I have never been more excited to post an article. A few months ago, I reached out to my favorite artist, asking if he would be interested in being interviewed for this very blog. I never expected any response; I thought that this Sheffield, England-based artist would be too busy creating masterpieces to respond to a random teenage girl's tweets. Regardless, this afternoon as I was mid-squat at the gym, I almost had a heart attack -- an email from a certain Tim Etchells popped into my empty inbox as if by magic.
The relationship between an artist and an audience is unexplainable. Staring at a painting, a drawing, a sculpture, an installation -- we all form connections when we absorb an an artist's message, whatever it may be. Some people love Koons and some people love Hirst, but I love Etchells.
When I first stumbled upon photographs of Tim Etchells' artworks, specifically his 2011 You Know neon, I was mesmerized. Never before had a piece of modern art affected me so strongly; the longer I admired the image on my computer screen, the more uncomfortable I became. However, it takes time to understand that great art makes viewers uncomfortable. After all, life begins outside of your comfort zone!
Here, the self-described "collector of language" describes his use of Microsoft Word, adoration of incompleteness, and more. World, meet Tim Etchells. Prepare to be amazed.
MOLLY MINTZ: You truly are the man that does it all – you’re a leader, a teacher, an artist, a performer, a writer, and an innovator, to say the least. How would you describe yourself and what you do?
TIM ETCHELLS: I make lots of different things - events, texts, objects, images, performances. A lot of my work has been with a group of other artists, making things together, in performance, under the name Forced Entertainment. It's a very long-term process and I think part of the commitment, and the interest is in working with other people, in sharing and negotiating, collaborating over many years. I also like to work alone though - it's something of a break from the stresses and strains of collaboration! And it's a chance to argue with myself rather than arguing with other people.
MM: Why do you do what you do? How do you work? Where do you find inspiration?
TE: Everything I make is about creating an encounter really - about creating something that starts a process in the spectator or the reader or the viewer. Something that opens a door, a conversation, a space for thinking. So in a strange way what's *not said* or not shown can be as important as what is said or shown... I like the idea of creating work that needs a viewer, reader or spectator to complete it. I often think about creating space.. creating a certain amount of blankness or unknown space; leaving something there for other people to fill. That could be an incomplete fragment of language or phrase in a neon sign, an incomplete story, an ambiguous image, even a silence or unexplained event in performance - the question, or the problem of these things becomes an invitation to the viewer - an invitation to imagine for themselves. That seems really important to me.
Depending on what the project is I work in many different ways. The neons are often about a dialogue with a curator and with a place, so it involves talking about the context, going to see places, looking at plans and at pictures... and all the while I'm trying to think about what phrase or fragment of language might somehow unlock something in that location. Once I have an idea I work closely with the fabricators - there's one guy, another artist, that I work with a lot on the creation of the pieces. So it's a balance between very playful work with language and ideas on the one hand... and extremely practical stuff on the other - dimensions of letters, calculating weights and installation methods and power supply.
A performance meanwhile is usually about spending a lot of time in one place, and it's very social. A lot of time with people. A lot of time in a rehearsal room trying to make things happen, waiting for things to happen. And then, often, trying to recreate things that have happened! Again I guess the mix there is between playful improvisation and something much more technical. How to control and give shape to things, how to repeat them in a way that still feels lively and dynamic and present.
Inspiration can be anything. I keep a notebook on the computer... just a big Word file filling up with ideas, scraps of language, cut and paste bits of newspaper articles, quotes from overheard conversation, movies, junk mail... little bits of writing that I start work on without knowing what they are going to be. I'm a collector in that sense... language, language, language.
MM: Why art?
TE: Ha. Yes indeed. I think it has some small capacity to open people, to change them, to make them see/think in a different way. Or to tune them to different things. It's good for that... Link to this and this.
MM: You have such a rich educational background in performance and art. Can you remember the first thing you created? What makes this specific memory so influential?
TE: I remember making a lot of things when I was growing up. Poems, pictures, music. All kinds of stuff. I think mostly awful. So I guess the memory of that is about how did that all turn into an art practice - is it part of the same process. I think, to be serious, I always had a fascination with language. I was always in language in quite an intense way (as a reader, but also as a kid, as a writer). So I feel there's some continuity there.
Something about that space of making - raw materials, endless possibilities for reconfiguring - and the chance to invent something - a different voice, another way of looking at something - those things must have exerted a pull on me. I knew I wanted to spend time in that space, even if I didn't know specifically what I would do.
MM: Evolution is fundamental to artistic growth. How has your practice changed over time?
TE: I've moved more towards visual arts from performance, that's for sure. I think because it has offered different ways of connection to people - the contract of looking in a gallery, or in relation to an artwork on the street, is very different than what you experience in a theatre performance.
I also got more interested in liveness - in the fragility of the live event, in the way that it trembles, in the way that it's just a process of something becoming. I mean - it's live, it's subject to change. It's so fundamentally about people sharing space, being in the same room. That's super important to me now, in a way that I don't think I fully 'got' when I started making live work..
MM: Out of all of your works, I am especially fond of your neons, particularly the pieces from the opening night of Lumiere in Durham. From my perspective, it seems as if you have a contemporary visual aesthetic that has a strong emphasis on questions and dialogue. What other themes do you pursue across your various mediums?
TE: Like I said above, I think I work a lot with this idea of creating a space or a gap or an opening - something incomplete that people need to respond to. It's perhaps also about creating works that refuse to close themselves - works that resist reading, works that keep something secret. All those are strategies to involve people - not that I need them to join in or do crazy things - but that the work unlocks a space of imaginative participation, imaginative authorship even.
MM: Writing has been my passion for as long as I can remember, and I strive when faced with opportunities to act creatively; you are an exponentially inspiring individual. What advice can you offer to someone wishing to further their creative pursuits and expand upon their writing?
TE: I don't know ;-)... I think writing is the way to write.. basically shunting around the keyboard, trying to do things with language.. that's the only way to learn or develop or create. It's slow... but there is really something to be said for the accumulation of strategies and knowledge and confidence that comes over time. Just keep hitting the keyboard!
One the other hand you know.. I also love that with art practice you're always, also, somehow, back at the beginning. You make something great and then the next project is a total pain in the ass... you can be stuck for months, cursing, unable to find a good solution. Tough as that is I really like it. Eliot has a great line about it in Four Quartets.
MM: Which activities make you lose track of time?
TE: Writing. Reading. Sleeping. Walking. And sex of course.
MM: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
TE: I'm going to say that if I didn't know how old I was I wouldn't be any age at all.
MM: Lastly, what is the book that is on your bedside table?
TE: That huge precaious pile of books that's been there for ages has gone now. It got tidied a week ago. There's only one book for now. Ron Silliman - The Alphabet. Not that I'm reading it as such. just opening it at one page or another here and there and dipping in. It's really great for that.