by Jeremy Gluck for GS Artists
Three years and more of self-abuse by the body politic later, Great Britain is a country on the edge of a nervous breakdown (and, conceivably, eventually the edge of a noxious breakup). The response of accomplished, internationally commissioned Cardiff-based artist, graphic designer and filmmaker Mark James, “Post-Brexit Anxiety and Depression”, opened September 13th at GS Artists, continuing to October 10th.
Nearly stricken with a sense of seething defiance and, yes, frustration, the show subverts and reinvents diverse national tropes, tracing a canny, sometimes caustic, line through the feral smash-and-power grab crypto-fascist antics of the current regime, rejoicing in work such as a swastika rendered in Daily Mail logos, a parody of Band Aid entitled “Brit Aid”, printed as is the case with many of the pieces on tabloid stock and – my personal favorite – a monochrome vintage Union Jack scanned onto a bin liner. Compelling, with a telling time-release impact, this is mature, human work, deserving of scrutiny and celebration.
The show, James states, is “a collection of published and unpublished works…created in the aftermath of the UK 2016 referendum result. On June the 24th 2016, I found myself, along with many others, in a deep state of shock. The UK had voted to leave the EU. I struggled to come to terms with the idea of how gullible and selfish people could be. I felt an overwhelming sense of grief. And the fact that people were taken in by the likes of Farage, Johnson and Gove. They lied, they continue to lie, and no one seemed to care. There are no consequences for their actions. There was also fear, fear that the UK was seeing the rise of the far right. There was a feeling of unease in the air, we weren’t sure what was going to happen, as we still don’t three years later, and now looming even closer to the deadline. I started making notes, writing statements, protest art, collages, and so on. A lot of it was filed away. It was a kind of therapy. Making images and working with typography helped release the frustration I was feeling…”
In the thick of installation, Mark and I retired to a suitably dystopian space behind the main gallery where he graciously found time to endure my spontaneous, pedantic interview technique.
JG (Jeremy Gluck) Why art? It’s 2019. Why art?
MJ (Mark James) Because I’ve done art since I was in school, it’s all I could do in school, seriously. Towards the end of my years in comprehensive school, I wasn’t disruptive in any way. I just wasn’t interested, just couldn’t focus or concentrate. I loved art. I loved drawing, making things. So I just did that for the last few months of school… I had to do Maths and English. And then as soon as school was done, I was out. I was in living in Cardiff and I wanted to work within graphics and the music industry. I was obsessed with the punk sleeves of the time, you know, it sounds a bit obvious, but it was just that time for me seeing all those sleeves like Barney Bubbles and Malcolm Garrett sleeves, such an influence – and Jamie Reid, obviously – as a kid being nine years old and that it was just so colourful and bright and it wasn’t like anything else. As I grew older I realised that a lot of that work was based on previous work from the 60s, Warhol and people like that. But, you know, it was all brand new to me at the time. And it just excited me. The whole idea of cutting and pasting, it stayed with me. I left school and there was no option, talking about going into the music industry was insane. You just didn’t have that choice back then. So, then I got a job in a printers and I worked through the print process, learning print, but always wanting to do graphic design. In between doing commercial print work for my job, basically I would do my own, often doing screen printing and litho printing.
So it’s always been there, but it was always this sort of a commercial sensibility that you have to earn a living, basically. It’s something I used as a release in a way. Sometimes some of the pieces can take take months to come to life because the idea is there but it’s how did you execute it? How’d you execute it exactly how you see it? And other one’s it’s just, bang, it’s an idea, it’s there and it’s done, you know? Um, so yeah, it’s a mix of… Why art? is ‘cause I have to do art I’m not that vocal. I can’t change the world but I can make pictures, you know, if I could sing, I’d write protest songs.
JG Two things. One, I was in a band and Malcolm Garrett designed the stuff for our first phase. The Barracudas, when we were on EMI, he did all our single sleeves and album cover. Brilliant guy, brilliant guy. A real design champion. Going from what you just said…
MJ I was gonna say, with the work Malcolm Garrett did, there’s was such a difference between Manchester and London in design ethic. Peter Saville was a minimalist in a way. The Buzzcocks and Joy Division sleeves and other things that they did are different to the cut and paste, more ripped and torn art of the London scene.
JG The early fanzine aesthetic is one of my favourite art styles and even movements. And I wrote for some of the earliest fanzines like Sniffin’ Glue and Ripped & Torn, who pioneered that style. And of course you’re referencing it to some extent in your work, which reminds me of what you just said, which jumped out at me towards the end about you can’t “change anything”. You can’t change anything. And yet obviously just in this show, and in some of your other work, you’re pointing towards a situation now in Britain – which I call “Brexicide” myself – where there is this idea that – and we just had a show proceeding yours by Scott Mackenzie called “Nothing Has Changed”, triggered by Theresa May’s notorious, idiotic statement – you can’t change anything, and yet you’re referencing and pointing towards, or laterally inferring ways to change things or what should change…how does that dynamic work? I take it, you don’t feel literally disempowered, but then what’s your relationship to what you’re saying about your inability to change things? You do art, or you do art in spite of the fact that you can’t change anything?
MJ You hope that – you can’t change anything – but it makes people think about a situation, you know, with the Nigel Farrage plate, we put that out and the press got hold of it and it created a lot of attention, and a lot of negative attention: I got a lot of hate mail and stuff like that, but there you go. I knew what I was doing, but it made people think, and the art, the process of it was journalists writing the story of why I had done this because it wasn’t just, “Here’s a piece of art”.
I put it out and said, well, “What if?” We would not be here right now, if that had happened and it wasn’t the idea of wishing him dead, but if he had died, things would be different today. And it’s why we have a country so divided, broken and it’s getting more and more insane. And no one seems to, um, we seem to have lost the idea of truth and reality. And it’s become a game for politicians to play. With people’s lives. And so, if you can make people think about that: The story went in a few newspapers – in the Daily Mail – and it was fantastic because it was like, well, I’m reaching the people I want to have that conversation with. Not in person, but it was success. I mean, you want to get angry and do something, but what are we going to do?
JG It is a very interesting question. To cause real change with that sort of protest you must be willing to protest every day, or at least every week. Look at the Civil Rights movement in America for example. And finally I think in a way it’s a quality of our times here that it’s starting to happen now with so many people constantly protesting every day somewhere, sometimes in multiple locations in Britain, it’s very encouraging. So maybe momentum is slowly building. I dunno if it can be sustained. I think it’s a funny place Britain is in now. There’s a lot of pent up energy. I don’t think it’s really catalysed yet. Maybe October 31st…or November 1st?
MJ I don’t know, it’s like there’s a fear that people who voted leave are going to take to the streets if we don’t leave. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think they’re gonna realise that they’ve been completely stitched up. I don’t think Remainers are going to be going, “Told you so”. This is bad: when the government won’t publish the outcome of their research. That’s when you got to worry, you know? I’ve been on a lot of marches, in London and Cardiff, a million people marching. Well, they’re not taking any notice anymore. I’m like thinking about whether that march should have happened on a Wednesday instead of a Saturday?
JG The Extinction Rebellion people seem to have a good grip on that.
MJ Yes, absolutely.
JG Taking over bridge’s peak times in the week. Yeah. If only that could be translated into the Brexit protest. It would be more effective.
MJ Yeah. Just stop, we have to stop…
JG Right. The Civil Rights model, sitting on the streets.
MJ You see lots of people at these marches, it’s so peaceful and respectful and how it should be, you know? But they don’t take much notice, and they didn’t take notice of the Iraq War march, like a million people on the streets. Then what happens? When I was younger there was lots of marches, always something, and it felt like we made a change, but I’m not sure we did.
JG This was a theme of Scott’s show: “Nothing has changed”, which was very powerful and very intriguing. He conveyed this feeling of steady state entropy going back to Thatcher, before the current slide. It happened so slow. You can see how we, in a way, how we got where we are, but also not, because a lot of people have bewilderment fatigue. It goes beyond what they’re calling “Brexit fatigue”. It’s absurdism fatigue. I look at the paper or whatever, I read the news and I just go, right. It’s almost in a way, tragically, like the shootings sprees: when they first started in America, it was a major shock that this was happening anywhere despite the gun culture in the States. Now I see a shooting spree story. I don’t even read it because I just think, it’s just another shooting spree. I have a kind of wry expression and this is the problem. I mean, whatever happens next, I wonder how you’ll respond to it with your own work? So here the stakes are high for an artist to take on the challenge of expressing and reading the subtext. Quite a challenge, I think now there’s so much happening, but nothing has changed. How do you hit that balance?
MJ I really don’t know. I myself had to switch off for a bit, you know, ‘cause it was weighing me down. I’m trying to work on a lot of commercial projects as well, I have to focus on that as well. It’s normal, it’s not just painting or prints for me. It’s not just art for me, it’s commercial art as well. I’ve got to balance that out. Sometimes I just have to switch off because otherwise you just become bitter. You see it, how it affects people. I don’t know what’s next, it almost feels futile because it’s like there’s so much going on all the time and it’s changing so quickly that to make a real statement…how? you know?
JG Yesterday I watched a series on the last of the Romanovs, “The Last Czar”. And of course they were depicting some of the quite extreme graffiti and handbills and posters that were put up by the innumerable parties and terrorists, so-called, at the time. And I thought there’s an element of that in it’s the politeness thing in Britain as well. There’s a lot of graphic material, there’s a lot, you know, visual art and so on, with which I would include yours, but I start wondering is it extreme enough to reach people because they’re so desensitised and exhausted by the entire situation in the country after three years?
And now we’re sharing in this wonderful festival of futility. Do you to keep on raising your game to really reach people? I think if you see what I mean, how extreme do you get? The period in this documentary, some of the visuals were very poor but also graphic and often explicitly quite outre in the way they were attacking the government and attacking the royal family. And I think it’s in the British character where there’s almost too much restraint at times. And people – they’re not afraid to – but it’s not in their nature to make these kinds of extreme statements and then the results accrue. There’s a lot of cerebral output. I love what you’re doing. It’s also very cerebral, I feel. And that’s the thing, my work’s very cerebral, too. But then you run the risk of not reaching the energy levels you need to pierce another’s awareness. When your art is your art and you do what you do, you have faith in it and it’s what’s natural to you. But it made me think of my own stuff and I was like, it’s not punching through enough!
MJ No. Going back to the Jamie Reid read sleeve for “God Save the Queen” and the single being banned of the time, and the Pistols’ Bill Grundy interview, it was notorious, but now we’re not shocked. You know what I mean? It’s like if we’ve gone so far now, everyone is “unshockable”…
JG Paradoxical, isn’t it? Because at the time when things actually in a sense are much more shocking, people’s sensibilities have changed, you know? And it’s a strange world to live in. We’re not shocked.
MJ That’s it, we’re not shocked. Over history there’s been lots of shocking art statements. It’s becoming rarer because people just aren’t… everyone seems to know everything, and everyone’s seen everything. I’m never planning what’s next with my art, it’s not like a series of work. It’s more reacting, reactionary work. At the moment I just finished designing a bar in London and it’s different to anything else I’m doing, it’s been fantastic, you know, because it’s a new challenge. And I’ve just finished a film for Gruff Rhys for his album, PANG!. It’s all very positive right now.
JG That’s a very interesting question. It’s interesting you mentioned the bar because my next question was, does the gallery environment for art have a future? I’m starting to wonder, although it has its place, obviously, with something wonderful in the right space, you know, like your show at GS…but the future of exhibiting art is going to change, is changing radically. And the great thing about what you’ve done in London, in terms of an audience, you automatically outflank the predictability of the kind of people who go to galleries. The subset of people who will go to a gallery and they are “the art audience” and they feed the economy and the white cube culture. It must be great to break out of that because logically the majority of people who will go to the bar wouldn’t necessarily go to a gallery or even if they did, they’re seeing something totally different. It’s a different experience.
MJ Yeah. I was told a while back if I wanted to do more art within the art world to cut back on the political side of things: the big galleries don’t like it because they’re dealing with big money people with opinions of very rich people that are buying, you know, those big pieces are probably going to be offended by what you’re doing and you’re sort of working class, you know? And, this isn’t, this (GS show) isn’t my livelihood. I love my art, I love what I do. And when I get a brief to design a sleeve or make a video it’s always a blank canvas, and I start working on listening to the songs or just working on ideas. But this (show) is more, these are the ideas that don’t make it into that. If you get me? It’s like, “This is a great idea, but it’s not, it’s not gonna be suitable for other avenues” and then there’s a lot of just personal work as well, with Battle Armour and working with that and keeping packets of pills to make that over a period of time. It’s personal work as well, it’s my outlet. It’s a mix, isn’t it, it’s all art, if I’m designing, if commercial art, it’s still me creating work, but this is all my work, no one’s paid me to do this. So there’s this difference, and you’ve got to take the clients into account. It’s gotta be right for the clients.
JG Has anyone ever accused you of selling out?
MJ No. No, no, no. I haven’t, I should have (laughs).
JG It’s funny, in a way, in this day and age, to hear someone refer to themselves as “working class”, it surprises me – with no judgment – curious thing to hear.
MJ The working-class thing is more, “I have to work”. I’ve got to keep working or whatever. If I’ve got a job on, if I’ve got a big job commission on, there’s always the next job’s going to come. It’s not like, oh, I’m going to sit back and take four weeks off. That’s never happened in my life. You know, I’ve got to keep working. I think the working class thing is just the work ethic.
JG Actually that’s a very interesting thing in itself for an artist, because for artists who are prolific for whatever reason…and you have a dual feed, really: your personal work and you have of course all the commission work and brief work. You obviously create a lot of work, which must be very satisfying. You don’t have the luxury of working slowly, a lot of it is supply and demand. It must be quite challenging constantly getting briefs, starting over repeatedly. And, to someone else’s requirements. I imagine on a deadline; it must be really exciting. Constantly surprising yourself with what you can do.
MJ I still enjoy those briefs and creating, it’s like it has to be done. Sometimes you think it’s going to fade. But it’s not, it’s constant. It’s a very active brain. I see it can be used or treated in some way and whether it’s photography, film, or graphic design, you know, every brief is an excitement, that’s the best part for me: the blank canvas. What are we going to do?
JG A lot of artists – I think I only ever saw the term once, I never researched it, but I thought, “That’s me!” – have an implicit aptitude for – it’s an American term: “symbolic analysis”, it’s used in computing, for making interpretations based on symbols. And they said, a lot of artists have a brain which has a symbolic analysis element. I see it in your work, and in mine, and with many artists where everything actually, even the most literal thing is turned into a symbol for something else and becomes abstracted out even slightly, say for example as with your “Brit Aid” piece, it’s so simple and so good. And it also has the kind of retrospective thing. You automatically think back to that Band Aid moment and catch yourself humming that idiot song. And then of course, Britain now needs “aid”.
It may soon become much more needed for Britain, “aid”…but the symbolic analysis quality of an artist’s brain wiring is something a lot of people don’t understand. There’s a compulsion to create work. Plus you see the world through different eyes in a way that research will soon reveal and is already touching on, you know, people with various spectrum disorders, just have a different…they actually live in a different world. It’s interfacing other’s, the majority consensual reality, but it’s in it but not of other’s, you know, or even of it but not in it. Whatever the correct Bible metaphor is! I find that fascinating and I can see that happening in your work. I love the pill packaging made into a helmet…It becomes many different things out of almost nothing. Today, one of the big stories – thanks to prorogation we’re starting to find out what else is happening in the world – is the exponential prescribing of drugs. Your timing couldn’t be better, though strangely, unplanned. In the same week when the story is big news, that there is an insane number of prescriptions being written on repeat for sometimes ten, twenty years, you’re exhibiting work that references some of the most commonly prescribed drugs. And that, to me, is what art is about. And maybe what your art is about perhaps to an extent, whether you’d agree with me or not, I don’t know? But this is the beauty of art. It can unconsciously and serendipitously almost intersect, and it creates a whole energy where symbolic analysis happens to be at the right place at the right time. There’s a payoff. It’s like, my work’s opening this week in a certain gallery. And then the same work, that references prescription drugs, coincides with big story breaking about prescription drugs. That has a protest element, too.
MJ Yeah. And the show is called “Post-Brexit Anxiety and Depression”. You know? I was, I got quite ill in 2017. All brought on by things that were happening and there’s one piece in this show called “BATACLAN BOWIE BREXIT” – a coincidence that they all begin with B – but the Bataclan attack really touched me, I couldn’t get it out of my head what those people went through… not, “It could have been me”, I’m not saying I was anywhere near it or could have been, it was just such a dark, twisted attack and those people who go to gigs, they just love the music. And if you know Eagles of Death Metal, they’re not “Eagles of Death Metal”. And then the next thing that happened was Bowie dying. I always liked Bowie, but when he died, I felt I was grieving for a relative, and I couldn’t work out why that was. You know, initially it was like, why am I?… but everyone was feeling it, something massive had happened and I could see people and friends and they were in shock. It ended with the referendum result and I couldn’t believe that people are so gullible and they were lying and no one had told them the truth, and I couldn’t get my head around it. That led to me basically having a breakdown, ‘cause it was just everything was taking over, you know, the news, everything. But then I worked through it, luckily working through that and, got help and dealt with it all. But all this work has come from that period, so it’s all made afterwards, after that. So, there’s a lot of use of pill packets. I refused drugs for a long time, saying to myself, I don’t wanna affect this brain. But then I spoke to a counselor and he was just, “It’s not like that. You’re not going to be debilitated and unable to think, they’re not gonna knock you out.” So, you know, I tried them and after a while I got back and everything’s fine now. But you know, I think a lot of people would take the drugs because a lot of people need them these days. It’s more common because there is more pressure.
JG That raises very interesting points, obviously not least for artists who often are plagued by feelings of failure in this regard. I can speak from my experience, I went through a very black period many years ago where due to my relative lack of material and otherwise greater success generally as a musician I became self-flagellating over a long period for being a “failure”. And then what saved me was when I began to look at what I called “the aspiration to greatness”. Not that you could necessarily reach “greatness” in your work, but you aspire to do something great and that has a dignity and just work has value by virtue of the fact that you’ve created it, you know what I mean? It’s not all monetary. It’s not all about material outcomes and fame and success as public acknowledgement. You could literally be alone and do the work and never even show it and it would have intrinsic value and integrity, there is a work ethic, too, very important, no question about that, and self-compassion, understanding that artists are sensitive people generally, it doesn’t matter if they do commercial work. That’s got nothing to do with it because you were like that before you did the commercial work and if it stopped, you’d still be like that. You know what I mean? And I think a lot of people, they’re not kind enough to themselves. Artists can be very, very harshly self-critical. I can see a lot of that swirling around in your work and your work ethic. There’s many different things going on in an artist and, not being precious, but most people are not aware of them in the same way that, to me, things that go on in people with other disciplines and professions and callings I wouldn’t be aware of, and I might even be quite dismissive of, even if I’m aware of them, but to them, of course it’s their world. This is the thing in the world we live in now with what you were talking about with the Bataclan attack, you just wonder, am I really living in a world like this? But in many places in the world, people are always living in a world like that. Not just occasionally or by some hideous twist of a terrorist attack, but their daily reality is that, if you look at Yemen or Syria …and I guess, without wishing to presume upon your own motivation, but I get a sense of, it’s not always the best word to use cause it can be so misinterpreted, but there’s a duty for the artists these days to respond, to have a voice.
You can’t guarantee if anyone’s going to hear it or if they do, whether it’s going to really be heard or mean anything to the person who is the hearer, your duty is to make the work. With you, of course you do your commercial work, which also has elements of the other, but you know, especially this (show) work, you have a duty to yourself and other people just to say, this is my statement. This is how I feel and how I see what’s happening, whether it’s or Brexit or whatever. And you discharge that duty repeatedly with every new piece of work. That’s the challenge: “This is my work, this is how I feel, this is my statement”, whether it’s Bataclan, Bowie or Brexit. And you discharge that duty repeatedly with every new piece of work. Looking at your work has intensified this realisation. When I first showed my work to one of my lecturers, she said,” Oh, it’s very political!” And I was like, I’d never ever thought anything I really did was remotely political. And then I thought when I saw it through her lens, and objectively, I thought my work is political. And I was fascinated that would be the case, where did it come from?…it was mostly unconscious.
MJ Creating the work is a kind of therapy as well. Because you get a lot of quiet moments between the commercial work and I found that if I’m not busy, I’m an absolute nightmare. I’ve got to be busy. I’m just one of those people. Being idle? Doesn’t happen. I’ve got a wife and two young kids and even when I’m with them, I’m still thinking of other things. Not ignoring them in any way, it’s something else.
JG That’s being an artist, right? You have another life that no one else really can access. Although they can interface it. I call it “obsessive creative disorder” It’s characterised by three things: obsession, creativity, and disorder. But not in the diagnostic psychiatric way, but more reorder. The world is constantly re-ordered and this is where the symbolic analysis comes in. And luckily you and I have the ability and opportunity to express it at will and let that energy flow. Because a lot of people who have that inhibited or suppressed end up very ill. I think it’s a very troubling characteristic of our society. Mental institutions are full of people who are just suffering from repressed creativity. It’s been misunderstood or even misdirected, and that energy comes out as violence or whatever.
At the end of 2013, James opened *Subject To Change, an experimental gallery in his hometown of Cardiff. Co-funded by the Arts Council of Wales. The inaugural exhibition ‘Sorry It’s Not For You’, saw James delve into an extensive archive and choose key pieces from two decade’s worth of personal projects and music-related assignments, alongside new works specially created for the show. From work on paper, to vinyl toys and work made from leather, demonstrating the breadth of his portfolio.
For more information on Mark’s practice and professional work.