Interview and text by Apexa Patel. Part 1 of 2
On the surface it seems that Stuart Whipps (b.1979) is an artist that works with ideas relating to shifting ideologies, where he addresses the impact of certain socio-economic and physical changes to places. But what may not be so clear immediately is that within this practice, he also develops an encyclopaedic knowledge of a particular moment in history, drawing on a myriad of sources. Through primarily using photography and often implementing archival practices, he manages to illuminate in detail, the complexity of questions regarding historicity, singular narratives and cultural legacies.
Over a number of meetings, we discussed new works in the lead up to his show, ‘Why Contribute to the Spread of Ugliness’’ which is currently at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and runs till 5th February 2012. The following is an extract taken from these conversations.
England and the Octopus, Britain and the Beast (2011):
A two channel video installation, mostly focusing on the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales - the geographical centre of Snowdonia National Park, teamed with a Welsh-language script sourced from texts written or edited by Clough Williams-Ellis.
Apexa Patel: Bruce Sterling talks about the personal museum economy and the idea that you start here. Do you think the mapping out of different territories is being negotiated in trying to establish what is here and what is afar’
Stuart Whipps: Well, with that, I don’t think you can discount ideology, when you’re dealing with pieces of knowledge that have been organised. And maybe the way to do it is through just trying to accumulate as much as possible, to try to navigate that idea of doing something that is definitive. So I read ‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W. G Sebald for the first time, it starts with a man walking through Lowestoft but then just takes in all of these other things like the Opium Wars in China.
AP: In ‘The League of Gentlemen’, there is this suspicion of anyone that isn’t a local of Royston Vasey and in a similar town it might be possible to embody a contradictory relationship by being a temporary, distant local. Do you think this is a position the work occupies, where the notion of local is centralised and adapted to the known constant, rather than being a stigma’
SW: Locality in that sense is just another word for familiarity, it just means that you become assimilated. I think as soon as you start to accumulate more elements, you become unfamiliar again because you’re obtaining new knowledge but actually that serves to familiarise your response. ‘New Wooabbeleri’ does that more overtly than any other work. I attach myself to some previous mode of redevelopment that took place as a way of interrogating it and calling the show by another fictional name. So the best thing for me in that show is probably the title because it’s the way to start reading all of the work, it’s the preface.
AP: What is the story behind the title of this show’
SW: Why contribute to the spread of ugliness’ comes from a little brochure for a tile manufacturer. The inside talks about choosing materials for your building, so there is an inherent value judgement in that, but also an ambiguity that could apply to a whole series of works. I think there is an obvious connection to that when you look at it - people will just think about mid-twentieth century, municipal, modernist architecture but actually the value judgement implied by the question runs through all of the work in a way.
AP: There may be a vertical dimension that does not necessarily signal height as a variable. That in terms of the platforms for watching, there isn’t a hierarchical plane that is distinguishable, but one that is to do with mobile levels and temporary order. To what extent do you agree that the polemics of beauty become problematic in this condition’
SW: It’s certainly an attempt to interrogate how that operates or with someone like Clough Williams-Ellis, the dimensions are class-ridden and that’s the structure that underpins the judgement. So he recommends that when the poor people get their access to the countryside, they should read Plato because outside of giving them an understanding of this, it would be good for them anyway. It’s not this free-floating thing. There is a hierarchy, of legitimacy in terms of the currency. So the currency for the protection as Williams’Ellis writes, comes out of the barbarity of the First World War - seeing a level of destruction. But that wouldn’t really hold now, you couldn’t talk about things in the same terms, because the currency is different and that idea of a beauty being absolute as well.
AP: The platform for beauty as you put it, on which the man is photographing the scene, could exist in different places as well, so it’s not to do with a fixed position.
SW: Well, I didn’t know I would get a guy as great as this, who takes ten minutes in carefully setting up. And I should stress that I don’t see myself as being better than this, in a way, this guy is me - seeking out vantage points. On the surface the imagery might be different the activity is the same. But we looked on flickr to see all the photographs that were made at Swallow Falls that day and they’re all the same because they’re all using the neutral density film.
AP: This relates to what you were saying about a sustainable practice that photographers have, where as Brian Cyril Griffiths says, you only have one idea that you dress up, again and again. Would you want there to be a more apparent shift between works’
SW: Well, the last thing I wanted to do in 2008 was to take a photograph of an empty factory, whereas that could’ve been a logical progression to take that work and go to Detroit. I’d also be fighting past all of the other photographers in Detroit photographing empty car factories. People talk about ‘The Ruins of Detroit’ quite a lot to me and there’s the idea of ruin porn that Brian Dillon talks about a little. I know there’s something compelling I guess - with students you have to beat it out of them -you can’t really take pictures of peeling paint. It’s this exhaustive process; you’re just picking that moment, yet it’s such a complex thing, how a city such as Detroit comes to be. I was thinking about Robert Polidori’s work in New Orleans as well and the idea of looking for pictures or making pictures. When I look at that work, its almost like I can see a photographer who just couldn’t stop, its just too compelling visually.
AP: The English script becomes this Welsh voiceover in the video, if subtitles are thought of as literature, coupled with the attempt to transfer meaning as oppose to transferring language, do you think it is possible to achieve something beyond the subtitle’
SW: When you translate something into a language that most people won’t understand, it’s not even like translating meaning, its just creating a different meaning. It becomes kind of poetic as a sound amongst everything else. But, I would like to develop a form of subtitling that also under-cuts the original meanings of the script, but not on the screen.
AP: Returning to Eleanor Rosch’s ‘Principles of Categorisation’, there are three levels, the superordinate (general), the basic and the subordinate (specific). For the click of comprehension to forms require compatibility on a basic level. Do you think the translation, whatever that might be, with the Welsh operates on that basic level’
SW: The initial sort of register it operates on is one of ownership, implied by the act of putting it back into a native tongue. For me it functions in the same way that a place such as Portmeirion does, that there is this idea of building this fantasy, a Portofino in your estuary or Wales. It’s a distillation rather than a translation in that sense. There’s a danger of perhaps presenting something as a polarity but it could just be seen as an analogy. If someone came into your show and said it was beautiful, it wouldn’t necessarily be what you are waiting to hear. I’m also interested in the polemics on natural beauty, as a writing style that you don’t get to see very much.