Isla Leaver-Yap: Let’s talk about the use of surrogates or models in your work. Enrico David: I think these models represent a series of sub-personalities. My work has, for a long time, been manifesting only one individual figure in space.Like ‘Madreperlage’, the huge Louise Bourgeois-esque rag doll you presented at the British Art Show 6?Yes, these works are kind of effigies, since there is a sense in which I’m activating or empowering these objects with a certain aspect or character. I thought of the doll as a part of me that could take a compliment. It’s negotiating or trying to delineate my own sense of maturity, being grown-up about understanding yourself, or accepting those things that usually cause a very dysfunctional reaction to the way you imagine your work inhabiting this world. There is a discomfort that comes with the ridicule of letting works into the world, which is essentially an embarrassing gesture.Embarrassing why?Well, because you’re exposing things that are perhaps surprising to yourself. In my experience in life, regardless of the art that generates from that, there is a real sense of trying to work out a way that establishes a sense of harmony in the way I exist, in the way that I experienced things before I was making art, and in the way that the art ends up existing in the real world.It’s interesting that you say that it can be an embarrassing gesture to put art out into the public realm. Other artists would term that a feeling of risk, exposing or putting themselves on the line, perhaps.But this is a different notion. The risk is when you have something to lose; embarrassment is where you’re much more aware of what you don’t have. And that’s interesting because ‘risk’ is maybe often a term used by a type of artist who has a much more delineated perimeter of occupying the world. And therefore if you’re expanding those boundaries you ‘risk’ making work. But if you start from not having that ground, or not having that place then, if the worst comes to the worst, I can always return to that place where I have no place. Risk implies ownership, and somehow a sense of entitlement, embarrassment doesn’t. I’m still discovering how intimate it is to make work, and how much the work reflects a lot of dynamics that have marked me as a person.
Such as?Like leaving. Leaving my country, and departing as a form of unsustainability of presence. This has developed because my work is something that I stand by. I can test my ability to stay when I test the work. I am crafting a place on the strength of my experience from the past, on the strength of my curiosity, or on the strength of combination of materials—I remain.So you’re suggesting that you inhabit the field of images that you create?Yes, but not only in a physical sense. For instance, in the installation upstairs [‘Ultra Paste’, 2007], I wanted to create an image where I was, where I needed to feel that my physical presence was presented. I needed that image of myself ‘interfacing’ in a historical and biographical sense, but also evoking the found image of Dora Maar and using her collage as a prop to lean against. I guess it is an attempt to group the fragments of myself; making images is bringing me to a point where I feel I can compact myself and be integrated in them.In ‘Ultra Paste’ and other works you have a draughtman’s doll, or else you have these empty, expressionless figures. They make me think of Bresson’s idea of ‘models’ rather than ‘actors’—representations or surrogate bodies that never fully possess their lines, or bodies made up of gestures.They are fragments too, or in some senses, artefacts. It doesn’t matter what form or shape they take—they add on to previous work, previous fragments from another arena. It’s like reconstituting the pieces of a split onion—trying to put everything back together. Rather than having everything as a desolated peel! [Laughs] But I do think that ‘Spring Session Men’ [2003-07] is concerned with integration in order.With ‘Spring Session Men’ it’s not just order—it’s ramped up a notch to a kind of fascist regularity. The order is made emphatic through repetition—a near-hysterical pattern.Yes. It’s a parody of this: a choreographed sense of masculine order. Particularly because choreography is about bringing harmony to those many forms. But I originally arrived at the configuration of the installation as a combination of very independent works I wanted to make: the canvases, the leather medal, the documents, and the frieze panel, which actually began as an image of two interlocked men. It really came out of my experience back then of being an academic, teaching at the Slade, while also making my own work. And at the same time I was coming to a realisation of myself as a grown-up man, and my idea of productivity, of biological destiny. These were all these elements of my self at that point six years ago, which were graphically or parodically invested in these roles. So there was this teaching body that was made of this convoluted invitation to be respected, but also be this quite bureaucratic, cranky operation of an art school. Then there was also the research aspect that was my art practice and being a tutor at the school. And then my personal circumstances—I guess it was the realisation that I would never be a father—really something as banal as that, or as dramatic or as important. So the work really felt like a way of illustrating all of those things in my life, and also those things that I felt unsure about what I had. It was bringing together this landscape, a choreography of an imaginary set-up where these elements could live outside of you. To me, my work stands as a visual, therapeutic aid.But this choreography, or what I might see as ‘design’ seems to be both the lure and the conduit of your work. ‘Spring Session Men’ exists in a highly taut, emblematic display, around which the desire, or sexual tone of your work weaves its way round, which, in any other form, would maybe seem excessive.Or arbitrary, yes. Design is about solutions, and this is my idea of what solutions could look like. These works are the acting out these solutions, and also resolutions.So how would a describe one of these resolutions?The idea of containing what could otherwise look completely hysterical, random or abject than it would without the parameters of design. I need to find ways of constructing these within design solutions, or else worry that the whole thing would unravel and I’d ask myself, ‘Where am I?’What attracts you specifically to the style of Art Deco that recurs so often in your work?Order. Like any design. Art Deco was picked on as if it was an ideological belief in terms of fascistic elements, like Jean Cocteau being a Nazi sympathiser. I never really felt it was a fetishisation of that aesthetic, it was more an idea of ‘rendering’. It’s rendering images, ideas or emotions in a way that is in harmony with itself.
But your use of design is very different from the way your accompanying texts work. Actually, I find your texts the most excessive form that you have. They are explicit and unhampered by political correctness, and yet these words are held in place by the design that they are inserted into. There’s always an antagonism between text and image.The texts start out really as plots for the image, and then the texts act as a descriptive platform. They can respond to the image. But initially text was used out of curiosity at my ownership of a foreign language, and how I could produce or take on a set of assumptions about this language, similar to the assumptions that are connected to my use of design, or applied arts, or painting for that matter. So language was actually something I found very much later on in life as I acquired English for myself—but then again it’s never ending because you’re constantly refining your relationship to that language. You have the freedom of being a foreigner, of inhabiting this non-place. It’s a liberty. Sometimes I use language that has to perform a linear function, to explain to an imaginary audience what is actually going on.So you feel like you’re performing to an audience?I mean like an art audience—not like real human beings! Just the freaks of the art world! [Laughs] No, but really, it’s a process of taking on audienceship to myself and to these various languages. And I find the clarity, or lack of it, in my work to be a response to the fact that I was maybe short-changed in the clarity that was given to me in terms of my ‘life briefing’, like how unlinear this all turned out to be. So how can I be expected to deliver clarity when I was given such an opaque message! [Laughs] Do you know what I mean? But you end up circumnavigating clarity, or coming to terms with it in a different way. Maybe I trade an opacity of meaning with another kind of opacity of meaning, which can appear aggressive, or alienating: perhaps the unclarity of my language is a form of resistance, an act of rebellion.I felt this theatrical yet opaque language must have been inspired by John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi . Have you read it?No, no I haven’t.It has a macabre, witty, sexual and sometimes puerile language that I see in ‘Shitty Tantrum’ or ‘Spring Session Men’. You seem to share the same Jacobean sentiment.But regardless of the meaning of the specific messages, or in terms of people asking me ‘What did the artist mean?’, I would rather imagine that people go and see the work and say ‘What do I mean, how do I process my disagreement?’ The room upstairs [‘Spring Session Men’] I wanted to imagine as a reading room, with material that has been collected as a proposition.Have you added to those stacked texts since it was first exhibited in 2003?Oh yes—it’s an open work in that sense. It’s a flexible piece that travels. The show in Dublin had text that was much more literal in its desire to integrate into the installation —the texts were concerned with these boardroom ideas of maximising productivity. Now the work has opened up, so the language has been broken down. I think I’ll keep the text the same between this London show and the Talbot Rice in Edinburgh.There is continuity in these methods of display, but you did something quite different for the Tate Triennial 2006—you took the form of a shop for the installation, which makes your interest in collaboration quite explicit.Yes. I invited very specific people to put works into that exhibit. Rosalind Nashashibi contributed her image of her ‘Picasso ‘Bull Head’’’ [‘Park Ambassador’, 2004] and there were other gadgets from the archive of the Tate Store itself. So the idea of the show was about punishing my work, degrading it to a lower status than an art work.Why did you feel that was necessary?Because sometimes it feels that no matter how much these images can make you feel like they can carry your intention succinctly enough, there’s a need to remind myself that this is a souvenir, or it’s a gadget. Some of the works in this show have that gadget tendency, like the fans [‘Hop and Plop’, 2007, ‘Bend the Oval’, 2007]. I need to remind myself that the status of this object or these images might be inadequate but you still need to do your best. And so I make a clock, then, [‘Fleeting-Improvised-Men’, 2005-07] or a fan. It’s an expression of surrendering really. These images can’t take such a blow as you wish they could, so I might as well give it a gadget a status.So it’s a functionality then?It’s a method of declassing them from their high art status of an art work.But this use of the gadget is so different from your earlier work from 2000, when you made these large woven figures, ‘Dinnisblumen’, 1999, and ‘Cora’, 1999.
There was still something quite cheap and garish about them.I thought some of them were quite beautiful though.Yes, they are desirable, but it was a parody of a desirable object, this dazzling, blinding beauty. I mean, god, can you imagine? Where is the meaning of that? I felt like that exactly—it was all about covering yourself, to be blank.But the work here seems so different. The line you use in the gouaches in ‘Shitty Tantrum’ is highly functional: here is a smile, here is a grimace, this is a face. It’s almost a functional austerity. So do you see the work as a paring-down of that dazzling quality into something clearer?Yes the quality of that work, it’s elementary, almost an infantilism. There’s a basicness there. But I think the embroideries were very much trying to construct a barrier. In the longterm that kind of blockage that they created was unsustainable for me.What do you mean by ‘blockage’?Just this hiding, or removal of potential profundity. The embroideries were like shields or screens. They were absolutely devoid of all narrative—it was just blankness. People tried to reinterpret it as frivolity or fashion. But really I was just asking myself, ‘Can I get away with saying nothing, to deprive myself of investigating my presentation?’ And it felt like, no you can’t. Or at least it felt like I had to try and do that, to see if I could sustain that blockage.Your response to that then would be to photograph yourself and present your cut-out image in an installation, as in ‘Ultra Paste’.
Exactly that. Ten years after those embroideries, I end up having to photograph myself and put myself inside a reconstructed room of my childhood! Can you imagine that’s the same person?So where do you go from here?[Laughs] Probably non-fictional narrative. Like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, to just report something and produce some beautiful literature out of it. I don’t know. It feels like I’m in a toolbox in a way. The diversity of ways, or things that I’ve just touched on in my research, I feel that I can go back and look and get a bit deeper into it, and use that as a form for something.The parameters are not so rigid?No, they’re really not. This is not the work—this is what the work has done. This is what it looks like. It’s all very well to think the work has a climax of things, but it’s still retroactive. The images that become art works are trying to be as adequate as possible, and it’s the frustration and the process of working that is so fragmented and unlinear. You’re a contemporary of your own work. You don’t really know until later that there is this sense of production almost. And, unless you destroy it, the fact is that the work is going to outlive you anyway.
Isla Leaver-Yap is MAP’s editor-at-large