A chat with Alex Katz | On Knocking Abstract Expressionism off the wall with Flowers and Babies and other topics

This is Alex Katz:


He is a hugely influential American painter, known for his figurative work, close-ups, flatgrounds and affiliation with the first wave of the New York School. He is the pre-pop pop of NYC. Before Lichenstein, there was Katz – ‘I was on top of the bubble,’ he says. He is, importantly, not of the Pollock-posse; he is something else – deep in hot summers, the blues of calm oceans and the brilliance of glamour. Far, far away from the ego and torture of abstract expressionism, there is Katz, bathed in colour and optimism.


This Autumn, Katz is in Margate, my home town. And I am running late to meeting him face-to-face to interview him for Aesthetica Magazine.

I barge into the Clore of the Turner Contemporary Gallery (where his most recent show is – Give Me Tomorrow) about five minutes later than planned. The press conference (consisting of Katz, the director and curator of the gallery and a small handful of journalists) has already started so, holding my zoom (recording device), I hurriedly press record and take my seat. Unfortunately, in my rush, I hold my zoom upside down; the archive of the first five minutes of conversation are therefore completely indecipherable – just the sound of my hand rubbing against the microphone. I soon, however, notice my mistake and turn it the right way up.

The first question asked focusses on one particular room in the exhibition, Alex Katz On Painting, a room which looks at the artist’s own selection of paintings from the Tate Collection. These are works which have (apparently) inspired him or influenced him in some way. Included is a Turner (Seascape With Storm Coming On) as well as pieces by Hockney, Sickert and Rousseau. Katz’s answers, however, to questions on this selection verge on comical:

  • The works selected from the tate collections; What are the reasons behind what you chose?

They sent me a lot of photos. There were some paintings I hadn’t even seen, and I just liked the look of them. 

  • As we are in the Turner Contemporary and there is a Turner in Alex Katz On Painting, can we assume that you are a fan of Turner?

No. I don’t particularly like Turner.

The conference continues for a while in a dialogue which dips in and out of sense, disappears off on great tangents and attempts to piece together the great man’s influences, thoughts and tastes (harder than one might think). Katz has a way with questions like no other; whatever anyone asks, he seems to just talk about what he fancies- veering off course, enlightening us on different and unexpected corners of his mind. He takes long pauses to laugh and doesn’t shy away from creating awkward silences with one-word-answers. He has a quiet confidence that comes with age: that comes with success and influence over whole movements of art.

  • Where do you find your inspiration these days?

All different things… and sometimes (pause), we got a new tv set for example. We’d had a small one before and we thought, it’s time to get a big one. So we got a big one and I noticed that the close-ups on the tv set were completely different to the close-ups they used in the early sixties, so I thought I’d do some close-ups myself and then… Well, the previous summer I’d painted rocks and had a great light on the rocks, so I put the people I wanted the close-ups of in the same place as where the rocks were and that’s how I got into that series of close-ups.


And the flower paintings have been a continuous thing where I’ve painted flowers since the fifties. And I’m working on a lot of big flowers and er, I had real luck on the big one here, the brown one… it was way past anything I had done. And once you take a step into some place else like that, you just follow it up, so I have those two things going together… (I think the two things which Katz says are ‘together’ in this instance are ‘cropped’ images and flowers.)


Sometimes inspiration comes from ideas, sometimes it comes from movies… I’ve got a lot of paintings out of a Russian movie… there were people walking in the street and there were trees… and snow. And I thought it’d make a good image, so I found a place in New York that had trees (laughs) and I went down and made a painting and I froze because… it was awful! Then I took Ada down and made her pose… and that was awful too! But I got about seven or eight paintings out of it… and it all came out of a movie. 

 A local newspaper journalist then asks him about the town, creating a tense atmosphere around the room. Margate has just been through a dense period of regeneration and its old town has only recently (due to the opening of the gallery we all sit in) made a complete turn around from being depressingly bleak to becoming saturated by little cafes, galleries shops and vintage shops.

  • What is your perception of Margate. How have you found it?

Err, well. It’s very charming town. Typical what I would expect. We were in St Ives which is a lot fancier somehow. (laughs). The oceans always great to look at, and I like the cheesy quality.

The journalist smiles and jots down something with a sigh (of relief?).

I’m up next in this circle-time-like dialogue/conference we have going on and ask about his music influences. However, the reply I get is slightly muddled and leads onto talk about fashion in general. I nod, however, in agreement (and perhaps confusion).

  • I’m quite interested in your jazz influence and your images of dancing. Are you still influenced by music now and, if so, does it remain to be a big influence?

Painting is in the world of fashion. The hemlines go up the hemlines go down. That’s the way it is (laughs). Currents of fashion in the arts are not only in one area. So in the fifties there were things going on in Europe. There was existentialism… in the united states it was bebop and bebop was breaking down lines. There were no longer linear songs. They were breaking down. Like, William Faulkner was very popular. He was breaking down lines. And Pollock was breaking down lines too. It was just one big current. But the heat of that was in the cool. And that was pretty much… things got cool. In the sixties it was French novelists writing very descriptive writing and Americans doing very descriptive painting and we had those currents that go on. And I think, my work: it relates to all the currents. And if it doesn’t relate to the currents its sort of like… it can be a very good painting, but its out of it. Does that answer your question?

To be honest, it doesn’t really. But I say yes anyway in my confusion. I ask another question to dig a little deeper.

  • Do you listen to anything now? If so, what do you listen to?

I think we’re in a time where er, it’s a… things are getting more personal and more recessive , you know? In general with tired periods… almost a depressed period. Now is not an up period. The fifties were really up and so were the sixties. But I think it’s a little, erm this is a slightly, depressed period all over. So you get depressed art (chuckles).

I nod again and laugh with him as the next person prepares to speak.

  • I really like Beige Ocean


  • Beige Ocean… … Beige Ocean?

Oh, Beige Open. Yes? (n.b the work in question is actually called ‘Beige Ocean’)

  • I was wondering…

That was problematic to me. I didn’t think anyone would ever get it.

  • Really? Well, I really like it…

I thought that it would be for a very small audience and if I were picking the show, I would not have put it in and Sarah (curator), I guess wanted water paintings. So she picked Beige Ocean and I thought… ok.

Water is very hard to paint well. It’s to do with transparency, weight, motion. Very few people can paint water well. And if you can paint water well it doesn’t mean anything to most people, because they don’t think about it. And Beige Ocean, because that’s what it’s about… well… ermmm. I’m very happy that you like it! (laughs). I think it looks real good here, but.. you know, who am I? 

The same journalist continues, finally managing to complete her original question…

  • I was wondering what attracts you to the sea?

Well… It looks great. And then you try and paint it and you see what the problems are… I think my water paintings go back to the late fifties and I keep going back to the same things. And the thing about inspiration: in the early sixties, I wanted to paint a painting that was really aggressive, because they had all these macho abstract expressionist paintings and the idea was to knock them off the wall with a flower, knock them off the wall with a baby… 

  • Your work has the feel good factor…

I reacted to the sentimentality of nineteenth century realism… I never liked it. You know? I think I’m a little bit of an escapist, so it all adds up to the feel good… and I like to give people, the general public, something pleasant. I think the nineteenth century stuff with Victor Hugo… some of those sad stories seem very sentimental to me… I don’t like Gypsy music… minor key stuff… it’s all over America, people love it in America. (singing) ‘I’m so sad and lonely now that you’ve gooone.’… (laughs). Stuff like that.. I really despise that. I’m not interested in stories at all. I’m interested in the paint and the images. 

  • How important is it for you to work from life?

The thing of ‘what is realistic?’ is to me, variable, you know? And it’s determined by the culture you live in and by the graphic images youre presented with. And we are, at this point…. photography dominates the vision of all of us. The thing which I started real early, painting outdoors… I made a realistic picture and it was boring. And I realized it was very well painted and all that but it only did something that was old and I wanted to do something that was new. So then I thought, what IS realistic? A Rembrandt isn’t realistic… it doesn’t look like anything I’m looking at… I don’t see those dark shadows. You know? And then you say ‘what is realistic?’… well a photograph isn’t. and you try to define what’s realistic in paint and it becomes like er, um, unsolvable, but interesting. You solve it for a while, but it doesn’t stay. (pause) It keeps me involved though.


Later, I’m allowed a little while to interview Alex on my own over coffee. Moments before going in, a small lady with bushy grey hair and a big grin puts her hand out to shake mine. ‘Hi, I’m Ada.’ ‘Hi, I’m Claire. It’s lovely to meet you.’ I say. We have a small conversation about the gallery and its big sea view windows. Only when we say our goodbyes and I go in to chat with Alex, do I realise that Ada is The Ada: Alex Katz’s wife, Alex Katz’s muse. How I didn’t realise, with her beaming face and American accent, I have no idea.


Much of what Alex and I discussed made it into my final article, but here are a couple of questions (or half-questions) which didn’t fit:

  • The bright colours in your work, they…

They’re happy. I’ve always felt that I’ve wanted to bring something ‘up’ to people rather than ‘down.’ Like I said, I don’t like gypsy music… (laughs)

  • Do you have an aim or message behind your work?

It’s multiple. You’re doing a whole bunch of things at once. If anyone’s really got some brains or talent, you have to deal with everyone. Like, you’ve got pretty much five audiences you’re trying to deal with and you have to try to do something for everybody. Well… that’s what I do.

  • I know you say that painting’s a conscious process for you. Is there any spontaneity to it as well?

The sketches are all unconscious, as I’m just trying to get something down. I’m not thinking, you know? I try to get some life into the larger paintings.

After our quarter-hour chat, Alex is ushered off quickly to prepare for a live broadcast interview. In the meantime, I catch up with Ada and we talk about her stay in England and what she thinks of the show. She compliments my hair and I blush, her youthful images of days on the beach surrounding us: her in glamourous hats, sunglasses, bathing suits.


Before leaving, Ada says to one of the invigilators, ‘I really like these shirts,’ gesturing to the Alex Katz Give Me Tomorrow uniform tee. ‘Could we maybe have a couple sent to us?’ The invigilator happily replies: ‘Yeh, of course! How many would you like?’ The muse, with the glitter of past glamour in her eye replies: ‘Oh, just two, one for me, one for Alex.’

This post is the overflow of an interview and review for Aesthetica Magazine: pending publication


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Interview with Spartacus Chetwynd | On The Turner Prize, the apocalypse and nudism

Behind Paul Noble’s intricate graphite realisations of his fictional kingdom Nobland, behind the quiet photography and thoughtful film of Luke Fowler and behind the subtle and poignant video installation of Elizabeth Price is The 2012 Turner Prize’s fourth contender: performance artist, nudist, wannabe-anarchist Spartacus Chetwynd. Her nominated work spreads across a few spaces: the first – a striped room where a puppet performance depicting the story of Jesus and Barabbas occurs, the second – where bi-colour posters are plastered across the walls and an inflatable slide sits in the centre (which is inflated and deflated as part of a ‘low-key’ performance), and the third – a space with paper walls in which another performance occurs featuring camouflaged devotees of a mandrake-root deity. This all might sound a bit odd – a bit on the completely-nuts side of contemporary art. It’s ok to think that, because, well… to put it simply, it is all a bit mad. But it is also fun, spontaneous, entertaining, intriguing, gripping and exciting.

I went to the press-opening at the Tate Britain during which, along with dozens of other journalists, I bounced on the lowest part of the slide whilst watching video footage of Spartacus’ archived performances, I was confronted by a papier-mache Barabbas (who was steered right into my camera lens) and I crouched down next to a strange mandrake-root man who told me ‘You are a very bad liar’…

A few of us were able to have a chat with Spartacus herself who, to all our surprise, had been performing in the Jesus and Barabbas puppet show. She emerged from beneath an eye-holed, sack-like mask, wearing heavy black face-paint and a beard on her chin. ‘This is Spartacus if you’d like to ask her some questions,’ said one of the Tate’s press people. We huddled around her in one of the performance spaces, greeted her and introduced ourselves one by one. I must say, I was slightly intimidated by her beard (I’ve only ever interviewed men with beards…), so my initial ‘hello’ came out a little squeaky.


  • Could you tell us about the work a little bit – how it was conceived and how it’s had to evolve to this new space?

For my show at Sadie Coles which I made this work for (I called it ‘Odd Man Out’), I was interested in disillusionment with democracy and political ineptitude… but I wanted to celebrate it rather than to be… like… complaining about it. I wanted to enjoy all the jokes and interesting elements within it. So I proposed these ideas to Sadie Coles and she allowed me, within her gallery, to run almost an experimental theatre for a month! It was reaaally amazing for me as a show.. and, amazingly, it was nominated for the Turner prize! [She grins] So I’m really excited about it! I feel quite proud to reproduce it. It’s in development though because we’re having to make it fit into different spaces here. There’s also a bigger audience at Tate too – the word robust has been used: ‘You have to make my work more robust!’, which is almost a joke because all my work is made out of paper!

  • How many people have you got performing? Have you got lots of people doing this five hours a day every day?

It’s difficult to make a transition to a museum, but at the moment it’s fully functional one day a week and, like a train leaving a station, it’s going every half an hour… oops! Sorry [she bumps into a microphone behind her due to her animated gesturing]. It’s definitely meant to be enjoyable, for both the performer and the audience the audience, I always assume, is intelligent so there are huge amounts of referencing for the audience to get, to pick up on and be delighted with or be interested in. Well… hopefully at least!

In the Sadie Coles show there were three more rooms! So it’s a struggle trying to keep representing how it was before… Oh, shall we quickly go look at the slide? [Talking to a member of Tate staff] Is it inflated now? 


Leaving the performance space, we marched behind her as she walked into the slide room, all aiming microphones and dictaphones as near to her head as possible. However, in the next space the slide was still in the process of being inflated by some sort of air-pumping machine which unfortunately was extremely loud. We might as well have been interviewing her next to the Victoria Falls. This is what I could decipher from my recording of the next ten minutes:

  • … … … … slide… … Sadie Coles… … … part of?

… … … all went down the slide into the performance space…. …only…. didn’t have to…. She…. … … … … was very good with… … … access … … so… … … was lucky!

  • … … … happy … … … element of playfulness… your… … … do you… …. … … same? 

… … … as i say … … … lucky … … … … … … … definitely… … … … … … … … … wouldn’t change … … … … … wonderful! … … … … … … … … and I still … … … … … … …!

At this point, the journalists closest to Spartacus burst into laughter, some shaking their heads and scribbling down notes whilst grinning. I clearly missed something golden. Thankfully, the inflator machine was soon switched off and I was able to, once more, hear Spartacus speak. I’m not sure, however, what the question was in regards to the below answer as the journalist who asked it was still muffled beneath the huge inflator machine sound. Her reply to the lost question though was:

During the week, there’ll be two performers doing more relaxing things, like turning on the slide… and doing small scaled-down versions of the full action. Also, I was going to do this thing… you know taped barriers? I was going to create a sort of ‘don’t feed the performers’ area with them! But, at the end of the day, I want the performers to just have a good time, so I think it’ll be up to them to pace themselves. I’ve got to protect my performers.

  • Do you imagine your performances and work shape-shifting through the course of the run?

Ooo, shapeshifting? Like X men sort of thing? That sounds amaaazing! As if it’s sort of effortless… [She grins]

It actually has to be more static than that, more mapped out, definitely. I’m going to really sound like I’ve been brain-washed by Sadie Coles but I’m sincere that commercial and smaller galleries allow you more experimentation room compared to an institution like Tate because the smaller galleries are run mainly by one person rather than by a huge team like here. At Sadie Coles, we really did do some shape-shifting. It was really free and interestingly experimental, whereas here it has to be more static and robust and presentable. If you want to be fun and be spontaneous, you literally have to protect it so much  – if you work out what your parameters are, you can really create something exciting and fun whereas if it’s so loose in such a large space, it’s actually more problematic. I’m not upset by the constraints of the Tate…. But if I were doing a project, I would be shape-shifting. It’s just a different situation and space here. 

  • Will you yourself be performing?

I am today, but you know, I’ve had a baaaaaby! [She grins and blushes slightly as we all 'ooo' and 'aww'] I’m very, very proud of managing to have a baby and do this at the same time! He is three months old and he’s on a really strict routine… he’s great, but it means I need to spend lots of time with him. Usually I’m in the performance in some role because I give morale to the group and I’m somehow stricter in some sort of way; I demand that the level of the performance or communication is serious because I believe it has to be good for the audience. And I don’t like it disintegrating. So my energy is usually a good thing, but I’m going to have to step out quite a lot this time. 


  • Have you experienced how attitudes have changed to performance and performance art? Do people embrace it more now? Has there been a change?

There might be something to say about it being a reaction to the commodity-based generation or something like that, which I’ve heard people talk about. Or it could be… I thought (maybe ridiculously) that it’s to do with… [she smiles]... the apocalypse! That people are feeling more gestural and manic and that therefore performance is allowed to be the new form of expression that people want.

Performance is very attention-seeking too and does the job of bringing people together to discuss an idea… and it can be quite cheep as well, so there are pragmatic reasons that performance could be something that people are… [to one of her performers dressed in camouflage] What’s happened? Breast-feeding? [To us again] Ok, i’ve been told ‘Baby, crying!’ so i’ll have to be quick!

  • I’ve got a really stupid question actually…. I was wondering…

Why I’ve got a beard on? … [the journalist: 'yes!'] I couldn’t find time and money to go and buy a nice dress for this evening, so I thought, if I go and wear one of my old dresses, but wear a beard, the combination would be totally scintillating and I’d get away with it. So I was going to wear this for my opening tonight [She strokes her beard and repositions her moustache].

  • Do you feel like a bit of a pioneer being the first performance artist presenting at the Turner Prize? Do you feel any responsibility?

I don’t feel any responsibility… ever! [she laughs] I do have a lot of respect for ground-breaking people like Bertoltd Brecht and in art too: all the sort of body politics and endurance artists. I think theres a really good history on both sides. And if I am representing it, I just want to say, i am taking it seriously, and it’s actually something that I’m really proud to do. I can’t put myself on the same par of the people I admire though… not yet! If I stay alive and keep working… give it twenty more years, then maybe. That would be brilliant. [She pauses] Thanks. Really nice question!

Spartacus waved as she disappeared to feed her baby and we went to rejoin the other journalists to attend the curator tour. On my way back through the Paul Noble room, however, I couldn’t help but over-hear a conversation between a TV reporter and someone on the other end of her earpiece:

‘It’s basically… poo…. right?’ … … … ‘That’s what it’s based on thought right? Can I say that? … … … ‘Yeh, it’s based on poo’… … … … … … … … ‘Ok, so can I call it a pile of poo?’


The reporter then tottered off on her heals towards her camera man. I couldn’t help but wonder who she was reporting for and what her report would be like…

Later on, after another puppet performance and a full viewing of Elizabeth Price’s video work, I had the opportunity to meet Spartacus one more time with about four other journalists for another series of questions:

  • Can you tell us a little more about the deity (the mandrake root) and what it symbolises?

I wanted to represent an idea of a deity, whereby it’s got nothing to do with democracy, or nothing to do with the idea of trying to persuade people to vote for you and all that. No one has much ritual in their lives any more, so to have a fun representation of an over-ritualised performance where you bow down and full-body prostrate and enjoy being humiliated and lower yourself to him is to kind of laugh at the things we do now. To laugh at our politics in a sense. Then, ludicrously, the deity tells you things like ‘you’re going to get food-poisoning’. [She laughs] It’s about laughing at misrepresentation I guess, the two party voting system… it’s just saying: ‘oh my god, look at this… laugh at this, what about having a deity for a while?’ [She pauses] I hope that makes sense! 


  • Can you tell us a little more about the things the deity says?

He says things like [Changes voice] ‘Loveless future…’ aaaand, um… one of them was ‘you are attractive to the same sex’ and ‘beware of Dave’ and, I think also ‘orange will be fortunate for you this week.’ And there are also stupid ones like ‘you will loose your mobile phone…’ There’s a level where it’s like Chinese fortune cookies…. But… wait! I feel like I’m explaining it too much! It feels really bad because there’s meant to be a game in pretending it’s all real…


  •  Are you in both of the performances?

No, I only do this one. I don’t know if it’s very obvious, but they’re all boys in that room [Pointing to the oracle room]… and we’re all women in this room… I was interested in that sort of competitive difference within the group. I put the boys in the oracle room to see how or if (you know how boys naturally seem to form gangs or clubs or cliques) the mandrake man would became very dear to them and it did! They started treating it as their deity or mascot and they were incredibly secretive with him. And the girls were equally as competitive and secretive with their Barabbas and Jesus story. So, to sum up, that’s why I’m not in both performances! 

  • So, the beard… Are you sort of a female version of Grayson Perry? Crossdressing?

That’s a hideous thing to say! [She laughs] Um, let me think – it’s more bearded lady I guess. Having a lot of freedom with what you do and not worrying about what other people do or think would be the answer to why I’m wearing a beard. I do like Grason Perry’s work though. I wanted him to win! Not that I’m allowed to talk about that… ever… 

  • You said before that people maybe appreciated performance art more because of the apocalypse. I just wondered if you could expand on that?

When the millennium came there was this discussion that all the planes were going to drop out of the sky… the idea of a drama and subconscious anxiety happening because of the turn of the millennium… if there was a rise of performance in the art world, I’ve been noticing it from then. I was jokingly saying it was because of the millenium. Subconscious anxiety and the need to be more gestural.

  • Are you religious? Political?

Yes, yes, I’m catholic. And, I’d like to be an anarchist, but I think I’ll end up being a quaker because if you’ve been brought up Christian it’s hard to ever get rid of it. It’s very difficult to extract any religion from you and quakers accept all different religions. They have almost the same appeal to me as being an anarchist… it’s to do with being sort of responsible. I have a deep sense of social responsibility.

  • Are you still living in a nudist colony?

Sure, I was brought up in a camper van so there was a level where being a nudist was extremely natural to me. The commune is just a small group of people in a shared house. We pay rent and all of that… it’s quite normal actually. We just all share meals together and put on projects… we ran a cultural centre in our living room for example. It’s like making art projects without funding.

  • Why nudist?

Well, I don’t know whether you know much about it, but it’s incredibly unsexy. It’s people just sort of being themselves without clothes on… and it works for me on a simple metaphorical level because I have very little in the way of boundaries. I’m really irreverent as a person. I’m really naturally informal, honest, really enjoy humour and having as much fun as possible as well as having open and shared time with people. I’m not trying to put up boundaries. And weirdly, being a nudist fits in. It’s the same. You’re not trying to put on emperors clothes, you’re naked.

  • And when you say you’re Catholic, are you practicing?

Yeh, I’m practicing… don’t you know any? I know loads! It’s normal, very normal. I’m not scared of organised religion and I’m not uptight about saying I’m catholic, it’s really normal. There’s nothing dark about it! 

  • Why is your work art as opposed to theatre?

I love theatre. I have huge respect for it, and I reference it in what I’m doing… I’m not necessarily referencing endurance art and 1970s body politics performance art from the art world, I’m more referencing high-brow theatre that I have respect for. The difference for me is that the art world allows me to be more experimental. In theatre you have the classic fourth wall and the expectation of the audience is more predictable. In the art world it’s much more subtle, layered and experimental.


This post is the overflow of this feature for Aesthetica Magazine: http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/blog/turner-prize-2012-review/



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Trip to Fat City

I was planning to release this post yesterday (27th), on World Tourism Day, but, alas, I got distracted reading the new JK Rowling book (which, in my defence, I’m to be reviewing). But oh well – missed the slot. Can’t be helped! I’ve got a radio alarm clock which still thinks it’s the 27th though… if that counts.

So, to begin. A couple of weeks ago, I was invited on a press-trip to Italy – a culinary tour of Bologna, Ferrara, Rovigo, Mantova and Sabionetta: a four-day sampling of Italian gastronomy and wine. A trip of extreme indulgence. Yum. I went with four other journalists from the UK, only one of whom I already knew, as part of a tourism project created by the Italian government to increase interest in the recently Earthquake-struck UNESCO World Heritage district.

We started in Bologna. ‘Fat City.’ Our lunch, a selection of vegetable sandwiches provided by Twinside (Il Bistro del Caminetto D’orgo) at our hotel, was certainly a welcome contrast to the onion and processed cheese sandwich I’d had on the British Airways flight from Gatwick. But, as our guide, Nadia, left the dining-space to find a corkscrew, the awkward ‘sooo, who do you all write for?’ and ‘where are you all from?’ conversation ensued. The ice was broken, however, when the wine was opened (two bottles of course, one red one white) and soon, I found myself talking to one of the journalists, Marion, about past pets, discussing how grumpy hamsters can be and exchanging guinea-pig stories.

Our tour of Bologna was fairly short due to our delayed flight in, but we somehow managed to squeeze a fair amount of the city in. Distracted by the sweet scent of fresh pineapples and giant apples, I must say, I missed the beginning part of the tour, but my ears pricked up again when our guide mentioned an underground river… the whole city, in my mind, became suddenly romanticised: transformed into a Coleridge-esque Xanadu as we were all led to a small hatch in the terracotta wall beneath a portico.

ImageThrough the little hole, the underground river emerged at the point where it became a canal lined with colourful houses (now would be a good moment for a photo of this canal but, I stupidly deleted my only good photo of it from my camera accidentally, so I’m afraid you’re all stuck with a good old google image search). The romance of the city continued further as we were told of the two leaning towers which protrude from Bologna’s skyline at startlingly dramatic angles; the guide told us that people say they are ‘leaning in to kiss,’ ‘But I,’ she continued, ‘I think it’s a bit of a silly story, because, depending on what side of the city you’re viewing them from, it can look like they’re leaning away from each other!’

We stopped for a moment on La Strada Del Jazz (Jazz Street), which was named thusly last year to commemorate the many big names of jazz who have moved through and performed in Bologna. I must say the music-student-geek inside me got a little back-of-the-neck-hair-standing as we stood over a star-shaped pavement plaque reading Chet Baker’ and were told of the next star coming for Miles Davis (however, as an Ella Fitzgerald fan, I was a little disappointed that the Bolognese people hadn’t voted for a star for her over Miles – but, their city, their choice!)… After our introduction to the Bologna jazz-scene, the city councillor came to say ‘hello’ and ‘welcome’ making us all feel perhaps a little more important than we actually were. Upon moving from jazz to a road stuffed full of vegetable stalls, delis and the oldest food shops in Bologna, I couldn’t help but notice a lovely little sight on the brim of the skyline, just before the clouds: a small oasis on a rooftop (another glimmer of Xanadu?). 


The square in Bologna was quite interesting. I have a tendency of drifting off into a dream-world during guided tours of cities, but on this instance, our tour-guide was very engaging. Of most interest was the church on the square; the Bolognese had been building this church for years and years, but were halted by the pope part way through completion due to the fact that he wanted to have the biggest Cathedral in Italy. Due to this, the wings of the building are only half-built. The building actually stops halfway through a window. Very interesting. Looks like someone’s taken a butter knife to it.

Also off the square was the University of Bologna, an institution considered to be the oldest university in the world. I quite enjoyed a story we were told here of when women weren’t allowed to study centuries ago and a female dressed up as a male to be accepted as a student. Her identity was, in her final year, discovered but it was also revealed, at the same time, that she had passed all of her exams at the top of her year. She was then hired as a lecturer and the whole institution had to reconsider its attitude towards women. Fun fun for gender equality! Yay.

What was also of note here were the endless walls of family coat-of-arms of past students. However, typically, I focussed on photographing a CCTV camera with a contrasting ceiling backdrop and ended up with no good coat-of-arm photos.


Dinner was wonderful (at Bravo Cafe). Of course, I expected no less. We were, after all, in a place dubbed ‘Fat City’ or ‘The Fat One’ due to its food excellence. At the front of my memory from this night is the courgette souffle. It was as if a little cloud had fallen from the sky and had landed on my plate. Probably the lightest and fluffiest thing I’ve ever eaten. I felt a little bit like I was in a cartoon. Too perfect to be real. The wine too was delicious. A photo won’t do the souffle justice, so here is a photo of the wine instead:


Ferrara was our second destination. Being that it was within the same region as Bologna, Emilia Romagna, it was in fact quite different. It was a city of bicycles. No cars, just bikes (to give you an idea, imagine Oxford and times the number of bikes by ten, then you might be close to the bike-population of Ferrara). With quaint, little cobbled streets, tiny bakeries and osterias, Ferrara is the picture-perfect, straight-from-a-post-card Italian Idyl. We started with a trip to an old family-run bakery (Panificio & Pasticceria Otelli Perdonati) where they showed us how they made their famous regional bread, Coppia.


The shape of this century old bread-recipe depicts a couple in love, to put it bluntly, having sex, so we all, immaturely, had a giggle about that. The bakers laughed with us and winked whilst they told the story. The flavour of Coppia, whilst subtle, had an originality to it, its texture harder on the outside and softer on the inside. Bite a leg off and little wisps of fluffy bread puff out in white twists. Lovely. Whilst in the bakery, we also saw the effects of the earthquake first hand; the baker, when we were by the entrance, pointed up to a large crack in the ceiling. All wearing our most sombre faces, we were surprised when he then laughed; ‘but!’ he said, ‘I want to show you all that we are still here, alive and kicking!’ We left with a huge bag of bread which sustained us for our tour.

So, what else was in Ferrara? The oldest Osteria in the world, home of dusty wine…


A palace covered in carved-marble diamonds:


and, if you keep your eyes peeled, you might just see the little baby boys who sit on the Ferrara roofs peering down at all the passers-by:


 Obviously, I’m joking. He’s a statue.

We dined better than well in Ferrara. I don’t want to duplicate too many of the images I’ll be using in my magazine article, so I won’t put up all the photos I have of the Ferrara dinner, but here’s a taste of what we were treated to at Cuisina e Butega:

A starter of breaded sardines (with, of course, more wine plus Coppia):


Anchovy, pine nut, parsley and olive oil spagetti and another pasta dish with clams (the pasta was sort of like tagliatelle, but thinner… I’ve forgotten its name!) and an assortment of Italian cake. – As I said, I won’t duplicate too many of the photos, so here are images of the dishes when we were part way through with them.


and to finish, a nice double espresso of just the right consistency. One thing England doesn’t ever do quite right.


Incredible meal. Really really lovely.

Anyway. I think the espresso’s quite a nice thing to finish off on. So, I’m going to get up and make myself a coffee (they’re not quite as good in Margate as they are in Ferrara unfortunately) and get back to reading A Casual Vacancy before its too late to add a review to the many millions already out there in cyberspace.

This post is the overflow of this feature for Flux Magazine: http://www.fluxmagazine.com/index.php/travel/unesco-italy-bologna-ferrara/

My lovely travel companions’ articles can also be found here:

Marion: http://www.theupcoming.co.uk/2012/10/05/discovering-the-italian-unesco-district-emilia-romagna/

Tom: http://www.fluxlings.com/index.php/unesco-italy/

Jeanne: http://www.cooksister.com/2012/10/bologna-city-of-jazz-and-tortellini-italian-unesco-district-part-1.html


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Coffee with Stuart Semple | On fame, allergies, charity, politics and ebay

As I do before every interview I perform, I researched Stuart Semple before meeting him. One part of this research always takes form of a google image search (to prevent any embarrassing situations such as was described in my second-to-last post). However, on the day I went to meet Stuart, I typically decided to not wear my glasses. Consequently, whilst waiting for him to arrive, I waved at almost every other man who wandered past thinking it was him. I also said ‘hello, are you Stuart?’ to a man in a hooded anorak and sunglasses and received an angry reply back: ‘NO! I’M JOHN!’

By the time Stuart turned up, I was too frightened to ask if he was Stuart, so I pretended not to notice him as he approached me. Eventually, to my relief, he asked, ‘Are you Claire?’ and I turned around, replying ‘yes!’, to a grinning, bespectacled face and a hug. Phew. No more strange Shoreditch anoraks.

Our conversation started on the topic of age. ‘I’m 31. But I feel old! I feel older!….’ When I asked him what he meant, he replied: ‘Well I feel older than I used to be.’ He paused and shook his head, laughing. ‘Sorry, that makes no sense! I guess everyone feels older than they used to be don’t they!’


I was interviewing Stuart, on this occasion, about his participation in Freedom From Torture: The Art Auction for which he had made and contributed an art piece. ‘It’s unbelievable, the work Freedom From Torture do,’ he said after ordering a coke. ‘I think London’s a scary city anyway… but to come here, to a foreign city, carrying all those memories. It must be horrible. And the charity do a lot to help them deal with it; to minimalise the impact of those memories. There’s such a stigma about these victims; that they’re asylum seekers or something. It’s just heartbreaking. I’d like to help in even just this little way.’

Stuart also, as an ambassador for MIND charity (http://www.mind.org.uk/), explained how he had created a fund for creative therapies. He continued to explain that this passion for therapy stemmed from his own struggle with mental health. Our conversation continued for a while on this topic:

Stuart: When I was 19, I nearly died from an allergic reaction to a peanut. For a moment I actually did die – my vitals went right down to zero. But, against all odds, i survived. Following that, I was told that I had 53 food allergies. And I ended up with an eating disorder; I was just too terrified to swallow anything. I thought anything could kill me. But art was the thing I had at that time. I almost didn’t realise it when I was a kid. You know, if something’s always been there, you never really notice how important it is. But after everything that happened, I realised it was really there for me and I started to express how I felt through it. It became a lot more vital I think. And it helped me recover. So it makes sense, knowing that art helped me, to now try and help other people with it.

Me: Is this therapeutic element still present in your work?

Stuart: There is an autobiographical element, and there’s definitely an underlying anxiety in the work, a sort of instability, yeh. But, even though no one says it, every piece of art’s a self portrait in a way. It’s got something of the person who made it in it. I can’t take myself out. No matter how hard I try, how I feel comes out.


Me: Art seems like it was quite a natural way for you to deal with things and express things. But for some people, art’s not as accessible is it? The potential of what it can do needs to be introduced to them as a therapy.

Stuart: I was very lucky that I had art there; I was encouraged, had art materials around. I mean, you find people who are further along in life who have never been encouraged artistically… and maybe in a traditional sense, they’re not very good at it so they’ve been put off, but when you find these people actually coming into contact with art for the first time, and they let something out, the relief they get and the release they experience is so much greater. It literally changes their lives… and then to be able to do that with a proper therapist who can understand, it enables them to talk about how they feel in a way that maybe they can’t do with their mouth… and a therapist can understand that and explore that.

Me: And what you’re doing with MIND: is it for art therapy, music therapy… drama?

Stuart: Yeh, arts as a whole. It’s what’s needed where it’s needed. It’s not like one approach is right for everybody. Mental health problems are as broad as physical problems, and it’s not the case of one size fits all, but creative therapy does play a vital role for a lot of people, and that fact is often dismissed. Art has helped me a lot.

Me: Do you feel completely better now?

Stuart: I’m a lot better now, but it’s never going to go forever, but I’ve got mechanisms to deal with it when it happens, so you learn to live with it. It’s not the end of the world at all! I feel like I’ve gotten to a stage where I can help others.

Me: Do you feel like you make your work more for other people now?

Stuart: Definitely. My work is always for others. All these things too (MIND, the auction for Freedom From Torture) just feel like an extension of that.

For a while, the conversation remained on Stuart’s charity work. The cafe we were in was filling for lunch, so was getting increasingly busy, but we carried on talking through the buzz. However, I couldn’t help but notice when an anorak-wearing man wandered in and walked behind Stuart. Listening back to the recording of our interview, there’s a pause in my speech where I must have been observing him… To my relief, it wasn’t Angry John. Distracted by anorak man, my next question came out disjointed and disconnected to the last:

Me: Er, I should probably look at my notes shouldn’t I! (pause) Umm, Ebay! The way your success came about is quite original isn’t it? You sold 3000 artworks on ebay in just two years? That’s mad! How did that come about?

Stuart: I don’t know how it happened! That was back in 1999… and most people didn’t even know what ebay was in ’99! So, I was making these artworks… and I needed some way of sharing them. I was just in my bedroom with my anxiety problems and all I had was a little digital camera so I just started putting them on ebay. Somehow, people started finding them… I don’t know how they came across them. That interest started to grow… so I put up 3 works every night. And every night the same people would come on to watch them come on and see the bids end. That lasted for about 3 years… I suppose 200-300 people would come on to watch. The sort of people buying them were normal people, they weren’t art people and they bought them because they connected with something in the work I suppose.

Me: Do You still make that many paintings at that much of a fast rate?

Stuart: No, I’ve slowed right down, frustratingly so! Because I made so many works so early on, I sort of burnt myself out a bit. I’ve tried everything and it’s quite hard to find something new when you’ve done so much. I spend a lot longer thinking about it now, a lot more thinking. The anxiety helped before, you know? And now I’m sort of held back a lot. I guess because I’m so much happier! (He smiles)


Me: It’s amazing really though; to have that as being the way that you broke into the art-world; it’s so different…

Stuart: I know, it’s mad really. I never fitted in with the art-world, I’ve always been a bit of an outsider because it doesn’t really do it for me, the sort of twelve people in a white box drinking wine. I don’t make it for them you know. But then I do a show and some 18 year old kid comes in with his skateboard and spends 2 hours looking at everything and drawing all the works, and yeh he can’t afford to buy it, so what? He’s why I’m making it. I’m making it for him. And it’s the same for this show, Freedom For Torture. I’m not making works for the collectors; I’m making it for the victims.

Me: Is that the main message in your work? The people who you’re making it for?

Stuart:Yeh, a lot of the time, definitely. I want people to see that a lot of things, poverty, torture, equality… they’re all getting worse. They’re not getting better! There’re always these stigmas too surrounding victims, like we talked about earlier, you know? This stigma about these people not having the right to be here – “they’re scrounging off our NHS”, “They’re stealing our jobs” and all that. But that’s stupid. We’re all human beings. These are people who have been through god knows what. We’re one of the richest countries in the world. If we can’t open our arms to people in that position, what is wrong with us? We should be ashamed of ourselves. What are we doing about it!

Me: And what about artists? Do you think artists could do more?

Stuart: Definitely! We’re at such a weird time with art. Because artists are so brainwashed about how many millions Hirst’s made or whats going on at Frieze art Fair. But they’re completely missing the point!! I mean, society’s falling apart, capitalisms on its last legs… you know there’s so much going on, and they’re not making any work! Where are the reactions? I’m not seeing it. What are we doing? It’s disgusting. Everyone’s money and fame obsessed! They should be ashamed of themselves. This is the point when they should be speaking for us. We need to know what they think as artists! Say something about it! Do something, even in a small way. I don’t know what they’re after: they’re on their way to buying their own diamond ring or something. I mean, art’s not for that. Isn’t it crazy to think that BP sponsor the TATE? GlaxoSmithKlein sponsoring the Royal Academy shows… I mean, come on! These people are destroying the world! Deutsche Bank sponsor Frieze Art Fair… nobody seems to have put two and two together – that was the Nazi Bank! They caused the whole sub-prime mortgage fiasco! Art’s joining forces with the giants who are to blame for things going wrong! That’s not what art’s for! Art’s not for that.

Me: What do you think art is for?

Stuart: What is art for? I think people have got to believe in the power of art. People have lost faith in the power of it, and it’s been associated so much as a power to make money, or fashion, investment. They’ve forgotten that its true power is to tell us how we feel, where we are… it documents our times, it mobilises people. That’s what it’s for and people have forgotten that. I believe in art, I believe in artists, more than I believe in almost anything else… But art’s about community. Artists have to remember that more than one set of eyes sees it. It’s about communicating an idea to a mass group of people that’s what art can do. It has that power… whereas consumerism is about individual fulfilment that doesn’t actually exist, and that’s what art’s in danger of slipping into. If I’m not happy and I go on a massive spending spree, I’m still not happy… I get more happiness from a stick of charcoal!


Me: And how does art affect you?

Stuart: For me, it’s an aesthetic experience. If I hear an orchestra, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. When I was a kid I saw a Van Gogh painting, I still remember it, and Hockney’s Bigger Splash at the Tate, and something just came over me… it’s just what it does to me. It does something. For me, that’s how I know it’s real… that’s it. Lots of people have this notion that “normal” people who don’t have a degree in art or whatever can’t understand a painting. It’s so arrogant to just assume that someone doesn’t know anything, that It’s not for them, that they won’t get it. How do they know? Everyone experiences art, just in different ways.

Me: Did you worry, as you became more famous, that your work was going to be seen by less people?

Stuart: Yeh, it did. It still does worry me… terrifies me. I hate it. I’ve got a lot of ideas. I have paintings that are almost still wet which get taken straight from the studio to a warehouse to a collector. And that collector’s just going to keep it in a box and no one will ever get to see it. And that’s not why I’m doing it. It’s really sad. I want art to be accesible to everyone. As accessible as it was when I was selling on ebay. (pause) Last year, a lot of the ebay buyers of my work got together, 10 years after I’d done it all, and they got together in east London and did a show of all the work they’d bought of mine! They’d collected over a hundred of them and they put a show on! And they got a DJ to play all my favourite songs! That was the sweetest thing that’s ever happened to me! And they don’t sell the paintings, they could, and they’d get a fair amount of money from them, but they bought them because they love them.

Me: Would you want to go back to that time? The time of those ebay auctions?

Stuart: I don’t know, I’m in a different situation, I’ve got my son to look after: my family (he grins)… I’m a different age. I don’t know, there was a lot of anxiety then and I wouldn’t want that. But I do miss the interaction with people: an audience. It feels like a previous life now. I’ve come far from that. But the internet’s good for making things more accessible. It’s got that. People actually see the work when it’s online. It’s accessible.


Me: When I was researching you and your work, there were a few comparisons that kept cropping up, like you ‘being like Andy Warhol.’ Does that sort of thing worry you too?

Stuart: Yeh, definitely! I mean, Warhol created Warhol! That wasn’t him! He created that creature, like Frankenstein, like how Gaga created Gaga and Klaus Nomi created Klaus Nomi. But I’m just trying to be myself! I’m nothing to do with Warhol. And yeh, i really respect him and his work. But I am just me. I’m Stuart!

Me: So, where do you think the comparison comes from?

Stuart: I think maybe from the fact that both our work both looks at consumerism. But we’re different. Warhol held a mirror up to consumerism. That’s what I think. But you can’t just do that now. Now, we need to start thinking about how we feel about this stuff, not just what it looks like. We’re in a different time now and we want to find each other again beneath all the celebrity. There’s nothing wrong with pop culture language, helping us understand who Britney Spears is and all that. But how does that make us feel? Does it make us feel alienated? That Britney Spears is living life and we’re all unable to attain it? I mean, look at the riots…. i’m still confused about that. People say that the youth are sort of apathetic, ‘apathy in the UK’, that the kids are doing nothing: all they’re doing is sitting on the settee watching MTV eating fast food… but something made them all get off the sofa and go out and loot a load of shops… not that’s not a passive thing. That’s not apathy. And the quesion that needs to be asked is why they did that. I would hazard a guess that it’s something to do with the gap between the world that they’re shown they should attain on TV and the fact that thy have no means whatsoever of ever attaining it. So it’s actually coming out of a total hopelessness and helplessness. It’s a cry for help. They might go to footlocker and loot it and take those trainers home. But they’ll still feel just as empty. They’re still not in that hip-hop video. There’s nothing there for them. And thats what’s important to talk about.

Me: How can these issues start being dealt with do you think?

Stuart: People treat popular culture as a one way street. That’s the problem: as if it talks to us, we consume it and that’s it. But I like to think that you can consume those bits, stick them together, make something new and give it back. That’s what I try to do at least. I want to Show that you can do something with this stuff, we should all be doing that. We should all be a little more critical with what it is.

Me: And that, surely, goes hand-in-hand with who gets to see the work?

Stuart: Definitely. And it’s the kids that are important… All these galleries have got it backwards! The people they’re talking to and showing things to are going to die! They’ve got it all backwards, it’s the kids! They’re the ones who’ll be making the stuff in the future! We’ve got to encourage them. I think it’s important to show that it’s normal to do this: to be an artist. Artists aren’t weirdos. They’re not different. They’re not special. They’re not unique; they’re just people. No different from being an accountant or a doctor. It’s all just gotten out of balance. There’s this myth that artists are all mad. But we’re just people.


This post is the overflow of this feature which I wrote for Flux Magazine in 2011: http://www.fluxmagazine.com/index.php/arts/freedom-from-torture-the-art-auction/

For more on Stuart and his work, visit his website here: http://www.stuartsemple.com/


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A taste of overflown food….

Will soon post the leftovers of a food and wine rich press-trip to Italy… Here’s a taste of what’s to come (just to make your mouths water):

Image… Yumyumyum…

Also coming, as promised, is the overflow of an interview with artist Stuart Semple – The interview was a huge 3 hours, so it’s taking a while to edit it down!

Meanwhile, take a look at this, a group exhibition of Britain’s top artists (including Stuart) called ‘AKA Peace’, http://peaceoneday.org/aka-peace/

The show is for the International Day Of Peace, which just happens to be… today! 2 hours left. Read and learn about it. It’s an incredible cause.


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Quite recently, I went to New York with my lovely parents. The flight lasted for a gruelling 8 hours (gruelling due to the positively disgusting Virgin Atlantic plane-food), so, whilst my mum and dad snoozed away either side of me, I decided to use my time to do my research for the two exhibitions I was to be reviewing for Aesthetica Magazine upon arrival: Sharon Hayes, There’s So Much I Want To Say To You at the Whitney Museum and Lara Faveretto, Just Knocked Out at MoMA PS1… The Sharon Hayes press-release, notably (you will see why this is of note in a moment) featured a large, colour photograph of the artist’s face at the top…


The next day, slightly confused and a little late after getting lost at the subway change-over at Lexington Avenue (and jet-lagged might I add), I arrived at The Whitney. Immediately, on entry, I was confronted with a huge table hidden under an assortment of cakes, coffees, pastries and other goodies. Journalists of all shapes and sizes were surrounding the table like vultures with plates piled high and mouths full. ‘It’s worth coming to these things even if it’s just for the free food isn’t it,’ chuckled one. ‘You know, when I was a student many years ago, I lived off review and feature food!’ I ended up staying at the table for a while stuck in a multitude of conversations (‘You’re British! Wow, now that’s very interesting. Now tell me, what do the British think about Americans? Honestly now…’).

In the exhibition space, the trail I took around the artworks ended up being a huge link of conversations as well. It even got to the point where I’d felt like I’d talked to every one of the 50-odd journalists there. However, one conversation stood out significantly.

I had just exited a projection room which featured an artwork where the camera was focused only on the artist’s face when I was approached by a familiar-looking female journalist. ‘Hello,’ she said in a quiet voice. ‘Hi!’ I put my hand out and we shook hands. Before I could introduce myself however, she said ‘Where have you come from today?’ I replied, ‘England.’

For a while we talked about my journey there before moving onto other things… This is how our conversation went:

Me: I got completely lost at the Lexington change-over. The tubes in London are so much less complicated than the subways here!

Familiar Lady: Oh, don’t worry; I’ve been here for ages and I still can’t work the subways. I think they’re just very confusing for everyone. It’s very nice of you to come. All the way from England! Are you here specifically for this or for something else as well?

Me: I’m reviewing the Lara Faveretto at PS1 as well. Hopefully I won’t get lost on the way to that too!

Familiar Lady: Hahaha, yes, good luck with that! So what do you think of the exhibition?

Me: Yeh, it’s great. The stuff about the gay pride march is really, really interesting. And the way the portraits over there are projected (pointing)… really clever. I hadn’t actually heard of Sharon Hayes before coming here, but it’s probably one of the best shows i’ve been too in a while… What do you think of it?

Familiar Lady: (Pause) I think it’s quite a success! I think that it’s important to highlight the struggles of women and gay people in America. But I think some things could be improved. It’s not perfect is it? It won’t ever be. But as long as the message is there, the speaking. I think Andrea Geyer’s work towards this show is excellent. Andrea is a great collaborator. She’s very humble.

Me: I’d love to meet Andrea… and, what’s that amazing smell? Can you smell it?

Familiar Lady: That’s the smell of the pine.

Me: (pause) It’s really nice.

Familiar Lady: It is isn’t it (smiling).

Me: Right, I’m going to carry on looking around. It was really nice meeting you.

Familiar Lady: You too, really lovely. Good luck getting to PS1.

Me: Thanks. Oh, do you know any nice cafes around here by the way?

Familiar Lady: Try next door. They do nice salads.

Me: Great, thanks! Bye!

Familiar Lady: Bye!

After leaving that familiar lady’s company, I watched as she was approached by a man in a checkered jacked who, strangely, took notes in a moleskin whilst talking to her… I don’t know whether it was the jet-lag, the shear 40 degrees celsius heat or the confusion of being late that prevented something in my brain from clicking, but I just couldn’t put my finger on who she was.

Until, of course, the press-conference, during which, to my embarrassment, the familiar lady took stand at the podium after a short introduction by the director of the Whitney Museum: ‘And now the artist, Sharon, will say a few words…’ At this point, I quickly jotted down our conversation and nodded sheepishly as she caught my eye whilst speaking. To be honest, I don’t remember what she said into that microphone. I was too embarrassed to concentrate, thinking about the fact that I’d asked her what she thought of her own work and that I’d told her that i ‘didn’t know who Sharon Hayes was before coming here.’

After her speech, we crossed paths again where, with a bright red face i said ‘hello’ and she replied, with a smile ‘Thank you for coming.’

I had no excuse really for not recognising her if I’m honest. Her face was everywhere (on the plane, in my bag, in the artwork…), but either way, I got an interesting interview situation from it: a sort of accidental self-criticism of her own work and a cafe-recommendation.

This post is the overflow of a review I wrote for Aesthetica Magazine, Issue 48 (August/September Issue): http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/shop


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QUESTIONS FOR TRACEY EMIN | On Mattresses and Cats.

I’m sorry – my last post was a lie! The first art overflow will be Tracey Emin: leftovers from the press trip and press conference for She Lay Down Deep Beneath The Sea at Turner Contemporary, Margate (26 May 2012 – 23 September 2012).


I’m going to start at the beginning…

It was some time mid-May when myself and about 50 other journalists hopped on the high-speed train from St Pancras to Margate to see Tracey Emin’s first solo show in her home-town. Being that I grew up in Margate, I was quite excited at the prospect of traveling high-speed after suffering through hours of the more-affordable and more-usual budget coach-journey to Cliftonville. Clutching my complimentary train ticket, I entered a carriage where, through the window, I could see Tracey Emin press-packs being waved about. I sat next to a female journalist reporting for a Chinese TV station and we talked the whole way about her little son… Strangely, however, it soon emerged that she didn’t know who Tracey Emin was. Weird huh? What was she doing on an Emin press trip? ‘I’m looking forward to seeing the sea and buying some fish and chips,’ she said.

We arrived in Margate and were walking along the seafront in a large group towards the David Chipperfield-designed Turner Contemporary when a car whizzed past… it later emerged that in this car was Tracey herself, running late to her own press opening! I ended up quickly having to brief the journalist I’d met before the press conference. She looked around the show and whispered, ‘My son draws like that…’ [I'm sure she's a lovely lady and probably a good journalist in other areas, but it's weird that she has the power to pass judgement on something she doesn't know anything about!!]. In contrast, standing just a few feet away, another journalist was looking at an embroidery with tears streaming down her face.


For the press conference, I sat in between the ‘i-don’t-know-who-Tracey-Emin-is’ lady and the tearful lady. The ‘i-don’t-know’ lady, surprisingly, was first to put her hand up. The room turned in one motion to face her. Crumpled Guardian faces, stern Independent frowners and a big black camera with ‘BBC’ on the side in huge letters, and of course Tracey too. All eyes on the woman who compared Emin to her 4-year-old son. I must say i was terrified for her. What was she going to say??

‘Hi Tracey, I just wanted to ask… do you like cats? Do you have your own?’ At this point, I was almost burying my face in my hands. What a strange question… what was she thinking? Surprisingly, however, Tracey smiled. ‘I’m so glad someone asked me about my cat,’ she said. ‘He’s my soulmate. I cannot explain how much I love him.’ (It was revealed later that there was a tiny sculpture of a cat in the exhibition which I had completely missed…) Perhaps I was too soon to judge this lady’s journalism skills?

Due to the short time slot we had with Tracey, questions moved on at a quick pace. Below are a selection which didn’t make it into the final cut of the article I was writing for Aesthetica:

  • ‘Do you not want to have children?’

In society, if you don’t want to have children, you’re a witch. I don’t want to have kids, but I’m not a witch! People always ask me ‘why don’t you have children Tracey?’ But, it’s not my duty.

  • ‘You’re quite a mysterious figure. Are you shy at all?’

In Margate, when I was young, I had more people wondering around me than I have done since. I am not shy about anything.

  • ‘There’s a theme of leaving in your work. Can you explain more about that please?’

The Vanishing Lake room is about the comfort of leaving, the lake being empty. That’s about being a woman, going into my fifties, it’s never going to be the same. The girl is never coming back. She’s gone. Lots of things are ending for me and things will never be the same again.

  • ‘There’s a mattress in this show which conjures memories of your famous un-made bed. Can you tell us about this one and how it’s different?’

It’s my mattress isn’t it. Famous Tracey’s mattress! This mattress is from 2002. I got a new one see, and this one had to go outside for the council to come and collect it. They said ‘We’ll come at whatever time and you just leave it outside the house.’ But the idea of ME leaving MY mattress outside my house? It just wasn’t going to happen! So I took it to the studio… I was going to saw it up into little bits and dispose of it in some way, but I kept looking at it and thought, it’s really weird, why is the stain on the mattress around the edge and not in the middle…. And i thought, I’ll never have a mattress like that ever again in my life, no matter how much I’d like to have those stains, it’s not going to happen!

  • ‘What does art mean to you at this stage in your life?’

Art’s like a lover, and no matter how good the lover is, its not going to be good all the time is it! So I fall in and out of love with art and I have to cough up this dialogue with it, this relationship with it. And sometimes it isn’t good to me… sometimes it isn’t nice to me. Sometimes I treat it really disrespectfully too. But, despite that, art’s given me every single thing in my life which is positive. When I have a really low ebb, it’s usually art comes in an saves me. It picks me up. It’s life. It’s so important to me.

  • ‘What’s next for you and your work?’

I want to do more bronzes… I’ve got all these ideas of things I want to make, and really, I want to work on paintings too!

  • ‘You seem a very strong and independent lady, yet also fragile in some respects too…’

Some things are hard in life. But I always say, no body has ever given me anything, I know what I’m capable of.

  • ‘What do you want people to take away from your work?’

Anything really. Art can change things, so there’s a lot riding on this show especially as I care a lot about Margate. To be honest, in this specific case, even if people don’t like the work and just use it as an excuse to come down to Margate, that’ll be enough. Even if they slag me off, I don’t care! I’m used to it! I owe it to Margate for all Margate’s given me. I want every fish and chip shop to run out of fish and chips and for all the ice-cream parlours to be full!

  • ‘Is there anything that defines you right now?’

I love soft things. I love padded things and Picasso right now. I’m in love with art again. That’s the main thing.


At the lunch following the conference, the ‘i-don’t-know’ lady came and sat with me and the tearful lady. The latter, through a mouthful of purple potato tart said, ‘What an amazing lady. I could have cried at some of the things she was just saying. I can really relate to her work. It just touches me immediately…’ After a slight pause the ‘I-don’t know’ lady replied, nodding, ‘She was so lovely. I feel like I understand her a lot more now.’ I turn to her, surprised at the transformation of opinion, ‘I really love cats too,’ she continues. ‘I don’t think my son could’ve made that cat.’

This post is the overflow of this article which I wrote for Aesthetica Magazine Online: http://www.aestheticamagazine.com/blog/tracey-emin-margate/


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So, here’s my first post…! I’m not really entirely sure what to write, except HI!

I’m currently waiting to get confirmation from all the people I’ve interviewed in the past so that I know they’re happy for me to feature them again. The lovely and amazing artist Stuart Semple is up first (my first interviewee for Flux Magazine). Here he is! – – – http://www.stuartsemple.com/ – – -


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