The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Michael Craig-Martin
The interesting thing about Michael Craig-Martin is that you can't pigeonhole him. He was a sculptor and he is a painter. Those paintings where every-day objects outlined in black tape float at you out of bright red, green or blue backgrounds, that's Craig-Martin , or entire rooms in galleries where the assault of intense colour and artfully distanced objects create a whole environment for experience and looking, that's Craig-Martin too. Further back in time there's the famous, or infamous, An Oak Tree, a glass filled with water on a glass bathroom shelf with an accompanying text, where Craig-Martin answers questions from himself about how the apparent glass can be a real oak tree. But Michael Craig-Martin is famous, or infamous, as a teacher of art students too. More than once in these interviews major visual artists have praised his teaching at Goldsmiths College , others blame him personally for undermining quality, whatever that is, in British art. If you want to know who spawned the Brit Art Brat Pack, say his critics, that's Craig-Martin too. And the trouble is that there's something elusive about him. Born in Dublin , educated in the United States , he carries a slightly detached mid Atlanticism around with him, which only makes him harder to pigeonhole, and that detachment is ringed by a rather British coolness and capacity for irony that leaves many of his critics guessing.
Let's get the teaching out of the way, because you sometimes tend to be labelled just with the title teacher, and that's not the most important thing in your life. It mustn't be overplayed, but it shouldn't be underplayed should it?
No I wouldn't want it to be underplayed. I mean I've devoted a great deal of my life to it, far more than I ever intended. When I started, when I left art school I started teaching immediately, and it was really just a way for me to make a living and to provide for myself as an, as an artist trying to, trying to make a life as an artist, but I have to say that I got very interested in the whole question about what art education might be, and it fitted in with things that I was thinking about art, and then there were things that I learned from the question of what does somebody bring to art in those first moments when they decide to study it, and I think I got interested in that question about how you move a person from that position into what one considers a more sophisticated position.
But you didn't come with any particular baggage or, you might say, professional experience about what an art teacher should do and what relationship he should have with his or her students?
Well I was very fortunate, because I had a very good art education myself. I went to the Yale University School of Art, and when I first got there Albers, Josef Albers had left but he, his teaching remained and the basis of my art education was Albers' teaching, and Albers was very extraordinary because he created a very intellectually coherent package of ideas about the nature of art and art, and art teaching, what could be taught. Subsequently I came to feel that that's what it was, it was a certain view of art, but, and that it didn't cover everything and in some ways it didn't cover certain things that I came to consider more important, but what was impressive about it was its intellectual coherence.
And he insisted I think on a certain coolness,a view, a very rational way of looking at things and expressing what you saw.
His idea was that art was essentially a perceptual activity, that you had to understand about what it was to look at things, how to describe things, that there was, and essentially you could only really understand by experience, that to be better at something was to have experienced more of it, and I think that, I certainly think that remains true in my view.
Some people have said this is so rational, so almost detached, where is the room for feeling, for emotion in painting?
Well Albers' view was that there were things that could be taught and things that couldn't, and the most important things were the things that couldn't, but it didn't mean that there weren't things that could be taught, and that so what you should concentrate on was trying to teach those things. He never considered what you were doing to be art itself, they were exercises, they were studies, they were, they were things that you did to prepare certain aspects of your own understanding, perception, skills, in order to be able to, in order to be able to be an artist.
So when you were teaching, after all you had experienced abstract expressionism in New York very close up, minimalism and I think the start of conceptualism, so you came, certainly by English teaching standards, with a lot of very, very first hand information from the very frontline of art. Now did you feel that that was what you were passing on, or were you passing on the things you've just been describing?
I think it's an interesting question. I, I, when I arrived in 1966, and I was just out of, I had just finished a Masters course at Yale, I was very, very attuned to what was going on in New York, in America at that time. It was a very, it was a very critical moment in art, very exciting moment, and when I arrived in Britain I met incredibly interesting people, but almost nobody knew about the things that I was most interested in, and I think, in retrospect I think that I misunderstood one's cultural background and how much a part it plays in one's development, in one's understanding of what it is that art can be.
Did you try to proselytise all these exciting new movements which were slowly coming over to Great Britain anyway?
I don't ever think of myself as proselytising in that way, and never in teaching. My idea of teaching right from the beginning was that I would never try to get somebody else to do something that I wouldn't have been prepared to do myself as a student. I tried to make the teaching what I wanted it, what I wanted it to be, to a certain extent what it had been for me, but also to try to bring to teaching the thing I thought had been missing for myself, the thing I had wanted. So, and the thing that intrigued me from the beginning was how different people were, how complex the situation is and how much people bring individually to what they do, and that the start of what people do as students always comes from that individual experience.
So leaping forward about twenty years in your teaching experience, when the people, who are loosely called the Brit Artists, started to emerge and a lot of them passed through your hands, was what they did a surprise to you?
By that point my ideas about teaching had become very, very much more complicated, very much more worked out, and in a sense Goldsmiths, which is where most of those people were educated and where I was teaching myself, had become a school that where I felt very comfortable in my own approach to teaching, and the idea at Goldsmiths was to allow students to follow their, follow their own instincts and for the teaching essentially to be retrospective, where you would, the teach, the students were expected to act and the teaching would then become a commentary on their actions, which would help provide them with an understanding of how to proceed, but always the initial thing of what they did was expected to come from them.
But were you at least indicating that painting was not just about the line, the canvas, the oil or the materials, that any materials were a part of the subject of, of art? Was that a crucial part of what you were conveying?
That was certainly something that had always been very crucial to me. I think there are certain periods in the history of art where there's the history of art teaching, and the, the art teaching that I came from and that preceded the art teaching that to a certain extent I've been a part of, was a teaching based on the, in a, in a sense the materiality of the subject, so that painting was defined in terms of the physical act of painting, sculpture, there were ideas about what was sculpture, there were proper materials, there were proper techniques. So what the teaching was focused on was teaching art through the techniques, the techniques of the making, as though the techniques of the making would somehow produce the creative understanding.
The craft-underpinned art?
That the craft, and it's essentially an idea about craft underpinning art, and my generation questioned whether that was, not as many people think, a question that there should be no craft, but whether this should be seen as the central question either in art or in teaching.
Well it comes out in the sort of comment that one hears or may even have made, that is well that Picasso does peculiar things but you know he can draw.
And the fact that he can draw makes this all right.
Makes it all right, yes. Well my view of, of craft has always been that people underestimate how much skill and craft is involved in various kinds of activities. Some activities for some reason are seen to, seen to accrue greater kudos than other creative activities, and that a creative activity is what is appropriate, partly what's appropriate to what you're doing and partly what is within the temperament and the skill range of the artist in question. I mean in my experience many of the most original things that have been done in my lifetime have been done by people who have taken what in a standardised situation was a weakness and turned it into a strength. What constitutes the success is the focusing on the thing that is theirs, so that somebody, somebody who is not good at drawing the figure, it is a very good idea for them to abandon this as an, as an area of activity, they will most, more than likely move into something else. On the other hand there are people who are not good at drawing the figure but who stay with that question precisely because of their own inabilities with it, and force it to become something, and very often that's what becomes original. In a way you could say Lucien Freud is like this. There's awkwardnesses in Lucien Freud , he's not the most natural draftsman, he's not the easiest person.
But he sticks with the human figure.
But he stayed with it for so long, he stuck with this thing, he's turned the whole question of this art into something that is his.
Now you did begin with craft, because you began by making wooden boxes which looked like wooden boxes and then when they opened up turned out not to be wooden boxes, not in the sense that we understand them, and to start with you made them as a craftsman didn't you, because you've written about the joys of plywood and the, the, the power drill?
I've, I'm a person who likes making things, I've always liked making things, and it's interesting when I look back that it seemed to me that almost every time I tried to do something I was interfering with something which was already satisfactory before I did it, and in a way the Oak Tree is the, is the culmination of that period of work, where in essence I don't do anything at all, and that's, so somehow that is to me the point at which I've brought to fulfilment a certain kind of train of thought.
Let's, let's stick with the, the, the Oak Tree of course, as it's such an important piece, and I'll just repeat it's a normal glass with normal water in it on a glass bathroom shelf and it is always in exhibitions positioned fairly high and then there is this text about why this is an oak tree where you, you play games with yourself and every question that you throw at yourself you deflect immensely ingeniously. I've read that a number of times, I thought there must be an answer to this and I haven't found them somehow. Now what's the element of provocation or of humour in this?
For artists of my generation, I mean I see myself as an artist of a generation of the sixties, late sixties, early seventies, that's essentially where my thinking is, is based and my, the experience that's the root of what I do. We were very interested in the question of what essentially is a work of art, how does one define it, what is, what is the baseline, do you need to do something or don't you need to do something, what is it, and that was going back to the question about is it the paint that makes a painting a painting, or is it something else? So these were questions that interested us a great deal, so in the, the Oak Tree it's really my, an exercise in trying to think about what is the absolute essence of a work of art. So I came to this idea that it had really to do with, with belief, both the belief on the part of the artist in the genuineness of the activity that they were engaged in, but also the belief, the suspension of disbelief which is called upon with a viewer, and everybody understands that in the theatre but of course people have to do that in an art gallery too, so what I tried to do with the Oak Tree was to play on the relationship between the artist, the object and the viewer, and all three of them are engaged then. In the text, the text is in, is in the form of an auto interview and the, there's the half of me that's the artist and there's the other half that's the audience, and there's the part of me that believes it and there's a part of me that's sceptical, and so all of these things are played out in the one, and so the work has been surprisingly successful and long lasting, and I think it's because people recognise in it something about what it is that happens in all works of art.
You said at one stage that it would continue to be an Oak Tree until such time as you changed it. So then I thought well maybe you've decided to change it in the meantime but you haven't told us?
No I've never decided against it. I may, I might have let it, I might have done so if I thought it was, had lost its capacity to engage people, but it doesn't seem to have done that.
Would it be less interesting now if given what you said about the Oak Tree only being an oak tree because you say it is, and we have to believe in it, that if you change it back and said I've now decided to change it either into a glass or into another object, would you think that would make it less interesting as a work of art?
I, I don't think so because I think the essence of the, the, of the Oak Tree is the fact that the proof that it is what it claims to be is exactly the same as the proof that it isn't. It, it remains that it looks exactly like a glass of water no matter what anybody, what I say or what anybody says, and nobody can prove that I haven't done it just as I can't actually prove that I have done it, so therefore even if I was to disclaim it I might actually be wrong mightn't I?
Anyway you can assure me that you haven't changed it without telling us?
I haven't changed it, no, no.
Right, now you yourself began with these objects, every day physical objects. What was it about the buckets, the milk bottles, things like that, the stepladders, what was it about the pure unvarnished object, that was unvarnished in every sense, that attracted you?
I have, I have for some reason that you know one of those instinctive things that I don't really understand, I was from very early on was drawn to simple objects, partly because I'm very interested in why if you, if you take a pile of wood and you assemble it into a certain way it becomes a table, and if you assemble the same pile of wood in a different way it becomes a chair, or you can just leave it as a pile of wood, and that why something configures into something and the way, and something about the relationship between those objects which we think of as art and those objects which we think of as not art, and I came to feel that the objects around us, particularly the ones that we value the least because they were the most ubiquitous, were actually the most interesting, these seem to me incredibly complex and extraordinary things.
Because nobody had invested them with maybe an excess of meaning. I mean the milk bottle may be well or badly designed, that wouldn't have concerned you would it?
Ordinary objects, particularly in the beginning when they are first designed I, some of my objects have tended to start to look rather old fashioned, but that, and that's partly because at the, there's something wonderful that happens at the time when an object is first realised, because it's always done in the most economical manner possible. Nobody produces that first object without wishing it to be as simple, that they will use as little material as possible. They want it to do exactly the correct function. It's a certain size because of what it has to do.
Yes a zinc bucket isn't designed but I suppose when we look at it it's, it's quite a graceful object.
It's a very graceful object and the reason why they're not twice the size is because if you filled it up it would be too heavy to carry. The, the reason the handle is in a certain place because if it was bigger the, the side would always hit the side of your leg, so you have it a certain, they're designed a certain size. All tools are designed to fit in your hand, that's why they're that, that's why they are like, and I thought these questions about function. I got interested in the question of how function defined the nature of objects, and I got interested in that because people talked about art as being functionalist objects. Well what's, what is function and are they truly functionalist and what, what is that difference.
Would you have been interested in them even if they hadn't worked as objects, I mean they might have been much clumsier but still been the ubiquitous, every-day bucket, or was that simply not an issue? It's ubiquity and universality was the important thing?
I, the thing that interested me was its universality and also I, I never used objects which were unique or had history to them, or you know that, that had aged nicely, that had a good pattern of something, some familiar thing of ageing.
Is that a conscious rejection of the process of the history, accretion, of association?
Well I like the, I like the idea that what, that what, what interested me was the idea that there were lots more of these things, that with milk bottles there are, a milk bottle is a wonderful object because there are thousands of them, or at least there were, I don't know how many there are left anymore, but there are thousands of them and the most wonderful thing the sign of how absolutely worthless the one that you've got is, that you leave it outside and you get another one, and I think there's something very interesting to me about an object where every object is the same and everyone is unique.
But of course, well I was certainly brought up and my generation was, was brought up in the unique value of the work of art, that everything had to be special, everything had to be meant, everything had to have a transcendent quality, so faced with these propositions the first reaction always is well I can see it's quite interesting, I can see it's, it's well put together, but how can it be art when it is so common?
Well of course that was the question that exercised me as well, and that was what intrigued me is what happens if one pursues a course that is, is engaged with that thing which is, which, which seems in a certain sense most resistant to being easily absorbed into one's understanding of the work of art. And that, that, that was what, that was what engaged, the, I, I wasn't sure that it, that it, I wasn't sure where it would take me or whether it would work but it was what intrigued me.
Are you satisfied now with the answers that you gave then?
In, well of course I mean I'm delighted with the things that I did then. One of the things that you learn as an, as an artist is that at each stage of your life, of your career, your work, there are things that you do and there's things you think about doing and you don't do them. The ones that you do become part of your, it's not just that they exist in the world, they become part of you in the world, something that has something extraordinary about them. The one's you didn't do don't exist at all, don't matter, they, they, they kind of, they, it seems to me they exist in some entirely different way.
You don't even recollect them as 'I wish I'd gone down that particular route', or 'that was a marvellous idea but I can't get back to it now'?
The, the amazing thing is that I, I do have things that I should have done that I think about, I think about but there's no way of going back, I couldn't do them now, it would be absolutely meaningless and I couldn't bring myself to do it even though there is absolutely no technical or financial or whatever reason not to. They are lost. That's very interesting things become lost, you can't go on doing them.
Now you then moved on to objects flat on the wall and, and, and you have this, it's a catalogue, or stored on the computer are I think two hundred objects and they're the routine things, filing cabinets, sardine tins, chairs, ladders, light-bulbs. How did this collection of objects apart from their every-day quality, how do you think that you accumulated them?
After the Oak Tree, which where all the things I'd done prior to that had not involved the making of images of things, it involved the use of real things, I started to wonder about the question of the representation of things, and I realised that artists of my kind of thinking tended not to make representations of thinking. People who thought differently did representations and they took it for granted, whereas I was interested in the whole extraordinariness of what it is to make an image of something. So I thought well what would happen if, if I took the way I think and I thought about images in the same way I've been thinking about objects, so I made the images, so I made images of the objects that I had previously been using as real things, and since that time virtually all of my work has involved the use of images because images do this amazing thing of having this double life. They recall, they bring to the, into presence the, an object which isn't actually there at all, and at the same time they have a kind of life of their own as images. If you do a drawing of a bucket you can make it really tiny, it can be you know half an inch high, or it could be thirty feet high and I've done, I've done both, and you can have the, the bucket can be, you know if it's, if it's a, a metal bucket well it's going to be a silver zinc colour, but when I make a painting of a bucket I can make it pink, yellow, and it doesn't matter.
Were you in some sense by going back to painting at about the time when after all painting was officially declared dead, especially by you might say people of your radical persuasion, so to go back into painting this was quite a radical step?
This may be perversely me, but I've always thought that when there's a lot of people operating in a certain area in art it's probably best to go to another one, and there, there were, you know I think my generation turned away from painting not simply, not just because painting was seen to have, to have failed in some way or to not address everything, but because there were so many people doing it at the time. Ten years later there are very, fifteen years later there are very, there are very many fewer really interesting people doing it. It creates an opening doesn't it?
Yeah a nice piece of opportunism. Now when I read that you had two hundred images stored on computer my first reaction was 'only two hundred', and then I thought how many images does Cézanne use in his still-lifes, and let's say that it is twenty, so is this a collection that is growing, your two hundred?
It's had different spurts of growth over the years. I've been doing it for over twenty years, adding to this collection of things. I mean it's also important to understand that when I do a drawing of a book I never draw a book again, I mean I have two drawings of, of a book, one is a book closed and the other is a book open, and I drew both of them in the late seventies and I haven't drawn another book since, but I've used that drawing, I used it this week in a work. I treat the vocabulary as an existing vocabulary. Now if, if you do that, I mean I thought that this, I have to admit when I started becoming involved in this idea of making these images I thought that, I thought there was going to be thousands of them by now. The reality is that there are comparatively limited number of simple objects which are truly simple and ubiquitous objects. Many things are variations on those things.
Well either they're round or they're square.
Yeah, well the, I think there's, there's some, well and there's something else that's very extraordinary that's happened which, and it which may say something about a very profound change in the nature of things, that the difference between a bucket and a light-bulb and a chair and a hat, these are, these are big differences, but now nearly all the objects that are invented today look exactly alike.
How do you mean?
Well the, the, the portable telephone doesn't look like the telephone used to do. The telephone used to be, have a handle and had a part that you spoke into and a part that you listened into, and it looked like what you did with it. My mobile phone looks like it might have been a cigarette lighter some years ago, or now it looks exactly the same as a, as a Walkman, the Walkman looks exactly the same as a, as something else, the, the computer looks like the microwave, the microwave looks like the television, the washing machine looks like, you know, everything so the, the, the way in which different objects are defined by how they look is disappearing, and more and more things look almost identical.
So do you feel that that almost forces you back into a sort of archaic language of objects at a time when they were more distinctive?
This, this, this is one of things that I have to say about what, what I'm, the things I use is that I find very little reason to add things and there's very, I do occasionally add things, I mean I add, you know in the past year or so I added a pitchfork, well pitchforks have been around for a long time and it was the first time that I thought of using one, so there are, it's not that I have drawn everything that I could, but I don't have an interest in drawing a stereo because one box is pretty much the same as another.
And you've never wanted, as it were, collect archetypical human images, so that you have a vocabulary of human images, I mean they might be historic statues or they might be great figures like Napoleon or, or something like that, putting the human into this sort of vocabulary has never interested you?
MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN : Well I've, I've always considered that the, all of the image, the images that I use have to do with some play between presence and absence. I mean all of the objects, because each object is seen individually, it always needs another object in order to be completed. The pitchfork needs earth or it isn't really a pitchfork. It only, it needs something else in order to be activated, and my, the light-bulb needs electricity, it needs a socket to go into, you know. All the different things need something, and the other thing that's, that's present and also absent in all of them is human presence, they are all the most human of objects. No one looks at these things without thinking of their own life, without thinking of these things mean something to absolutely everybody.
So you're not saying something about dehumanisation or?
I would say I would think, I think of myself as doing something to the contrary, I mean I think that they are essentially positive. You know I grew up in America in the fifties, and I have...
You've kept that optimism?
Yes it, it made one an optimist and I've tended to keep that, which I'm very grateful for.
But it has been noticed that there's never a picture on the screen on your television sets, there's nothing in the microwave oven, the, the light-bulb is not on. From that point of view these images are all empty and incomplete. Now that has to have some personal resonance from you doesn't it?
I've always thought of them as latent in the sense of latent energy. I'm, I'm doing something that on the one hand I'm trying to make it as so explicit, you see I never draw say a funny bit of plumbing that might make a very interesting drawing, but you wouldn't know what it was because you wouldn't know what it was for, so I'm not going to draw that. And I want you to when you look at it, you know instantly. I don't want you to think about for a split second about what it is. I don't want you to speculate, I want you to know when you, when you see, when you see the thing, but I don't want to answer all the questions either and so I'm trying to locate some, that there is an area of mystery and something unknown in a general sense but also something that's unknown in a personal sense to do with how one understands these objects or this accumulation of, of objects.
Do you mind when people invest them with the symbolic overtones and read really symbolic things and non, non realistic things into them?
No I love it and I try to add as may, you know, false trails of that kind as I possibly can myself.
Because I remember when you did that piece for the British Embassy in Moscow, and it has a torch and it has a chair and it has a globe and it has a filing cabinet, and I remember some Russians saying to me at the time ah the filing cabinet, this is very significant because all the secrets of the KGB were kept in filing cabinets, and I think the Russians read a symbol and a political one into every single one of those images.
It seems to me it's part of the richness of, of an object that it can be understood in that way. I mean the filing cabinet is understood in that way because this is in a painting, the painting is in the British Embassy, the British Embassy is in Moscow, so this is, it's not just because a filing cabinet has a meaning, its meaning is changed by the context of what I've done and where it is, so, and I try as much as possible to draw upon the richness of what it is that these objects can contain. People bring a fantastic amount of understanding to the things that I draw. If I draw a safety pin everybody, I can make the safety pin twenty feet high and make it pink and green...
And some of them do look very threatening.
Some of them at that scale they become like, well they become architectural at that, at that scale, but everybody knows the real safety pin is metal, it's tiny and it's essentially, or it's an old fashioned thing for keeping babies' nappies on. So there, so there's a, there's a very, very wide range of, of understanding information that people bring to these things which is then released in these other things.
I don't know whether this is why you, you, you do it, but in all this is it that you really want the viewer to do much more work themselves when they look at a, a painting? I mean a painter who does a transcendent haystack shall, shall we say, so we're looking at Monet's Transcendent Haystacks aren't we, I mean is this a crucial part of what you're doing that you actually want the viewer to look at the object and bring more of their experience to that object?
Yes that's, that's exactly what I, what I want and I, I think that sometimes I'm sure that people feel that the, some of the work that I do is too simple a, a painting of a single object, but my feeling is that these things are so extraordinarily rich in their associative power that I don't need to do very much in order to create an, an ambience of speculation, I'm trying to create something, I'm not, I'm not trying to answer something, I don't have a message, I'm not trying to express something in some elaborate way, but I am trying to touch the imagination of somebody who looks at it so that it releases something in them.
You call yourself a radical and I'm sure you are, and you certainly are a modernist. The way you use colours, brilliant, vibrant colours, vermillions and all sorts of colours whose names I, I, I can't describe, it is certainly sensuous, I think they're romantic aren't they?
MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN : I mean I was conscious of colour, I mean there's colour in what are apparently colourless things. There's beautiful colour in the buckets and the milk bottles and all of those things, they are quite wonderful, but it's a, but obviously it's not in the foreground of things, and then I used colour a little bit in the, in the eighties in a kind of slightly tentative way, and then I did a room installation. I'd been doing lots of wall drawings for many, many years and then one point in the early nineties in a project in Rome I painted the walls of the room for the first time, and I've never not painted the walls of the, of the room ever since, that was it, that just changed everything.
That happened largely by accident did it or?
Well one has to say nearly everything I've ever done I've thought about doing for about ten years before I actually got round to doing it, but what, it released something and I, and I suddenly, I suddenly had a way of knowing how to use colour. I didn't know how to use it before, and what I've done, what's happened is that I found a way to use colour, I mean it's, I mean of course it's exactly the way that I was told as a student you shouldn't, which is to use every single colour in every single painting, and I decided to use colour in a way that was similar to the objects, so actually I only use fourteen, twelve or fourteen colours, they're always exactly the same colours and I use...
They're never mixed?
They, they are, they are mixed but they're mixed in order to create a colour that doesn't look mixed.
Which is then put on flat.
Which is then put on flat. There's no modul..., modulation in the, in the colour at all, and so I have the images which come from one vocabulary, I have the colours that come from another vocabulary. They're both very, comparatively limited, twelve colours. I mean out of the couple of hundred images I actively at any time am using about fifty. It's to do with the bringing together of these, these very limited things that I am trying to find as complex a, a realm of things to do that I can.
Is that, that one of the key things, that is the tension between the limited nature of the means and then the final richness of the, the, the outcome?
Yes and I, but I would say that this is, this has been true of art through the ages. I mean what one does essentially as an artist is that you create a highly limited situation in which to operate and then you try, you use it in such a way that people don't think it's limited at all.
Now these room installations, the last one you did in Britain was in Manchester for the very, very large room at Manchester City Art Gallery, did you know before you started work with your assistants exactly where everything was going, what object was going where and in what scale?
Yes, I'm a constructor. I am a person who puts things together, and just like when I was putting together bits of plywood to make boxes now I put together images in order to make compositions, in order to make certain associations occur between, between things.
And most of these rooms, maybe all but certainly most of them, they're up for a certain time, they're a commission for a specific place at a specific time, takes a lot of work and then at the end of it they're gone.
MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN : This seems to trouble other people more than it does me. My attitude has been that since I started doing these things I get, have been asked to do work in the most incredibly wonderful spaces. If the people thought that the thing was going to be there forever, of course I'd never have been asked, I've never been offered these wonderful places to, to do them. The rooms are works of public art. They are intended to be public works. It seems to me that in our time the idea of a public work which is temporary makes more sense to me than a public work which is permanent. I like the idea of, of works that change just as, just as my, you know I still think my, of my favourite work of Rachel Whiteread was the house, the caste of the house...
But it should have stayed shouldn't it?
No I don't think it should you see, I think, I think it would be an absolute mess now, it would be covered in graffiti and it would be terrible and it would have, it would have deteriorated and it would become, and it would have been, it would have lost that vibrancy. What, what I think, what was wonderful was it captured a moment, the moment gets recorded, we're very good at that in the modern world, and then it's gone.
Do you work hard?
I'm, I suppose you'd say I work hard, I'm very driven and I, I'm at my happiest when I'm working.
What's your daily schedule?
I get to the studio about nine in the morning and I used to leave around six, I've been leaving about nine at the moment because I, I have, I have a very big exhibition coming up and so it depends on the demands, but I, I like being in the studio. I like working. I like making things and I, I do the thing, one of the things I think that drives is I'm very intrigued to see the thing that I want to see, I, and the only way to see it is for me to do it, it has to be made so I can see it.
I think you've, you've said that many of your works of art, not all, don't exist if a viewer isn't looking at them. That suggests that making them in the first place, you are making them for the fact of a viewer rather than just for yourself. Is that right?
It's a complicated question because I mean I do make the things for myself and I make them because I, as I said I want to see them and, but I do see, and I, but I see myself in the way that the Oak Tree does, I'm my own ideal audience. I'm, I am the audience as well as the viewer. I believe that art is a, is a social activity and that without the viewer there it, it isn't really art. If it's something that, I mean there are lots of things that are called art. You know I'm, I'm not against people doing a very private activity that they do as, as a pastime or something like that. It seems to be perfectly reasonable people do, but to me that's not what I mean by art, for me art is something that does seek to engage with an audience, I think of it, it seems very important to me that it should, should do that.
Do you seek to do anything to that audience as a social, political, not political in the short term sense as agitation?
MICHAEL CRAIG-MARTIN: No but I do have a sense that art is very, that it has an ethical dimension, and that what ones doing with a work of art is one's, one is presenting values. I mean I consider that all works of art essentially represent values. What I'm saying, when you look at what I do, in the most simple way I'm saying to me this is what is the most important thing. I could something else. I could do other things, but this way of looking at the world, this way of acting in the world represents what I most value. And that seems to me to be, to have very profound implications, and the, the difference between what I do and what Richard Long does, it can be very simply understood that I'm interested in value. We, we know each other and respect each other's work, but the things that, that animate him as an artist, that he values most, are very different from the things that animate me, and if you want to understand the difference it's very simple, just look at our works and it tells you exactly what the difference is between him and me.
But therefore you don't have to have an ethical dimension in order to be a good artist?
I don't think that one can be an artist without having an ethical dimension. I think it's, I think it's, I think it's part of the territory of what one, of what one does.
Is that what society needs from art?
I, I mean one of the things that I feel about art is that its, its function is essentially speculative. It's on the border of things, which is, which is why, and the, I mean the reason why people often reject new things in art is usually because it's presenting, it's, it's presenting as valuable something which has previously been, been considered to be without value. If you look back over the last couple of hundred years and you look at every phase at which something has been considered outrageous, it's because the artist has said in their work something that we've always thought before didn't matter. Well to me it actually matters, and not only that it matters more than other things. I'm fore fronting, foregrounding this thing which has previously been thought of as not important. When we talked about common objects and how these things have, you know, I was trying to pull those things into a different kind of focus.
So there is a kind of in the loosest sense, so maybe the most important sense, democratic impulse behind it?
Well I feel, I mean as, as I'm sure you realise as, as a teacher my belief has been that essentially everybody is creative. I don't mean that everybody is or wishes to be or can be an artist, but that all the creative functions that make somebody able to be an artist are those things exist in everybody. Some people wish to turn this into some, into an activity that engages their lives, but that I don't think there's anything that's fundamentally different between the people who are called artists and, and everybody else, and we all know that there are people who are clearly not artists who are extraordinarily creative within their fields, and there's some people who are much less so.
It sounds like a democratic impulse to me.
It's a democratic impulse.
Michael Craig-Martin , thank you.
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