Top: A Brief Tour...from here to there and back again... (2007), courtesy Lisa-Raine Hunt at Christ Church, Spitafields. Below: Into the Melting event/happening at Guestroom for the Passerby Project (2007), courtesy Guestroom.
Let’s start by thinking about objects and stuff. Your exhibition at Gimpel Fils started with The Ante Room – a delicate arrangement of objects that seem carefully selected, both casual and specific. What kind of relationships do you seek between objects? How does a particular arrangement of objects take shape? Is it fixed? How definite or fluid are placings of objects in these assemblages?
Should they just be looked at or are other kinds of interaction encouraged? What kinds of spaces are you creating? The arranging of objects, of course, creates spaces, and I see your different pieces as creating or evoking different spaces: stages, film sets, domestic environments, the artist's studio.
In the show The Ante Room became a real problem – I wanted these floating rickety propositions. But the white gallery space was really demanding something more solid more connected. The translation of scale from my notebooks to studio to the gallery wasn’t happening. Anyway I was glad to stand my ground and use the detached pieces held up by 6mm doweling rod and only one long shelf – on which the larger books and tall mirror sit. It was like walking into a cabinet of props that precariously sustain themselves.
The placing of the works, lighting and shadows is very important. It was like a whispering of things to come but it’s also a work in itself. You mentioned the desire to be ‘careless’ and my note beside this was ‘I wish!’ … though it was important for me to have the shelves off centre on the dowel this was also thought out beforehand – initially being worked into the Guestroom piece Into the Melting. It’s hard to present a piece as contingent when it’s so thought out – it takes a lot of extra work for it to look spontaneous.Once the show was up there was a minor problem with humidity in the basement – the photos began to curl. Of course I wanted them to lie flat against the wall and the text (the play La Voix Humaine) and just be there .. so this curling was annoying. However, Alice Correia (the curator) had a different perspective on this – she wanted me to just leave them to curl. Also she thought that it went with the text and Joe’s crumbling psyche. So this brought an unexpected casual element to the props.
Actually when I showed her Ante Room for the first time she said ‘I love the matchstick!’ which holds the wooden box open .. I really liked that comment as it surprised me and the matchstick was so worked .. I had several to choose from, probably around 50 or so – varying heights and different degrees of black charred wood. So in the end I just went with this way of thinking to leave the pieces looking slightly careless and curled rather than regimented and controlled.
Venus II (2007-08), courtesy Gimpel Fils.
Within the The Washaway Road is the shelf – this actually can be seen as a separate work: Venus II – a threatening piece. Also linked with the main character's view of women … Also actually I was thinking of Gober too at this point, though this brick really is a brick and not a replica. Its definitely ‘woman’ though .. a powerful image made more so by the lighting, the blue velvet cloth it lies on - it’s quite harsh, unforgiving, a hole. Anyway, this is a character I am working up for subsequent pieces.
I am often quoting other’s works within the cabinets of props and the main works. It’s a layering of thoughts. Also I am always looking to different kinds of spaces or sets ‘spaces within spaces like looking into a Russian doll or Joseph Cornell box’.
The Ballad of Albatross Way (2007), courtesy Gimpel Fils.
In The Ballad of Albatross Way the relationship is different; vast piles of stuff revealed by the 360 pan of the camera, seeming to relate, held together by its relationship to you as an artist.
Well, people have often framed my work as just sonic which I find problematic as my work has always been spatial and sculptural, looking to film. Last year Finetuned commissioned me to make a piece (actually a sound piece) but I decided to push the work and work with film and sound would be equal to the images. There was always the ballad element vying with the images. My initial idea was to make models of spaces, buildings or ideas around this circular very obvious film motion. So at once the audience are drawn in but also denied any closeness by this filmic device - a pan - this mechanism.
Somehow the models were never made (it seemed too much of a conceit to actually make them) and I sat in my studio/home and realised that I was in the model already – everything was here already – more or less. The path of the camera was actually extremely worked … much of it has been layered over years of course but there were elements that were pointing very firmly to different types of space. Architectural e.g. Corbusier ++, painting: Delacroix for example, theatre and film of course. Even to the point where there are multiple images of the film Tony Takitani. Directed by Jun Ichikawa based on a short story by Murakami.
Everything is very specific. If I go into every book and image I think it would take too long here but basically the images are of spaces within spaces, some habitable and some proposals – often mirroring, repeating, echoing. At the end of the film the figure goes out of the room slipping into the mirrored doors. The film and the sound were worked simultaneously by the way – interweaving one with the other but not finding equilibrium.
A Little Light Music (2006), courtesy Parker's Box
The piece evokes and uses directly the studio. How does the studio work for you? I’m thinking of it in a practical way, but also in the expanded sense of the studio as a “thought-space” in Schwitters’ Merzbau, or the archive-studio of curator Harald Szeemann, where the arrangement of stuff is similar to The Albatross Way but arranged over three floors of a warehouse and about eighteen rooms!
Yes I’ve definitely brought the studio and process into the work now. This started consciously with The Ballad of Albatross Way. So the thought process from the thought/feeling to the eye to the hand to the object becomes more obvious. Its all around me in the books I read, the things I put up or take down. I live and breath this space I live and work within. It's become this organism actually .. chaotic .. Herzog talked in an interview that chaos was really the only way forward! You can see this thinking in his films. So I look to this I suppose – of course you have a personal line through the clutter but potentially it's so open and rich.
Szeeman was an inspirational curator. I saw in the book Harald Szeemann: Individual Methodology the images you are describing .. yes just amazing. He talks about the stuff around him helping him with some process of divination .. leading him to new ideas which seems right for him at least. As for me my studio is many things – a toolbox of sorts, a research area, a practical material doing space, a discussion space. I have had many good chats here that go on for days or many many chats that end up being 5 or 6 hours .. unquantifiable really as with some people, well, we’ve never finished chatting – it's so important who you talk with.
The space though is self-enclosed, more or less, though often I feel I am working with the city and this library/studio space is just suspended here on an estate in south London. On the whole it's not a self conscious space like say Schwitter’s Merzbau … I come in with new books or an idea that some area needs or demands a bit of order so that has to happen. Then maybe I’m researching something and all my poetry books come out or architectural books and so on … so I am playing with it really ... it’s a living thing. Also it's not precious I don’t think (!) ... you know when I am travelling I travel light but I always seem to amass things around me that look to this space … it is the manifestation of my mind I suppose.
The Washaway Road and other pieces in the exhibition really include a space for the audience, almost as another element in its assemblage. Do you have a sense of the audience? How do he/she/they behave? I thought many pieces had a one to one relationship in mind.
The audience are implicated all the time in each piece. It's really important how they move within the space and where they are positioned. The show was not necessarily made for a one to one but a few people said they enjoyed time looking around the show alone as they could explore it and listen to the works fully. The work is not directly interactive i.e. you know no touching of the works of course! But it is interactive in that I placed the speakers in such a way as the audience are in-between the conversation – they are voyeurs in The Washaway Road…
Though the main space is Joe’s you are still in this limbo land between his psychologically lost space and Kate’s physically lost space. I was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend who was working on La Voix Humaine by Cocteau. He was working at Leeds Opera House and was lost in a stairwell and throughout our conversation he was trying to find the door out – I was in my studio in London and in the background I could hear the opera singer practising. Immediately I liked the spatial displacement and thought it was a piece. I wrote a short play for a competition then met John Milroy (one of the actors) and saw him in a read-through at Soho Theatre. I re-wrote the piece with him in mind. He was very powerful and is totally Joe.
The Washaway Road (2007-8), courtesy Gimpel Fils
My works often come out of absurd situations or just daily conversations – I chat a lot! I also love looking at and discussing painting. The From Russia show was incredible – my heart skipped a beat when I turned around in the first room to see Corot’s A Gust of Wind – that show was full of old friends!
I have a particular way of working and I just go with an idea that keeps knocking at the door and won’t go away. Often too it’s opportunity that may create the works finally … so I am working on maybe 5 ideas at any one time then someone comes along and offers me a show or a commission and the works are fully realised within a particular space – this might be a book by the way not just a gallery space.
Your handout for the Gimpel Fils show invites people to meet you in a café or at home and be read to. Did anyone take you up on this? What are these encounters like? Is it relaxed or is there uncertainty about the social rules? What do you read? Why the desire to read to people?
I have used the voice and reading since my foundation at John Cass in 1994 – maybe even before this via friends though at the time I wouldn’t have called it an art work. Reading out is very powerful and engages the audience immediately in your world. I had a misspent youth I suppose making models out of cornflakes packets and listening to the radio – mainly Radio 4 so this disembodied voice, or voices, and playing with the placement of objects, have been with me forever.
The reading idea for this show actually came from me wanting to go through my piece Into the Melting for Guestroom with a friend before Christmas. I was going to his studio and then he called me to say he’d just had a meal so could I come round to his home and read to him there. This was brilliant – its such a simple thing to do – to read to someone a long text (around 20 minutes) and have time to do this and somehow transform the space you’re in. Also, during the show it was important that it was about time and was free. It looks to another space outside the gallery – an everyday moving space we’re all familiar with - so bringing that in to the works within the press release was important. In the end just two curators and one critic were interested – but due to time and The Armory and other things it never happened. But this is, I think, besides the point. The idea was there and I hope to realise it sometime.
I was going to read one of my pieces – I have so many - I have a book of scripts. So yes one of these. I hope to publish this as a proper book sometime – I’m currently looking for a publisher. The performance of reading is daunting and I prefer asking actors as the text is material and their craft. It’s rare though that I hear the right voice with the right balance of intonation and energy.
You often use language and text. Is there a point where writer becomes artist or vice versa, and is such a distinction important for you? Does your emphasis on emotion, impact and moment link to, for example, Artaud and Michaux and their sense of a material, gestural and visceral writing?
I am (or at least try to be) very aware of the style of language I’m using. There was a point in the show when people working on the show would go out to lunch then come back with stories of how they had heard conversations not unlike Joe and Kate in The Washaway Road.. not so intense maybe but you know there is a vernacular - everyday phrases that I wanted to catch. It implicates the audience too in the subject matter. The press release also [which took the form of a set of instructions leading the viewer through the exhibition] .. it was important for me that it was in gallery language .. a great idea but not structured in a literary way. I really like Mamet and particularly The House of Games where language is a construct, almost painfully so in that film but it doesn’t get between the audience and the characters .. they can still breath. Anyway for me it’s sculptural and can be very precise and beautiful.
I consider myself an artist primarily ... one who writes. I work in many ways from a doodle or an image or a conversation. It doesn’t have to start in language. Well of course from time to time the question of a split arises and someone says ‘you should write!’ (!) or write a book or whatever. But I am already doing this .. Also the writing is extremely visual – I like writing in this way - often it's painterly. I know categories are best to describe a person’s practice but really I am experimenting with all sorts of ways of working – sculpture, performance, happenings, installation, film, writing itself … so it feels very contemporary. Reading someone a story also feels old fashioned – though within the art world now it feels well within contemporary performance debates. It's certainly vulnerable for me as a performance as I very rarely do this – the work is not about me reading but more the action of reading itself especially within the context of the Gimpel Fils show.
I’m drawn to authors who were writing between WWI and WWII e.g. Brecht, Carl Dreyer (screenplays), Arthur Schnitzler and, for the Gimpel Fils show, I was very much influenced by Cocteau... he continues to be around! Yes I often think of Artaud’s work and Michaux ... if I just look up I can see Michaux’s Spaced, Displaced on my bookshelf .. so yes I’d say but I have this desire to make some kind of sense even if its more poetic than a literal narrative. I like this connection with the materiality of text as I don’t think many people would link me with this at all. Also, yes my work is very physical even if this is really filmic. So between the language and sound and the transient materiality of a film. A show is like this too.
Entre chien et loup, sound/ sculpture installation with table top drawings (2005).
And does a psychoanalytic reading resonate for you – thinking of your objects, stories and installations in terms of trauma, loss, memory, hysteria?
Well this is such a huge subject and of course you can read my work via psychoanalysis, like any work, and I can see that mine possibly leans more to that way of thinking, from the outside. But to purely see it as this would be problematic for me – I like to open things out much more. From where I am working away within the work it’s not a consideration. I’ve read bits of Freud, Lacan, Winnicott and Klein but on an everyday level I’m not thinking of their writings.
In my studies I came across an ICA talk (the Linda Brandon Talks Series) in 1996 called ‘Berggasse 19: Inside Freud’s Office’ and later, on my M.A., Darian Leader came to speak at college. Both these talks mentioned the things in Freud’s office and the spatial relations inside from the analyst’s gaze to the position of the analysand and objects in the room. I subsequently had a tutorial with Darian Leader in his consulting rooms which was interesting especially seeing him casually prop the window open with a thick blue worn tome: ‘Dr Freud by Paul Ferris’. Objects can have many uses!
Anyway, this was a line of research at the time for my work as a whole. Memory and a kind of nostalgia are present in my work often though from a literary or filmic point of view. There are many interesting ways to read an art practice – psychoanalysis is just one and at the moment this feels a bit outmoded.
And why ballads?
Rhythm in the text is very important. Ballads (shanties and waulking songs) – because they look to social history and they are political in many ways. Also these pieces can be as neat and short and succinct and as powerful as a poem.
How has your work developed over time? Your descriptions never particularly outline trajectories or talk of changes - do you feel you’re in a continuous present?!
Well, I think I just write emails like this or at least I am responding to your questions in this open way. I certainly don’t make work within a void ….I am aware of art histories and I read a lot but I am wary of pinning things down too much for me and the work … to give a trajectory sounds reductive to me .. like it has already been thought out and you really have nowhere to explore … having said this (!) of course there is a line of thought and a methodology .. it's in the work already and is being worked out over time … it's just there are many ways of coming to my work and I feel I want to leave that open for now if possible…
Lipstick Line (1999), courtesy New Contemporaries.
I’m interested how you ended up working this way – what interests, encounters and institutions created the sense of such a practice as a possibility?
Often I feel that this practice is not a viable possibility (!) and is probably why I am not yet represented .. galleries are interested in my work but you have to pin a person's work down materially and I feel at the moment that most galleries need a complete package.. and I don’t offer this... I don’t want to offer a brand or product... The work should and does slip between the audience .. in some senses its mercurial even within the works. So, it can be fragmented or split like the text for an installation can also be published in a magazine or it could be used as part of a show on the internet. The authority of the medium is questioned. So, there is a question of where the work actually lies and is there an origin and if so does this matter? In some ways though via conversations I have with curators and writers I find a way to work through the art world …
Into the Melting event/happing at Guestroom for the Passerby Project ( 2007), courtesy Guestroom
Finally, given all we have discussed, I wonder if film becomes important for you as a means of holding together, giving some shape to your disparate objects and ephemeral installations. Books curl, but film can be a great way to fix and control.
Film and the filmic process are referenced in most of my work usually, though, in script form rather than literally filming something. I have used it to frame the work and set the boundaries – making rules. The Ballad of Albatross Way was very structured though initially came from an idea of a very pared down circular pan of models. So, back to your question, work wise I didn’t think of things that way round i.e. that I was going to give context to this stuff that’s around me in the studio. I have often in script form used film language and directions to set the audience apart from the action and for there to be a central voice controlling everything. In The Ballad of Albatross Way the camera pan does this for me, but also by layering of sound of the voice and accordion things are kept slightly detached from one another. There is a discord between the layers, an uneasy relationship that I find interesting, a kind of alienation and disjunction that is at the core of my work.
This interview between David Berridge and Clare Gasson took place via e-mail in April-May 2008.