The British Cut
Ahead of a summer of London headlines, a new exhibition showcases works by established and upcoming UK-based artists. Byron Tseng and Cris Stringfellow catch up with a trio of them.
It’s not difficult to see why 2012 is a very British year. The London Olympics are just about to kick-off, Queen Elizabeth is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, British actors and musicians are storming the charts, and seemingly everywhere in Hong Kong you can see the GREAT advertising campaign, showcasing all that is marvellous and unique about the inhabitants of the British Isles (let’s ignore the fact that the UK economy is in the poorhouse for the moment).
Into this patriotic soup comes a new show at The Cat Street Gallery, in association with London’s Fine Art Society, which showcases some of the UK’s biggest names in art, entitled The British Cut (as in diamonds, yeah?). With works ranging from paintings, sculptures, drawings, light installations and photograms, the exhibition features works from established artists such as David Hockney, Peter Blake, Paula Rego and Jonathan Yeo (Tracy Emin almost made the cut, but there were complications…), as well as a host of upcoming British talents. Time Out speaks with holographic photographer Chris Levine, taxidermist-artist Polly Morgan and camera-shattering genius Steve Pippin before the show’s opening.
Chris Levine has always aimed to bring light and magnetism into his art. His 2004 masterpiece, a holographic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, remarkably captures the royal figurehead with her eyes closed. Conservative commentators were certainly outraged – but given the image is entitled Lightness of Being they perhaps missed the transcendental peacefulness and stillness permeating the work. And Levine is more than upbeat about the UK in 2012.
It’s the Olympic year and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Every English person is feeling patriotic. How does this affect a half-Scotsman like yourself?
For me the future has arrived. The year 2012 has turned out better than expected. The whole focus and the energy took me by surprise. There is a real buzz over here (in the UK); hopefully we can sustain it. It feels good to be British right now.
But how does it feel in light of the London riots last year? Is this patriotism surprising?
Well, there seems to be overwhelming positivity. I’m not sure how much the media filters out. But when you turn on the news there’s a lot of negativity. I resist that kind of news. I think they should open up a good news channel, because a lot of good things happen on the planet. Unfortunately, negativity gets coverage, which in turn affects the mass psyche. But with the Olympics, we are getting a really positive message.
So what can be achieved with holographs that can’t be achieved on canvas?
Holographs are a very generic term. A lot of 3D imaging technology is not holographic at all. Holographs are more to do with hyper-real recording, hyper-real contact with the subject. It takes you deeper into the subject.
Can we talk about the Queen? Was it intimidating preparing her majesty for a shoot?
She does portraits quite regularly and all of them formal. But when I got the call to shoot her I wasn’t sure it was for real. It was only in the week leading up to it that the responsibility dawned on me. It was commissioned to mark 800 years of history for the island of Jersey (a British Crown dependency off the northern coast of France) and I would have thought that the bureaucracy would have led me to all sorts of suggestions, icons and props, and I would have been guided out of what they wanted in the image. But, actually, it was left totally up to me. I could have unveiled anything. There was some outcry from Jersey that the hologram was too futuristic to represent 800 years of history – but the whole point of the commission was to signify the modern relationship between the island and the Crown.
How did you select your final cuts?
I really did want to create a 21st century icon, in doing that as an image-maker. I am a collaborator, but at the end I wanted an image that resonated with energy, refining it back to the simplest form. And in doing that I was very conscious of her breathing. The camera took quite a long time to reload each time. I was trying to create a sense of stillness in the image, timing the exposure with her breathing cycle, and I hope that comes out in the final image.
She has her eyes closed and you said you wanted to capture her inner peace and meditation. But did you ever feel this image might have offended her?
I think it captures inner beauty. We all close our eyes to achieve a higher state of being. We are the most evolved beings on the planet and I personally believe the human race depends on how soon we can adopt meditation as normality. The thing about the eyes [being] shut is that you don’t get caught up in the superficiality of the eyes or the image of the subject. With the eyes shut you are enabled to go into a deeper realm and context. That dimension is a spiritual dimension. It is partly why that energy has resonated in so many people. I get emails everyday from around the world, that the image touches people. They are not necessarily royalists but are drawn by the energy and stillness that penetrates people. With the eyes shut you can go beyond the mind and ego, and closer to the source.
How did you feel that your image Equanimity will be used in British currency on a 100 pound note?
Very surreal. Mind boggling. When I was in art school, I was far too rock ‘n roll. It was never my ambition to do a portrait of the Queen. But as it happened and the way it worked out, it was a real privilege. To see my work on banknotes is something I can tell my grandchildren. BT
If she had to dissect her first entry into the world of art, dead-pan artist-taxidermist Polly Morgan would admit to being subliminally influenced by Damien Hirst’s rotting cow cranium, A Thousand Years. Yet Morgan says her work affirms life, not death. Now a household-name in the UK, the 32-year old began taxidermy while searching for thrift decorations for a new flat. “Everything looked reanimated,” she recalls. “I wanted something that looked dead.” So she did it herself, launching a refined aesthetic that often pairs antique furnishings with exquisitely groomed animals (a bird gazing into a mirror, a squirrel holding a jar, baby chicks standing over a coffin.) Her ethics on taxidermy are very strong (natural or accidental deaths only) and she keeps a log of all her dead animals.
Is there a dialogue in your work with ideals such as life extension and preservation?
Well that’s why I got interested in taxidermy in the first place. You can hang on to this thing that is dead and you’re not trying to pretend otherwise, but you can examine it in all its splendour forevermore. It’s this kind of brilliant way of hanging on to something that didn’t last. As a kid I’d always picked up dead animals and brought them into my house. My mum would tell me I had to bury them or they’d go off. So things were taken away from me.
Not wanting to lose things should be very easy for people to relate to.
Well, yes, I hope it is to some. But I do think that some of my works require a little bit longer to think past the fact that you might be looking at a coffin or you might be looking at some dead animals and to actually think about what my meaning might have been.
Given than you interact with natural processes, how much are you a part of a metaphysical story of birth, death and rebirth?
I feel like I’m interrupting it actually, because I don’t allow the animal to change. What I like about it is it’s something you can do in the nude really; you don’t need very much kit. I’m sure people were doing it thousands of years ago. It satisfied so many different parts of you as well. The science side and the art side – it’s very relaxing to do, almost like cooking or something like that.
Is disgust ever an element to your work?
I always make sure there is beauty. I never try to do something for the sake of disgust. Disgust and beauty are incredibly close allies really. They’re not opposing at all.
Is that duality something you’re inspired by?
It’s something that interests me all the time. I was walking the dog the other day and there was this slug sitting inside the remains of an apple, and I took a picture of that on my iPhone, but it turned out to be the most beautiful picture. There was mould growing on the apple, it was all rotten, and the slug was kind of sliding inside it. And I sent it to my mum, and she went ‘ooh!’ And yet I look at it and I love it, and my boyfriend Matt looks at it and he loves it. Art is like learning a new language. It starts off hard to understand things.
So this natural disgust which is always around us, do you think it’s an essential part of understanding this duality?
It’s a full stop when people hit that. It prevents them from getting into any kind of dialogue or interest with it. There are certain things like maggots which [are] fine to be disgusted by. They’re a warning, inedible. But there are other things that can be overcome, like mould in cheese.
How would you describe the beauty in an image of disgust?
There’s lots to it. The colours are beautiful, the light is really nice. The pattern down the slug’s back. Nature is fantastic. The design of the animal is so incredible. It’s life affirming.
If you could no longer do what you do in England, would you relocate?
Interesting question. I think it would be pretty stressful. I have a lot of people here around me and I don’t really want to leave this country. But I suppose if I became flat broke… [Laughs] CS
Steven Pippin isn’t open to the idea of being an artist in the conventional sense. He would sooner engineer a way to blow up a camera, with the camera filming its own death, than place paint on canvas. Wires, tubes, fuse-boxes and physics are more his thing. Indeed, this 52-year old English ‘artist’ is pretty hard to pigeonhole. In 1999, Pippin was shortlisted for the Turner Prize for Laundromat Locomotion in which he converted a row of washing machines into a series of cameras triggered by tripwires… with a horse and rider trotting through the laundromat to recreate Muybridge‘s famous The Horse in Motion zoetrope (1878).
How is Britain doing in this very British of years, especially after last year’s London riots?
For me, in some ways, it’s like the Thatcher era [but] without as strong a political figure. The whole Olympics [are] a bit of nightmare. Personally for me, I have no interest. Idiocy. Considering the amount of infrastructure created for two weeks, it’s absurd. It becomes like a ghost town afterwards. They say London is hosting the green Olympics. More like the cheap Olympics. Moreover, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are the sponsors. Hardly a symbol of green…
So you don’t think the Olympics will revitalise London?
It will bring in a lot of people. But for me that’s not the nature of the Olympics. I’m very disappointed in a way. It’s just another example of the commercialisation of a situation.
Tell us about your Point Blank series.
The original idea for Point Blank started when I saw a photo in the early 1990s. The photograph has been around for about 100 years. At the same time I’ve been trying to think about how to make a camera photograph itself and collapse at the same time. This is an idea I have been intrigued with. I have made some experiments of destructing a camera by setting fire to one. A photo of this process would be received on the automatic winder system, until the camera eventually melted or just gave up. Then I started to seriously consider shooting a camera with a bullet. What intrigued me was the subject matter making a mark on the film. So you’d have a hole where the bullet went. But you’d also get an image of the bullet. This I found very exciting, so you really compress the idea of the photograph into the film. I found that the idea of the photo being dramatic and violent isn’t that interesting. The concept of the subject going through the camera to still capture the image was most interesting.
Will we see the series at the Hong Kong show?
Yes. Two early images.
And where is the series going?
Not really sure, it is still incomplete. I have a few more experiments to do. I’m planning one where the actual gun is inside the camera, so it fires through the lens, capturing that image. It will be a major reversal in photography.
Incredible. You lose quite a lot of cameras that way.
Yes, quite a few.
What are you working on now?
It’s a cross between philosophy and engineering, by balancing a pencil on its point. It’s called Omega = 1, and it’s inspired by a metaphor that is being used by astrophysicists. They use this example of a pencil in perfect balance between space and gravity. I kept seeing this metaphor pop up, so I felt determined to present it. The first stage took five years to complete by 2007. The second stage of the project is to obtain balance without support for the pencil, which has only been completed in the last couple of weeks. The next stage would be to position this object on top of a symbolic structure, like the Tokyo Sky Tree. But that will take some politicking. BT
The British Cut is at The Space until Jun 3.
1. Chris Levine, Lightness of Being (giclee print, 2007)
2. Polly Morgan, Claustrophobia (taxidermy lady amhurst pheasant, wood, resin, 2011)
3. Steven Pippin, Pentax 35mm Camera shot in the back (from the side) with a 9mm Calibre (C-type photographic print, 2010)