mixed media on paper
Purchased from the Some Grand Plans exhibition at The Basement Gallery in 1999.
Katie Holten grew up in rural Ireland and studied at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and the Hochschule der Kunst in Berlin. In 2003 she represented Ireland at the 50th Venice Biennale. She is based in New York having undertaken a Fulbright Scholarship at Cornell University.
Read more about Katie and an interview with the artist here:
Katie is motivated by cultural, political and social circumstances. Through her drawings, sculptures, books and ephemeral actions she makes poetic alterations to the everyday. She is interested in creating works that contribute to an awareness of ‘place’ while reflecting the vulnerabilities implicit in everyday life. At the root of Katie’s practice is a curiosity with life’s systems – both organic and man-made. Her work is an ongoing investigation of the inextricable relationship between man and the natural world in the age of the Anthropocene.
Katie has had solo museum exhibitions at the New Orleans Museum of Art (2012), Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Dublin (2010), The Bronx Museum, New York (2009), Villa Merkel, Esslingen (2008), Nevada Museum of Art, Reno (2008) and Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (2007)
An Interview with the Artist
How did you begin your career as an artist?
I don’t think I see it as a career, but as what I do. I could say that I started working as an artist when I was really young. When I was seven or eight I would do things that I still do now – go for walks, spend quiet time in a place, collect things along the way, weed, make drawings and little booklets. When we were still living in Longford (we moved to Ardee when I was ten), I made little comic books and tried to sell them to family and neighbours for a penny, or maybe it was half a penny. But as far as I remember no one wanted to buy them, so I would just give them away.
Then, when we moved to Ardee I remember spending time in my father’s office (in Castleblayney). I liked to raid the office supplies. I would make endless drawings and more comic books on the reams of fax paper and use the photocopier to make multiples and the stapler to staple them together into little booklets. I still occasionally make booklets like this to accompany installations.
I always had summer jobs growing up – it was a way to make pocket money while getting to travel. I worked in a meat processing factory, a blueberry farm in Canada, I was a pretty good strawberry picker, and I was lucky enough to work as an au-pair for a wonderful family in Paris. All of this led me to the conclusion that I could never have the capacity to have a ‘real job’. But there are elements from each of these jobs that still filter through my work – the factory production was evident in my Gran Bazaar project and I continue to work with living plants.
How would you describe your way of working?
My work is all about looking and contemplating what’s around me. I’m pretty obsessive and competitive. If I’m doing a job I want to do it properly and really well. So, when I was working in the factory, or picking strawberries, I would get up early and work like a machine – trying to be the best, fastest, most productive person on the line. But it was only temporary – I knew that all these jobs were only for a few weeks or months. I always knew that my ‘real job’ would not be a nine-to-five job. I’m just not capable of it.
My way of working combines how I am – I’ve always been interested in lots of different things, but not able to focus on one thing at a time. My mind wanders. I get distracted. I can’t follow straight lines. I’m simultaneously patient and impatient. I can’t drive. I like to find out how things work, but I’m not very practical and make things up as I go along. I knew, without ever formally thinking about it, that I could never participate in the ‘normal’ working world.
How did you decide on Fine Art as opposed to another discipline?
My art teachers (Sister Enda and Siobhan Finnegan) at school (St. Louis convent in Carrickmacross) were supportive and gave me practical advice on applying to art college – they told me to focus on my portfolio and spend time developing my ideas through drawings and notebooks. That’s something that I’d always enjoyed doing anyway. I was always drawing and made up little projects for myself to investigate ideas through drawing, sculpture, and photography.
I remember that I got my hands on as many brochures as I could for different art schools – in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the UK and I visited some of them on their open days. My favourite was the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. I loved the red brick building of the former whiskey distillery and the smell of hops in the air from the Guinness Brewery down the street. The Fine Art building seemed like such a hive of activity – I knew that’s where I should go. I was lucky enough to get accepted by NCAD.
When I was younger, before college, I thought I was interested in Fashion, so I wrote to Image magazine and got an internship there. I answered the phone, helped on fashion shoots and did some admin and office work. I quickly realised that this wasn’t what I was interested in at all.
When I started at NCAD I thought I wanted to focus on Film, but after a two week film class I realised that wasn’t for me either. As I always liked drawing and understanding how things worked, I was curious about industrial design but knew that it was too focused and practical for me, as was architecture. I didn’t want a job – I wanted to be able to explore the world. So it was a natural choice – I went into the Fine Art department and got a joint degree in Painting and History of Art.
How did you make the transition from Art College into the Real World?
My third year at NCAD was spent abroad on an Erasmus scholarship at the Hochschule der Kunst (HdK) in Berlin. It was 1997 and I got to visit the Venice Biennale and Documenta. This was when everything clicked for me. I started to understand what it was that I was doing. I reaslised that I didn’t need to work in the studio 9-5 (which was implied in NCAD as we had sign-in sheets and restricted access to the studios). In Berlin I realised that I could work outside, in the real world. I’ve never been comfortable in a studio – it makes me feel as though I have to produce ‘art’. I’m more interested with experiencing life and responding to what’s around me. At the HdK I had a private studio with 24/7 access. In Berlin I began to make work and collaborate with others and participate in shows, so I was exhibiting my work before I graduated.
I’ve heard, and I can imagine, that the transition from art college to the real world can be difficult and quite a shock. But I was lucky – I was already working with a group of artists in Berlin and we’d organised shows in different countries, so I was like a rolling stone – moving from one venue to the next. And I’m still rolling – it’s just been a continuous roll from one project to the next.
What kind of support structures are important?
I’ve always been lucky and my parents always supported me in everything that I’ve wanted to do. I’m the eldest of four children, but they never put pressure on me to do something ‘sensible’ or get a ‘real job’.We didn’t have money to go to college, so my dad helped me research and think through what my options would be for trying to fund what I wanted to do. This experience became really helpful later as I was able to navigate the tricky world of funding and applications.
Open-submission exhibitions were important for me in the early years. Due to the nature of my work (not being studio based), it was vital to have opportunities such as EV+A in Limerick where I could produce new works on site.
Residencies have also been important for me. I managed to work through some difficult times during productive residencies at the Heinrich Böll Cottage, Annaghmakerrig, Sirius Arts Center, Centre Culturel Irlandais and recently at A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans.
I’ve been very lucky to have received support from the Arts Council and Culture Ireland over the years. Other grants have proven enormously important – receiving the Fulbright scholarship essentially changed my life as I got to move to New York City, where I still live.
What kinds of challenges have you faced in your career?
The main challenge is an obvious one – having no fixed income and no security. I often don’t know what’s going to happen a few weeks down the road, never mind a few years down the road. But this is also a great thrill and gives me the freedom to do what I want, or what I think I need to do.
One challenge was the Venice Biennale. I was invited by Valerie Connor to represent Ireland at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. I was extremely honoured and humbled – what an incredible invitation. I was very young and had no gallery support whatsoever, so it was extremely difficult. But at the time, I (naively) presumed that there would be a system in place and support would be there. The Venice Biennale is a huge event, often compared to the Olympics of the artworld. I thought that if you participate in it, they must know what they’re doing – that it’s all organized and professional. But not at all! I learnt then that the ‘real world’ of the artworld is a hard slog – there is no easy way – it’s all a challenge. Maybe that’s why I love it – I never know what’s going to happen next and I have to make it all myself. I got my first grey hairs in Venice!
Another challenge was a little more unexpected. I’ve come to find that it becomes more difficult – not less – as you get older and more accomplished. When I was younger I thought that the older artists must have it easier – that once you’ve proven yourself with a strong body of work, gained recognition, and shown at prestigious galleries and museums, that somehow the rewards would parallel that success. But the reality is that it’s a continuous uphill battle. I’ve found that it gets more difficult and more complicated as I’m invited to undertake ever larger and more complicated projects, but often with less support. Institutions presume that I have a studio and/or gallery system behind me as support – but I don’t work like that. I work alone and prefer to fabricate things myself with my own hands. I don’t really sell work, I’m not part of the commercial system, so it’s a huge weight to pull off these large scale projects as an individual.
No matter how many times I tell curators that I need a project manager – they always shrug and/or laugh and say that we’ll manage without one. That’s a challenge – to convince other people within the artworld that I’m not a project manager and that they’re not a project manager and that money needs to be spent on someone who can coordinate between the artist’s concepts and the finished work out in the world.
What advice would you give to anyone who is thinking of making art as a profession?
Ask yourself why you want to work in the artworld. Do you like the answer? Be true to yourself – can you see yourself doing anything else? If you can – do that instead! Here in New York I see a lot of students who are interested in ‘studying’ art at universities like Columbia so that they can become professional artists, get picked up by a gallery, and sell their work for tens of thousands of dollars. It happens to a few – they get picked up by commercial galleries and sell their works for crazy prices, so they can afford to have huge studios and employ lots of people. But that’s not common and honestly it’s not healthy. I don’t know if young people in Ireland see art in the same way – as a way to making money. If that’s what you’re interested in – look elsewhere.
How important is Gallery representation for you?
It’s everything and it’s nothing. I live in Manhattan in New York City, a few blocks from the blue chip galleries in Chelsea and the younger galleries in the Lower East Side. Some say it’s the centre of the art world. But, honestly, sometimes it feels like the ‘art world’ is a parallel universe and that what I do has nothing to do with it. I’ve shown with commercial galleries here but right now I don’t have any representation by a gallery in New York. That makes me feel like I’m not a part of the establishment and not taken seriously. But if I mention this to people they tell me I’m crazy – I show in museums across the country and am constantly being invited to make new work for various projects. I’m too busy. This is nice – it reminds me that the commercial gallery world is not the be-all and end-all. But, you’re definitely led to believe that if you’re not represented and selling, then you must be a lesser being.
The only gallery I work with at the moment is Van Horn in Dusseldorf, Germany. It started as a project space by a photographer, Daniela Steinfeld. We met in 2002 when we were both on the residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Before the economic meltdown in 2008 they were able to sell a few works – enough for me to pay studio rent, etc. but nothing has been selling the last few years. I hear this repeated here in New York – it’s as though only the big-name artists are selling their work for more and more money and everyone else is left to scramble.
But, I’m lucky – my practice has always been a more flat-footed one (on the ground – mobile – not tied to commercial galleries). I’ve never been a studio-based artist that produces objects for sale or storage. I prefer to make new works for particular sites and I get commissioned to make new works.
How you do keep your profile visible?
I use Twitter and Facebook to advertise my projects. I use them primarily as a PR tool – a way to let people know what I’m doing and to present a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how I work.
I try to send personalised emails with info on my current projects to friends, colleagues and people that I’ve worked with.
A few years ago I taught myself HTML and made a website. It’s home-made and a little embarrassing. I’ve never been able to document my work successfully. But at least this way, with a home-made website, I can easily make changes and update it. I try to update it monthly.
When I get invited to do interviews I always try to say yes. I personally like reading interviews with others, so I feel like it’s a good way to let people gain access to me and what I’m doing.
It’s always good to make an appearance at openings – that shows that you’re interested in the gallery and the artists. (and unfortunately this business can be fickle – if people don’t see you around, they forget about you). That can be easy in Dublin – a lot of the openings are the same night and you can hop from one to the other. But in New York it can be a full-time job – just trying to get out to see all the shows is physically impossible. But if I have the energy I definitely try and make it to the openings of friends and colleagues and others that I’m really interested in.
I try to send material to the National Irish Visual Arts Library at NCAD. They have folders on Irish artists with all kinds of documentation. I’m a library addict and think this is an important resource (I worked at the library in NCAD the whole time I was a student – it helped pay my rent).
Can you tell us about the work you have in our collection?
I made this piece in 1998 or 1999, when I’d just graduated from NCAD. I had a solo show at the Basement Gallery in Dundalk in 1999 – my first solo show in Ireland. The title of the show was Some Grand Plans and all the works were essentially drawings, grand plans, looking at the specific and not-so-specific infrastructure of daily life around me. I haven’t seen it in the flesh since my show in 1999 and I always find it strange looking at old work – I can only see the negatives and all the unrealised potential. I’m constantly making new work – I always feel like nothing is good enough, nothing is what I really need/mean to make – it’s a constant, never-ending process of trying to uncover and find the truth. I made the frame myself and I never made frames again!
Tell us a little about your current practice.
My practice today is essentially the same as it’s always been – I tend not to be studio-based and make work that responds to particular sites. I use drawing as my basic tool and incorporate whatever else I feel is necessary for a particular project. I tend to recycle materials and often make temporary or ephemeral works.
I’m moving to Ireland for six months to work on a public art project for the city of Derry. It’s a garden project, so I get to work with my mother in Ardee – she’s my official plant advisor! I’m looking forward to being home for a little while. But also itchy to get travelling! The project after Derry is in Venice, so I’m busy planning that now. I’ve never been able to stay in one place very long…
If THE GATES is the signature artwork in looking back at the Bloomberg era – big, bold, tourist-attracting, and imposed on Central Park and all of us – then Katie Holten’s TREE MUSEUM is like an antidote after too much of a big idea. – Robert Sullivan, 2011
Katie Holten maintains an international, multi-media practice subverting conventional notions of reality and the urban landscape in order to engage our understanding of the natural environment. Combining interests in global politics and the poeticism of chance encounters, Holten’s diverse body of work proposes a distinct model for ways artists can inform and influence the collective consciousness.– Christopher Cook, 2010
Find out more about Katie Holten’s Work here: www.katieholten.com