think a lot about how our interactions with nature are informed by culture. When cultural systems or philosophies place nature as central and human in the role of powerfully conscious servants to nature, I think we find something resembling what I would call a true democracy. Nature is an incredible teacher and what we learn can vary based on how we choose to learn from it.
When I was in Iceland recently, I witnessed a contemporary culture still highly informed by an intimate relationship to the natural world. In part, I think this is because Iceland is so geologically alive that a catastrophic volcanic eruption is a constant, potential threat. There are many ways to learn; I was in Iceland to learn ‘from’ and not ‘about’ – a distinction I see as the difference between spiritual learning and scientific learning. For me, learning from nature is embedded in the act of receiving. When one enters the experience with no specific expectations or projected aims, mystery becomes apparent. In Iceland, I found myself abandoning words all together. What I learnt from the environment consumed my mind, day and night. I dreamt of the landscape and the natural forces for an entire month when I returned, and channeled those lessons into my ceramic sculptures.
CJ Do you think it's important to resist the anthropomorphic impulse when it comes to engaging with natural systems?
JM I am hesitant to dictate how one should engage consciously with the natural environment. I think it has merit in the scope of imaginative empathy. I would say rather than simply resisting the anthropomorphic impulse, there is much to learn about ourselves when we observe how the anthropomorphic impulse manifests in us. By noticing what roles we assign ourselves within these imagined relationships, it becomes apparent if we are really learning from our experience of nature or simply trying to contain it.
Personally, I feel that resisting the anthropomorphic impulse leads to more challenging insights which aid the process of abandoning the ego. I guess I would say if you are not going to resist, it is necessary to observe how your imaginative thinking is imposing upon and deforming your understanding.
CJ What will your next project be?
JM I’ve been collaborating with several different dancers recently and it has been refreshing working in the world of movement again. It can be surprising seeing what emerges while working in someone else’s practice.
In my own practice I found that I enjoyed working with concrete for the pedestals for this exhibition and I am excited about the possibilities it gives me to create work on a larger scale. I have a dream to cast big concrete meteor craters as a collaborative project with a friend of mine but these kinds of ambitious projects require time to gain the necessary resources and support.
For now, I am working on something that the volcano forms got me thinking about, which is the idea that our mother’s body is the first interior we ever experience and how almost every interior we inhabit after birth is designed by men. I find a lot of interiors of buildings quite alienating and I am thinking of how I can find a response to that. I am in the early research phase of this project now so it still holds a lot of mystery for me.