Ash interviews Dan Orwellised
Maybe you can tell me about A Lecture on the Artist's Body Told Through A Series of Lies, your upcoming exhibition at Local Art Museum Project Space?
The work has two elements. A video is projected at about 2.5 x 1 m, quite an intimate scale. Across from it is a piece of wooden furniture which is positioned so a visitor can sit while watching the video. The furniture is a kind of a meeting point between a sculptural tradition and a more interior design tradition. It resembles certain modernist sculptures: particularly ones made by Picasso. But it also resembles some furniture: particularly that made by Alvar Aalto. This furniture component looks quite like a sort of fragmented human body, it has recognisable human features.
So the gallery visitor sits on this and watches the video. I shot the video in my studio and composed it mainly of bits of drawings and photographs that I have taken over the past year or so. These images function as puppets, interacting with one another. Sometimes they are moving on camera, and sometimes they move through digital editing processes. question about passive vs transitive verbs
So the viewer will be seeing a sort of expanded animation?
Of drawings and objects from the studio?
And these are in the room installed with ...
No: in the room there's a film and a piece of furniture. It's a closed situation, one which I have constructed and orchestrated. The video alludes to an outside world, but that outside world is my studio: another situation I control and orchestrate.
And was this an existing work or was it commissioned specifically for this space? Is there something about the gallery that drew you to this point?
The drawings and so on pre-exist this commission. I had known for some time that I wanted to do something with them beyond exhibiting them physically in a room. So when this conversation began with Anne I told her that I might like to elevate something which was quite small — the day to day shuffling about of studio life — into something quite large which is this first European solo exhibition.
This is the first opportunity that this audience has to see you work in a concentrated and focussed way. Has this changed your approach?
I was conscious that in a group exhibition there is perhaps a different kind of attention that people are able to pay. Here I had an opportunity to work in a context where I could aim to give people a focussed singular relationship with something. So I was more confident to use perhaps bittier, scrappier materials. I present two elements and trust the audience to give them time and attention. For first time viewers of your practice do you feel that this is indicative of what you've been doing over the past few years or is this kind of a new step for you?
This is more or less in line with what I've been doing, in that for some time I've been making work that is figurative or refers to figuration, but avoids direct completed unitary human figures. I'm very interested in sculpture and figurative sculpture but I've never made a thing that resembles a person as such. So that is a continuing line.
How does Picasso in particular fit into that line? Has he been a constant reference in your work or is there something in his relationship to this city that is important?
My work making reference to Picasso is actually quite new. Like a lot of artists I began art school at 18 or 19, and in art school you are introduced to the modern canon in a quite focussed way and then you're almost immediately taught to distrust it. So I am actually undergoing a process of rediscovery. Because while I think that there are a lot of things to be critical of, built into that criticism should be a recognition that modernist forms have had consequences in our culture. Labour and capital exploit the idea of fragmentary bodies, but someone consuming the dominant culture will no longer encounter direct representations of these kinds of bodies. So perhaps it's useful to continue to make critical use of that hundred year old visual language.
Representations of bodies are as prevalent today as they were in Picasso's time. People will be conscious of this: they go to the cinema, they see advertising. But these forms make visible idealised bodies, as they always have, and the dominant visual culture presents no alternative.
It's worth remembering that a hundred years ago — even if it wasn't being done in a positive light, even if they were talked about as shocking or degenerate — images of bodies represented in a disjointed rather than idealised way could enter the dominant culture. Perhaps this was just the shock of the new.
But we live in an age of 3D cinema, we're seeing something that once again resembles figurative sculpture. I'm interested in fragmenting those representations again.
The initial reference point of say, early 20th century cubism was one that was influenced by war, radical industrialisation and social change. Is that fragmentation that occurs in this new work a reflection of how you see contemporary society changing?
There's perhaps a particularly militarised masculinist aesthetic prevalent at the moment which I think it's hard not to get drawn into. Which is why I think I'm talking about my own body, in this work. For instance body building is perhaps another form of contemporary figurative sculpture. This masculinism is definitely connected to the almost total militarisation of culture. I think that's not reflected on in the same way as it might once have been: with horror. Perhaps there's less of a reaction of horror to that than there was a hundred years ago, perhaps it's been normalised and valorised. My use of these forms might be an attempt to reintroduce a horror at bodies, at how our bodies and others' bodies are used in ways that go unrepresented.
As part of the exhibition you've been developing a screening programme and a series of readings. Can you share any hints about what might be in that programme?
One thing I will be showing is the first Die Hard film. Of the many forms of bodily representation that the work doesn't touch directly but which is crucial right now is representation of the act of internal and external policing. The policeman is often still a hero in our culture at a time when the police in many parts of the world are more brutal than they've ever been. I'm also thinking about the ways in which I am policed, and how my social privileges growing up mean a lot of that policing is internal. I don't think it's a misnomer to call this policing, but it's clearly of a preferable kind to physical policing by external institutions. Clearly the level and brutality of control to which we are subjected is determined largely by our relations to social institutions. I like Die Hard because John McClane is an American rugged individual who's a representative of the NYPD. Because he's in LA he's able to break the NYPD rules, to perform the act of policing in a deregulated way. He can be a policeman and not a policeman at the same time, he can to embody the institution and the rugged individual simultaneously. This is a crucial tension.
Die Hard was made in 1989, when the militarisation of culture was beginning to ramp up. If you compare the Batman films made at that time to those made recently you can see clearly how representations of masculinity and policing have militarised in that time. And Die Hard is obviously a film that's hugely to do with John McClane's body, and the effects of his training. He is an everyman in a superman's body. He is a representation of our human frailties, but his body has been filtered through a social institution and is now capable of extreme violence. His psyche is fragmented but his body is monolithic. And he has been let loose in this playpen: the skyscraper is a state of exception in which there are no rules for him to follow other than the restrictions laid down by its form. He is an unpoliced policeman, which is a position we need to be aware of.
Thinking about a single person inhabiting different roles, also thinking about the way that you involve your own body, and thinking the over-valorisation of certain masculinist tendencies, is there a place for humour in your work, can viewers expect some of that as well?
Yeah, certainly. Another obvious everyman in a superman's body is Buster Keaton, whose film One Week I'll also be showing. In narrative terms Die Hard and One Week are similar films. Both are about a man running around a collapsing building trying to make his marriage work. Keaton's body has an even more pronounced immunity to pain, and he also has the vulnerability to psychic pain. The interesting thing is that he doesn't occupy this tense position in relation to any social institutions. He is a weird kind of everyman as outsider, a pure relatable alien. The comedy arises from his constant struggles to negotiate with institutions and architecture, and the creativity he shows in surviving these situations. It's a drama of pure survival. Within the narrative Keaton's body doesn't speak of any particular training, any preparation for these trials. His perseverance and creativity are abstract and pleasurable, they never become an occasion for macho fist-pumping. His creative reinterpretation of the uses of bodies and spaces is something that I've learned from formally right through my practice, but also the fact that I find it genuinely hilarious is something to which I return. So hopefully some of that leaks through, because I do think it's important to enjoy oneself at least a little bit.