When I met Marina Abramović in Tasmania, in one of the luxury garden cabins at MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art, owned by billionaire gambler and art collector David Walsh – she told me several extraordinary things about herself. One of those things – which I’ve often thought would apply to many of the artists I’ve met and interviewed over the years – was her matter-of-fact statement that, “There are at least three people inside my head. Part of me is very regimented and drawn to rules and instructions. It comes from my parents, both high-ranking army personnel in the Yugoslavian army. Secondly, there is the part of me that likes to have fun and adventure and try new things. Finally, there is the lazy me, who lies around eating chocolate and ice cream, and watching box sets of DVDs.”
Other artists I’ve encountered could similarly switch in an instant from talking about the complex processes involved in a video shoot, or the precision needed to make a lost wax casting, to enquiring of a studio assistant about the half-time score in a World Cup qualifier between England and Spain, or The Netherlands and Argentina. And if football (and I must confess I’ve never been to a game) is the global sport of the art world, then the art world itself, in the late-twentieth and early-twentyfirst centuries, operates on a global level, with its biennales, documentas, commercial art fairs, auction houses, museum franchises, and networks of commercial galleries: Gagosian, Spruth Magers, Pace, and Blain|Southern. All agents for change.
But – and this is the important point – it usually all begins in a cluttered studio, in an inner-city warehouse conversion, such as the one where I met and interviewed London artist Steven Claydon for Vault magazine. We talked about the underwater compression of objects, used in his recent work, from research done by the oil industry in Aberdeen, beneath the North Sea. And the recent residency he had just completed in Scotland.
Or on Australia’s Gold Coast, it begins here too with a lone artist, where I spent an afternoon recently with Michael Candy, talking about robotics and empathy, in his studio-cum-workshop with its add-on sleeping space, deep in the heart of an industrial zone, far from the sand and the surf. And that is where I most want to be – not at a sporting event or by a beach – but with another artist, in that space, the studio, that is a physical extension of their very selves – enthusing about their art and their ideas. Sating my curiosity.
Other encounters take place in galleries or museums, where artists are showing the end results of all the long hours battling in those studios with the physicality of “matter” – be it paint, welded steel, or computer algorithms and the hardware that contains them.
That was how I met Jorg Immendorff in 1983, sitting in the office of Edinburgh’s legendary New 57 Gallery. He telling me about “the monkey on my back”, a reference to his conflicted self, torn between his recent youth in a German Maoist group, and his new-found wealth in the nascent casino economy of the early-eighties’ art market. Overnight, he found himself in a position of privilege that allowed him to buy a studio in Dusseldorf the size of a city block. This would later bankroll an addiction to cocaine and prostitutes, both of which almost landed him in jail. They would have, were it not for his friendship with the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. Immendorff was his favourite artist. The politician collected his work. He did not go to jail.
Or Ai Weiwei. I encountered him in the basement of Gene Sherman’s art foundation in Sydney, the day he announced that “I am not a dissident artist. I have a dissident government.” I finished by asking him about future projects, hoping for a scoop. He merely said “I want to eat. That is my next project. I love food. Let’s go upstairs and eat.” I guess most of us have a few different people banging around in our heads. In my own case, it’s a head torn between attempting to make my own art, and trying to write about the art and lives of other artists.
And generally, artists are extremely good company. Curious about the universe, yet viewing it askance. And often with an amazing sense of humour. To spend a few hours with fellow Scots Steven Campbell, Bruce Maclean, or George Wyllie was to be entertained. Crying with laughter, as if having a private audience with Billy Connolly, with the shades of Marcel Duchamp and Max Beckmann looking over our shoulders.
And if there seems to be a disproportionate number of Scottish and Australian artists who I’ve encountered, that is a deliberate attempt to redress the usually skewed balance. In Australia especially – and you can tell from the surnames – many of these artists were born overseas, or have European or Asian heritage: Patricia Piccinini, Guan Wei, Laresa Kosloff, Peter Booth, and Mathieu Briand. The Indigenous artists, such as Tracey Moffatt and Brook Andrew, also make work about their mixed heritage. When I met Brook – again for Vault magazine – he told me he wanted to “reclaim the word ‘half-caste’ in a positive sense”, just as “queer” was turned into a respectful descriptor. He was proud of the black and white sides of his family, and if he embraced only one strand of his DNA he would be denying the other.
As someone who was born to an Australian mother and a Scottish father I have, from as early an age as I can remember, embraced both countries and their histories as my own, while not always agreeing with all that was done in their name. At heart, I am an internationalist. So both hemispheres of the planet are as important to me as both hemispheres of my head. That great line by poet Les Murray, about jet travel (from one hemisphere to the other), suddenly comes to mind… “Ascending the left cheek of earth...”
Lynn Barber, doyen of the interview form (she has communed with film stars, captains of industry, politicians, and novelists, mostly for The Observer newspaper) sums up just why she likes interviewing visual artists more than those from any other profession. She writes in her memoir A Curious Career, “I like artists. It is quite rare for me to meet one I don’t like. And, for interviewing purposes, I like the fact that they don’t come laden with PRs – you can usually approach them directly or through their gallery and nobody sits in on the interview to make sure they don’t say anything that might damage their image. Artists don’t have images, thank God. And most of them drink, and smoke, and give good parties so being around them is fun.”
Not all artists are as Hydra-headed as Marina Abramović. Sitting in the kitchen of Little Sparta with Ian Hamilton Finlay, in the middle of the Scottish moorland that he had called home for many decades – never leaving it on account of what he described to me as his “nervous condition”, never attending any of his openings, whether at Tate or documenta – there was no side of his personality that I could discern that would be at all interested in eating ice cream, or watching box sets of The Sopranos. He was totally focused. Totally serious. He was about to go to war with France, after all. This was over the cancellation of a commission to mark the 1989 bicentenary of the French Revolution. Artpress magazine in Paris, for whom I made the Marina Abramović interview, claimed Ian had recently exhibited a Fascist artwork and should be stripped of the commission. In fact, he had made an anti-fascist statement as part of a concrete artwork, by incorporating the lightning flashes of Hitler’s SS as the two central letters in the word OSSO (meaning bone – from the Latin and Portuguese).
A few years earlier, Ian and I sat in the very same kitchen while his Saint-Juste Vigilantes gathered outside, all of us there to support him against the removal of artworks by a bailiff and sheriff’s officer, in lieu of rates that the local authorities spuriously said were owed. One work had been sold directly from his studio, to a museum or a private collector, at a time when he and Sue were living as close to abject poverty as you can get. And these mean-spirited bureaucrats at the Hamilton Rates Authority said that because of this sale his studio had to be rated as a commercial gallery, at ten times the current rates, something he could in no way afford. Later that afternoon, we all signed a declaration that was sent to the United Nations demanding peace-keeping troops be parachuted into Little Sparta. He may not have been “fun to be around” in the Lynn Barber sense of the phrase, but my God, you were never bored!
I will finish with a reflection on Rachel Maclean, and one of many circularities that have joyfully ambushed me over forty years of interviewing artists. In this case it links Stephen Campbell to Rachel’s generation. It is also an example of the generosity of spirit that I most admire about those who inhabit the art world. She and Charlotte Prodger are the latest artists to emerge internationally from the Scottish art scene, and subsequently both have a growing reputation. Rachel trained as a painter at Edinburgh College of Art, but since childhood had always made videos using her father’s borrowed VHS camera. “I made lots of totally banal, rubbish stuff. Mostly horror films, with my brothers and cousins acting in them, heavily influenced by Blair Witch Project and things like that.”
On my way to meet Rachel, three hours before her Venice project Spite Your Face opened at the Talbot Rice Art Centre in February 2018, I’d worked out in my head that at thirty-one she was already a year older than Steven Campbell was in 1983, when I stayed with him in New York and he had his two sell-out shows at the Barbara Toll and John Weber galleries. Walking across to Spoon Cafe from the Talbot Rice, and quite unprompted by me, she suddenly started talking about Steven.
“He was the most amazing influence on artists of my generation. He made visits to schools all over Scotland and really enthused all these young kids about art, and how they could all go to art school if they really wanted to. He never actually came to my own school, but when I started at Edinburgh College of Art, so many of my classmates told me that it was because Steven visited their schools that they decided to become artists. His message seemed to be, ‘If I can do it, so can you’.”
In Issue 3 of Art North magazine, Peter Hill will be contributing a feature article on the work of artists Annie Cattrell, Anne Petters, Anne Vibeke Mou, and Jeff Zimmer. (Peter Hill – Superfictions.org)