Press Room Details

Interview - Rae Bolotin

23 - 24 October
Joyce Morgan

The Sydney Morning Herald - Spectrum

As she climbed into a five-metre subterranean pit and clung to a flimsy ladder above an acid bath, the prospect of a grizzly end did occur to Rae Bolotin. Indeed, it was the only time the Sydney sculptor's otherwise resolute will wavered. 

But she had not travelled from Sydney to a Beijing workshop to fail at the last hurdle. She knew an idea that had begun with a walk in the Blue Mountains could not be realised without this final death defying dangle. 

She needed to watch as her stainless steel sculptures were put into a vacuum chamber, lowered into a pit and infused with gases she hoped would produce the colours she envisioned. The only way to do so was to peer through a tiny window into the chamber and, with split-second timing, signal when the metal turned the colour she wanted. That was the theory - no one was sure if it was possible. 

The results are in her solo show, Seeds, a simple title that, like the apparently simple, organic works, gives no hint of the complexity of the creations.

The work is the culmination of a remarkable journey to the Soviet-trained engineer and refugee has taken to become an artist who has pushed herself and her material to the limit.

When her sculptures emerged from the pit coloured exactly how she had imagined, she went for a celebratory meal. That was when she learnt that death by acid bath was not the only risk she faced. Her interpreter acknowledged that there was something he hadn't told her. 

"I saw in his face it was something really important," she recalls. "I said: 'Were you worried about the colour or something?' He said: 'No, colour was the least of my worries. What we were all worried about - and I didn't translate this to you - was that when you put the form into a vacuum chamber there was a good chance it would squash."

All that prevented her work from deflating like last night's party balloon was a miniscule hole she had put in each so they could be mounted on a base. I could easily have been a devastating end to work that had its genesis in a visit to Mount Tomah, the cold-climate botanic gardens near her Bilpin studio, a couple of years ago. 

There she collected seeds from a dozen trees from different countries ad began creating works based on them. Then she went a step further to create other works based on "imaginary" seeds.

"I thought about what would happen if I created my own seeds - seeds which don't exist, seeds that just come just from imagination," she says. "So the form is recognisable as a seed but in reality there is no seed like that, it is a total magical fantasy."

Bolotin speaks slowly and thoughtfully, her understated manner at odds with the drama of eventful life.  Her Russian accent is a legacy of growing up in the outer reaches of the outer Soviet Union. She was born in the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, and as she sits in her Lane Cove home she describes a vanished world.

She was raised in a traditional Central Asian adobe-walled compound. One half housed Bolotin and her parents, Russian-speaking academics from Belarus. The other an Uzbek factory worker, his wife and seven children. The two families, one European, Jewish and bookish; the other gregarious, Uzbek-speaking Muslims - couldn't have been more different. 

"We had a big library and would sit inside and read books in the evening or watch TV," she recalls. "All their life was outside in the gardens, the children would be running around and other people would be coming in ... Their part of the courtyard was full of fruit trees. They would collect apricots and dry them on the flat roof and take them to the market."

While her neighbours sat on colourful rugs and cushions in a main room devoid of furniture and in the bitter winters warmed themselves around a central hole filled with hot coals, Bolotin's family had a gas stove and sat at a table.

Nonetheless, the two families were friendly.

Bolotin, an only child, played with the children and the Uzbeks would share food with her family. "Because it was the Soviet Union, religion was forbidden," she recalls. "Everyone was an atheist. But everyone knew who everyone was in the sense that they were Muslim atheists and we were Jewish atheists. It was perfect harmony.

"Growing up in Central Asia makes you respectful and understanding other cultures."

Her childhood world changed in April 1966 when a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit Tashkent, reducing one of Central Asia's most beautiful cities to rubble.

Thousands of traditional homes, including Bolotin's, were destroyed. She was sleeping at her grandparents' house that night in a room containing a piano. 

"When the ground started to shake all the keys of the piano started to sound simultaneously," she says. "I was little and this terrified me more than anything else."

After graduating as an engineer and studying at art school, Bolotin was keen to escape the Soviet Union. The chance came when the country suffered a drought and needed to import grain from the US.

"The US government said: 'If you let some people out, we'll give you so much wheat,' she says.

She arrived in Australia in 1979 as a refugee with her husband Yuri. She was seven months pregnant and unable to speak English. She had a suitcase, $80 and a dream of becoming an artist. The odds hardly seemed in her favour. Nonetheless, the quietly determined Bolotin never gave up her dream.

She mastered English, became a retail interior designer and raised two sons. About a decade ago, she began to focus on her art and extract herself from her successful business. Although her art school training centred around painting, it was sculpture that attracted her.

"[As a designer] I worked with architecture and form and space around it and reaction to space." Today her work is in collections internationally, has been in the Wynne Prize and will again be in this year's Sculpture by the Sea, the sixth time she has been included. Her early artworks were in concrete before an artist's residency in Beijing five years ago set her on a new course. She began researching China's long tradition of metalwork and became fascinated by the creative possibilities of the ancient but dying art of metal beating.

"That tradition of passing on the technique from father to son is problematic now because the Chinese would rather thier children learn computing than metal beating," she says.

"So it's really disappearing."

Metal beating was traditionally used for copper, a soft metal, and for flat forms. But Bolotin - who combines  a scientist's knowledge and willingness to experiment with how materials behave with an artist's imagination - had other ideas. She wanted three-dimensional work in that hardest of metals, stainless steel. It was an ambitious vision in any language.

Unable to speak Chinese and without a translator but with the aid of a ball of Plasticine, Bolotin conveyed to a team of traditional metal beaters what she wanted to create. She became adept at picking up non-verbal clues as she worked long hours with the metal workers in their Beijing workshop. And she could spot trouble ahead.

"When everything went well, we would just have rice and vegetables together," she says. "On a day when there were problems they would take me out to a restaurant. And the bigger of the problems, the nicer the restaurant was."

"I finished up being really worried about every time they would take me to a nice restaurant."

She created a body of work that used apples and apple peel as inspiration. Only later did she learn that the fruit's origins have been traced to the region where she was born. For Bolotin, whose studio is in the apple-growing area of Bilpin, it was an unintended synergy.

Her latest work combines ancient Chinese metal techniques for shaping and Russian space program technology for colouring.

"It's important to preserve traditions and techniques," she says. "But I didn't want to have cultural souvenirs, or borrow an aesthetic. I wanted to have my own ideas.

"It probably pushes the technique to its absolute limit. It took a lot of experimentation and invention to do it but now it is exactly how I dreamed about."

Seeds is at Stella Downer Fine Art in Waterloo from Tuesday. Sculpture by the Sea begins on Thursday. 

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