The following interview is the result of face-to-face and email conversations between Jack Shepherdson and Chris Brazier in March 2011, as part of the ‘Encounters’ collaborative project between artists of NUCA, and UEA students of Art History . The intention was to establish an understanding of the artist (Brazier), his work, and the way the former understood the latter. The result is the placing of the artist within a network of contemporary artists, art and exhibitions that creates an understanding of the art and an understanding of the creative processes behind it.
Jack Shepherdson: I’m basing my understanding of your work on the first piece I saw Assemblage/Collapse XI (2010). It was clear that the piece was about the event because you didn’t keep everything - it eventually settled after the ice melted. I wondered if you didn’t film the piece because it was an event? Obviously it was in an exhibition so the audience witnessed it, but no time-based documentation remains?
Chris Brazier: For temporary works like Assemblage/Collapse XI, I think it is very important that the audience experience it first hand. It is foremost a temporary event, with a finite place in time: I believe the audience needs to encounter it within the finite duration of the piece in order to appreciate it.
One of the key artists I had been looking at in the build-up to the staging of that work was Roman Signer, whose work is event-based (mini-performances), yet only ever presented to viewers as videos. One of my favourite Signer pieces is him being dragged along in a canoe behind a car - it is filmed from the car so you can see him in the canoe. The work is presented as a video, just like many of Signer’s performances; but for the artist, the work often lies in his actual performance; him actually doing it, and his personal experience of such. He calls it the ‘authentic experience’. The ‘authentic experience’ is what he had (what the people in the car perhaps also had, but to a lesser extent because they were watching the event at the time it was happening, but were not performers). That ‘authentic experience’ is dramatically reduced when you then present a video as a document of an event or performance, because it is removed from the place in time that it originally occurred. So the audience never gets the ‘authentic experience’, unless they are there at the right moment in time to observe an event.
JS: When I think of the ‘authentic experience’ I think of Yves Klein’s work …The Void (1958) which I think embodies the audience’s ‘authentic experience’; they are the piece of work - it is their personal experience that is the work. I suppose that with your event-based work you’re giving the audience an ‘authentic experience’, but with your more recent wax sculptures (such as Melt/Away (2011), which was formed by pouring hot wax over ice) you’re giving them a final physical product to experience, rather than an event in time.
CB: Yes, I’m very aware that the wax sculptures are a departure from the temporary and transient works with ice that I have presented as events. That’s not because I wanted to get away from it (ideas of time, and transience), it’s just because I wanted to try something else. The wax sculptures are formed by pouring hot wax over ice, so there is an element of transience within the process of making still. It all started with the gelflex rubber cube piece that I made, which was from an idea of trying to capture the process or image/illusion of melting ice in a static, fixed form. That experiment focused more on the final product and an object rather than an event as such; the focus shifted. Then with the wax-ice sculptures (the Melt/ series) the aesthetic quality was more interesting and exciting than the gelflex experiment; the wax-ice sculptures are much more dynamic and have the appearance of creepy-crawly things. But the focus on the aesthetic qualities of these forms definitely suggests a departure from the notion of ‘work as event’.
JS: By moving away from ideas of the spirit of transience and the event, I think the process (involved in creation of the work) has become more apparent - do you agree?
CB: I believe that a focus on the end product of a process of making certainly shifts attention away from the event of the work; the concept of duration inherent to the event or process is ultimately lost in a number of ways. The spirit of transience is therefore undoubtedly diminished as a result. If we take Jackson Pollock’s action paintings as an example, the spirit of transience exists through the process of his actions. The immediacy of this ‘spirit’ is arguably lost once the process is completed and an end product is produced. While his paintings can be seen to be illustrative of the process, the sense of transience and duration of the original performance (the event, which is what interests me most) is undeniably diminished.
Similar ideas could be seen to exist within my wax-ice sculptures; while the end result might be illustrative of the transient processes used to create it, all sense of duration is notably absent. This is not necessarily a damaging development (since the focus of this series of work is so different), but more an inescapable attribute of the static form or image, which is incapable of presenting duration in the same way as time-based media (such as film and video). I believe that the spirit of transience can be seen to be diminished as a result of the shift in focus from process to product, which suggests to me that these newer works aren’t as interesting or as successful (in my eyes) as the work with ice - perhaps this is because this series of work is still new; maybe I just need time to develop it further.
JS: Have you thought about any other materials or concepts that are as obviously transient as ice?
CB: Finding an appropriate, effective and relevant alternative to ice is something I have been struggling with for a long time. For some reason I went through a long period of making (or rather lack of making) where I could not seem to think of any ideas for works that did not involve ice. This was frustrating as my tutor wanted me to move away from ice for a while in order to explore new processes and ‘expand my material vocabulary’ - this is not necessarily what I wanted to do, but is what gave rise to the wax-ice sculptures. I have tried to consider other materials/concepts that are as obviously transient as ice, but ice is really what excites me. It is unique, beautiful, sometimes near poetic. Because it excites me so much, I will continue using ice. Even though I realise it might be too ‘obvious’ a material to use to explore the concepts of time or duration that have interested me so far in my practice, I think it is entirely appropriate and fitting for the kind of event-based work that I am so fascinated by.
JS: I don’t think I’ve ever seen an event piece in an established art gallery.
CB: No, I haven’t either, not first-hand. The closest I’ve seen is video documentation; it’s the time-based nature of video that makes it the most effective means of documenting such events, but watching a video is still not the same as seeing the live event firsthand. I do, however, love film and video as a medium, and am keen to explore it further within my own practice.
One of my favourite video works is Sam Taylor-Wood’s Still Life (2001) with the decaying fruit. It’s a time-lapse video with a bowl of fruit simply going mouldy and rotting away. I think my work shares similar notions of decay and transience through the use of melting ice. But then the interesting thing about Still Life is that it speeds up the whole process so you can see it much quicker; in that sense, it’s not an accurate document of the event, since the audience’s perception of the duration of the process is distorted. But being able to observe the entire process outside of ‘real time’ is quite fascinating, perhaps gives the audience a sense of ‘power’ over the natural? It’s also worth noting that the video is played on a loop so the whole process starts again - it’s repetitive, and it’s cyclical. Still Life has certainly inspired me to dabble in my own video work: I want to explore the manipulation of time that Taylor-Wood uses so beautifully. Not necessarily to create video works that are about a certain subject matter but more about the passage of time and the manipulation of time.
JS: If you miss the beginning of a video and you want to see it, then there is a definite advantage in the use of the loop to repeat the viewing of the work: you can wait and watch it again to see what happens. With a temporary event like Assemblage/Collapse XI, you just miss the start if you’re not there, and you can’t see it again. You have to accept that you’ve started watching the piece half-way through.
CB: Absolutely. But it is interesting to compare the experiences of viewers who witnessed the entire event, who witnessed part of the event, or who missed it entirely and only encountered the remains: the latter would just see a load of metal objects and wet bits of wood, for instance. They might think ‘what is that?’ Maybe that’s a good thing, but I would hope they would then think ‘what was that?’ - for audiences who miss an event, it is exciting to consider that their imagination might enable them to ‘experience’ the work in their heads. Granted, it would be a completely different experience, but an interesting, and valid, experience nonetheless.
JS: Yes, they’d have to wonder what happened to make the jumbled collection of objects that remain following the disappearance of the ice. That again makes you think about the process. I’d say that Assemblage/Collapse XI was very much about the process and the event.
Had you wondered about ice before? Was the piece the culmination of a lot of ‘ice thinking’?
CB: I first started using ice within my Final Major Project of my Foundation. I began by looking at various mark-making processes that I had little direct control over the end result of. For example, I would wind up pens and paintbrushes in elastic bands, then let loose, flicking ink or paint over a page, creating a spontaneous, unpredictable image. From this I moved on to the idea of simply placing a felt-tip pen on a piece of absorbent blotting paper, leaving for a number of hours, then returning to find the page had soaked up ink over time. It was this longer period of time of the process that I was more interested in than the quickness of the previous experimental pieces. The absorbing of ink into paper from the felt tip pen led me to a brainstorming of possible similar processes which would involve the absorbing of ink to create an ‘image’ on a page. The freezing of ink into a block of ice, which I would then leave to melt onto a page, seemed like an obvious next step. I therefore carried out a number of experimental mark-making processes involving ice, freezing various types of ink and paint. I found that the freezing of food dye was the most effective, creating interesting shapes on a page.
For my final piece I placed blotting paper on top of six plinths. Onto the blotting paper I placed six different coloured ice cubes, which I left to melt throughout the opening of the show. All that was left for the rest of the exhibition was six coloured pieces of paper, which dried out and faded as time passed. Following the ‘performance’ of my final piece I became much more interested in the idea of work as an event. I brought that with me to NUCA.
JS: The ice you used in that piece was relatively small. Why did you decide to go larger for Assemblage/Collapse XI? Is scale important? Do you think that it takes something larger to create an event?
CB: Scale is an issue in many ways within my practice I think; I tend to work relatively small - I’m not sure why, that just seems to be the way I work. I often worry that the pieces I produce would and do seem insignificant when exhibited in a gallery context. Perhaps this is not important for work more focused on time than space: it’s more about length of duration, than physical size. But obviously, when working with ice, the larger the blocks, the longer the duration. So I decided to work with larger pieces of ice to create a longer event. Incorporating other larger objects alongside these larger pieces of ice was just natural.
JS: Would you go to a larger scale on the wax-ice sculptures?
CB: Perhaps; that would be one way to develop them. I have got a couple of ideas for other ways of taking this series of work forward; one being a collection of wax-ice sculptures, but then I’m not sure how I would display them to an audience. To be honest, I’m still not convinced by this new series of wax-ice work, so may abandon it (or put it to one side) soon.
I’ve been considering additional ice- and event-based works at the same time as this experimentation with other materials (the fact I’m thinking about ice even when not using it seems quite funny to me. Clearly I love ice, but that’s ok: ice is my chosen material, just like a painter might choose oil paint as theirs. I’m not limited to it, but I will continue to use it when I want to).
I’m in the process of developing a work for the upcoming ‘Babel’ exhibition at Stew. I’m working with a mould of my hand. It’s taken me ages to get it water-tight, but I think I’m just about there. I’m thinking of making an ice hand that could potentially be holding an object which would be permanent and possibly fragile so that when the hand melts hopefully the object will fall and maybe smash. It’ll be about decay, chance, destruction, fragility - I think it could be very interesting, and would be a temporary occurrence.
JS: So you’ve not lost your interest in the notion of your work as event?
CB: Not at all; I’m constantly excited and fascinated by the idea, and hope to continue exploring it.
My decision to turn my own works into temporary happenings and focus on the notion of the event stemmed from my own thoughts about how people behave in galleries. I’m often struck by how quickly people (myself included) can just walk through a room in a gallery, only giving each work a cursory glance. It’s quite dismissive; so many people just aren’t engaged by so many works. So I thought, if there’s something actively happening within the work in front of the viewer’s eyes, then maybe they’d stop (or maybe come back) and watch the process continue, and the event play out.
JS: Considering the contemporary iconography of climate change encapsulated by the image of melting ice, your work could be seen as a response to such environmental issues. Do you think this had a bearing on your choice of ice as a material?
CB: Climate change is not a subject that I have been considering in great detail within my practice. I have not deliberately chosen to focus on, or to ignore; it’s more that I have not found it to be of vital importance within my work. Granted, the use of melting ice connotes certain ideas associated with climate change, which perhaps suggests that it is a subject matter that I should begin to explore. But my work at this stage is more focused on the passage of time within the presentation of a work as an event - climate change seems perhaps too restrictive to me.
Climate change could be an enlightening context for my practice, however, so could be worth researching further. Other artists using ice have encountered similar questioning about the bearing of climate change on their work. Nele Azevedo, for example, in Melting Men (2006), placed 1,000 miniature ice figurines on the stone steps of various monuments (it is an ongoing work that has been repeated in different cities around the world). This piece was intended to address ideas of the permanence and grandeur of the monuments in relation to the relative insignificance of people, represented by the ephemeral figurines, which were dwarfed by the monuments in which they were placed in front of. The work was therefore about scale, and considered the endurance of the buildings against the short lives of the people that inhabited them. Despite Azevedo’s apparently clear idea of what the work stood for, numerous readings of the piece gave greater focus to ideas of climate change suggesting the work as metaphor for environmental issues. Azevedo initially tried to ignore such readings, but began to accept them and even incorporate them into the ideology of the piece.
As this example suggests it would be hard to ignore ‘climate change’-related readings of my work. Whilst I might not deliberately set out to explore such ideas and present a message to viewers relating to such, I am open to different interpretations of my work. If such interpretations begin to call climate change into focus then I am open to that. But for now, it is the passage of time that is the focus of my practice through the presentation of temporary works of finite duration. Often they are staged as events, often they demand firsthand viewing from an audience.
[With thanks to Jack Shepherdson - UEA Student of Art History]