Interview by Shirley Read
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   Shirley Read: John Berger describes your terrain as that of the human conscience and your themes as nuclear weapons and poverty. Would you agree?

   'Poverty comes in relationship to armaments; the way that money is actually spent in the world results in poverty. Somehow one has got to find a way to link the two together through images. Montage is inherently about linking things which are seen as being separate but are in fact inextricably bound up together. So the point of using montage is to show the causes of things rather than just the results. Hopefully, if you show the causes, people will think about how they're implicated in it. The theme of poverty and armaments has continued right through my work over the years and is absolutely crucial to any picture of the world that is made now. Poverty is nor natural and inexorable - it's not to do with increasing world population but to do with human action and I try to make that clear through imagery. And that's why the work in a sense looks quite crude and obviously constructed. It's about disruption and the breaking of things, about trying to look into things and under the surface.'



   Shirley Read: To go back to Berger's comment then - you do see your role as acting as a social conscience for people?

   'I think that to act as an early warning system and to make work as a citizen is an important role for artists. In the past artists were always involved in the political transactions of their time. It is only since the Industrial Revolution that they have been marginalised and their work formalised out of the real world into the aesthetic realm. Art is always a construction, in our times constructed by the middle class to push the idea that art is necessarily diminished by being directly political. Of course this is an argument to maintain the status quo and their own position in the pecking order.'

 

    Shirley Read: You believe that artists have, by and large, accepted their own marginalisation?

   'Yes, and it's become a deeply unfashionable idea to respond to the world in a very direct way. I'm seen as naive, but I see a lot of students - who have very direct ideas - spending a lot of time making their work look indirect because they think it will then look more like 'real' art. It is ridiculous to think that if art is direct it is propaganda. I think the idea that art is just the icing on the cake is crap. I still believe that it is possible to make interventions - I don't think we should just respond to the bombardment of the media by emulating it. It is a negative inheritance of Post-Modernism which says 'we can't really make sense of all this crap coming at us, we can just reproduce it in different ways'. A lot of current work isn't about making sense of things, it's just putting images next to each other and saying 'this is how the world is'. That's quite reactionary. It's saying that the world comes to us through media so all we can do is make work about media, we can't make work about events. The ultimate was Baudrillard saying that the Gulf War only existed as a media event.'



   Shirley Read: Initially, you weren't interested in showing in galleries?

   'Yes, I was. But my work has not become part of the art system even though I show in galleries. It crosses categories, it can be seen as illustration, it works in newspapers, some people think it's sculpture now. To many people it appears not to be art at all. And a bloody good thing too. I like the sense that it can't be catalogued, that I'm a nebulous figure who turns up in funny places. Young artists now are quite interested in the idea that you can work in response to a certain situation in one medium then change mediums six months later - they're not concerned with a tradition of aesthetic development, they're concerned with making one sort of statement and then a different statement and that's very good.'



   Shirley Read: So your strategies have changed even if your themes and concerns haven't?

   'My strategy is to make work in response to current events and reinvent it by altering its form for different contexts.'



   Shirley Read: When we first met in the early 1970s you were making paintings which used photographs. I was struck by the similarity to your recent work. Have you come full circle?

   'The qualities of paint and materials is something which I used to enjoy and have repressed for twenty years. I suppose I repressed it because I felt it was important to make work which was bound up with political movements. Now I feel I have got to find a new way to get work across. Working with materials such as cardboard, paint, dust is much less repressive than working with montage. My work is becoming more informal, it spills out into the space.'



   Shirley Read: What else has changed and why has working with montage become repressive for you?

   'A montage is an intellectual idea which you construct in the dark-room. Whereas working with bags full of dust, photocopies and torn things, I don't know what the image is going to look like at the end; it is more exploratory. Montages were to do with political movements like CND or the Labour Party and now those outlets have changed. At one extreme a lot of political groups now go to corporate advertisers, at the other they are loosely based around the Internet. I do feel that there is something about charcoal and paint and so on that I'm using in the recent work which means people have a gut reaction which is much more physical. There is also a problem with montage in that you see it everywhere now because of digital technology. There is so much transformed imagery around that people accept constructed images without questioning their meaning. They no longer see the intention to make a message, they just see the final result. I think that my work was losing impact because of that. It seemed like it has become another image transformation amongst many and the message wasn't coming through strongly enough. It's also to do with the fact that politically we're at a different point and things are much more confusing. Communism has gone and we're in a new world. How do you respond to that? Montage is quite a specific response to events, it doesn't allow for layers of meaning. It's much more complicated and confusing to respond to the world now. But in fact I'm still using montage, I've just increased the number of elements and use real objects rather than their representation in a photograph.'



   Shirley Read: I thought there were things in your recent Gimpel Fils show which were like montage techniques. They also physically involve the audience - by putting microphones and placards in the space people had to walk around them.

   'Walk in them. People said afterwards that after Ken Livingstone had given his talk they felt that they were actually at a demonstration because they were in the middle of all these placards. It was important for the audience to become part of the work and be physically involved. That is one way to get through our sort of inwardness - we've all turned inwards a lot, we all sit at home and watch videos. So the question is how do you get people involved in the gallery situation? I try to actually get them into the work. And the work is broken, hanging and very mucky so there's a sort of dangerous dystopic quality which forces a reaction. Whereas a photograph has an impenetrable surface to it.'



   Shirley Read: And the microphones?

   'That's making a democratic sculpture. Saying that this piece is wired up and you can just turn it on and talk into it. It's about speaking out and encouraging people to speak out. That's where change is going to come from in this country, from people speaking out. Like they did with the poll tax and they are doing with the anti-road campaigns. It's about speaking, protesting. The fact that the images were very broken, burnt and falling apart is quite elegiac for a sense of the past and about protest. It's also about possibility for the future. They're placards and placards are about changing things, moving out of things.'



   SR: Do you think your current work is less accessible than the photomontages?

   'I think all the stuff I do is pretty accessible. It tries to give voice to those who are increasingly marginalised and silenced. It's not art about art, it's art about the world, it's trying to bring the outside in, the world into the gallery. It-all comes from anger.'