Gavin Turk and Peter Blake talk about recurring motifs in each others’ work.
Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition at his Newport Street Gallery opens this week: ‘Gavin Turk: Who What Where When How & Why?’
To celebrate I found this conversation between Gavin and Peter Blake -who are old friends- from a few years back, courtesy of our friends at the Cat Street Gallery in Hong Kong. In it they discuss age recurring characters in Blake’s work.
GT: So who is the Butterfly Man?
PB: I did a piece called Parade and found the Butterfly Man was on the cover of this 18th century music book. He was actually a composer so his baton became a little stick for the butterflies. In Parade he was just one of the characters and then he just developed into a separate star.
GT: Is he a self-portrait?
GT: So he is just a man who collects butterflies?
PB: Well, they are performing butterflies. He travels with a troupe of performing butterflies. He was created in homage to Damien Hirst. I heard that Damien thought it was amusing at first. But I got the impression from someone else that now he might think that I am milking it a bit. And to be honest I think I was. So, the Butterfly Man is now dead!
GT: This aesthetic of things fluttering around reminds me of the way that you see things that you like the look of, but you are not quite sure how you are going to use them. Something like the matchboxes for instance, have you been collecting matchboxes for years?
Matchboxes II (BUY HERE)
PB: Sure, I collected a few initially and then at a fair I bought a book of the covers. On that same day there was a man who had a great big suitcase full of them and he said I could have the lot for 10 quid, so I bought an instant collection of a thousand matchboxes. The matchboxes series is from that. They are arranged in 10 rows of 10, so they look like a kind of weaving.
GT: Are they portrait or landscape?
PB: Both. The top row is portrait and the next is landscape, and so on. It creates a basket-weave effect.
GT: Are they all Swedish?
PB: A lot of them are, but there are also Chinese and Japanese matchboxes. It is an incredible collection from all over the world.
GT: The one that I am quite keen on is the ship. It seems somewhat romantic
PB: Well, I used Captain Webb originally. I made a wooden sculpture in the sixties which was a Captain Webb matchbox. He is one of the troupe of recurring characters that I use, which come and go.
Captain Webb from Motif 10 set
I remember saying at the end of Ruralism that although the pictures had changed it had become more and more romantic and fairy like, they are exactly the same characters. In my head they are the same cast, but play various parts. Duchamp (the painting series) was an important one and that is still ongoing. The next one will be when he meets Robinhood.
Marcel Duchamp’s World Tour- DC Thomson Reunion at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool (BUY HERE)
Your paintings take quite a lot of time and there are several stages that they
go through, aren’t there?
PB: Yes, they are made over a long period of time because I don’t work on them from start to finish. I put them to one side and I work on other things. Some pictures can take many years to complete but that is what is so exciting about some of the printmaking. The contrast is huge. I can go into Coriander Studio with a pocket full of postcards and come out with a work at the end of the day.
Peter working at Worton Hall Studio, home of Coriander Studio.
GT: Printmaking is quite interesting as a stepping stone between finding something that captures your imagination and then taking that through into something you can make into an image.
PB: I think what the Found Art series is really about is the technology. We took some pictures and we scanned them and I was amazed at the accuracy of the scan. Because the camera is nearly touching the object it is actually able to see more than the human eye. This is something quite different to most kinds of printmaking which use something like an etching block. When you take it bigger you lose definition whereas, with these, you can see more. It is almost like you see a universe full of stuff. As you look closer, more is going to appear. That is why I have continued with digital printmaking, because the more it is blown up the more you can see.
Found Art: Cavander’s (BUY HERE)
GT: I have that with my apple cores. I paint them, then photograph them and blow them up so they are life sized and you can see all the brush strokes, which is strange because when you see them with the naked eye, they look perfect.
PB: Yes, you and I often do things that are similar, like taking an object and then changing its scale.
GT: I was thinking about the notion of you making these souvenirs with the postcards and the idea of visions of another place. How do you go about creating these? Do you think about tourism with regards to your work?
PB: Well I suppose I have travelled quite a bit with work but I wouldn’t say I am a traveller. I don’t go on holidays for example. The Marcel Duchamps World Tour was about me saying ‘thank you’ for him saying that 'whatever an artist says is art, is art’, or whatever that saying is. So I sent him on a world tour. It was a kind of fantasy world tour, and maybe, in a way, my characters are all on the world tour that I didn’t do. I am not saying that in a frustrated way, but in a way they are my alter egos going off and meeting strange people and having strange things happen to them.
World Tour: Nice Promenade (BUY HERE)
GT: And in a way your work is starting to travel in a real sense. You have a world tour at the moment with works showing all over the world. I think an important element of your collecting is your desire to gather things that attract you, not because they are the most valuable things of their period. Actually the opposite as they are the most disposable things. They are lucky to have survived. One of the great things about these objects is that they exist at all and haven’t been destroyed. I think some of your things become treasure partly because you choose them to be so.
PB: They are treasures by selection. The suitcase of matchboxes, for example- someone had collected them from bars and railway stations, so in a way they are the product of someone else’s world tour.
GT: It is new for you to be making big prints.
PB: Very new. I have always been against gigantism if there is such a thing. And now we are making prints big, just for the sake of making them big.
GT: In a way making prints big tests the boundaries and tests your own ability
PB: I am anti the fascism of gigantism. I am anti the Richard Serrs way of making something important simply because it is heavy. I am not against size. I think size is interesting but I am against making a small block out of iron so that it becomes important just because it is difficult to install.
GT: By taking something which you want to attribute value to, I think you also want to make something that has resonance and power.
PB: What I have done previously is take something like Brancusi’s Endless Column, and by making it very small you can make it far more endless because it has far more units. Brancusi’s Endless Column only had a bout 18 units and they were bigger than a man, whereas my endless column was much smaller so we were able to make far more units. It is about size and sometimes it relates. Rob Carter was telling me about your work- The Match?
GT: The Nail (a large public installation in London by Turk, recently unveiled)
PB: Yes, and that is interesting because you have taken something that is usually small, and made it large. Whereas I take something large and make it smaller.
At the moment I am working on a painting if St. Martin that is going to go into St, Paul’s Cathedral. It is the first work that they have commissioned in a very long time which is rather extraordinary. St. Paul’s has a parallel modern scheme going on where they commission modern art. We have been working in it for over two years.
GT: You have been investigating figurative works and images from life for some time now.
PB: I did a series called A Thousand Life Drawings. I kept everything and didn’t reject any drawings, so I eventually had a thousand. I started it about 20 years ago and it went in until about three years ago.
GT: It seems, with your studio in particular, that it is all about things which in some way might become useful. They have that possibility.
PB: It is like a big toy box or a big dressing-up box. If I am someplace I will pick up whatever I find and then I won’t add to it in anyway. The selection is in picking it up and therefore the rejection. Some of the stuff just sits around for a long time and some of it will develop into a series of sculptures. In the long term a lot if the things that are around my studio and will become part of pictures.
Another thing is the sense that time is running out. I am going to be 80 next year. I have ignored it for 20 years. I have had my artificial retirement 15 years ago, and I entered into my late period consciously.
GT: I think your artificial retirement was a renaissance for you. That is when I first met you and you said that since you had retired everything was much easier. In a way you stopped being so worried about context.
PB: It was a big psychological change. Since then I have worked easily and had the opportunity to curate a lot of these shows as well which has been good.