So your show at David Risley Gallery starts today. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
It’s called ‘Mystery to Myself’. That’s the name of the main piece, which is a sculpture of a ZX Spectrum motherboard, a type of computer I had as a teenager. I took it apart and I was amazed at the architecture of all the CPU’s and memory cards, and all the different bits. I remembered it as I was looking back at my ‘Studio Wall Drawings’ that I’ve been doing over the last 15 years. If I think of my output as an artist like the software, the hardware that’s driving the processes is kind of a mystery to me in the same way that the circuit board was. The other pieces in the show also relate to not being able to grasp a sense of self. I’m interested in the Buddhist idea that we identify with our thoughts but we don’t necessarily identify with the natural processes that make us who we are. It’s just something to do with the relationship between our internal and external selves.
And natural processes are a big part of your work. I’m particularly interested in your ‘Unnatural Portraits’. Can you explain a little bit about the process behind these paintings?
With those and the ‘Nature Paintings’ – they’re based on chemical reactions. I take a piece of aluminium; cover it in acid and various other bits of chemicals that don’t mix. The forces of gravity, heat and hydrophobia combines to make fluid images, which looks a bit like satellite images of the Earth or cellular organisms or maybe strands of DNA or something. I always said that they were paintings by nature, rather than of nature because it’s the same forces that make the world. The same forces, or variables if you will, that are at work in the painting, are at work in the world as well. So it’s a process of letting go of control and letting nature do its thing. I think we identify with our actions and thoughts, because we are able to grasp them in a certain way. Simultaneously there’s these processes going on in the world, blood pumping through your brain, that we’re not conscious of and really these paintings were about trying to let nature into the process. They’re quite striking and beautiful but only because I don’t try and make them so.
A lot of your work is up to chance and similarly a lot of critics have compared you to Duchamp. What do you think of that comparison?
It’s funny because I actually have to be in a show in October which is called “What Duchamp Taught Me” with a lot of artists whose work refer back to him. I thought a little bit about this recently and I think one of the things that Duchamp did was that he used lots of different languages – maths chess, written language, painting, sculpture, machinery. And to him… they were all equal in value. He didn’t want to privilege the retinal, as he so famously called it. I think that’s what we have in common as artists; I see my work as manifestations rather than representations. The chance element is the unpredictable element – there’s no such thing as random, just things outside of our ego that we can’t understand. That’s what I’m interested in. I want to step outside of the limitations of myself and try and access something bigger. When I was a child I was very frightened of the notion of infinity and the forces of the universe. I was generally quite a frightened child. But as my career progressed I’ve not just realised that those things are not necessarily frightening – but that I am those things. And the fear was the illusion. I think, somehow, Duchamp was pointing to that in his own way. People think he just played little games, but he was onto something very fundamental about the universe and our place in it.
Your work is very personal still – everything seems to have a reference to your life or your artistic framework. Do you try and maintain a balance between the personal and the objective?
It’s like Ying and Yang. There’s precision and control, then there’s chance and disorder. I try to be yielding to both. I want my work to be authentic. Precision and accuracy is important but it’s important so that the inaccurate can come to light. You know, it’s an attitude to life that I try and have. It’s a process and in some ways, a system. I’m actually redoing my website now and I’ve split my work into objects, images and systems. You can place anything you see in the world in one or all of those categories. I guess I’m trying to navigate the phenomenon of being. That’s the point! I’ve always thought it was an extraordinary feeling – just existing. And all the different languages we use to explore that.
Your ‘Studio Wall Drawings’. Where do you think the line is between a sketchbook and art work? Is there one?
Originally they were diary extracts, sketches, poems etc. But they were preparatory, they were preparations for other pieces but sometimes they become works in themselves. But what we’re really talking about here is a kind of naming, taxonomy of what things are. Sketchbook and artwork – they’re arbitrary categories. For me, they’re part of the phenomenon of being, the mystery I’m trying to unfold. It took a long time for the drawings to get to that point. They built up in mass and there’s so many of them now, as you can see in the show at David Risley. Our signatures are empty until we fill them up with words or actions or whatever we do with our life. As an artist, your words and actions are a bit more exposed than somebody in the street. So I don’t personally think about it. I think the market does. But that’s not necessarily my job to decide those categories – my job is being in the studio and responding to the world.