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By Jeremy Gluck for GS Artists
Punk rock? You know it when you hear – and see – it; months before I heard the debut Ramones album I had put pictures of them from Rock Scene on my wall. I knew. And I was right: the Ramones possessed life-changing powers. They sure as hell changed my life. A friend of mine went to London in 1976 and sent me back a parcel of punk singles, among them the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK; the first time I listened to it it was too alien to absorb, but the second time I looped it over an entire C-60 cassette I listened to obsessively for weeks.
Punk is still the music anybody can play, a dream you can have when you’re awake: everybody dreams but it ends when you awaken, whereas for me and many others punk was in its prime a dream we shared while awake. Its energy and ethos have its roots in things as unlikely as the Beats and Warhol, mass production and mass media, which it both rebelled against and benefited from. Punk represents freedom of identity and creativity, a will to take chances, make things for the sake of it and wreck things for the fun of it. As manifestos go, that still works for me.
Jamie Reid, best known for his décollage covers of the Sex Pistols’ albums Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, as well as their singles including Anarchy in the U.K. and God Save the Queen, is a self-described anarchist, since creating cover art that helped define the aesthetic of the British punk movement working tirelessly at his practice, and as an activist and agitprop icon to move us all to face and facilitate changes necessary to our lives and world. At Croydon Art School his path crossed fatefully with future Sex Pistols manager and punk svengali, Malcom McLaren, and in harness they transformed the music and art. Represented by John Marchant Gallery in London, Reid’s works are in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Tate Gallery in London, among others.
On the eve of his 2020 retrospective at GS Artists, Dragons Revenge, I interviewed Jamie Reid, at 73 still an iconoclast and highly political working artist. His passion for art, music, culture, ecology, spirituality and the predicament of humanity – and with his bedrock detestation of capitalism and conformity reassuringly evident – Reid proved an absorbing and eclectic subject the privilege of interviewing who will long remain with me. Not willing much to revisit the past – his own remarks on it here largely unprompted – he is by consensus one of the outstanding, most important British artists of his generation, one concerned with being as much as doing – and making – and so conferring on his output thereby the imprimatur of an integrity and humanity that is both astringent and moving. A remarkable man and artist, therefore, and one we should treasure for his resolve, audacity and vision. Toward the end of this interview Reid, exploring the loss to us of our knowledge of nature, claims he is “rambling”. “Rabelaisian”, more perhaps, by definition creating work that is “a metaphor for guerrilla civil revolt” and referring to people who “have become giants whose strength and appetite are enormous”. It’s just such a lust for revolt and life that characterises Jamie Reid, a man that – while shaping it – has been and still is of and in and out of his time.
GS Artists: Your work changed the world of art and design. How does that feel?
Jamie Reid: It depends on which ways it’s been done. I’ve just done a campaign against McDonald’s, who rip my work off terribly, and if it’s done by corporate people I hate it, but it’s fairly inevitable that things, in many ways creative arts and the establishment, are very sort of blameless and anything that comes up new they try to rip off to try and make money out of.
GS Artists: Sure, that’s true. That could be called our culture.
Jamie Reid: But if it’s done with some with intent, and with a sort of political message, I approve of it. It depends on how things are done. I mean, on a purely, sort of music level, someone who really understood where me and Malcolm McLaren are coming from with the Pistols and punk were the KLF and what they did, but they took it to a completely new generation.
GS Artists: Do you feel there’s anyone now taking it to a new generation?
Jamie Reid: There probably is, probably don’t know about it, probably worldwide there is. I mean the movement against global warming and the planet is fantastic.
GS Artists: It’s 2020. About a year ago I was in the aisle of a big superstore somewhere and it was empty, just this kind of void. And I posted it on Facebook with the caption Anarchy in the UK 2019. What is anarchy in the UK now? Brexit? After Brexit? Is there no anarchy? Have we lost all hope of anarchy?
Jamie Reid: There are reasons why, there are many. It’s absolutely appalling what’s happened in this country, probably ever since Margaret Thatcher. You now got Boris Johnson, and without getting into legal trouble if you were to watch a film, Riot Club, about where his background comes from, The Bullingdon Club, the man is like a fascist rapist who – it’s not a direct quote of his but it’s an image I’ve done for the GS exhibition where he actually ends up saying, “We were born to rule over scum”. And he got voted for, but funnily enough he got voted for in a way Trump got in. Boris Johnson used the television appearing as a guest on various programs, like Have I Got News for You, and became popular playing a buffoon. Yeah, so brings me back to my starting point, which is a society of the spectacle emerging in a situation as politics and the society of the spectacle, which has been so proven right.
GS Artists: And there are people who can exploit that. With the Johnson phenomenon, these people have looked at Joseph Goebbels’ playbook. They’ve understood those principles of creating spectacle which the Nazis excelled at, for example. They’ve adapted it to the time, and to the audience, but there’s no mistaking there’s some sort of study going on there of that kind of manipulation. One of the images you’re exhibiting at GS is against English Heritage. What is the context for the protest?
Jamie Reid: It relates to my whole background; it was a very socialist but Druidic background. And the English Heritage in particular to me is the way they took over something like Stonehenge and the way they seem to represent everything that’s conservative and represent the worst of English history. Whereas, I suppose, one thing I’m really involved with is that we’ve got a whole unsaid, unrecorded history. That’s just a thing to get out there actually. With the present politics I was very taken with Margaret Atwood. I was trying to think of images for Boris Johnson and Trump and Putin, and she came up with a quote where she was asked what do you think of the present, the political situation, and she said we’re going backward at a very rapid rate (GS: A work citing this appears in the show). And then I suddenly saw from my end, Putin is the Czar, Trump is like the John Wayne cowboy, and Boris Johnson is a combination of Flashman and Tom Brown’s School Days and a Roman emperor. You know he’s obsessed with Roman history and that’s relevant as well…Roman history and Churchill, what a combination anyway!
E GS Artists: My next question is related to what you just said and about issues of the environment and your perspective on Extinction Rebellion and for example, Greta Thunberg, who I think is wonderful.
Jamie Reid: Yeah, I do…
GS Artists: What do you make of all that? What do you think is the context and provenance of it all, and its future?
Jamie Reid: At its worst, it’s Stormzy playing Glastonbury in front of 100,000 upper-middle-class white people. In principle Extinction Rebellion is fantastic. I work at a community center, which I’m totally immersed in, in Liverpool called The Florrie, The Florence Institute. And it’s one of the poorest areas in Liverpool and you ask those kids about the environment, they’re not remotely interested. All they are interested in is getting by day by day to survive, so you know to some extent, things like Extinction Rebellion come from a position of privilege. I totally agree with what they’re trying to do, but it’s got to come from below as well. The extent of poverty in this country is just unbelievable and pretty much unrecorded.
It’s actually relevant to me, this because, over the course of the last 30 years, I have done all sorts of lectures and talks to young people. And when I think about when I went to college – which is where I met Malcolm McLaren – I went to college with no 0-levels at the age of 16 and got a grant. When you think about what happened to education since then, you now have to pay nine thousand pounds a year, you know it’s unbelievable. Things like education were so fought for by early socialists and others and it’s unbelievable what we’ve done to education, it’s so relevant to what’s happening with the environment, I think. I know how they cut things like art and music and drama out of the syllabus in schools and you know they made schools including our primary schools competitive, and examinations, just awful. Education should all be about caring for your planet and caring for your fellow human beings. And it needs a complete re-think of education to make things okay.
When I was working at Suburban Press, which was a community press, I mean it’s so important because the look of it, the look of punk came out of what I was doing at the Suburban Press. And we were actually doing stickers, putting them up wherever we could, particularly in West End and Oxford Street was a sticker saying ‘Last Days’ (GS Artists: this graces the GS entrance for the show), a free sale going on here because the world’s running out of raw materials. We also did a sticker saying ‘This week only the store welcomes shoplifters’. I’ve been fighting on that whole campaign about the environment, it goes way back. We think it’s a new phenomenon but people have been fighting for it for hundreds of years. William Blake…
GS Artists: Well, indeed. I went to the Tate exhibition. Did you go to the exhibition in London?
Jamie Reid: No, I haven’t.
GS Artists: It was stunning.
Jamie Reid: I totally love Blake, I have such an empathy with him as well. It wasn’t really until the 1920s that anyone really got to know about him.
GS Artists: The Tate exhibition, I was literally rendered speechless. It was overwhelming. It was so beautiful and profound. I came out of it with my kids and we were all standing around in shock.
Jamie Reid: That happened to me with an exhibition that I went to see in Liverpool and there is so much unknown about art history…a woman artist called Leonora Carrington. She actually was born into the English aristocracy at the beginning of the 20th century, rebelled, hated it, ran away to Paris, where she totally fell head over heels with Max Ernst. And they had a fantastic relationship but because of the Nazis getting in and taking over in France they moved down to Spain, and I don’t know if Max Ernst got captured or something happened to him but they got split up. She ended up in a mental home in Spain but one of the doctors there took an incredible liking to her and he was Mexican, and he took her back to Mexico and in Mexico she is regarded as an incredibly important artist. She did fifty years of absolutely work there and it’s only recently here she has got any recognition. Which is just so true of so many women artists as well but her work just blew me away, it was fantastic.
The same with Blake, I went to the Tate at Millbank when I was about 15, 16 and it just blew me away along with Jackson Pollock anyway.
GS Artists: A good combination! One of my towering muses is William Burroughs. And of course, there is a sort of lateral line to be drawn if you want to draw one between something like Burroughs and Gysin cut up and then what became your dominant style, or at least the one year the most famous for, in my humble opinion. I have a wonderful Burroughs quote that I’m going to then supply a question to: “Out of the closets and into the museums, libraries, architectural monuments, concert halls, bookstores, recording studios and film studios of the world. Everything belongs to the inspired and dedicated thief…. Words, colors, light, sounds, stone, wood, bronze belong to the living artist. They belong to anyone who can use them. Loot the Louvre! A bas l’originalité, the sterile and assertive ego that imprisons us as it creates. Vive le vol-pure, shameless, total. We are not responsible. Steal anything in sight.” Always endearing, Burroughs!
Jamie Reid: (Laughs) Very Situationist!
GS Artists: No kidding. So, what came to mind when I was reading about your response in 2009 to Damien Hirst threatening an art student with copyright infringement: Are you content to have your own work taken, remade, stolen, exploited and appropriated?
Jamie Reid: But I just think it’s so inevitable. My heart is in the right place. And I just, initially with the whole Brit Art thing, I took great exception to people like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin saying they were inspired by punk, kinda like they were sort of radical and the whole idea, you had Saatchi and Saatchi, the advertising agency which was half responsible for getting Thatcher into power, taking a whole Thatcherite concept about ‘Everything is for sale’, and just making that the British art scene, turning it into a commodity. And I just see say them as Thatcher’s spawn, I can’t stand it. It’s a complete sort of…I talked to Jane (Simpson) about this. There’s such a monopoly on the art scene here between critics, leading artists, gallery owners, there is a whole social network that you might have to become part of to get any recognition. It’s unbelievable.
GS Artists: The commodification of art has become a disease.
Jamie Reid: One of the things that had a great effect on me was being in Liverpool when it was City of Culture and Liverpool always has and probably always will have an incredible underground and alternative art scene that no longer got a look-in when it was City of Culture. They are prepared to spend 80,000 pounds to get Tracey Emin to stick a sparrow on a pole. And I said, What the fuck! And Jonathan Meades, he did a documentary around that time about the history of Cities of Culture starting in Bilbao. And he’s quite interesting, Meades, because you can’t really put a finger on his politics because he’s quite sort of his own man really. But he started in Bilbao and said from his perspective, he went to every City of Culture, and so what this actually meant, it’s moving all the working class out, tidying up the city centers, using it and art as a means of creating , shopping malls, expensive restaurants, hotels. And he just went through city by city and it’s certainly true that happened in Liverpool.
GS Artists: There was a very interesting documentary on Channel 4 years ago about how the city centers are designed now, they call it “cookie-cutter”. They’re all identical and they found that all the major stores, for example, we’re all in the same places, in relationship to each other. It was all this kind of surreal replication.
Jamie Reid: And they all look the same.
GS Artists: Obviously intentional, some sort of subliminal drug they’re administering, very strange in any case.
Jamie Reid: That’s very interesting with that whole Situationist thing, which in many ways came out of a critique of the 20th century, well, most architecture presupposes people’s functions within those buildings. And someone said, it’s interesting now even more so, but everyone’s scared when they walk through a city center, never looking up above shop level, everything at the shop level, everything; advertising, shop windows and how people should look up and see what the buildings really are. It’s even worse now when people are all looking at, talking on their phones and tablets. It’s unbelievable.
GS Artists: The dominance of people looking down at their mobile phones has pretty much destroyed much hope of anyone looking up again. That opportunity may be gone forever.
Jamie Reid: I’ve lost someone recently that I loved and work with, a Russian computer artist called Alexei Blinov who died quite recently of cancer, and Alexei, I’ve done projects with Alexei that are totally mind-blowing. He’s one of those people, like he’s come from the future. He’s got amazing radicalised ideas about computers and I did a lot of laser work with him where I did my drawing. He’s been immersed in…this is something that’s going to become quite big news, and in fact it has in Europe already. It’s a Russian film called DAU, which hasn’t opened in Britain yet, but it will, which is interesting in itself. But, Alexei at one point, I mean, he was a computer genius. And he was working with some of the top hackers, I think they were actually Serbian, and they signed him up and told Alexei, throw your computer out the window, get rid of your mobile. And he said why? He said because they’re an alien interjection into our technology, an alien force which is going to eventually take us over by taking, by obliterating all non-use of them so the whole world becomes utterly dependent on them. And even if it’s not true it’s a great science fiction story!
I was pretty much brought up in a sort of spiritual, Druidic background through my family for three generations now and there was always this notion that…I was actually going to do a project with Alexei about it, about the crystals and quartz and stones, particularly in stone circles having memory and certain dance rituals and chanting could evoke the memory of the ancestors, you can actually communicate with your ancestors. And in this country, there is an amazing writer called Nigel Kneale who wrote The Quatermass Experiment, which are just fantastic in themselves, brilliant science fiction stories. He did a BBC series called Stone Tapes, and what I loved about Kneale is he had a great sense of mischief and satire, it was about a really trendy new type sort of graphic design advertising company that was absolutely all the whiz with the first computers, and they decided to get away from it all and move out of London into the countryside. They moved into this big old house in the middle of the Yorkshire Moors – typical, it’s always the Yorkshire Moors – and all their computers started playing up till eventually a few episodes on, people started appearing, ghosts started appearing. And his whole thing then that the building, the stone, had memory. Very interesting. There is so much hidden science we don’t go into.
GS Artists: Crystals have remarkable properties, incredible properties. And, actually, my next question is about this autobiographical film you’re working on with Julian Temple, I understand, about your Druid…
Jamie Reid: Hopefully.
GS Artists: In any case, the general public might be intrigued that you of all people – the famous “punk rock artist” – is a Druid or has Druid heritage. Can you elaborate on your spiritual context and the film project?
Jamie Reid: I don’t know, I mean, it’s only surprising because of the way we analyse and criticise everything. Because, if you think of William Blake, he was political, but he was very spiritual. And there’s a whole tradition in this country that’s completely unrecorded of that. My great uncle, George Watson MacGregor Reidwas head of the Druid order, but he totally immersed himself in the first health foods and things like homeopathy. It’s interesting that people scorn homeopathy, but the Royal Family uses homeopathy and I’ve just never seen it as a problem. I was brought up with a sort of, in a way, it was the Druid tradition, and it wasn’t much more than a complete love of nature and the planet. But I was dragged off at the age of seven on the Aldermaston marches, my parents were great campaigners for nuclear disarmament. It’s only now that some of the truth is coming out about art, even in terms of let’s say American abstract art. A classic example is Mondrian. Mondrian, as we conceive him was invented by postmodern 1920s critics who came up with the term postmodern. Everyone regards him as a painter who did all these geometric colours, shapes and squares and rectangles. Half his work was unseen, he was a Theosophist, he did this massive big triptych of three goddesses. And he was actually using art, he wanted to get to really simplistic ways to create pure energy. He wasn’t going in as a sort of industrialist or postmodern artist at all and so much about our art criticism that is so fucked up like that. You had Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists in New York, she had a massive influence on American art, even up to Jackson Pollock and it’s only just coming out, these sorts of things.
GS Artists: It’s very interesting the Theosophist connection. I was a very, very keen student and practitioner of Krishnamurti’s teaching, so I know about Theosophy and Blavatsky and the history of Theosophy. Strange, because I was talking to a friend about Blavatsky a couple of days ago, but that’s the universe for you. Let’s face it, everything always happens before it happens. You did touch on the young British artists, God help us and so on, which brought a question to my mind: in your interview in the Guardian a couple of years ago about Hirst and Emin for example, you said there’s nothing remotely shocking about what they do, which I agree with. So where is the cutting edge of art? Does it have one now or is there no future for art?
Jamie Reid: I mean, there’s probably great art that we don’t know about happening worldwide.
GS Artists: True, so true.
Jamie Reid: Things that have had a great influence on me, I’m Scottish, early Celtic art, Aboriginal art, things like that, and it’s only when you really understand the true nature of this sort of art, that it’s full of great love for the planet and nature. I saw a documentary about Captain Cook about a year ago now. And, one, it was interesting because he was completely mad. He was an absolute mad man, loved the cat-o’nine-tails punishment and all sorts of stuff like that. But they asked an Aboriginal elder what he thought of Captain Cook and it just stopped me in my tracks, it’s so obvious but on a timescale, it was unbelievable. He said, look, we’re probably the oldest people, humans who have been on this planet maybe up to 60,000 years. We try to move at one with nature, we have a great love of nature, great respect for nature and the planet and the universe. Captain Cook arrives 250 years ago…and what the fuck has happened since? And it’s so true, I mean in such a short space of time to cause the absolute rape of this planet.
GS Artists: Possibly this is all about us going off the planet, eventually, back to where we came from – wherever that is – some of us, anyway, but that is speculation…
Jamie Reid: There’s so much stuff that surely, they are going to reveal soon. From all sorts of different directions, I really believe that Mars was populated once, maybe two or three times. There are beings that have been on this planet maybe all sort of times, which we don’t know about. Eventually the truth has got to come out.
I used to know a top animator who worked for Spielberg, he was working on a project, believe it or not about the Arabian Nights that never got finished because of the politics of it. But anyway, Spielberg was convinced – he had personal conversations with Spielberg and Spielberg was basically saying there was a whole element of what he does which was to prepare people for things that might possibly happen.
GS Artists: As a huge fan of Close Encounters, I like to think that was based on true events or an outline of events. It’s prophetic. Even Gene Roddenberry who created Star Trek said very near his death, I can finally tell you that it’s based on contact I had with extra-terrestrials.
Jamie Reid: Interesting guy, isn’t he?
GS Artists: A visionary, he was doing important messaging to humanity if it would only listen for once but he tried anyways, and we shall see. Which is an interesting time to mention the first time I came to Britain, which was a great year to arrive as you will understand: 1977. It was just incredible in London at that time. And of course, you would have been part of that narrative that I experienced. Anything seemed possible, it was the most phenomenal atmosphere to drop into. In 2020, anything may still be possible and plausible, but what are the chief differences to you between that world in 1977 and the one we’re inhabiting now? And how, more importantly, is it impacting your work now?
Jamie Reid: I think there is more, far more control on people’s thoughts and actions than it’s ever been, which has gradually been chipping away since the 1970s. I also think I’ve had a really interesting time. I’ve been in a hotel for about a year now and I’ve got quite addicted to listening to BBC Radio 6 and even last year they had a whole lot of pre-recorded interviews of Malcolm McLaren and it’s been very odd laying here listening to Malcolm speak for an hour; I have forgotten how fucking brilliant he was, not just talking about punk. I also had the realisation that he and I had a complete trust of each other. He never questioned anything about any artwork I did, I never questioned any directions he was taking. I’ve kept very quiet from my end about that time. But I think the Pistols and, to some extent, punk wouldn’t exist without the political experiences me and Malcolm had in the late 60s and our understanding of Situationism and putting it into practice, and positioning it in popular culture, That’s what we tried to do. And I think getting God Save the Queen to number one in 1977 is proof of that.
GS Artists: The kind of relationship you described that you had with Malcolm McLaren reminds me of Burroughs and Gysin. The quasi-magical “Third Mind” creative process and bond.
Jamie Reid: Malcolm always claimed he had Aleister Crowley’s ring! Again with Malcolm, it’s only when you hear people from other situations talking about him, I mean, in my mind he is possibly one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. But you’re never going to get art critics being able to understand that because I heard people like New York rappers singing Malcolm’s praises, not saying he invented rap but saying if it wasn’t for him doing Buffalo Girls, it opened up the whole fucking picture for us. The same with the things he did in South Africa with African music with Trevor Horn, you get African musicians saying the same thing. What he did with opera and Madame Butterfly. To me every bit as important as the Pistols in many ways. But he’s not going to be seen like that.
GS Artists: The term for someone like that would be a Renaissance Man, he was a Renaissance Man of his time.
Jamie Reid: A great bullshitter.
GS Artists: Well, that always helps if you’re a Renaissance Man.
Jamie Reid: (Laughs) Told a great story.
GS Artists: He had his own powers in terms of propaganda certainly, no question about that, quite a genius, really. He played the British media and public like a violin.
Jamie Reid: With my Druid, aboriginal head-on it’s an awful thing to say but I almost think the planet has had enough of us. You know: You’ve had your chance, you blew it.
GS Artists: Humans are very vain. And we think due to ego that we’re the most important thing on the planet, which is where all the panic about the climate crisis and so on really comes from: we don’t want to die. The planet itself, it’s been around a long time, it’ll be around a lot longer, it will be fine whatever happens to us. I watched a Storyville documentary about Jonestown which was fascinating. They were saying within less than ten years, the entirety of Jonestown had been completely reclaimed by the jungle, and that’s just a microcosmic snapshot of the process. It’s humbling and comical.
Jamie Reid: There are all sorts of sides to work I’ve done every bit as important as the punk, agitprop work, and it’s funny you mentioning Jonestown because I’ve worked with a heavy metal band, who are half Dublin, half Glasgow, called The Almighty. They did an amazing record called Jonestown Mind and they’re one of those bands that could play to quarter million people in Brazil and hardly anyone has ever heard of them here. I did a whole album and a single project with them. I’ve also been working for getting on 15 years now integrally with a band called Afro Celt Sound System, which is a fusion of Irish, Scot, Welsh music and African music built on a realisation there is a common thread through them all. And that came out of a whole project I did, creating interiors of a recording studio in Shoreditch called The Strongroom. And it is was like being practical with magic. I’m involved at the moment doing a book with someone about magic and art…and I did a studio design that was totally based on the four elements. It was aligned with earth was north and fire was south, water was west and air is east and it was all using symbols and astrology and all sorts of stuff, purely to create a space that could encourage the making of sound and music. And it works. Another level, I’m quite a big fan of the Prodigy, and they used to use that recording studio. And Keith, the lead singer – he died recently – I was sending him all this bullshit about my beliefs and magic and spirituality. He said, Jamie don’t give me all that fucking bullshit! I said, why? He said, it’s just a brilliant space to work in, it just an uplifting space to work in and it was true, it is.
I suppose it links back to my beliefs in Situationism and the situation with cities and architecture. Buildings could be the most inspirational places; I have been quite involved with my painting about how you can use colour for healing and how you can use sound for healing. And there are all these fields we don’t know about. And on an almost frightening level it actually ties in with that almost complete disrespect for nature. Look at the number of words to do with nature that are falling out the dictionary now. And it’s like our analysis of horticulture and farming, it’s like, what is a flower and what is a weed. Most of the things we define as weeds are in fact healing weeds, plants that used for healing. We had things like Lungwort, and there’s so much of it. And it’s a lost art almost. Yeah, anyway, I’m rambling…
I told you that working with Alexei Blinov, a Russian artist, we were just immersed in starting a project which we were going to do together, which we actually got down on paper. And it was about how my paintings, Alexei was going to use and create computer machinery to actually turn my paintings into energy. And it was based on the physicist who worked in the 19th century. There’s another Victorian scientist who did some wild stuff and it’s such a shame to me that we never had a chance to do it. But we got it on paper. And it’s quite interesting. But anyway, that’s enough.
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.
by Jeremy Gluck for GS Artists
Based in Swansea, Scott Mackenzie graduated from Swansea College of Art in 2016 with a degree in Fine Art. His work is primarily concerned with issues of inequality and identity politics in the U.K. Using a range of mixed media from photography to sculpture and text that incorporates symbols and motifs that playfully construct a sense of ‘who we are’ and where we may be going, his latest show, NOTHING HAS CHANGED, opened at GS Artists in early June, simultaneously holding up a mirror to the last fifty years – hence the show’s subtitle, ABERFAN TO GRENFELL – and offering a cross-section specimen of the collective consciousness of Britain sliding over the apparent precipice that is Brexit, and a wider world self-absorbed as ever in its dynamic yet entropic circus of the mind and body politic.
Approaching an event at GS September 6th featuring an in-conversation between Scott and GS directors (Scott is himself a director of the gallery) and interns, I had the opportunity to talk with him about his show.
JSG (Jeremy Gluck) Scott, has nothing changed?
SM (Scott Mackenzie) Maybe because it’s easier that nothing has? Maintaining the status quo is what we usually want, it’s convenient, comfortable, you don’t have to do anything…I don’t think we want things to change. Maybe we want someone else to think and change things for us? Is that too cynical?
JSG No, it seems that our society and culture is adapted now to spare us a great deal of thinking.
SM (laughs) Maybe I’m the offshoot of it? Of that dumbing down of culture, that late 90’s – I don’t know, maybe I’m just blaming reality TV, but that’s too easy.
JSG Easy is tempting. What influenced the title and content of NOTHING HAS CHANGED?
SM What really grabbed me was that Theresa May line, “Nothing has changed”, that kind of haunted her through her farcical electoral campaign and election that she should never have called. And that kept on coming back and back and back. I felt that it summed up a lot about how things constantly repeat. And also I felt some sort of personal attachment to it that it kind of stuck, I latched onto it.
JSG In your perspective, how do you do change things? Art? Rioting? Boycotting Poundland?
SM Personally, I’ve always felt one of my problems was that I’ve always sort of stood still and waited for a miracle to happen. And you end up standing in a place of great uncertainty, unsure what’s going to happen next. But you pray for a miracle, I think I’ve always done that. That’s sort of my mindset, Oh it’ll be fine, something’ll come up, there’ll be this big great rupture and everything will be sorted. I’ve sort of done that with my art practice. Maybe not my art practice, but in terms of “a wise man makes his own opportunities rather than wait for them”. I’ve always been too laid back, not proactive enough. I have this constant repetition cycle of thoughts in my head. I hate my job but I’ve never applied for another job…
JSG So, a degree of stasis, perhaps?
SM Yes. But I was conscious about my art practice – regarding the starting point – was to do something different and that the idea dictates the technique. And I’ve never been precious about, uh, the medium, the art school philosophy of a medium, you know, a hierarchy of medium. So I feel like the work changes and at the moment, this is just what’s been going on in my head and what I’ve been consumed with.
JSG What strikes me is the immedicacy of the work stems from, and perhaps what adds to the spontaneity of it, has been doing it in the gallery, with time pressure almost out of a vacuum to create something that surprised yourself?
SM Yes. I had some ideas going in, right? They constantly change and I mean, yeah, once you start getting your ideas out and into physical form, they morph and change. And being in that space. You know, I’ve always had the group, with shared studio spaces. So, the solitude…and it’s a generous space.
JSG The kidney dishes, that’s a very interesting statement. When I saw a photo of them on the website, and looked at it objectively, a lot of people wouldn’t know what that is initially, that adds to its power. It adds to its charm, it’s abstract in a sense. And the balaclavas, which I would never conceive of myself…
SM I just find them striking. The thing is with the kidney bowls and the balaclavas, they are almost instant ready-mades, that pack a punch visually. Maybe the starting point was just thinking about Pussy Riot a couple of years ago and that’s still like a backdrop to the current political climate. I liked the thought of “keyboard warriors” and these kind of masks that we wear and there’s something menacing about it physically. At the same time, it’s kind of laughable, boyish. What intrigued me about them is that they have this comical edge as well as being slightly like a black comedy, but I think what I really liked about them was finding a way to use them and bringing them together, headbutting each other. All going into that silhouette that speaks about toxic masculinity and other buzzwords of the age. I think many of them and the kidneys are quite good, quite mysterious objects as well. There’s something seen but unseen, they’re quite specific…
JSG And you told me that the kidney dish statement relates to the NHS, which of course is a symbol for a lot of what’s happening in Britain, and the world to an extent.The words engraved in each one. I liked the fact that they’re on the floor and you have to look down: automatically they symbolise, for example, the degradation of the NHS and of the state, the NHS is being looked down upon and you’re looking at the dishes and you have to look quite close to read what’s engraved in them. They seem to have no meaning in a sense. Very ephemeral, on that line, that balance. What is your further perspective on that particular piece of work? That would be a great installation on it’s own.
SM An early sort of catalyst for that work was when I played around with medical equipment; in my final degree show I had a medical examination bed in an installation. I had previously used vomit bowls. A precursor was my fascination with Dead Ringers but that was more about people with a pseudo-sexual use of medical equipment. So I have those kind of things in mind, in my head, but for me it was about this need to, um, remove something? These kidney dishes are there to take something, hold something that has been removed from you. And I felt like that’s what we need. Some sort of exorcism, it’s kind of like we need to expel something, to get rid of something. So that’s kind of interesting…probably a bit tenuous, but that was my idea.
JSG Interesting image and analogy. There other associations in a sense? You know, the whole idea of excising or removing something and the viral nature of our culture, a viral element. There’s a cancerous element, also a mythological element. In terms of the Hydra in Greek mythology where you cut off one head and two or more appear, it’s perpetuating itself and always one step ahead and warping any attempts to restrain it that would be emblematic of what I get from the energy, and statements in your show. Personally, I suppose that it’s like you’re racing to cut off various heads with the foreknowledge that two more are going to grow back in their place anyway, but it’s freezes a moment, it is a form of resistance, of protest. I don’t find it passive. It’s got a static quality, which I really love about it. And then when you have the photo manipulation images series, especially the one with Elvis and the Twin Towers, it traces a big arc, from the Fifties to now, which is sort of a neat 60 years in which in a way nothing has changed. The whole nature of change, it captures that sense of when you’re alive, which I assume I am, that life can have a static quality. It’s always the same, but it’s always different. And then you read about people who do, whose lives are crammed full of adventure and variety and constant alteration of circumstances. Even that doesn’t quite answer to a situation where within yourself, when people always say, Oh, you know, what I’ve changed or you’ve changed. Yet there’s some essence which is unchanging. I think in a way you’ve succeeded in capturing that. Do you find that statement, “Nothing Has Changed”, despairing, discouraging, or just a reflection?
SM It’s probably a combination and maybe this is a get-out clause, but it’s a combination of all those things because, you know, madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. It’s just frustrating and confusing.
JSG Do you want to continue living in Britain? If you could leave Britain comfortably now, would you? It is a temptation for a lot of us.
SM Yeah, I mean I keep…yeah, daydreaming, but I don’t know. I don’t really envision my, um, I mean occasionally I think of, ah, maybe Tuscany! If I imagine myself when I think of the future, I’m always here. I don’t know.
JSG NOTHING HAS CHANGED as a statement, as a title and so on? And obviously you have deep roots in Wales, but “Brexit”, or “Brexicide”, as I refer to it…your show does have resonances with Brexit, which is very interesting. It might be seen as retrospective in the sense of the images of May and so on. The Wales of the post-Brexit environment, and of course there could be a kidney dish shortage, so it’s just as well you did your show now before the collapse of British society. Ten weeks to get a kidney dish, and balaclavas don’t even ask! They’ll be in great demand for bank robberies. But it’s an interesting question as a Welsh artist, with a deep connection to Wales as part of your self-concept, it strikes me that working in a few months, suddenly in a post Brexit environment as an artist that’s going to be interesting, no shortage of material, but in a way you could almost foresee doing a sequel. Now it’s the crunch. If nothing changes now, then we’ll really be wondering what it takes. So I look forward maybe to a future show of yours that would bear on that if you are inclined that way.
SM There’s loads of scope. I wonder where [the change will come from]…I don’t really see it in the current political climate in the sort of mainstream, it seems quite on the fringes. I don’t quite see it in the establishment as it were, which is no bad thing, but I just don’t see that sort of like anger or even questioning at the moment. I don’t know, maybe I’m being naive, but that’s another reason why I wanted to create something.
JSG Yeah. There does seem to be a strange atmosphere with art because at the moment, the scene’s self-consciously saying all the time that it’s fighting and protesting and resisting and whatever. It’s politically oriented. But does this scene have more than a kind of dryness that’s like, where’s the juice?
Your show is kind of strange. It’s implicitly and explicitly quite different, but I find it has a kind of stillness at the core explicitly. There is a loud statement about the past, present, and future, which are the same thing, you know, and how they merge and then become whatever. It’s like art has become almost a function. It’s like it’s that “the lady doth protesteth too much” saying all the time, “We’re doing this. We’re doing that.” There isn’t anything like Art Rebellion, though. There’s little unity…
SM There’s no anger.
JSG No anger, and there’s always that same problematic niche, clique thing. Because art’s so competitive and the commodification of art is now running so deep that it’s very careerist and also the Extinction Rebellion people movement is about saving the planet. “Save the planet”, three words; whether you want to save it or not, it’s a different issue. That’s what they’re trying to do. With art where is the counterpart and analogy, an Art Rebellion? Intuitively, it’s hard to imagine it happening. Your work would fit into something like that.
SM Is it because it’s too soon, but I mean, it’s been three years since the Referendum, since the vote and I then I wonder is it just static, is it because, if Brexit was a baby? It’s really, it’s a pretty ugly baby that probably nobody wants, nobody wants to deal with. Yeah.
JSG Showing up for adoption. It’s like Eraserhead, Brexit.
SM Yeah. It does have that kind of sense to it: What have we given birth to?
JSG Except that nobody loves it…well, some people.
SM But they’re just reflected back, they’re just looking at themselves!
JSG It’s like we have a new Millenium Bug! There’s apocalyptic mourning. With the Bug, nothing really changed. I think it’s a good question. You know, what if after Brexit nothing changes, then what? And then, and then it’s just tick-tock. And it’s like, have we missed an opportunity? It’s like an opportunity has slipped through our fingers to do something, to actually do something, you know?
SM We just don’t know what it is.
JSG It’s a dilemma as you know, I guess this dilemma for art now: what do you do? You know, when I go to a show like yours, I look at my work, a lot of the other work, the college (UWTSD), GS Artists, all of whom do amazing, very different work. But generally in galleries large and small, you get to the point where it becomes very generic. Some stuff you love, some you appreciate…the vast majority, it’s somehow generic. It’s all art.
SM Yeah. I mean it’s, I think it’s this thing of walking into a space and you go, okay, that’s clever.
JSG And that’s a word I’ve always handled astringently: “clever”. A bit loaded, you know, clever has a bit of an unhappy tinge to it. “Intelligent”, that’s one thing, “insightful”. “Brilliant”. Clever is a bit sort of, yeah, it’s a bit vanilla. And, and of course most artists are clever at least. But it’s catalysing that into something inspired, which your show is, with a certain sting in its tail, it’s memorable and it does make you reflect a lot. It’s kind of a long- term, time release capsule, you see it and you leave, then you refer back to it. Did you find it hard creating it all?
SM For me it’s always hard. I’m incredibly worried and I suppose there’s a lot of nervous energy about things coming together. And also sometimes you think you’ve got a good line, then you say it aloud and it’s just, it’s dead in the room and falls flat. Sometimes that’s what was happening when I would have this or that. “I know this will be good.” And then it just didn’t work. So after, because I wanted, uh, to make, you know, I felt kind of angry and I wanted to make angry work. How the hell do you do that to make, to make some sort of illustration of it? It just wasn’t working. So after those teething issues, for once I’m really pleased with it because before everything I’ve done, I feel like I’ve thrown the kitchen sink at it in terms of sculptures and installation, I just added more and more, more. And for me this show was about chiseling the idea down into as fine a point as I could get it.
JSG A funny thing just popped in my head and I’m bearing in mind what you said, ’cause you’ve mentioned the word anger and I thought of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ of all things…
SM Yeah, that often comes into my mind…
JSG …and the famous alleged incident when a German officer asked him, seeing a photo of Guernica in Picasso’s apartment, asked “Did you do that?” and Picasso responded, “No, you did.” And I think that word anger, if someone was to say to me, choose one piece of work that really evokes and actually gives forth anger, ‘Guernica’ might be a good example? In a contemporary way, perhaps in aspiration and partly in impact, what you’ve done touches on that kind of thing. The anger is there. But I love the fact that in Nothing Has Changed, the anger is…
JSG It’s dissipated, but to me it’s more crystallised, you can almost touch it, there’s an energy in the room which sort of encloses you, you go “Right!” with that recognition? And then of course, like any good art, it doesn’t require thought, though that can happen. It’s coming at you, but it’s, yeah, it’s got this aspect of entropy, which I think is a positive in the sense that it captures what you set out to do. I suppose what you’ve said, if I’m correct, you’ve captured this kind of atmosphere, a “fin de siecle” sensibility. You’ve punched a hole through it and rather than things coming out of it, you get sucked into the work. Which I think is a fascinating energy.
SM I always loved the line from Andy Goldsworthy, “Rivers and tides,” and he says he likes to take his sculptures to the edge of collapse. That’s always stayed with me. That line was so…it was a great line to have. And that’s the sort of fields where we are now in, in society, a collective political nervous breakdown, everything teetering on the edge of collapse wherever they go.
JSG The Replacements have a song, “I’ll Be You”, with the line, “I’ll purge myself perhaps for the imminent collapse”. And I think there’s a lot of purgation going on, immediately prior to this possible collapse. In your show the medical analogy works well, a kind of exorcism or an excision or something which is removing something unfortunate or, or dangerous from the baby, from the body, the body politic. It’s pretty powerful. The little I know you, it’s the kind of work that I would imagine would come from you: it’s quite private work in a funny way, but the fact that you’d have to make it public, that adds great energy. There’s an expression I love, which is, I’d rather be or know someone who’s an inch wide and a mile deep than a mile wide and an inch deep. NOTHING HAS CHANGED strikes me as an inch wide but a mile deep, it offers a kind of deceptively narrow entry point but once you’re in the show the work expands, you realise, “Wow! there’s a whole world here filled with different references!” A picture of Elvis and the Twin Towers, you know, talking about a big subject and you’re merging these concepts and so on. Thing is they’re not concepts, they’re part of our collective awareness and consciousness.
By Jeremy Gluck for GS Artists
Call Centre, Myles Mansfield’s new show, opened on May 31st at 211 High Street Swansea. A highly original and inventive show curated by Myles and Benesek Monk, featuring kinetic, interactive and steel sculptures and painting, its “analogue art” approach is at once retro-futuristic and removed from time, a peculiar amalgam of very human concerns and primitivist alien resonances. Evoking the existential challenges of high technology via low technology making, it is funny and fascinating in equal measure.
Myles, an alumni of Swansea College of Art, has exhibited with and been a significant part of GS Artists. Recently he did residency at Elysium Gallery. Known for his meshing of masterpieces with mixed media, Call Centre continues this work in the form of old telephone books overpainted with features of Old Masters’ major works.
Elsewhere, an automaton merrily smashes a keyboard, kept company by an ungainly but elegant sculpture constructed from diverse bicycle parts and other mechanical elements. Strangely but perhaps inevitably, the automaton’s robotic actions, triggered by pressure pads, assumes a meditative quality, its repetitive stress-less self-absorption a contrast to the often angsty tech’ engagements of the human beings.
GS Artists asked Myles about Call Centre, its background and propitious inventiveness.
1. What was the genesis of Call Centre?
Call Centre came about because of the residency that was offered to me by Elysium. I felt that the residency should be used to step away from my normal practice and explore something new. Site-responsive work interests me and I thought that the fact that the studios were a call centre in the past, was a good starting point.
2. To me, Call Centre could be called “analogue” art. As with your paintings, it seems to play with but also honours the canon. Yet it has a very serious subtext?
As in all of my work, I try to ensure that it is accessible, but has a deeper level of meaning, that has cultural significance and can be seen to fit the contemporary zeitgeist.
3. The performative aspects of the show are especially compelling. What gave you the motivation to create these?
I believe that contemporary art has issues with accessibility and it is important to me that whatever I create can be appreciated by the layman. I felt when setting up the show that theatre was needed. The Deleuzian concept of the “encounter” is of particular importance to me when creating work, a priority for me in the design stage of my work.
4. Call Centre is a tough act to follow? What do you have in mind to make next?
Not sure, but I am blessed with ideas every day, so I’m hopeful that something significantly interesting for me to pursue will come up.
5. What has your involvement with GS Artists been? You’ve exhibited at the gallery. In this and any other way, how has your involvement with GS Artists been part of your practice?
During the planning for our first group show at Galerie Simpson, Jane Simpson said she wanted me to work within the space and make new stuff. This scared the hell out of me at first, but has completely changed the way I view my practice: I love the challenge of coming into a space and stepping away from my usual work. It’s scary but invigorating and often feeds back into my main practice. We did two group shows like this and both were really fun and made me grow and mature quite rapidly as an artist.
6. As with much work embedded in and drawing heavily on the past, yours is retro-futuristic, equally calling to the future?
I have a theory that when we appropriate objects and art from the past, and make new work with them, it becomes a way of assimilating past culture with contemporary culture, by keeping it relevant. I think recontextualisation of historical art is a critical part of accepting and coming to terms with the fast changing world that we now inhabit.