British artist Stuart Semple – who has been dubbed the ‘Basquiat of the noughties’ – talks to Ysabelle Cheung about Hockney, Russian oligarchs and being an artist in the postmodern age.
Stuart Semple died when he was 19 years old. A life-threatening peanut allergy resulted in his heart flatlining for a few seconds – what he calls ‘the most terrifying experience you could ever imagine’. What occurred after the temporary scissoring of his existence led to a life-long dedication to his art. A jumpstart in eBay auctions (he sold more than 3,000 paintings), walking into the 2005 Saatchi exhibit to implant his own painting in a revolutionary guerrilla attack on the art system, creating RIP YBA (Young British Artists), a box which contained ashes from the destroyed works of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, releasing powder-pink smiley face clouds from above the murky waters of the Thames – all of these milestones seem insignificant when you listen to Semple, now 31, who talks to Time Out from his cavernous London studio, while quietly meditating on the values of art.
“I’ve always made art. It’s always been there for me. I think art has been put on the back burner for at least 15 years. There’s a heart in it that we’re really lacking, there’s a human aspect to it that painting and art can do that other things can’t.” We’ve interrupted him in the middle of an art session, it seems, but, polite as ever, he apologises profusely for not waiting by the phone. “I completely forgot. I was in here at seven this morning,” he says, instantly debunking the myth that a lackadaisical approach to art is the way of the 21st century – and that bad manners are a pre-requisite to controversial fame and glory.
When we mention the current debate splashing front pages – the Hockney vs Hirst debacle that has stirred up sour feelings about skilled art technique and contemporary concept art – Semple becomes understandably ignited in his argument. “It’s quite sad. It was crass and a bit ignorant to talk about the hand of the artist or the idea that the artist could create something spiritual. But I can’t begrudge anyone for using systems to make their work. That’s ludicrous, that’s like asking an architect to build their own church with their own hands.”
But surely, we suggest, there’s some truth in Hockney’s statement as well, that contemporary artists are relying on other skilled individuals and companies to create their work without training in the basic aesthetic skills? “At the same time, that’s true. The thing is, we’ve come to a time now where the actual output of art has become so much more extended. It isn’t just about drawing or painting. There’s fantastic painting that’s been going on since the cave paintings. I can think of hundreds of fantastic living painters.”
And how about the Jankowski superyacht that was the centrepiece of the 2011 Frieze art fair in London? The arrangement caused a near media frenzy when it became clear that its quoted selling price was €65 million and, for an extra €10m, you could buy it as a work of ‘art’, complete with a plaque and a certificate. “There’re other things to be dealing with,” Semple reflects. “Yes, we know there’s a recession, and yes, we’re told that the art world is a very exciting and spectacular place with multi-million pound Russian oligarchs rolling around, buying stuff. That’s fine but that doesn’t really help us as artists and as people who look at art and are interested in culture. Other people have dealt with the idea of art and commerce so many times before – and better – so what’s a boat got to do with it?”
Semple’s latest exhibition in Hong Kong, titled It’s Hard to Be a Saint in This City, renders nostalgic images of the 1990s and of his own formative years. How Soon Is Now is splashed in faded neo-block letters on a canvas painting; the sound of a basketball in a gymnasium reverberating through the braces of a geek’s mouth is spelled out in rainbow magnets on a vintage refrigerator. “At school I was a very strange kid,” says the artist. “I was obsessed with rock and roll music and edgy pop music, like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen. It seems to me that text has the power that pictorial representation doesn’t. They become an almost sculptural medium and I think song lyrics in particular have an almost emotionality to them. I’ll be listening to music and then I’ll start to get visual ideas.”
The state of art and copyright is at stake, especially now, where creativity seems to be fading into the quicksand current of technology. Being a renegade character on the DACS (Design and Artist’s Copyright Society), Semple is fully aware that under the so-called ‘copyleft law’, his work may be distributed, copied and altered multiple times. “I think that culture needs freedom in order to progress and we need to be able to adapt what’s come before us. If you believe the idea that we’re in some postmodern place where hybrid things are all that we’re able to make, then it’s vital that, as artists, we have materials that we can have access to incorporate into new formats and I think that’s how knowledge progresses.”
It’s Hard to Be a Saint in This City is at The Space Feb 17-Mar 16.