THE INTERVIEW: SARAH MORRIS
September 06, 2013
Working in both painting and film, artist Sarah Morris is far from typical. The British-born, US based artist’s parallel mediums continually toy with ‘urban, social and bureaucratic typologies’ and only serve to heighten her poignant messages. With an exhibition, Bye bye Brazil currently on show at the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey we catch up with the innovative artist to discuss her intricate artistic philosophy and why artists who proclaim to search for the truth through their work are talking crap.
YOU STUDIED POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY AT COLLEGE, CAN YOU TELL US HOW THIS FEEDS INTO YOUR WORK?
That’s a good question! Well I suppose I was interested in states of being and how we’re complicit with these contractual acts, basically social contracts. What I’m interested in as an artist is what we’re complicit with and how you find resistance or critique. Where is critique if you’re complicit with these forms that can at times be overwhelming or repulsive or at other times be very empowering. So whether I’m involved with China or whether I’m involved with Rio, I’m looking at different contradictory states of being, at the same time, that’s what I’m interested in and I suppose the philosophical contradictions that evolve in societies is something that interests me. And I think you start from this position, this contradictory state.
SO YOUR WORK IS VERY MUCH CONCERNED WITH THE CONSTRUCTED URBAN ENVIRONMENT IN CITIES, WHAT IS IT ABOUT CITIES THAT FASCINATES YOU SO MUCH?
Well I suppose one is the history, of how the history is embedded and you can see it in different phases, like for instance in Rio you can see the 60s, you can see the 70s, you can see the 80s and you can see up to now and there are all different sections of the town. So you can see the history or the politics embedded, almost like a fossil. The other thing is, cities are connected to other cities. There’s no city in the world that’s not somehow impacted, or was invaded or bombed, there’s this chain reaction in cities that every place is connected to some place else and it’s impossible to have an isolated city. I’m not really speaking of globalisation when I speak of this, I’m talking about the history of ideas and the history of movement. Of course you could now talk of globalisation but when I’m shooting or when for instance I was making my body of work Los Angeles and I was making a film about the film industry, in Los Angeles I was really dealing with this American precept or product that it ships around the world which influences everybody’s fantasy and it’s based on a few egos and talent being produced. As I start to build my work I start to think about different corrective gestures that I can make and the next step that I might make with my work. So one step is linked to the next step and the next step, obviously one plans out a path. So I started to think about this hyper egoistic state which is actually not an egoistic state at all it’s actually a product being marketed around the world. The people involved may think it’s about their ego but it’s actually not about their ego at all. It’s just about fantasy; the ego is just the vector of that fantasy if you will.
YOU MENTION THAT ALL THE CITIES IN THE WORLD ARE CONNECTED IN SOME WAY AND YOU’VE TALKED ABOUT THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THOSE CITIES IN YOUR WORK. WHAT ARE THE SIMILARITIES THAT LINK THE CITIES THAT YOU VISITED, EXPLORED AND DOCUMENTED?
The similarities are the strife and conflict that is always there. The conflict in China right now between whether you create a magazine or a newspaper and you end up in jail, or whether you create the idea of another political party and you end up in jail, there are these similar issues that follow suit from other cities, going back to political philosophy, those are rights that have been well established throughout the world. So obviously these things are connected, ideas are connected and it’s impossible to keep these things down. On top of that when you talk about similarities, there’s similarities in the sense of Zurich or Munich might be connected to Beijing because you have this history of the stadium, the history of these architects. A lot of Western architects are building in Asia so you have that transplant or overlap and the planning of cities isn’t just homegrown. The planning of cities is up for grabs, it’s international, as we know, and so that’s also something that at times has been a theme in the work, definitely in the Beijing film. But it’s always there because even in my early work when you look at the Capital film which was shot in the final days of Clinton or you look at AM/PMwhich was shot on the Las Vegas strip, bizarrely there’s a lot in common with how L’Enfant planned Washington DC with one strip and this duration of spectacle from the Monument to Capitol Hill to The White House and that access, its very similar I would argue to the sense of duration or time going to the Las Vegas strip. These ideas echo, even if its not the same architects or acolytes of those architects, but the ideas of how to plan space and time and experience or sense of duration as you pass through a city, these are all shared aspects of design, these are not original in each form.
YOU TOUCHED UPON THE FACT THAT YOUR WORK RELATED TO POWER AND THAT IT’S ALWAYS IN FLUX AND UP FOR GRABS, DO YOU THINK THIS HAS BECOME A HEIGHTENED ASPECT OF YOUR WORK DURING THE CURRENT ECONOMIC CRISIS WE’RE EXPERIENCING?
I think the work has always had this element in it because as an artist I’ve played a game that is very similar to a visual form of monopoly if you will. I’m collecting cards, images, places, people and these proper nouns that are some form of real estate or have some capital or intellectual capital, and I’m using them in my work and obviously by using them I’m changing the meaning of them and how you’re thinking about them. I think what probably happened, which I think you’re pointing to, is somehow through the financial crisis of 2008 these financial institutions and our government became extremely frail, like a stack of cards. They’re build on rules that we don’t even understand and they are extremely vulnerable and they can be taken down or eradicated in a day and this sense of the public, this sense of wispiness of the structures is, actually, politically very empowering. Obviously it’s incredibly damaging to a lot of people, but it’s also empowering when you realise that these institutions only have power because our governments give them power or we give them power, and then they don’t seem so powerful anymore. And in fact you realise they can be taken down very quickly. What’s interesting is if you go to the early titles of my paintings, The Mid Town Series, you’ll see Paine Webber is no longer Paine Webber, itsUBS. These things are constantly shifting; these forms and these titles of these entities keep shifting too.
ITS ALMOST AS IF YOU WORK IS A WAY OF SOLVING THE MODERN SOCIETY PUZZLE. WHAT ANSWERS HAVE YOU DISCOVERED THROUGH THE PROCESS OF CREATING IT?
To be honest I’m not really looking for any solid answers. If anything I think my work is not just documenting things in flux or power in flux or how its there at one moment and its ephemeral also; it is an image, these are images and they are constantly shifting. But I also look at my paintings as unresolved in the sense that yes it’s a painting, it’s a three dimensional object, it’s there in front of you presenting a very visceral reality. However the way the diagrams function and fluctuate and move and splinter, and become yet another painting and another painting to me, I try to play with this idea of the paintings being a fragmented reality, a splintering reality or an unresolved reality that just continues. This idea of the painting as a resolved end state, I’m not interested in that idea at all, I’m not interested in the idea of the artist searching for the answer or the truth, I think that’s crap! I think that all you can do as an artist is outline the perimeters of the state of affairs that you can perceive and doing that obviously you can create politics or a rhetorical gesture around it but there really is nothing to be revealed, I don’t think about my work in that sense. I think it’s an unresolved set of questions and I don’t see myself as outside those questions. I’m complicit with China the same way you are.
THE MEDIUMS YOU USE TO COMMUNICATE WITH, PAINTING AND FILMMAKING, ARE QUITE DIFFERENT. ONE’S VERY TRADITIONAL, THE OTHER IS A VERY CONTEMPORARY TOOL. WHY ARE YOU DRAWN TO THESE TWO OPPOSING IDEAS AND WAS IT A CONSCIOUS DECISION TO HAVE THESE TWO PARALLEL MEDIUMS RUNNING ALONGSIDE EACH OTHER?
Well the painting and filmmaking is a state of contradiction, because one is very slow, monotonous and rather cheap to produce, which is painting. And the other is very expensive, very fast, and very collaborative and that’s film. So I have these two different economic modes and two different modes of production going on constantly in my studio. There are two sides to my practice but they are two sides of the same coin and they are co-dependent. When I think about art and what I want to bring into art which is these mainstream ideas of politics, graphic design, industrial design, architecture, entertainment and law, the only way for me to do it is to make this combination of film and painting and for me painting was always a very direct, very visceral, very simple way to communicate with an audience. Film approaches it in a similar way but captures movement in a way that sometimes is not there in the paintings. It’s like how Warhol talked about Interview magazine, he used to say the magazine was an excuse, and the films for me are an excuse to take over all the references that are in the paintings, to see those references first hand, to come face to face with what they really mean, whether that be interesting or repulsive, I want to place myself in that situation. So what the films and paintings have in common, they outline a set of social co-ordinates that are moving and shifting and it’s up to the audience to project onto it what they see. And I think both of them create an open structure, both are very system based but both are very open. Open to change and a set of effects that is beyond the artist.
OF ALL THE CITIES YOU HAVE VISITED, WHICH ONE DID YOU CONNECT THE MOST WITH AND WHY?
Connection for me isn’t just about place or architecture, it’s really about a set of friends or people and also a history of ideas in place. When I first went to New York City it wasn’t simply because of the architecture, obviously it’s amazing, but it was for the history of music, design and the art world. You go there because you’re continuing a thread and that’s what interests me about New York, London or Paris in a way that’s different to my interest in Beijing or my interest in Munich or Rio. But there’s always these overlaps and it’s just a question of whether you can find somewhere that echoes what it is that you’re contending with where you are. And more and more we find the echo louder and louder.
DO YOU THINK THE FACT THAT YOU WERE BORN IN BRITAIN BUT RAISED IN THE US HAS MEANT BOTH CULTURES ARE EVIDENT IN YOUR STYLE?
Yeah probably. Even though I grew up as an American, I wasn’t a normal American because I wasn’t born in America, I could never be an American president and I had a British Dad, so I was always an outsider here and I’m an outsider to some extent in Britain also. I think this perspective of not being completely part of one place for sure influences my practice and my way of interacting and feeling chameleon like.
WHICH ARTISTS FROM BRITAIN OR AMERICA HAVE INFLUENCED YOU?
In England I’d have to say Richard Hamilton, Francis Bacon and Alan Jones. In America, the list is long; Warhol, Lichtenstein, Judd, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons. There’s a whole history, its endless. Then I could go into literary things that have influenced me, because it’s not just artists that influence you to become an artist. I could also say John Irving’s The World According to Garp, reading that when I was 12 probably gave me a distance to looking at social forms and social groups that was probably quite influential at the time! And that leaves out film!
OF ALL THE GREAT ARCHITECTURE YOU HAVE WITNESSED, WHAT’S THE MOST ACCOMPLISHED OR BEAUTIFUL BUILDING YOU’VE SEEN AND IS THERE A PARTICULAR ERA OF ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN THAT YOU’VE GROWN TO LOVE FROM THE WORK YOU DO?
I’m not sure I have a favourite in that sense; I admire different periods of architecture for how they functioned at the time. It’s always a little sad to see things run down or dilapidated or not in function, I like to see things live in function, with those situations moving, I don’t want to see things as a museum.
WHAT ARE YOU HUNGRY FOR?
Situations and conversations with as many people as possible.
Bye Bye Brazil runs at the White Cube Gallery, Bermondsey until September 29