Mark Titchner in conversation with Mark Dickenson. This interview took place on the 15 April 2001. It was first published in ‘Playing amongst the ruins’ catalogue, Royal College of Art March 2001.
Mark Dickenson: I would like to begin by talking about your wall painting. They usually exist as abstract geometric patterns or recurring motifs, whose dimensions are governed by the architecture in which they are located. Writing about your three-dimensional work you once said that your use of reductive compositional devices and modular units was a result of your interest in the historical divergence between avant-garde ideologies and their practical application as hybrid visual devices in municipal artworks and domestic design. Are these the same concerns behind the wall paintings?
Mark Titchner: I think in this way my three-dimensional work relates strongly to the wall paintings. The first wall paintings that I made were based on my memories of the wallpaper designs from my parents’ home. The patterns were typical of anything you would find in a 1970s domestic environment. They looked very much like Op Art paintings. I became interested in the wallpaper designs because I perceived a lineage of the patterns from say Malevich, Albers, through Vasarely, Riley to something that eventually ends up as home decor. The results of this lineage seem to be a very banal psychological backdrop for domestic life. The process begins with someone in their studio. Here i’m thinking in particular of Kenneth Noland who, through his Chevron works, believed he had found the formal device, post Alber, with which to deal with the square, or, in aesthetic terms, that he had rendered a unit of space knowable. The trajectory of these ideas is towards popularisation and assimilation into everyday life. It is through this process that we end up with Bridget Riley prints on dresses, or municipal artworks that look a little like Op Art or Bauhaus designs but contain none of the original political ideas. I guess what I am talking about is a movement towards the emptying out of belief systems. It seems that the spiritual and conceptual notion of early abstract art, which was aesthetic in nature, gets emptied out. So, in other words, I am interested in how and why we keep this aesthetic side but lose the bits that are potentially more difficult, and yet more powerful in terms of artwork’s life.
MD: In a catalogue essay on Isa Genzken’s work, Benjamin Buchloh attempts to trace a similar divergence, from the largely socialist aspirations of early abstract art to its eventual depoliticisation as corporate decoration. He seems to suggest that the increasing emphasis placed on scale in painting during the 1960s was an attempt to break with the pictorial space in favour of the phenomenological. In this way art was beginning to embrace rather than resist the transition into architecture that would ultimately make paintings as banal as its surroundings. How do you see your works relationship to architecture?
MT: I recently installed a version of the wall painting Why is there something rather than nothing? at Heathrow airport. It was positioned in an atrium where employees eat their lunches and in a way it functioned as a backdrop for the social exchange that takes place in that building. The work was very large, approximately 30 x 15 metres, so it seems strange to even begin thinking of it being quitely being pushed into the background, but i think, despite and yet because of its scale, it did make this camouflaging transition into corporate design or an architectural feature. Although in this case I think the materials that I used jarred enough with the building’s chrome and pipe interior that people hopefully recognised there was more of it than simple corporate decor. I do see it as a problem though, as soon as the visual side of the work begins to outweigh the conceptual. In the past I have noticed that people pass by the wall paintings when they are only constructed of repetitive abstract motifs. This may have been different if the same motifs had been constrained by a canvas and therefore retained a sense of autonomy from the surrounding architecture. In a development of this series I have recently begun to approach the problem of the work fading into the background by incorporating the title into work. The inclusion of the title Why is there something instead of nothing? is a way of getting the viewer literally to read the work, so an active conceptual process immediately begins between the viewer and the work, therefore resisting this transition into architectural decor.
MD: Michael Wilson wrote that your wall paintings ‘skirt the edge of corporate good taste’ and ‘although they are conceptually satisfying, they are not exactly overflowing with visual pleasure’.
MT: I have always remained ambivalent towards producing works that are visually pleasurable or not, although I wouldn’t deny that my work has a very specific aesthetic. The aesthetic, however results from an interest in the actual period from which it is taken and the theoretical conditions of its formation rather than the aesthetic itself. So, with the wallpaper paintings for example, I always make it easy to trace the aesthetic back to the 1970s or, with The final times have been and gone to early computer renderings from the 1980s.
MD: Both Heidegger and the band The Silver Jews have used the phrase ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’
MT: Yes, the title for the series of wall paintings was taken from The Silver Jews album, but I was also interested in it as a fundamental philosophical question. That particular phrase was goin around in my head like a refrain for a long time before I decided to use it. Like the actual wall paintings, I think that the title Why is there something instead of nothing? is another example of this migration from one discipline to another. So this particular example of the application of a philosophical statement into a song lyric has its parallel in, say, the absorption of abstract art into domestic and corporate design. I don’t necessarily hide these textual or aesthetic references when asked. I just don’t see the need explicitly to acknowledge each source in the individual work.
In general, I use titles that I find rather than create,so, in this way, like each work’s aesthetic, they are always embroiled in an historical moment.Why is there something instead of nothing? is an example of a question used as a title but I also use statements such as The moral emptiness of today’s world is appalling. Another title is Do not attempt to reform man, which comes from Nietzsche, and tacked onto the end of that is We are what we are from Ken Kesey. I see the titles as a result of some cod-philosophy, scavenged from the collapsed space that used to keep disciplines like philosophy and pop music apart.
MD: Your wall paintings The final times have been and gone seems to be another example of these collapsed spaces or belief systems.
MT: The work was made at the end of 1999 and there was a feeling of this great leap into the next century, which was manufactured for all kinds of reasons. I felt dubious about this and thought that an idea of the end would be different if we felt we were positively working on the other side of it. For myself, as much as the title related to a collective social comprehension of a turning point in time, it also came from a point in time that is after claims for the end of art, or the afterwards of the end if you like.The title was taken from a Sebadoh song called Spoiled. The lyrics are about childhood and are sung from the perspective of a whinging middle-class teenager sitting around in his bedroom playing the guitar. It has the feeling of a petulant indulgence with the end, and I thought this self-indulgent courting with the end also had its parallel in art.
MD: You have spoken about the aesthetic and textual aspects of your practice. Could you talk about your use of materials.
MT: My wall paintings are hand-made, which results in inaccuracies an imperfection, whereas Kogler’s are very much based on an approach towards mechanical perfection. I think he was surprised to learn that I make my wall paintings using masking tape and newspaper and not laser cut stencils. All of the materials I use are from hardware stores. I like the phenomenon of DIY, being able to create your own spaces with these utopian gone awry materials, such as concrete. I think this interest stems from the generation in which I grew up. We saw municipal buildings ten or twenty years down the line when they had already begun to decay, so for us they have always looked like some kind of ghost, because we missed the opportunity to see them in their original, intended state. There always seems to be a schizoid element to the materials in my work. I don’t like to have too many certainties, so it always seems strange to me that I actually arrive at making a sculpture. This has sometimes been a problem. I was thinking about this recently when iI made a work titled Something plastic to fight the invisible which was really a statement about why I, or why human beings, need to have something plastic, and solid to deal with the world, as a diversion from abstract problems.