Interviews with Artists

Ben Yau

Interview by David McLeavy


Published in October 2020


Hi Ben, thanks for taking the time to chat to me about your work.

I wanted to start by trying to pull out some of the themes that I can see existing throughout your work. Ideas of 'disruption' and 'clashing' as well as the notion of the 'contradiction' seem to permeate a lot of the work you have been making over the last couple of years. I wondered if these terms are important to you and why?

Over the past few years my research fascination has centred around certain historical moments that have been incredibly revealing to study, and I think really critical in understanding our present political climate. These moments have been violent: the CIA-backed Chilean coup in 1973 which was the focus of my multimedia project The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free, 2019, or the unrelenting, iron grip of Thatcherism in Britain which was a starting point for my moving image work Proximate Currents, 2020. These moments are flashpoints that have reoriented the social order, shifting the Overton window towards the extreme peripheries of the far-right.

The clashing and disruption you mention are real effects of these flashpoints where many forces meet at a juncture, but they also act as aesthetic handles to use in my visual practice that is heavily appropriation based. This was the formal foundation for Proximate Currents, where moving images flow and collide, like neighbouring torrents cascading into each other.  When selecting these images, and thinking about the varying degrees of friction between them, I consider the various forces that ushered in and characterised Thatcherism as an often-contradictory ideology. The most glaring contradiction being how this supposed champion of individual liberty, the free market, and minimal government intervention consistently responded to dissent in a heavy-handed and authoritarian manner, quashing the freedom of minorities. I gesture towards this contradiction in Proximate Currents, but as Stuart Hall says, it is a different moment from the 70’s, and the contradictions that arise today in the afterlife of Thatcherism are often more pernicious.

The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free, installation view, 2019

When you mention the contradictions evident in Thatcherism, I think of what Stuart Hall describes in his 2011 text The Neoliberal Revolution:

"Ideology is always contradictory. There is no single, integrated 'ruling ideology' - a mistake we repeat again now in failing to distinguish between conservative and neoliberal repertoires (...) Many believed this contradiction would be Thatcherism's undoing. But, though not logical, few strategies are so successful at winning consent as those which root themselves in the contradictory elements of common sense, popular life and consciousness."

There are so many threads to pull from within your work, but to start with, I think it's useful to speak about your work The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free, 2019, as I see it as somewhat of a precursor to your most recent work. You presented declassified documents, newspaper articles, print ads, and archival images and video from the early 70's focused around the CIA backed military coup in Chile, resulting in the unseating of Salvador Allende. Could you talk to me a little more about why this specific historical moment was of interest to you and why you decided to present the work in the way that you did?

Yeah precisely, and I think what Stuart Hall does so astutely in that text is his analysis of some of these processes and mechanisms of neoliberalism as applied in the real world, such as contradiction and revival.

My interest in Chile’s history began with research into the foundational beginnings of neoliberalism, before the Thatcher/Reagan era.  What had happened that set into motion the shift towards austerity, privatisation, deregulation, and the dismantlement of workers’ rights, both in the US and Britain?  I argue that a big part of the answer lies in the dramatic downfall of ‘Chile’s Road to Socialism’ in the early 70’s.  The optics of this downfall would be relentlessly paraded as an example of the dangers of socialist politics to a generation of that era, collapsing the radical imagination that another world can be possible.

The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free, installation view, 2019

The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free is an exercise in re-reading and recuperating this history, using critical government documents that have since been declassified, challenging the notion that Allende’s government had collapsed from the inside. Through these documents, the extent of secret CIA operations in Chile is now known, the scope of which really exceeds the stuff of conspiracy theories. The project collects and arranges some of these declassified documents alongside press images and articles, weaving together the sometimes opposing narratives of covert intelligence and public knowledge at the time. In keeping with this diversity of source materials, I combined different printing methods in their reproduction, mostly sympathetic to the relevant archives I collect from.  I wanted to achieve a lightness of touch, reflecting the sanctity of the archive, which in itself is a problematised construction. I also utilised different ‘planes’ within the framed collages, alternating between placing prints flat inside the frame, raising materials up by adding space and depth, and placing materials on the frame’s glass. This was done to emphasise these parallel narratives that exist on different levels.

The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free, installation view, 2019

The title of the work itself (The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free) imagines a world that could function differently to what we know, which mirrors the aspirations of socialist politics in South America during the 70's, yet remains as a spectre, a ghost, something that never fully materialises.

I am interested to know how you feel about the current political climate, perhaps here in the UK and where you might see similarities and differences between different periods of history, such as the rise of neoliberalism?

Each critical moment since the 70’s has been the result of different circumstances, but I would again summon Stuart Hall, in his interpretation that the current political climate shares with the past some consistent features, “connected in their general thrust and direction of travel.”

I think what has been unfolding is an outcome of generations of alienation in all spheres of public life, while the flows of capital continue to be restructured, widening the gulf along economic, social, and geopolitical lines.  The decimation of working class communities – between Thatcherism and the politics of austerity in the aftermath of 2008 – have left large numbers of people with a justified anger in the dearth of opportunity.  Moreover, the lack of a radical imagination of any alternative has left these frustrations unresolved.  I see Brexit as a point of collision between this enduring sense of alienation, and a small but powerful gentry who deflect from their own exploits by pointing the finger at immigration, refugees, and people of colour.  An age-old trick.  The ease with which these long held prejudices can resurface into public discourse is a testament to Britain’s distinct colonial history. As a nation whose wealth and power were founded on racism and exploitation, it makes sense that notions of territorial conquest and supremacy have a particularly striking appeal to those white Britons who feel left behind.

The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free, installation view, 2019

Yet far from being the end of Britain’s exploits abroad, the fall of the Empire has given way to new forms of imperial relationships that are in many ways more efficient than maintaining colonial territories.  This is a relatively new combination of Britain’s expertise in diplomatic, soft influence, and the hard threat of military dominance, especially as a partner to the United States.  I gesture towards Britain’s unique blend of soft and hard power strategy in my billboard-based work Extractive Model Study, commissioned by Bloc Projects.  

Extractive Model Study, installation view, Bloc Billboard Commission, Bloc Projects, Sheffield, 2020

It was great to work with you on Extractive Model Study for the billboard at Bloc Projects. I want to talk a little more about the visual language of your work, perhaps using the billboard as an example.

You tend to lean towards a more restrained aesthetic, allowing the imagery or found material to take centre stage and to dictate the visual identity of the work, at least in Extractive Model Study and the installation for The Spectre of a World Which Could be Free. Is that an accurate summation and if so why?

Yes it’s that lightness of touch that I am drawn to.  For both of those projects I was interested in working with an analytical aesthetics, borrowing compositional cues from the schematic, diagrammatic, investigative, and archive.  I think that’s why I gravitate towards allowing the materials to guide the visual identity of the work, as you put it.  Sometimes that means using specific printing methods, or perhaps allowing for space and separation within the work, in contrast to conventional notions of collage where different elements are superimposed onto each other.

While making Extractive Model Study, I was aware that the format of the billboard would be something I would need to work with.  This long aspect ratio made me think about large wall-based timelines, as you might see accompanying comprehensive, museological exhibitions for example.  In these timelines, visual materials are anchored along a horizontal line denoting the passage of time.  But rather than placing materials to be read as a linear narrative, Extractive Model Study makes use of a compression of time, by alternating placement of illustrations, such as of a 19th C. British colonial gold mine, alongside images of military demonstrations published as recently as this year.  The original inspiration for the composition as a timeline is quite far detached from the finished work; I wanted to move away from too much of an overbearing or didactic framework.  At the same time, I try to retain subtle, visual cues that might activate a more analytical gaze.  It’s often a balancing act between these things.

The billboard presents a number of very specific challenges, or potentials you could say. Scale and proportions are one thing, but one of the less obvious considerations is that it stands alone, with no accompanying text or interpretation for the majority of its lifespan. When the gallery is open, text is available at the front desk, and you can load up the website for more info, but outside of the hours of 12 - 6 the casual passer by is confronted purely by the image, and the image alone.

How did this play into the way you approached the development of the work and how did you manage that balance between trying not to be too didactic whilst also offering some degree of direction for the viewer.

I generally want my work to be engaging even without points of references provided by a press release.  Not to say that I aim for complete autonomy within the work I make, but that I think a primarily formal interpretation of it is also legitimate.  Since it’s a factor I already consider within my wider practice, the idea of the billboard work standing alone didn’t radically alter the development of Extractive Model Study, but it does of course present itself more towards an interpretation that relies on deductive enquiry.  For this reason I was careful to be selective of the materials and their placement.  As a result, the images of militarised activity and the diagrams depicting machines of extraction can be inferred without supporting text, and their interaction – what might be understood as a ‘third meaning’ – presents as various implied propositions; what are the associations between representations of destruction and extraction; what are the geopolitical and historical contexts of resource mining; who are the beneficiaries and who are the exploited in all of this?




If you like this why not read our interview with Jack Burton


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