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Richard Wentworth in conversation with Judith Cowan

Richard Wentworth: One of the things I wanted to do is to try to make your work apparent. Part of what artists do is a really lonely, private thing. It is a very difficult space to work in but its necessary. When you have a show there is an extraordinary and very odd threshold that you leap through, where you go from being private, and suddenly become public. I was wondering, Judith, how the work started in your studio?

Judith Cowan: The first forms were made in cardboard, to scale. The floor would become a mess of possible things, with all the shavings of the cardboard, and the new sheets waiting against the wall. Finally there’s an appearance of order, but there’s a lot of discarding to get to this sense of order.

RW: With this type of mess, I wonder what decides whether the studio gets cleared up? Or what does it mean to clear up?

JC: Well, I don’t let other people see it when it’s messy. Everything then gets cleared back. Like toys being tidied into something. Its only when I’m alone that I get all the things out.

RW: So how long would you live with these discarded off-cuts?

JC: I would keep them for a while, taking photographs of all the stages,
possibilities, and gestures from the making. Sometimes going back to a
stage and sometimes discarding it completely.

RW: So within the studio, there’s a kind of disorder that one would associate with process. In a sense it is a bit like cooking, where there are peelings, tops and tails, the fringes of an activity, which are always around. There’s a moment, and then things happen. What you’re saying is that you keep the variables. You keep the thrown-out bits, and the thing that you think you’re making, and they stay there, they’re in relationship to each other?

JC: They’re all in relationship with each other, but what happens with the photographs is all the things that get thrown away are the things that really fascinate me. The trouble with clearing up is that you eradicate a sense of history from everything that has accumulated. The things that get discarded are the things that exist for the photographs, the things that don’t really matter. The sculptures are probably the other part, like the meal that you give to people. The thing to be consumed slightly differently, theatrically.

RW: Well it depends what kind of meal that you give to people. Unfortunately, we don’t have this, but I’ve always wanted that swinging door, which you kick and you go through to the theatrical place where people eat.

JC: The sculpture has been distilled and thought through, and things have been taken away from it. It’s been considered. The photographs are different to that.

RW: Its obvious you have to be very clear-headed with great foresight and making a lot of decisions. I think even a young child would recognise that quite quickly. Even if only the very nature of something that is finished to a certain level is already speaking of care and attention. After the cardboard stage, is it what I would describe as ‘the eyes shut in the dark’ job, or is it arriving in the morning and ‘I need 22 boxes that are 15cm square?’

JC: It’s to do with the bodily experience of objects that they have to be changed and altered. You become familiar with things slowly which initially you don’t realize matter. It’s the opposite to an architect, who might be designing a building because of its appearance and more about how human usage alters things. It’s an experience of space which connects to the being within a body when you don’t actually see the body. I began in War, Sex, Birth, Death with one box that had to look like it was always truncated. I had to have units that looked like they could reconnect in another direction as a long line. I placed them the other way round so the whole was like a path. I was thinking of pacing around it or walking round it whilst holding one’s breath. There’s a sense of proportion where you can stop and its harmonious but I wanted to continue to the point where it begins to feel uncomfortable. When the line was too long, I stopped.

RW: So the number of units is neither here nor there? It just simply makes up the length?

JC: No. Then you have a choice because you always have a choice where you end something. Here, there was a choice after about 20 boxes that ended up with 22. In the end 22 becomes connected to an alphabet as most alphabets, which construct verbal languages, have 22 letters.

RW: I have to say that I love What is a nation? The fallenness of it. I think you use gravity very well. The show is extremely grounded.

JC: Gravity is a real problem. From the ground we stand on as people we look at things expecting them to be certain. It is our relationship to things which are fixed, and we are unfixed. I am also interested in involuntary and unconscious moving. For example if you shift your chair to become comfortable you don’t exactly know where the chair is going to go, because something else motivates the shifting. It is not a desire to line the chair up with the floorboards if you accidentally end up that way.

RW: There is a huge difference between the new looseness as a kind of sketching device and the kind of constructional procedures, which are involved in your work. You are always calculating across a negative and back again. Great weights are evolved with huge temperatures and moulds have to be filled. Different levels of thinking are involved. For example I am thinking about Empty Spaces one of the pieces in this show. You can imagine its negative in sand when the pattern has been withdrawn and you end up with an empty space.

JC: For me what was most important in conceiving this piece was finding a non-material, which is impossible to obtain. Then it became vital to have something absolutely without a grain. Wood has a sense of familiarity but MDF has no grain, unlike wood, and a lot of furniture is made of MDF. If you drop something on the floor and are crawling under your desk, you realise when you look up that it is not wooden but a laminated MDF surface. Nothing is as it seems to be. So this non- thing, this packaging material, was a very appropriate thing to use. The various tonalities and thicknesses open up an infinite possibility of choices. In Curved Wall I wanted a red one as it was warm, like inside flesh, and I used several skin layers to laminate the curves.

RW: In Curved Wall there is a strong sensation of trying to see the end of the curve. An equivalent sensation for me would be when you stay outside and the light goes. You can move into an infinitely dark space and you are convinced that you can just go on seeing, it is an incredibly strong sensation, you can experience it walking as well. There is a sense that the will to see is kind of infinite. This is somehow implicit in your work. In the Curved Wall I really like the fact that there is an implicit thing that is on offer for people of different heights and ages. It is a really very generous piece of work. You also said some things that were to do with emotional and unquantifiable and I suspect that this is where the trousers come in. Did you want the trousers before you got them? (That is a very dangerous line of questioning.) Or did you find the trousers and decide that you could use them?

JC: I knew I wanted something to do with the folding of the trousers making a proportion. The boxes are the length from knee to knee if you make a straight line. I ironed all of the trousers and suddenly there was a smell in the air of all the human beings who had worn them. There were all those lives that went into the boxes, one of them even still had a name tag on it. My action of smoothing out and rolling up the trousers became a part of the piece.

RW: Does the word ‘fatigues’ or non-combative clothing mean much to you?

JC: I don’t know the technical term. Of course, my experience of the army comes from reading the newspapers and watching television, not from first-hand experience.

RW: I’ve always thought of them as a sort of basic principle of corporate identity. In fact, camouflage is political. East Germans wore camouflage that was different to West Germans even though the landscape is the same. So is there a reference to British Landscape here?

JC: Not exactly. There is great detail on the camouflage when you look at them, but the landscape idea was more about how you walk on the landscape and see what is underfoot. I think, with the army trousers I wanted people to tread on them by accident.

RW: In Berlin I often saw stalls in markets with Russian and American fatigues all muddled up in great heaps, which is exactly what happens after battles. I mean they are just people who have been fighting each other, and ended up on top of each other, if they are lucky enough to be buried. When I saw your fatigues, I thought immediately of the idea of death on behalf of the state. Of something that was essential about the state.

JC: Exactly, then you can think of boundaries, borders and thresholds, which is what part of the work is about. And above all what land can actually belong to someone? How can you define this point in-between? In some way this relates to my photographs of water, where without being seen, a borderline can actually cross a patch of water.

RW: When you look at the map of the world you can think how funny the device is for colouring in the world, identifying it as ‘belonging’ to different groups. Is there a specific border you want to talk about?

JC: There is a border in the sense of the individual, who they are and how they relate to the world. I think that there are various points when you can or cannot cross something, and it is palatable or it is unpalatable. But what do you do about it? With the television, you can always switch the channel.

RW: The socks in your sculpture are for me a kind of bridge across to the photographs. Can you say something about them?

JC: Using the socks came from the idea of having something formless, like sponge, where the only way of holding it is with a grip. In the grip, one end of the sock became male and the other female, which was also important. What became erotic was that they were worn and had held heat.

RW: A lot of what we have been talking about has been about control and definition. What seems to me very interesting about the show is  that you are offered sculptures, which are absolute, and dictatorial, mixed with material, like the tarpaulin, that is slightly argumentative and can never be arranged the same way twice. No matter how much you iron the trousers they are talkative. The photographs contain a lot of cloth elements and also a list of things, which you are not meant to do in photography. In your photographs half of your things are on the move, some irresponsibility comes through and I am terribly excited. What decisions do you make and how do you start to make the photographs?

JC: The photographs started in a very private way that didn’t belong in any territory. They didn’t belong to anybody. And that’s why for years they were things that were never really completed. They were personal gestures that I would do and just forget about, like watching the moment before a spinning plate collapses.

RW: I always think that photography is a poor man’s vanitas. People photograph their holidays and actually have them developed while they’re on holiday, to make quite sure that they’re there.1

JC: Photography changes the event. Things change when they are fixed. The reality of the moment is actually quite different to our perception afterwards. In my pictures of water what remained fixed was an index of the whole field of vision.

RW: The mortality within Spanish still lives has some relationship with your work. I find the same feeling in your work as when I saw the Spanish still lives exhibition at the National Gallery, such as when the plums feel like they are going to fall on the floor, emphasising gravity. Apart from being formally delicious, you think the fruit is going to fall but not meant to be doing this. What I like very much about your photographs is the feeling of the lack of being here. That we’re all present and correct, but we might not be, and I think that is the first time the concept of temporality has been dealt with so poignantly in your work.

JC: You’ve got the grid on the tarpaulin, which I think is a measure, then you have the hole, and the hole looks beyond, so there is always a void into another void. I was struck when a friend’s child, whilst unnoticed in my studio, had religiously put the cut-out circles of fabric back into the holes, so by the time we had finished talking it was all filled in. He had felt the necessity to fill the void.

RW: When I saw your tarpaulin it reminded me of when I brought a green tablecloth at an army surplus store and later discovered it had a big hole in the middle. The perfect hole in the middle is for operations. Dentists now use a rubber version, which is just fantastic.

JC: It is a type of protection for what needs to be done and what shouldn’t be seen. There is the movement and scuffs, which have stayed there marking the cloth. It is possibly connected with things to do with a shroud, but it isn’t about anaesthetising them. On the contrary, I wanted to leave all the traces of life. The folds and the rucks, and one thing always joining on to another. It is not to be shroud-like without humour. There has to be a point where something of that awareness of absence connects with something unpredictable.

RW: I learned that a spectator put her hand through the Curved Wall to get round the sight problem. The stimulus to do that is fantastic. That’s the kind of thing you’re meant to unlearn by ten-years old, but is a space, which in a way activates the reverie that I was talking about. I think that there is also another kind of time which people have forgotten about, which is the time in your head. You can be running for the bus, stuck in a traffic jam, waiting for someone to answer the phone, all of which are connected to 20th Century speeds. They’re also full of the possibilities of reverie. Which has no time, all the time in the world - infinite space and no space.

JC: It is only in those non-places that interludes can occur.

1. In hindsight this observation could be mapped onto the contemporary use of the ‘selfie’.

This edited transcript is from a public conversation with Richard Wentworth that took place during Cowan’s exhibition, Passages & Incidents at Kettle’s Yard, 1996.

© Judith Cowan 2022
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