Graham Gussin interviewed by Matthew Slotover
M.S. What’s the idea behind the paint names?
G.G. I actually want to make them as a design for wallpaper – from a distance they’ll look like little grey flecks, and if that pattern is repeated over a vast area, it could look quite good.
M.S. These are dulux paints?
G.G. Well, all the makes of paint do it.
M.S. The names are very atmospheric – Mountainmist ...
G.G. Yes – Serenade, Whisper, Savannah ... It ties in with the idea of an interior space and the implication of another kind of space. With the Savannah piece especially. I saw that sign on the outside of a block of council flats. The architecture of the block was very uninteresting, but on the front someone put this plaque up which reads Savannah.
M.S. Is that for the whole block or just for one flat?
G.G. Just for one flat. It seemed necessary for the people living there to have this, as a kind of re-establishment of their living space and the implication of something far greater. Just before you pass the threshold of the door, there’s this sign which is both reassuring and frightening at the same time. Savannah – there’s a kind of primal danger implied there – but really it’s an extremely domestic setting.
Putting the light into the piece surprised me, because it worked as a setting sun, and had extreme illustrative qualities to it. It was almost like a drawing – the Savannah sign established a horizon line, with the sun setting above it. The light was just used as a location device – the light on the porch, coming home to a resting place; but then you’ve got this word Savannah, which implies the opposite – something very open, very wild. This leads on to those ideas of ventilation and suffocation, the building’s architecture, and the way the word operates like one of those VentAxia machines in a window. It allows some kind of passage to occur between the spaces on a psychological level.
M.S. I suppose this idea is most apparent in the Ventilated Landscapes.
G.G. I took those ventilators from the sides of mattresses. I remember as a small child looking into them and being very curious about the fact that the mattress had to breathe. So there was this fantasy about a landscape inside the mattress. I was convinced that there was a whole lot going on in there that I didn’t actually know about. It was quite frightening.
M.S. You did a piece called The Great Outdoors.
G.G Yes – that’s an image of a man looking across the Virginia Hills. I had the image for about six years before using it. There was a hole cut in the glass, and the image was printed on acetate which was secured by two rings. There was a slight difference in air currents between the two spaces – it was warm in the room and quite cold in the corridor. So the acetate moved very slightly, like a membrane.
I like the way he’s poised on a threshold – the fence creates a barrier, he’s neither in one space or another. He hasn’t crossed over into the great outdoors. It’s from National Geographic.
M.S. You wouldn’t get this picture in National Geographic now. It’s very nostalgic.
G.G You can overdo nostalgia. After that work I wanted to get away from it, and do something as immediate as the grass mats or the trellis pieces. And that was another reason for using the Meeting pieces – using the same kind of imagery, but imagery that is common currency now.
M.S. What were you thinking about when you made the Meeting pieces?
G.G I read something the other day in a travel brochure: ‘When the place is perfect, so are the moments.’ This relationship between space and time. How far do you have to go before you can be happy? I remember being in Turkey, and walking around the crest of a hill, and seeing in front of me exactly the image on the back of a travel guide I’d been reading. The light, the hill, everything was exactly the same.
Meeting (No.1) convinced me that these two people had found the right place, and that they were experiencing a real moment. He’s got a piece of fire in his hand, they were both smiling, both holding cups; there seemed to be an agreement that their expectations of reality had been met. There’s something absolutely perfect about what had happened – a collision of the real and the fictional. But the place was quite unspecific – it’s just a grassy field.
M.S. But there’s an implication of the landscape surrounding them from their clothes and the tent.
G.G Sure – they’re in the wilderness, but not too far. There’s security there. They’re just far enough. It wasn’t so much to do with the people meeting each other; more a point of agreement between the body and place. That idea of restlessness, and the body finding or failing to find its ease. There’s also the very physical aspect of their clothing – the way they’re insulated and safe. And of course, the emotional meeting. They’re in love, they’re settled.
The waterfall, [Meeting No.2] was more difficult for people. It’s more to do with a feeling of community, almost like visiting this commonly acknowledged location – nature’s got the upper hand here. We go and we acknowledge that – ‘Yup, it’s powerful stuff. There’s no way you’d survive.’ There’s that power, being in front of something that’s threatening to engulf you. It’s very physical.
I want to make about eight Meeting pieces. The next one is a golf course. And I’ve come across a new travel brochure with some really bad quality photographs of exotic sounding resorts. The colours are beginning to separate, and the figures are becoming lost. It’s something that’s very hazy, but the information next to the image is trying to be specific. You’re supposed to want to be in this place, but the image has been overused, it’s been recycled and is becoming worn. Almost as if you can see the threads.
M.S. You seem to be using images of America a lot.
G.G I keep coming back to pictures of America, and this has to do with the idea of the frontier, and America being the last frontier. It’s like the last wilderness. Once you’ve reached the West Coast of America, you’ve gone about as far as you can go. Like the last image of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, where he drives off into the distance, and there’s that big poster that says ‘Together We can make it Happen.’ I suppose that’s why I keep coming back to America, the nuclear family and that extreme romanticism and hope.
M.S. Isn’t there a nuclear family in one of the LED pieces?
G.G Yes – The man with a baby in his arm, and his wife by his side, looking into the horizon. Another of those pieces has a woman in a desert. Her footprints travel from the foreground to where she’s standing. Two of the photos I used were taken for the Farming Survey of America, a big survey in the 40s. I like the idea of a romantic landscape meeting this documentary intention of the photo.
The lights map real flight paths – one’s Air France across America, one’s Malaysia Airways across the world ... The lights are just meant to disturb the images a little. I might make some with green lights in a grid across the image. To do with landing lights rather than flight paths. Maybe they’ll be flashing.
M.S. You found the rush mats in the Conran Shop.
G.G Yes I came across them a couple of times and finally asked the people there what they were for. And no one knew. They described them as something to put things onto. They intrigued me because they had no right as objects in themselves – there’s a sense of uneasiness about them. A tutor at Chelsea accused me of just making lampshades when I put lamps behind mats, and I quite enjoyed that. It meant the work was very domesticated, but in the context of the other work, it obviously wasn’t just design.
M.S. Where did the logs come from?
G.G There’s a shop in New Bond Street which had logs of varying heights and thicknesses in the window. On top of each log was a suitcase or a handbag. They were using the ‘natural’ as a stage setting for a kind of event. But the actual event in this case is coming across the work in an art gallery. It’s quite cruel as well – the way the logs are just sections – as if they have no history or origin at all. Where do they belong?
M.S. The way the trellis just leans against the wall fits in with the displacement of logs.
G.G Yes – two of the logs are leaning against the wall. It gives the work a kind of nervousness. I wanted to make a piece of work that hadn’t found its place, that was about to fidget and move on. But the way it leans also anchors it to the space. If it was standing alone it wouldn’t have that quality. With the Pineclad there is a memory from when you’re a kid of building a house by just leaning some cardboard up against a wall and climbing in there. Just a very basic kind of shelter.
M.S. When you told me that the trellis was a piece of work I laughed – I wasn’t sure whether you were serious or not.
G.G That’s happened a few times it happens with me as well. I’ll go into the studio, turn the lights on and think ‘is it or isn’t it?’ You have to negotiate yourself a position. Anything is viable. Anything can be a valuable proposition. It’s finding a position for yourself from which to do that work.
There’s a story that was in my mind when I was thinking about the trellis piece. I once read that Aboriginal tribesmen used to carry a pole around with them. At the end of a day’s walk, they would stick the pole into the ground where they stopped, and that pole would be the centre of their world. So they were always carrying the centre of the world with them. When they pushed the pole into the ground, they were pinning the serpent of chaos with the pole, stilling it, so they had control over their environment. That story has remained in my mind as an idea. The trellis is leaning against the wall as if it’s about to be moved somewhere else, shifting the whole time. It’s quite vulnerable, familiar, existing in the same kind of space as the rush mats.
M.S. Do you think anyone uses those lists that are on the boxes?
G.G I don’t know ... I found them in an American magazine called The Traveller that’s for people who move around the world a lot. There’s an article in it called ‘The Day They Discovered Nirvana.’ It’s to do with this idea of heaven on earth – where to find it and how much to pay for it.
M.S. So these are the three best spas in the world.
G.G Yes. The fact that they are health spas is part of the reason for making them as they are. They’re like bathroom cabinets – the frosted glass looks like condensation and it goes back to health and ventilation.
M.S. And these are the 100 best resorts.
G.G Resorts, cities, ways of getting to those places ...
M.S. ... 27. London.
G.G ... 18 last year. It’s gone down. But there are these little = signs as well. Are these places equal in terms of atmosphere or luxury? How can Lucerne be equal to Loews Ventana Canyon, which is a resort? It’s this attitude of putting these things into a list ... The three spas are supposed to be heaven on Earth. They’re as near as you’re going to get. This is what we’ve made, and this is the best.
I quite like the way this touches on the work of people like Richard Long. The way he lists objects and events during a journey, and the whole ethic of Hamish Fulton saying ‘No walk, no work’. As if you have to experience this whole process. I think that’s fallacy, really. If Long says we have to re-establish a relationship with nature, what exactly do we mean by nature? It isn’t that simple anymore. I don’t believe in the idea of false nature. Two weeks in the best spa in the world and you’ll feel at one with your environment. Just as much as if you’d taken a walk across Lapland. You can’t separate things and say one thing is natural where another isn’t. At least I can’t.
One of the other people who works in the studio said I should carry on making the boxes with the lists of names on them, because they’d go down really well – that I should do that and only that. But I really can’t see the point. You have just a single direction, and it’s not a very discursive attitude to have. A painter like Polke, who had a freedom where he seemed able to do anything, is far more interesting because you don’t have that position. Simon Linke’s position is a bit like a politician’s, belonging to a party, and this is not what the artist should be doing. Maybe this is very romantic of me.
M.S. It is. Art’s a business.
G.G That’s exactly what I was told the other day. You have to be aware of the business aspect, people want to identify you with something. And this is nonsense. I can’t see that it’s worthwhile being really concerned with that. It’s quite trivial.
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