Nasher Prize Dialogues: Artists & Authorship

Reference, Relationships and Appropriation in Contemporary Sculptural Practice

The following excerpt is from a panel discussion presented in partnership with The Common Guild and Glasgow International 2018 on May 2, 2018 at the Trades Hall of Glasgow as part of the Nasher Prize Dialogues series. Speakers included artists Christine Borland, Sam Durant, Mark Leckey, and Director of The Common Guild, Katrina Brown.


We’re going to be talking this evening about the material of contemporary sculptural practice, through the prism and perspective of Sam, Christine, and Mark’s experiences as artists, and the use of material that may be the fruits of someone else’s labor, the use of things that may be owned by someone else—touching on issues of ownership, perhaps also ethics, maybe legality, but hopefully not the intricacies of copyright law (I don’t imagine that would be  a route we would want to go down!). It’s not just about physical material, it’s also about ideas and histories. Mark said this fantastic thing that’s been ringing in my head while I’ve been thinking about this: That there’s wood, there’s clay, and there’s Samsung. It really stuck with me as a sort of echo of the extent to which not just brand names have become part of our common language and common parlance, but also that technology has become such a massive material to work with for sculptors and artists working with three dimensions. There’s a near infinite range of things. There’s an idea about free rein: Do artists today have free rein to work with everything and anything that they want? “Artistic license” is a phrase that’s been used in the past. The other art form reference, I suppose, is sampling. In music there’s a lot of reference to the idea of sampling and writing about art. But also, how does existent material come to be in an artwork? How does it get there in the first place? And what is fair game? Is everything fair game? Or is anything fair game?

Well, technology, and specifically the internet, has undoubtedly opened up entire worlds of reference we may never have had access to before. Maybe societal change has simultaneously closed down opportunities for things to be cited in artworks. Does that curtail the scope of possibilities? Is that a risk—that we all end up clicking through the same chain of references in Wikipedia to find the same results? And what’s appropriate? “Appropriate” takes us to “appropriation,” and that word is of course bound to pop up, but not in the sense of “Appropriation Art” of the 1980s, but that might be a useful reference or a backdrop to think about what we want to talk about today.

I’m never one for reading out definitions in situations like this, but I’m just about to do it anyway, and in the handy Frieze A-Z of Contemporary Art, published a couple of years ago, there’s a mildly tongue-in-cheek section under “J” called “jargon,” and it’s an attempt to update Raymond Williams’s keywords. The definition in there of appropriation is: “Very common, often used as a euphemism for theft/immunity from the copyright laws that the rest of us have to follow.” I thought that was quite useful. Interestingly, on the following page it goes on to define a panel discussion as “Interesting subjects turned into interminably long-winded conversations commonly found in museums, biennials, and art fairs. Statements by audience members disguised as questions are optional.” So, there’s a lot to get through, and it might be good to get going.



KB: Mark currently has an exhibition at Tramway, which has only been open for two weeks [as part of Glasgow International], so I know it’s fresh and raw, but I thought it would be really useful just to hear a little bit about how that piece came into being— how Nobodaddy came about. How did you find him?

Mark Leckey: Online I came across an image in the Welcome Collection in London. It’s a statue of Job from the Bible, and I just liked it. I had an image before of a man in a polka dot dress that I was quite taken with, and I wanted something with holes in it; I wanted an image of a man with holes. Like a permeable figure, a little figure—lots of holes in it—and Job. Basically, I spent all the time trying to push him away from Job; I didn’t want “Jobness.” I didn’t want him to be wounded either, but I don’t know if I succeeded in either of those things. Like I say, I just wanted him to be full of holes. Basically, I wanted to write a song. The thing I had in my head mostly was like … Now it’s not so good to mention Kanye, but at the end of “Run Away,” with the vocoder. It’s like this mechanical anguish. I kind of wanted to do that. That’s what I was after. I wanted it to be quite raw. I think I kind of bottled it. I wrote a lot of lyrics, and in the end didn’t use any of them. But, anyway, the idea was I wanted it to be medieval, to have this kind of medieval language, and I wanted all of the limbs to speak while the head remained kind of dumb.

KB: And what size was the original figure?

ML: He’s about that big [here ML gestures a foot-and-a-half with his hands]. And then it got scaled up by people here [in Glasgow], and painted by this scene painter, Belinda Gilbert Scott. Then there’s a video. So he’s looking at a screen, he’s looking at a mirror, which reflects the Tramway, but it kind of jumps. He’s meant to be in some kind of VR space and he’s turning things on with his bowel movement. I was looking for some figure that I could use as a puppet, essentially.

KB: And the title is such a fantastic phrase! And that’s from a William Blake poem?

ML: It’s a William Blake poem. Well, it is a reference he makes to Nobodaddy. It’s a kind of pun on God the Father of All: It’s “nobody’s daddy,” but also “no body.” It’s a daddy with no body. It’s just got a nice ring to it. I was trying to get away from Job and the Bible and then I crashed into that. I didn’t do very well there! I can’t help evoke or invoke Blake.



KB: Christine, the images that are cropping up across Mark’s shoulder of the white sculptures you made in 2016, called Positive Pattern, would you be able to say a little bit about those and what those stand for?

Christine Borland: Yes, like a lot of my works, that really took many years to sort of come into being from the initial idea. That’s something that is quite important. But this is really an incredibly long time. The first piece of work in the series was made in 2011 at the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney as part of a show that I was doing there. They have a permanent collection, as well, which includes a really beautiful Barbara Hepworth piece called Oval, a very modest but incredibly complex carved wooden piece from the 1940s. So it was a very simple kind of fan-girl need to engage with that piece, and a wanting to get hands-on with it and get to know it better. But of course there are limits with a priceless piece like that! But also, in the context of the rest of the exhibition, and with Orkney itself (lots and lots of archaeology going on there).

Something I was really interested in was experimental archaeology, where the remaking of finds is sort of a really important part of the field now, where local potters are working with shards and patterns and trying through actual making, using the raw clay of Orkney (and Neolithic findings). Some methods are trying to engage and find out more about what had been, up to quite recently, quite an academic discipline. So that kind of remaking was very much in my mind. I worked with a company to laser-scan the Hepworth and to attempt to visualize the interior of it—so to make what was negative with that (what was a hole) into something positive. It was incredible. As soon as I saw the 3D model, it was a phenomenal shape that you just couldn’t imagine coming out from any other shape in any other way. So how to replicate it is a matter of course, as well as many other things. The actual material itself is really the cheapest material that you can use for making prototypes through CNC milling. You have a block of this kind of creamy white CNC. Then it’s carved in a really hands-off way, but of course there is a degree of pinning it together and stuff. So that was 2011. Then I thought, well, I want to do more. There’s a series of half a dozen of these Hepworth sculptures that were made around that time. They all had these kinds of carved, complex interior shapes.

KB: But they’re not all in the collection of the Pier Arts Centre—

CB: There are several in the U.K., but also one in the Smithsonian, one in Wales, and carved pieces all around the world. Simultaneously, I was asked to do a commission for an Institute for Human Transplantation in Newcastle, and that was quite a tough gig because it was a new institute that is where people who need an organ replaced will come and get a transplant. So they wanted something in that space to mark the donors, because the donors were scattered all over Scotland and the north of England. So it was a challenge. I spent maybe a year or so talking to families, observing what was going on there, and I began to think that there was a way to bring the two [projects: Orkney and Institute for Human Transplantation] together. Very simply, what we’ve got in these [Hepworth 3D scanned] works are the interior structures that can’t exist without the outside—but the outside isn’t there. You’ve got something that survives independently of another form. Also, talking to the parents and the relatives, whose stories really struck me, about things that were very physical. For example, meeting the person who had their son’s heart beating inside their body. They were really evocative, and included a lot of very physical descriptions that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. I also spoke with young medics who were all about the future of transplantation (new materials and new methods). They described this as a moment in time where we’re doing our best with what we’ve got, but this will be looked back on as medieval surgery. They were talking about 3D printing and matching, and growing organs and new technologies that made me feel [the use of the Hepworth scanned works] was appropriate.

KB: So that was the moment that you got access to the sculptures. Were there multiple negotiations with all the different owners?

CB: Yes, there were. And with the Hepworth Foundation. But, as a technology, [3D scanning is] becoming sort of known and museums now and in heritage in general—you know 3D scanning of heritage sites. So it wasn’t actually that difficult to get these permissions. Of course there was the ethical question of what Barbara would say. So I had to deal with that, to think it through, and to talk to them about it.



KB: I’ve got this brilliant list of things that you’ve used before, Sam. Your work has been sampled from rock-and-roll history, Minimalist and Post-Minimalist art, 1960s social activism, modern dance, Japanese garden design, mid-century modern design, and self-help literature. That list was written a couple years ago, so there’s probably been more added to the mix since then… Some scaffolds just appeared on the screen beside us, and it might be the moment to talk about that. It was made originally for dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012 and then it has subsequently been shown in numerous places, including in Scotland, at Jupiter Artland in 2013. It’s a structure based on seven—well, I should let you say what it is—but I thought it may be useful just to talk, first of all, about what the intention was when you made the piece and how it functioned in its initial iterations, and then of course in terms of what happens to something in the real world, and how responses to it can change depending on time and place. It may be useful just to refresh people’s memories about what happened to it last year.

Sam Durant: Yeah, I imagine some people saw it at Jupiter [Artland] when it was there. I mean it was a fateful situation that happened with the work, one that probably many people have heard about. Originally, it was a project that I started researching in 2008. It was this idea of looking at the history of capital punishment in the United States and the relationship of the state to violence, and even to reach into the idea of U.S. imperialism, and to connect it a little bit to mass incarceration, which is something probably many people have heard is a huge issue in the United States. So, I selected seven noteworthy gallows—let’s say gallows of historical significance throughout U.S. history—and put them together into one somewhat recognizable (but also, I hope, kind of abstracted) construction. It was meant to be used as a kind of platform for people to congregate on to find out what it is, have discussions, think about it, etc. When it was in The Hague, I was able to program it and work for the Amnesty International and a number of other organizations—people involved with the International Criminal Court there—to do a series of programs, using it as a kind of literal platform and stage. Then it came down from The Hague and the Walker Art Center was interested in acquiring it for their sculpture garden, which is in this very visible place in central Minneapolis, and eventually they did do that. In the three or four years between when it was in The Hague and when it was finally constructed, which would have been around this time last May in Minneapolis, I was doing all these other projects and it was sort of off my radar. Then this structure went up in the middle of the city. And the gallows that sort of forms the perimeter of it is called the Mankato gallows, where the largest mass execution in U.S. history took place on that structure. Thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged in a simultaneous, unbelievable act of brutality. Descendants of those people hanged on that platform still live in Minneapolis. They were driving by on their way to the supermarket, or taking their kids to school, or whatever, recognized the structure and were completely traumatized by it. They didn’t know what it was or what it was doing there. There was absolutely no outreach to that community done by the museum. So, all of a sudden this structure appears in the middle of the city, and they recognized it, and were just horrified. They couldn’t understand this thing; this sort of monument to our genocide is basically what it was for them. And so they connected with the activist community there and they started protesting it very quickly. I became aware of it a week before this sculpture garden was going to reopen with all these new artworks, and they proposed a mediation to talk with the community of Dakota elders, the people at the Walker Art Center, and me. And we did that. It was a very complicated, difficult, but also kind of fascinating process. In the end, I made the decision to have it taken down, because I felt like I was on their side and the last thing I want to do is have my work traumatize a community of people that are completely victimized by all these years of U.S. history that continue today. There are a lot of stories that they were telling me about what this thing meant for them, how they felt about it. And they were very powerful stories, and I believe those stories. I don’t want my work to traumatize, especially that group of people, so I agreed to take it down. I think it was going to come down whether I agreed to it or not. That’s a sort of overview of what happened, and there’s been a lot of discussion about who’s to blame for this. We always want to find out whose fault it is. How do we fix this and make it all go away and make it all better? One of the things that’s interesting about the process for me is that this issue is never going to go away, because now the Walker owns a work of art that they can’t reinstall without the permission of the Dakotas and my permission. So, now, there’s a kind of three-part ownership of that work in a way, that’s very interesting.

KB: So, materially, it still exists, but it’s not assembled. There was talk at one point about it being burned, but that didn’t happen. So it still exists.

SD: It doesn’t exist materially. I mean this is an interesting thing because it also touches on the issue of ownership we were talking about. The whole idea of appropriation is based on the idea that somebody owns whatever it is: a thing, an idea, knowledge, or whatever. So the Walker still owns this idea, basically; but the Dakota owned the ability to reproduce it. And, as the artist, according to U.S. law, when you create something, you have a kind of “creator’s right,” which in U.S. law is an inalienable right.

KB: But that’s not the same as copyright? Or is it?

SD: No, it’s not the same. So it’s an interesting kind of legal or ethical situation. We have to keep all these slightly contradictory things in mind, and to me that’s really interesting. It’s not black and white. It’s not easy to sort right from wrong, because there are all these contradictions that you have to keep in mind. As difficult as that is, I think it’s an interesting thing.

KB: You beautifully described this moment when the piece was up, and people were driving past it without knowing what it was—but they were able to recognize it, which is kind of incredible. It still had this visual familiarity to people. Of course, in a managed space it would seem that the way in which it would communicate would relate to the previous discussion regarding the familiarity and recognizability of objects, and how they have meaning. Of course, in that situation, its ability to speak as its original thing was its downfall, because it spoke too quickly. It was out there before there was an opportunity taken for discussion. Do you feel that there could or should have been more? Because it’s an issue of proximity, isn’t it? It’s about it hadn’t been in other places that were in proximity with the places that were referenced, until it was put in a place that was directly connected.

SD: Yeah, it was an issue of a time and a place, for sure. But, in particular, a time. Because that community had been doing a lot of education around the history of the massacre and the history of what happened to the Dakota people in Minnesota. I did a residency at the Walker 10 years before that. At that time there was very little knowledge of that history amongst the indigenous population there, so if the piece had gone up 10 years earlier probably many Dakota people wouldn’t have recognized it. So it’s a very interesting confluence of a lot of different things. But yeah, I learned a very painful, difficult lesson about symbols. Previously, I thought if you’re not depicting or representing suffering people or suffering bodies, then the danger of retraumatization isn’t there. So I learned that basically anything can trigger that.



KB: I guess that’s what we’re really talking about. These objects or materials can function as symbols, as something that has meaning. Of course, things that are from your own personal repertoire are relevant. I’m thinking, Mark, about your piece last year, Dream English Kids, which is quite an autobiographical piece, it’s fair to say. There are lots of things that are personal, but also have resonance for other people. I don’t know how anyone could ever anticipate the extent to which those things that are in your repertoire would have the same response. I know with Dream English Kids there’s some archival footage in it, but there are also some fabricated things, right?

ML: The idea was to try and build or assemble something that was like an autobiographical thing. Years ago—I think it might have been dumb now—but I had an idea when I was younger to write my autobiography using other people’s autobiographies. I thought I could piece together my autobiography (or memories, anyway). But the reason why I ended up making that is because when I went to art school a long time ago, I left art school very confused about art. I felt a kind of inability within myself to understand things. Everything seemed beyond my reach intellectually. The theory at that time was to be impenetrable and it just seemed beyond me. So I didn’t make work for a long time, and the only reason I came back to making art is that I realized that I could make work about things that were within myself, that were my own experience. They were local to me and I understood them implicitly. So that’s where I ended up with Dream English Kids. There’s a kind of ownership there. These things in terms of my ownership with them. Things like these sound systems I made. They came out of my own history, my own experience of being involved in rave culture. But now I wouldn’t show them because it seems they don’t belong to me in that way.

KB: In what respect? Do you think you belong to a different time?

ML: I think the problem is the more visible I make them, the more they become about me, and the more of a claim I make on them…

KB: Yeah, they look more like a Mark Leckey than a random sound system.

ML: Yeah, they were never mine in the first place. I just wanted to point to them, I guess. I just wanted to say that these things were dynamic sculptures in themselves, that they were powerful. I mean, a lot of stuff I made was about proving that the things I grew up with were as intelligent and as charged and as beautiful and as powerful as anything within the art world. I kind of had a chip on my shoulder.



KB: Picking up on what [Mark] said about past work, you said you would think twice about showing it today. I want to move and I’ve got two more questions to ask, both of which may be super quick. Sam had that extreme experience with the scaffold last year being a piece to bring in a complex ownership situation. Whether it will be shown again is always going to be a complicated conversation. But are there other works from the past that you doubt you can show again? Something about the context, the proximity, the time, and the attitudes have changed, and that would make it very difficult to show now. You don’t need to say what piece it would be, but it would just be interesting to see if you would hold back on something.

ML: I feel kind of like everything has changed [all laugh]. I remember a moment in New York at the Picabia show. I just felt like I was inculcated with Picabia. It’s like there was a progression for me from Picabia to Mike Kelley to Cady Noland. And I walked around this Picabia show and I just thought, “This no longer resonates. This belongs to another time.” It belongs to another history and it’s not contemporary. It has very little relevance, if any. It’s to do with sovereignty. It’s to do with the idea of a sovereign artist, or a sense of autonomy. Up till that point I was following this desire to be free.

KB: And have free rein over what you use.

ML: Yeah. And I don’t feel that anymore.

KB: Is that age and experience perhaps?

ML: I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s age and it’s also just the art world in itself. It just feels like a narrowing. I’m always conflicted. I’m profoundly uncomfortable in it. And it’s just sort of reached the point where I think I’m too uncomfortable.

KB: Okay. And Christine?

CB: In the early 1990s I was interested in forensic methodologies, and that took me toward people who were ballistics experts. I started using shooting as part of the process of making work, which was very exciting and interesting for lots of reasons. One of them being turning up at the army and saying, “I’d like to use shooting as a process to make a piece of work.” It was that kind of entering these bastions and trying to sort of engage a seemingly impossible situation, but I actually kind of make it happen. There was a whole series of works that came out of that period of time. But when the Dunblane Massacre happened in Scotland (a shooter went into a school, which was a situation that hadn’t happened here before, and killed a lot of primary school children), then it seemed like the real world had entered in.

So, I moved away from that. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work looking at the anniversary of World War I, and that’s taken me to controlled explosions—so there’s maybe our way back into that territory, but it’s a different perspective. I also wanted to comment after Sam’s description of what happened there. You know, thinking about works that go out into the world, as they inevitably must and should. But the initial context of making them stray far away from what you first anticipated. I was thinking of a piece of mine that’s depicted there. It’s clay portrait busts they asked sculptors to make from black-and-white grainy photocopies of images of Josef Mengele. It was made for a specific location in this country, but ended up in a collection in Switzerland, but then got borrowed for a group exhibition in the Jewish Museum in New York. That was an incredible sort of confrontation. Not a particularly good show, and I couldn’t veto the borrowing of it. I actually decided to go over and be part of the panel of discussion and engage in a way that I was obliged to. But that that kind of anxiety, you know, had me thinking about where that piece belongs. You may not think about it at first, but you know the structures and the institutions and the market and all the rest of it can take it somewhere that you never anticipate. So I don’t know how you can be aware, but it is something that I do think about.

KB: So, last question from me: Have you ever come across anyone else using your work?

ML: I put my videos up on YouTube in the hope that people will rip them, you know, do something! It’s the idea of it circulating. Going back in! Because, I took it out. I’d love that idea. All my stuff’s kind of digital anyway, so it just seems absurd to concern myself with copying. Although, I do get the huff when I see someone doing a bit of green screen or something.

KB: There must be a moment you all have when you see something and think that’s a bit like something I’ve done.

ML: Yeah, you have to let that go.

KB: Do you?

SD: As long as they did it better than you would have…

ML: [laughing] Yeah, that’s the problem!

SD: No, that’s fine! Then you don’t have to do it. Or do it anymore.

KB: Christine?

CB: Yeah, I suppose thinking about that Barbara Hepworth work: Would I mind if there were an equivalent thing? If someone did that to my piece of work? And the answer would be, I wouldn’t mind. I suppose when you’re working in universities as well, you’re always thinking about context for other people doing similar things. That’s a good thing because maybe in trying to find something related, you can talk to each other. There’s a community. I grew up in a culture very much about that, amongst artists working together, or across each other, or collaborating. Yeah, it’s healthy.

KB: Sam, anything to add on that note? Seen any rip-off Sam Durants out in the world?

SD: Remarkably, I’m not very aware of much that’s going on. So, there might be. I wanted just to mention something that Christine said which was about the early work [she] did with ballistics. You came back in a way; now you’re working with a similar kind of thing, but in a different way. And I think that’s really interesting. The thing to me is that the theory of freedom of expression or freedom of speech is that anyone can say anything about anything, and the question is then, how you do it? And also there are certain things that maybe you don’t have to say something about. It doesn’t mean you should do it. But I really like that… I thought about that with Scaffold. I decided that the piece should be taken down and given to the Dakota because I realized, “Wow, if I had just talked to them in the beginning I never would have made the work like this.” So, I could make a work about this issue, but I would just do it differently.

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