Interviews with Artists

Christian Newby

Interview by David McLeavy


Published in May 2021


The drum, the chime, the scrape, the splash, the jerk (installation view), Patricia Fleming Gallery. Photo credit: Keith Hunter.

Your new exhibition at Patricia Fleming in Glasgow is now open and I am interested to explore some of the themes within that show, such as the relationship between "artist, artisan and fabricator and how you think of them as being determined by terminal belief systems in productivity and commodification".

However before we get to that, I want to ask you more about the material you are working with, specifically your approach to carpet tufting. You have been using this technique for at least 4 or 5 years, recalling your exhibition Tetracontameron at Space In Between, London back in 2016.

Could you talk more about how you first started using this technique and what has led you to continue working in this way?

To answer your question from a strictly technical perspective, I use a Dayang electric carpet tufting gun. On a large wooden upright stretcher I stitch wool into a polypropylene backing cloth. The large needle on the end of the gun rapidly makes a series of loops with the wool and as the needle retreats a small pair of scissors emerges to snip the loop in half, making a tuft or pile. Instead of making carpets with this carpet-gun I making drawings instead, allowing the viewer to see the individual stitches and track some of the gestures that constitute its surface.

I bought the gun in 2013 and spent a lot of time learning how to use it and only made a couple of things. Mostly little carpety things for friends. It started out as a desire to make sculpture but with pictures (and one that can be easily rolled up and folded and put away in my tiny bedroom). The gun had an immediacy that I needed. It's easy to improvise with.

Later, in 2014, I got around to making some carpets for an exhibition called Blue and Blonde and Among the Living at Space in Between in London, then again 2 years later for Tetracontameron. But these were both very legible as carpet, only in the last 5 years have I been thinking about the tool itself over the expectations of the finished product, looking for ways to remove much of what makes it carpet and tracking the migration of it into a more marginal mode of textile-ness. That's the idea, anyway.

I also have been trying to use the tufting gun as a subject, rather than for just construction, looking at it as a fixed point in which to view other subjects from, as well as a kind of flunkey, that I can do things to or hang things on. There's an accompanying newspaper in my show at the Collective Gallery that works as a handbook or user manual, indexing some of the ways these works are made. It's a shorter version of a PhD I'm currently finishing that also has aspects of a journal, a field-notebook, a scrapbook, and a zine running through it.

hsbc, 2019, Tufted wool on cloth, 290 (h) x 174 (w) cm. Unique. Photo credit: Keith Hunter.

You mention that the initial desire was "to make sculpture but with pictures", and I am interested to know if that is still the aim?

And to follow on from that, I want to know more about how you choose the subjects for these 'pictures'? For example, one of the works on show at Patricia Fleming is titled hsbc, and includes the hexagonal logo that has become the instantly recognisable symbol of one of the world's largest banks.

I think at the time, I was just trying not to let my financial limitations or lack of space work against me. I think that was just me organising myself after moving to London and looking for a general direction for making things. It's probably more accurate to say that I'm making sculpture with drawings but even that is still a bit vague, I guess.

hsbc is, like many of the other textiles, a kind of parody. It's still parading colour and texture and motif around for pleasure but the bank's logos do take centre stage. They only showed up at the end of making it; a set of marks in response to the other marks already put down. The work continued as drawing for drawing's sake until these logos showed up. It provided a certain level of tension, I guess--a symbol like this being repeated in this context probably doesn't come across as a particularly urbane motif in comparison to flowers or birds and the like.

The tufting gun that I use was invented in Hong Kong in the 1950s and is linked in its own way to the history of political and economical tensions running between it and the mainland since the Communist Revolution. Additionally, I was there in HK in the summer of 2019 during much of the pro-democracy protests and watched, as a visiting foreigner, the police ratcheting up a brutal campaign of suppression. And although there are some major differences to what's happening in HK, how the state's protection of property effects the very real bodies of its residents is pervasive around the world. This was the idea that I carried around with me as I went to various actions, aware that this was not my home.

Prior to my visit I had already been thinking about the tufting gun's capacity to obscure the body or reveal it based on how you used it so I think I was treating it as some kind of bridge to the place.

Visually, there's a lot of other information stitched into the backing cloth already and, without sounding awful, this formal reference to HSBC is a type of souvenir. It's, in and of itself, innocuous, a benignly decorative geometric shape obscured even further as I scrawled it across my drawing. It was a way of earmarking the things I saw and experienced there; an oversimplification of sadness and contempt bound into a few red hexagons, a notation, an entry in a diary or field notebook than it is a proposition or provocation.

HK19 (1), 2019, Acrylic on stationary, 19.5 (h) x 14.5 (w) cm. Unique. Photo credit: Keith Hunter.

It makes me think of how the act of protest is bound up in many craft practices, especially textile and banner making, and that there will always be an association there.

So let's move on to the point I mentioned back in the first question about how you think of the roles of the artist, artisan and fabricator and how they are defined by terminal belief systems in productivity and commodification. This is something that you mention within the text surrounding your show at Patricia Fleming, and I wondered if you could expand a little on this idea.

Well, I guess that was something I was thinking about as the last year progressed (or didn't progress, really) and I hear people talk about how the global pandemic has given a stress test to basically every major industry and government. Would this be a new direction or just a pause that helps consolidate power for those on top of the pile? I think most people in the art industry carry a bit of shame about how it all works and wish there could be a more sustainable, more equitable roadmap for folks to make a living.

But another side to that statement about productivity and commodity had more to do with design principles around innovation. Is it possible to innovate, the tufting gun in my case, by using it in a way that grinds down its productivity and mutates its status as a commodity (if only momentarily)? It's more of a rhetorical question that I think about a lot in order to generate additional materials off the back of the tufted drawings. These bits and pieces are then put into little publications that I make to help me organise myself. A lot of how I make sense of these works and textiles in general is related to writing. And the more I write from my textile practice the more I'm aware of how strong an intertextual link there are between distinctions of material and making.

Maersksealand, 2019, Tufted wool on cloth, 285 (h) x 135 (w) cm. Unique. Photo credit: Keith Hunter.

It's interesting that you mention the relationship between yor textile works and the texts you put together.
Is it important that these two parts of your practice are encountered together?

Within the context of the doctoral research I'm working on it really does help to think about these objects in terms of language. There's a really great essay about this by Victoria Mitchell that describes the construction of language and textiles as "sharing pliability as well as an inherent capacity to form structural relations between components." For me, I'm more or less obliged to contextualise what I do in my practice into some kind of written rundown for the people that give out PhDs, but in doing so I think it helps me look at the formation of these tapestries differently. In some of the writing I've done, the gun, or me (or at least some proxy version) stands in as a central character or component towards reaching some form of sympathetic magic with its other users, real and fictional. I don't think these exercises seem particularly present in the tufted drawings but it doesn't have to. The part I'm mostly interested in is the process. The drawings work hard enough doing other things that do not require the privilege of language to understand them.

Maersksealand (detail), 2019, Tufted wool on cloth, 285 (h) x 135 (w) cm. Unique. Photo credit: Keith Hunter.

To stay on the subject of writing, and your PhD more specifically. Where did the motivation come from to begin the PhD and in what ways do you think it may or may not have changed your material practice? It would also be interesting to know what questions you are looking to explore as part of your studies.

Well, I think my initial impulse for doing the PhD was to give myself something to do, as far as having some sort of engine behind me, to push me in a direction. I felt like I had started to cultivate a little garden of subjects that I could examine further. I also kept hearing about more and more people doing practice-based doctoral research. In the end, what I initially brought to Kingston was not exactly what I'm doing now. And that has everything to do with the way the whole experience has effected how I think about working, as as opposed to just thinking about a finished thing.

When I had settled on the carpet gun as a drawing tool as a general methodology I mostly just experimented with how certain operational changes could affect the process of stitching  from becoming a generic carpet-form and instead something else (which is a bit tricky when "something else" means art in this case, which is certainly something). And then I started to do little bits of journal writing and note-taking in order to have a record for the more formal contextual document that I have to provide alongside my practical thesis. Like with the gun, it was enjoyable to start with a format and then wander off. The main question in the research is a simple and open-ended one: What happens when you use an industrial hand-held carpet-tufting gun as a mark-making tool? With the writing, I would start with a list of things to do for subsequent works, ways of experimenting within my methodology that would force me to pivot a little from drawing to drawing. Eventually, the process of writing the list started to expand. The bullet points got longer and longer until I started thinking about it more as a piece of experimental technical literature, a chance to walk the line between what could be considered objective clarity and something much harder to explain about why I'm driven to a project like this. So, now instead of a pamphlet version, or a newspaper, there's a much larger volume available that assembles a kind of ecology of available subjects that might have some influence on the practice as a whole. The writing practice provoked by this doctoral research has helped hold together a lot of subjects that might have otherwise kept to themselves. And when you talk about textiles, you find yourself talking about a lot of different things all at once.

Raspberry-Jail, 2020, Tufted yarn on cloth, 135 (h) x 290 (w) cm. Unique. Photo credit: Keith Hunter.

To shift slightly, back to the exhibition at Patricia Fleming. How do you want audiences to experience the works in the show?

The answer I'm trying to formulate has to do with being able to walk into the space and encounter these textiles the way people often do--seeing them with the senses of sight and touch working conjunctively--and to know that, whether or not they know what specific techniques or tools are being used, this is still a drawing, these fluffy tufts are marks, across a canvas ground. This maybe sounds pedantic, but I think part of the reason why I use this machine is to gather up an overall awareness of gesture, by and large, latent within textiles. Drawing as an activity, as a thinking process, hopefully provides some basic accessibility to such an obscure industrial tool. This is the basic foothold I hope to offer the viewer when they walk in the door. They can very literally trace the lines in these works and maybe an overall logic in building up those lines. More than raspberries or corporate logos or seashells, I hope people will get to observe a level of tension between the body in motion and the body receding from view altogether. The graphic motifs are more often just signposts, providing some level of thematic tone. I think a lot of what might be thought of as the works' content lies in thinking about them as activities rather than images. That's probably how everybody thinks already about textiles when they're being exhibited. I'm just hoping to do it a little more deliberately.

The drum, the chime, the scrape, the splash, the jerk (installation view), Patricia Fleming Gallery. Photo credit: Keith Hunter.


'The Drum, the chime, the scrape, the splash, the jerk' is on view at Patricia Fleming, Glasgow until 29 May (www.patricia-fleming.com).

'Boredom>Mischief>Fantasy>Radicalism>Fantasy’ is on view at Collective, Edinburgh until 29 August (www.collective-edinburgh.art).



If you like this why not read our interview with Jack Whitelock.


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