Susan Collis

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Extract from 'For all the things we thought we'd love forever' - SEVENTEEN

Conversation between Mackay Butcher, Cylena Simonds and Susan Collis


MB: Let's start with a generic question about materials - reading through the precious materials in your work, it strikes me that one of the few places that you come across a list like that is in the Bible. I wondered about the way in which you use materials and the myths that surround them?

SC: It's funny you mention the Bible, because recently I was looking through the Song of Solomon. I want the materials to have a lot of weight and significance, as well as just being precious. There are a lot of materials that are precious but don't have that poetic sound.

CS: You used the word 'sound' and it made me think of resonance - there is a historical or literary resonance in the sound of these names for materials, almost like a texture to the words. You don't necessarily have to know what the materials actually look or feel like because their names have assumed their value.

SC: Absolutely. I think there is a lot of weight attached to those particular words. Some of the materials I have been using recently include cedar of Lebanon and acacia. The Bible is an easy reference in a way, but it's something that I am veer familiar with because I grew up in quite a religious household. Having said that, I do not want my work to have religious overtones. At the moment, I am starting to use crushed lapis lazuli pigment, which points to a very traditional way of painting, tapping into another value system. 

MB: I guess it is the myth of the material and what those words evoke - I don't know if I have ever physically encountered smokey topaz, I am not even sure I know what it looks like, but I have a clear sense of what it represents culturally and historically. So you've got the myth got the one hand, and the actuality of the substance on the other. What is it like working with the substance? Does it give itself to the myth?

SC: One thing that surprised me is that a lot of the gemstones are cheaper than I expected them to be. I suppose that's because I am often using quite small stones and I'm not going for the best quality, but they still sound exotic. People are always asking how much they cost and I think they imagine that it would be several thousands but it isn't. Bit somehow they become more than the sum of their parts.

CS: What you are saying about value is really interesting in terms of the relationship between the materials you use and the objects that are made. In terms of labour, is that something you think about in that process? Do you start with the work, the process, the labour, or do you start with the materials?

SC: At the heart of it all is the word 'balance'. I guess my guiding principle is to get to a balance between something that is very lovely or very ordinary and then the absolute opposite of that. At the beginning of my practice the way I tried to create that balance was with the workmanship. Having taken something that looked very ordinary, very quick, like a mark that had been randomly made, I tried to recreate that with a very intensive labour process. From there, I went on to using materials that have a precious quality to them, but started with the idea of workmanship more than materials. I think now both things are going on, sometimes more of one than the other. The series of hand-drawn bags, begun in 2007, don't rely on any type of precious material, it is almost the opposite, it is more to do with the labour and time expended, while a lot of other pieces rest on their materiality. With some projects like the inlays pieces rest is both the precious materials and the craftsmanship

MB: Throughout your practice, even in the very early work, there is a fascination with the discarded cultural refuse that you move to centre stage. You take as your subject the extra splatters of paint that miss the canvas, or the bits of veneer that are missing from the surface. So the approach has been consistent, but the shift in materials from vinyl to precious gems has been dramatic. Is that something that evolved with the development of your practice in a certain direction, or was it driven from an economic point of view?

SC: It definitely starts with trying to be specific to each particular context but I did use a lot of vinyl when I started out and maybe it was an economic thing. When I did 'Don't get your hopes up', my first solo show at seventeen, I started looking at what was left over from the previous show, what was actually in the gallery already. I thought 'there are holes in the wall, there are these screws, and what if I could turn matter around?' I was trying to recreate that layering of history on the surface, which is the same as with the table called work on it (2002), a table with veneer in sticky vinyl. I like working with those very poor materials.

MB: There is also an interesting relationship of scale - where the smaller objects often seem to have the more precious material whereas the larger objects or installations use more disposable materials.

SC: Yes, although in the show at the Victoria & Albert Museum I did use the precious stone inlay on a table (Cursed with a soul, 2007). I like Work on it though, because it seemed like this cheeky way of doing marquetry, where you can just cut it out and stick it on top. This is linked to another piece that was in the Beaconsfield show called Everyone felt fine (2004), which used Dexion shelving - you buy to put in the garage, you can get it from a DIY shop. I went to the V&A and was looking at all their opulent tables that are made with an 'intarsia' technique - the cutting and jigsawing together of different marbles. So I made my version of that with marble-patterned vinyl, but unlike Work on it, I was quite strict about inlaying the shelves, rather than overlaying which would have been really easy.

CS: They clearly allude to the fantasies and aspirations associated with real marble

SC: It is an example of using a poor material and trying to tart something up that has got no intrinsic value whatsoever. This relates to something I've spoken about in previous interviews - the influence the Charles Ray has had on me - but it's only recently that I've begun to really appreciate his very early work and the sense of balance in it. I went to a talk he gave at Tate Modern some years ago in chichi he spoke about how influences he was by Anthony Caro, which I thought was surprising, but it made me go and look again at Early one morning (1963) in particular. Glenn Adamson gives really good description of it in his book Thinking Through Craft that turned a light bulb on in my head. I knew the whole thing about how the piece changes as you walk around it and you get this three-dimensional picture, but Adamson points out how the choice of materials and the decisions behind their positioning in the piece are what give the work its conceptual thrust - nothing is quite what it seems in that there is an inversion of normal material usage. Areas that seem to stand free of the piece are usually used as hidden strengtheners, or rebars, become the gestural parts of the sculpture - therefore the materiality of the piece is crucial. I suppose that is what Charles Ray got off on, and even though my work isn't to do with that kind of actual support, it is to do with weight. It is not really a conceptual weight… a symbolic weight, maybe? So those materials provide that symbolic weight and counter something that has no worth, no symbolic weight whatsoever.

MB: In some ways you have inverted the relationships Ray sets in play between mundane materials and grand sculpture, by using grand materials to make mundane objects. With your gemstone pieces it would be easy to think of the artwork as just the jewelled object, but actually that is the object in its inert stat - it does not fulfill its potential. A bit like if you hold a DVD in your hand, it is the literal object but it does not function. With each there is a dependence on a peripheral element that supports it, that is required to make it active. In your case, the means of support for the gemstone rawlplug (screw anchor) is the wall; and it is absolutely necessary as the basis for the symbolic weight. There is a fascinating dependence of the object on its support.

SC: There's a lot of weight involved in the notion of craft as well. I've been rather thrust into the world of craft due to my use of materials and techniques, especially since the V&A show. Whether I want to see myself as any sort of craftsperson or not, I have had to deal with the craft element in my work. It is another weightiness. Adamson also speaks about craft's associations with amateurism, the drive that would make someone go into a garage and make the Houses of Parliament out of matches or something. I think that impulse is present in something like the bags.

CS: With bags I always thought you were also referring to this idea of the 'art factory' Warhol-style, as well as the sweatshop. The exhibition at seventeen was called 'sweat' and made links between contemporary art production and de-glamorising the notion of the 'factory'. Could you tell us about how that project came about and how it worked?

SC: I can never quite remember what came first. Sometimes I start making work and it raises so many questions that I can never remember what my initial thought was. But is suppose that my practice is self-reflexive in a way and I am fascinated by the whole idea of art-making because I came to it quite late. For me, people's careers and how they make work is still really fascinating. With 'sweat', I suppose I was coming to terms with how art gets made in studios, when you are under a bit more pressure to produce for shows and for collectors, and the fact that I had started using assistants. I was thinking about how coy artists are, on the whole about the production of their work and how so many people outsource it, In a way, that is why I wanted to have that show and just lay bare a production process. I was working with a lot of volunteers who were coming into the studio and helping me and that sowed the seed of thought for the sweatshop, as there is no way that I could make all these things myself.

MB: It is obvious that someone like Richard Serra depends on a massive scale industrial process, but with paintings and other kinds of handmade work people really expect the artist to have done everything. I wonder if Agnes Martin drew all those lines herself?