Monday, 27 October 2014


Erica Eyres with 'Sexual Fitness',2012

I spoke with Erica Eyres on October 24 2014, the last day of her show Biography Channel at the ASC Gallery, London. Born in Winnipeg in 1980 and educated in Winnipeg and Glasgow, she is best known for her obliquely disturbing films and drawings. The set-up at ASC was one film set in a sculptural installation, one film in a screened off area in the main space, and one large drawing in its own space behind that. First we discussed her background and two of the many films she has made previously. See

You’ve lived in Glasgow for twelve years now, but grew up in Winnipeg. It’s an unusual place: 700,000 people isolated in the middle of Canada, the coldest city in the world, snowed under every year for months on end. Its distinctive atmosphere is well captured in Guy Maddin’s film ‘My Winnipeg’ and the work of the Royal Art Lodge (Marcel Dzama and friends). How has it affected you?

I go back once a year, but didn’t realise until recently how much it influences my aesthetic. The city has a kind of casual attitude about it, yet inspires various forms of Surrealism. The slogan for Manitoba, the province where Winnipeg is situated, is “Friendly Manitoba”, which is true: there are a lot of strange characters in Winnipeg who try to engage with you everywhere you go. So, for me, narrative is everywhere there – visiting makes me recall past narratives, but I also seem to have quite funny yet intense situations.

A wry line from Maddin’s film is ‘I’m finally leaving Winnipeg for good – again’. How do you relate to that?

 I always think about going back – I do enjoy being there, but I always go in the summer. People are really different and happy in the summer, but winter’s depressing, as you can’t go outside. And it’s always a strange step to go back to your home town. 

How does Glasgow compare?

It’s not small, yet is small enough that everyone in the art scene knows each other. In some ways it’s a secondary city, like Winnipeg, as the main tourist attraction is Edinburgh. Glasgow also has its own different approach to everything. 

Who were your art heroes?

Diane Arbus was a formative figure for me when I was 15. Recently Philip Guston and Mike Kelley have interested me most. 

Would you say your films aim for certain awkwardness, maybe even a slight amateurishness along the lines of bad TV?

I’m definitely drawn to that aesthetic; I suppose it reminds of public access broadcasting in North America that has a certain appeal to me. And the idea that you’re trying to make something look convincing, but at the same time failing. I am drawn to awkward subjects, but the result is more something that just happens. I never set out to make something look amateur or awkward, I think it is genuinely the best I can do on my own without the assistance of a professional camera person, or director of photography. Funding is an issue, but I suppose I also have some resistance to the idea of artists utilising big film crews. There’s something more honest, at least for me, about an artist presenting something they’ve done with a single camera.  

Still from 'Pam's Dream'

But to remake Dallas with children (Pam’s Dream, 2011) must have been asking for a certain sort of awkwardness? What led to that project?
I got really into Dallas one summer, having never seen it before. Patrick Duffy had wanted to pursue a film career, but ratings really went down without his character, Bobby, so they got him back after the series, in which he’d died and Pam had remarried. So that series was revealed as a dream. The ridiculousness, and the way the actor seemed trapped, appealed to me.  It was so difficult trying to manage all these children. They’d brag to me how good they were and how seriously they were taking it, then they’d say they hadn’t been able to learn their lines, and they’d end up just reading off the ground. So it was awkward and the backgrounds were just the best I could do, but it would have been too cute otherwise, and made it less ridiculous to have them talking about power and capitalism.

I guess I should ask what TV programmes you most enjoy watching now?

I watch a lot of reality TV shows, like Come Dine With Me, and The Taste. I also really loved that show First Dates about the restaurant with all the people meeting on blind dates. My boyfriend and I will watch entire series of something like Cheers- which would have been perfect if it ended after season 1 as it was much like a play that all happened in one room. At the moment we’re on Season 4 of the The Waltons.  I’ve been wanting to do a series of drawings based on the Waltons, I think because I was considering how ironic it was that we were watching pirated files of the Waltons when it’s the most moralizing show, and seems to have a lot of episodes about the dangers of stealing.

In Inside the Minds, 2012, we mostly see a white wall while we hear about someone who can't read (he explains how he pretends to be reading) but can read minds and says how often he found an unrealised intention there before what seems to have been a disturbing action took place. How did that arise?

I’d been accumulating educational VHS tapes from the 1980s, and I’d found this material on first aid, and narrowed it down to a prolonged minute in which a body was just lying there, put together with a text in which someone with reading difficulties talks about their telepathic abilities, sort of balancing a problem reading with the claim that they can read minds. It’s a ‘loud’ silent movie. Then I ended up filming a white wall so the text comes up against a blank and you take on the condition of staring at a wall.

Why did you use sub-titles? 

I’m interested in finding ways of changing a narrative, and ways of making things seem anonymous – sub-titles can make the speaker invisible. Also, I often use narratives which are personal or based on someone I know and I like to change the point of view so it’s not just the standard monologue to camera in confessional mode.

Still from 'Autobiography 1'

Moving on to the work in this show, Autobiography 1 features someone seemingly reading someone else’s words about someone who wrote their own obituary?

Yes, it’s based on my own family but came to be more like archetypes than people you can empathise with. Having a male speaker reading complicates it: is the autobiography referring to him, you, or the person in the story?  It provides a way of questioning the medium. It was in this strange and ambiguous community centre venue, so it could have been something like a writing group. I’m sure there are people who write their own obituaries…

Installation view with 'Autobiography 2
 Autobiography 2 consists of views around Winnipeg’s natural history museum, with which I think you have links?

It’s called the Manitoba Museum, and used to be called Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. There’s definitely something uncanny about the place, and I’m very drawn to it and have gone there since I was a child. There’s also something very claustrophobic about it, the terrible musty smell, and the dioramas that are sometimes very realistic and other times very crude. I started working there as a volunteer when they were making a new diorama based on the parklands. For the exhibition, they collected a bunch of aspen trees, and soaked the bottoms in formaldehyde to preserve them, but then it turned all the leaves brown. So they hired volunteers to paint all the leaves green again, which is what I did that first summer. Then I got hired again the next year as a diorama artist assistant.

How did you make the video?

I filmed without any real intentions of using the footage. I’d just wanted to experiment with a new camera. I’ve re-organized that through the editing, so it becomes a vague depiction of evolution that starts with early forms of life, then dinosaurs, then animals and humans. The mannequins start out very realistic, and then devolve to become more crude, looking like stuffed nylons. I like that tension between being very convincing, but also very awkward. As a human I suppose I’m also part of the narrative of evolution, but so is everyone else. Again, just by giving it this title of “Autobiography”, it’s asking questions about the medium, and takes a very specific narrative of my relationship to this place and these dioramas, but also makes it more general by referencing the story of evolution.

There’s also a dose of humour in your work, though its themes can be dark…

Yes, humour has always been a way of changing the balance, offsetting what might have been off-putting.  And if you tell something as a joke, people question whether true or not – I’m not sure if that makes it more true or less, but I like that ambiguity. 

Clay Wig, glazed stoneware, 2014

There are various rather abject ceramic objects in the show: a glove, banana skins, wigs, burst balloons. Is that a new medium for you? 

 I’ve made ceramics for some years, but only just started to show them. They’re just rendered and fired, there’s no complicated moulding involved, which disappoints some people! They started from my having lots of wigs – everything on the show has some indirect connection to my life – when I liked how making them heavy changes their nature. I’m interested in making my practice figurative but deflated. I put them on this strange material called ‘Memory Foam’ which I thought would have been a good alternative title for the show. 

Clay Balloons, 2014

How did the ‘dead balloons’ come about, they’re unusual in being grey, as well as burst?

They’re more deflated narratives: I was looking for objects which had that organic, figurative feel about them but were also tactile. I couldn’t really imagine them being bright colours, so I went for the grey of raw clay. 

Clay Paper Bag, 2014

I particularly like the clay paper bag with eye holes.  It picks up on your humour in its dysfunctional ghostliness, and implies an estranged voice and hidden character...

It’s just too small to fit over the head, not that it would be very comfortable if it could! 

Wedding Day, pencil on paper, 185 by 260 cm, 2012

Drawing is a major part of your practice. Have you ever painted?

I’ve always drawn, but somehow painting has never worked out. My drawings try to make a narrative which isn’t about you but somehow you’re in it. Although I would consider most of my work to be figurative, I also feel as though it’s slowly become less figurative in the past couple of years.

What's the source for ‘Sexual Fitness’?

The image is from a book called Sexual Fitness, which is sort of a how to manual that combines yoga, massage, and sex but without looking like sex. More like a bad contemporary dance. But this was some sort of pose where the man was perched on top of the woman’s back. I feel the drawing has some of that tension between being figurative yet not, as well as a certain mood that’s added to by placing it in this strange back space that’s created by the video booth. It’s on the scale of a window, so you might be outside looking in.

Sexual Fitness, pencil on paper, 86 by 78 cm, 2011.

That hair has the disembodied feel of a wig, linking to the ceramics and to your wig collection. That is your own hair by the way?

It seems typical that there are bits you can understand in your work, and bits you can’t get a grasp of?

I like to read and research a lot but not necessarily make work directly from that, just let the meaning develop separately.

Freud defined the uncanny as the class of frightening things that leads us back to what is known and familiar. Does that sound relevant?

I think it does relate to my practice, but again not something that I strive for. I’m always scanning for images, and I make a lot of drawings or sculptures that don’t work, that get edited out. The videos are the same, where I amalgamate a large amount of footage, and then cut down in an instinctive way, trying to cut off anything that seems unnecessary. I think what’s left is the uncanny, that the only images that work are the ones that have a certain quality, depicting an object or person that’s familiar, and that familiarity is somehow a bit repulsive, but we’re also drawn to it.  There again, my father was a psychologist and my mother was a psychiatric nurse…

‘The problem is inside the minds’ – does that quote sum it up?

Yes, I’d say that’s where all problems come from.

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.