Dominic Paterson in conversation with Alex Impey
Orangutan, Alex Impey’s recent exhibition at Glasgow Sculpture Studios, marked the culmination of his year-long Gordon Foundation Graduate Fellowship and was the artist’s first solo show in Scotland, following his inclusion in group exhibitions at Transmission and CCA in 2011. Orangutan presented further evidence that Impey’s complex, thoughtful approach to a set of concerns ranging from animality to technology and experimental writing, is yielding some very intriguing and compelling results. Impey discusses his recent work with Dominic Paterson.
Dominic Paterson: Orangutan consisted of a number of interrelated elements, including five welded steel pieces, into each of which ten small holes were drilled, with fibres then carefully threaded through those holes. There were also two framed drawings, and a set of shelves, borrowed from your studio at Glasgow Sculpture Studios (GSS) and somewhat altered (or ‘inherited and augmented’ as you put it). The text which accompanied these works (and was itself a crucial element in the ensemble) is a rather intriguing set of citations from a book titled Avian Brood Parasites. These quotes describe the ways in which species such as cuckoos and viduine finches are able, through mimicry, to deceive other birds into raising their young.
All of this seemed very carefully considered, so I thought we could start with some straightforward questions about the elements that made up the exhibition, and then open out to some more thematic concerns, and perhaps especially the idea of animal mimicry. To begin with, then, can I simply ask what was it that was threaded through the holes in the five steel sculptures?
Alex Impey: It’s an industrial yarn that looks like hair. When you inspect it closely you can see it has lots of tiny filaments laid along to make its length. Against the stark and bland appearance of the objects as an ensemble in the space, you can track a kind of tenderness in the minute differences between the five arrangements. In part, it is meant to act as a score for comparison of these instances of significant detail, where you can be inside a clear awareness of being asked to make that comparison.
DP: It’s interesting that you put it in those terms, that idea of an attention characterised by tenderness. I was struck in the exhibition by how these very non-figurative works nonetheless seemed figure-like, the way they functioned for me somewhat like the Personages Louise Bourgeois made in the late 1940s-early 1950s, that is, as stand-ins for absent subjects. Mignon Nixon has read these sculptures in relation to the Freudian work of mourning, which ‘entails both concentration and repetition […] a deliberate, grinding process of taking stock and breaking ties, not a cathartic letting go.’[i] In both mourning and melancholy there is a certain tenderness or intimacy in relation to a lost object, in the first case in a gradual, bit by bit, detachment of oneself from it, and in the latter an introjection of that object. I found it very compelling that you were able to touch on this subjective terrain, or something like it at least, using a quite industrial formal language.
This enmeshing of subjective tenderness and ‘stark and bland’ serial form brings to mind Bernard Stiegler’s argument that ‘humanity and technics are indissociable,’ and that we need both ‘very thick skin indeed’ and ‘very sensitive, indeed hypersensitive, skin’ in order to understand and accept this today.[ii] There is a sensitivity to technics in your work, to how imbricated we are with technology and its techniques. How does this play out in the making of the work itself? Having been awarded the Gordon Fellowship after your MFA degree show you had a year’s residency at GSS, and so had access to all kinds of production facilities for making sculpture, specialist workshops, tools etc. I suspect that this will not be an easy question to answer, but what tools did you use in making the work that comprised Orangutan?
AI: I’m not sure what tools are. I’m not sure where the distinction lies. I’m not sure there is anything I don’t have to have a use for, in order for it to even be present. If there’s a tool in front of me it connects to this embodied knowing that I can use things in general. I’m certainly very concerned with this notion of use, in a way that I can’t conclude. So for this show there were more tools than I could list, often as they were processes rather than tools, and so the description would just spiral out. I mean in a sense, the paper I always keep by my pillow to write down ideas is more important than the bandsaw I used to cut the metal, or the set of technical terms shared with the person at a company with whom I have to discuss a certain process is more important than a needle. This work was somehow about how any decision over significance instrumentalises what is available, and how this is almost a spatial process dividing into unused and used. So if there is this unused, this non-tool, I’m interested in tracking the process through which it is given up or taken into any function.
DP: The idea of the non-tool seems to figure something that I often feel is present in your sculptural work, something that makes it seem both very worldly and very other-wordly. There is a sense that the sculptures could be tools for an as yet unknown use, or as if they meet some very practical but obscure need. They are usefully useless things, perhaps, in contrast to the rather uselessly useful objects that usually surround us.
I remember speaking to you during your GSS residency about a show in Switzerland you were working on, and at that stage you had been thinking about Stiegler’s writing on technology, and looking at the morphological variations in birdbath designs! Those ideas and interests might have ended up being ‘non-tools’ for the final work, which certainly didn’t illustrate those ideas or forms in any obvious way. Could you describe the sculptures you eventually made for that show at sic! Raum für Kunst Luzern? The title was Gravel, but how did that title relate to materiality of those sculptures, and to the way they functioned within the space of the gallery?
AI: Gravel was four steel objects, symmetrical along one axis. They were 42x2x9cm, tray-like, and had apparently pinched middles, where the edges had been cut back, to inside where the upright lip would be. Inside the two ends were riveted-in identical duplicates in steel of a basic comb-like object. These objects were placed 40cm away from the respective middles of the four blank walls in the gallery. They were installed in this way where a total lack of artful, intuitive, or friendly arrangement quickly made palpable the normal expectation for that kind of arrangement, somehow making both the expectation, and a manner of attention, sculptural. I see words as trajectories of effects, as just potential faces of a never completely present experience, in the same way as things. Calling it Gravel, and having these strangely un-detailed combs involved, tangled that question of attention with senses of things being sifted and sorted, details or knots removed in a field of similar grain.
DP: Writing plays an important role in your practice, and I get the sense that one of the things at stake in that writing, as with your drawing, is an intensity of observation, or an imagining of an intense observation taking place outside yourself, that results in a breaking with or breaking of grammar. I'm thinking particularly of Oil past colour,the bookwork you made for Lucerne, but also of the texts you’ve published in 2HB, or one you wrote for a reading at the CCA exhibition What We Make With Words. Could you say something about what happens to words and sentences in your writing, and how that writing relates to your practice more generally?
AI: The book Oil past colour is a small plain book of 40 or so pages. The text in English is followed by a translation into German. Small blocks of text along the bottoms of the pages describe an involuntary memory in language that then overruns itself into a kind of self-description of its effects.
I like that with writing I can very quickly do something that shows how its own structure works or doesn’t work, showing that a sort of fraying edge and its possibilities isn’t something absolute or mystical but almost on the tip of the tongue, and close by in experience. I see that I’ve often tried to create kind of minimal units that can do the most by my doing the least, like splitting the word ‘sentence’ into ‘send tense’; it’s a tiny gesture but I find that it produces a sort of energy, a sort of pause, through a multiplying of function. I’ve liked that energy and producing a kind of awareness through it, but now I’m more interested in trying to show that it is somehow inherent, even banal, and more is needed if all it ends up doing is prosthetically indexing that energy to a self, toward its gaining a kind of agency at a distance.
I have this page in Oil past colour where I wrote ‘I stem’, it was actually a doubled self-description of the serif capital I, and also saying that in that writing and its reading, who or whatever the I is stems a flow, and stems from something. So I’m not really producing a metaphor or an image but just a compression of real effects. This probably suggests what I want to do in general now.
DP: To shift from writing to drawing, I’d like to ask you about the subject matter of the drawings that were included in Orangutan, and were they made for this exhibition specifically?
AI: The main subject matter is an incomplete completion they could cause by being together. I did observational drawings of things from my studio that I would be unlikely to use for anything. I set about this process specifically for inclusion in this work. I used the two that I did because of their having almost the same composition, which grew around having started depicting the detail from a certain point on the paper, rather than as an intention. The two have, in various ways, elements displaying different levels of ability and intention, that I’d hoped could become somehow doubled or inverted in comparing them, even though displayed at different ends of the space, so the differences were somehow lost through distraction.
It was important to show the shelves with the drawings. These shelves were in the studio I moved into, and I added elements to them to make them more functional. I then had this moment where I suddenly took this distance from them, and knew I had to use them to try and ask a question about this hallucinated value created in that moment. I was trying to get at some sort of speculation, on moments of almost love felt for very close at hand and nearly banal singularities. And then I am trying to point out a movement through things that can serve as subject matter, in the search for this sensation, this relation. In a similar way in which Gravel shows dynamics by being un-dynamic, I tried to show the movement through subject matter by not taking it very far. I use Orangutans to indicate a movement very far to get at subject matter. The word is in the work to show an absurd, but normal, leap in scale in such a movement, and also to include the notion of a kind of unnecessary detail being discarded by planetary being. But also a lost lesson of difference, a lesson that would, again, only have been visible in so far as it was useful.
The drawings are supposed to show a totally recognisable envelope that says merely; ‘drawings’; but at the same time recording this fragile and quite devotional movement through something not particularly interesting as subject matter. There is this very strange and prevalent condition where people find it necessary to show that they have placed themselves inside any record of intention in order to be looking out when you eventually get there. So I’m trying to work out what to do in the face of that.
DP: The empty shelves included in Orangutan could suggest a state of potential: a space for reading material, for example, or for the gathering of materials, or tools. Your account of the moment where they took on a ‘hallucinated value’ maybe suggests this too. In his essay ‘On Potentiality’, Giorgio Agamben highlights a distinction that Aristotle makes between generic potentiality (the potential that a child has for growth, for example), and the kind of potential which does not require an alteration to be realised, but instead is characterised as a potential not to do—‘thus the architect is potential insofar as he has the potential to not-build, the poet the potential to not-write poems.’[iii] Agamben goes on to offer this formulation of Aristotle's thinking of potential: ‘if a potentiality to not-be originally belongs to all potentiality, then there is truly potentiality only where the potentiality to not-be does not lag behind actuality but passes fully into it as such.... What is truly potential is thus what has exhausted all its impotentiality in bringing it wholly into the act as such.’[iv] I’m not sure quite how to turn this into a question, but it feels relevant to a sense that the works you don't make are present in the ones you do, or that potentiality and impotentiality are both part of your making. Does this resonate with you at all?
AI: I’m really interested in the possibility of portraying the way in which a movement in one direction, any sort of actualisation, could be supported by a sort of expense, how it could come to figure what it hasn’t become. Similar to what Niklas Luhmann talks about when he says that observation is only possible because of what is not observed, so an initial cut, decision, or swerve, seems to split possibility into realms, what is attended to and relevant as that moment, and what isn’t. With Orangutan I was partly trying to refer to a movement through possibility, almost by not doing anything, by not moving anywhere, by not being dynamic, as if the expectation preceding a gesture could be negatively cut into to make forms.
The key aspect of the cuckoo material I wanted to make use of was the notion of a system in which purpose is the same, visual similarity is the same, but identity retreats deeper into a level where it can’t be distinguished, where it is irrelevant. So can I somehow refer to what form production could seem to want, by not doing it, by just showing it looking out at us, through the ways we can look newly at things and place potentiality apparently inside them, which is what I did with the shelves.
Thinking about this distinction drawn in your reference between sorts of potential, it is as if one were blind and natural, the other seems to implicate evaluation and a giving-credit-to. It definitely connects to what I was trying to do with that work, which was almost asking why overreach in the search for an entity to credit that potential to. Maybe what the cuckoo material also does, is suggest a leveling of this distinction, collapsing this credit of the potential not-to, back into the supposedly blind and natural. So there is a sort of conflation of framing, as a way things are used in a contest over awareness, with this crediting of the potential not-to. I’m speculating a kind of animism of framing as the background to all this.
DP: As you mention the cuckoos, let’s return to the text you produced for Orangutan, which is made up of various passages from an account of how certain bird species deceive others. If we think of animal mimicry as a ruse to deceive predators or rival species, we might assume that the implication of using this text is that the works in Orangutan aim to survive the gallery context (and the context of a production residency at a sculpture studios, with whatever expectations that might bring) by mimicking its forms, or by handing its products over into the care of others. I suspect, however, that it would be better understood along the lines of Roger Caillois’s analysis in ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia’. In that essay Caillois discusses the weaknesses in the extant theories of animal mimicry; he notes that if animals have adapted to mimicry to aid their survival, they have not been especially successful: ‘Generally speaking, one finds many remains of mimetic insects in the stomachs of predators.’[v] In place of the notion of mimicry as evolutionary cunning, Caillois proposes that it is a result of the collapse of an organism’s distinction from its environment. Could you say something about your work’s relationship to these issues—especially to the ‘assimilation to space’ that Caillois hypothesises, and which seems an important part of your approach to exhibiting work?
AI: I got so much from that Caillois essay. Initially, and mainly, I saw it as offering a host of models to think about how presumed hierarchies and directionalities in situations could be skewed, reversed, looped. There is an image in the essay of certain insects which have on their bodies figures of the wounds that they create on the skin of the plant they graze on. So it stops making sense to think of which of the displayed qualities come first, as it were, as if freezing and horizontally cutting through the situation replaces explanations that make use of origins. So what happens to space when a wound, that edges open a boundary, is echoed in advance as a flattened depiction on the surface of the maker of the wound. Subjects turn themselves inside out into objects and back again in reverse.
One way in which I’ve moved on from my initial sense of it, is into the ways in which cuckoos switch the purpose in mimicry, from predation to harvesting of care. So as a transposition of our movement through things, our use of things, there is this adoption and piloting of a system of similarities, in the service of a strange stacking of function. The cuckoos keep the parasited host system working on its own purposes, and within that fulfill their separate purpose. In that sense I find it rich for thinking about artworks, and the value creation inside that system of effects.
[i] Mignon Nixon, Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art, (London: MIT Press, 2005), p. 140-141.
[ii] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation, trans. Stephen Barker, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 2.
[iii] Giorgio Agamben, ‘On Potentiality,’ Potentialities, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p.179.
[iv] Ibid., p. 183.
[v] Roger Caillois, ‘Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,’ trans. John Shepley, October, Vol. 31 (Winter, 1984), p. 24-25.