Interviews with Artists

Mikey Cook

Interview by David McLeavy

Published July 2014


Mikey Cook’s work uses classical influences along with fictional narratives to suggest certain histories and formal identities. His work ranges from collage, to sculpture and often creates large scale wall paintings.


History or the historical seems to play heavily in your work and I am interested to know whether the formal qualities are also influenced by art history or specific art works or is it purely a conceptual interest?

I think I thought it definitely started out as a purely conceptual interest, considering relationships between themes involved in what I'm working on at minute, from Classical influences of Cas' (Castleford, West Yorkshire) Roman heritage to West Yorkshire's connection to Modernist sculpture, but being from same place as Henry Moore and just down road from birthplace of Barbara Hepworth (Wakefield) I think somewhere along line it must have just subconsciously filtered in on seeing it around so often and come out aesthetically aswell, especially in more recent stuff I've been working on. But I'm more interested in hidden local histories (or completely made up ones), and desecration of these sort of works and attitudes towards them from general working classes I've been brought up in and around in these sorts of places - like when my brothers mates dad got done for pissing in a Henry Moore Reclining figure (Draped Reclining Figure, 1952 - 3) which was donated by him and kept outside Cas Civic Centre (which I came across last year while casting those Cas Siren sculptures that make up NYMPIS: I went down to West Yorkshire Archaeological stores in Ossett where original Roman Magnesian Limestone sculptures were being held and in one of store rooms there it was just propped up on a stack of knackered old palettes. It had to be moved from outside cos they were scared of somebody pulling up in a van and nicking it for scrap).
Or how there was a bloke just down road from my Mam and Dad in 80's who worked for Council and taught himself Archaeology, he discovered a Roman coffin in Holywell Woods but didn't trust official storage place it was held so took it to keep safe in his garden.
Right now one of new pieces I'm working on came about when I went to Hepworth Gallery other month and enjoyed looking at some small white marble sculptures she'd done and then I found some dog poo that looked just like them on walk up to shops later on.
It's these kind of links which often inform what art works or area of art history to look at or research, as opposed to a formal or aesthetic attraction. That said though, all wall pieces I've done so far have been directly reappropriated from Roman floor mosaics, sometimes I'll adapt pattern slightly to fit better within architecture of the space, but it's pretty much kept as it was. So there are specific works that I'll explicitly reference or have in mind when I'm working, but I'm more interested in a sort of bastardized amalgamation of bits from a faded collective conscience or vague recollection of these works or periods in art history- making summat that sort of reminds you of some vaguely Modernist or Classicist thing you've seen at some point but can't quite remember what or where, like some sort of anachronistic relic, this thing that sort of looks like you know what sort of period it's from but there's summat not quite right.

Time Slip (study [with modernist shapes]) (detail), 2014

You mention that you are interested in more disguised narratives or perhaps of completely fictional ones, and I want to know how you imagine a viewer may see the work if they have no previous understanding of the history. Is it important that the references are explained to them somehow or do you feel it is often better to leave that unanswered?

In a way I like people to have to search for their own links between works, I think that's an important part of it- making viewer act as detective to try and uncover their own, and probably wrong, synchronicities/ narratives/ alternate histories/ whatever they make out of it. I'm creating these alternate histories within a parallel Cas from synchronicities I've come across researching these newspaper cuttings I've been finding for years (see image), and by time work's exhibited I'm non wiser of any origins of these things, or who's done them etc, so I think sometimes it's quite nice when viewer's placed on same playing field and just allowed to make their own ideas. That said though I do always like to have some kind of clue within work, whether it's through supplementary material like exhibition literature, or it's via a title, summat like that, because sometimes these links and synchronicities get so dense and convoluted that it wouldn't make any sense to try and make somebody figure it out because it wouldn't work. Plus it would seem a bit of a shame to never let anybody see all these funny links between things, it's as much a research project as a practice based one. In fact no, it's probably more of a research one to be honest. If I ever did find out who was making the cuttings and found out their real story I'd stop making work about them- it just wouldn't work for me anymore, fun would be gone. So if you know who's doing it don't tell me! I think my Mam will figure it out before me: I live in Glasgow now so when I'm not in Yorkshire my Mam's on look out for them. I'll get a text every now and then from her saying she's found a 'Julie'. She loves it, she keeps them safe in her purse till I see her. My dad text me this morning (Sunday 9th March) saying he found his first one.

NYMPIS, 2014

There seems to be a distinct difference, if not just an aesthetic one, between your clippings and the works such as Nympis. Could you talk about the relationship between the two working practices and how, if at all, you see them intertwining.

They are definitely related, the 'Julie' cuttings initiated all of this recent body of work, NYMPIS included. Castleford is built on a Roman fort and Vicus, dating from around AD71, and during excavations between 1974 - 85 a pair of magnesian limestone Siren statues were discovered. These were thought to maybe be ancient funerary monuments, as mythological hybrid creatures such as the siren (half woman half bird: in archaic and classical Greek art they were depicted as birds with heads of women, but later in a lot of Hellanistic and Roman representations their appearance changed to women with birds legs from knees down, with wings and a tail) were thought of as ambiguous beings that inhabited limbo between worlds. However, depictions of Sirens within western sculpture are really, really scarce, with only around half a dozen or so examples found, and non others owt like similar in Britain, so this 'accepted' hypothesis of them being general funerary monuments seems out of place. The Siren is seen as temptress, leading sailors to their deaths on rocky shores, lulled by her sweet voice, and from this mythology the term siren became eponymous with the femme fatale character, and more interestingly, in early Christian etymology this was taken even further and term siren was used as a euphemism for prostitute. One reading of the Julie cuttings could be that they are interpreted as calling cards for a local prostitute, hence the links in the included image between the siren figures and the cuttings, setting up hypothesise that this Julie thing and the idea of Castleford itself being the site for these strange smutty occurrences, has a very ancient and very old lineage, with ghosts echoing back to classicism.

The Julie Mythos, 2013 - ongoing

Maybe this might be a good time to give a brief walkthrough of rest of diagram and the synchronicities between events/ objects it maps if that's ok?

When researching the name 'Julie' I found it can be traced back to gens Julia on of most ancient patrician families in Ancient Rome, whose ancestry can be traced back to Aeneas, son of Venus, goddess of love, beauty and sex.
Roman mythology was reappropriated directly from Greek mythology, with Venus being Aphrodite. Homeric Hymn VI, To Aphrodite, describes the goddess being born from the 'delicate foam' washing up on shore from sea. My Dad always tells me about when he was younger walking to school sometimes Cas would be covered in a dense foam, as tall as lamp posts, generated as water in River Aire contaminated by Wool Mills further upstream gets churned up at weir in Cas, forming these massive suds. In the same hymn Aphrodite/ Venus is also referred to as Cytherea, who is a pornstar (www.cythereaswetworld.com).
At excavation site in Cas, aswell as various bits of pottery there was a lot of copper found, meaning there must have been some place of manufacture in town. The alchemical symbol for copper is ♀, which is also the symbol for Venus.
I must have first found these cuttings when I was around 11/12, and back then it was obviously pre Internet and golden days of keeping porn in bushes for some reason. These cuttings and other bits of found porn seemed to act as signifiers of transition of commodification in correlation to coming of age, swapping toys and games etc for this (very) different kind of collectible. When I was first starting this research I was thinking about other coming of age tales, and thought of Kes, surely most important coming of age tale of a working class Yorkshire lad. Kes was based on the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. A Knave is a male domestic worker, and also a British magazine, still in publication, that is also a porno.

A natural progression for you, it would seem, would be to explore writing as a form of art production. I say this as its obvious of the importance of the references and historical emphasis of your work. Is writing something you have considered?

I would like to do more writing, it's something I tend to start and then often abandon after a bit. I think I over think it and get self-conscious about it being too wanky and just boring, but hopefully at some point I'll get a few things together and eventually figure summat out. I use it a lot for my own use, keeping track of links/ references/ synchronicities, but only really for reference use. In these next few weeks while I've not got owt on I'll tidy my studio up and planning on setting up a reading/ writing clean space to spend a while there hopefully figuring a few things out.
I did write a small book a few years ago I think I'll revisit at some point soon, based on a fictional psionic machine used by West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police in an alternate history in 70's to help find Yorkshire Ripper, including blueprints and operational instructions, but it's always been sort of a work in progress. I need to do summat with that, I think eventually I'll make work around it and entire project will turn into an exhibition hopefully, if someone will have me.

Composition with Three Fragments (Siren), (detail), 2014

Your recent show titled Fold Up, Snap On seems to be a visual barrage of optical illusion. Can you talk me through the show a little more and how it links with some of your previous work.

The initial idea for the show came about around June time last year- just as degree show went up me and three others graduating that year realised we were working with similar themes and concepts and threads of ideas and that things we were working on would work well together, so it just went from there. It was around time of deadlines coming up for Glasgow International 2014 proposals so we had a go trying to get something together for that, and came up with an idea for a show based on materiality and how the artist throughout history has tried to manipulate or recontextualise or even overcome objects altogether: acknowledging this indifferent status of an object and addressing this furtive, introverted nature of matter that produces this sort of anxious encounter, mutating object into signifier, as a byproduct of its historical and cultural accretions.
So with this in mind I used my already existing conceptual framework of The Julie Mythos as a platform to create new works for this show. One of the pieces is a revisit of a previous piece where I made a sculpture of a mythical Siren from polished plaster using a blow up doll, an inflatable seagull and an inflatable flamingo, and my other piece in that show is a polished copper cast of a pyramidal bradstone I stole from Yorkshire- one of those cast cement decorative things that sit on top of walls outside council houses. Whenever I go back to Cas to visit I always spend a few hours every night walking around seeing if there's any more Julie cuttings left about or if there are any other bits I can cadge, or just thinking about what I'm going to make next: it seems to help generate ideas walking around there at that time of night when it's quiet and there's nobody about, it's a nice time to think everything through and figure out what's working. For about a year I'd kept seeing this smashed bradstone lying on pavement outside a house next to my old school, and I sort of knew I wanted to do something with it but wasn't quite sure what, and when I came across all of the copper finds discovered from archaeological excavations in Cas I decided I wanted to make it from polished copper. So me and my dad went back later that night and just nicked it and brought it back up to my studio in Glasgow. It weighed a ton as well.
The siren piece is made up of fragments from the previous siren statue, only this time made from solid polished marble. I used the head of the blow up doll, a foot from the inflatable flamingo leg and a wing from the inflatable seagull. I was interested in continuing this idea of making a sort of bargain shop equivalent to this opulent and decadent material, so figured out how to cast bits from different grades of marble powder using polyester resin as a binder, then polishing up the cured casts once demoulded to make these weird synthetic imposters of classicism.
I did a fairly big wall painting in a few different parts as well, I think all in all it was around 8 x 3m, involving these kind of apparitions of various modernist sculptures from Yorkshire, together with really simple, flat shapes of colour, these sort of building blocks or fundamental particles of a homologous modernist study/sculpture- the sort of basic shapes you see recurring throughout various periods of modernism in art history (an element mirrored in the siren fragment piece). I figured out that by creating a spatial field made up of these tiny thin high contrast lines I could get shapes to float and vibrate on what seemed like a different spatial dimension if they were filled with perpendicular lines of an equal width, almost like a hologram or 3D projection. I'm really interested in M-Theory, particularly because of its implications in terms of a multiverse and parallel universes/ histories, and I liked how this wall painting with these clunky-ly rendered Henry Moores and Barbara Hepworths seemed to act as a kind of portal, for want of a better word, to this sort of TV static I imagine you'd experience during multidimensional travel- this sort of field of noise made up of everything and anything that's ever existed all broken down into its component parts and fundamental particles ready to be reassembled or maybe even remade completely in a parallel universe. Like when Mike Teavee shrinks himself in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and before he's reassembled into a smaller version his disseminated body floats around near ceiling in this bed of static. Not that that's got owt to do with it but you know what I mean! I once had a tutor, a really good tutor, who told me that in his paintings there's always a point, a singularity where viewer can enter it, into this strange unheimlich parallel place and I suppose that's always stuck with me. I had that in my head a lot when I was doing this painting.

Time Slip (study [with Modernist Shapes]), 2014

I am interested in a more practical element of what you mentioned, specifically the process of using marble powder/dust and using resin as a binding agent. When your figuring out how to construct your work do you test out a lot of methods that you are unsure of or would you say your practical skill set is fairly broad and advanced to begin with? Also following on from that do you believe by having a broad range of practical skills you are able to realize more works as you practical vocabulary is wider?

I think now I do have a fairly broad range of practical skills but it's only from testing out a lot of methods as you mentioned and doing them wrong first (and second and third) time - sometimes I'll spend a few months trying out a technique before realizing it's just not right for what I'm doing, but might come back to it for another piece a few months later so it's never time wasted. With the faux marble casts I started experimenting with how to get what sort of effect I wanted a few months before I actually made the final casts. I started by experimenting with what ratio of different grades of marble powder to resin worked best, trying to get a balance between using finer grades to create pigmentation and coarser grades to get that sparkle once the surface was polished back, and using varying amounts of white pigment to counter the gray colour fine marble powder gives. Opacity of these mixtures wasn't as low as I wanted, I wanted a quite translucent marble, so I added a percentage of Aluminium Hydroxide, or synthetic onyx, to get a bit closer to that. I ended up using around 9:1 filler to resin, so that meant it wouldn't pour anymore so I just had to poke this slump mixture into molds.
That copper piece was worse, I didn't have time or resources to do sensible thing and just cast it from molten copper, and some kind of cheaper synthetic copper worked better conceptually, so I tried figuring that out a few ways: first cold casting (mixing atomized metal powder into a clear resin) but that wasn't quite right, then I had this idea to cast it from resin mixed with graphite dust and then build a copper electroplating tank using copper sulphate in vinegar as an electrolyte, an old copper etching plate as an anode, graphite cast as cathode and two 9V batteries to power it. It worked really well on a small scale but I just couldn't figure out how to get it to work scaled up, and I ran out of time and money, so had to resort back to trying cold casting again (which worked out fine in end). But even though that homemade electroplating set up didn't work this time I'll figure it out for another thing in future, and I'm at a better starting point than I was before.
Having a broader range of practical skills never hurts, more you know easier it is to just get on with stuff and I find that more I learn about technical aspects of making work more ideas I get - if I read up on a technique I've never come across before I often use trying that out as a start point and end up with an idea for a new piece of work. I always try to learn as much about making things as I can, it always comes in useful.

The Julie Mythos, 2013

So what's next for you?

Well right now I've not got any dates set for any new shows so I've got some time to develop some new work: right now I'm starting a new body of work about stolen modernist sculpture and garden ornaments, as well as still continuing with 'The Julie Mythos' stuff when things come up. I've got a few ideas I'm really looking forward to realising, working with very traditional sculptural techniques – sculpting from clay and carving marble and granite and wood, together with more traditionally unconventional methods and materials using cast plastics and other inorganic materials: maybe I'll eventually figure out that electroplating thing. Once I've got a few pieces on go I'll start looking at writing some proposals to get them shown somewhere if everything goes well. I've got two other shows planned for sometime in future, but no dates/venues are confirmed yet so don't want to say too much (and can't!), but one is with my friend Joy Bonfield Colombara, a jeweller, which I'm really looking forward to. I'll still be working up at GSA as well, I coordinate Fine Art Build and Install team there, building degree shows and rebuilding studio spaces, and work as an Assistant Coordinator for Continuing Education department. Me and Albert Elm were planning a secret hidden show together in the Mackintosh Building while Glasgow School of Art degree show was on, installed in a sealed off dead space between two students' spaces, but with the recent fire we'll obviously have to hold off with that one- maybe next year. As well as that over next few months I'll be doing a lot of reading and researching, hopefully going back to Yorkshire again at some point to try and gather more materials and objects to work from/with, along with writing proposals and applying to a lot of things. I'll be happy if I can stay as busy as I have been since graduating!


Mikey Cook lives and works in Glasgow. Recent exhibitions include New Contemporaries, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, Fold Up, Snap On, The Pipe Factory, Glasgow and Vernissage, The Royal Standard, Liverpool.

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