Rachel Ciesla has always been passionate about contemporary art, particularly time-based media (video, performance, and sound). When she realised there were ways of working with contemporary art outside of being an artist, she decided to drop out of medicine (which she had been studying for three years) to take art history. She now works independently and for Anna Schwartz Gallery.
“I'm really just a geek who likes knowledge and learning,” she says. “I look for challenging work that reframes the way in which I view the world.” The single most important element of her work is integrity. Her art must be truthful to her surroundings. The exhibition she just curated, Healing Practices, brings “generational issues of trauma and mental health into the contemporary context with First Nation and multicultural artists at the forefront of the narrative,” she informs me.
Rachel grew up in Perth but is now based in Melbourne. Rachel’s favourite artists include Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mona Hatoum, Tehching Hsieh, Anna Mendieta and Louise Bourgeois. “I do remember being 17 and catching the train into the city with my best friend and visiting the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art,” she reminisces. “This was a big deal. Unlike the trendy inner city kids, most of us that grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth rarely made it into the city let alone an art gallery. It changed my perception of what art can be forever.”
Rachel speaks English and Bahasa Indonesia but would love to learn more languages because “it opens up new possibilities for expression.” She always carries a notebook with her. “I constantly note ideas and thoughts; not all are good, but, with time, most can be reworked. My journals are a long tracking document which I often share with close friends as collaborators.”
And who are these close friends? “Oh they are all a bunch of creative types - musicians, jewellers, writers, artists, photographers and filmmakers. They must not be lazy!” she laughs.
Keep reading to learn more about Rachel’s practice. //
RS: Did the environment in which you grew up affect you and your work?
RC: Heavily. My work draws upon my own experience of mental health, specifically familial patterns of depression and anxiety. I didn't realise at the time (I had a very happy childhood) but looking back on it now I can see that my grandmother and so too my mother developed certain behaviours as a way of coming to terms with trauma. My curatorial practice seeks out manifestations of healing within the work of artists to explore the relationship of past trauma upon the mind and body.
RS: What do you find troubling about Western therapeutic practices?
RC: That medication is often used to assist women to live in destructive environments. The public narrative of mental illness is gendered, and gender shapes the way we tell this narrative. Through my work as a curator I hope to flip this narrative of suffering and victimhood, for one of healing and recovery, in which women are not seen as hysterical (the crazy ex-girlfriend) but strong and powerful.
RS: You just curated the exhibition Healing Practices at Bundoora Homestead. [Note: the historical context of the exhibition site is that it’s actually a psychiatric facility embedded in colonial roots.] Could you tell us more about that?
RC: The exhibition responds to the site of Bundoora Homestead Art Centre as a space of conflict, domicile and restoration, while examining the prevalence of artistic practices that use slow repetition, ritual or meditation as a way of thinking through trauma, and engendering empowerment through the creative act.
Healing Practices begins with the question of healing, and whether it is possible to heal from past trauma. Exploring the relationship between trauma and the body, Healing Practices presents three newly commissioned works by Duha Ali, Zaiba Khan, Stanislava Pinchuk, Katie West and Justine Youssef.
RS: You are also publishing your first book. What will that feature?
RC: Three texts that I have commissioned from women writers in response to the exhibition Healing Practices. I have never published a book before so it's all very new to me, but I will keep you updated. I like to dive into things head first and just figure it out as I go. At times it might feel like an insurmountable task but I always land on my feet.
RS: Favourite films, literature, and brands?
RC: Dario Argento's Suspiria and David Lynch's Lost Highway. Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau. Acne Studios, Maison Margiela and, more locally, Arnsdorf.
RS: What's your daily routine like?
RC: My morning ritual involves a cup of coffee in my yard while reading a book, I then slowly make my way to work at the gallery. I always grab my second and last coffee for the day at my favourite city cafe Dukes on Flinders Lane. Once I arrive at the gallery it's a catch up meeting my colleagues, an hour or two of emails, checking in with our artists before I begin the day's activities. These may vary but mostly I manage large-scale artist commissions, international engagement including art fairs, and our online platforms. It's a lot of reading, writing, looking and speaking about art. I love it.
RS: What are the main challenges of your lifestyle?
RC: When your work and interests are so enmeshed it can be difficult to find a balance. The arts sector is also run off the back of underpaid and undervalued female labour. But that's a systemic issue. My only advice is that you must absolutely love what you do because this industry is extremely rewarding but it is not very kind.
RS: What do you look to/for to get out of a funk?
RC: I get restless very quickly. If I notice those feelings coming on then I call a friend and ask to go for a long walk or a drive to somewhere unknown. I also like to aimlessly wander through suburban shopping malls and looking at the stuff. Suburban malls are social spaces, people hang out and congregate there. It's really a civic space. I heard Cy Twombly liked to go to Walmart, just wander up and down the aisles. It was kinda a zen thing for him.
RS: Can you describe some of your favourite places, scents, and feelings?
RC: The West Australian coastline, the feeling of diving into the salt water when you are hungover (the Indian Ocean is cold) or sinking into a freshly made bed after you return from travelling, a phone call from a distant friend, freshly brewed coffee in the morning and the Jasmine which blooms throughout Melbourne in Spring.
RS: I love that! What does nature reflect to you?
RC: Beautifully designed spaces are a pleasure to inhabit. But nature always does it better.
// Healing Practices runs until May 5th, 2019. // rachelciesla.com