Louisa Buck
The Art Newspaper. No 98. Dec 1999

UK Artist Q&A


You are probably best known for writing the blow-by-blow “Boy’s Own” action adventure movies, such as “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Top Gun”, “The hunt for Red October,” as well as for your 1,000 page-book The Nam; which combines your detailed descriptions of six Vietnam moves into one doorstep volume. What drew you to those kinds of films?

Action adventure movies explore the screen in a very determined way; always stretching the possibilities of the screen, the speed of them, the heroism of the images, containing what the eye can’t hold, always too fast to see everything. I was interested in what was possible for still pictures in this respect, how much could they contain, how big the image, how much space could be crossed, how much time could they cover, how deep, how high, those are the things that got me started.

Loads of things drove me to those particular films. It wasn’t that they were action adventure films per se. I don’t see any of those films as “Boys’s Own” films; they are far more emotive. They all have highly charged political and emotional agendas. I was impressed by the films ability to put all of this into place and still be to be very seductive. With “Lawrence of Arabia,” it was so vast – in fact, the widest film ever – (a great moment in the history of wideness), so the idea of trying to contain all that vastness in a still image got me excited. The NAM came out of me realising everything I knew about Vietnam: its history, geography, and culture came out of watching those war films, which I thought were absurd and interesting and possibly were so far…I was born in 1966. The only way I could deal with the imagery was in words, because it was so difficult. And using words was a way of looking at it differently. “Don’t Look Back”, which is a very recent piece, is rooted in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary of Bob Dylan’s first tour of the UK. It’s the first ‘rockumentary’, I think, or the earliest one I have ever seen. The work addresses my love for Dylan, the fact that whenever I see him now he’s tragically bad. The piece is an exploration of that disappointment. The film is written out three times; each time from memory; each description or memory is different, or, rather, translates differently. In the end, it was as if I was there at those great gigs, when was right on the edge of inventing rock. So this is all a bit different from earlier work, both in subject matter and in that I have recalled the film, not written an account of it.

Whether it is a whole move transcribed onto a single sheet of paper, or accounts of particular episodes, such as the car chases from “Bullitt” and “The French Connection”, you always seemed to pick out the movies or scenarios that rely for their impact on the power of images and that are the most difficult to convey in words.

Basically, I’m interested in what pictures can do. The can convey all this intense action at once, so that’s kind of turning the heroism round and using it in my own way. I’ve always been interested in the limitation and the power of description. Descriptions of how things look or appear, or disappear for that matter. What I’m doing in words could start with painting a still-life; but the subject of a still-life is still and a move is in motion – very fast in the case of car-chases. I suppose it is about pushing this difference between still and moving, not just moving, but zooming; the car chases were a bit of a caricature of this.

Although they are written in plain language, your text pieces are difficult to read; more in terms of the form than content: the eye swims over these massive blocks of words and struggles to follow the lines, the letters become patterns, the words fragmentary clumps. Would you comment on this?

With ‘Apocalypse Now’ or ‘The desert’, it would be a heroic act to read it, following all those lines, tracing the journey through, always going up the river, the monotony of the desert. It’s there, but you can’t consume it. That’s the enigma of images – the eye can only rove where the screen allows it. The Nam is hard to read’ a page is a cinch, but the whole book..well, it has been described as ‘unreadable’. The book made very little concession to novelistic values. It’s unedited; it has six climaxes, six films. Of course, the fact that you could read it is essential. I’m not trying to make compulsive reading. One should have to toy with an object and wonder what it is.

Your more recent works, the big full-stop drawings, for instance, deal with words without saying anything. Are you interrogating the communicative (dis)abilities of images or words, or both?

With the full-stop drawings I wanted to make some images with no subject, but that were not abstract. I wanted to make a load of drawings that you could say nothing about. I knew that they would end up being surrounded by language because everything is, but I was playing with this idea. I started looking at the drawings as arrests, as things which make you stop in your tracks, which is what art is meant to do. That’s why I called my show “Stop”. The full-stop sculptures act slightly differently, in that they literally punctuate the gallery space. I was thinking of the people as being like the characters, the letters, moving around them, and the sculptures as being like the punctuation.

An earlier work, “Un*******believable”, was all punctuation and no words’ in the past you’ve made a tiny neon full-stop, and, in the Tate’s ‘Art Now’ room last year, you showed nine polystyrene sculptures of scaled-up full-stops in different fonts. Now you’ve devoted a whole show to drawings and sculptures of this symbol of finality. Why?

I didn’t see them as symbols of finality. I was thinking of them more as in-betweens. Wordless things. When I started working on them, blowing up the full-stops from different fonts, realizing they were all different sizes and shapes, something different happened. They became forms.

Polystyrene is an insubstantial substance used for throw-away cups or packaging. What attracted you to it?

All of those associations. I thought it’s the lightest solid there is It is literally a space-filler. Then I was thinking about the full-stops as being these tiny little things blown up, made into objects, and polystyrene seemed like the right thing to use. In terms of sculpture, polystyrene is what you might use to make a maquette and I liked that: it gave them an in-betweenness, not an immateriality, yet not anything ‘substantial’ like bronze. Apart from all these other things, I wanted to keep them simple, and as a maker, this was the simplest way of making them – no moulding, no casts, and so on.

Is this a move away from movies to language per se?

I’m not sure. I am engaging with what you can use language for more.

What would you say have been the influences – past and/or present – on your work?

I don’t know, but my favourite artist is Turner. My favourite author is Raymond Carver. My favourite musician is Bob Dylan