Interview by Lindsey Mendick
Published January 2016
Dominic Watson uses a variety of methods to make entertaining and poignant works what play with the senses. Whether it's dancing around the studio or performing for a static sculpture, Watson's work always brings something fresh to the table.
I've had the pleasure of encountering your work three times now, at The Manchester Contemporary where you exhibited with Cactus Gallery, in Mostyn Open 19, Llandudno and as part of Best In Show, London. Although the discipline has fluctuated between sculpture and performance, your practice seems to have a unifying thread of creating for pure enjoyment, whether you are dancing to Hall and Oats or adorning leather jackets with Mills and Boon illustrations. I wanted to ask you if your work is as pleasurable to create as it is for us as the viewer to observe?
In short, yes. (Assuming the viewer does take pleasure from my work).
I definitely enjoy making the work, but I'm not sure if that's unique to me or the type of work I make. I imagine that's universal to a large extent. There must surely only be a very small and very particular type who take no pleasure in what they do with regard to art.
There is an overarching theme of pleasure within the videos, especially the two that you mentioned. Both Studio Based Practice and Whatever You Want! They’re both me, dancing, with myself. One in an empty studio, the other on the roof at college. They definitely give off the idea I'm having an alright time. Though strangely enough these two works came about through the failure of others. Works I felt were becoming really laboured and cumbersome. You know when you overthink everything in an idea and the work begins to feel quite academic and loses its personality, becomes mechanic almost. They were a form of relief from a different way of working, like going back to basics, the fundamentals. I always remember a friend saying when you're having a shit time in the studio, just get out the red gloss paint and everything will be alright. This is my equivalent I think.
Really limiting yourself in the materials that are available to you somehow feels like a more honest gesture, it isn't mediated through anything else. It’s just your body, responding to a context. In this case music, Hall and Oates, which is definitely pleasurable. But I think when you enjoy something, you can let go a bit and you drop your guard, like playing air guitar in your bedroom when no one’s watching. You really get into it and don't give a shit. I think that's good position to be operating from when making art, there's an interesting dynamic between confident expression and vulnerability. It feels a lot more intimate and consequently much more revealing. I think that's why the cameras function is so important, it allows me to do things that I would never do this in front of an audience.
But on the whole I want to really enjoy making work, and I do want people to enjoy what I do in some capacity, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be pleasurable. A lot of art is boring, that's not necessarily a criticism, but it’s true. I find a lot of sculpture boring now, that's why I started performing with them in the first place to try to animate them and create new narratives, new ways of thinking about them. It was a way for me to re-engage with a type of art that I had become slightly indifferent to.
Studio based Practice
In many of your works you use different mediums to multiply yourself. In Specific Emotion, there are dualistic Dominic Watson’s singing in harmony, in C-I-T-Y you can see why these guys are city guys, you duplicate yourself through the use of a lone mirror, in Casual Fragrance you sculpturally replicate your body to create a Watson threesome and in the video already mentioned; Studio Based Practice you feature a split screen of two separate dances. Is this an intentional feature of you practice and if it can you talk about where this process originated from?
In the first few instances it was sort of inadvertent. I used a mirror in C-I-T-Y guys (im going to abbreviate that one) because I wanted to have this Robert Smithson-esque moment in some wasteland underneath a motorway, dancing to Tina Turner. I was into his writing at the time and was fond of his Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey. I think I managed to find a tenuous link between Tina’s lyrics and Smithson’s philosophy. I mean it’s a pretty bloody crude and kitsch analogy and the work probably does nothing I hoped it might. I don’t even know if I actually like that work, it’s definitely not a good artwork. But this was the first confrontation I had with myself in a video.
I think I actively became interested in the idea of duplicating myself after making Studio Based Practice. In an attempt to move the work forward away from a reliance on using other artworks, I tried to become really objective about myself, view the performer in the video as someone else. I really wanted make a distinction between me the person, me the artist and me the performer. I began to think about the performer as a material and a subject, the same way you might think about a readymade. From there I began to think about the term performance what I understood it to mean outside the remit of performance art, or art in general for that matter. How I use it on an everyday level, actively or subconsciously. Inevitably I became interested the theatre of identity, how I things like gender, class, race are conceivably different modes of performance. I ultimately saw this person as an object appropriating various cultural forms, re-performing them to create an identity, a self essentially. Performance became a language and a way of existing I think, or at least that’s how I understand it.
As oppose to trying undermine other sculptures like in previous work I began to undermine myself. I was beginning to put my fingers in the gap between me as subject and me as image, and begin to separate those two opposing ideas. I wanted to be a caricature of myself or at least convey that idea. When you look at guys that draw your portrait on the street when you go on holiday, they all draw in the same style. Sitting down in front of them, they never actually draw you. They have like ten stock profiles, ten sets of eyes, ten sets of ears, ten sets of noses, etc etc and they just choose the ones which fit your face best. That’s why they never bloody look like you. I was interested in that type of reduction. Not in a formal sense but to feel like the product of a set of simple choices. So I made puppets, which is a term I’d use as oppose to sculpture. It’s important for me to think of them as having that performative element, being controlled by someone or something. I wanted it to feel like there was a limit to their capability.
Moving in tandem on a stage as a trio like in Casual Fragrance, to a really basic beat, felt dumb enough to reduce me to an object. I wanted it feel like a windup toy that unravels the same routine every time. It feels really isolated watching it, they never leave that space, as if they’re marooned. There’s a helplessness about it, like nothing is in their control.
I think with the puppets, they operate from a position of self-deprecation, whereas the duo in Specific Emotions, emerge from an absurd level of self-worth. I mean there’s some really heavy handed narcissism in there. In the context of a pop song, the duplication feels illusory a bit like a gross fantasy. But because it’s not rendered in a sculptural material (clay or paper mache), it feels less of a ‘self-portrait’ about representation and more to do with some sort of desire. I find there’s a perverseness in that. A strange embrace of being a simulation.
With the ‘pop song’ format I wanted to use an existing structure or cultural entity, which prescribes or expects an apparent mode of performance. The pop song or the idea of the ‘one hit wonder’ is an amplified version of the stage on which the puppets performed, or a more packaged one. Immediately its demeanour is perceived as artifice and to a certain extent disingenuine. It makes no qualms about putting its pomp on show. I wanted continue the reduplicating process but in a context that mirrored or perpetuated that idea, which I think pop does. It allows you to project yourself into the realm of complete illusion and totally debunk the belief system you’ve built around yourself.
Oh the pop song! I couldn't get that out of my head. It was electrical, so sensationally camp and ridiculous. Can I buy it?
Do you consciously adopt a camp aesthetic to heighten themes within your practice or is it purely an inherent sensibility you identify with?
Yeah you can, get ready for a plug! We released it on a limited edition 7" dub plate, the nature of a dub plate being that it has a finite number of plays on it before the track wears away. You can buy it from New Studio's website.
Taking the idea that far was important. It needed to exist beyond the exhibition and the gallery, to really operate in the realm of delusion. I felt this legitimized the desire to exist as a fantasy. I liked the fact that duo never actually say what it is they are talking about in the song, the 'Specific Emotion' is only ever referred to indirectly, it’s a complete placebo. The more you play the record to try to find 'the meaning', the further away it gets as the dub plate degrades, until its eventually gone. I like the inherent idea that meaning somehow lies in the search. It feels like the smallest of victories over consumer culture. It kind of added to the romance I thought.
With regard to camp aesthetic I think that it just comes with the territory, it wasn't something I labored over, it’s probably largely down to personality. My work always has a crude and vulgar element to it, and a humour. I think I find it a useful tool to target a given hierarchy, whether that's Modernist sculpture or me, a white straight, male, middle class Brit.
Does the jovial nature of your practice ever result in the work being disregarded compared to the weighty work of others?
You saying my works not weighty?
I personally don't, but I definitely think about other people doing it. It's sort of the reoccurring gremlin pecking at my head.
But that's the nature of art I think, the way its valued both economically and culturally is abstract and kind of absurd. A lot of it feels inherited and in parts kind of archaic, top down as oppose to bottom up. To have someone on the 'inside' pointing out and embracing that absurdity, seems like an emperor’s new clothes situation, expect they're aware of being in the nuddy, and they're more than ok with it. I think within art there's strange need to justify what is it you do, like it has some wider divine/moral purpose. And I think that's a mantra that's upheld with smoke and mirrors at times, so when that's pointed out there's always someone who's going to want to keep everything in order. And maybe that effects the way people view art as well. I don't necessarily think that this is the role or function of my work, but it’s generally what’s kicking about in my head the background. I think that attitude is even apparent in the way you asked the question, even if it was with a dose of irony, it’s still presumes or expects a particular attitude from art. It's something that we're all maybe aware of and probably just need to get over.
But this is probably me just be me being paranoid. I guess I'm trying to answer a question that only someone else knows the answer to, I can only presume. I'm clearly overly concerned about what the viewer might think or not think, to the point where it’s potentially problematic. With so many of my interests stemming from popular culture I naively think they're not suitable, I'm conflicted, I basically adopt at the attitude towards art which I’m trying get rid of, it’s ridiculous. Maybe this is why I make so make so many versions of me? I think it’s an argument I’ll be having with myself for a long time.
Fundamentally this is about humor though, which is a bit of tricky one. It can simultaneously be a way into the work and also a 'get out clause' if you know what I mean. It's able to make the viewer directly tune in to what you're talking about if used well, or it can do the opposite and just switch them off. If you crack a smile or laugh it can sometimes make you a bit lazy in your reading of things, you've had an immediate or gut response to something and you feel like 'yeah I've got it' and you can let yourself move on. That's definitely how I perceive it sometimes, it can be problematic in that sense. I'm definitely tempted to use it as filler as well, covering up cracks in work, it can a bit of a cheap trick at times, and I think looking at art we're extra aware of this, so it’s always going to be viewed slightly suspiciously. I wish i could just say, "fuck it, deal with it" well i guess at points I do, but I can’t maintain that attitude for very long, not behind closed doors anyway.
It’s important to keep asking these kind of questions, how valid/effective is humor at communicating an idea? At what point does humors ability to undermine and destabilize switch to self-destruct mode, start to work against your idea? I think if you have that element of doubt about what you're doing then that's probably a good thing right? Otherwise work will feel a bit pedestrian.
The whole thing feels a bit like a double edged sword.
Your solo exhibition, Significant Culture at Hutt Collective, seemed to be a point of departure from your usual practice. I was wondering if you could talk about the inspiration behind the show and it's classical/traditional undertones?
I was in Florence for two months as part of a research bursary I got given by the RSA. The HUTT show was maybe a month after I got back, so whatever happened in Florence, would have to be the basis of the exhibition. So I kind of embraced that opportunity to do something different. In a way it was too stimulating an experience not to. When your surroundings shift from a studio in an old Victorian care home in Glasgow to an apartment in the middle of Florence, something is going to give, you'd hope.
Florence is kind of a weird place, like Venice, it’s a bit of a living museum, preserved at a very specific moment in history. The whole centre is a UNESCO world heritage site, which is obviously a great thing on the one hand, but simultaneously it seems to halt the trajectory of the place. With something the scale of a city, once tourism gets a grip, it becomes a bit of a caricature, its type cast forever. Everyone who visits it wants it to be as close to that moment in time as possible. Your sort of seeing Florence play itself, in a movie about Florence. Like Seinfeld, but older, and Catholic. I guess while I was there I was trying to understand the type of experience I was having, and how I might be able to translate that into an exhibition. That felt necessary, even if it was just a way to find a point of departure like you said, from a previous way of working.
There were three main things that triggered the work, the first was the cathedral in Siena, close to Florence. It had this amazing marble mosaic floor that depicted loads of biblical stories. The whole cathedral is covered in them, the vast majority you can't walk on. It was made with this technique called graffito, in which you draw by cutting and drilling into marble and refilling the cracks with bitumin, which is basically what they make roads out of now. I'd never really seen anything like it before that grand, Gothic figures rendered with simple lines. They almost looked like old etchings, and quite cartoon like. It might not the normal thing I'd get excited about, but I'd been drawing quite a lot while I was there, mainly gross leather Italian loafers, but I must have developed a thing for some tight line work.
The other thing was this story I'd heard about a gold statue (in colour only sadly) of an Argentinian footballer, who used to play for Fiorentina, the cities football team. In 1993 the club were relegated from the Serie A (the Italian equivalent of the Premier League) this guy, Gabriel Batistuta, despite being one of the best strikers in the world, stayed with the club and helped them get back into Serie A. Fiorentina's fans, as a tribute supposedly paid out of their own pocket, for a statue to be made of him. They erected it outside the stadium. The story had all the archaic tropes of a classical myth, which was so central to the Renaissance, and the romance of the underdog a la Michelangelo's David . It was interesting seeing the reminiscence of that type of story resurface in contemporary populist context.
I began to look into it trying to find out where it was to go look at it. I'd seen photo's of it online and it looked great, it was so crude, and cumbersome, felt really plastic. Batistuta had left the club after 10 years and moved to Rome, a rival team in 2000. It soon became clear that the statue didn't exist anymore, but different stories kept surfacing as to what actually happened to it. The first I heard which seems the most feasible was that the fans were so pissed off at the fact he'd left, betrayed they publicly destroyed it, which is fair do's I suppose, given the context. The second was that now their idol had left the club, the dream was over and it was time to move on, so that meant that the statue had to come down. A group of loyal fans ceremoniously dismantled the statue and distributed its parts among themselves, arms, legs, feet, head etc as tokens to this great moment in their history. It reminded me of the story of Christ's True Cross. Supposedly certain churches across Europe claim to have parts of the actual crucifix Jesus died on. I liked that fact that these grand archaic narratives kept re-emerging. You began to understanding the significance of our Western and I guess essentially Christian history, how it still has grip on the way live and think now. The Final version I heard, and kind of the cruellest, was that his story was never mentioned again, it had to be collectively forgotten, shunned. As a result the statue slowly fell into disrepair.
One other thing that was a constant in Florence was this PVC mesh material. It's the material that covers scaffolding when a building is being restored. More often than not they print an image of the building onto the mesh, so from a distance it looks as though it still intact. I experienced a lot Florence indirectly through PVC mesh.
Once I convinced myself that this wasn't a story or an idea about football, which took a bit of time, I decided to use it for the exhibition. I wanted to turn the gallery into pseudo mosaic that told the alternative histories surrounding the statue. I thought that this mesh would be a great material to do it with. I'd hang it from the ceiling so that it was lifted off the face of the walls, alluding to the possibility of there being an original mosaic behind it. I think it worked as a metaphor not only in the way I thought about Florence as a caricature of itself, but also in the way that it indulged the mythology that was inherent in the story. The fact the material is kind of a half-truth, in much the same way each of the separate stories about the sculpture were. It had a paradoxical quality about it, it was a completely authentic, inauthentic experience. Which sounds kind of ridiculous but I think that's what I was going for.
In hindsight thinking about this work it established, or encouraged at least, a lot of the ideas present in Specific Emotions, especially with regard to how I thought about portraying a version of myself in the video.
In much of your work there seems to be a gesture towards art history, most significantly the history of sculpture. This usually transposes as a physical interruption in its historic, static quality. Could you elaborate on your relationship with sculpture?
I guess first of all i studied it, then eventually I realized that i wasn't very good at making it. Or at least the ideas i had weren't suitable to being made in that way, or something along those lines. i think i struggled to make that connection for long time, but i was kind of persistent with it, for way too long. I think i felt that if stopped making sculpture I'd fail at being an artist because that what i was "taught".
I think ultimately i was bored by it, looking at, making it, and thinking about it. I grew up watching TV, playing PlayStation, I’m cack handed and careless. I don't like objects or things, I'll lose them or break them. Then I'm sat in a studio sanding trying to think about a practice which involves a conversation about bronze? It just didn't add up. So I think I was making that point, even if it was just to myself initially, I didn't belong to that conversation, and that was ok.
I still see the work I make as being in its infant stages, it’s still moving away from the idea of trying to make sculpture, its maybe only just beginning to figure what out what it might be on its own. But i think always worked in kind of in the same way, in a response to something, weather that be a sculpture, or a particular moment in history. I guess i feel implicit in a particular history, in a dogmatic sense, so i'm trying to confront that. Though my problem is I’m too much of a conformist, too reliant on whatever it is that informs my decision making to operate outside of it.
I want to break free.
Are You Not Entertained
And finally, what do you have coming up in the future? Another single?
I'm re-showing Significant Culture in Amsterdam this month, so I’m working on bits for that at the minute. But long term wise I've been threatening to do a musical slash opera for a while now, so I really want to have a crack at that. Start to think seriously about it, how deal with a larger narrative, or not as the case may be.
But i think this is my Everest, so it could be a while in the making.
Dominic Watson lives and works in London. He received a BA Sculpture from Camberwell College of Art and MA Fine Art from Glasgow School of Art. He has exhibited as part of Bloomberg New Contemporaries, was shortlisted for the 2015 Catlin Art Prize and recently selected for Whitechapel Gallery’s London Open exhibition.
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