“THIS IS THE best antidote to sitting in front of a computer screen,” Alex Seton declares in his soft Australian accent, smiling as he gestures towards a wall of his sculptures. “Come and see the works in the flesh and really have a sensual experience, one that’s about colour, one that may be about form, one that may be about sound.”
“Sensual” may actually be the best way to describe Seton’s own art. This 38-year-old describes himself as a mixed-media artist, but he’s best known as a sculptor who produces large, ghostly works carved from milky white marble. These are nothing like the marble sculptures of yore – they’re not busts of mythical heroes or life-size models of a fleshy Aphrodite – but are instead stone re-creations of cheap beach toys, such as a blow-up rubber dinghy or a tacky inflatable palm tree. The sculptures are surprising, quirky and make the ancient art of marble carving feel relevant today. They’re also so lifelike that you’ll want to reach out and squeeze them.
Touching them, though, brings about a strange sense of disquiet. The dinghy is solid where it should be springy, smooth where it should be wrinkled. “There’s always a paradox with my work,” Seton explains. “A paddle is rendered useless when in marble. An inflatable pull-toy boat is rendered useless when in marble. You want to blow [the dinghy] up but you cannot. It is completely fettered dreams in every way. These objects can’t be realised. The closer you get you see the tool marks, and the illusion falls away.”
This sense of unease only deepens when you dig deeper into the tales behind these pieces. “I’m interested in telling stories from now and the contexts of all of these works falls within recent years. I’ve been looking at little elements from Australia, telling stories from Australia,” Seton says. “One aspect of Australian cultural life that has come to the fore because it’s deeply politicised is the issue of asylum seekers.”
Seton’s marble dinghy, then, is not a child’s toy but a symbol of Australia’s controversial policy of turning back the boats and returning asylum seekers to the countries they were fleeing. “Larger-size versions of these lifeboats actually transport refugees [away from Australia], in direct breach of the non-refoulement clause. The non-refoulement obligation is to not return anyone to further prosecution or harm and we’ve proven a number of times over the past couple of years to be doing directly that.”
Most of Seton’s recent output has been centred around this concern over Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. One of his most famous pieces, Someone Died Trying to Have a Life Like Mine, is a sculptural installation made up of 28 marble lifejackets that were scattered across the Art Gallery of South Australia. Lying abandoned on the dark wood floor, the pristine lifejackets looked like the eerie remains of a bloodless massacre. This was a direct response to an incident in 2013, when 28 lifejackets washed up on the Cocos Islands, presumably lost by a boatload of Iranians who were known to have drowned trying to reach safety.
Seton’s interest in this issue stretches beyond the headlines and into his own family history. “My own mother came from Egypt,” he recounts, “in the 1960s she came to Australia fleeing the authoritarian regime of Abdel Nasser. And from that side of the family, growing up I always had this very strong sense of gratitude to Australia – that warm welcome that they received. When I was being a little brat, I was being told by them, ‘There’s no bombs over here, what are you going on about? Why are you making so much of a fuss?’ Australia was a very warm, welcoming country in the ’60s and ’70s. Now a couple of different things have happened in the last decade, particularly the demonisation of asylum seekers, calling them ‘illegals’ and ‘boat people’ – all kinds of things for political gain.”
So, considering the unavoidably political nature of his work, would Seton call himself an activist? “I wouldn’t actually,” he demurs. “But I’m deeply passionate about certain political issues. I don’t claim to have any vouchsafe over what is and isn’t Australian. I’m only an artist, I cannot pretend to have a solution, but what I do have the power to do is to remind people about the humanity at stake of these contentious issues.”
It helps that the medium of marble itself is tied to traditions of remembrance, which is one of the many things that drew Seton to the material. “I also definitely see it as a very pliable medium; it behaves very well,” he adds. “In the scheme of mediums it’s incredibly soft. I’ve been involved in and made work in almost every other medium: I’ve carved rubber tyres and polyurethanes and polystyrenes, and I find them all incredibly toxic. There’s an incredible amount of wastage in that process. Whereas, believe it or not, in marble carving you really save it and the material is plentiful and natural and non-toxic, so the rubbish that goes out, sometimes I will literally dust my garden with it, give it an extra bit of calcium, and the garden grows beautifully.”
But in an art world still dominated by pickled sharks, unmade beds and overinflated steel balloon dogs, can these marble sculptures hold the fickle public’s interest? “Marble carvings are quiet,” Seton admits. “It’s difficult to be noisy with them and there are so many mediums – particularly in art fairs there are lots of big, shiny, loud, brash artworks vying for your attention.
“Yet there’s a wonderful, anachronistic, out-of-time feel to the act of marble carving,” he continues. “In the digital age, it’s deeply analogue in process. Having that contrast is very deliberate. These are works that need to be stood in front of, touched – you react bodily to them. I do and have always been attracted to work that requires long contemplation, work that requires reflection over time. It’s a slow burn, it’s not an instant hit – that’s the work I’m attracted to and that’s the work I like to make.”