The Bastard Word
Gregory Burke

(Exh catalog) Toronto, Canada 2007

The Bastard Word

GB
Fiona, your work from the mid-1990s onwards is quite well-known, and involves an interplay between language, drawing, painting, sculpture and sculptural relief, and the moving image. The work draws on war imagery, pornography and the nude—contested motifs and images from popular media and art history. As a whole the exchange is coherent but nevertheless complex. I am curious to know of the formative influences from art college that led you to this area of investigation.

FB
Well, I didn’t really make any work at art college. I didn’t know what art I could make. There was a huge emphasis on the image; no one making text-based work, no performance or anything. At that point it seemed very hard to make sense of what the image meant, both within an art context and outside it. The media had taken the ‘image’ to extremes from which it couldn’t come back. So the image became something that was political, though I would never ever have used the word ‘political’—it seems like an unfortunate word to me even now.

I wasn’t articulate about this stuff and I spent much more time writing and trying to circumnavigate some of the problems of the image that way than actually making any work; it was writing as a way of seeing, really. I suppose I was trying to see a way around these things. It wasn’t a formal kind of writing and it wasn’t public. Then I began making notes on how I could make pictures … notes on what things looked like. Those notes in turn became the pictures. To begin with, I used writing as a way of ‘un-making’, getting distance, and then I began building up images and scenarios by using language. Essentially, I began making and un-making with language and then making and un-making language itself ….

I made the first drawings of fighter jets then, when I was at college, but discarded them. Like all the pictures I made, they seemed really disappointing. And yet the images of the fighter jets revealed something of their own problem. They sort of spoke of the impossible; in my mind they came to represent an ‘opposite’ of language. Twenty years later, a couple of those drawings were resurrected to form part of All the Worlds Fighter Planes, the two hundred drawings that you saw in New York last year. So over time these stray drawings came together and developed their own syntax. Somehow, by drawing every fighter plane in the world currently in service, the piece found its own story. Like my big verbal war-film pieces; it became an unedited picture. It became a kind of A–Z of fighter planes, and tracked a period in actual history—conflicts, reflected through the media, come and go, or move and continue …. So it took twenty years for this piece to resolve itself, but to end up with this series of drawings dated from 1986–2006 felt right to me. One is always working with the same stuff, though how it is articulated may change.

GB
There is a sense of translation from the iconic to the personal or a sense of intimacy through hand rendering which characterizes your drawings of fighter planes. Of course this sense of intimacy is characteristic of drawing but feels more apt within the field of life drawing or the drawing of the nude. How important is this aspect to you in each case?

FB
In both cases the drawings came from a need to reinterpret images that had a significant and dubious effect on me. The fighter plane drawings are sensual. Through something sensual you can say something about the nature of brutality, and our relationship to it. They are intimate but then the way we see these images on the news or in the paper is quite intimate, and domestic, though it often doesn’t seem that way. I was just trying to work out why these images, when seen in the media, are so exciting and often beautiful, though they represent something repulsive. The pencil drawings are fairly small—the planes look like birds or something from nature, yet they represent anti-nature. They even have nicknames related to nature: tornado, eagle, harrier, panther …. Then again drawing itself is a kind of nature ….
The fighter plane drawings are a reversion to something quite dumb but also universal and historical, which is the way that we draw out things and render them in a recognizable form—the way we feel the need to draw out anxieties. On one level, the act of drawing is a kind of primitive, infantile activity. There is no real sense in trying to render a massive all-powerful object on a little bit of paper, using only a pencil to convey the fantasy of the real—the object so powerful, so ultimately an object; the paper so flimsy and domestic. But something of the very simplicity of the act of drawing makes it an appropriate way to proceed, that makes it a natural extension of a recurrent thought. All the works are quite delicate; they say something about our fallibility and our vulnerability … well, if you can’t pray, what are you going to do? This iconic image of the fighter plane is recurrent, and actually I have always had a lot of dreams about fighter planes, submarines, etc. The images repeat on me ...  and these images have been archived in these various ways.

The nude pieces are about our fallibility too, our need to draw (make images of) us, speaks of our frailty. They are a kind of mirror.

GB
Unlike the fighter planes, you choose to draw your nudes by transcribing your observations via text. The voyeuristic quality is thereby heightened, yet there is a specific context set up via your own identity. For example, the works might be interpreted differently if you were male or if the texts were being presented in a non art-context. How is your own subjectivity related to your intention with these works?

FB
Well … the history of the nude is complex, especially the female nude. I don’t want to get caught up in the obvious gender issues. Art is fragile—conceptually it is a very fine thing and issues are clumsy and tend to be didactic. But then things happen. In a recent exhibition about history and the body at Tate Modern, I noticed that there wasn’t a single female nude by a female artist. I thought this was an interesting exposé. In these ways our weird preconceptions are revealed, and it’s inevitable that art and art institutions will reflect this. So this too makes for a kind of fallibility.

The verbalization, as with the verbalization of war films, comes from finding myself in an impossible position. I wanted to work from the nude, but did not want to deal, or could not deal with the weight of history that comes with the image. Through bypassing the image and using words, I can circumnavigate this history—not ignore it, but move around it, and not be consumed by it.

And then ultimately I’m more dexterous in words, and can say something about the changing of the situation over a duration—the colour, light, pose. Basically I feel I can make a more honest picture this way. Often the words get crammed at the end of the page when I’m coming to the end of the drawings, reflecting an urgency to get the thing finished before the model collapses or loses the pose, or the light goes, or because … but formally, words reflect a duration. You can have a zillion pictures, overlaid if you like, in one picture, sort of unedited; same with the film pieces. The nude performances acknowledge this (duration and unediting) humorously, but seriously too. They expose the layers of voyeurism at play. This voyeurism is linked to the weird voyeuristic relationship we have with war machines. I mean the flesh of the nude is physically fragile and vulnerable; the war machine is all about penetration and destruction. On the other hand, both histories have a massive conceptual presence, seduction and deterrent.

GB
Your implicit or explicit presence skews the work in a productive way. It is most obvious in the live nude performances where your literal presence shifts the subject relations involved, but your implied subjectivity underpins much of the work, regardless of how phantom and deflected it is. How important is this aspect?

FB
The other night I saw a wondrous Matt Mullican performance where he gets hypnotized and then, in his weird unpredictable trance he tries to make a drawing. It was really all about this battle between the objective and subjective, the conscious and the subconscious, the sense of creativity and destructiveness—the illogic of art as a way to proceed, but the strange force of it. Have you seen him do these performances?

GB
No … sounds fascinating …

FB
Yes … It was scary and fantastic.

Actually I find it hard to step back from my live performances. Except to say that each one is an experiment, and that the motivation is to explore and expose these voyeuristic layers and circuits: how the artist looks at the subject, how the viewer looks at art, how we look at each other. I’m playing with what it means to take something (a work of art) created in private, in a particular context and display it in public, in another context. I, as the artist am exposed, the model is exposed, the audience is exposed, and finally the artwork is vulnerable, it has been demystified: it too has been exposed. The very activity has been exposed. The performances are tense and uncomfortable in a way that I enjoy, they are also funny. And in the end we are all aware that we are involved in this erotic, voyeuristic activity called art. (I suppose I’m exploring how the artist looks at the subject, how the viewer looks at art, how we look at each other. The weird erotic distance we all have from art ... )

The nude descriptions are observational; they are also about the need to observe and the fear of being observed. In them (and this has really just come out of your question) I’m trying, though actively not suceeding, to merge—with the help of the audience—these objective and subjective dimensions which is central to all art …

These performances are quite tender, and yet they are brutal. Or maybe I feel quite tenderly about them. The performance at The Power Plant is the first I have done in an actual ‘art’ context. The others have been in a literary context [Port Eliot Lit Fest, Cornwall]. It’s hard to say what it means at this point.

GB
It is interesting to consider the live ‘nude’ performances in relation to Performance Art as a medium, particularly to the ways they differ from the classic performance set-up. You mention a literary context, though these works can also be related to the conventions of watching an artist at work—the proverbial invitation to the studio, or movies depicting the virtuosity of the artist. In contrast, your performances do not focus on your own virtuosity do they?

FB
No, on the contrary: I think the process is demystifying. These performances are all about the grandiose of failure. They are a failure in a way, but it is the failure of art which is its success, which is its motivation. [Pause] Writing is both a way of revealing as well as distancing. Drawing is a way of trying stupidly to understand something, though in the end it may only reveal the need to understand or to ‘comment’ (but this can be a lot). The subjectivity is often revealed through some kind of failure or collapse—which is often the most revealing thing.

GB
The sense of the tentative in the ‘Nude’ series and the sense of your own struggle can be seen to carry through to Every Word Unmade (2007), the neon alphabet piece you have recently finished for the exhibition at The Power Plant. Is it crucial that you handmade the neon letters yourself and that you are not a seasoned practitioner?

FB
Yea … Because I have no experience working in glass, the neon is kind of crappily made. The piece reflects a continuing struggle to control the medium—the language if you like—and that in turn reflects the struggle to control the meaning. I did not practice bending glass, and there was no trial, but then bending the “A,” bending the “B,” bending the “C” … is the practice if you see what I mean. “O” was the very first letter I made, and then “R.” “OR.” Then I filled in the gaps. Making this work was like regressing, and getting back to some kind of very simple battle with language. I mean here we are now, impossibly moving around this work in words, trying to fix something that can’t be fixed, you can’t fix meaning ...

I called the neon alphabet Every Word Unmade (2007); I was thinking about a kind of un-making of language, like you could make every word and every story imaginable from the alphabet. All the potential is there but none of the words, the fragile, wobbly letters—a
byproduct of incrementally, inexpertly bending hot glass—with the electrical circuit and gas, makes it like one big constant stutter … words about to be made or words un-made. Personally, I am very conscious of the brilliance of language and communication—I mean it is the blood to our thoughts—but also I find it very frustrating and I have a lot of fear about language and communication. So the physicality of this piece addresses that too.

After making the alphabet, I then made punctuation in neon. These pieces, I thought, looked like ancient weaponry or like something that had been dug up and excavated—skeletal—like the very bones of language, so I called the neon punctuation Bones (2007). (I suppose I am thinking that language is a very physical space … )

GB
Yes. The space you are alluding to is partly manifest through the scaling up, much like your earlier punctuation sculptures. Your choice, though, of neon in relation to this idea of the ancient interests me. In some ways the material contradicts this suggestion, in other ways not. Neon is associated with both modernity and commercial signage, yet lends itself to being pictographic which is the way it is most commonly used. In this sense, it recalls the earliest forms of written language. Tell me more about your choice of materials, given that some are more obvious than others.

FB
… Yes, neon has mainly commercial applications, but actually I always thought of it as being kind of an urban nature—you know, instead of trees you have neon, or something. It’s too simple to say it is commercial, because actually, it’s romantic and alluring. Neon’s relationship to advertising is interesting because advertising speaks to us on quite a primitive level.

I like your idea of it relating neon to early forms of language. The first neon pieces I made were from found bits of broken neon signs. I found a load of letters in a skip near my house and then because I walk a lot, I started finding more here and there. I welded together the bits of broken glass and remade them into abstract shapes, filled them with gas and fired them up to get them working again. They became symbols without an index—I thought they were kind of pre-language or post-language. I called them ‘un-broken signs,’ though thinking about it now they were kind of ‘un-signs,’ because they had no signifier.

I wanted to work directly with neon and just get into the stuff of it: I never really understood what it was. When you see art neon, it is so professionally produced, the material becomes invisible. I wanted to get behind the language of the material: sometimes by doing things badly, or unprofessionally, you reveal things. It takes years and years to

learn how to bend neon professionally, and when I started this, I had zero experience. So I was working with neon, but instead of making words—the words one expects neon to make, or the words it actually predicts—I ended up feeling like I was un-making this thing called ‘neon’ in that it is sort of all-wrong. So it is an alphabet—not words—words fallen apart or yet to be made, but not words themselves. The neon forms themselves are reaching as far as they can technically to form the letters. It feels like the form of the letter is just within its (my) grasp. The letters are like when you just learn to speak, or when you can’t speak when you want to; it’s a bid for language, trying to get your mouth or head round it. In an odd way, it is like being really drunk.

Also there are things about working with neon that felt like part of words, or un-words. The way that you have to melt the glass and carefully move it and string it together, and blow big breaths into the bends; actually on a physical level there was something like language, or talking. Breathing as if to talk and then doing something physical with the breath in the end. Instead of a sound—which you would get if the glass were an instrument—you get a shape. Language is liquid but also brittle. But I was also making a drawing in light; in that respect, the process was really familiar. [Pause] I suppose words are another material.

GB
Getting behind the language of the material is particularly poignant with the text work on wings of fighter planes. Particularly given the way you strip back the surface, revealing the rawness of the wing construction and the blemishes produced from active service. The sensuality conveyed through your text is jarring when set against the invasive connotations of these objects. Yet the text draws you in close to reveal the object’s defects, which also has the effect of making it less ominous. Was this your intention?

FB
Actually not less ominous but less obvious, as an object. The thing is that these objects are seductive in a certain way, and I wanted to make them seductive or sensual in a new way. All the military markings and scuffings reveal a history; I can’t look at a fighter plane and not get drawn into a heroic space. So I wanted to work with this, but twist it. The Tornado is a really vicious plane and has a massive wing span so that it can fly low and bomb the shit out-of-people. It was always my intention to upend the wing and make this big fucking sculpture out of it. I can’t get at it now, but there is some correlation between military objects, and how they are fetishized, and art objects and how they are fetishized.

There is a very subtle drawing scratched onto the wing. And it describes, in an intimate way, this human form. But you have to go up close to get into its space, both emotionally and physically. Then you stand back and you have this big motherfucker, like a massive sword or a primitive symbol of power, looming over you. It is quite totemic when it is upright and viewed as one piece (not shafting through two floors, as when I previously exhibited it). It speaks of our need to worship, whether you choose a god, celebrity or the art object … but it is also, however, a massive trophy object in the most perverse sense. So the object is ultimately strong and very, very hard; it is designed to penetrate space physically by flying, here it’s visually penetrating space, through its upended  form. And because its function is to kill, it carries that particular history of human penetration, too. I wanted to put something of that human-ness on the surface—to say something about us, to try to bring us closer to this object, so that we are implicated. I mean this object represents a complete fucking breakdown of language, communication, etc. I also wanted to say something about our relationship to art—it is about (or it has) a kind of artistic heroism as well.

GB
The sense of push and pull between language, material and sign is reversed with the alphabet drawings of The Bastard Word (2006–07). The letter comes first and then you are drawn into the process and signification of the drawing. How do you see this work relating to Every Word Unmade (2007) and Tornado Nude (2006)?

FB
Each letter is drawn from mashed-up, or broken planes. Actually all these planes are currently in service, so there is that kind of currency to it. But each letter looks like a primitive weapon. These weapons only exist because we can’t communicate, because of the failure of language. I suppose The Bastard Word is a kind of anti-alphabet, or anti- language.

The drawings are also about language as a weapon, they refute language. Each bit of paper is like a heraldic flag.  The drawings take these monumental structures, and make them kind of domestic … an extension of the hand—the drawing as language, as a physical language. Each letter is like a primitive weapon, each designed to be hurled.

GB
Now that the exhibition has opened it interests me the way the wall drawings work as opposed to the alphabet drawings, for example.

FB
The wall drawings started when I started making drawings from life. There seemed to be no obvious framing to the work anymore, with the films they had a prescribed edge or frame, though the image was constantly in flux or being replaced. The nudes have to find their space; they don’t seem to belong to a frame. So working on the wall allows me to move the text about: it is uncontained, unframed. The wall drawing I made here is a recreation, of sorts, of a wall drawing that I made at Tate Britain several years ago, and that was the first nude piece that I made. At that point the nudes were based on nudes from porn films, though they weren’t performing. At this point they are much more intimate—largely I work from the same model, who is a close friend now—or I work from memory. The space between inside and out, subject and object, is more blurred (which is something the porn pieces addressed in a different way); the language is sometimes observational and sometimes the distance collapses and it’s much more subjective.

For the performance at The Power Plant (3 March, 2007) I worked on a piece of wall, that concealed a doorway through to the next space. I extracted the wall for largely practical reasons, for the purpose of the performance, and then replaced it, leaving the craggy edge around it. I like the idea of the doorway as this invisible transient human space, that has these human dimensions. 

GB
You have just done another performance in London. How did that work?
FB
Yes. Again the piece was collaborative, I worked with an actor, Samantha Morton. She came to my studio and posed for a life drawing—by the end of the session I had completed a drawing of her, in words. The next night she read the text in front of a few hundred people at Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, under very theatrical conditions: in a dark room, spot light, etc. We agreed that she would not ‘act’ the piece, it was more a process of ‘un-acting’; when she performed it she had not previously read the text, that way it was revealed to the audience and its reader, or its subject, at the same time. She was performing a kind of striptease in words, but it was actually much more intimate than that, I suppose she was undressing in words.
GB
Getting behind the language of the material is particularly poignant with the text work on wings of fighter planes. Particularly given the way you strip back the surface, revealing the rawness of the wing construction and the blemishes produced from active service. The sensuality conveyed through your text is jarring when set against the invasive connotations of these objects. Yet the text draws you in close to reveal the object’s defects, which also has the effect of making it less ominous. Was this your intention?

FB
Actually not less ominous but less obvious, as an object. The thing is that these objects are seductive in a certain way, and I wanted to make them seductive or sensual in a new way. All the military markings and scuffings reveal a history; I can’t look at a fighter plane and not get drawn into a heroic space. So I wanted to work with this, but twist it. The Tornado is a really vicious plane and has a massive wing span so that it can fly low and bomb the shit out-of-people. It was always my intention to upend the wing and make this big fucking sculpture out of it. I can’t get at it now, but there is some correlation between military objects, and how they are fetishized, and art objects and how they are fetishized.

There is a very subtle drawing scratched onto the wing. And it describes, in an intimate way, this human form. But you have to go up close to get into its space, both emotionally and physically. Then you stand back and you have this big motherfucker, like a massive sword or a primitive symbol of power, looming over you. It is quite totemic when it is upright and viewed as one piece (not shafting through two floors, as when I previously exhibited it). It speaks of our need to worship, whether you choose a god, celebrity or the art object … but it is also, however, a massive trophy object in the most perverse sense. So the object is ultimately strong and very, very hard; it is designed to penetrate space physically by flying, here it’s visually penetrating space, through its upended  form. And because its function is to kill, it carries that particular history of human penetration, too. I wanted to put something of that human-ness on the surface—to say something about us, to try to bring us closer to this object, so that we are implicated. I mean this object represents a complete fucking breakdown of language, communication, etc. I also wanted to say something about our relationship to art—it is about (or it has) a kind of artistic heroism as well.

GB
The sense of push and pull between language, material and sign is reversed with the alphabet drawings of The Bastard Word (2006–07). The letter comes first and then you are drawn into the process and signification of the drawing. How do you see this work relating to Every Word Unmade (2007) and Tornado Nude (2006)?

FB
Each letter is drawn from mashed-up, or broken planes. Actually all these planes are currently in service, so there is that kind of currency to it. But each letter looks like a primitive weapon. These weapons only exist because we can’t communicate, because of the failure of language. I suppose The Bastard Word is a kind of anti-alphabet, or anti- language.

The drawings are also about language as a weapon, they refute language. Each bit of paper is like a heraldic flag.  The drawings take these monumental structures, and make them kind of domestic … an extension of the hand—the drawing as language, as a physical language. Each letter is like a primitive weapon, each designed to be hurled.

GB
Now that the exhibition has opened it interests me the way the wall drawings work as opposed to the alphabet drawings, for example.

FB
The wall drawings started when I started making drawings from life. There seemed to be no obvious framing to the work anymore, with the films they had a prescribed edge or frame, though the image was constantly in flux or being replaced. The nudes have to find their space; they don’t seem to belong to a frame. So working on the wall allows me to move the text about: it is uncontained, unframed. The wall drawing I made here is a recreation, of sorts, of a wall drawing that I made at Tate Britain several years ago, and that was the first nude piece that I made. At that point the nudes were based on nudes from porn films, though they weren’t performing. At this point they are much more intimate—largely I work from the same model, who is a close friend now—or I work from memory. The space between inside and out, subject and object, is more blurred (which is something the porn pieces addressed in a different way); the language is sometimes observational and sometimes the distance collapses and it’s much more subjective.

For the performance at The Power Plant (3 March, 2007) I worked on a piece of wall, that concealed a doorway through to the next space. I extracted the wall for largely practical reasons, for the purpose of the performance, and then replaced it, leaving the craggy edge around it. I like the idea of the doorway as this invisible transient human space, that has these human dimensions. 

GB
You have just done another performance in London. How did that work?
FB
Yes. Again the piece was collaborative, I worked with an actor, Samantha Morton. She came to my studio and posed for a life drawing—by the end of the session I had completed a drawing of her, in words. The next night she read the text in front of a few hundred people at Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, under very theatrical conditions: in a dark room, spot light, etc. We agreed that she would not ‘act’ the piece, it was more a process of ‘un-acting’; when she performed it she had not previously read the text, that way it was revealed to the audience and its reader, or its subject, at the same time. She was performing a kind of striptease in words, but it was actually much more intimate than that, I suppose she was undressing in words.