Friday, 30 January 2009


Marie Menken, If Earth in Earth Delight, 1951, oil, sand, glass, and thread on masonite, 11 ½ x 17 ½ inches. All images courtesy Douglas Crase and Frank Polach. 

Following last November's articles on Marie Menken, I've had a very enjoyable e-mail conversation with Douglas Crase. Crase, a poet and essayist based in New York, came to Menken when researching Both: A Portrait in Two Parts, his 2004 biography of Dwight Ripley and Rupert Barneby. 

It was Ripley and Barneby's Wappingers Falls garden that featured in Menken's film Glimpse of the Garden. Ripley also figured as patron and supporter of Menken and The Gryphon Group, founder of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, small press publisher, and writer and artist in his own right. It is this last category that Crase has done much to promote, curating both Unlikely Angel: Dwight Ripley and the New York School (Poets House, New York, Feb 9-Mar 18 2005) and a recent portfolio of Ripley's botanical drawings in the excellent Esopus magazine. 

As the Tate Modern gathering made clear, there is much that remains unexplored about Menken's work and life, not least her painting. Crase included If Earth in Earth Delight in the Poets House show, and I'm grateful to him for supplying both the JPEG above and images of five further paintings that were part of Dwight Ripley's collection upon his death. 

How many other paintings exist? Crase knows of some with Menken's relatives and friends, whilst Menken was also commissioned by Lottie Rothbard to decorate a folding screen with one of her sand paintings. This was later donated to Anthology Film Archive.

Back at Tate Modern in October Melissa Ragona said in her presentation that she and P.Adams Sitney were in dispute over the relevance or not of Menken's paintings to her work. The art crit of the jpeg is a highly precarious foolishness, but, looking at IF EARTH IN EARTH DELIGHT, inparticular its application of string and sand, I couldn't but think of Menken's movements in front of Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie in Mood Mondrian.  

Marie Menken, Untitled, [1951], oil, sequins, shells, and phosphorescent paint on masonite, 12 x 18 inches. Not signed, not dated.

So what do we know of Menken the painter? As Crase summarises in Both: A Portrait in Two Parts:

In Menken, Dwight had spotted a companionable eccentric who shared his love of colour and expressed it, as did he, in unusual ways and with unorthodox media. Menken was known initially not for her films but for her paintings she made from sand and other nontraditional materials. Her first show opened at the Betty Parsons Gallery in November 1949 (the show that followed hers was Jackson Pollock's), and her paintings were described before the opening by F.Y.I, the employee newsletter of Time,Inc., where she worked as a night clerk on the overseas cable desk. According to F.Y.I., her paintings were made from "stone chips, stone powders, marble chips, marble dust, ground silicate, sand, cement dust, luminous paints, glass particles, glues and lacquers, occasionally string and fiber. " So Dwight was perhaps right to call these paintings desertipicti; the species epithet means "of the Painted Desert." Menken had a second show at Betty Parsons in February 1951, and her third, held at Tibor de Nagy the following month, featured Pollock-like swirls of phosphorescent paint that glowed in the dark. (182-3)

Crase notes Menken's show's received the usual, cursory mention in the New York art press (all shows received brief, paragraph long reviews in Art News or Art Digest), where it was deemed "decorative." Judging from last years Tate conference, the main value of the history Crase and the images here outline is to evidence something of the scope, presence and quantity of Menken's paintings. 

From the reproductions, I begin to discern a frame of reference: to the scrawl, ideograph and writing (Klee), the use of materials like sand (Masson), the role of gesture as it configured in abstract expressionism. Her use of found materials, the flat surface of the picture frame, and bright phosphorescent colour further confirms a sense of Menken's work as being both inside of outside tendencies we might now identify with Pop and Minimalism.  

Without the paintings themselves to examine, one key source is the titles - a full list of which, from the 1949 Betty Parsons show is reproduced here. Menken's titles for her paintings - often written on labels on the back - at the very least reveal something of her process, and examples of what grabbed her attention. 

Doctor Coon's Ghar Hotu, for example, derives from the report of Dr. Carleton "Cannonball" Coon's discovery of prehistoric hominid remains in North Iranian cave of Ghar Hotu in "Diggers," which appeared in Time, May 7, 1951. The full text of this article is online here

Marie Menken, Doctor Coon's Ghar Hotu, 1951, oil, sand, and thread on masonite, 11 ½ X 21 inches.

The meaning of IF EARTH IN EARTH DELIGHT is unpacked below. The following are an edited version of Douglas Crase's notes from our e-mail conversation Nov-Jan 2008-09:

Menken's paintings are . . . "idiosyncratic" is the word likely to be employed. She experimented with sand, string, glass--like a Julian Schnabel aforehand, though on a human scale.  The paintings are on masonite (board), not canvas.  Except for one, which is on brown paper that has been crumpled, rubbed with what appears to be colored pencil, and then stretched more-or-less flat again.  The masonite, at least in the case of IF EARTH, appears to have been trimmed by hand–which explains the irregular edges of the image I sent you. 

Marie Menken, God's in Her Heaven, 1948, ink and colored pencil on crumpled paper, 16 x 12 ½ inches.

The paintings on masonite, including IF EARTH IN EARTH DELIGHT, are stuccoed with sand, strings, beads, glass, etc. They are not all so brown as IF EARTH.  One is mostly green, as I remember, another reddish.  Another has Pollock-like swirls of phosphorescent paint studded with tiny shells. I did not know it was phosphorescent until one night I went into the dark basement where all the Ripley stuff was being unpacked . . . and got quite a start. 

It seems pretty clear Menken liked the play of light, just as she says somewhere. Because of the raised and encrusted surfaces of the paintings the light dances or changes patterns according to your angle of viewing–even in the work made from dull crumpled paper. 

While Martina [Kudlacek] was making her documentary of Menken, she preserved for Anthology Film Archives footage Menken shot in Guadix Spain [Gravediggers of Guadix]  during the same 1958 trip with Kenneth Anger which resulted in her Arabesque for him at the Alhambra. The Guadix footage is unforgettable. Spooky monks, who look like they will retire to their cells to flog themselves or each other, are repetitively spading, spading, spading the red Spanish earth . . . and Menken's camera goes to that earth as if it can't help itself.  

The effect, I remember, is exactly as you say about her camera: it's stop-start, momentum infused with the potential of interruption, lingering and delay. I even seem to remember that the earth hits the lens at some point....

The comparison to IF EARTH IN EARTH DELIGHT is dramatic. The painting was shown at Betty Parsons in 1951 and the film wasn't shot until 1958 but in each the texture, the color, the granularity–even in a way the non-translucent limits of the dull, unreflective medium of earth–are made to do a lot of esthetic work on our behalf. Put this similarity together with her George Herbert title (it's from the poem "The Priesthood") and one could work up a whole exegesis. Speculative, but then, she's the one that picked the title. 

The stanzas in the middle, where the title comes from, are so much to the point that she could not have been innocent of them.  "Yet have I often seen, by cunning hand / And force of fire, what curious things are made / Of wretched earth." And next:

But since those great ones, be they ne'er so great,

Come from the earth, from whence those vessels come;

So that at once both feeder, dish, and meat,

Have one beginning and one final sum:

I do not greatly wonder at the sight,

        If earth in earth delight.

Regarding Glimpse of the Garden, Crase observes: 

The garden where Glimpse of the Garden was made was, of course, an "English" rock garden in style, even if the plants were largely from the North American west. Menken, having met Ripley and Barneby in 1943, would have known that garden from the day it was first spaded to its apotheosis as a sanctuary of rare species. So there could be history as well as momentary perception in her camera's attention.

Marie Menken, (TOP:) A Green Dream, 1946, oil, sand, glass, and thread on masonite, 13 x 13 inches; (BELOW:) Ten Cents' Worth of Tears, 1954, oil, sand, beads, and thread on masonite, 9 3/4 x 13 3/8 inches. 

As for the the acknowledgment "with thanks to Dwight Ripley for the garden and romaine."  Ripley financed Menken's trip to Brussels (and perhaps he paid for the film and other supplies, as well).  If you think of "romaine" as "lettuce," which is slang for money, then suddenly the thanks are timely and not redundant.


Ripley and Barneby's library is full of books by and about English gardeners. Ripley's early influence, as you probably saw, was Reginald Farrer. Clearly, wherever Ripley went, he was trying to re-create the English country house of which present-day movie-makers can only dream. Menken's film is deeply indebted to the history and traditions of the English rock garden, was practically made in one, while the accents she heard at breakfast drinks and dinner in the house where she was staying were as posh English as they could be.


Thursday, 29 January 2009


Susan Hiller's remark that "collage is a form of cognition" appears in the recently published The Provisional Texture of Reality: Selected Talks and Texts 1977-2007. Hiller uses the phrase at the beginning of a talk on and around Jackson Pollock. Her own sense of the phrase is  evident in her description of From the Freud Museum (1991-97):

My starting points were artless, worthless artefacts and materials - rubbish, discards, fragments, souvenirs and reproductions - which seemed to carry an aura of memory and to hint they might mean something, something that made me want to work with them and on them. I've stumbled across or gone in quest of objects, I've orchestrated relationships through the use of museum devices like captions and labels, and I've invented or discovered fluid taxonomies. Archaeological collecting boxes play an important role in the installation as containers or frames appropriate to the processes of excavating, salvaging, sorting, naming and preserving, which are as intrinsic to art as to psychoanalysis and archaeology. (69)

I began gathering quotations to unfold the shock of recognition this phrase prompted in me.  Some of the quotations do not detail collage specifically. Instead I present a form of intellectual engagement that is variously a way to avoid using the hands, a spatial vortex, a brand of cocoa powder in traditional Dutch dress, and an Arcimboldian encrustation. Read on.  

(1)Last week you sent me an email from Biella about giving your Loose Associations Lecture for the first time, and wrote that the audience enjoyed your 'crap connections.' I wondered why 'crap' was exactly the right word, and it's because 'crap' is itself a crap kind of word: weak, lame, pathetic, shrugging, flippant.'Bad' would be too specific, and 'shit' too harsh. Isn't that level of precision beautiful? ...complete, full circle.. and entirely accessible, which is curiously opposite to your work. 

(2)Let's talk about editing... I was cutting things together based on color, painterly values, textures. But one of the things that I was interested in was difference - I was interested in how far I could go to have things not match up but have them still fit together... 

So I started by matching not texture exactly but contrasting color and shape: a circle to a circle, in a totally different space. It became this vortex... 

As a teenager I had this sense that things could link in space on multidimensions, and I would think about that in terms of relationships, whether it was people relationships or abstract-idea relationships, that they could link in all three dimensions, plus of course time....

Jess, Goddess Because Is Is Falling Asleep, 1954. Currently part of the touring exhibition and publication: Jess: To and From the Printed Page. 

(3) secret vice is "making collages by Joseph Cornell." I have a rubber stamp that says "Collage by Joseph Cornell," and I use it with the same Yiddish dictionary that I found in an old loft. I cut out blocks of information in Yiddish, glue them down, and then stamp them "Collage by Joseph Cornell," and I either give them away or mail them off or sell them or do whatever I do with them.... 

(4)For a time (prior to 1978) I tended to use the term collage loosely and generally to refer to all art works created or assembled out of diverse materials - works of art emphasizing contiguity, contingency, juxtaposition, realignment, relationship, unlikely pairings, etc. 

The problem with the term, as I saw when I became more precise, is that it suggests (or can suggest) an unmotivated or un-necessitated groupings of materials. Things in a collage are like letters of the alphabet - when you put some of them together they will always appear to be seeking meaning, or even to be making it. 

(5) The thing that makes the collages work is that I don't cut anything, I just use whole sheets. Like a whole newspaper or just a page, and I put it down over some posters or something. 

What I'm really trying to do is use things that I don't want to throw away; things that are just floating. It's my way of saving things and using things that I've made in other ways and trying to keep them from becoming trash. Also, when I'm making the collages flat I can't really see them while I'm making them...

The purpose is meant to just take all these things and just smash them together into a time capsule and just glue them down. I try not to use anything with any meaning. For example, I would never use anything from the day Martin Luther King was killed or something. I just use things that are floating around but not things that are personal to me. I would use things that I find well made or well designed. I don't feel like I made them. In a way I don't feel any ownership over these, I don't feel personally responsible for them.


(7)So then, what is [ENTER NAME OF YOUR NEW BOOK OR FILM HERE]? Perhaps, for a start, I will say that it represents "structure." It consists of a certain conditional unity of fractions, which are dispersed and networked through either magnetic fields, movements in the air, or the voracity of our eyes... 

Looking back . . . let's say their architecture (associations, relativity, construction of intonations) began to shape only in the process of writing...

Okay, right, yeah, so I now have, what, erm, thirty, yes, thirty seconds to pull all this together. Okay. That's not so bad. That's great, actually. It's, erm, just looking back through my notes here, well, it's, what, a spatial process, as Arcimboldo liked to say, translating one form into another, no that's not right. Dust, exactly, yes, loose encrustations. Nineteen... eighteen...

That's not right at all. But even if you have a bad idea you can rubber stamp it with the name of another artist, and that, surely, is creative freedom, yeah. That must be my time about up. Isn't it? Yes? Thirty seconds isn't long - ten - nine- eight - when it's a topic like this, er, wow, if I was talking about cocoa powder and Dutch traditional dress, well, then, yeah, but, I might as well be back in 1978 or - three - two - erm, architecture.


(1) Ryan Gander, "Zero, Lectures, Pushing, Vibration, Feedback etc." in Appendix (Artimo, 2003), 122. He continues:

One step removed from that, the Dutch call this idea - one picture inside another; the Russian Dolls visual feedback thing - The Droste or The Manchurian Candidate, but even more so because the device is used on the front of Droste brand cocoa powder boxes, where a girl in traditional Dutch dress holds the same package with the picture of herself holding the same package, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...

(2) Abigail Child, "Time Corners Interview: With Charles Bernstein" in This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film (University of Alabama Press, 2005), 175-6.

(3) Henry Martin, "Should an Eyelash Last Forever: An Interview with Ray Johnson" in Ray Johnson: Correspondences (Wexner Center for the Arts and Flammarion, 1999), 192. 

(4) Lyn Hejinian, "Commments for Manuel Brito" in The Language of Inquiry (University of California Press, 2000),190-191.

(5) Josh Smith, Hidden Darts/Hidden Darts Reader, ed. Achim Horchdörfer (Verlag der Bunchandlung Walther König, Köln, 2008).


(7) Shushan Avagyan: Interview with Arkadii Dragomoschenko on his book Dust (Dalkey Archive Press, Illinois, 2009), in CONTEXT no.22. Available online here.

Saturday, 24 January 2009


Pipilotti Rist, Pour Your Body Out (7534 Cubic Meters), MoMA, New York, 19 Nov 2008 - Feb 2 2009.

New Yorkers are loving this Pippilotti Rist installation in the new MoMA's atrium.  I'm sure they wish it would stay forever. Not necessarily for the video itself, which slathers the three walls overlooking the 54th St. lobby in brilliant blues, greens and pinks.  But because there has never been such a wonderful place to slip off your shoes and take a nap in the whole history of this noisy, cold, overwhelming city.

The work itself is environmental. It's like a big regressive fantasy, where the images are so much larger than we are. It has the scale of looking up at people when you're two years old and everyone and everything towers over you.  It's the perfect womb in an imperfect world. 

The walls offer three separate but inter-related projections of images using grass, fruits, water, kids splashing, trees, rotting vegetables, other garbage, and, of all things, a warthog. But only on the lower third of the atrium, the remainder of which is inexplicably bare. 

Rist uses photonegative color DV, which creates bright hot pink and lime greens, and slo-shutter speed - and underwater shimmery blues - with the camera hovering between under and just at the undulating water line. At one point, a nearly naked girl swims, looks down at her own body, her breasts bobbing just above the water's surface; when she stands, we can see she's got her period. 

It wasn't until the third visit that I actually saw this, because virtually no one sits and watches all three screens as if it were, say, an Isaac Julien three-screen narrative piece. The three walls can only be fully seen at the same time by sitting against the glass partition thinly separating a viewer from the lobby below - by far the worst place to sit in a space otherwise designed for lolling about. 

Hence the supposedly radical use of menstrual blood doesn't look radical at all. It merely suffuses everything with with an inexplicable pink. Of course, Rist has always had this little-girl's-bedroom palette, so that's fine - and I doubt whether very many of the thousands of people who've been going up to the space and getting drenched in this pink fog realize that's what it is: menstrual blood floating in water. You have to glance up at just the right moment in the 16-minute cycle to see the girl's lower body emerge from the water with her white underpants stained red and dripping between the legs. 

Even then, it seems, perhaps, to be a trick of the eye, so quick is the shot and so deep is our taboo at the public showing of menstrual blood. When I finally saw it, I clenched in sympathy - the one thing every working Manhattan woman has had to do at some point in her life is frantically borrow a tampon from a total stranger in a bathroom, having miscalculated this ridiculous burden yet again. Somehow I felt like this girl on the wall was one of them. I bet a lot of women had this same reaction, without even realizing why. 

So I do applaud Rist for getting menses on the wall of MoMA, albeit in the cutest possible way. 

From a video POV, all of these techniques have been used forever  (I ran into Barbara Hammer at the last day of the MoMA Miro show - she'd just passed through Rist's atrium. In her sixties now, Barbara looked at me quizzically and said: didn't we do all of this already in the 70's?). 

Blowing these images up to the scale of three film screens doesn't feel so much new as it does retro, downright comforting. It's a wonderfully intimate use of public space, because of the vast circular couch in the atrium that people lie down on and sit in the center of, shoes and boots off, computers out, weary tourists napping, bored children being read to by parents happy to have a place to sit, people splayed out like the workers in Brueghel's Harvesters - while pink video flutters around them. 

It's lovely, but somehow not a very innovative use of the language. It's the 'wall as screen' - a way to make people feel safe in the presence of a never-ending video bath. It's the idea that anything projected on a screen has to be more real and better than mere reality itself.  Also, strangely, there's no back on this huge circular couch, so it seems one is meant to lay flat and look up at the ceiling. But the minute one does, one is punished with an unadorned, remarkably ugly view of the actual ceiling, five stories above, with its  flat, dirty-white panels. 

And two-thirds of the atrium is just ordinary white wall. I wonder why Rist didn't use more of the space, especially since this magnificent couch practically demands we look up - into nothing. 

But most of the people on this couch aren't even looking at the video on the walls; they're bathed in its low light, the dimness itself - dark, heavy pink curtains block the daylight out on all five floors - creating this unacknowledged intimacy, like the color of a living room with only the Christmas tree lights on. 

Meanwhile, an indecipherable, deep drone permeates the entire museum, so that entire atrium  serves as some kind of alpha-wave generator - or low-sensory soothing machine. Everyone sinks into it, and no one asks why.  Manhattan could certainly use more of these. Rist should patent it. 

One thing I did like was that as one goes up the six levels of MoMA you can look down and see these weary visitors and New Yorkers getting tinier and tinier lying on this huge circular couch (which is supposed to be an eye, apparently; someone told me they read on the wall from Rist). The video becomes mere trimming to this wonderful Brueghelesque sea of humanity - literally, because the imagery is so often watery, and becomes so reduced as a percentage of what one sees as one moves up. By the time you reach the sixth floor and look down, it's as if you're watching the densely-populated ocean floor of an endless pink sea. 

At the first balcony, the closest to the landing, there was a moment when the far side of the three walls was showing water and reflections and sky in it. All this on the very wall that first had the Monet water lilies on it when the museum opened- whenever it was, three years ago now.  

Just for a moment, it looked like a video version of that Monet - I loved that. When I waited to re-see that image back on the atrium floor, I saw that it was only briefly that watery puddle. Then the camera moves along and starts taking in all kinds of smashed soda cans and other garbage... in slo-shutter speed. And a child skips through the water, sending splashes out to the screen. So I don't know if there's a meaning there or not. 

Julie Talen is a filmmaker and writer based in New York. Her multi-channel film Pretend will be released on DVD by Re:Voir in 2009. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2009


Nathaniel Mellors, The Time Surgeon, 2007, installation view, South London Gallery, 2009.

Last weeks review of Nathaniel Mellor's The Time Surgeon at the South London Gallery responded to the piece as a one-off performance event. The following interview with Mellors by Anne-Sophie Dinant (Associate Curator at SLG), took place via e-mail and was originally published as part of the programme for the evening. 

It explains some of the thinking and intention behind The Time Surgeon and, inparticular, how it was reconfigured for its night at the South London Gallery. I reprint it here, in dialogue with the review, for the information it offers and also towards articulating some qualities of the space between intent and the performance event itself.  

Such a space occurs in any live work, of course, but is strongly felt in The Time Surgeon's own brand of degraded theatricality. This seemed aptly summarised by extracting some stage directions from a page of the script, also included in the programme: 

... voiceover... shaking tape... points to camera audience... stretches word... Blair downward hand gesture, R Mayall tense face. Cups groin, knees together... resigned... Gesticulating at present...   

ANNE-SOPHIE DINANT: The Time Surgeon is presented at the South London Gallery as a one evening event, accentuating the performative character of the piece. Can you tell us more about this aspect of the work? What was your approach for conceiving an installation that uses elements of filmed performance?

NATHANIEL MELLORS: The projections are onto and across 3-dimensional surfaces - it's basically theatrical I think in that the mode of the installation makes the physical appearance of the video more like a set. I've worked a lot with disrupted projection before but previously there have been more physical elements, more sculpture involved. This work is relatively economical in that respect. 

There's an implied level of performance in the installation – you can wander around it, take any position within it and you can physically walk through projections if you want to. There's a sort of provisional quality to my work but at the same time it's also elaborate – that almost oppositional dynamic – a collision between something fairly baroque and something more impromptu. 

Nathaniel Mellors, The Time Surgeon.

I try and let that come through at each stage, starting in the script, then in different levels of filmed performance – putting different registers together there – and then in the installation. On the one hand it's just sort of been whacked into the gallery. On the other hand massive effort has been expended in painting and carpeting the place, the provisional quality is not incidental. This seems consistent with the idea of someone travelling through time in a Sony portable cassette recorder.

To go back to the idea of different registers of performance within the work I'd say it begins at a linguistic level: the script might establish one particular dramatic tone and then keep throwing up words or ideas that undermine that tone. And then on a performative level I might direct the delivery of the words or action in a way that is obstructive to that delivery – so the performers have to deal with that. 

In the installation there's the relationship between the two channels of video. There's a main channel (projected onto the polystyrene block), in which the two central actors play out the script, which is about the relationship between The Time Surgeon (Johnny Vivash) and his Victim (Gwendoline Christie). 

At the same time there's a second channel of video projected above and larger than the main channel in which you see other things happening. You see Ashley Marlowe playing the role of GOD as a bored drummer. And you see me playing a role as an artist or director of a second set of actors, apparently amateur performers, attempting to realise certain exercises wearing masks of Lou Reed and George Orwell and shouting bits of dialogue at trees and things. 

The things that are going on in the second channel all relate to the main script in different ways. Everything that is happening is an effect of the words, directly or indirectly. But sometimes this occurs in a reasonably clear way, at other points in a way that seems quite abstruse. 

I'm interested in deliberately confusing things to some extent, but not total confusion, the experience needs to be quite malleable. Maybe in that respect the work is a demonstration of something rather than actually being something.

A-SD: At the South London Gallery, the audience for this piece will all be watching the work at the same time, instead of coming into the space intermittently, as when watching an exhibition. Due to its large scale, this film installation creates a strong, almost physical relationship with the viewer. How do you perceive the work-spectator relationship when working on a film such as this?

NM: I don't really think about it. I try and follow different associations from the root of the words in the script and the ideas behind it, so one thing leads to another in a way that seems organic to me at the time. There are associative relationships between elements of the installation and things you see in the videos. 

When I originally installed the work I knew I wanted the polystyrene blocks on the desk: that made a certain sense to me, in relation to the tape recorder and the blank pieces of paper in the film. With the spillage of the projection on the polystyrene it looks a bit like it's been pulled out of the wall behind, which becomes very dark, relatively – it looks like a big hole there where the film might have come from. 

The elements are quite considered, but I wouldn't fix them too precisely until I get to the space. These physical possibilities are quite specific to working in art and art galleries, which I appreciate. I really like these things that can't happen anywhere else.

Nathaniel Mellors, Profondo Viola, 2004 (Installation view). Video, sound, light and sculpture. Matt's Gallery, 8 Sep- 31 Oct, 2004.   

A-SD: The absurdist side of The Time Surgeon, which is present in all your works in fact, is in this case directly inspired by Chris Marker's La Jetée and Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.  What relationship do you see between those two works? And how important were they to you?

NM: I've extrapolated things from them as well as from more contemporary issues. Having said that I think I the idea of a person trapped in a tape recorder originally occurred to me as an image rather than as a concept. I can't remember where it came from, although Dan (Fox) had an idea for a short film about someone who carries a bag of tapes around with them all the time a few years ago (which was about having to soundtrack everything). Maybe that was bouncing around in my head and came out differently. 

I noticed this 'physical torture' aspect of time-travel watching La Jettée –  it struck me as quite horrific and was presented as an atrocity, I thought, well those things could go together. It's primarily a way to make a link between word and effect, to explore it, and the 'person-trapped-in-tape-recorder' idea enables this. 

I realised this absurd idea could be a way to articulate some strange linguistic power-relations. The culture of political 'spin' was certainly an influence: 'spin' amplified through the news and broadcast media. The basic idea that words have a serious effect on reality – this 'tape' device could be a way to express some scrambled word-games that relate to that.

A-SD: You have previously mentioned Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard as film-makers you admire, and who have influenced you. You use similar strategies for editing image and sound, but you have a very particular way of playing with, and incorporating, music and sound in your work, which sometimes works in direct opposition to the image. 

Would you say your work is an extension of those two film-makers' practices? I suppose also that the integration of specific musical compositions comes quite naturally to you as you also have your own musical practice.

Nathaniel Mellors, The Time Surgeon.

NM: Yes these artists are influences but I wouldn't necessarily cite them above lots of other things. I have looked at using music and sound 'against' the image, or against dialogue. Or dialogue against image. I love the way Godard does that in Weekend and Pierrot le Fou for example, and other films from that period. 

I wasn't thinking consciously of any tradition, I was probably just responding to my own material. I wouldn't want to set up a comparison! I often see a lot of similarities between ideas and techniques in those 60s Godard films and Monty Python, actually. I wonder if they looked at the new wave? Also in some of the early 80s Comic Strip films. William Klein's Mr Freedom seems to anticipate South Park. But you can theorise forever after the fact. 

Nathaniel Mellors, Black Gold, 2001, installation view.  Video, sound, light and sculpture. Matt's Gallery,  7 Feb- 1 Apr 2001. 

I make connections between different things, some of which can appear quite disparate and maybe that's where the ideas are formed. I do like the idea of using elements of an art work against itself; I like the idea that an artwork can undermine itself in different ways – but in order to expose different points of view on what it's doing. I've tried to apply this to sculpture and other media as well as video. I used to call it 'sculpture sculpture' and maybe in this work there's the idea of a performance being performed. 

Having said that it's important that this thing is a concrete extrusion in and of itself; I'm not really interested in directly deconstructing things, or sampling and appropriation, although that culture is omni-present. I think music is a model for me in that respect, it's just broadly generative, hopefully the influences get sublimated. 

I'm lucky to be able to make music with talented people and that I got involved in bands and things well before art school. That experience was based in industrial music – improvising with tape loops and instruments we couldn't play. Chris Butler, Ashley Marlowe and myself improvised the music for The Time Surgeon in the Rijksakademie by approaching a room as an instrument, sort of 'playing' the room we were in, probably out of frustration towards a straightforward approach to instruments.

A-SD: Your work has focused on explorations of language through technology and communications developments such as television series or pop music. How would you articulate your critique of the use of language and communication today?

NM: I think it's important to be clear about what constitutes a critique. Does something that is critical of something in certain ways necessarily constitute a critique of that thing? I think there are critical aspects in my work but I would try not to say 'it's a critical piece' – because I can't gauge the motivation that singularly. 

I feel broadly critical of many applications of media and communications technology but celebratory of many other aspects. I love the technology and I'm using it myself. And with language: I just enjoy words. I suppose I am trying to articulate issues within the work. That's why earlier I was using the word 'demonstration' – I write a script and the work is a demonstration of different possibilities for that script. But I also want it to be quite distinctive as an experience in itself, with different levels, some dumb or awkward, some more serious or critical. I like these contradictory impulses.

I think with artists' work in relation to the popular media there can be an assumption that the appropriation of a media technique automatically constitutes some kind of critique – like the idea that making an exploitative documentary with 'artist awareness' is somehow more critical than a TV company's 'awareness'. Maybe they're both exploitative, and the art version just more naïve? I think that can be a danger of working with a singular medium type from popular culture: how do you advance the debate beyond its indigenous manifestation?

Nathaniel Mellors, The Time Surgeon.

Anyway, to talk in terms of this work, The Time Surgeon, the arc of the narrative involves a battle for the control of language in an environment which is sort of dislocated – it's detached from reality. I don't give too much information about what it is, exactly – it's like a theatre set, it's hermetic, just a room really. There is some inference from The Time Surgeon characters that there is something outside of it – that he is being controlled by a third party (The Futuremen) but it's unclear if that's real or just his egomania. 

Basically, for the purposes of the film, it's just the two main characters (The Time Surgeon and his Victim) and what unfolds from their words. What is clear is that the Victim experiences The Time Surgeon's words as reality; including his descriptions of torture. So what develops is a battle for linguistic dominance between The Time Surgeon and the Victim. 

The Victim is able to undermine and ultimately overthrow The Time Surgeon by playing to his ego and undermining his grasp of semantics. By the end of the film their roles are switched. As The Time Surgeon's grasp of reality comes apart there quickly develops a metaphysical or religious aspect. This is something I've taken further in my new work Giantbum.

Nathaniel Mellor's Giantbum will be shown as part of Altermodern: Tate Triennial 2009, 3 February – 26 April 2009.