First published on 17 Dec 2013. Updated on 6 Jan 2014.
Ivan, you’ve been instrumental in setting up the Benalla Nude art prize and have curated the Fred Williams Pilbara Series at Benalla Art Gallery. Have you been involved with the gallery for long?
Only for the last eight months. I was on the board at one stage, but it’s only really now that I’m involved in helping them out. At the moment they don’t have a full time director, so I’m helping get in shows from artists like Fred Williams and Asher Bilu.
Are you enjoying working on the other side of the gallery?
I enjoy it when I can do something spectacular. It’s a bit like doing an artwork. To be able to click your fingers and getting in great stuff, is like doing the best art you’re ever going to do. And, you know, I love art so much. I’m into all sorts of art. Asher Bilu and Fred Williams are at completely different ends of the spectrum, so curating appeals to the way I operate.
I wanted to talk a bit about your journey through the world of art, because it’s certainly been quite a long journey for you, starting with your being sent to an orphanage when you were seven.
That was a family breakup. My father was a complete drunk, but he was shell-shocked and there was no help in those days. My mother was 22 and had seven kids. There was no social welfare system, so in the end, there was no option but for her to put us into the orphanage. But, before that, I grew up in Camp Pell, an old army barracks near the zoo, a real slum. My father used to go down to a pub on Flemington Rd and I used to have to bring him home when he was drunk. I used to draw the laneways, all those back streets, behind the pub. And in Camp Pell, there was a communist party artist group. I used to go over and pester them and they’d let me in. I didn’t know who those artists were, but I found out much later they were people like Albert Tucker, and I was doing art with them when I was five years old.
In the orphanage, my ability to draw got me through. In those days it was a pretty tough place. There were bullies and I was a shy, skinny little runt. But because I could draw, they could get better marks in the schoolbooks if I drew something for them. I was drawing for their projects, they’d get a good mark, and I became part of the hierarchy pretty early. I had protection. Art was my protection. Art has always been there.
So art had quite a practical purpose for you. Did it provide a necessary escape for the young Ivan?
It was never an escape, but the achievement of discovering something, to see something that took my interest and to reproduce it, that was exciting. It’s a lot like being a philosopher or an explorer. You discover something that you think that no-one else has discovered. And the other half of it is the show off in you, the performer. Art is about telling people your discoveries and thinking they’re worthwhile to tell. Sometimes people say they’re not worth telling, but one of the main parts of being human is to share. We became human when we first made our mark on the cave wall.
Was there an aspect of control for you? In discovering the world on your own terms?
I think it was about control of my own mind. It’s not like trying to control the rest of the population, but it’s like saying there are more things you need to know. Sometimes it’s just about beauty too. Those shearing sheds I painted years ago, are photographically real, but you can see a nail hole in these dark sheds, wood and corrugated iron, and there’s light shining through it. It’s like a diamond, you know. People respond to that. What you’re doing is you’re getting people excited about what’s around them.
A lot of my work isn’t telling people what to do, it’s just saying we should appreciate the world. I guess it’s a sort of a broad green philosophy.
It’s interesting hearing you talk about beauty, when some of the work your most renowned for is so brutal.
I’ve still got cattle now and I just love looking at them. But I decided that I’m not a vegetarian. For me, it’s about the question: when do you decide to kill — is it an ant, is it a fly, what size animal? I decided what we need to protect is endangered species. But I appreciate the look of animals and the company of animals. I know where that started from. My father always loved animals. I never went to school until I went to the orphanage school. I would spend all day in the bush. I knew every frog, every lizard. Kids would come over and I could tell them everything about any creature we came across.
You seem to have always been quite a skilled autodidact, which has been the case with your art too, isn’t it?
Yeah. I think I was lucky. Because I didn’t go to school, when I got into the orphanage I couldn’t read or write. I used to get the strap every day for getting the spelling wrong. What I had to do was listen to conversations and remember them. I used to have to put things together for myself, but in doing that I was making up my own broader view of things. When I got to university I had to pay for myself, so I listened to lectures and retained the information. I got distinctions in every bloody subject; I was in the honours stream. Not because I was clever, but because I was lucky, in that I never went to school, I had to learn for myself how to retain information and understand it for myself.
Do you think, as an artist, it gave you an advantage being an outsider, having not trained at any particular school?
I think going to art school is a major disaster. When people go to art school, to make art their career, it’s hard for them to admit they don’t know anything. You’ve got to be assessed on something, a rule. If you think about it, making art is the one thing where you should be completely free to do whatever you like. To actually make rules and to learn that art is about rules is the completely fucking wrong idea. Art is about discovering and feeling it for yourself and putting your own emotion into it. So much art now is to do with the explanation, rather than the human emotion.
Did not knowing the rules give you the freedom to move between styles? It’s quite a jump from your early paintings to the “happenings” of your meat period.
It must happen to everyone, but some people are pretty shit scared. They find whatever it is they’ve done sells pretty well, the dealer says we need more of those, so they keep painting the same thing. Ten a week go out. Imagine if Picasso just did that. You grow and you discover new things. It’d be boring if I did another whatever it was from 1976. You’re not adding anything to the world, you’re not adding anything to yourself.
I haven’t had a dealer since the ’80s, because I don’t want to be in that art market. I want to be free to never have to do another five of the same thing.
Are you happy that you’re still best known for “that cow”? (In 1975 Durrant dumped the carcass of a freshly slaughtered cow on the NGV’s doorstep.)
Oh yeah. To me, it’s an important art work. I thought it was going to last about two minutes, but to have it last this long, and to have it talked about is fantastic. I wanted the philosophy behind it to last and I think it’s actually gotten better. What I wanted to confront people with was: you’re already involved in this business. I’m not saying become a vegetarian, I’m saying learn about the background and make up your own mind.
At the time, the media just wanted the nutcase artist, but I’ve found, over the years, people have questioned it a lot more. I couldn’t sell a piece of art for years afterwards. The art world shunned me, but now it’s completely different.
I’d love to talk about Chopping Block, a short film documenting a dinner party at which your guests had to slaughter a pigeon for their meal.
That was about a year after the cow. Because I had no control over the outcome of the discussion, I decided to make a film. I know one person is still a vegetarian after that. I wouldn’t do it now. I’m more about exploring the beauty side of things; it’s easier on my mind. I don’t know. I’ve shifted to 'don’t do the bad bits, but appreciate the good bits'. Maybe it’s more comfortable, buggered if I know.
Did your friends ever forgive you for that?
Most of my friends did, but some of the art world didn’t. They thought it was just a publicity stunt. The publicity was always part of the performance. With the cow, I wanted to take a busload of people to the abattoirs but I knew they wouldn’t come. So I had to take it to the public.
You still have a gift for catching the public’s attention, as we’ve seen recently with the Benalla Nude.
I’ve been trying to get it up, so to speak, for a good few years. Friends of the gallery put up a 50 grand prize. Because the art gallery is so big in the town, everyone’s used to art being there. They embrace it. I thought it was a great idea to establish something like the Archibald. It brings in a lot of people, a lot of money, and I just thought it sounded good: Benalla Nude. If we can get it going, after two years, I’m going to try talk the council into changing the town’s name. Imagine driving down the highway and seeing the sign, Benalla Nude. These things are possible.
We talked about you being happy being remembered for the cow. What’s the one work that you’re most proud of now?
Oh, it’s always the last painting. Nah, I look at stuff I did in 1968, really naive painting, and I still think it works. I’m lucky, because I’m the biggest collector of my own work. I’ve got about 400 pieces, so I can pull out a whole show in no time at all.
Sign up to our monthly art newsletter