Interviews with Artists

Chris Thompson

Interview by David McLeavy


Published in April 2021


Your work encourages a conversation between the comedic and the critical, the absurd and the abhorrent. An example would be the play between these themes evident in your recent exhibition Instrument at Thames Side Studios Gallery where you play off a storyline from an episode of The Simpsons, the collecting economy of the museum gift shop and the destructive accumulation culture spread through global neoliberalism. I am interested to know why it's important to work through subjects like this with a sense of humour?

This was both a great place to start and a very hard question to answer satisfactorily because there’s so many dimensions as to why.

Humour is so heavily weaponised in most of its varieties, dark, cynical, absurd, earnest etc as a processing device, a distiller and a tool for witnessing both culture and history. That’s a ubiquitous habit in meme culture (Which is where the idea of using The Simpsons came from) where sharp critique can be delivered through the hollowing out of something and replacing it with, at the very least, a dry joke. I would say it is also a very generational response to navigating the gaping holes between the world we want and the one we have. In that sense I’m not sure it’s something I’ve chosen but something I’ve absorbed or inherited from the structures that have produced me. In fact, humour approaching absurdism seems common in a lot of young artists work. (I’ll be 30 this year...)

My work is basically collection and collage. I find myself attracted to things because of the contradictions they seem to infer or embody, I think this just tends to be funny. There is something fundamentally funny about an ‘eco-friendly’ way of processing rubber tyres for mass burial just as there is something funny about a Mayfair gallery covering the air vents in gaffer tape because they can’t figure out the controls, both are in my camera roll. I’m attracted to playing these things out and building bridges between things, I think humour affords me a certain level of suspension of disbelief from my audience (if I have one) and as a starting point, trying to make myself laugh seems a good way to gauge the quality of what I’m doing. Given these things it’s hard for the work to escape humour.

I suppose the most pertinent answer however is that I’m not entirely sure of what other methodology I could actually be convinced of, particularly with the sort of subject matter of my last show, or anything else dealing with the world we exist in. In 2020 we saw the already shambolic structures of our society and government completely and utterly fail to deal successfully with a humanitarian and economic crisis that left all our lives completely changed overnight. Like a lot of people there wasn’t much for me to do except stay at home and be horribly frustrated as I bore witness to the failures, the absurdities and the gaping holes in support systems and in logic, to take it as a dark joke seemed the only response.

The odd thing about this was that it did offer a sort of permission to just approach the show I had to make during the bizarre spring and summer however I damn well felt and to whatever extent I felt, after a lot of wrangling earlier in the year. Really what I was doing was finding some catharsis through the construction of the joke, and also acknowledging my powerlessness to do anything else. I just don’t think a dry approach would have chimed anywhere near as well, as a method of witnessing.

Installation view. Instrument, at Thames-Side Studios Gallery, 2020. Image by Reinis Lismanis

I am not sure if it relates to what you're saying, but I often think about the difference in 'humour' and what is 'funny', almost as if humour itself can be implied and more subtle, but for something to be funny, then maybe it needs someone else to validate it as so.

I suppose, why I am mentioning this is that your work for me doesn't feel 'laugh out loud' funny, and I mean that as a compliment, but instead it works on a level of humour that is awkward in some way, as if you are being shown something that illustrates the 'gaping holes' that you talk about, but not in a dry or didactic way, but in a more direct and puncturing tone.

I want to ask more about the way that you play with scale in your work. The large silver piece, that looks to be imitating an industrial shredder, that sits at the entrance of your exhibition at Thames-Side Studios, looks to play on a pop-like aesthetic, and it's enlarged scale allows the work to be both threatening and playful simultaneously.

Could you talk about this a little more and how scale and maybe even placement factors into your approach?

It’s an interesting distinction you make, and I’m very glad that it doesn’t come across as didactic! I think you’re describing humour as a constructive behaviour and I really relate to that in terms of how it’s being used in the show (though I have to admit to finding my own jokes laugh out loud funny). The show isn’t really asking you to laugh so much as it’s asking for you to understand and perhaps be dumbfounded by the joke.

Speaking of construction and moving onto your question of scale, fundamentally I understand it as being a question of how do you want to position your audience. By this I mean both in relationship to the thing itself, but also within the space, wherein it finds its resolution. A gigantic open space like Thames-Side Studios’ Gallery really forces a lot of pragmatic thinking, that in many ways really limits the set of decisions you can realistically enact.

I aim for my shows to function as both a cohesive ‘event’ along the lines of an installation but also as an experience that breaks down into individual moments, independent of one other for its audience. I made The Simpsons paintings gigantic because I figured I both wanted that theme to dominate the show and make the most the space available to me (also helped by the musical number playing on loop) but also because I needed to hide works from you as you entered so that they could be slowly revealed.

The Shredder work (based off of real machines that can shred motorbikes in seconds) is both the size it is and possesses the level of articulation that is does, because as you say, it needed to operate as both threat and comedic prop, flipping from one to the other as you move into the exhibition space from outside, where it looked perfectly at home with the industrial equipment situated right next to the gallery.

The tiny scale of the magnets and the subtly of the tool markings on the bone like fragment pieces were really exciting to play with in a space this vast because they can be used to exploit your curiosity (or bad eyesight) to draw you around the space. The shifting register of big to small (which sits alongside one another, shifts between the comedic and the violent, and from loud to quiet) keeps you on your toes as a viewer whilst you navigate the show, and helps it to be a slower burning experience, as well as a big giant theatrical one. I wanted a show that kept you circulating around it, and as it curatorially mirrors itself, I hoped you might as a viewer start to feel like you were being processed and recycled, as well. It’s really about trying to offer a layered and dynamic experience.

Untitled, mdf, jesmonite, polyurethane. Detail. Part of Instrument, at Thames-Side Studios Gallery, 2020. Image by Reinis Lismanis

It seems like you are trying to navigate the viewer in some way, almost guiding them round the space in a very systematic way by using the scale and placement of the works almost as signs or directions.

How then do you account for occasions where people take their own route, or step outside of what you are trying to compose in some way?

I suppose this hints at a broader question of how you account for audiences in general, and the reality that each viewer will bring a varying scale of referential knowledge to the work. Some may have an association to some of the works or objects being presented (such as the industrial shredder, which I knew about from getting in a strange YouTube hole a month or so back, and watching usually robust household objects being ripped apart) and some may not recognise these visual clues and points of reference, even if they are considered to be pop culture.

I suppose as a follow up question to the one above, how do you account for this range of perspectives?

You’re right, I am a control freak! (and a big fan of YouTube holes).

In an earlier plan for the show the route through was extremely structured with ‘rooms’ and everything in this very guided tour/ museum trip sort of way, but I abandoned it in part because it was unresolvable curatorially and because I was just making too specific a demand on an audience. In the end the show you get has two routes to go around, you can walk right, or you can walk left around the giant banner and you get confronted with broadly similar macroscopic experiences.

I guess exhibition building or work as an artist in general is about working through your research and passions and presenting it to an audience to engage with, but unlike actual socio-cultural research the outcomes aren’t meant to be so clear, I’m also looking for a range of perspectives and takes on the work. I guess I would say as much as I’m trying to set up quite specific kinds of engagements. I really am looking to be surprised by what people come at me with. It is a reciprocal exchange (or at least works better if it is), being dictatorial about it is possibly the least interesting approach. 

I owe it to the work to make sure it has a life outside of me, and isn’t defined by what I make of it exactly, though obviously I don’t want the gap between what I intend and what results to be too gigantic, at the same time.  A really enjoyable part of the experience of showing was hearing these perspectives, because you really do miss stuff when you’re working through a very specific take of what this thing is or what this thing does (a possible problem of mine) for instance, the feeling of the Knights being like insect carcasses, or the real sense of nostalgia that comes from the 90’s Simpsons reference. The amount of people who said they had really specific memories of watching it on Channel 4 after school was great, and very much something I hadn’t accounted for.

The detail you might want or need about the works is in the text as a reference should you want it, but my hope really was to provide something that worked without it that operated on several levels and could tolerate whatever people wanted to bring to it (within reason…).  

Sprinkles!, jesmonite, sprinkles. Part of Instrument, at Thames-Side Studios Gallery, 2020. Image by Reinis Lismanis

I'd like to know a little more about how you work in the studio.

Some of your work seems to be meticulously designed and configured in a very deliberate way, whilst others seem to be more light touch , as if they are produced in a more experimental and material focused manner, perhaps only coming to their final form during their installation.

Is this an accurate assumption of how the works are made and could you give an insight into your studio practice?

You’re quite accurate.

I had a tutorial just before the pandemic struck (in person and everything!) where I was told some artists are great in the studio and terrible in shows, and that generally the habits that people ignore in the studio should be in the work.

That struck a chord with me because it seemed like most of what I was doing in there was taking apart all the infrastructure I’d put in and then putting it all back together again, as some way of dissipating a frustrated energy (or just to procrastinate). Maybe you can now start to see that in the work (my show being a follow on) now that I’ve basically ripped it all out so that there’s nothing for me to fuss over.

I studied painting at BA and I think there’s a certain model of how to function in a studio as a young artist that you inherit from that, which involves going to a room and working out a problem on a surface in front of you (a huge generalisation I’m aware) and finding a destination later. I moved into a more sculptural practice because I was too interested in the ‘thingliness’ of the work, but also because that model started to feel a bit hermetic. A lot of the work I seemed to like at the time was obviously produced upon invitation to show which was how it could be so gigantic, or specific or layered in the context of the space and I wanted that for my work, which was how I got into curating so that I had the opportunities to make that sort of work.

That upended me for a little while because it disturbed the logic of what work in the studio is ‘for’ but eventually it worked itself out, and now it shifts between being a site for exploration, testing, researching and material engagement that I’m constantly trying to not burden with the idea of a ‘result’, and a site for the fabrication of ‘designed’ works or projects that could only exist because of something external to the space that has forced an idea to take a definitive shape.

Untitled, jesmonite. Part of Instrument, at Thames-Side Studios Gallery, 2020. Image by Reinis Lismanis

You just touched upon your curatorial practice, and I am interested to know more about that facet of your work.

Could you expand a little on how you came to be interested in taking on the role of curator, and how working with other artists in that capacity sits alongside your individual artistic endeavors?

Well I started curating really because I just realised I had to take responsibility for the work that went beyond just making it and I also felt extremely isolated, compounded by working nights at the theatre. I was bored of waiting for opportunities and I felt like I both owed it to the work to find it an outlet, but also, I felt my growth as an artist just really depended on exhibiting; things aren’t just made to never be seen.

I guess that comes back to this sense of what is your value. I feel like choosing to become a professional artist as opposed to just making for pleasure involves this belief that you have something to contribute, and an expectation that people will be interested, which of course you just don’t have when you’re young and it takes time for the work to catch up and be what it needs to be to deserve the audience you think it does (this is still an ongoing process by the way…). We exist in a community and if you want interest I think you have to first give it, so I decided that maybe it was better to socialise my ideas and self-organise and see who was interested.

That form of practice really helped me to develop some objectivity to see what my work was and wasn’t through this specific sort of way of interacting with artwork that I think only really happens through curation. Seeing the generic quality of the work I was making when I first started curating helped me to realise that my work needed idiosyncrasy if it was ever going to stand out (and go places) like the work I really enjoyed at the time, and still do. It also really helped me to understand what work I liked and I think that helped me to understand the context I wanted my work to live in, and perhaps it offered me an outlet for ideas to take a written format that unburdened the work from potentially didactic outcomes.

Curation really is a process by which you learn what your biases are. It was pretty obvious that I enjoyed things that consciously quote craft as a processing tool. I was obvious I had a specific sort of way of thinking how to set up a show, and set up certain types of encounters between thing and person. I decided to just focus on the studio work for a while to play out and challenge these observations before I got back to curation. The MFA at Goldsmiths has taken up some of the time and energy I would have had for curation otherwise, but I’m about to start getting back into it. I’ll be working alongside some peers to facilitate some experimental shows without the pressure of a typical opening and public facing show, somewhat rendered redundant due to COVID restrictions.

As an activity I think it just scratches certain itches like organising and planning and lets me explore other people’s ideas and research which obviously feeds back into my own, one way or another.

Plan B, tyre bale. Installation view. Part of Instrument, at Thames-Side Studios Gallery, 2020. Image by Reinis Lismanis

So you mentioned some plans moving forward to work with some peers on more curatorially focused work.

What other plans do you have on the horizon? I guess to put it in simple terms, what's next?

Great question.

Part of why I undertook my MFA was because I had a sense of the kind of practice I wanted to run but wasn’t entirely sure how to get it going.  What I’ve realised in the last year (thanks to the MFA) was that what I was missing was a structure or methodology to function through. I think Instrument as a show is the first I’ve done that successfully allowed me to generate content where there is a resolution between what things are and what they do, as opposed to just applying subjects to objects and hoping they stick. Importantly this happens to also just be a process of foregrounding my instincts.

It’s raised a few questions for me however, like what am I actually committed to in terms of subject matter, and what kind of relationship do I want to have towards my own labour. Basically, after a period of rest and reflection I just want to play these questions out in the studio, starting off with picking up and playing around with all the stuff I cut out of this show. I’ve turned my studio into a little project space so that I can experiment with how things bump into one another. I’m trying to explore empathy and violence in relation to play, DIY home renovation and collecting culture, whether or not that will actually happen or whether it will just slip into something completely different is an open question, and one I look forward to learning the answer too.

You Can!, tyre bales. Installation view. Part of Instrument, at Thames-Side Studios Gallery, 2020. Image by Reinis Lismanis




If you like this why not read our interview with Jamie Crewe.


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