As a purveyor of the weird and wonderful, its always a special thrill when we discover an artist whose work has that particularly skewed edge to it. Personally, I’m completely open to all styles and types of art, darker illustrative work will always have a special place in my heart – and that probably harkens back to the massive amount of comics that I read throughout my youth.
The first I saw of Heescos work was last year, during the Sweet Streets @ BSG exhibition. There, he had a collection of light-boxes, scratched out dry-point style from a layer of black acrylic, as well as other drawings that were just as elaborately detailed and strange. What fascinated me most in his work, was the expressive nature of the displayed characters, his work catapulted emotion out of the various old, wizened, mutated and other slightly off-kilter entities.
Couple all of that talent and imaginative artwork with a genuine, friendly and enthusiastic personality, Heesco embodies some of the best virtues of the new wave of multicultural, experimental and genre defying artists that are emerging within Australia today. For our first interview for 2011, we wanted something special, and Heescos detailed and unique story of his artistic journey between his native Mongolia to Australia (and all the paths between) certainly fit the bill – and we’re totally wrapped to have the chance to share it.
So, read on for the unique, and at times emotive and thought provoking story behind the man, and enter the deliciously wicked, familiar, and every so slightly warped world of his imagination …
Can you tell us a little of your background – it sounds quite different to what we here in Australia would be used to growing up – and how did you start down the path to your artistic life?
I was born and raised in Mongolia, and grew up during communist rule.
Things were very different to now, and I owe a big chunk of who I am today to those formative years. I was sent to a Russian kindergarten, and later to Russian primary and secondary schools. Growing up with a second language was cool. I’ve probably seen every single Russian cartoon on TV, and kids movies. Back in those days everything had a positive socialist message, this strict moral code. My dad was an architect by profession, and a talented drawer and painter, so I’ve always drawn and painted also. I was that kid sitting in the back row doodling on notebooks and getting told off by teachers for not paying attention.
After communism collapsed, we were exposed to western media to a certain extent, so I really got into Disney cartoons and whatnot – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were huge, I’d draw them all the time.
In the early ‘90s, my family moved to Poland for a couple of years, and that was a huge thing for me. I was sent to a regular suburban school in Krakow, where I was the only foreigner, and the only Asian. I had round glasses, bowl haircut – the works – and I was very short. I got picked on a fair bit at the start, but then I started throwing abuse back at them in Polish and they stopped, and I got kind of accepted. Such an amazing thing – the power of swearing.
I got into comics and metal music whilst I was there, and brought all those influences back with me to Mongolia as a teenager. I was known for drawing X-Men and Spiderman characters, and tagging my name all over the school walls and desks. I made a lot of posters for school events, and the literature teacher got me to do posters for her class instead of writing essays – so I illustrated scenes from a lot of classics. And at the end of the year she put them together as a show in school hallway, and asked me to bring some of my own work. That was my first exhibition, I guess. Some kids stole some of my drawings from that show, and the teacher went classroom to classroom asking kids to give it back. That was pretty embarrassing.
I guess all of that kinda made me realise that I was doing something right if they were stealing my stuff – and it encouraged me to keep drawing.
So, Mongolia, Poland, Sydney, Melbourne – how has each place helped to shape your work, and what have you taken from each location that you value most thus far?
Mongolia during the early ‘90s was a very bleak place to grow up in. There were times when there was nothing in stores. People were given coupons for monthly allowances for bare necessities like flour, sugar, rice, and bread, and you had to line up for hours to get them. We were constantly mugged by local kids after school.
Everyone was depressed and angry, and drank to escape from all of that. I was a sensitive kid. I was trying to cope with a lot of shit, and internalised a lot of it – all the darkness in my drawings comes from that – and I was always drawing my anxieties and frustrations away.
When we relocated to Poland, it opened my eyes to a lot of new things. It wasn’t too alien to me though – in my class I had two dudes who were into comics and two others who were head-bangers. I’d draw superhero pin-ups for the guys in exchange for comics that I couldn’t buy, as well as album covers, logos and borrowing tapes for the metal-heads – anything from Metallica to Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden etc. Soon enough, I got into grunge, and it clicked with me – it was something more realistic, much deeper and darker, and I could relate to it a lot. Around that time my mum bought me the Judgement on Gotham comics drawn/painted by Simon Bisley – that really fucked me up for good. I wanted to learn to draw like him, loose yet detailed as fuck, I loved it.
When we moved back to Mongolia, I had to readjust a bit. My classmates and friends in Mongolia were into local boy-bands and pop-stars, as well as gangster rap. Very few people were into grunge or metal, and, as for comic books, no one knew anything about it.
I was a bit of a loner in my interests. I’d listen to Nirvana and draw ugly monsters to escape, and the more I did it, crazier the drawings got. After I graduated from school, I had to decide whether to go to an art school ,or do something else. My parents weren’t too keen on me going to art school because they knew that making a living off art is simply impossible in Mongolia. Most of the lecturers at the School of Fine Arts were my dad’s old classmates, and family friends, so I knew some personally – it’s a tough life being an artist in Mongolia, and I’ve seen how much they were drinking. I really didn’t want that life – almost all of those people are dead now, including my father.
Since I was good with languages, I got into School of Foreign Relations at National University of Mongolia, into the French language class, somehow – and I kept doodling on notebooks and drawing pictures for girls and stuff.
Then in late 1999 I left for Australia to study – I been wanting to leave for a while, – it seemed like everyone was leaving. It didn’t matter where, I just wanted someplace English-speaking, and Australia was perfect because the schools weren’t as expensive. So, I went to Sydney and studied International Business at some private college.
I had to catch up on a lot of things I’d been missing out on – music, art, films, pop culture in general. I had a lot of time to hang out by myself, and I drew constantly, and I think I did some of the darkest and most detailed work that I’ve ever done during those years. After I finished the college, I told my mum I really want to study fine art at a university – and it was hard for us, the college fees cost everything we had. It was a crazy idea to study fine art anyway, everyone else was going for something that can make money. I really wanted it though, and after a long process of application we got a loan from the Mongolian Government so that I could study art.
I got accepted to Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), and my government was meant to send the fees – and those only came through when I had already finished the three year course. The entire period at uni I was always almost getting kicked out because I hadn’t paid the fees, and my marks were always held back for the same reason, so I never knew whether I was doing ok or not until I graduated and finally got the results of the assessments.
Fucking hectic times. Still, I tried my best to learn as much about contemporary art theory and history. SCA messed my head up big time as well – everything I thought was cool turned out to be “mere lowbrow”, and most of the “highbrow” stuff didn’t make fucking sense – I really struggled finding any particular artist I could relate to. My historical and cultural background had little in common within the given Western Art paradigm, and there was a lot of wankerism involved in the scene that I really couldn’t stand. Despite all that, I gotta say that I learned tons of amazing stuff about art and artists from my lecturers that completely blew my mind – I had a lot of fun at uni, and made some excellent friends there.
After graduating I tried keeping active in the art scene and realised I was up against a lot of artists, most of whom had more knowledge about contemporary art, and who way ahead of me in their thinking. I realised my shortcomings, and how much work was still ahead of me. That almost crushed me, and I wasn’t able to make any art for about two or three years. It took me that long to gain confidence in myself again. I then realised, no matter what, I was still pretty decent at drawing and painting, and I can do whatever the fuck I wanna do with my art, and it doesn’t matter if it isn’t “high” art, and I won’t get shown in galleries. So, I started drawing and painting again, making zines, and started putting stuff in group shows etc, and soon had my first solo show at Hellen Rose LabOratorium. I did whatever I could to keep myself involved in art. When you have a full-time job, you don’t get much time for other things, and I had to learn to manage time in the proper way, and produce work and be creative within restrictions. A year later I had an another solo show which was much bigger and better – so Sydney definitely taught me a lot of things.
As for Melbourne, I moved here about six months ago, and I have to say, that I have nothing but love for this place. When we moved here we hardly knew anyone. Within a few months things started happening, and now I’m in Blender Studios – hanging out with excellent people who make great art. Things couldn’t be better, and I’ve put pieces in a few group shows already.
I picked up the spray can a couple of months ago – and I’m already really hooked. I mean, it’s the city of street art, right? What better place to learn? I’ve met some of the local heroes, artists I’ve read about in magazines, and seen works from on the street – and I’ve even been lucky enough to paint with some of them, and learn some new tricks.
Every day, I’m learning something new.
There was a bit of controversy at the time you left Mongolia, can you go into this story a little more, and maybe enlighten us as to what the state of affairs is there for young artists? There was a book involved – where can we get an English version?
Ok, if you really need to know, hehe …
The book was called “Kaffeinii Dutagdal” or “Caffeine Deficiency” in English. When I was at uni in Mongolia, I made two best friends, Uugii and Bilguun. Uugii was the most known metal-head in town, he fronted the first Mongolian death metal band called Mortus. Bilguun had just come back home after graduating from Eton College. I was blown away by his intelligence and sarcasm. He was a good writer – mostly short stories and weird poems, and our brains worked real well together. We were three punks, all angry, depressed, wanting something different than our current surroundings. We had a lot of good times – we’d hang out , and we’d have these massive sessions of exchanging ideas, you know, I’d draw a picture and try to impress them, and they’d write stuff to compliment it and vice versa, and over time we had a few notebooks worth of material. We talked about starting a band, but that never happened because there was no way we could afford any equipment of our own.
At the time we were reading this book called “4 not 4” by a local guy, Anudar, who is a bit of a hero for us. Anudar was five or six years older than us, and wrote in a kind of beat style – all very existential. He’d committed suicide a few years earlier by leaping off a building (Later, we bought a bar on the ground floor of that building). Anudar’s book made us want to make our own, and we put together whatever we had, and wrote and draw some new stuff. Bil had tons of little weird poems and stories, and I had a lot of little drawings etc – it was a mission to scan everything in, and we had a lot of late nights. We decided we need to write something original and decent, and we all got to work – the end result was something I’m still very proud to this day.
It was mostly in Mongolian, but it had bits in Russian and English as well. It served as this massive outlet for us, for all our anger and frustration with the city, and for all the people who were stuck in that mess. It was a very dark affair (we were heavily into Norwegian black metal and Marilyn Manson then). There were direct references to suicide and anarchy, and it was a pretty heavy read. Bil was leaving for Australia and we wanted to finish it before he left – and we managed to get it done. Uugii was running around chasing girls, and as a joke we didn’t put his name on the cover.
We printed 130 copies. My mum helped us out with cash -we were meant to get 300 copies but the guy I went to kind of ripped me off. When we got the books we gave almost all of it away. We put some for sale at the local heavy metal store, the only one in town, which was just a stall in a shopping centre. He gave it all away to his friends and would give us cassettes in return. We’d given some to the pizza joint we used to hang out a bit too – they actually sold some, and we could afford pizza for a while. A few months later, the book somehow got picked up by some trashy tabloid newspaper (I still have a copy of it somewhere) and they gave it a front page article condemning it and saying that it was promoting drug use. Apparently, we were giving it away to school kids, and Uugii’s name was mentioned by some ‘alleged’ drug addict they found who’d given them an interview. We were really fucking pissed off.
It just proved how dumb and stupid things can get.
Around that time, the government had launched a campaign against drug use, or something like that – which was ridiculous as fuck. The country didn’t have any known drug problems, alcoholism was – and still is – the number one problem. Having a full blown campaign against drugs was weird. I saw on the news a report on this campaign, and one woman had our book right in front of her, and the camera zoomed in on it! A few friends called to tell me they saw it too. I left for Sydney a couple of weeks later, just when Bil was coming back, and I told him to kinda lay low.
Soon after I arrived in Sydney, Eggie, my then girlfriend (now wife) called me and told me she’s been contacted by someone from the General Intelligence Agency of Mongolia – the Mongolian CIA, and asked to come for an “interview” – so I started to freak out. Apparently some dodgy looking dudes were asking for her at the pizza joint, that they were gonna buy our book etc. I quickly found out that drugs are a concern for the General Intelligence Agency, not the regular Police in Mongolia. When they interrogated Eggie, they wanted to know whether we used any type of drugs. Bil laid low, and left for Perth soon after that, and later they called my mum in for a similar interrogation, and Bil’s parents got called in as well. It was ridiculous. Uugii, who was still in Mongolia during all this, avoided being persecuted mainly due to our joke of not having put his name on the ‘zine, heh – but had nothing to be scared of – we weren’t drug users. We were on caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco, like all the rest – none of us had done drugs, not even pot. Anyway, it all blew over soon enough, though I’m pretty sure that they kept a file under our names – I’d love to take a peek into that!
When I went back a couple of years ago my eighteen year old cousins friends were asking me about our book, and I met some other guys who were pretty fond of it as well. When we were making it, there were so few of “us”, people who were willing to think outside the box – and nowadays people have so much more access to information and that kind of thing, but I’d like to think that we contributed something, that we really did something to express ourselves during that time – how we felt about life. It’s nice to hear from younger people in Mongolia how it helped them get through things, and made them think differently, you know?
Mongolia has improved dramatically since then, but it’s still got a long way to go. It’s a pretty small place where the majority of the population lives in poverty, and it’ll take some time for things to really change. It’s a good place for art at the moment, though, because everything is still pretty fucked up – but you can forget about supporting yourself through art. That said, I like how younger generation is figuring out that art is actually a pretty effective weapon, you know? When you’re cornered, you should turn around and attack with all you got, right?
I don’t think we’ll release Caffeine Deficiency in English – unless someone wants to step up and translate it! We’re thinking of putting out a new one sometime soon though – we’ve got decent amount of material to work with, and enough stuff to put together a proper book.
Can you tell us a little about your influences and also the methods behind your art – what gives you your ideas, what do you love using to create your work, where do you love drawing and what areas do you think you want to move into?
I guess, like anyone else, I am a product of all the things I’ve been through, and whatever I grew up with. My influences are pretty obvious I think. I used to be real big into comics, and I still pick up some every now and then – it’s the storytelling that attracts me. I’m a line art person – I paint, too, but drawings always been a bigger part of my work. I love taking my time and working on a piece until I’m happy with it. You can get lost drawing – if I’m in the zone, I won’t come out of it until I’ve done a fair amount of work.
I don’t want my stuff to be categorised as this or that, I want to keep myself as open to different styles and influences as I can, and keep learning – you know – “be water my friend” – as Bruce Lee once said.
I use Rotring pens for my inks for smaller pieces – and Posca markers for anything larger. I sketch with pencil and go over it with either paint or ink. I got myself a set of Ironlak Strikers, which are copycat Copic markers – they’re awesome and much cheaper. I use acrylics for paintings mainly because it dries faster, and these days I think they’re just as good as oils. I work from home and my studio, and I prefer using gouache to watercolour.
Art-making is tricky, in a way. It’s entirely dependent on your mood, whether you feel it or not, and most of the time it’s not up to you at all – you have to have something that drives you. You can’t get too angry or depressed, though those feelings do draw out potent stuff, but if you overdo it, it fucks up, backfires. The same goes to being happy and content – it’s good to be content with what you’re doing, but too much happiness kills creativity. I want make as much stuff as I can while I’m in Australia, and live in the ‘now’, you know? I admire people who’re driven. People who keep themselves busy. Fuck video games and TV – I’d rather be out and about doing stuff.
Recently I’ve been getting more commercial work, and that’s a totally different ball game where I try and do things as fast as I can, and I have to be willing to make changes etc. I don’t mind it, but obviously I don’t prefer it. It actually took me some time (and a good brainwashing by my mates Alex and Andrew), to be able to say to myself that “it’s OK to do commercial work” – it was a shift from Punk Aesthetics to Hip-Hop-Hustle, if you know what I mean. I told myself, look – you’re someone from a place nobody knows about, there’s nobody anyone can compare me to, and there are no rules. It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time you know? But it’s still something. I’ll throw everything at it that I can, I don’t care – and the thing is, is that I’ve already “made it” by Mongolian standards – and I’m not talking about my art practice and recognition or whatever. I ‘made it’ in a sense that I live overseas and obviously make a little more money than most people back there.
I’ve invested a lot of time and effort towards my art practice and I won’t rest until I’ve pushed it as far as I can. I owe it to my people. I’m a nomad. It’s in my blood. I’m like an explorer, I’m hundreds of people’s first Mongolian they ever met – which is kinda sad, really, as there are so many others who’re handsomer and fitter than me – I’m a poor representative of my people!
What about the themes within your work – what do you aim to portray within your pieces, for the viewer to experience?
I’m not a big fan of talking about my artworks – I believe a good work should speak for itself. Besides, you always sound like a wanker regardless of what you say about your work. I consciously try not to think too much about what I draw, as I don’t want to make stuff that’s contrived, and boring. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and learned not to give a damn. There’s always going to be a critic talking my stuff up or down, and I don’t pay too much attention to that – I just move on to the next project.
I guess I approach drawing as a process in unto itself. I simply enjoy the process of rendering, adding details, working out what works and what doesn’t, you know? There are so many different ways to draw, different styles and mediums, and it’s pretty much an endless pool of what you can do. Somehow, my work mostly end up with that dark undertone, and I don’t think I can help that. I’m sure I will move on eventually from the dark stuff, when I’m like old and wrinkly, but at the moment I’m enjoying it a lot, and getting good feedback from people and peers, so why change something that’s kinda working? Besides, I think it’s a huge therapy for me, it is because of this outlet that I’m a semi-normal person, I think.
Basically what I’m trying to say is that whatever work you see of mine, is just a personal therapy session made public, haha! My works are definitely about the human condition.
Lately I been researching traditional Mongolian patterns and colours a bit. I really want to incorporate Mongolian elements more into my work – maybe I’m getting older and sentimental.
You’ve done a bit of comic book and ‘zine work as well – what some of your favourite comics or graphic novels, and are you still doing any strips here and there? Are you working on any ‘zines at the moment?
My favourite comics are too many to list. I love this European series from the 70s called Thorgal a lot, by Jean Van Hamme and Grzegorz Rosinski. I was like, twelve or so, and it blew me away – it was really well drawn and written. When I found out I share birthdays with Rosinski, I felt special, haha!
Judgement on Gotham was huge for me, as I mentioned. Later, the Lobo series just killed it for me. Also the original Crow comics by James O’Barr, oh man, that was some epic shit – I became a full blown goth after reading that. The Killing Joke, Dark Knight Returns, Transmetropolitan, Preacher, The Invisibles, Sin City, you name it. I admire artists like Jean Giraud (Moebius), Frank Frazetta, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jim Lee, Frank Quitely, Art Spiegelman, Jason Lutes, Thomas Ott, Chris Ware etc.
I haven’t done comics much recently, but I used to be pretty active in the zine scene. I’ve only got six zine titles to my name – it’s a little time consuming, but I should do more – and I just do comics because I love it, its something that is very close to my heart. I love the simplicity of zines. It’s the perfect medium for what I do, the freedom to do whatever you like – it’s cheap and easy, and you can make it as anarchic as you want. In comics, once you create a character, the character takes up a life of its own. You get to know it slowly, you develop it, and it’ll tell you what to write and what to say. I got this character called Pito. It’s a little lumpy headed dude who’s asexual, and a little lost. I first drew it in 2002, back then we used to get a stall at Glebe Markets in Sydney and sell zines, prints, stickers, and tshirts, all DIY stuff.
I haven’t done Pito stuff in ages – and my mate Bryn, who’s one of the creators of the Beef Knuckles (link: http://beefknuckles.wordpress.com) zine been hassling me for Pito strips, so I did a short Pito story for his zine.
I did it pretty fast, and that kinda made me wanna do it more – so I think I’ll start work on some new Pito comics – they’re long overdue.
Your last two solo shows, Six Feet Over and Souls End looked pretty interesting – can you tell us a little about both of those, and what you took away from each experience?
The first one, Six Feet Over, was in 2009, at Hellen Rose LabOratorium. Hellen is a good friend, and really supportive of the underground art scene. It’s primarily a performance art space, and my paintings were of me hanging from a wooden bar in my undies – Hellen just thought it fitted the gallery. That show went pretty well, for a first solo. I had nine paintings, and I sold a few. It was meant to have a video Installation as well, but that didn’t happen. The video was supposed to be b/w single channel projection of me slam dancing topless in slow mo, haha.
It was about being alive, surviving – having nine lives – hence the title. My friend Andrew Newman wrote a damn good essay for it, as well.
A year later I had my second solo show at Somedays Gallery. Originally, I had five or six small ink drawings titled ‘”A Man Possessed with a Showerhead” – those guys saw it and liked it, so I got the gig. Then I realised that it’s a pretty damn big space, and I have to fill it up. I created twenty five new works in two months prior to the show. That was some hectic and creative period. I pulled it off though – I did a few bigger size pieces, which was fun. There were a lot of scarred twisted old wrinkly faces on display and it looked like a bunch of Kafka-esque portraits of residents in this weird, forgotten-by-god, village. This time my friend Kevin Platt wrote the essay for the show – and it was the most successful show for me, so far.
What did I take away from those shows? Well, having solo shows is like giving birth – it’s exciting, but at the end you can get post-natal depression. It was a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun too – I just think that it’s addictive.
Your light-box works from the Souls End show, some of which were also displayed at the BSG Sweet Streets exhibition – were fantastic – these were etchings – have you worked with a lot of etching before, or were they experimental – and what is it about the method that you enjoyed?
I made them to run with battery powered LED lights inside without testing it out properly, and it didn’t last at all – but I wanted to avoid the power cords – it was excellent in theory, hehe. The light-boxes were all handmade, the images were dry-pointed onto the acrylic so each one was a one-off. I’ve done more research now, and made a new one since then, which I put in Blender Christmas Show. It’s got a round fluoro tube inside and it worked pretty well. Those light-boxes proved to be pretty popular, and I got commissions from people – so I think I’m going to make some bigger ones.
I did print media as minor at Uni, as well, so I learned etching, screen-printing, lithography, linocuts woodcuts – I haven’t done any etchings recently, but it’s always an excellent medium to work with, especially these days- as you can get those light sensitive plates so you don’t have to work with zinc and acid.
You’ve been doing some live art shows recently with a few other artists – can you give us a few details on this, what it entails, and how it has all been going?
We did a few gigs at the Exchange Hotel last November, just painting and drawing live at a club night – it was a lot of fun. Our base crew was me, Katie Houghton-Ward, and Midori. You know Katie, she’s done an interview with you. She’s a great friend – ever since we met we clicked – I love her work, and we’re both comic book geeks. Midori’s this cutest Japanese girl you could ever meet. She’s really tiny, and so cute! She’s an awesome illustrator, she’s got this traditional manga-style, and has a nice graphic design aesthetic to her work.
Basically, for the club nights we put up 1m x 1.5m screen-boards for each artist and do whatever they want. We do a silent auction, and sell it to whoever bids – pretty simple, and it was surprisingly successful. I got the New Zealand crew to do the first gig because I couldn’t do it – Cinzah, Cracked Ink, Drypnz, and City launched it with style. Other artists we worked with, so far, are Irk, Sim2, Ed Lim, and ADi. We’re going to relocate to a different venue next year, so I’ll keep you in the loop.
Hopefully we can get a venue with a big enough beer garden so we can use spray cans too – that’d be sick.
You’ve been here in Australia for near ten years now – have you found over this time that the artistic communities both in Sydney and Melbourne have been welcoming, or have you found it has been a fair bit of hard work to find your footing over the past decade?
I find Sydney to be more competitive than Melbourne. Sydney’s got a lot going, and you have to know people to be part of the scene. It’s more cliquey, and just a different attitude, I guess.
Melbourne is similar to a certain extent but its definitely more welcoming, and relaxed. I’ve been here for about six months now, and it already feels like I’ve spent a few years here. I think, in Sydney, you really gotta do the hustle to be noticed, and I kind of learned a bit of that game there.
Melbourne people are less money driven, in my opinion, and they seem more genuine about their feelings towards art.
What are your plans for the future – do you have any more solo shows in the making, and what do you hope to accomplish in the next few years with your work?
I’m working towards a solo show at the moment – details yet to be confirmed but it might be at At Large Gallery in Northcote. There’ll be some group shows as well. I also have some plans to go back home and paint some murals, and I’ll continue with the illustration and design stuff, and make some zines. I’m working on getting some t-shirts printed as well …
… busy times!
He also has a number of YouTube videos of his art and such up, so check them out as well: