On the cusp of making his stage design debut with Other Desert Cities, artist Callum Morton spoke to Stephanie Convery about his work.
The first thing Callum Morton says is, ‘I’m not an architect.’ It’s my fault for introducing the word. Morton is famous for his art, yet you can understand my slip of the tongue. From the clean sophistication of International Style (1999, based on architect Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House) to the haunted, smoking ruins of Valhalla (for the Venice Biennale in 2007 and re-installed in the 2009 Melbourne Festival), Morton’s sculptures and installations often draw from a deep understanding and appreciation of architecture and architectural forms.
It will not surprise you that we’re very excited that Morton is taking charge of the set design for Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz. The shift to theatre is not entirely new to him. ‘Very early on,’ he explains, ‘just before I went to study architecture, I did a couple of set designs. And there have always been things in my work that have indicated a connection to that theatre world.’
On inspiration Morton’s tantalisingly evasive. ‘There are certain things that I’ve always been particularly interested in, in my work,’ he says. ‘Certain ideas – like the relationship between public and private space, or the relationship between inside and outside, various kinds of oppositions like that. They’ve always been there, ticking away. But really they’re just ideas that help me talk about the work; often the things that inspire you are a bit harder to locate.’
‘I’m not just interested in art, although of course I’m an artist, so I am deeply involved in and inspired by that world. But I am equally as interested – and always have been – in architecture, literature, theatre certainly, and film, and a whole host of other things. I like to engage in a whole lot of different worlds.’
One difference he has noticed between the theatre world and the art world has been the nature of collaboration. ‘What a theatre-maker might call collaboration is quite different to what an artist might call collaboration,’ he says. ‘When I do the larger scale installation work, I’m really the director of those projects as much as a designer. I may be designing a space that you go into and which you experience, but how that space is narrativised, how you move through that space, what you engage with: they’re all things that I’m constructing as well. But the theatre way of working is quite different. If you are asked to do a set for the theatre, you are just doing the set. And at an institution like MTC, there’s the pressure of production and everyone is kind of compartmentalised – you need to be – in order to realise that ambitious programming.’
A long-time resident of LA, Morton was drawn to Other Desert Cities due to its familiar Palm Springs landscape and particular architectural context. ‘When I read the play – even in the first conversations we had before I read the play – I was interested in this specific architectural engagement with a place like Palm Springs. The play describes a kind of Republican interior, a mixed-up stylistic dimension that drives the family in many ways. But the approach I’m taking is to locate the play specifically in the Kaufmann House by the modernist architect Richard Neutra. This is probably one of the most famous houses in Palm Springs, and we’re going to recreate a portion of that exactly.’
The narrative crux of the play, the gradual dismantling of a familial facade, has driven this approach. ‘The family in this play live in kind of an illusion, he says. ‘What unfolds through the arc of the play gets them within closer proximity to some type of reality, and in a sense we’re doing that through the set. We’re using this notion of illusion on the exterior of the house, and then, as they move inside and they’re behind closed doors, that illusion dissolves.’
Other Desert Cities is playing at Southbank Theatre, the Sumner from 2 March to 17 April.
Valhalla image by Carla Gottgens.
This article originally appeared in our quarterly subscriber magazine Scenes.