Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art
George Vasey: Could you talk about how you approached working together for this exhibition?
Lorna Macintyre: I think we’ve approached the show so that our works are autonomous yet are in conversation. We’ve been swapping reading material and visiting each others studios which has been useful to get under the skin of each others practices and to allow the show to grow from these conversations.
GV: Nick, I know that you were keen to work with Lorna very early on after our initial studio visit. The starting point for our conversation was a project that I was working on with Nicholas Pope, a commission that is currently on display in the other gallery at NGCA.
Nick Evans: I invited Lorna because I thought her approach would deal well with a sense that I had about Pope’s work; that seeing his work for the first time set out subliminal co-ordinates that helped to mark out an area that I was also trying to explore.
GV: What has been really great about the season of exhibitions at the NGCA is that the conversations with a group of artists engaged in similar ideas over the space of 40 years have culminated in these quite distinct overlapping exhibitions.
NE: Yes, I was interested in this idea that Pope and I might have affinities across time and space, leading us towards some similar forms. What really appealed to me was that Lorna would perhaps be able to map these spheres of influence.
GV: So you and Lorna have been meeting up regularly?
NE: Yes, regularly and fruitfully although not in an intensely collaborative way. Each of our contributions to the exhibition is quite separate. I roped Lorna in with the intention that she would develop her own, unique response to Pope’s house and studio. I hope (and believe) that the way the individual responses come together might be a sufficient synthesis of these ideas to make a coherent exhibition.
GV: The title of the show is ’Ur Phenomenon’. I was wondering if you could reflect on this — why did you choose it for the title?
LM: I came across the phrase reading Hannah Arendt’s introduction to Walter Benjamin’s ‘Illuminations.’ It was as much Arendt’s description of the phrase that struck me as a beautiful sentence; ‘a concrete thing to be discovered in the world of appearances, in which ‘significance’ and appearance, word and thing, idea and experience would co-incide’…
NE: I like the description of the word as “an archetypal phenomenon, a concrete thing to be discovered in the world of appearances” — this relationship between the real thing and the symbol, the phenomenology of materials, how one’s experience of matter might correspond with one’s idea of it, appealed to me as something that I often deal with concretely in the studio.
GV: It’s originally a phrase taken from Goethe isn’t it?
LM: Yes it is. The description I came across and Arendt’s text, and the direct translation as ‘archetypal phenomenon’ reminded me of Nick’s original invitation, describing a previous body of work of mine as ‘memory archetypes.’ The prefix ‘Ur’ suggests a primordial, elemental quality, which I think is very present in Nick’s work. The idea of an essential core of a thing feels relevant to some of my own preoccupations at the moment. I want the photographs I’m working on to function in several ways simultaneously – to suggest the physicality and presence of Nicholas Pope, to articulate a relationship to sculpture and materiality despite their two dimensionality, to essentially be significant as well as to be exactly what they are.
NE: This has correspondence with the importance that Goethe placed upon seeing the underlying principle of the whole organism, for example the vital tension between horizontality and verticality that is the Ur Phenomenon of a growing plant. It is about learning to see the phenomena in question, not settling for the obvious explanation but seeking out the underlying principle. There is a subtle ethic to this I think when applied to an art object, to do with an object’s qualities: Understanding, revealing and bringing forward an object’s qualities, communicatively, which entails quite a dedication to the complexity and mysterious unknown-ness of an object or person. This is something that I think Lorna achieves very beautifully in her photographs.
GV: How do you see Pope’s work operating in the context of your installation?
NE: I see it as the absent presence, one might even say the Ur-Phenomenon! The reason I was interested in an association with Pope is that his work has impressed itself on me over the years as a memory from before art school. Because of this I felt that the idea of the physical absence of his work could suggest a number of interesting things. We’ve been thinking about the nature of an object’s passage or influence across space and time, the power of memory and images created out of memory, the influence of a place or site, form or material on the generation of image, and vice-versa. These ideas relate to the idea of the psyche as a place, and so could perhaps by extension be explored through the notion of the archaeo-psyche, or an interest in the archaeology of memory and form as both psychic and material matter.
LM: I see Pope as being present in my approach to the installation just as much as his work. In deciding which negatives to work with I was asking myself the question – ‘does it look like Nicholas Pope?’ Which sounds incredibly silly and probably is, but was actually a really helpful question to apply to several rolls of film as a way to find a way through them. In the broadest sense I was seeking out images of the objects which I felt bore a resemblance to the artist – seeking a kind of abstract portraiture within things. In the sense that Nicholas Pope in some way overlaps with the objects that surround him, be they yew trees, sculptures or gloves.
GV: The exhibition and interest in the studio could be seen as quite a romantic gesture in an era or relational and ‘post-studio’ practice. What does the studio mean to you?
LM: I guess I see the studio as a space for transformation – where things become more than the sum of their parts. Also as a space that has a different set of rules to the other spaces I inhabit – where I actively encourage myself to be messy and completely free from constraints. So far in making the work for this show I’ve been working in the darkroom more than the studio – another space that is arguably anachronistic in terms of contemporary practice. I find it a totally compelling way of making work, it feels very separate from the ‘real world’ and that really works for me – a space where there’s a sense of absolute calm and concentration. Then there’s the magic of the process – watching an image appear on a white piece of photo paper. I often feel a little stunned to go outside at the end of the day and have a momentary sensation that the world is very sharply in focus – I mean literally rather than metaphorically…. (!)
NE: I think that in general studio practice is the very opposite of a romantic gesture, being as it is a sustained engagement with materials and the ‘real’ world… However a certain bohemian romantic attitude (which is to say the attitude of the modern consumer) is more or less ubiquitous throughout the visual arts anyway, and culture in general. Seeing as this attitude has become so reflexive, I think that the studio and its aesthetic strategies now actually assume a perverse new urgency. In particular I’m interested in the return of a certain forms of the aesthetic, which dive into, work through and ultimately emerge somewhere quite far beyond the romantic subject. This aesthetic extends to include many other types of objects and beings, including the monstrously Other in their radical non-identity, or their Frankenstein-ism. This entails encounters through studio practice with the unknown, quite literally, albeit in the form of the model or the form-experiment. Even if only as model, perhaps the studio is as good a place as any to rehearse and learn a vital appreciation of these unknown Others.
GV: Lorna, your photographs translate the multi-dimensionality of sculpture into the flat photographic image. How do you see the photographs in relation to the sculptural elements in the show?
LM: I’m interested in the indexical relationship inherent to the silver gelatin process. Light reflected from an object trapped on film then printed with light in the darkroom – there’s so much more physicality involved in the process than with pixels and digital printers and it is the physicality that interests me. In toning the photographs with perry and cider made by the Popes, I’m trying to play with the material nature of the prints, to try to pierce their inherent two dimensionality and to foreground the materiality of the photographic paper itself. I also like that it pokes fun in the seriousness of the medium and to introduce another material like I would in a sculpture. As such I see the photographs as having a direct relationship with the material and physical forms of Nick’s sculpture – I see them as taking another form rather than as being in any way separate or inherently different.
GV: If we think about the famous images by Brassai of Giacometti and Brancusi’s studio in Paris in the Thirties, the artist is often absent – the objects become the subject in a sense. I’ve got two questions; Lorna do you see the photographs as a type of portraiture? & Nick do you see the show as the presentation of process? Ie, things left unfinished and perhaps more provisional as a gesture towards transparency…
LM: Interesting you mention Brancusi as he is a figure that I think connects Nicholas Pope, Nick Evans and I – I think we all might be a little obsessed with him in different ways. His own photographs of his studio have been influential to me. The prints aren’t perfect, they’re quite amateurish but they capture the essence of the work. For Brancusi, the studio was an evolving installation and the camera performed an essential role for him in capturing his work the way he saw it and wanted it to be seen. I do see the photographs as a type of portraiture. I’ve always been really interested in the ‘life’ of objects and materials or their capabilities to suggest and symbolize. I’m fascinated by the role of objects in Ancient greek art — in the power of a lyre to symbolise Apollo or a torch Hekate and that’s something I’ve worked with in my practice in the past. Coming from a completely different angle, Jane Bennet’s theories of ‘thing-power’ have been really influential to me recently. While I’m not directly citing any of these influences in my work for the show I think they are all the same very present.
NE: I think that the gesture towards the studio in terms of actual objects might in fact be quite subtle. We might just end up with some furniture elements from my studio. So for my part no, it is not really going to be a presentation of process, at least not as much as I might have thought previously. The idea of the object being the subject is, as Lorna says, very important to us both, in relation not only to a modernist values around directing expression, but also in relation to 21st century materialisms. Perhaps we are both somehow dreaming of returning to a neo-paleolithic state, where the significance of things is not so disconnected from the physicality of their apprehension. The body, or the embodied gaze, or conversely, the disembodied hand (the ‘hand’ of the tool or machine) are central to both of our understandings of the aesthetics of ‘things’. ‘Things’ – objects real or represented are, as you say portraits, because they imagine material as both sensate – responding to us, and operate reciprocally on our senses.