Jacobus Capone

Published February 22, 2024
Jacobus Capone

In 2007, at the age of 21, Jacobus Capone took a scoop of water from the Indian Ocean, walked across Australia, and emptied it in the Pacific. The journey took five-and-a-half months and killed off any relationship he ever had with his native country.

“That was my last university project,” he recalls. “I was very naïve and ignorant. I had no idea what to expect. I went into it physically untrained, wanting the landscape to put an imprint on me – and it did! After the first day, I could barely walk, having covered 40 or 50 kms, and that set the tone for the whole journey. For about 2-3 years afterwards, I didn’t want to have anything to do with the arts. It instilled a deep sense of trauma.”

“It began as a very simple poetic idea of taking a body of water from one side of the country to the other, but what happened in between was just… ugh!”

Nowadays Capone prefers to spend his time clambering over glaciers in the Arctic Circle, climbing mountains in Austria, or burying himself for weeks in a Japanese forest. He’s not entirely sure that he sees these activities as “art”.

Fortunately, these doubts are not shared by José da Silva, the curator of this year’s 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, who has selected Capone’s Forewarning (2023) for the show. The project began with a visit to the Larsbreen Glacier on the Svalbard archipelago, 78º north, half-way between Norway and the North Pole. In another futile, poetic gesture, Capone places his hunting knife against the ice and draws a single line, which will soon disappear, as global warming melts the ice with ever-increasing rapidity.

Jacobus Capone, From ‘Forewarning, Act 4: Demarcation’ (2022)

Born in Perth, living in Fremantle, Capone says he has never felt at home in Australia, which may be because his mother was Dutch and his father, Sicilian. His friends know him as “Damian”, but that first name got mislaid in the announcement of his debut exhibition, and he’s been known by his second name ever since.

“It’s weird, but it kind of works,” he says. “It feels as if there’s a different personality who makes work, to the one who earns his living installing other people’s work.”

His day job as an install technician barely makes a dent in the costs of Capone’s ambitious projects. He applied to the WA government at least twice for assistance with Forewarning, but it was deemed too risky. Finally, he scored a grant from Creative Australia, but there’s no change involved when you have to hire the services of Arctic logistics specialists, PolarX, to travel to a remote location, film for one day – weather and polar bears permitting, then head back to base.

Not many people would see this as fun, but then not many young Aussies would make Iceland their first overseas destination, where they decide to sleep outdoors in a bivy bag. This is precisely what Capone did, catching bronchial pneumonia in the process. He claims, however, to have felt more at home in Iceland than he has ever felt in Perth.

His early experiences in Iceland and the Australian desert did not kill Capone, but made him stronger, emphasising the importance of planning and physical fitness. To spend time making artworks in extreme environments he trains like an athlete, running every day. “The more you build up, the more you can withstand,” he says, “the more you can give to the work and take it so much further.”

That quest for fitness is not merely physical, it’s spiritual. “I’ve begun to see the body as this vessel that carries the spirit and the soul,” he says. “Being by myself in these remote locations has brokered a deep reverence for the weather – for really violent weather – and a desire to be in it. I really like the dramatic cold that makes you pay dearly for any slight lapse in judgement. If you drop a glove, or work up a sweat, the consequences can be dire.”

“I really like that,” he reiterates.

When asked if he has been inspired by wellknown environmental artists such as Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy, Capone says his favourite artworks are paintings of the 14th century. Indeed, he claims to be more inspired by the unfit people he sees jogging, trying to take control of their lives, or by poetry. He says he read Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet so many times it began to invade his everyday thoughts.

Jacobus Capone, from ‘Forewarning, Act 3′ (2022)

Eventually he reveals a taste in artists no less extreme than his taste in weather: Bas Jan Ader, the Dutch conceptual artist who disappeared in 1975, trying to cross the Atlantic in a 13-foot sailboat; Guido van der Werve, another Dutchman, known for a video in which he walks in front of an icebreaker; or Taiwan’s Tehching Hsieh, who punched a time clock every hour for an entire year.

Capone admits to a love of taking risks. In the mountains “it’s not just the physical demands but the psychological fatigue. Working alone in that environment, your awareness has to be very precise all the time. It got to the point last year that I finished filming in the mountains in Innsbruck, came back to the house, and broke down in tears, because I’d given absolutely everything.”

“Going to the supermarket someone says, ‘You want a bag?’, and that would almost make you weep because your guard’s down, because you’ve gone beyond the point of exhaustion. You’re an exposed wound that anything will get into – yet being so open and receptive is something I really value.”

By way of understatement, he adds: “It gives a personality to the project.”

Before discovering his penchant for extreme landscape, Capone was a painter. He has recently begun painting again, adding a modest studio practice to his large-scale experimental works. But these paintings, made from compounds of earth and sea water, or golden wattle and sea water, are more concerned with process than product. Hard to preserve, they are guaranteed to lose their zing after a few months.

“I’m not geared towards a market,” he says. “I don’t even see the work I do as operating within the arts field. I always feel as if I’m sitting outside of it. I’m not good at networking.”

“There are a lot of interesting things I wish I could pursue, but they stand outside of that singular energy driving everything. It’s all a means of learning and growing and extending – and failing as well. I like doing everything myself, and that experience… well, it’s almost sacred.”

What Capone loves most is the “purity” of extreme environments, for which he professes “a deep reverence and devotion.”

“Things are simpler,” he explains, “but there’s a shock of clarity. When it’s an active environment you have to be incredibly cautious, although I feel the work is a lot more pure than it would be if I stayed home and laboured in a studio. If I didn’t work this way, I don’t think I’d be making work at all. I’ve never thought of myself as an artist, or what I’m doing as artwork. It’s the kind of work that enhances you. It’s the practice of becoming a human being.”


Jacobus Capone’s work features in the 18th Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1 March – 2 June.


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 February, 2024