Interview by James Harper
Published February 2016
Before I first met Owain McGilvary and Yan White at their North London apartment I had already encountered the humour and distinct personality that traverses their practice. Their sound piece, ‘Whistle’, that was included in Mostyn’s Open 19 exhibition and previously shown at Camden Art Centre, is one that initially confuses. On realising its mechanics and simplicity, the wolf whistling noise delights and amuses. In hindsight though I was a bit sad that the old man who was also in the space with me wasn’t coming on to me.
McGilvary/White, as they are collaboratively known, graduated from Central Saint Martin’s BA Fine Art course last year and have shown frequently since, including in Exeter Contemporary Open.
That first time that I did meet them, they both managed to provide me with the wrong mobile phone numbers. I felt partly like I had been let down by a one night stand and partly like I was the butt of a practical joke. Fortunately we live in an age where we don't solely rely on phone numbers anymore and they weren't playing with me, and so began our conversation..
I hope this neither offends nor annoys but I have to ask your thoughts on the inevitable comparison between your practice and that of other artist duos, most specifically Gilbert and George. Before you answer that, though, I'm going to ask you a very annoying question - one that every artist is asked and sadly quite frequently: what do you do? What do you make?
OM: Ah, every artists’ favourite question eh?! Here goes... We make work which spans across sculpture, video and performance. We often think of the roles people play in art and think about the artists’ role within the work (specifically us) that act like ‘signatures’ and how you can subvert these aspects by using funniness and playfulness. Does that make sense?
You can imagine we get the Gilbert and George reference a lot as well haha! We actually have had lunch with them a few times...
I think that is a good brief summary of what you do. It's a good platform to build on in terms of establishing why you do certain things.
First, I’d like to elaborate a little on the Gilbert and George comparisons. What are your feelings when someone compares you to them? Do you welcome the comparison? Maybe it's lazy and tedious, but for many they will be the most accessible artist duo. Dare I ask what the conversation is like when you have lunch with Gilbert and George?
OM: We totally welcome the comparison! We think they’re really pleasant and funny men which we hope people think of us too hah! YW: It's not really lazy as we just so happen to fit the criteria so well. Meeting at Central Saint Martins, dressing identically and being
in a relationship.... it all adds up to being very similar to them.
OM: The conversations with them are pretty much what you would expect I guess. Really normal.
YW: Yeah we've just talked about work and its been quite relaxed and informal really.
OM: We get compared to a few other collaborations too- Harrison and Wood, Fishcli and Weiss quite often. It seems to be a way for people to make sense of what we do and the idea of the two individuals to make one practice. That is key in our work.
YW: Yeah we often hint or refer to both individuals in our work. That’s why self portraiture occurs a lot in it.
￼The self-portraiture elements to your practice, evident in 'Self Portraits (Lego)' quite explicitly, is very interesting. I saw you performing at Its All Tropical's recent Treat Yo Self event at Bloc Projects in Sheffield where you were wearing a conjoined jumper - 'Jumper Made for the Artists by Grandma'. It struck me that there was a desire for you to completely erase an individual identity and to become one new entity, a third entity. This is also apparent in your other works and is possibly one of the driving forces behind most of your work.
Could you firstly expand on this for me and certainly put me straight if I'm off track.
Secondly, I want to jump to your recent curatorial work, the Supermarket Sweep shows at Nice Gallery and latterly at Oriel Wrecsam’s PERICLO space. How if at all, does your curatorial role for the Supermarket Sweep exhibitions relate to your practice as artists? Do the two feed into each other?
YW: You’re definitely on track! The work we make uses ourselves as default subjects. Often, yeah they are self portraiture but were more interested in stripping down the sense of identity so it’s more ambiguous. We’re so reluctant to give too much away in terms of our identity
OM: Yeah that piece in particular started off the idea of our ‘uniform’. The identity in those sculptures are so stripped down they’re pretty much the same apart from the fact one of them is wearing brown instead of black. So we started dressing exactly the same, so that way although we both retain a sense of our own identity we’ve like paired ourselves together by our clothes. So people began to refer to us as the same person a lot of the time. It was so bizarre in the beginning and just decided to embrace it.
YW: Yeah it started off as just a way to be identified until it actually occurred to us it’s an extremely vital part of the practice. Like the idea of a ‘third identity’. The artwork isn’t us as two individuals, it is a completely separate thing altogether, like a third person.
OM: The jumper was an interesting performance as we both used to work in bars..... and now we know were really good at making gin and tonic with one hand each, holding onto each other and cutting a lime..... no spillage!
YW: And Supermarket Sweep was so fun! I don’t really know how much of a relationship the curatorial project and our art practice has. Like we sort of just said to each other, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was an exhibition that used Supermarket Sweep as a subject’. It was meant to be fun, silly and stuff.
OM: Yeah in terms of that show, we were interested in taking a subject and making an exhibition that surrounded that everyday idea of the supermarket and making it into a bit of a spectacle.
YW: Oh actually I guess there is a similarity actually. Like we said earlier about our inclusion in our works. We think about us in artwork more like caricatures of the artists rather than making the work completely about us. We really want to make happy art that humourises the role of artists, the gallery and art world.
YW: I think it feeds into it but we wouldn't say it has an overly direct link. It's more like something that compliments the other thing. Things like Supermarket Sweep, the whole premise, the title is a novelty or nostalgia for a 90s TV show. It's something we were really interested in exploring but we wouldn't do that so much in our own work. Using curated was more appropriate.
Self Portraits (Lego), 2014
So it's a way of channeling another interest that you don't think fits with your practice as artists?
OW: What we’re really interested in, in terms of curation, is the act of collaborating; getting other people to be in a show with us; the act of ‘doing’ with other people and creating that dialogue is what we’re interested in. Collaboration is kind of expanding that in a way. Whether that is within the art practice or curation projects - whatever it may be, that is what we’re interested in.
￼For the two exhibitions you have used some of the same artists and then some different ones. Are the artists that you have repeatedly used people that you will continually collaborate with?
YW: It might be some artists who were in the first Supermarket Sweep, but weren't in the second, might then be in a future show. We don't want anything that we do, whether it be curation or our own work, to become repetitive or predictable. It's important for us to keep changing.
Jumper Made for the Artists by Grandma, 2015 (serving drinks at It’s All Tropical, Treat Yo Self!)
Why is that? Why wouldn't you want to become repetitive or predictable?
YW: We think a lot about the audience with our work, and how people engage with it is really important. We talk about it a lot when we are making our work and we are always aware of how people will engage with the work. That is also something that comes from our day jobs, working at The Serpentine.
Shall we talk a little about performance? Your work in SHupermarket Sweep: Bonus Round!, “Conversation with Chupa Chups”, is a slightly ethereal experience to me - having that noise emanating around you and not being able to see its source - however I think I would have liked to see the process of that work being made. Is this something you would consider?
OM: What we try to be careful with us not to rely on us as the artists being in the works. We feel it might become a little too autobiographical.
YW: It could become egocentric.
OM: We don't want it to be about us so much as about the act.
YW: Also we don't want to be like a spectacle where people are going to stop what they are doing to engage for a set period of time. We prefer things where people are able to have a very loose engagement, where it is up to them and there is no politeness. If they want to walk away from something, they can. If they want to listen to it they can just stop.
I guess there's no real beginning or end to [‘Conversation with Chupa Chups’] whereas with a performance there is often a very definite beginning and end.
OM: In a way, with that, if you were to separate them so there are more spaces between [each word] it would just be noises rather than an actual conversation... I guess it's just to not demand attention with the idea of the timebased aspect of the work.
YW: Also with that piece we’re really interested with the communication between two people when they're not able to communicate very clearly. I think if it had been a live thing maybe, because we could understand more-or-less what each other were saying, everybody else might also. Because it is recorded, it is just to do with the sound which is what we were really trying to go after.
In some of your other work you are perhaps exploring other aspects of that communication between two people, though maybe on the more visual side.
OM: A lot of what we’ve been making, or thinking about, is exploring aspects o collaborating and communicating that process of making the work. We’ve said previously that we want to expand that idea of operating along with other people so j think we’re going to do more stuff with our parents. It won't be like... It will become quite an important part of the practice...
YW: It already is really...
OM: But more so when we make work.
Jumper Made for the Artists by Grandma, 2015 (shown at It’s All Tropical, Treat Yo Self)
Leading on from that, on one hand, when reading your work there is an obvious collaboration aspect that is visible, whether it be ‘Two Lucky Cats High-Fiving’ or something else. There is an art relationship. On the other hand there is a more loving, personal relationship. I wonder whether there is a blurring of those lines and if that is an intentional thing?
Perhaps this applies too to people you collaborate with such as your parents; close non-art relationships that you utilise to create another type of relationship. Maybe that also works both ways, turning art relationships into something more. Is this something you're aware of in your practice?
OM: I guess now that you've said it, it is quite a clear intention, we’ve just never really thought about it.
YW: When we talk about relationships, we talk about it in a way that other people are able to put themselves in our shoes. One thing that we’re interested in is that everybody, at least for some portion of their lives, has a mum, so everybody understands that connection and has that rapport.
OM: So it's taking those existing structures and relationships and using them as part of our practice, but whether that will extend to other artists and friends we don't know yet but we are exploring that.
With Kate Turner & Alex McNamee, were you friends with them before you worked with them or did your friendship develop out of your collaboration?
OM: We’ve known Kate for a while but only recently got to know Alex. Their collaboration is quite a new thing and you can actually see parallels between our respective practices in ‘Supermarket Sweep’. Things like using their mouths, we’ve done similar things.
YW: But with all the artists we work with there are some similarities between our practices. OM: I'm not sure we answered your question, but we haven't thought that far yet...
Owain McGilvary and Yan White are based in London. Recent exhibitions include Supermarket Sweep: Bonus Round!, PERICLO, Oriel Wrexham, Exeter Contemporary, Exeter Phoenix, Exeter, and The Plinth, Glasgow, Like it or Lump it, Enjoy Project Space Leeds.
If you like this why not read our interview with Shaun C. Badham
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