“I’m really aware of the work being pieces that people live with, and the show is titled Companions so the idea is that that they are sort of houses for spirits or energies that can keep you company in a space.” Anna-Wili Highfield is among those few artists that have been able to carve out a creative niche for themselves that endures trends. Her work is considered, in the way that she knows where and how it should exist in your home, and hopefully what it might inspire, and leaving her pieces slightly unfinished is part of what makes them so ephemeral – allowing her audience to imagine what might be. In anticipation for her first solo exhibition in Sydney at Olsen Gallery, opening November 14, Highfield shares with us the inspiration behind Companions, with hopes that they will serve as exactly that through her use of mixed materials, striking a balance between strong and soft – creating an energy that is as inquisitive as it is defined.
This is your first solo-show in Sydney, your last exhibition was in New York in 2018, how do you feel your practice has changed since then?
Well this is only my second exhibition at all aside from working off commission, so I think the nice thing about making a room full of work is that you can create an energy in a space where all the works can speak to each other and relate to each other, and I’m really enjoying that. The other thing that I’ve noticed from working by commission for so long, I’m really aware of the work being pieces that people live with, and the show is titled companions so the idea is that that they are sort of houses for spirits or energies that can keep you company in a space, so that’s something that’s been interesting, making them feel as though they live alongside you in a way and that they have a feeling of being alive and having present energy that people can relate to.
What drove you to having an exhibition in Sydney after all this time of commissioned work? Is there a significance to it?
I felt it was right and then Tim [Olsen] and I sort of sought each other out in the same week, I reached out to the gallery asking them to meet and then the gallery manager said, “That’s so funny, Tim asked me to get in contact with you this week.” So, we kind of had this spooky serendipity there. It felt like time. Because I’ve worked by commission for so long, a lot of people haven’t actually seen my work in real life. So, there’s something about having the show and people being there and being able to experience it. Like I said before making a body of work which is more like an installation, where every piece relates to the next is really nice. You can really build an energy with that.
You just touched on why you chose the Olsen Gallery as the space to hold the exhibition, can you talk a bit more about what your relationship with the Olsen has been like?
It’s been a lovely relationship! Amazingly they gave me a show in New York City first, which was super cool. That show was a bit louder; this show is the quieter one. Tim has been very supportive of my work and really encouraging so it’s a great fit.
What do you feel is the difference between showing in the states and having a show here in Sydney where you call home?
It’s funny, I keep on joking that New York was my practice run for Sydney. But there is something about having my people come to the show, which I’m really looking forward to. I think that people do know my work here so I’m really excited for them to see what I’m doing now. I feel like this show has a coming together of a whole lot of mediums and ideas that I’ve had over time, it’s a nice quiet continuation of themes and materiality and other things, it’s got a different energy to the one in New York, it’s quieter. But the inspiration for the show was inspired by ancient statues that people would make in the temples to worship for them while they were out working in the fields and they were these little statues that they would make for themselves so that they could be present in the space when they couldn’t be, and I like the idea that all the pieces in the show are kind of abstract self-portraits. But they are statues that hold an energy and be present in a space.
Leading into that, what are some of the themes that are present in the show?
The general theme is the idea that they are kind of houses for spirits of creatures, so the show is called companions, and the thing is that there are all of these spirit companions that hold an energy for each creature.
What medium have you used for them?
I’ve used ceramics, brass, paper and a lot of wax. There are quite a few things going on, traditionally I’ve worked with cotton rag paper but this time I’ve used wax. It’s a new practice with some of these materials, the first show in New York was done with a lot of brass, and I’ve used a lot of bronze in this show too, but I’ve made these with a lot of bronze and then I’m softening them with a lot of wax to bring them back to make them more ephemeral looking.
Where there any other sources of inspiration for the exhibition?
It was mainly the temple statues and each individual sculpture I make, I always think of the character of that creature, and then in turn the characters that we can relate to and so I just create the sculptures as the embodiment of that character or spirit.
How do you hope people might respond to the exhibition?
I hope that they feel the energy in the room and the energy of each piece. I hope that they spend time with them, I always think that the main thing with art should be communication and generosity so I try to leave my sculptures unfinished to a point to invite an audience to fill in the spaces with their own imagination, so I hope that is something that happens, and that people feel drawn in and that they can wander through the space and each sculpture with their minds.