About this time last year for a show that I did at Frith Street Gallery I made a neon full-stop. I’d just finished working on The NAM (1997), and it seemed like a very cumulative point because it had taken a long time, not to write, but put into production, it was the idea of a finality. I was thinking of the nature of full stops. Are there different kinds of full stops? Is there a full stop that just goes errrrrm? A full stop is the ultimate mark due to the total brevity of it or due to the fact that it’s a stab. It’s a mark that alludes to nothing, a mark that is a thing in itself and yet has no subject, but alludes to a pause or punctuation, it has no subject and yet is not abstract. The other thing with the neon was – well, the kind of catch or phrase that was ringing in my mind at the time was that I’d noticed there was a lot of neon in the city, but there were no neon full-stops, so I set about designing one. It’s kind of the smallest neon in the world, but it’s also ‘The End’, was how I was thinking about it. I editioned the neon full stop and it comes with a framed certificate, which is more, or as important as the neon. It’s just a stabbed at bit of paper, signed. So that was that.
Quite a long time later I started making – thinking about making – some drawings of various full stops. And I actually sat at my computer and blew up full stops from various fonts as big as I could. I realized that in fact, contrary to my expectations there are many, many variants on the full stop, and not only in shape but also in size. Some are double, triple the size of others. In fact it’s the opposite of a generic form. I was intrigued by how these became marks in their own right only by bumping the size up off the page, so the dots become shapes. And then I thought I’d start dealing in opposites, whatever the word for that is, a binary thing. A bit like comic ghosts, which are the alternative of nothing – or the materialization of nothing, at least. And to take something like a full stop as a subject in itself is, in a way, quite a powerful denial of language. Because there are not letters, nothing but the pause which is something that doesn’t exist in a verbal way anyway, something that is invisible has no sound, and then sculpturally alludes to perfect form and all these very unspeakable abstract conventions. The thing that initially made me realise this is that I was printing out a load of full stops at this bureau – because I’d run out of fonts – and they were all coming out of the printer, and the guy that I know down there called up my house: ‘Fiona, y’know something’s really gone wrong here, because all we’re getting is dots on the paper: something’s gone wrong’.
And I was quite intrigued by that, because I thought…this guy works here six days a week, every week – it’s his full-time job – and he doesn’t know what a full stop looks like. His whole life is completely revolving around fonts and so on, and yet for him…some great escape – some real wastage – has taken place. So that kind of made me think.
And then I’d made some very large – way too big – drawings of full stops. I thought of them as fantasy drawings…they were these drawings that you could go up to, and they offered you everything or nothing. You could project your fantasy or imagination onto them. They were drawings with no subject…and, in fact, what happened was that I just got really fed up with fantasy. I got fed up with the whole lot of it, and I associate that with a sort of constructed textual fantasy, maybe – perhaps filmic – but for me that’s become quite entwined with writing and all that. I’d imagined a massive, inconceivably large text and all the figures walking round the sculptures being like characters, and the sculptures being like punctuation…in the way that I might think of BREAK POINT (1998) or THE DESERT (1995)…as an ‘all-over painting’, these are ‘all-over sculptures’.
I got really involved in writing when I wrote THE NAM in a way that I hadn’t previously been. The other day I was reading through the text of THE DESERT, which is a description of the film LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), and it’s absolutely incredible realizing all the relationships that I had with those people and the jokes that are in the text, none of which was particularly conscious. But I started reading it, and I was gobsmacked by how pompous the writing was. And then I realize why it’s so pompous: because it assumes the voice – well, what was at that point the mad voice of authority – the sort of weird military style (slips into the sergeant-major posh). ‘By God, Lawrence, you’re exactly the kind of man I can’t stand’. So it’s all very much to the point. And then I was taking a quote from TOP GUN (1993), and I realised that it’s completely written in that fast, azure blue, very euphoric English, though you can tell the action, dialogue, planes sky et cetera, are American. But it takes on that world, or is subsequent to it. And I also realized how many quotes, just in speaking, I’m always saying. “It takes more than fancy flying’ – that’s from TOP GUN; it’s a very small bromide print, very, very finely printed. I mean there’s something so totally delicate and, in a way, enchanting about the material. It’s by nature the opposite of the movie, but it described the whole film, everything that’s said, and everything that happens, what it sounds and looks like.
And take APOCALYPSE NOW (1996) which was hand-written, a 21-foot-long piece of paper with a load of text on it. You’re far more aware of the act of writing than you are of your act of reading, so it becomes this very evident endeavour, which kind of runs alongside the whole ridiculous journey in the film in some weird way. But I don’t think the work is macho. I don’t even think the film is macho; it’s a parody. I suppose for me the starting point is that, for whatever reasons, there is a real allure to that film. For whatever reasons, I have been seduced by that film and…still am seduced. And for whatever reasons, there’s an element of historical conspiracy involved in the way that film’s functioning, and that’s enough to get me pretty interested…more engaged in a way. So I think the reason that you’re having problems phrasing the question is because my work doesn’t give any answers in response to that. You couldn’t say THE NAM is a searing indictment of Vietnam films, or even that its’ anti-heroic. It’s a commentary. But then what can you say? I mean, how does seduction work? It’s a very live, highly real thing It’s not something you can detach yourself from and conspire against. The reason why I became sufficiently involved in all those films to put them into a book and then give it a title was because I realized, in a crazy moment, that my entire understanding of Vietnam – the historical zone and geographical place – was informed by those films. And it occurred to me that that might be the same for quite a few people of my generation. That is not the case any more, but three or four years ago, when I first started thinking about making that work, it was. So these films suddenly became very closely entwined for me, beyond being a genre. I realized that phrases, actors and scenes jump in and out of these films and weave together, with the greatest aplomb, to be this whole guilty conscience. It has its own enigma. I guess there is a political moment there.
So for the Tate – well, I thought, it’s the Tate Gallery – I’m doing some painting and some sculptures. That’s an example of the other painting. BREAK POINT is kind of a fast painting. There’s a lot of action; the camera’s not still for a millisecond even; but that may well be entirely untrue. It describes the chase scene out of the Bigelow film POINT BREAK (1991). I was thinking about a few things concerning that picture. In actual fact, what happens eventually is that the picture plane gains this recessive space to it, which is different to the other, similar ‘pictures’ that I’ve made. And the reason it has that space is because of the way the letters drift and become compressed. So I was thinking…in terms of painting, obviously, and landscape, obviously, and in terms of this being a very fast painting; all this stuff about the lines on the page becoming lines on the road and it ending in this kind of text crash. It’s impossibly, unsustainably fast. So that’s why it’s written in this hazard red. The space suggested visually in the painting is distance, and the painting is about how fast it takes to cover that distance and the unattainability of that gesture, of even considering the possibility of doing that. And it’s this particular chase, because, well, the chase is so ridiculously great that when it’s translated into words it comes this kind of shaggy-dog story, you know, the opposite of keen imperative momentum. No. it’s because in the end Keanu gets Swayze. He’s there within his range and instead of shooting him, he lets him get away – his choice. So there’s something very…
The other paintings I’m doing are four panels, and I was thinking of them as pages as well. It’s called YOU GOT A LOT OF NERVE (1998). Dylan’s song goes (spoken very quickly). ‘You gotta lot of nerve to say you are my friend you just wanna be on the side that’s winning you gotta lot of nerve to say that you’ve gotta helping hand to lend when I was down you just stood there grinning you see me on the street you always act surprised you say hello how are you good luck but you don’t mean it you know as well as me you’d rather see me paralyzed why don’t you come out once and scream it. I know the reason you talk behind my back I used to be amongst the crowd you’re in with I wish that for just one time you’d stand inside my shoes you’d know what a, and for that one moment I could be you, yeah I wish that, sorry er, one moment you could stand inside my shoes you’d know what a drag it is to see you. Ends’.
It’s my memory of the song, which is really quite different from the song but quite similar as well. It’s how I thought the song went. I always really liked the fact that I knew the song word-for-word but, in fact, I don’t. Like I say, ‘I know you’re dissatisfied with your position and your face; don’t you understand its not my problem’, when…it’s ‘I know you’re dissatisfied with your position and your place’. So it is different, and also there’s quite a lot of stuff that isn’t there, because I forgot it. But the song is, I imagine, the most acrimonious song in the English language. Dylan’s disenfranchised, because he’s the manifestation of the idea, the notion, of disappointing, disappointment. So he’s this great, great person who changes so much, and then, in a way, it becomes impossible for him; he’s just living in his own wake, really. In a way I would say that YOU GOT A LOT OF NERVE end up how I’ve interpreted it, if you like; an indictment of viewership. So you there and you think: Oh I’ve come all this way to see this show of paintings, and then, well, I expected some words. Well, it’s not like wordscape. It’s word escape. It’s word rape. The words have gone. It’s this hollow, echoing thing. But then you start engaging with it, and it’s ‘I wish you’d stand inside my shoes; you’d know what a drag it is to see you’. So it’s a role-swapping thing. Also, I think for me the real subject of the painting is the conflict, or the rift between words and their meaning. This is a very punchy, arrogant song when, in fact, it’s about feeling robbed. The canvas has been robbed. The whole painting has been robbed – virtually; it’s falling apart; you see more stretcher than you see canvas. The words are cut out from canvas, which is stretched over very deep, proper stretchers. There are four of them, and they’re about 11 by 7 feet. So they’re big. I mean, compared to you, they’re big.