Interview by Matt Retallick
Published November 2018
I was at Tate St. Ives recently and the Christopher Wood painting Zebra and Parachute (1930) was on display. I was reminded of a conversation we had about this very painting a couple of years ago. I know that Christopher Wood has influenced you, and I’m thinking here of your project Whale for Koolie Magazine in 2016. Could you give me more detail about this project? I’m curious also to find out more about the influence of Christopher Wood on your work. How did you come across him?
Is the painting on display? I’ve not seen it in real life; but yes, Whale did start with trying to understand that particular painting. It’s a strange one and doesn’t really fit with the rest of his work. I love it as an art-historical anomaly just as much as the painting itself. I’m not sure how I came across it but it’s an image I found myself returning to. It was one of the last he painted, inspired by a great postcard he sent to Winifred and Ben Nicholson of some hippos stood in front of a building.
I would love to see that postcard. You’re right, it’s such an odd painting, although that zebra next to a modernist building reminds me instantly of Alvar Aalto’s iconic zebra print fabric, also from the 1930s, I think…
Actually, whilst we are talking of pattern and buildings… Kettle's Yard have his 1927 self-portrait, the one of Kit painting in a colourful geometric jumper, with a sprawling city behind him. When I started the project, I was particularly interested in the parallel you can draw from this painting to Zebra and Parachute. They both look so out of place. There’s a lot of psychology of space in both of the works, this diffidence to commitment. I wanted to explore and question that relationship between making and the feeling of uncertainty.
Christopher Wood is particularly interesting when exploring this because of the constant restlessness in his life. He never stayed in one place too long, he shifted through a multitude of social circles but really, he desired stability; he wanted the creative and supportive relationship he saw in Ben and Winifred Nicholson. That ability to question and shift through these multiple personalities is absolutely apparent in his work, as is the desperate need to understand ‘how to paint’ in the traditional sense. He creates his work in a digestive process, I guess in a similar way to Kathy Acker with Charles Dickens or how Günther Förg works from the paintings of Clifford Still as other examples; constantly stealing and borrowing, but in doing so the result is unmistakably him.
…and Martin Kippenberger is another example, the way he borrowed from Joseph Beuys or repurposed the grey monochromes of Gerhard Richter, he even turned one into a coffee table in 1987. Do you feel this process of borrowing, adapting and appropriating is something you do as well?
Yes, it's about adopting and adapting language and references to form a jarring, and at times a consciously difficult sense of layers with a question of authenticity of self at the very foundations. Whale, as a project started life as a factual essay about paintings of beached whales. These creatures completely out of place, and their beaching’s being an event in our lives. I remember studying in Cornwall and people organising trips to see a beached whale one summer, sharing lifts to go see this behemoth dead mass. There is a painting that Christopher Wood made of the hull of a ship being made, with the wooden supports looking like whale bones in a harbour…
Yeah, I know the one you mean, I think that’s also in the Kettle’s Yard collection. Maybe we should have a trip down to Cambridge...?
We should! So, you can see how the two got connected, and it corresponded between this character based on Kit and this beached whale. I suppose you could say that all my work is about questioning our need to be present in specific moments in time.
Thinking of that idea of the ‘event’ has reminded me of your exhibition in Edinburgh at The Number Shop (the studios and gallery in the shadow of the castle) last year. I’ve noticed a reoccurring theme of flags and procession in your more recent work, and none more so than at this exhibition. Why flags? Why processions? I’m sensing an interest with ceremony as well…
There is that inbuilt respect of flags within ceremonies. We just recognise their importance. They are one of those things that just work, and it makes sense why and how they exist within our society, just like stained-glass or parks. They are beautiful, ethereal, and performative, which also is counterintuitive to the material they are made of which often denies particulars and meaning, but they are so emotive, why? So, there is that balance between vagueness and absolute again which I love about them, especially when they are not in use. The emotional weight of them as well, whole countries represented by this flapping sheet on a pole, and of course there is the reliance on the weather. I think even without the knowledge to decode flags you know something is happening; don’t go in the water etc. It’s this strange property that we they need to be decoded that makes them interesting as art objects, alongside the fact that they are both hugely political and non-political. If I saw a parade of black flags through the street I’d walk in the opposite direction.
I sat down the other day to write a brief summation of your practice, a task particularly tricky as you employ ever-changing mediums, and your work is always a surprise. I would say there is a preoccupation with slippages, things that fall down the cracks of society, alongside a strong interest in ephemera. What is it about uncertainty and flux that you find so engaging?
I guess it’s the delicate nature I’m attracted to. I’ve always been interested in making work that just-about exists, be that with assemblages, projected text or printed ephemera; something that manages to sit on the edge of itself. This is where the different mediums come in, I guess, it’s that need not to feel fixed (this sounds like Kit Wood again right?) - although there is a lot of through threads I see in the materials and mediums I use, they are always remnants of happenings, scraps of something else, even when I’m working with words or titles. We’ve talked a lot about human scale as well in the past and I think this is true. Items with a human scale really have that ability to become uncanny, they really speak so nicely of how meaning readily falls from objects and materials. I remember my tutor at university wanting me to make the same but bigger, and I really think this is counter-intuitive to my desired intention. In a way I want to slip between these cracks, I don’t want to create them. The larger something is the more jarring it becomes in the world, it’s a balance between making something that gets lost or actually rises slowly to the surface, and it's a certain satisfaction of opening up a situation, sculptural or otherwise, and leaving things unsaid.
Would it be fair to say also that there’s also an awkwardness to your work? I’m thinking of your piece Meadow (2017) as one example of this. What I like about your work is how the viewer must work to fathom your rereading of materials…
That awkwardness is also what’s best left unsaid, it’s the equivalent of the ellipsis in sculptural form, it’s like writing with disjointed syntax; this reordering or rereading as you put it, it is jarring because the right pieces are still there. When making sculpture I’m always writing phrases or words down, which then often become titles, but it’s all wordplay in materials or how to translate one thing to another, how does something exist next to another thing if they have nothing in common. Finding something that feels an ellipsis in visual language instead of a dead end is really important to my work. I guess it could be read as awkwardness as I do want to hand definitive entity over.
When I saw you at Gallery Weekend Berlin back in April you were about to travel to Lithuania for a residency as part of Gallery Weekend Kaunas. Could you tell me more about this? I know from reading a recently published review that you were looking at failure, boredom and waste. Thinking about it, this seems to be back to flux and uncertainty again…
Yes, very much all about uncertainty and how we need to categorize everything, and especially in the way archives and the act of archiving is being questioned right now. It was a collaborative project with Film Curator Paulina Drėgvaitė and myself, we had quite a few conversations about what’s left out of archives and who gets to decide. This all came out of the idea of how the internet and its user-created material negates these curatorial decisions. For example, YouTube is a form of archive, but one that fluctuates wildly between success and failure within itself whilst documenting remnants of emotions and feelings that we thought didn’t exist in archives already. But the project found these really nice connections with more historical references and we were able to add even more chaos to the abyss by injecting not only analysis via art and film history, theory and discourse, but also with our own personal narratives. We ended up presenting three performative lectures, taking the form of scripted talks that slipped from academic research into the anecdotal. We talked a lot about the hierarchical plateaux that is found in these online platforms, not an intersection of high and low culture but one of coexistence, cohesion and self-referential recycling. The project stemmed from a desire to talk about human endeavour or at least those very human functions of feeling. The concepts of failure, boredom and waste fit really neatly into those as well. We titled it after that incredible Kurt Vonnegut quote from Bluebird ‘My soul knows my meat is doing bad things’, which throws up questions of flesh, feeling and ethics. For example, we went from talking about medieval medicine to dissecting how apt the internet is for countercultures and then ending up showing a room full of people a man bathing in cream cheese on his birthday. I was worried these lectures would be so far outside of my practice, but they ended up being a freeing and new way of working. We developed this intuitive research process and let ourselves be led by it. The joy of the internet is that it has everything, and we could, and did, talk about anything we wanted. It was about adopting these references as vehicles to just get to the next subject, led by an algorithm.
HUE, installation View, Old Fire Station, Oxford, UK, 2015
I have boxes and boxes of exhibition interpretation at home, and I recently found the exhibition handout for your 2015 show HUE at the Old Fire Station in Oxford. I remember your delicate textiles and handmade dyes. Textiles often make an appearance in your work, and another example of note is BLUE/GREEN the sculptural piece you made in 2010. Quite simply, why textiles? I can’t help but see a nod to Richard Tuttle or maybe Robert Rauschenberg…
It was probably Mike Kelley more than Tuttle or Rauschenberg, although I’m a big fan of both. Tuttle in particular, he has a sensitivity to materials is baffling and makes total sense all at once. With Mike Kelley, it was his banner and carpet pieces. I remember finding that ‘Pants shitter and proud - P.S I wear glasses’ work and just inhaling the three books I could find. I made a few works whilst studying at Falmouth where I deconstructed toys into scraps and sewed them into furry letters, which were then stitched onto wearable tails presented on long plinths. Mike Kelly plays with that uncanny element with the textile, its ever-changing ability to shift and change but also demonstrating just how ingrained they are in our every day on a multitude of levels. Textiles can be domestic or ceremonious, useful or decorative, it’s the fluidity of them that’s intriguing. Kelley uses it in this emotive sense; it’s sad, it’s unnerving, it’s familiar. As a sculptural object, I find myself looking at the ability of textiles to present amorphous work, half fixed and imprecise. The banner pieces in HUE had projected text on which shifted with the movement of the air as visitors moved around the gallery. It has this seductive quality of feeling solid but also ephemeral, easily changed in volume and appearance both subtly and drastically. There’s a great YouTube video actually, I’ll send you a link, a scene from Cinderella where her stepsisters rip up her dress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6SdCDpvTnw.
I will check it out, you’re always good for a worthwhile link in my experience! When you mentioned the seductive quality of textiles and the impermeant nature of your artwork, I instantly thought of that sublime work by Roni Horn, Paired Gold Mats, for Ross and Felix (1994–5). I think sublime is the appropriate word here. Again, I know this is a work that has given you inspiration. Your work, like the Roni Horn is often metaphysical, transcendent, I mean, you’ve worked with William Blake’s death mask in the past as one example, and if you were music, you’re the Cocteau Twins, right? (joke)
Oh, Cocteau Twins… I remember the first time I realised Elizabeth Fraser was actually singing words, let’s face it, they are indecipherable most of the time. You can sit there with the lyrics in front of you but are still baffled by lines like “Like the scary hairs on our singing hooves / they move.” In fact, although you were joking, the Cocteau Twins are actually a great analogy to explain my work. It’s that extra layer of intrigue that’s key, the double indecipherability. However, I actually like that Roni Horn piece for the exact opposite reasons you mentioned, there is nowhere to hide when you make something like that and I don’t think I’ve ever seen something that has managed to solidify the experience of just ‘being’ as successfully. That golden glow has resonated with me for years. I suppose in a way my practice is always an investigation of identity, the transient and temporal qualities.
My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, installation View, Kaunas Artists' House Residency, Lithuania, 2018
I really enjoy your assessment of Paired Mats as a solidifying the experience of being. I’ve seen that work many times over the years, in various places, and each time it has made me more aware of fragility. Remember that stunning Tate Modern show in 2009, the Roni Horn retrospective? I suppose the work functions exactly as your textiles did in HUE, reacting to movements in the space around them. It looked particularly beautiful when I saw it presented in Dahn Vo’s Venice exhibition in 2015/16. The Venetian light dancing across it as it gently floated on the floor, it was hair-raising stuff. Ok, this is the most boring question of them all, but I love asking artists this. What artists are influencing you at the moment and why?
Ah, I always struggle with this question. I work a lot from the Edinburgh Central Library, in the art section at the very top of the building, so tend to get distracted, and pull books off the shelves as I work, which often proves a fruitful distraction. I was in the Netherlands over the weekend, so I picked up this large book of James Ensor paintings. People tend to not know this, but James Ensor was an incredible writer, something I’m excited to explore: “...I’m nasty, wicked, incapable, ignorant, a ‘creampuff’ gone rotten...”.
Whilst in the Netherlands I also saw a piece by Sharon Hayes at Witte de With in Rotterdam which has really stuck with me and reminded me of her fantastic show at The Common Guild in Glasgow a couple of years ago. Hayes has such a subtle and generous way of working, so much warmth and humanity ebbs from her work. I guess it shouldn’t just be artists either? As I live in Edinburgh see a lot of theatre and dance throughout the festival in August. The Mele Broomes’ take on JG Ballard’s Concrete Islands was inspiring; experimental dance enmeshed with abstract glitchy video landscapes. I also really enjoyed Hannah Mamalis’ The Egg is a Lonely Hunter as well which you can now listen to as a Radio Play: https://www.summerhall.co.uk/2018/09/egg-lonely-hunter-radio-summerhall/.
It sounds like you had a busy summer. I suppose I should now do that classic NME interview sign off, and ask what’s next for Nick Wood?
I’m working on a few collaborations, although those are in the very early stages, and I have started research for a couple of collaborative shows for 2019 of new sculpture, hopefully. I’m also a student again, studying an RHS course in horticulture which will either sit nicely alongside my practice or end up being entwined. Either way, I’m finding learning about plants, pests, and soil hugely enjoyable. It’s influenced a work I made for Edinburgh Contemporary Art Directory about lichen, so keep an eye out for that, it’s in print soon.
Edinburgh Contemporary Art Directory Comission, 2018
If you like this why not read our interview with Calum Crawford
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