Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995

Ai Weiwei at Royal Academy of Arts is not an alternative universe, nor an immersive world. It is not a solution to the craving for the spiritual that I have noticed in London during my visit this time. (Along with a trend for a sort of irritable cautiousness – but more on that another time.)

The work on display here is work made for museums, that is the scale that we are talking about, made from materials that could have been found in a museum – except they weren’t.


I am not even sure that they are old, but then I am not an expert.

Objects that he says were found or repurposed I suspect were mostly fabricated by the one of the several practitioners that he mobilizes to make his pieces. Joiners and furniture makers, marble, glass and jade workers, metal fabricators and ceramicists

So are they possessed with history? Yes. All the work here vibrates with the history and geography of China as much as it is concerned with the present and his current struggles. Struggles with the authorities, I mean. Not, as someone pointed out to me recently, with materials.

These struggles are important. Without these struggles with the authorities, what would remain? Their interventions are integral to his work. They are the lens that he offers us with which to view his output.

The eight hundred partygoers in his doomed architectural commission that turned the work into a ‘happening’ whilst Ai was held in prison overnight. The sculptural storyboard of his incarceration – detailed dioramas of humiliation and interrogation.

His critique of the authorities seems sincere but it is tinged with an impishness.

Where he seems to recede a little, lost behind and within works that are too minimal, too formal, he has written himself back into the story with new video documentaries. His strength, as we know, is in the force of his character, his personality, his sense of humour, his face even. He is most alive on Instagram.

Given that, maybe this venue is not such an ideal location for this artist and these works. The Royal Academy exhibition rooms underscore the seriousness of their contents and there isn’t much room for humour or dialogue. Maybe these things need windows to let the light in. (The exception that proves the rule, of course, is the annual and perennially easy breezy Summer Exhibition.)

Ai Weiwei invites scepticism. Remember the people who questioned at the time whether Ai really was detained by the Chinese authorities? Was it because the whole thing seemed so unreal in this day and age? Or did they wonder whether he was writing the next chapter of his own mythology?

I am not sure that this is really Ai’s work. By which I do not mean that it engages with issues of plagiarism and authorship, I simply think that his primary medium is the media. Or maybe his real work is the merchandise in the shop.

But here, back in the gallery, one of the other visitors earnestly listening to their audio guide mutters: “Just because he is famous. Just because he is famous.” I am not sure exactly what they mean but I feel that Ai has deliberately left some gaps for us to be sceptical about. He wants us to talk about his work, to argue over whether Chinese art is political enough, to question what is real and unreal. And in the silence, after the pot hits the floor, you can hear him laughing.

Remains, 2015

Remains, 2015

Coloured Vases, 2015

Coloured Vases, 2015

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014

Free Speech Puzzle, 2014


Large metropolises have some common tones, textures and feelings whether they are New York, London, Shanghai, or Paris. However, each is a product of its own geography, socio-political history and of the culture from which it emerged brick by brick, by tarmacked road, by work of art, by happening, by government, individual and collective of people.

Culture, incidentally, is a complex word, linked to place but also practices. I enjoy Clifford Geertz’ description of the relationship between humans and culture: “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”

Cities could be understood as supporting structures for webs of significance or be seen as webs themselves; holding and facilitating material objects, transient moments and histories. They inevitably share commonalities with other large concreted, concentrated areas of human dwellings, but each has properties and feelings exclusively its own.

I have just returned from the German capital, Berlin. A city I have been to several times but it still intrigues me. What defines and distinguishes it? What does it mean to live here? How much does the language barrier here prevent me from knowing? Without fully understanding its significance and its relation to these questions until I got inside, this week I visited the Buchstabenmuseum (Museum of Letters) for the first time at its current location in an old supermarket between Mitte and Friedrichshain.


What the Buchstabenmuseum demonstrates is that ‘language’ isn’t only in the nature and selection of words and use of grammar, but in the way that words and even individual letters are presented. For in Berlin, typography, signage and graphic design are not only used distinctively they are hugely important. The Museum of Letters collects, documents and preserves letters and whole words from signs and architecture. Some efforts are made to re-contextualise the letters, elsewhere they sit within their own dioramas, or are de-constructed to reveal their manufacture.

The prominence of lettering within the architecture of the city is in no small part due to the Bauhaus school, established in 1919 by Walter Gropius in the German city of Weimar. Bauhaus translates as ‘construction house’ or ‘school of building’ – the full impact of the school is explored in another Berlin venue, the Bauhaus Archiv. Typeforms, product design and architecture were all overhauled by the school’s teachings and the legacy of what we now interpret as the modernist style can be seen across the post-war German urban landscape.

In the Buchstabenmuseum modernism’s sans serif style is everywhere. But also present is lettering influenced or directly using the ‘Fraktur’ font. Originating in Rome in the 15th century, it became popular in the German speaking and influenced regions, who persisted in using it even when the conventional font for books and newspapers changed elsewhere in Europe. Its popularity persisted until the early 20th century – and it was championed by the Nazi regime (the cover of Mein Kampf uses a hand drawn version). Partly it was a rejection of the associations of the past, including Fraktur-stype scripts, that was enthusiastically taken up by the teachers and students of the Bauhaus. We see its legacy today though in situations such as Oktoberfest event marketing.


Back in the museum, an E is presented as though on a stage, spotlit with theatrical curtains behind. The effect is David Lynch meets Sesame Street. We are given torches to read the captions as the neon signs are best displayed in the half dark. It is an immersive experience as well as an educational one with a pleasing balance between quirky displays, interpretative explanations and just letting the letters speak for themselves on open display in rows and stacks which reveal their weight, variety, proliferation, signs of use and even deterioration.

The letters require space, (re)interpretation and careful management – as with any collection – and the museum’s impending closure and campaign to find a new home for the letters is sad but understandable. The website suggests that the museum wants to acquire more items, however; so, though nomadic, the museum is not likely to completely disappear any time soon. Although not as well known or publicised as other venues such as the Bauhaus Archiv or the Deutsches Historisches Museum, this collection – a web of significance drawn from the fabric of the city itself – is arguably as important in telling Berlin’s story, and a good starting point in the process of understanding the city.

For more information: http://www.buchstabenmuseum.de/

I wrote these words last year when I met Penny at the Galley.

From the outside the space has no form. The door could be a gate to a yard or a garage. Inside it has qualities of both burrow and bunker. A long straight room where you can’t see everything at once. A slither of white walled space, in which we spend a one-hour segment of time.

Penny and I talk about language, the difficulties of verbalizing artwork. Her drawings suggest narratives but deserve freedom from words. They don’t start out fully conceived, instead growing slowly from her unconscious mind. They aren’t necessarily finished when she initially stops working on them, she revisits them over time, resisting overthinking, applying more marks, more pressure.

They are totemic; populated by figures that are more or less people, though they may be trees or birds, characters from novels that might have been. Aliens, birds, moon faces; all conversing, enquiring, embracing, or often just being. Mostly peaceful, but some of the titles hint at power-plays. All rendered in pen on paper in the artist’s distinctive mode; full of secrets and symbols that the artist keeps.

She doesn’t outright reject the interpretation that her drawings have a darkness, but it is the ambiguity of her work that she aims to make the only constant. It is not words, but rules that Penny really resists. Rules, definitions and categorization.

She trained as a fine artist so sits outside of the ‘outsider’ group (although shares the automatism they often practice, and which was bought into the canon by the Surrealists and Dadaists). Sometimes she identifies as an illustrator, although this epithet doesn’t quite fit. It suggests that text comes first, when in reality, if stories relate to Penny’s drawings at all, they come afterwards.

Penny has been drawing for herself since art school. She carries the three drawings she is working on at any one time tucked inside a book. The works suggest ritual and obsession so it is pleasing to discover these qualities are inherent in her working process. She draws at home, on her lunch break, or sometimes in the reading room of the library. Outside influences when they have occurred have served to provide a burst of confidence and permission to do whatever she wants without justification.

What does the future hold? Sat amongst around fifteen monochrome works on paper of identical size, one work – Animal – holds a clue. Penny has considered saying goodbye to black and white and embracing the world of colour. Another possible avenue is to translate the drawings into prints; from etching-a-likes into etchings themselves. She has also been inspired and excited by the possibility of dip pens and by researching the human brain.

Underscoring the potential for change and experimentation lies a practice that does not need to change: one that the artist is happy with. A means for Penny to process visually. To absorb thoughts and feelings – and faces, of family, friends or brief acquaintances – by osmosis onto the page. Progression, she concludes, is breaking rules. We should all be able to move more freely.


A tray of fake eyes that look like gruesome marbles. Two headed creatures suspended in time forever. Prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai. Salt and Pepper shakers. Soviet space dogs. Scarves and scarves and scarves and scarves.

The full spectrum of material culture is here: disposable, covetable, high, low, and kitsch. The personal collections of fourteen artists have been transposed to the Barbican’s elegant mid-century modernist exhibition spaces and presented alongside one example of each artists’ work. The curatorial objective is clearly to make links between the collections and their owner’s output. However, other questions bubble to the surface. Why as a species do we need to own so many things, often multiple versions of the same things? Does the act of collecting items imbue them all with the same status, whether they started life as valuable or insignificant? Is collecting a response to times of poverty? Is it a practise that is going out of fashion in the digital age? Will it endure amongst artists?

Damien Hirst has made a career out of presenting collections or multiples of objects, or otherwise inverting our assumptions about animal and mineral items. One wonders how many butterflies have passed through his studios? Flown to their sticky, painterly graves. Here some of his own items of taxidermy and medical artefacts (his interest in the medical theme is shared by art dealer and photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, the owner of the glass eyes) are presented alongside the piece Last Kingdom, 2012, vertical rows of entomological specimens: a collection in itself.

Elsewhere, Peter Blake and Martin Parr also demonstrate a very strong connection between their work and the act of collecting. Blake surrounds himself in his studio with dolls, figurines, ventriliquists dummys and signage. His collages are collections of illustrations, clippings, packaging and photographs, somehow absorbed into his own distinctive aesthetic. Whereas Parr’s anthropological investigations are like unscientific studies, using his photographs and collections of postcards and ephemera as evidence for unspoken theories (the Soviet space dogs are his). Both artists whether consciously or unconsciously have explored ‘Britishness,’ which they characterise as stoic, eccentric and led by grass roots activities and folkloric practises.

The Japanese prints belong to Sol LeWitt. The thread between these works and his brand of minimalism and instructional art is not so direct. But yet we expect to see successful artists collecting art, indulging their desire for culture; the prints he has chosen are stunning and timeless. His wife Carol, speaking on the app that accompanies the exhibition says, “collecting is an addition. One [LeWitt] had… he always used to quote Gertrude Stein who said that artworks are priceless and worthless.” Perhaps this reveals an inner battle between collecting and not collecting, or a shade of insecurity about his profession.

The ages of the artists are interesting. The oldest are Arman, Le Witt and Andy Warhol, all born in 1928, and the youngest is Dr Lakra, the Mexican muralist and tattoo artist at only 42. Most were born in the 50s and 60s – their parents, whether British or American, would have survived the Second World War. Might these memories of rationing and going without, as well as the following surge in popular culture, have triggered the collecting impulse? And growing up in a world pre-internet, is it natural that artists would gather a physical and visual memory bank of references? Only the future, when the emerging artists of today reach half a century old, can tell us the answer.

Hanne Darboven’s collections are presented as a ‘total artwork’ – a gesamtkunstwerk. She appears to have no barriers to her field of collecting, no search terms; it only qualifying as a collection as she is at the centre acquiring it or inheriting it. Tiffany lamps, a cheeky monkey, objects from her ‘tower room’ and writing desk.

Curatorially, some strange decisions have been made. There are rugs to symbolise the home, and pallets and crates to represent the exhibition coming together. Yet the desire to reveal the artists’ influences links back to their studios – which aren’t referenced at all. The exhibition fetishizes the glass showcase – a hallmark of ‘the museum’.

However, not everything is cased and protected. Brushing my face like laundry on a line is a selection of Pae White’s collection of Vera Neumann scarves. They have been used as though they are a material in one of White’s installations, possessing the same playful and tactile qualities as other examples of her work. Neumann’s textiles all share her bold use of colour, a motif like fruits or flowers, her distinctive draftmanship and her signature as part of the design. Far from being unsettled when confronted by her 1000 Neumann scarves, Pae White confessed that being involved in the exhibition made her consider acquiring more…

Like White, Dahn Vo’s presentation is intimately bound with another artist. Martin Wong’s collection of thousands of disparate objects, posthumously acquired and now preserved by Vo, has in the transition of ownership been transposed into a ‘readymade’ artwork as well as an archive. The room in the exhibition that contains some of the 4000 objects divides opinion amongst visitors: there are those who are fascinated and intrigued, and those who are horrified by this scene of clutter. It is a magnet for dust, the collection has no focus, it is hard to find the artist among it.

Magnificent Obsessions believes that we will be fascinated and delighted to be shown a part of the artistic process often left behind when the artists’ work transitions from studio to gallery. But it does not begin to approach to bigger questions of human beings and their relationship to the material. Artist Jim Shaw, whose collection of paintings he found in ‘thift stores’ and ‘yard sales’ compares these places, and the act of combing through them to find weird things, to palaeontology or archaeology. Maybe this reflects a certain kind of art-making… post-Pop there have been many artists exploring not only the popular culture of their time, but finding trends and revelations in the recent past. Maybe this kind of art making will be left behind in the 20th century.


This subject – mental health – is usually something that we see explored through outreach and events rather than the core exhibitions programme at contemporary art venues. Could you say a little bit about the significance for you of seeing mental health centre stage in a venue like FACT?

Yes, I think it’s really important. The arts makes a big effort to be inclusive and approach specialist groups, people with disabilities or mental health issues and make the arts relevant to them. But sometimes this can perpetuate the idea that they are an ‘outsider’ group. So it has been really nice for me as a curator to approach this by asking, how does mental health affect everyone? There is that very popular quote you hear often, ‘one in four people will experience a mental health issue’ – actually I think it is everyone.  All of us experience mental health issues at some time in our lives, whether it is ourselves or a family member or a friend. So it is significant that FACT and myself have taken on this subject and presented it as something for everyone and not just for an ‘outreach’ community.

The relationship between mental health, art and technology is your on-going research topic.  Now you see the exhibition open to the public, do you feel that the process of curating it has helped to move your thinking on at all?

Yes, absolutely.  One of the most important things for me is the idea that art can help create empathy, or help you see something from a slightly different perspective.  We were doing an evaluation session this morning with some groups that regularly use FACT, and they were recounting their experiences of the exhibition. There was one individual in particular who was talking about [the piece called] Labyrinth Psychotica, which enables you to see the point of view of someone experiencing psychosis. He said that work helped him to think about what the experience of mental illness might be like for other people. I suspected and hoped that this exhibition would achieve that –and I am starting to gather evidence that that these works can help shift people’s perspectives and change minds.


Is the exhibition going to be used as a springboard or possibly tour?

For my future work I want to think about shared cognition. As technology advances there is this idea that we are all sharing our cognition more and cognitive processes are taking place in groups. I am really interested in what mental health looks like under these conditions.  And also artificial intelligence, I am really interested in the relationship between mental health and artificial brains.

Could you talk a little bit about the decision to present most of the artists together in gallery 1 at FACT?

There are other works in gallery 2 – Jennifer Kanary Nikolov’s Labyrinth Psychotica and an archive of FACT’s previous work in the area of mental health. On a practical level, that work needed space around it and [provision for] recovery time.  But I think when you are talking about mental health and technology you are very often talking about immersion and over-stimulation, being bombarded by lots of different information. It is a complex subject, which isn’t best dealt with by presenting a small number of carefully crafted artistic statements in a large empty space.  Putting a lot of work in one gallery allows people to join the dots, build narrative and experience some of that idea of over-stimulation

Because these are artists investigating the subject, rather than scientists or therapists, did you see the exhibition as an opportunity to touch on ‘fake’ or placebo treatments or therapies? I noticed that you included a historic electric shock machine.

The idea of fake therapy is interesting, because ultimately therapy is whatever works for you; everyone needs something different in terms of supporting their mental health.  The ECT machine I thought was a good inclusion because it demonstrates how we have historically used machines to try and modify our brains.  There is definitely a narrative thread in the exhibition about control and mental health. For example Quintan Ana Wikswo’s photographs of old asylums, a lot of the research that she did alongside them was about how asylums have been used for societal control. They were used for people whose behaviour wasn’t socially acceptable, people who were in a mixed race relationship or young girls that had got pregnant before they were married, etc, [were incarcerated] under the banner of mental illness. The ECT machine speaks to the same idea.  If people demonstrated behaviour that couldn’t be controlled, the machine was used to keep them quiet and knock the life out of them – so to speak.


There is also, in the exhibition, a strong thread about individual voices, alongside mental health as a theme.  Technology has become important in disseminating individual stories.

Yes absolutely, it is important. The title of the show – Group Therapy – came originally from considering the way that the internet has become the new talking therapy.  Blogging about mental health has come incredibly popular.  There is actually a short essay in the catalogue produced by a prominent mental health blogger.  The idea of technology allowing people to reach out to others that share their experience is really important.

I was interested to read on your blog about how you had been producing work exploring suicide in a high rise building and then had to confront your motivations when someone really did take their own life at that location. Mental health is an emotive topic, how have you navigated your way through it?

It is a difficult topic. As I say, I think everyone has some relationship to the subject of mental health. Everyone is their own expert on the issue. The artists who were involved in making exhibition would also probably say they all have some kind of lived experience of mental health issues; it would have been awful if we had curated the exhibition with artists none of whom had those experiences. The ethics of doing the kind of work that we are doing, like putting a psychosis simulator in the gallery, we have to think very carefully about how we manage it. But everyone who has [visited the exhibition so far] has been grateful for the opportunity to talk about mental health, perhaps in a freer way than they have before.

Are there any artists or pieces that you were particularly excited to secure for the exhibition?

There are so many! The kind of work that interests me most, personally, is work that crosses over between art and research practise or something that is employed somehow in a clinical setting. There are two pieces of artists’ work that this particularly applies to: George Khut’s The Heart Library, that is the piece that uses bio feedback to help users monitor their heart rate, he is a researcher and an academic, and the technology behind that piece has also been used in clinical settings – a version of it has been used to help support children about to undergo painful medical procedures, to help moderate their anxiety. The Labyrinth Psychotica by Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a) is another example of an artist research project impacting clinical practice; it is taken around to psychiatry conferences to help psychiatrists who have never experienced psychosis. Those are really exciting to me – those projects informed by research.

There is also a new commission by Katriona Beales on the subject of internet addition. She is an artist who has worked in the past in Liverpool so it was exciting for me to be able to commission her to make a new work.

I think I am right in saying that the majority of artists featured in this exhibition are female. Do you think there is something about the subject matter that attracts female artists; is it your influence as a female curator, or just a coincidence?

Gender is something that is pertinent to the subject of mental health, in more ways than I am able to list right now. Looking at the list of artists there are four male artists and nine female. Issues around the body, self image, technology and mental health are [resonant with] women in particular: the way that women have been subjugated using mental health as a sort of alibi, the archetype of the hysterical women is very familiar to us all. At some stage we decided that we wouldn’t intentionally foreground the theme of gender as there is so much going on in the exhibition already. I didn’t set about deliberately to bring in a lot of female artists but these themes are [interesting and explored by] a lot of women and female artists.


You are now based in Sydney – are you going to be coming and going throughout the exhibition run?

I am going back to Sydney quite soon – next week! There is the possibility of something in this vein happening in Sydney and I will be continuing email conversations with FACT about the legacy for this project. It is important to FACT that this exhibition emphasizes their ongoing work in the area of mental health and their partnerships with people like Mersey Care NHS Trust . There is a genuine desire to continue to do meaningful work  around mental health.

Vanessa’s blog: vanessabartlett.com

First published on queenofthetrackzine.tumblr.com

Linda Pittwood: Hi Cornelia. My first question is: what has been your impression of the new Whitworth?

Cornelia Parker: I think it looks great. I knew it before and it used to be quite dark and the back of the museum was blocked off. You would go into dark rooms with suspended ceilings; now all those rooms have been opened up and they have lovely full height rooms and then they have been pierced in the back so that you can look through to the gardens. It is much more light and airy and the bits they have added round the side are just gorgeous. I am very happy to be doing this first exhibition.

That worked out well! How long have you been in a dialogue with Maria Balshaw about the exhibition?

Quite a long time really, two to three years, two and a half years perhaps. I first met her about three years ago and she was sounding me out about doing something in the gardens or a firework display – which I have done quite a few of as artworks – then about two years ago she asked me if I would like to do the inaugural show, which seemed a very exciting thing. The show was supposed to happen earlier, but the opening of the building was delayed. But it was worth waiting for. I think she has done an amazing job on not a huge amount of money.

Yes, it’s a really exciting thing for the city. Maria has talked about how your piece Cold Dark Matter made a huge impression on her at age 22. Did this add to the pressure as lead artist at the opening of the gallery?

A little bit! But pressure can be good, sometimes I work better under pressure. And I was given three beautiful spaces. I knew one of them was going to house the shed [Cold Dark Matter, above], the middle one was going to house a combination of different works from different periods, and that left the last room, which I wanted to make a new work for. It is very difficult to make a large-scale work without back up – that is why I think doing museum shows is brilliant. You get to realize something that you have had in your mind for a long time but not had the space or the back up to do it.

Can you tell us about that brand new work — War Room?

I wanted to make a work in response to the exploded shed, 24 years later. When I made the original piece it was partly in response to the IRA bombs going off in London, where I was living at the time and still live. That constant threat of the explosion. I had never touched anything that had been blown up, but you see it on the news and it pervades our lives, in fact it is getting worse and worse, there are more and more explosions in the world and we have the terrorist threat in Britain again. I felt I wanted to make something acknowledging war.

Whitworth Art Gallery -- image by David Levene

I had been talking to the [Imperial War Museum] about doing a war commission, which is still in the offing, and I went to the poppy factory in Richmond with a view to making a piece as part of the WW1 commemorations. I was struck by this material that I saw there, this punched out poppy paper, and I thought perhaps I should make the work for the Whitworth, because that was more present in my mind and it didn’t really fit into the war museum’s timetable.

So the idea was that the shed was blown up by the British Army and then at the other side of the war there is the British Legion making poppies, the money making industry for the dead. The shed is very dynamic and exciting and 24 years later you have a kind of chapel, a place with 3200 absences, poppy-shaped holes. A more sombre reflection on the other side of the explosion.

I think in general the WW1 commemorative pieces that have been the most successful are those that acknowledge the historical but bring in contemporary themes so that they resonate today.

Yes, the War Room isn’t really about the First World War. It is about the ongoing production of poppies, and the ongoing commemoration of the dead, a blood-red room following the explosion. Lit by four light bulbs so it is quiet and dark.

I also made a new work for the Whitworth called War Machine, which is a nine-minute film of the automated poppy factory at Ayleford, which is not where I got the poppy paper from. The machines work from 7am until 10pm all through the year apart from two weeks off.  They just pound out these poppies and send them all over the world, to 80 different countries. It will never stop, I can’t imagine it ever stopping.

Have you found it a reflective process – putting together new work with work from up to 24 years ago?

Yes, it is the first time I have shown the shed in an exhibition like this. It has been in group-shows or on permanent display at the Tate. It has been quite exciting to make a response to it. I am still working with those themes, it is not as though I have left it way behind. All the work from different periods in the show seem to sit quite well together. Thematically they make quite a cohesive whole – I am not as schizophrenic as I thought I was!

Cornelia Parker, Whitworth Art Gallery -- image by David Levene

Maria seems to love the fact that you and Cai Guo-Qiang, another exhibiting artist, both utilise ‘blown up’ materials. Do you think there is an interesting connection between yourself and the other artists on display for the opening?

[Cai] works with gunpowder, but his work is quite dissimilar to mine, similar materials but his work is much more painterly. His work is less quiet, my work is quite quiet really, even the shed which appears visually cacophonous. Our work comes from two different cultures, British and Chinese, but the work complements each other nicely. There is lots of other work on show, including Sarah Lucas, who has a whole room, I really love her work.

It is good to have a strong female force among the artists on display.

Yes! Just like Maria herself who is an unstoppable force and has done great things for Manchester. She is of course also the director of the City Art Gallery and she has raised money for the new venue for the Manchester International Festival. Culturally now, Manchester is really punching above its weight.

Manchester seems to be having a bit of a moment.

People are talking about the new ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – but it has always been a powerhouse! I did a show at the Cornerhouse in 1989, a really important show for me, and now I am coming back to Manchester. I grew up in Cheshire and Manchester is where I came to for culture, to see plays, and I have always been very fond of Manchester. And the Liverpool Everyman!

In your recent Guardian interview with Tim Adams I noticed he quoted your Whitworth collaborator, Nobel prize winner Konstantin Novoselov, who said that you were both working at the “extreme end of creativity”. Could you tell us a little more about working with him?

That has been remarkable – really good – we enjoyed ourselves a lot. We did things together that would have been impossible to do apart, which is always what a collaboration should be about. My invitation to him to try and make graphene from Old Master drawings was something we both got really excited about. He has a strong interest in art and the history of graphite as a drawing material, so it worked with his research but he wouldn’t have thought to do that.

I am doing a three-year honorary professorship at the Whitworth so I am going to carry on my relationship with him and with the gallery. There is a lot of unfinished business! Mary [Griffiths, curator at the Whitworth] and Maria have been like the midwives assisting me with the birth of all this new work. Women! All powerful women.

You often work in collaboration with other non-artists. Is this because it is vital to your practice or is it simply enjoyable?

It is a vital part although I don’t collaborate to produce every piece. I am not a studio-based artist, I just sometimes use it to put things in or undertake a messy process. I find myself being much more creative in conversation with other people. I prefer being on site making instant decisions. It is interesting speaking to scientists because they are not always sure what they are looking for; we just have a hunch that this is an interesting place to be. We play with materials until we find the right way into them and then make this quantum leap. It’s very rewarding – I don’t think I can stop collaborating.

First published on thedoublenegative.co.uk

Hi Jamie. It’s very nice to meet you; I’ve been really interested in your work for a long time. How have you found Liverpool, and when did you arrive?

I arrived in April. I didn’t really know Liverpool, I knew Manchester much better. [The opportunity to come here] came at a good time, I had just finished a long project – Hiker Meat – that culminated in an exhibition at the Cornerhouse. I realised on reflection that project had lasted five or six years, although it changed continually throughout, and there was a moment when I realised that when I started it I was in my 20s, and I am now 36.

I’m a compulsive maker, it’s difficult for me to not do anything, but it was a good time for me to take stock and I needed some sort of change. I like the dislocation of coming here, not having a studio, not having a routine, not knowing a place, not knowing how to spend my time on a daily basis. So it’s been great. Starting [a new body of work] is always painful; I forget this when I am working on a project the strands of which started several years previous.

You have been the Bluecoat‘s 2014 Summer Print Studio Artist in Residence. Were you able to start something new during your time there?

The beginning of something often starts with a medium, an approach or a process that I am not familiar with. So screenprinting is what I did here. I have always been interested in screenprinting but didn’t know anything about it. I knew the basic principle of a mesh and image, but [I learnt] through practice and didn’t necessarily approach it in the most efficient way. That is essentially how I work, without much official tutoring or someone going ‘that’s wrong’ because sometimes those wrong things work out well with what I am trying to achieve.

There was no set goal of what was to be achieved in this period of time. The only stipulation was that you had to make an edition. I was conscious that I wanted to make pictures and I wanted to make them in a singular way as opposed to a repetitious edition-based way, which is the traditional way screenprinting is done. I wanted to interrupt that process.

I think I ended up making about 60 or 70 ‘things’, by things I mean outcomes, and about five of them were good. ‘Good’ is probably the wrong word, but there was some sort of bridge between the intention and the outcome. It took me a long time to build up my confidence in relation to the medium. It’s extremely exhausting. But that was important to me that labour intensiveness.

Will you be presenting the outcomes from the residency?

I had this show in Rome, which was scheduled to open the first week of October. The intention was that the work produced [at the Bluecoat] would go into that show but it all got so close to the wire. I was printing onto wood, to me they were the frontispieces of paintings and they were going to have a stretcher on the back. I ran out of time here so I shipped all the work and made the backs out there. That became the end point.

Jamie Shovlin at the Cornerhouse on Friday

[Also in that show I exhibited] drawings of hands that I produced here, using images of sculptures from the Renaissance, high Western art. These images are strangely aligned to Liverpool, even though they have nothing to do with Liverpool as a place, because as I didn’t have any internet access or anywhere to work when I arrived, I used to go to the Picton Reading Room a lot. And they have these oversized art books in there, really beautiful books, published largely in the ’60s… that are largely image based… and then this rather bitchy scholarship. Really judgmental. The drawings gave some context to what I was doing here [at the Bluecoat] where my hand wasn’t visible.

For the longest time I was engaged principally in process. Which at a certain point, thankfully, segued into something more conceptual, more compelling. I have never had an interest in historic sculpture, I am not sure if I do, but I do have an interest in history making.

Is the show in Rome a solo show?

It’s a two-person show [entitled C/O An alternate correspondence. It’s open now] at Unosunove Gallery with an artist called Philomene Pirecki, who is based in London. Her work is about continually reframing what she is doing. I was doing something similar, but she works directly in the space. I have liked her work for a long time. It’s a form of conceptual painting. It has this inherent idea of time and of place. Formally [her work and mine] work well together. It’s not something I normally think about — tone, colour scheme, we’ve got too much magenta on that wall, that sort of thing.

Naomi V Jelish  2004 mixed media

The old masters you are referencing would have worked with studios in a particular way, for instance, with assistants. Have you ever tried that?

I tried it! At one time I was making work that was more friendly to that way of working. But after a couple of weeks I was struggling to find work for them to do. [What I am doing now is] about contact with the thing whilst you are making it. Building up layers. They aren’t performative or purely durational, but time is very important. People often ask ‘how long did it take you?’ – it’s such a stupid question. Sometimes time does equate to value, but some of the best things I have seen took seconds to produce, even though there is no struggle in them; I am more towards the durational end of the spectrum.

When I was researching for this interview, words like ‘trickster’ and ‘conman’ came up often. I wondered how comfortable you are with this label? Does it refer principally to work you made a long time ago?

The word I dislike most is ‘hoaxer’; it reduces everything to that ‘ha ha I’ve got you!’ moment. Roughly speaking, I have done three projects you could call fake archives. The point of reveal has always been different. Naomi V Jelish (pictured, above) was my first ever show and there was the possibility to engineer an exhibition experience where the viewer wouldn’t know what they were looking at. The structure of the show came from the space; I knew I had two floors in the gallery to work with. One level was the archive of drawings, the ‘front’ of the story being told, and the other level was about the production of the story.

Then there is the Saatchi thing, which I am amused by…

The myth that Charles Saatchi perpetuated, that he thought the archive was real and the drawings were produced by a 13-year-old girl…

…This ‘myth’ as you say. I had never spoken to the press, I was talking to them genuinely and then they asked me ‘how do you feel about tricking him?’ I knew it wasn’t true but there was a game to play. It was my first show at a well-known gallery and Saatchi was there when I arrived, drinking a cappuccino. He told me [he was going to tell the press he thought the archive was real] and he said to me ‘this is going to be good for me and you.’ What was amazing about the experience, apart from the heightened interest in the work, was the insight into his PR umbrella. He gave a story about each artist in the show to a different publication — newspapers not magazines. My story went to the Telegraph. I now have in the archive genuine press clippings about the show alongside fake press clippings that I made myself. It’s like layers of an onion; he added several layers to the work.

Going back to my original question about Liverpool, I wondered whether place is quite important to how you work? I notice that Cumbria crops up a couple of times on your CV.

The North-West actually as a region has been quite key. I’ve done three or four shows in Manchester, Liverpool and Carlisle. With the Carlisle exhibition – at Tullie House – that project was all about context and site. I was working with the curator Fiona Venables who is amazing, one of the best people I have worked with. She was trying to bring closer together two disparate strands of what the museum was doing – the collections, the research, the historic museum and the very ambitious exhibition programming.

The curators of the collections were very wary because of my reputation. I was there for three years, mostly gaining trust. They would be wanting to show me their best things and I would be interested in a tuna fish under a tarpaulin or an ostrich egg in a toilet roll holder.

I like the edges of collections, museums with an archeology of their own history. I wanted to tell the story of how objects entered the collection. Everything we see has been processed through some mind or collective mind, or its been fictionalised. People put emphasis on different things. This is why I didn’t see working in the museum as that different to my other work [such as the fake archives]. Even if it’s the most verified historical account, it has been shaped by people who always have an agenda.

First published on thedoublenegative.co.uk


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