Following the conclusion of Concrete Matters, an exhibition held at the Bank Space Gallery from 3 March to 19 March 2016, a conversation between artist and curator investigates the potential of a narrative exhibition framework. Ben Woodeson discusses his work and its relationship with curatorial strategies and the context of the city.
Angela Pippo: Curators can be quite tyrannising collaborators to work with. They come across your work, judge it and, occasionally, use it to their own advantage by placing it within a pre-established curatorial frame. How do you deal with that? Does it require a certain degree of unpredictability you consider during the production of your work? Do further interpretations generate unexpected twists in your practice?
Ben Woodeson: I think the key aspect is, always, trust. Curators look at the artist’s work, and then at their C.V., sometimes they look at the C.V. and then they look at the work. I think artists are not necessarily different. I get quite a lot of enquires about shows. Shows take energy and so you say YES to some and NO to others.
I’ve always taken a re-framing to be a sort of bonus if there is an open reading within the work. So for example, Mike Stubbs, the Head of FACT, placed me into a new media show in the Peterborough Digital Arts Museum [Free fall, 2003], and I was kind of thinking ‘I’m not really “new media”’. I was doing things that moved or used programming and information and they were controlled by a computer, but I didn’t really consider them to be new media art. They were sculptures that happened to do something.
I think that there has to be an open-ended feeling about the show. When you are making a work as an artist, if you try to be too didactic I think, generally, the final work tends to have a problem. For example, maybe the reason why political art can be so hard to get right is the strong and direct intention by the person creating it. That is not of course to say that political art can’t be brilliant, I immediately think of Jochen Gerz’s work (2146 Stones – Monument against Racism 1993) or many of the works done by The Guerrilla Girls.
If a curator or gallery approaches you, and the work fits enough within their theme then there is very little problem. Obviously, sometimes, the show will evolve. There would be people who come at the beginning of the show and their work almost shapes the narrative of it, and then there are other people who just come in at the very last minute. Last year I curated a show called Morphisisation for APT Gallery year and I immediately knew there were a few artists like Andrea Jespersen, Jules Cockburn, Alan Magee and Bestué and Vives that I really wanted to have in that show. Then working through it, as the idea became more concrete, other things came in, obviously when the concept is more shaped, some artists would inevitably say no.
AP: Have you ever been really sceptical about a project that was proposed to you?
BW: All the time, very often. I cannot think about anything specific but there have been one or two invitations I was really hesitant about.
My work is quite direct, even though there is a lot of stuff bubbling under the surface that determines how the viewers react to it, how the institution deals with it, but it has a very clear purpose, if you like. So for example, they’re not going to put me in an exhibition with Prince Charles’ watercolours. Being a staunch republican, I would have a problem with that…
My pieces can inhabit a space with a minimal work, it can be part of that narrative, it can handle a space with risky or challenging or confrontational or transgressive works. The exhibition at William Benington Gallery [All Change, 2016] that I’m in at the moment is works that are about or related to energy, that have the potential for change in some way and some form. My practice can fit within different narratives. As an artist you have to like the idea behind the show but a lot of times it comes down to whether you trust the curator or not. Sometimes it’s also pragmatic. It takes time and money to put a work up, some of the pieces need to be re-made every time they’re shown.
AP: I think one of the main qualities of your work is being open-ended. When a work is related to a minimalist aesthetic and abstraction, viewers have many ways to look and react to that. Also because when you approach something like that, as an artist or as a spectator, you have to deal with the long history behind minimalism as a movement…
BW: Hopefully with humour. Because that has always been my problem with minimalists. They are just so po-faced. But I really love the work.
AP: That’s why you use your titles in such a playful way.
BW: If you think about Donald Judd’s shapes, they are breathtakingly superb, but they are doing different things to mine. I borrow some of the language, but they are not joking. They are like the guy at the party that doesn’t have the sense of humour. My work would be in the kitchen, where I always am, telling a (terrible) joke or having a hopefully interesting conversation.
AP: When we approached your glass sculptures for our project we started considering whether your practice could fit within our discourse. As we started a process to unveil your work, many possibilities came out of discussion and we eventually gave your work a new narrative context. How do you think psychogeography and the study of the mutual relations between urban spaces and humans apply to your research?
BW: In this exhibition it certainly does. Generally speaking, not so much. We are here at The Cass, in a building that has been sold by the University against the wishes of the students and the staff, in order to be re-developed, probably turned into expensive flats. In this context where the rug has been pulled out from underneath the feet of The Cass, within that narrative of the city, in the way the city behaves, my work certainly does fit, because it’s so much about this: the negotiation of the relationship between the viewer, the art work and the institution. It’s almost like a Mexican standoff, like Reservoir Dogs, where everyone has their guns pointing at everyone else, which again comes back to the trust we were just talking about. Even phrases like “the rug has been pulled out from underneath the feet” is almost a piece of my work.
This undermining, and this sort of almost, subtle aggression…My works are slightly aggressive, they are quite… they have a sense of humour, but you really don’t want to fiddle with them too much. The works that deal with psychogeographic modalities I find very interesting, they are often to do with a sort of ongoing relationship within the city. That narrative is not something that my work is particular part of, but I think that the presence of that piece in this show is good because it added a layer of meaning. You borrowed it, you re-contextualised it in a way I was really happy with.
AP: And it’s also interesting because the first time we met you mentioned something we hadn’t thought about. When you said you needed specific lights to create shadows on the wall, that was an aspect we didn’t know was important for the installation of your sculpture. That was something which really intrigued me as the idea of shadow was part of the concept of the show, insofar shadows are ephemeral traces we leave behind…
BW: The shadows and the lights are an essential part of the presentation of the work, and an essential part of its ability to serve a function, to communicate, to provoke in the way that it does. Conceptually the shadows are not important to the meaning within the work, rather the staging, the presenting of the work, the lighting, picks out the glass and makes it something that is there. A sheet of glass is very easy to not see, and within this context if someone doesn’t see the work, they are going to walk into the bungee, dislodge the glass. At the very least, there is going be a broken art work. The reality is that it needs that light to emphasise its invisibility. There is this thing within architecture, when you a have glass door and they now put this warning sticker with etchings on, a sort of circle so you know there is something there, because people walk into glass doors. The lighting is serving that purpose, because it picks out little corners and highlights little glints, making people aware that is there. I did a piece in 2012, titled Semi-Visible Corner Piece (Headbanger), and it’s literally just a sheet of glass that is wedged in a corner.
AP: I remember. That was one of the pieces we were interested in, but its big dimensions would have made its transport more complicated…
BW: The first version was 2m x 1m. I was looking at that piece recently, maybe because you reminded me of it, and I’m going to make an even bigger version. I think a full sheet which is 2.4 x 1.2m and I need to play with that…
AP: That piece is beautiful. It reminds me a bit the notion of void. It’s like exhibiting the void, you put a piece of glass in a gallery, you make a dialogue with the rest of the space, and it’s a physical presence but, at the same time, you cannot properly see it. it’s an object but it’s transparent, it becomes part of the space but it doesn’t affect it visually.
BW: Yes, It’s there but not there…it has no mass…although it does have mass but not a visual one. I’m always having a conversation with myself about glass as material. It’s a material I’m totally fascinated by, because it has that beauty of the risk. I was just writing two days ago about it as “beautiful threat”. I’m deliberately also using other materials now, just like adding seasoning to the cooking if you like… and of course because they imply different meanings. A bendy sheet of brass or steel has sharp corners or edges. A lump of concrete or cast iron has mass. They’re all doing different things. It’s like a sine wave. It disappears up and down, goes over and above the line of the zero, and I almost feel that the glass is the middle point. It has the mass and it has the danger, but it also has the beauty and the transparency, It’s stable but it’s not stable. it kind of does everything I want it to do.
We talked about mass…I saw this Gerhard Richter show at Marian Goodman Gallery in London in 2014, where he exhibited these very thick pieces of glass. They are beautiful but they are stable. He’s using them almost as a picture plane, where I’m using them as a guillotine.
AP: I didn’t know Richter uses glass in his work.
BW: Neither did I. They have lots of mass and they feel very stable. I need a bit of instability.
AP: Your work is often associated to a minimalist aesthetic, but I find more points in common with Arte Povera. I’m thinking about Gilberto Zorio, Giovanni Anselmo…
BW: I’m so in love with Arte Povera! Anselmo is one of my favourite ever ever artists. The piece with the lump of concrete and the stick twisted and push against the wall [Torsion] is the most sexy piece ever.
AP: And the concept of energy is crucial in all their works. The relationship with the public is always challenged and put in danger.
BW: My bookshelf is just filled with books on Arte Povera. There are so many things within it. Thinking about early Kounellis, the bed with the blue torch on the foot (Untitled, 1969, Steel bed with a propane gas torch) and the little square platform with coffee grounds (Untitled, 1969, Eight hanging steel shelves with coffee), so fantastic. Sadly, I’ve seen several Kounellis shows over the last years and I have to say it’s the early work that turns me on. We talked earlier about humour and there is so much humour in them.
AP: They are probably more “down to earth”. The concept of Arte Povera itself, digging into the materiality of the word and dealing with everyday life, is much more related to humans. Very different from something that tends to be almost spiritual, which you approach in a superior state of mind…
BW: Arte Povera happened 40 years ago, I teach at The Cass, at Camberwell College of Arts and elsewhere, and I get my students to look at Arte Povera, because that experimentation, that humour is still relevant. The work is incredibly rigorous but it’s very relaxed about its rigour. It’s serious but it doesn’t feel it’s taking itself too seriously.
In the UK we have this radio programme called Desert Island Discs, where someone is stranded on a desert island. They can have eight records, a luxury item, and a book. I would glue all the books on Arte Povera together, that would be the book I would take. I could look in that for the rest of my days. There were some artists and teachers who taught me at Glasgow School of Art that showed me Arte Povera, and it was like lifting the blinds on the window.
AP: Getting back to your participation in our exhibition…
Our investigation was encouraged by a situation and a debate that is getting more and more problematic in London. Gentrification, over population, expansion affecting the art world and its rules. Sometimes it feels like London is a context that is getting out of control. This city hosts thousands of art spaces, artists, art schools, artist studios and despite this overwhelming, overcrowded situation it seems that the system doesn’t work democratically, missing the chance to give everyone the chance to express.
Initiatives such as London Open hosted by Whitechapel Gallery, where you exhibited one of your works last summer, represent an attempt to put some order and to give an institutional platform to those who deserve particular attention. What is the value of this recognition? How can the visibility gained by showing at an institution like Whitechapel Gallery contribute to the success of an artist?
BW: Within the London Open there were people who were just out of college, others who had been working away for many years, I thought the exhibition worked incredibly well, especially considering that the difficulty is the fact that there is no overarching curatorial theme. The selectors saw works and thought ‘we like that’. Daniel Herrmann and Poppy Bowers had to work within the team of Whitechapel Gallery and with the Gallery manager to work out how this bunch of stuff could come together.
I was very pleased with it. I had a lot of press coverage, excellent feedback on it, the viewing figures over the summer for the London Open were well over six thousand…
AP: It was probably the first time your work had so much visibility.
BW: In one show, yes, possibly. I’ve been in big shows, like OK/ Okay at the Swiss Institute and Grey Art Gallery in New York (2005) which was curated by Marc-Olivier Wahler and I had a commission to do a piece for the transmediale in Berlin (2012). When your work crosses over that threshold to make it into places like Whitechapel, Serpentine, Tate, Palais de Tokyo, whatever…it’s great, I mean generally, art practice isn’t really a mass medium.
When you do a show in a gallery rather than an institution, if you have three or four hundred people come in, then it’s a really good, successful show. Obviously viewer figures could be changing as some of the institutions are stretching their shows, as putting on a new exhibition is more expensive than having the same exhibition on. I personally think that’s a shame but it’s just the reality of funding, everything is getting tighter.
As I said I had really good feedback from the London Open, I met excellent people, I was pleased to be in the show with the other artists who made excellent work. It’s a win win, providing the work is well curated, well cared for and well presented.
As an artist you can get a space and do an exhibition but the reality is … if it’s a pop up, only your contacts come, you may have fifty people in but they already know you and your work. You do a show with two or three other people and immediately expose yourself to other and new people.
Ultimately, I make art because that thing of being in a studio, that moment when you make something and you get it just right is just the best feeling. It’s just like that moment when you are just about to have an orgasm, it’s just perfect. But staying with this sort of sexual metaphor, if you don’t take it out there, what you are doing is basically masturbating. It’s just for your own pleasure. There is nothing wrong with a little bit of masturbation but I want the pieces to go out there, it’s intended to challenge, to confront, to provoke, to entertain, to do something more though than just be entertaining. It’s about more than making people laugh, I want my work to make people aware of being alive, and I think it has that potential. The simple fact is… obviously Whitechapel Gallery is a fantastic institutional context and it is a snap shot of the here and now.
You talked about gentrification, we were leading into this conversation by gentrification, and I think there is a real problem. The rent of the studio where I am, went up by 18 % this year, next year it’s going to go up 68 %. I need to move and everyone in that place is going to move. it’s going to end up just being little businesses at desks and little businesses that sell something. I’m kind of seeing the inevitable spread of the market.
Let’s face it, London now has a hugely successful art market, through fairs, major galleries, and a very successful sort of “artist run” scene. But I think the middle ground is very precarious.
The galleries that are doing the middle ground they have to show stuff they can sell…everything is too expensive, the land, the labour, the tax… they cannot just say ‘we are going to do this show and we are not going to sell anything’. They won’t survive, they tend not to have the deep pockets.
AP: It’s also hard maintaining a kind of balance. We recently had a conversation with Vanessa Carlos director of Carlos/ Ishikawa. It’s a well doing gallery, she tends to represent just young and emerging artists, and the majority of them have become really successful in the past years. She wants to preserve the concept of the gallery as genuine as it was in her initial intention, but then you reach that point when if you don’t step up in a city like London and bring your ambitions to a higher level you risk succumbing. If feels like at one point you have to abandon the new, the young, the experimental to orient towards something more commercially successful. Do you think is it like selling your soul to the devil?
BW: I don’t know if they’re selling their souls to the devil. No one has 100% integrity, no artist, no curator, no business person; we are human beings, we are fallible.
I’ve never been anti “The Market”. When someone sells my work is great and it’s very useful. Even though it’s never been my priority. The artist Gary Colclough and I were recently having a conversation about sales and galleries and it’s just reality that most of what I do goes to warehouses and comes out for exhibitions. Most medium level curators are collectors, and they buy art for their houses. They do it because they want to surround themselves with things they find interesting or beautiful, for status or for whatever reason they do it.
The gentrification process is a massive problem, I know a lot of artists, some of them really renowned, who are leaving London. Some are going to Berlin, some are going to the British coast, some elsewhere.
AP: People want to be here to create a scene around them, to establish themselves. And when they achieve the right level, they are ready to change scenario. London sometimes seems like a platform where to start from. After building a good web of contacts, having prestigious exhibitions on your CV, some artists move somewhere else in order to be able to work more genuinely as creatives…
BW: I teach on average four days a week. On a good week I get two maybe three days in the studio. I’m lucky because a lot of my work happens in my head, just day to day. Not planning, but sometimes I feel like a coffee percolator. You throw in coffee, water, a bit of power, and everything comes out the other end. Although that is a metaphor that runs the risk of sounding very scatological. The point is, I don’t need to sit in the studio for twenty days and make tiny paintings. That is so labour intensive.
I was born in London, then I moved to Glasgow. I was in Glasgow for about 11 years, and it was fantastic, and then for personal reasons I had to move back to London.
London consistently takes a lot of energy. At the moment, for next year, I’m planning a research trip to America with another artist. We are still working out where we are going. We are applying for few things. We already have offers to go to several universities. we’ve done quite a lot of shows and residencies in America so we’ve got quite a few contacts. We are gradually bolting together this trip, it has no specific destination, there is just this need to refresh, to explore, experiment, learn.
AP: Like a sabbatical year.
BW: Yes, a sabbatical, but not just that. I could take a sabbatical and be living in my studio.
I’ve done around 6 residencies now. And residencies are so exciting, because even the space where you work is new to you. As an artist you need to own your work space, metaphorically you have to be like a cat pissing in the corner. You need to own it psychologically and physiologically.
I did a residency in Berlin, there is a gallery called LoBe which mixes London and Berlin artists for residencies and two persons shows and it’s in Wedding, in in the former East. I spent days looking for materials in the local DIY building centre-store, nobody in there spoke English presumably because they were all from the former East so English wasn’t in the curriculum. Eventually they got used to me, because I spent so many days walking up and down, I cycled over there, got coffee in the cafe, went and walked up and down the aisles for a few hours, got another coffee. At some point I just became the mad English artist…
London has a problem and I don’t think there is any solution.
AP: Last January I followed a talk hosted by the London Art Fair about Artist Studios in London and how artists are being forced to move further and further towards the peripheries or, in the worst case scenario, to leave the city. The artist Emma Hart was one of the speakers. She mentioned something about the fact she was born and grew up here, her family lives here. It’s hard thinking of abandoning a city that is your home, the ground that made you grow. A place you have sentimental attachment to…
BW: I love London, but if we talk about sentiment, it seems to me sentiments are sort of wrapped up with nostalgia and idealism. I’m almost more sentimental for Glasgow than for London, because I remember arriving in Glasgow as a very naive art student…I drove my lecturers crazy.
Eleven years later, a little bit less naive and maybe a little less annoying I left the city. Glasgow and the its art education in the ‘90s is really what shaped me, or certainly it had a big part shaping me as an artist. I rate the School and the Sculpture and Environmental Art Department incredibly highly. I do feel lucky for having been there, also because, back then, there wasn’t that much of an art market.
AP: Is there one now?
BW: There were these artists that threw big shadows, Christine Borland, Ross Sinclair, Douglas Gordon, David Shrigley, Martin Boyce. But they were just there, and they were just getting on with it. At that time, comparatively few people were rich. Being an artist within an art scene where very few people are rich sounds hopelessly romantic, but there is actually something incredibly liberating about it.
I’m originally from West London, and when I came back to the city after Glasgow I first moved to West London. I needed some work and I got a job as a technician. I had to hang pictures in a house belonging to a drummer from an incredibly famous band, I won’t be specific but, “the world’s most boring rock band”. The pictures to be hung were directed by the interior designer. The feeling in the house was just a different universe compared to where I was coming from. I don’t have an issue with someone having money, in the sense of jealousy, but I looked around and I moved to the East end of London. Even though the situation there has really changed in the last ten years…
AP: I guess that when you moved back to London the situation was really lively. When was that precisely? Wasn’t it the beginning of 2000, just immediately after a really successful decade for British Art?
BW: It was around 2003/ 2004. It was good. The first two years were tough, as they are when you don’t have a network. I worked in a shitty art warehouse, wrapping and unwrapping stuff for hedge fund managers to speculate on, but I saw a lot of lovely art that nobody else would see. So… everything has its compensation. Mind you, I also saw some really shit art as well, lots and lots and lots of stuff, locked away, accumulating value…
Angela Pippo is a curator based in London. She completed her MA in History of Art in 2013 in Milan and she is currently attending the MA Curating the Contemporary at London Metropolitan University and Whitechapel Gallery. She collaborated as researcher and grant recipient with international institutions such as the Antonio Ratti Foundation (Como, Italy) and the Institute of Contemporary Art (Sofia, Bulgaria). Her past curatorial experiences include: Concrete Matters, 3 – 19 March 2016, Bank Space Gallery, 59 – 63 Whitechapel High Street, London. Through The City, February 2016 – February 2017, The Blithehale Health Centre, Bethnal Green, London. 217 Stangers/ Hao Xu, 8 May 2014, the Anatomy Museum, King’s College, London (curated by 15Curators Collective)