You’ve recently had work in a number of group exhibitions, the most recent being with Anita di Bianco at Elisabeth Kaufmann Galerie in Zurich. What did you present there?It was a whole installation called Leonora, and the titles for the individual works were taken from Tarot cards. Recently I’ve taken to using titles that have a series of sub-systems, where there is a sense of logic between the titles, but the system is a logic between the words rather than the art works.Didn’t you include a large image of a whale as part of that installation?It was a big drawing called ‘Death’. I wanted to make something that uses the specificity of conceptual art, but the core of it is essentially irrational.
How does that irrationality function in ‘Death’?
The image was made out of tiny spirals and the whale itself was a skeleton, but it was the smallest example of a whale made life-size, like the smallest example of a big thing. It was about five meters long. There was a certain intensity to the way the image was made that wasn’t necessarily to do with identifying the image itself. It was a conflicting way of drawing the depiction of a ‘thing’. I put that piece together with another called ‘The Tyrant’. The way I was thinking about the table was quite theatrical. It was concerned with the history of that object, where the materials were in keeping with the age of table.
On the table there is the shape of a pair of hands inlaid with mother of pearl. It’s a material that I would have associated more with something like oriental Chinese cabinets, not art objects.Yes, it’s a bit ‘ye olde’. But it’s something to do with where those materials originally came from, and how they came to be associated with British antique furniture, all these tropical hardwoods and Pacific Mother of Pearl shell. I wanted the table to reflect the tyrannical stages of early colonialism.
Did you take a specific set of hands as a model for the tabletop?
No. I wanted them to be simply a gesture.
What else was included in the installation?
There was a one-minute long film of the artist Leonora Carrington called ‘The Joker’. It was focused on her hands, although it was more about the presence of her, rather than her work. Naming the show Leonora is connected to the life that she has led and the fact that she is alive now. I wanted to tread this line of rationality and irrationality, setting the installation in the context of her.
Was it because you were interested in her biography? Her role in the Surrealist movement was very interesting, as a professional female painter and the breakdown she had after she was separated from Max Ernst.
She’s certainly an interesting character. I was thinking about how her internal imaginative world appears more consistent than her real life, how the last century has changed, and how many radically different cultures she’s lived in. She had an episode of madness, where she goes beyond the ‘norm’, which I find interesting, but perhaps isn’t so related to my installation. But I think that the film ‘The Joker’ has a very different mood than my other works. I’m still trying to think about what that work means, whether it’s explicable or not.How did you meet Leonora Carrington and film her?
I’d wanted to meet her for a while. The idea came through some daydreaming moment where I imagined the whole scenario. I simply made what I imagined.
It’s like a legacy of Surrealism—you made what you dreamt.
Yes. I was in New York  when I was trying to get in contact with her, so I got my flatmate to write her a letter because he has got beautiful handwriting—not like my scrawl. But still I didn’t hear anything back from her. I’d just finished shooting ‘Flash in the Metropolitan’ with Rosalind [Nashashibi] and only had two weeks before I left the country. I didn’t know if Leonora had received the letter, I didn’t know if she still lived at the address I was given. I didn’t know anything. But I just went there anyway. I ended up getting really ill on my way to Mexico. I had a fever by the time I arrived, but I walked up to her house and it had cracked windows and all the blinds were shut. At that moment I did think that I’d just gone a bit too far and got too involved in this absolutely bizarre illusion of what it is to be an artist. So then I thought maybe I should go back to the hotel, lie down, and think about how Leonora doesn’t even live in this city any more, or I could just bang on the door. When I banged the second time it creaked open and Leonora was just standing there. She’s very striking and old. She just said deadpan: ‘What do you want from me?’
How did you explain why you were on her doorstep?
I brought her some Fortnum’s tea after a tip-off from a collector. And I brought her Chorley cake, since that’s where she’s from. I managed to get that in the door and then she agreed to see me again. We did get on but the meeting wasn’t easy. Originally I wanted to film close up in her eye but she didn’t want to be filmed at all. She said that she didn’t want me to film her wrinkles. But filming her hands made more sense—it’s more about what she’s done rather than what she’s seen.
The trip, working with Leonora, and the film—you said that it was quite a different direction for you to go in.
I’m more used to doing that sort of work within a collaboration.
Henry VIII’s Wives, the collaborative group you’ve been part of since 1997, offers that kind of freedom, then?
Working with the Wives is very different from doing something from your own whims as opposed to what six people think it’s OK to do. In some ways the work with the Wives can go further because you have the confidence of the group. But also there’s a tempering or holding back in that kind of collaboration.
Would you say La Femme de Nulle Part, the recent show you curated at doggerfisher, Edinburgh, was a kind of collaboration?
No, not really. The issues I wanted to raise in that exhibition were not necessarily part of my artistic practice. The first idea of that show was a spatial consideration, making the doorway into Anita di Bianco’s film [‘Disaffection and Disaffectation’, 2003] as a way into Sophie McPherson’s work in the next room. I wanted to create a claustrophobic, dramatic atmosphere.
Anita’s film is based on Jean Genet’s ‘Les Bonnes’ (‘The Maids’).
Actually, Sophie is very interested in Jean Genet and gave me the play The Maids a year before Anita asked me to act in her version of it. So it was concerned with a certain way of looking at Sophie’s work, to do with being in that cramped, dark space with the maids and camping it up.
Both you and artist Hanneline Visnes played the maids in Anita’s film. How did that come about?
There was a summer residency at Tramway in Glasgow that Anita applied for, so when she turned up and said she knew what kind of work she wanted to do I was a bit surprised when she said that it involved Hanneline and me. I still don’t know how she managed to get us to act in it and memorise all our lines.
Anita has filmed other artists acting before. Lucy McKenzie did a reading for her, for instance.
Yes. There’s a certain amount of typecasting that goes on, which doesn’t necessarily put me in a good light with that film.
A Machiavellian, manipulative murderess?
Yes. But it also relies on the fact that Hanneline and I are good friends. With the other film, McKenzie’s reading an extremely dense love letter. I think Anita interacts with the sensibilities of that person.
In La Femme de Nulle Part you also included some of Rosalind Nashashibi’s photographs.
Rosalind’s work really fits in with the dramatic reinterpretation of things, like her church photographs turned upside down to reveal face shapes and masks. Those works pushed that theatricality a bit further. But curating is something that I feel my way with. I don’t have a specific agenda. It’s about how the objects work with each other rather than a way to illustrate an idea that I have.
Do you not think that there are connections between your work and your curating, where seemingly discreet art objects can reveal each other within shared contexts, in the same manner as ‘Leonora’?
It’s maybe more of a tactic.
What about the cross-connections between your work on paper, ‘Flash in Metropolitan’, 2004, and later the 16mm film collaboration with Rosalind also titled ‘Flash in the Metropolitan’, 2006?
When I was doing a residency in Amsterdam the idea of the film became increasingly more expansive when I spoke to Rosalind about it. Originally, I went to take shots for the drawing, so when I got to the museum I smuggled in a mini strobe light in the arm of my sleeve and made a shaky one-minute video. But when I started talking to Rosalind it became a different way of thinking, almost as if it was possible to think through her perspective. It felt like a very true collaboration, something that I wouldn’t have been able to produce alone.
Even though some of your works on paper draw upon photographic sources, they also appear to go against the notion of the singular moment by forcing things apart. Do you see your work as articulating a kind of temporal or spatial rupture?
It’s definitely an entanglement. The way in which your desire to understand the image quickly and easily is confounded by the way that the image is drawn—that’s the game that I’m playing, the trick I use. I want to emphasise the subjective nature of the viewing. The optical game makes you conscious of your own eye in a way that you’re not if you simply look at a photograph.
I think that even though your source photographs come from sometimes grim events, your drawings are very beautiful. Do you see your use of symmetry and repetition as part of a formal kind of beauty?
I’m more interested in how symmetry completely removes the event from the photograph. It creates an equilibrium completely detached from the moment and immediately gives the work a different kind of status from that original photograph. It’s a way of removal. Perhaps it’s best described as a kind of ‘rationalising’ in an animal sense.
‘Animal’ in what respect?
The eye is trained to perceive and make sense of symmetry in a certain way, or creates an order you can quickly see. But that attempt at ordering, if you think about it as part of a sequence of events, like a timeline, is disturbing.
Because it doesn’t make sense. That order pushes a distance between event and image to the point that it becomes completely problematic to combine those two ways of thinking. At some point you have to change your way of thinking if you trace back to the event or the events preceding that moment.
It’s a subjective ordering or structuring of personal histories, then?
Yes. But then I often put certain artefacts from historical eras into the drawing too, and employ different timescales. In ‘Diagrams and Banners (Blood)’, from 2002, there’s an image of a bleeding head, where the blood flows through the drawing but is subjected to foreshortening and morphs into a Chinese bowl. It follows a series of transformations, but also follows a certain timescale. How long, for instance, would it take for the blood to flow down from the back to the front of the drawing? On that route, the blood passes through the image of a 300-year-old vase and so it meets a kind of confusion there, or play of time. But that’s why I find it so interesting now moving into the medium of film, where the play of time is so inherent. This also makes film seem like dangerous new ground.
Your concern with drawing seems quite medium-specific and yet there is this recurring interdisciplinary aspect to your work.
I’m not interested in making really experimental film, or pushing the boundaries of that medium. And, for me, my drawings are always related more to sculpture rather than painting. When I started, the drawings were notes for sculptures—that’s where my interest in tracing and photographs came from. Initially, I was making sculptures from found objects. But the found objects were getting increasingly hard to find, mainly because I would try and make something that had to have a bell jar that would fit over a large mummified hand that is then linked to a spider plant, and quite often they’d have strange systems that would require water to flow through them in a certain way. And so there has always been a strong sculptural concern with all the drawings.
How does that sculptural concern relate to the film, then?
Maybe you can help me out with that. I’ve recently taken some shots of a 14th century oak beam from Peterhouse, Cambridge. My dad was a student at the college there, and when they were refurbishing the place he retrieved it from one of the skips. It’s a chamfered wood beam. I’m going to take it to a sawmill and turn it into small eyeball shapes. I want to use them in a film where there is a rupture, a stream-of-consciousness series of images, which are more photographic than filmic.
It seems this is part of an ongoing interest in an optical dimension in your work, but do you think there might be a tension between reading your images and seeing them?
It seems like textual and visual elements are oxymorons of each other. But I’m not sure how much I’d relate my work to a reading exercise.
But the titles of many of your works seem to suggest an antagonism between text and image.
Yes, maybe that’s one way of looking at the work. I’m more interested in any system of articulating realities, rather than just language. Text is a parallel concern, as well as a tool in looking at the puzzle. I feel like the problem of interpretation is becoming much more expansive in my newer work. I’m playing with the viability of interpretation, to see if the work itself can become more maverick. I want to create objects that are less cohesive, where the links between them are stretched to the point of near collapse. Now I wonder about making sense at all. Sometimes I feel a frustration in other people’s work where there’s a justification of the work existing through quite simplistic or logical link that is self-explanatory. But I think the real impulse to make the work comes from something else, as if the link is just a rationalisation or some kind of way to make it OK.
So is your attempt to collapse objects an attempt to radicalise the object?
There’s always some narrative impulse between objects. In the drawings there’s a point of change that demands two different positions or ways of thinking. In the new work that happens perhaps in an obvious way that is undermined by a second reading, which is an approach rather than a literal description of what they are. In Leonora all the objects have a slightly strange relationship to time. ‘The Wheel’, which was also in that show, is taken from a photograph that I spun on the central axis into a 180 degree shape. So the event that took place in one moment of the photograph is translated back into a third dimension that it has never existed in before. It was a similar approach to the 3D Rorschach ink blots I presented at Art Basel Statements, [Switzerland, 2006].
You’re about to head off to Belgrade, then Venice and then you’re returning to Basel?
Yes. I’m in Basel for a one-year residency.
This extreme travelling, for curators to be able to speak authoritatively about work, and for artists to redefine notions of ‘studio’, seems increasingly pressing with the nomadic lifestyle as the norm.
To some extent I have cultivated that kind of working with the collaborative partnership with the Wives over the past ten years, where we all live in different places. I find it quite exciting at the moment. But the whole idea of going to Mexico to visit Leonora was a kind of crisis point that I had with that lifestyle.
Isla Leaver-Yap is MAP’s editor-at-large