by Jonathan Griffin
Your new series of silkscreens, ‘Problem Paintings’, overlays Hollywood publicity shots with objects such as screws, nails, fruit and vegetables. Has Hollywood always been an influence?
I think you’d have to live in the forest not to have been influenced by Hollywood. You turn on a TV and you’re in Hollywood. I think the entertainment industry and advertising industry shapes everybody these days. It’s like the Catholic Church; Hollywood is like the Vatican. It shapes how you imagine the world to be, who you want to be, what’s good, what’s bad. But that’s for all of us. So, to answer your question, no more than anybody else.
In these works you’re referring to a particular era of Golden Age Hollywood.
Well it was the golden age of black and white photography too. Even though we coloured them all. It’s a specific way of sculpting an image of a person that is not personal, it’s idealized. As a thing it’s just there, it is what it is. Actually, it’s not about the faces in the background so much as the things in the foreground. My daughter comes in and she doesn’t say “Oh, that’s Veronica Lake”, she says “Lemon! Mushroom! Salad!” The things in the foreground are much more universal than the things in the background. That’s what people misunderstand because they look at the wrong layer of the painting.
Many people still refer to you as a Swiss artist but you’ve lived in the United States for a long time now.
You’re always a Swiss artist when you’re born in Switzerland. But, in reverse, I don’t know what a Swiss artist is. If I was to say I’m not a Swiss artist any more then that would mean that I knew what a Swiss artist is, which is kind of mysterious to me.
Do you notice the influence of New York?
Yes, sure, everything influences me. It’s good, I like that influence.
Is that related to the centrality of scale in your work?
No, I’ve made large-scale works since 1993. I always made large things and small things. It has to do more with your mind and the radius of your action. Things that have to do with space have to do with space; things that have to do with what’s in front of you, which is the radius of your shoulder and arm when you sit, these are small. Then you can stand up and do this kind of thing (gestures reaching out) so there’s a more human-sized, direct thing. And that’s what art is, ultimately. I think to dig any deeper as to why someone uses big or small things, I think it doesn’t matter because ultimately everything can be equally efficient in your mind. Whatever size it takes on there is the size of the artwork. The physical size of the artwork doesn’t make it big or small. A good example: Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture of Hitler (Him, 2001), in a big room. Is it big or small? For me it’s big, because it’s not about the artwork, it’s about the space around it that makes the artwork. He needs all that space to make this thing happen. So it’s a very, very large artwork.
So why do so many of your works enlarge found objects?
I like it. Artists just make art. There’s nothing special to it. That’s the art I do. I want to do this. You can dissect everything in every possible way, and the next day you can dissect it in any other different way. It’s not like a car you can take apart into its individual parts. Partially yes, but even your interest to dissect art changes every year according to your mood, according to culture. The cool thing about art is that it stays there, to be dissected in many different ways, over a long time, by many different people. What we do as artists is not to dissect; we do the assembling. So therefore I just think, “I make this, that’s what I do.” I don’t have to justify anything to anybody because when you do that, when you want these kinds of answers as somebody looking at art, you don’t get shit out of art. You don’t enjoy the stuff you see. The advantage of art is that it just does what it does. You look at this lemon, it’s a lemon, that’s it. There’s nothing more to it.
Is technology important to you?
It’s like everything. How are you recording me now? Digitally or analogue? I think it’s not even a question. People see I use computers, so they say I’m making computer art. It’s not about making computer art, it’s just using the new thing. Everybody uses it. Before, everybody had the Yellow Pages. And then all of a sudden everyone had laptops in their studios. It’s the same thing. You use all this stuff because it’s normal. It’s integrated into everything you do, from your car to how you talk to each other, how you share things, how you get your money and pay your rent. It’s the same in art, it’s just a natural thing. Sometimes you need it, sometimes you don’t.
Your series of mirror boxes, in which photographs of an object from different angles are printed directly onto mirrored aluminium, seem to relate to 3D scanning processes.
You know what this is? You guys get it wrong. Have you ever carved something? In old school carving, you have a view on each side of a block and you cut that out, and it basically makes the shape. This is what this is. It’s just a minimal way of having a space that something occupies in the room without having it there. But it makes the space it occupies much more aggressive than with the real thing. I don’t know if it’s technical or not. Do you care if your fridge has a microchip in it or not? Not really.
People often comment on how diverse your oeuvre is, how one piece to the next is always a surprise.
There are people who say this and there are people who say “Oh it’s the same again.” I don’t care! The only interesting thing about art, for me, is what one does over one’s entire lifetime, and the chance that art can travel in time. And this is a unique thing. Art only lives because of the excellence of a very few people in the past. That sets the size and the outer perimeter of what is possible. There is so much stuff that doesn’t weigh up, that has no ambition whatsoever; it kind of lays around and it works. It serves its purpose. But the space that’s given to you – the size of the space – is defined by the things that have been made that kind of open up something. I’m not talking about the genius of the artist – no way. I’m talking about the efficiency of certain works, in what they do to your perception of the world we move around in. And ultimately that’s what it comes down to, I think. For me, everything else is really like a playground fight. When something inspires you it really inspires you.
Do you feel as if you need to make your work resistant in some way to critical interpretation?
No, critical interpretation is critical interpretation. Making art is making art. There is critical interpretation that is of the same ambition that I try to have with my work, then there is critical interpretation that is actually very lazy. The second one I don’t care about, the first one is interesting.
Can you talk about the Palazzo Grassi show?
It’s very different than this show at Gagosian. It’s a lot of older works that I haven’t seen for a long time. 10 years, 12 years in some cases. You make them and then they go; then they come back your way and then you look at them.
How does it feel when you look at old work?
I just did this for my exhibition at the Kunsthalle Vienna. Some of it was good, some of it was, like, OK. But you’ve got to be cold-blooded and let it be. There’s nothing you can do about it. You just take it, and you try to treat it nice. Let it be what it is, and that’s it.
And you’re making some new work as well?
There is new stuff, yeah. It’s a variety of things. But all in all it’s a much gentler show than this – in the colour palette, in the size, in the materiality, in the atmosphere.
You’re planning a film programme to run alongside the exhibition.
Yes. It’s just a whole bunch of films I like, and think are interesting. Some are good, some are bad.
Art films or cinema films?
Cinema films. Documentaries, cinema films.
Does this return us to the influence of Hollywood on your work?
What, my liking films? Who doesn’t like films? Give me a break!
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
My cat licking my ear.
First published: The Art Newspaper, issue 234, April 2012