It is partly the sense that people might return to something written. And so writing has to be able to withstand multiple readings over time and in unknowable circumstances. With art, you have a room and you know how the room feels, so a lot of the work of reception has already been done for you.
I also think there’s a way I don’t care with art and it has kind of been helpful – a sort of generative carelessness that I’m capable of. You could even call it play, or sometimes even contempt. I started making art kind of late in life. This was partly because I spent several years trying to write a novel which was a really difficult experience. I think what moving into art-making meant to me was the freedom to do things carelessly. I notice that now, working on this longer piece of writing at Boffo, I care to the point where I have to deal with that as a problem.
I still like my first show with Arcadia Missa in London back in 2015 but, in general, I would say I only figured out a process or system of how to make an exhibition over the past two years or so. It made me realise how attached I was to the idea of being incompetent. I had almost a kind of melancholy moment with the show that I did in Braunschweig, where I was like, Oh, I suppose anything that you spent most of your 30s doing, you would eventually become good at. How weird that I’ve spent it on exhibition-making, which I’m not really sure what I think about. But my feeling about my work fluctuates, which is probably good. Because if I felt like I had actually figured it out there wouldn’t be that much impulse to keep trying. What has stuck with me in all your exhibitions is your attention to colour. It often seems to me that your use of colour is doing a lot of work, but in ways that can be quite elusive. In your show at Eden Eden, there was a striking contrast between the neons of the films and the organic colours of the sculptures. Or, I’m thinking about the staid, almost office-like colours of the Chisenhale show in 2017. How do these specific colour palettes develop in relation to the ideas you are pursuing in making a work or a show? I wish I had some joyful playfulness with colour, but I think it is more often what is bearable because my experience of it can be so intense. If you could somehow have things be colourless, I would probably try. But you can’t – it would just be another thing. It is similar to choosing a font for a video, which can be completely maddening. How can these all have such wildly different significances and still be choices you’re making about one specific thing?
Being intimidated by colour, I end up with these exaggerated, ‘too-much’ colours. I admit that I have a gross palette of primary colours or colours that reference the body in some way. The show at Braunschweig was an exception because it was pretty muted – the strongest colour was probably the backdrop of Clemens, a video where I’m sitting on a bench, speaking to von Wedemeyer over the phone while there are these beautiful California trees behind me. The video recurs throughout the exhibition, projected over numerous walls and over windows.
Apparently brown paintings are the worst selling. I love random examples of racism that just float around in the world, not even attached to human bodies. That’s one reason why work which focuses on the body has to be ironic and cerebral – which I hope mine is. I remember having these thoughts five years ago, around the
‘Dede, Eberhard, Phantom’, installation view,
Kunstverein Braunschweig, 2019
time of my first Arcadia Missa show. It is funny to think about this now, because it would appear that we have just invented art about race again. But that was the other first time that apparently anyone had thought of making art about race, back in 2015 during the Ferguson riots that followed Michael Brown being shot by police – and so on. It is interesting to consider the frequency of these debates, and everyone has different timelines or estimates.
For that show, I visited a paint store, B&Q or somewhere like that, to use their colour-match device but using my arm under the colour sensor, which obviously does not successfully produce a real colour match. The staff suggested that I could instead take a picture of my arm for a more accurate likeness, and I said no, we have to do it like this. So that was my probably incomprehensible joke about identity art. Recently we were having a conversation and you said something along the lines of how it sometimes seems as if the current wave of protest, radicalisation and art-world efforts to engage with race already has an amnesia for the post-Ferguson moment, rather than seeing the lines of continuity between this short period of history. What do you think is different in this current moment than five years ago? Maybe it didn’t necessarily percolate to the wider culture, but I feel that in terms of art, it was pretty clear that there was already a quite significant curatorial return to thinking about black art post Ferguson. I thought that changed a lot of people’s understanding, but now in 2020 I’m having conversations with people where they seem to be encountering these thoughts for the first time. I now feel convinced that if there was another uprising in, say, 2024, we would go through the exact same process of astonishment. For some people it obviously has produced a serious change in their worldview but that’s a minority, I now think.
I assumed that art had lost its social vanguard function because there is such a massive proliferation of visual culture and it’s not like contemporary art really pioneers visual culture anymore, or any form of culture. But, actually, the way that what we are calling the Ferguson era percolated through the art world, and the way that art institutions tried to respond, I think weirdly presage what is happening now on a wider scale. Art is still a profession which includes a lot of people who are politically curious and engaged, despite all its drawbacks.
Art Monthly no. 441, November 2020