Friday, 29 September 2017

Rachel Maclean Interview | Bon Magazine

Even if you knew her very well, you probably wouldn’t recognise Rachel Maclean once she dons the theatrical makeup and elaborate costumes of her vivid satirical multimedia works. Since graduating from the Painting BA at Edinburgh College of Art in 2009, she has made quite an impression with her visually stunning allegorical films, made using green-screen technology. With the aid of prosthetics and a fabulous wardrobe, Maclean populates her fantastical backdrops with a cast of exaggerated caricatures from all walks of society.

Exuberant and humorous, yet always with an ominous undertone, Maclean’s work both references and parodies many facets of popular culture. She draws on all manner of film genre, from Walt Disney to horror. Dialogue from Sex and the City is combined with lyrics from cheesy pop songs by bands like Black Eyed Peas. Emojis are incorporated into the titles of her work, and inspired her yellow, noseless characters in a recent series, We Want Data! She also makes use of various TV formats, from children’s programmes such as Teletubbies, to The X Factor.

In her most recent work, currently on show at Tate Britain, Maclean deploys mocking wit to confront our obsession with virtual vanity. “I’m curious about comedy as a space where interesting things can happen,” she says. “When I lived in Edinburgh I would see alternative comedy at the Fringe. Comedy is often the sharpest, most direct social satire and criticism, too.” Maclean certainly uses comedy in this way, to question our conceited and ultra-consumerist culture.

For all their bubblegum cuteness, Maclean’s films are also politically conscious. “I’m interested in contemporary politics,” she says. “The past three or four years have been a pretty interesting time to live through. There has been more discussion about politics with people my age than I’ve ever experienced in my life before.” Early works like The Lion And The Unicorn confronted the dilemmas of national identity. Made in 2012, during the lead-up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, it was inspired by the United Kingdom’s royal coat of arms. It was also the work that got Maclean nominated for the Film London Jarman Award in 2013 – an award she has been shortlisted for twice, most recently in 2016.

At just 29 she has been selected to represent Scotland at the 57th Venice Biennale. Eager to know how she’s going to approach probably her biggest career challenge yet, I spoke to her about the hush-hush new film commission that will transform a church in Cannaregio.

So you’ve just come back from Venice, where you were preparing for the Biennale?
Yes, I was there for ten days, wandering around, getting lost, and writing the script for the Biennale work. It was great to be in Venice when it was really cold and foggy and a little bit spooky; it felt completely different to the summertime, when it’s mad crowded with tourists. It was really good to think through ideas in the place that they are going to be shown.

What does it mean to be representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale?It’s really humbling, and a really exciting opportunity to make new work for a European, international audience. I guess it’s an odd time for Britain, and western politics more generally, so it’s both a scary and an interesting time to be making work dealing with the idea: what does it mean to represent a country? What does nationality mean when there is a resurgence of nationalism and protectionism? It’s interesting to be among all that in an artistic context.

How much of that will inspire the new work?I don’t want it to be specifically about Scotland or Britain, but the themes are to do with what’s happening now in America and Britain. So, looking at ideas of nationalism, post-truth and lies. And talking about sexism, and the rise in the legitimising of a certain kind of misogyny. I want to pool a lot of contemporary themes, but not make it feel it can only be understood if you’re Scottish or British.

Tell me about Chiesa di Santa Caterina, the venue you’ll be showing in.  It’s a decommissioned church – deconsecrated, that’s the word. It’s a really beautiful location, an historic Venetian church but rough round the edges, characterful. The past two exhibitions I’ve done have been in gallery spaces, where you can do whatever you want. But this time round, you’ve got the context first.

Will the venue influence the work in any way?  Yes it will. There is something grandiose and very dramatic about showing in a church; it lends a certain aura, which I’m keen to play with in the large-scale film.

You studied painting in Edinburgh. At what point did you transition into “painting” yourself to become the characters in your films?  When I was really, really wee I was obsessed with filming things on home video. Then I got into painting, just off the back of what you do at art college, and I was doing quite a lot of work that was almost like collage. I discovered that you can use green-screen and Final Cut software really easily, and that was exciting because it related directly to what I was doing with physical materials. Suddenly, instead of filming what seemed like banal reality, you could film something and then place it into any world you wanted, almost treating moving image like you would treat collage and painting.

Your films certainly splice together a variety of material and references. Why is that?  I like the references I use to come from a popular consciousness, so things are not too niche, so you recognise it and there is a level of accessibility. But I then twist it and make it a little bit darker and uncomfortable to watch.

There is definitely a fine line between the sinister and the grotesque, and the fantastical and the beautiful in your work.  I like playing with that, creating work that is alluring to look at, but at the same time really difficult and grotesque. I want to create the feeling of drawing you in and then pushing you out again.

In Eyes 2 Me you use a children’s TV programme format that culminates with the main character going on a killing spree.  Quite a lot of my work plays with voice as something that is powerful, and how you can be disempowered when voiceless. I was interested in that format within children’s television, like In The Night Garden, where creatures speak gobbledygook while a benign male voiceover explains what’s happening and tells them what to do. I wanted to play with that notion, of a character that’s cutesy but increasingly powerless, controlled by an omnipresent voice from above that tells her to do dark and sinister things.

I want to talk about the presentation of your female protagonists, who flit between different characteristics of childish, seductive and hideous.  My works consider the different experiences of gender and gender stereotypes. In Over the Rainbow, for example, I wanted a lot of my female characters to feel like they’re constantly switching. [I’m] taking that experience as a woman in culture of having to embody different roles simultaneously but not being allowed to let them mix, so not being allowed to be sexy and be a mother. In Feed Me I look at the uncomfortable bridging point between being a girl and being a woman, and how it’s taboo but also fetishised in culture.

Do you think as a culture we’ve become self-absorbed?  I think it’s become more acceptable to be entirely, shamelessly self-involved. I guess the selfie culture has something to do with it. There is something troubling about the X Factor culture of aspiration. It fits quite neatly into the “American dream” idea of society; if you try hard enough and want something bad enough, anyone can get it. It’s a dream that hides a huge amount of inequality and a lack of opportunity. There is something sinister in these programmes, the idea of fame for fame’s sake. It’s a little bit depressing.

Your exhibition Wot U :-) About, currently on show at Tate Britain, encompasses this obsession with screen-based culture.  I started making that body of work in early 2016, [while I was] on a residency at Artpace in Texas. I made We Want Data!, a series of six large-scale fabric prints featuring costumed characters, and then took those characters and made a single-screen 30-minute film called It’s What’s Inside That Counts. I was specifically focusing on our experience of identity on the internet, of social-media selfie culture, mixed with gender identity. I’ve not quite worked out how to explain exactly what it is yet. There are three main characters within it. There is a woman who is almost like a Kim Kardashian cyborg, who is hacked by this collective of grotesque Disneyesque rats that live underground and seems to be surviving on a kind of digital life support.

Who is the character that looks like a spiritual guru?  That’s Happy Man, a mindfulness guru for the tech industry. I was thinking about how mindfulness is appropriated and employed in business.

What was the inspiration behind We Want Data! I wanted the tapestry prints to feel like adverts and computer screens. The characters are either on their phones, or they have some sort of computer system built into them. I was looking at technologies like Apple Watch, these self-monitoring technologies. We’re already having a lot of data collected about us, just through using the internet, but now it’s about becoming your own data manager – for your step count, your weight and your heart rate. I find that a little scary. It’s this sense that anything can be turned into quantifiable data so emotions and health and experience of the world can be fed back to you in numbers.

Do you take any measure to make sure your data is not collected, so companies don’t earn money from your information?  No, but I probably should. It’s that idea that Facebook isn’t the product – you’re the product and Facebook is then selling [you] on. Companies like Facebook and Google have done a really good job of marketing themselves in this kind of “Aren’t we nice, aren’t we cool?” way to create the illusion of them facilitating your desires. Whereas there is this whole dark underbelly, which few people have the time and inclination to actually pick apart.

Aside from politics, popular culture, TV and technology, what else inspires your work?  I like my work to go back and forth between contemporary references and more deeply engrained national narratives. For example, in my film Feed Me I was considering the treatment of the Jimmy Savile paedophilia scandal that was in the news for a long time, but it also relates to fairy tales and the idea of the bogeyman or the child-eating ogre: a more historical fear of male sexuality.

What is it about the fairy tale narrative that interests you?  Fairy tales are malleable, they’re always morphing, adapting to have different outcomes, and altering to fit different moments in time. I quite like it to feel that my work, at some level, is continuing that tradition.

You’ve recently started writing scripts. Why?  Previous work, like Please Sir and Over the Rainbow, used found audio clips taken from TV, film and the internet, which I cut up into a script and then mimed to camera. Feed Me was the first film I wrote a properlength script for. I wanted more control over the structure and where the narrative was going, but trying to maintain the odd feeling you get from the channel-changing structure when you cut audio together from different sources.

Is it an intense experience to both direct and act in your films?  The film shoots are usually only about four to five days but they’re pretty intense, and I usually get very little sleep. There is something odd that happens when you wear a costume – you become the character. It’s much easier to behave in the way the character looks. A part of it feels natural the minute you’re in costume.

What is it about Glasgow that makes you want to live and work there, over, say, London, Berlin or New York?  First of all, there is a good community of artists, and it’s cheap. Also, at the moment, quite a lot of people are moving here. Scotland generally is good at supporting artists straight out of college. I was lucky to get a lot of opportunities to just try stuff out and show in artist-run galleries. You can get through your career for quite a long time without necessarily [showing in] a commercial gallery or seeing your work as something that needs to be sold.

You studied in Boston for a time. How did you find it? It was the first time I had lived outside the UK for a significant amount of time, and it was fascinating being exposed to American culture. There were things that I didn’t really expect to be different that were. When you do a group critique session in Scotland, you underplay everything. If you said “I made this work and I think it’s great” people would think you’re a dick. It’s all about modesty. Whereas in America, first of all you say how great what you’ve done is, and then work from there, which I hadn’t experienced before – the ability to be publicly confident, which is harder to get away with in Scotland.

Do you think that has had an impact on your practice?  Maybe, although I think I’m still stuck with that quite Scottish way of not being too positive. 

© Freire Barnes

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Bon

Monday, 23 January 2017

Sam McKnight Video Interview | Culture Trip

I spoke with international hairstylist, Sam McKnight at his Somerset House exhibition, Hair about working with Vogue, styling Princes Diana's hair and why the 70s were the most stylish decade.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Joanna Vasconcelos Interview | Baku

Read my interview with Portuguese artist Joanna Vasconcelos for Baku Winter 2015/2016 issue here.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Susan Hiller Interview | Time Out

Portrait: © Freire Barnes

I had the pleasure of visiting the influential American artist, Susan Hiller in her North London studio to talk about her first show at Lisson Gallery. Read the full interview here.

The show is an overview of your career but it shouldn’t be referred to as a retrospective?

‘It’s not a retrospective. There is a difference to being retrospective and looking back and a retrospective, which traditionally takes a form of chronological presentation of work to show development or lack of it. The reason I don’t think of it as a retrospective is things have been juxtaposed for reasons other than chronology.’

You originally studied anthropology. How and why did you become an artist?
‘I always wanted to be an artist, but by the time I was a teenager I became aware there were no women artists: none. Later, when I discovered some, they were always denigrated:“She’s the wife of so and so”. So unconsciously I was separated from my ambition to be an artist. At secondary school I found a little booklet called “Anthropology as a career for women” by Margaret Mead. Honestly no one had ever expressed anything interesting as a career to me as a woman. You could be a secretary, a teacher but an anthropologist? I didn’t even know what that was, it was so exotic and interesting. Then I went to a very prestigious and academic New England women’s college. They didn’t teach anthropology, but they had a very good art department. American universities don’t produce specialists, so I took a variety of subjects. I got out of college with this very broad background and no sense of vocation, so I went to New York for a year and took courses in life drawing, film and photography as well as anthropology courses in linguistics and archaeology. Because of this deeply internalised sense that as a woman I could not be an artist I went to postgraduate university and did anthropology. It was during a lecture I was giving on African art that I thought: this is ridiculous. I am not going to be an anthropologist. What can I say? It took me a long time.’

Initially you started to paint?
‘Yes. I had a couple of exhibitions but at the same time I was also interested in working in a different way which was with groups of people to do performative experiments, I suppose. I did pieces like dream mapping and street ceremonies, which were a subversive kind of performance because they didn’t have an audience, they only had participants. Then at a certain point I saw there was a dualism between art and anthropology, a dualism between the painting practice and the time-based practice and so I developed installations as a reconciliation of those two poles.’

Monday, 12 October 2015

Patrik Staff Interview | Bon Magazine

Patrick Staff is the poster boy for an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) generation that will not conform to or be confined by stereotypes. Splitting his time between London and Los Angeles, the twenty-seven year old artist’s interdisciplinary practice questions the categorisations of marginalised groups by an austere political system. Yet behind all the hype and the heavy sub text, you’ll find Staff mining labour politics, the queer body, social attitudes and how counter-cultures are shaped with the most effervescent attitude. Goldsmiths educated and shrewdly knowledgeable in everything from contemporary dance to Crip theory (about how bodies, pleasures, and identities are represented in relation to disability and queerness), Staff isn’t just another pretty art boy.
We meet in London’s east end, ironically at the Proud Archivist to talk about ‘The Foundation’, Staff’s most ambitious and complex work to date. Currently kipping in Dalston after being acrimoniously evicted from his studio due to London’s encroaching gentrification, Staff exudes the Californian calm of his new home town against the hubbub of Haggerston Riviera: ‘When you’re an artist in London you make sacrifices for the dialogue and the sparkiness. LA for me is queerer, it’s easier, and the quality of life is better. You chill a lot more.’

With Staff strategically positioning his practice, it was only a matter of time before influential curators and non-profit gallery directors would come calling. Staff has subsequently fostered productive working relationships with the likes of Catherine Wood (Contemporary art and performance curator, Tate) who included his multi-dimensional work ‘Chewing Gum for the Social Body’ in Tate Modern’s 2012 Tanks series ‘Art in Action’. While Emily Pethick (Director, The Showroom) showcased ‘Scaffold See Scaffold’ a workshop led project that foregrounded the body as the vehicle to construct diverse identities. And then there’s Polly Staple (Director, Chisenhale) who recently co-commissioned and exhibited ‘The Foundation’ which has firmly cemented Staff’s rising stardom.

Shown within a darkened gallery that is only illuminated by a film projection, ‘The Foundation’ is an immersive and multifaceted installation. Insulation material is strewn across the floor, rolled in some areas to create potential seating. A rigging of scaff-like poles creates a support for the projection screen. These industrious materials are echoed in the film sequences of choreographed scenes between Staff and an older actor set within a minimally constructed set. And then there is the footage shot, sometimes on Staff’s iPhone, at the late Tom of Finland’s former home in LA. But this isn’t your regular artist’s home preserved for weekend tourism, it has become a dedicated foundation to the Finnish artist’s (aka Touko Laaksonen) homoerotic art where a gay commune live, work and play. Tight-framed interior shots of the house are interspersed with convivial clips of Bears hanging out. The bathroom is surveyed with the sink, some soap, an obligatory gay Grecian statue and a giant dildo. Domestic rooms have been converted into makeshift offices where correspondence is taking place. At one point someone, wearing archival gloves, opens the drawers of a plan chest to reveal the abundance of Tom’s creativity. Drawing after drawing of his archetypal buff, overtly male characters in lewd, explicit acts are pulled out.

The film draws on all of Staff’s prior experiences of working with minority groups and using bodily gestures as a form of expression. Most importantly this is not a documentary about Tom and the foundation. His legacy and diligent followers is merely a prism through which Staff is able to contemplate gender identity and queer intergenerational relationships. It also offers him the chance to work within the parameters of an exhibition and within a gallery context.

You might expect Staff to rest on his laurels whilst ‘The Foundation’ travels to the other commissioning sites: Spike Island, Bristol; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; and Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver: ‘In some way I guess I could put my feet up and let it tour until the end of 2016. But I think like lots of artists my self worth is slightly at its peak in the middle of a project.’ So he’s already planning his next collaborative project that explores the hormonal properties of plants.

Why do you think people are starting to take notice of you?
‘I guess I wandered into the Tom of Finland zeitgeist, his work is having this renaissance and people are excited which is funny because my work isn’t really about Tom of Finland.’

So how did making ‘The Foundation’ come about?

‘When I was in LA for a small exhibition in 2012, a friend said I should visit the Tom of Finland foundation and check out the archive because I was making works about collectives and alternative living. I went because it seemed anachronistic that the foundation was in LA are not in Finland.’

Were you a fan of his work?
‘I knew it although it's not one of my references. I totally thought it would be a regular archive; white gloves, a receptionist, you need an appointment. Actually it was when I turned up that I realised it was this crazy three-storey house where you couldn’t tell who was living there and who was working there. This guy welcomed me at the gates and asked if I wanted some ice tea because “It's really hot.” I was given a tour of the house, and the kitchens and bedrooms were given as much importance as the archive. I was shown the dungeon with all its chains, slings and harnesses.’

Was that Tom’s dungeon?
‘It’s the house’s dungeon and the garden has shackles in it. The house has a urinal that when you piss in it, it runs out to a shower in the garden, which they had rigged up themselves. They were like: “The urinal isn’t working right now but we’ll fix it soon.”’

So did you have an idea of what you wanted to make?
‘It was only really once I began working away from the foundation that I began to understand what I wanted to get out of it. It’s a complete artwork in itself. I was interested in the history of Bob Miezer and Robert Mapplethorpe pushing to legitimise Tom’s work and how that relates to my practice and what responsibility I have to these historical materials. Also how the house started as a commune and at some point formalised itself into an organisation and what it entails when the commune members convert to employees. That was the stuff that got me hooked and got me really like: “Fuck I need to work with these guys somehow.” ‘

‘The Foundation’ might not be about Tom but it really emphasises a queer legacy; both his and more generally.
‘Tom was a very real person to the guys at the foundation, yet to me and to many others, Tom is just this spectre that is never quite there. That's where this intergenerational thing gets really complicated. Prior to the project I had been having conversations with older gay male artists who had been belabouring this idea: “Well you need to carry the torch, you have an obligation to our generation. Men of my age all died. You need to carry on the legacy.” Within the queer community we talk a lot about our chosen family with many people getting pushed out of the normal familial structures, we start to reconstitute things and establish a family that exists in its own way. So I have really been dealing with this and asking myself: “If I am a child of this older generation what responsibility do I have?”’

And do you feel responsible?
‘I've always really taken pride in the fact that my community is diverse, it’s sexually and gender diverse, there’s a range of sexualities, races and ages. Yet any community is dealing with how do we look after ourselves. Do we shut the gates and preserve what we have and protect ourselves from the outside world? And how do we remain open and how do we change? That seemed like a really underlying question at the foundation.’

So what did you want to achieve in the choreographed scenes with the actor?
‘The guy that I cast is totally familiar with the world of Tom of Finland, he's a real ‘top daddy’ type and he carries that in his body. I wanted to look at how the archive played out through gesture and the way that the body moves? How does that information and knowledge circulate through the materials in the archive, to the space itself and to the bodies that inhabit it? That sort of plays out through lots of different projects I've done but it comes most to a head in this work.’

How have people responded to ‘The Foundation’?
‘It really varies between who watches it, amongst my peers people respond to the gender politics. There are certain other ephemeral elements to the work that people have responded to a lot. The clouds at the end get a really mixed and strong response. I’ve been surprised and amazed by how complex a reading it gets. The guys at the foundation got the most poetic and questioning about.’

Why is collaborating so important?
‘Originally it was a reaction to leaving Goldsmiths and suddenly being out in the art world. It was about being rebellious. It’s a lot more acceptable now, but then it wasn't the thing to do; authorship was golden and agency was key. I think it was also a certain reaction to feeling as if I had to produce a commodity even though I've never really dealt with the commercial art world. The first serious video work I made was with fifteen other people and I would doggedly argue that the work existed as raw footage on everyone’s own hard drives; the edit I might show is just one edit of many others. Stuart Comer, when he was at Tate Modern, asked me: “How do expect an archive or museum to be able to contain this work if it's spread between fifteen different people?” and I thought, “Huh, that’s the institution’s problem.” I’m not going to tow the line in that way.’

Collective authorship factors in many of your works. You worked with Olivia Plender on ‘Life in the Woods’ that took you around the UK devising strategies for alternative living.
‘Olivia and I were both really interested in reinvigorating people’s interest in intentional communities and back to the land way of living particularly post financial crisis. This was combined with an interest in queerness and queer paganism and various environmental ideas: rambling, the implications of trespassing on land, what's the history of the commons and how does that affect how we see public space, new forms of activism and a queer identity that is constituted outside of cities. We spent a year travelling around the country meeting crazy people and different communities. It was trying to figure out how we live now, how our identity and subjectivity is constructed.’

There are multiple levels to you work. There’s the research, the active engagement, the performative aspect, the documentation. How much do you consider all of those things?
‘It’s really changed the longer I've worked and varies from project to project and with the group of people that I work with. I used to be interested in the set of conditions that led to the production of the work. Then I started to really feel the limitations of that. What originally felt pertinent and liberating – what really matters is what’s happening in this room right now and something will come out of it but let's not think about it – shifted. I guess now I want to do something a little bit more expansive.’

Is that why you work in a variety of formats including choreography and dance, because that allows elasticity?
‘I think I get most drawn to the mediums that you can inherently push the limits with. For me I get the most tension out of choreography and dance and a certain amount of film and video.’

You reference the choreographic work of Siobhan Davies and Rudolf Laban but there is also a feel of Yvonne Rainer?
‘Yes completely, I think of Yvonne pushing mattresses in her ‘Parts of Some Sextets’ in relation to the installation of ‘The Foundation’. Steve Paxton is also really big for me in how he developed contact improvisation and just let this choreography travel out into the world. It's viral and rhizomatic. That relates to how I approach workshop methodologies. Post-modern dance is totally important to me. I think choreographically although dancers I work with are like: “You don't know anything.” But then I'm like: “You guys know fuck all about art!” But then I’m a punk and an anarchist and I don't need to know anything.’

Malleability is a word that is used a lot in relation to your work
‘For me it’s powerful to make everything malleable and to keep massaging a set of conditions until you can reformulate them, which is not to say that is always easy. It all comes back to that question of strength, this current government asks nothing more than for us to be infinitely flexible, and so does inflexibility become more powerful? Or does inflexibility render you a non-citizen? How can you be flexible without being manipulated? I don’t really know I just keep poking at thee questions from multiple points.’

I wanted to ask about the quote on your website: Every cocksucker is well aware that he same man who out on his badge to arrest him probably gets his blowjobs at a different truck stop.
‘It’s a Patrick Califia quote, who is a queer writer. I suppose it’s a little petulant, an antiauthoritarian thing and a little bit of… [Staff finds it hard to put into words]. I still get people that want to be able to Google me and to get a very concise summing up of what I do blah, blah, blah. And there is still a part of me that is resistant to that.  I’m not a brand, my work is not instantly recognisable and there is a little bit of me that is: “Come and fucking deal with it. Come and talk to me. Turn up and be in the room.” The quote is a good way of dealing with the art world.’ 

© Freire Barnes

Originally published inAutumn/Winter 2015 issue of Bon

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Judy Chicago Interview | Time Out

I spoke with one of America’s most important, prolific and pioneering artists, Judy Chicago at her studio in Sante Fe. As charismatically outspoken now as she was in the 1960s, she told me about her show at Riflemaker, her inclusion in ‘The World Goes Pop’ at Tate Modern that feature her famous spray-painted car bonnets, what it means to be a woman artist and why she changed her name.

Read the interview on Time Out London here.

Image: © Donald Woodman

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Carsten Holler | Time Out

I took to the skies over the Southbank all in the name of art for Carsten Höller's exhibition 'Decision' at Hayward Gallery. 

Carsten Höller’s art requires you to use your hands quite a lot. Whether it’s finding your way through pitch-black metal corridors from the entrance to the lower gallery; gripping on to the handrail of a flying machine that soars over Waterloo Bridge; attempting to get inside a giant die; taking a red and white pill that may or may not be a placebo or getting yourself in position before you whoosh down a slide upon exiting the show.  

You can read my full review at Time Out London.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Magnificent Obsessions video tour at The Barbican | Time Out

I met up with Lydia Yee, curator of the Barbican's 2015 spring blockbuster 'Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector' along with some of the exhibiting artists to talk about the intriguing collections on display.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Publication | Catlin Guide 2015

For The Catlin Guide 2015 I interviewed the award's curator Justin Hammond about the process and legacy of this essential annual guide and exhibition.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Marina Abramović Interview | Time Out

I caught up with the doyenne of performance art, Marina Abramović to talk about her Serpentine Gallery show, '512 Hours'. Apparently the New York-based artist will be doing nothing, but as we know from her celebrated MoMA show, 'The Artist is Present', the nothing principal of her work will be the most extraordinary experience you'll encounter in a gallery. 

In 2010, visitors to New York's Museum of Modern Art were confronted by a woman sitting on a chair, behind a simple wooden table. Facing her was a similar, empty chair. People came and sat in the chair, shared some moments of silence with the woman, and then moved on. Day after day she sat there, for 736 hours and 30 minutes in total: no breaks, no trips to the loo, no movement, no words.

This was Marina Abramović's 'The Artist Is Present'. It was a milestone piece, characteristically both confrontational and cerebral, confirming the Belgrade-born iconoclast as not only the queen of performance art, but also as one of the most exciting artists in the world.

Now 67, Abramović has been putting extreme performance into galleries for the last 40 years. She's been stripped, had a loaded gun and a crossbow pointed at her, taken dangerously powerful medical drugs, deprived herself of oxygen, nearly died. She's also inspired Jay Z, who was so taken by 'The Artist Is Present' he made his own (rather briefer) version: a six-hour gallery performance of his song 'Picasso Baby'.

Now Abramović is coming to London to stage another gruelling artistic event at the Serpentine Gallery. Typically for an artist who puts risk at the heart of her work, she has no idea what it's going to be yet. But if anyone can pull off a 512-hour show about 'nothing', it's her.

Are you nervous about performing in London?
‘Unbelievably so, because you are not an easy audience. You have a great sense of humour and are sarcastic. You want to be entertained and you get easily bored. It’s hell, but I wanted to see how I could get you on my side.’ 

What is the thinking behind '512 Hours'? 

'Recently I discovered an old TV interview from 1989 when I was asked what art in the twenty-first century would be like. I said: "Art without objects that would directly use energy." Now, 25 years later, I finally have the courage to do it. For "The Artist Is Present", I had two chairs and a table and [during the run] I removed the table. Now I'm removing the chairs. I'm trying to see if it's possible to remove structure and instructions and create things out of pure energy.' 

To read more about Abramović's love of chocolate, training Lady Gaga and not having a personal life, read the full interview on Time Out London

Image: Marina Abramović, photograph © 2014 by Marco Anelli

Friday, 16 May 2014

Richard Jackson Interview | Time Out

I spoke to the American artist about bobble heads, bodily fluids and getting cuckoo whilst setting up his show, 'New Paintings' at Hauser & Wirth

Over the past four decades, the Los Angeles-based artist has been exploring the boundaries of painting. From smearing wet canvases directly across the gallery wall to activating his painting machines that take on different sculptural forms and spray paint from various orifices. For his London show at Hauser & Wirth, the 74-year-old maverick painter makes a splash with works like 'Pain-t' (2012) - a row of boys bent over that fired paint from their bottoms into the gallery.

You're not a typical painter, what can we expect of the show?
'It's an experience; it's evidence of an action of a performance. I always see it as entertainment.'

There's a lot of humour in your work.
'I have a good sense of humour. Why not take advantage of it? I think it's pretty funny how the art business is taken way too seriously.'

There are lots of different kinds of works in the show, where did the idea for a bobble head version of yourself come from?
'They're usually of sports figures and there's a whole community who collect them. I went to a Los Angeles Dodgers game and they gave away a bobble head of Sandy Koufax, a famous Dodger in the 1960s. So I thought it would be cool to make a giant bobble head of myself.'

Your painting machines use paint like bodily fluids. Are you being purposefully suggestive?
'No I don't mean it to be insulting or provocative. I don't care about political correctness. But to be honest the bodily fluids thing is probably overdone.'

Why can't we view the painting machines in action?
'Because it would give the viewer too much information, then they don't have to use their imagination. I'm trying to provoke their thinking.'

Your work constantly questions painting. Do you think it's still relevant in this internet age?
'I think painting doesn't relate so well to what's going on. It's basically married to old materials and old tradition. It's overdue to change. Painting is really liquidity; it's the market's cash. And until somebody challenges that idea, it's going to go on for ever and just be boring.'

You're definitely challenging it.
'I'm challenging it but I don't expect it to change. I'm trying to change the way people think about painting and how they relate to it and how painting can occupy a space and be there temporarily.'

Is there an artwork you dream of making?
'Yeah, I want to make an upside-down and inside-out cuckoo clock. It would look like a log cabin and when you went inside there would be a bar with people drinking - getting cuckoo, and on the hour all these animals would come out.'

Read the interview on Time Out London.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Publication | Prologue

To accompany London-based design duo Fredriksson Stallard's monumental sculpture 'Prologue', which was installed at PMQ during Art Basel Hong Kong 2014, I wrote about the inspiration behind the Swarovski commission for the limited edition publication. Read the text in full here

Monday, 21 April 2014

Idris Khan | Zurich Opera Magazine


I was commissioned by the Zurich Opera House to write about the London-based artist, Idris Khan in relation to his set design for Wayne McGregor's new ballet, 'Notations'. 

Floating Notes 
There’s black and then there’s black through the eyes of the London-based artist Idris Khan. It takes on a translucent, silky and luminous quality with incredible depth. The 36-year-old has always made work in a predominantly monochromatic palette, so his photographs, paintings, sculptures and wall drawings blur the distinction between light and dark, history and present, rendered and erased. 

The Royal College of Art graduate layers varied information in different media. His photographic composites have condensed every page of the Quran into a 136 x 170 cm digital print; transformed the eminent psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud’s seminal text on the uncanny into an eerie mass of words and combined Bernd and Hilla Becher’s extensive series of industrial machinery into ghostly apparitions. 

Khan's technique of overlaying appropriated imagery and text is certainly at it's most poetic with his photographs of complete works by composers. Pieces such as ‘Struggling to Hear…After Ludwig van Beethoven Sonatas’ from 2005 capture the cacophony of sound or the lack thereof for Beethoven with distilled poignance. It was works such as this that caught Wayne McGregor's attention. And it seems to only have been a matter of time before the right collaboration would require Khan's visual language: 'I think his choreography is really complex and he saw a relationship between my way of thinking about layering and got in touch.'

Following in the footsteps of Picasso and David Hockney, this will be Khan's first set design, which one might expect to be a daunting undertaking when your natural habitat is the confines of a gallery: 'The context has completely changed so you have to think about the dancers, the lighting and their interaction with the art. One thing that really struck me straight away was when are you going to get the chance where an audience is going to sit and look at one of your pieces for forty minutes. So for me it was all about how the audience responds to looking at something for that length of time. I don’t think you really think about that when you’re creating work for a gallery.' Rising to the challenge, he's effortlessly translated his artistic practice into an immersive design that eloquently marries the sublime fluidity of McGregor’s choreography crossed with the serene tones from Richter splicing of Vivaldi’s 'Four Season'.

This is the first time Khan has ever created one of his music pieces using an arrangement by the Baroque composer: 'I always used music that has influenced my life in some way, whether it’s my mother’s favourite pieces or something that's educated me. It made complete sense to create a music piece because of the nature of what Max did to the Four Seasons. When I listen to that piece of music it’s all about stripping it down and keeping something familiar and then creating something new and that’s exactly what appropriation is.' And Richter's composition of disarranged notes comes alive in Khan's large gauze screens printed with superimposed sheets of Vivaldi's complete work. 

Every note is seized in a state of limbo. They're caught between lines, squeezed between other notes, gripping each other and sandwiched together. What is once claustrophobic is also a release from conformity as notes meld into one another, inadvertently posing as another. They're captured together in a single moment that will last the duration of the performance. There is no beginning or end, just now. There is no order, only chaotic exaltation.

This intense compression of information is balanced by the contemplative element of the entire design that echoes Vivaldi’s priestly background. Accompanying the notes will be a sculptural structure that has certainly  been informed by the physicality of Richard Serra’s large-scale steel sculptures along with Sol Le Witt's obsessively drawn formations: 'I wanted it to look almost like a sketch on the stage in the middle of this black field and you'll only see the curve when the light hits it. I’ve used the same process as I do for my paintings with layers of gesso, which is made with rabbit skin glue, black pigments and slate dust and then it’s sanded back and sanded back so it creates this incredible marble finish. What I love about gesso is the way is absorbs light, it really sucks it in.'

But the curved form isn't just inspired by Khan's artistic background, it also mirrors the performance's context of dancers interacting and responding to music. It'll sweep down the stage like a bass clef, emulating the arced movements of the dancers as well as providing a constraint to their presence on stage, a boundary to which they must adhere. By restricting the space on stage Khan creates a tension for the dancers to reverberate off. But he's also created a realm aided by the lighting design of Lucy Carter where they will literally physically interact with the music: 'I've used transparent gauze so when you light it from the front, the audience will see the music but when lit from the back they'll see the dancers. So at any one given point the dancers are immersed in the musical notation, becoming part of the music, becoming notes.' 

In the same way that McGregor will build phrases with his ten dancers and Richter has rephrased the notes of 'Four Seasons', Khan has created a design that echoes these abstract interpretations to create a new orchestration: 'At any one point I'm jumping over phrases and putting them back on top of each other, almost creating my own symphony.'