03.06.16 --- 24.06.16
Plywood, various wood veneers, perspex, oil cloth, acrylic paint and aluminium
MDF, plywood, perspex and acrylic paint
Plywood, oak veneer, acrylic paint, aluminium and perspex
Mark Selby with Chris Shaw
CS: During the preview of your show at Three Works, I spent some time observing people responding to the artworks - all of which are taken from a recent series you have titled Auto-assemblage. I found it interesting watching and listening in as people attempted to make sense of the work. In front of Auto-assemblage #12, for instance, somebody told me a story about the origins of McDonalds' Golden Arches. Somebody else in front of the largest piece in the show, Auto-assemblage #14, was mimicking a factory worker operating machinery - pulling levers to set would-be cogs in motion. For me, the constructivists sprang to mind with the kinds of abstract values they are known for.
From whatever angle we were approaching, it seemed we were trying to lean on pre-existing ideas or formulas that might provide some sort of way in. Are you interested much in how people read your work?
MS: I think the idea of ‘reading’ a work is problematic. That’s not to say I’m not interested - quite the contrary. By that I mean a key part of the work is to think about what is made legible or illegible (often purposely hidden) in terms of the knowledge it can contain or produce.
The desire for the work to do something is a common reaction – whether that be through physical manipulation, kinetics or a graphic constructivism. I think that’s inevitable when exhibiting work that is referencing a formal play on art history and abstraction that seems structured (coded like the constructivist grid), but also has what you, in a previous conversation I had with you, labeled “clown noses”. I thought that was a really interesting description, because in a way there is a relation between a rational process - a schematic or code that can be built up through past experiences when encountering the work - and a slightly absurd comedy of immediacy.
The difficult part in asking this though, is that the process of how the final artworks came about is less about my authorship, and as such less about creating a narrative to be read, and more about an exploration of distance between the actual method of making and my own hand. Where the formulas or grids of constructivism have been plotted, they need to now be extrapolated into, for instance, 4D virtual reality - frictionless formulas of information and knowledge - all of which really interest me.
CS: The Auto-assemblage works are constructed from an array of different materials that pop outwards facing in all directions. This creates a sense of dynamism as the light that hits the surfaces rebounds as shadow. There are blockages but also portals. There are clean, elegant, sweeping lines but also globular shapes that have a vaguely comedic effect - those 'clown noses' you mentioned. The word 'assemblages' makes up half the title, but what does the 'auto' part of the title refer to?
MS: The ‘auto’ part comes from the works manufacture via the ‘machine’ as a model or method. I do not make the works entirely. A key part of the work is in allowing a computer, or rather its own processing possibilities, to have some agency in production.
All the works in the show are made from spare parts, offcuts, old bits of work or ‘stock’ material in the studio that hasn’t yet found a use. These parts are all drawn up in CAD (computer-aided design) before then being placed into various software programmes that assemble them as 3D digital models. Using Sketchyphysics or Unity for example, I can drop each part onto the next and fix them in place – a parody of Hans Arp's method of collaging, allowing for some element of chance under the guide of gravity… only in this instance, a form of Newtonian gravity approximated by a piece of code. Sometimes I will set particular rules, such as demanding two vectors, lines or points cross - but the structure or framework for production is constantly changing as I collaborate with the machine.
Once I feel I have added enough parts, I then try to make the 3D digital model out of the physical parts themselves, and I enjoy the challenge of connecting the various components as closely as possible to that drawing.
CS: This method of production suggests to me that you will have to carry on making a sort of 'official' work in order to create these 'by-products'?
MS: Originally, this method stemmed from being increasingly ecologically and economically aware – as an artist who wants to make things, should I be just continually adding more objects into the world? I don’t know if I need to make more ‘official’ work or what that might be in order to perpetuate this method of production. It might be more interesting to think of how this process could act like gravity - only, in the context of a black hole... sucking in all objects and macerating them into new assemblages. For instance, my studio chair could be added into the machine next, the scaffold pole outside the studio window, and the crisp packet lying on the pavement, and so on. In this way, it is an attempt to explore the game space of the computer leaking out and changing the world around us physically rather than seeing it as other or virtual.
CS: Colour provides quite a punch in the Auto-assemblage pieces, but looking over your past work on your website, colour hasn't always been that prominent a feature, has it?
MS: In previous work, I think I more clearly referenced a minimal aesthetic that focused on the raw material of the engineered - a ‘prototype’ form if you like. I’ve never been anti-colour but it is only recently that I have seen how it is also another constructed system that, as you said, can be a formula that I can potentially lean on.
There is also a growing interest in using colour as a form of attraction - in the way cultural spectacles such as the fairground or cinema have done - to concentrate less on the narrative content and more on the very act of looking or experiencing.
CS: There's a strong echo reverberating in your Three Works show, the shout that created it having come from Russia in the earlier part of the Twentieth Century through movements like Suprematism and, a little later, Constructivism. The link seems clear enough but is it these early modernist movements that interest you in particular or is it perhaps how these ideas have filtered through into everyday life?
MS: The work is very much about the present day and as such how some of those moments or movements you mention have filtered through.
Rather than being nostalgic for the past, it’s really those moments of contestation that resonate today under a different technological and social context that interest me. In the contest between constructivism and suprematism is the question of the object – from artist-as-engineer to Malevich’s non-objective world. Arguments around the position of object and human resonate today - look at the recent rise of discussions around object-orientated ontology and new materialisms for example. There is a constant anxiety about the object and position of the human subject in relation that I find really interesting.
My feeling is that to be human is to want to remove the lid and peer in underneath in order to find out how an object works, what it does or can do, beyond its intended representation.
CS: Your Three Works show privileges the eye, but the visual aspect of what you do is only one part of the story. Do you envisage a much more holistic exhibition experience where all the fine detail of the way you think and work can be explored?
MS: For Three Works, it feels quite odd as this is one of the few occasions all the works have been made for placement on the wall - in that sense privileging the eye. I should say though that looking is not a passive experience at all, but it's true that much of my other work seeks a more spatial sense of experience. Lately, I have been really interested in working beyond the gallery space or white cube with a view to creating a more peripatetic mode of working and exhibiting. I’m thinking of the spectacle or attraction that occurs in a variety of forms including fairs, travelling shows and theatre.
CS: Tell me about the PhD you're undertaking and the impact it is having on your work?
MS: These ideas of mobility I mention are coming, in part, from my PhD research which explores mechanical, machine-based production methods in object manufacture with digital, more widely distributed forms of working. The project is practice-based and so it's really making me think about an economy of objects, my part in that and how it is continually fluid or distributed (materials that are continually reconstituted, re-invented or retrieved) as in the Auto-assemblage pieces for Three Works. I’m thinking of materials as forms of data (or knowledge) here.
CS: Tell me about the artists, writers and thinkers that mean something to you and the work you do?
MS: The range of things that mean something to me is ever-growing, but some I always return to. It was interesting you mentioned constructivism earlier as I went to New York recently and saw a Moholy-Nagy show at the Guggenheim that really grabbed me. It keeps fresh in my mind the interplay between art, science and technology. Room of the Present, that was not completed during his lifetime, and Light Prop for an Electric Stage were fantastic to see in the flesh. What struck me is that his work is about the machine and industrial production but it's also very strongly about human experience and resilience, much in the way Goethe considered science to be necessarily participatory. That attempt to reconcile human and machine has never felt more prescient.