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.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014


Art, typically, is useless. Otherwise, we suspect it’s design, though there is of course an art to that. Among the trends at this year’s Frieze (dance, work for children, smiley faces, spaciousness…) there were plenty of works which rubbed this commonplace in: they were explicitly useless.

Roger Hiorns: Untitled, 2014 at Corvi Mora (London)

Roger Hiorns famously filled a flat with blue copper sulphate crystals, and has grown them onto other objects, notably  engines. Those examples are explicit about uncontrollable aspects of the chemical reaction set in motion. His dazzlingly hidden clock is a more measured, but that’s simply how it worked out. Just so, even if we think we control time, it’s actually the other way around. And it proceeds without us: perhaps the hands are still turning in there. 

Cornelia Parker: Decoy, 2013 at Frith Street Gallery (London)

Cornelia Parker is an unusually clear explicator of her own work, so let me piece together some quotes: ‘I prefer things when they’re fractured for some reason. A very recognisable object can become mysterious and more open to interpretation when it’s in pieces…  And brokenness is very much a part of society. Civilisations fall, for instance.  The premonition that this fragile material will break is the inspiration behind the glass drum I call Decoy, as it lures people in to want to beat the drum, whereupon it will shatter. The drumroll will be falling glass.’


José Damosceno: Erasure Sculpture, 2013 at  Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo. 

The playful Brazilian artist   José Damasceno has a high London profile with the opening of his Art Angel project at Holborn Library. That’s more haunted by than revelatory of its eponymous Plot, making one suspect that this elegantly minimalist  sculpture is meant to go beyond its jocular ‘unsuitable materials’ gambit. Marble is the stone of memorials, and the obvious memorialisation from recent South American history would be of those ‘disappeared’ under dictatorships. But can the past really be erased?   


Yang Zhenzhong: Pleasant Sensation Passing Through the Flesh – 2, 2012 at ShanghART (Shanghai)

 This is the working mechanism of a massage chair stripped of its upholstery: you could watch the pressure pads ease themselves down then shudder their way up, with a compelling whirr, against the back of the wall – and wonder how pleasant the uncushioned sensation would be. Shanghai-based Yang Zhenzhong often brings foreboding into his wide range of work, for example his 2007 film of people saying 'I will die' - so perhaps it's no surprise that this skeletal form resembles an electric chair.

Alexandra Bircken: Storm (assault) at BQ (Berlin)

Cologne-based Alexandra Bircken - best-known for incorporating knitting with found items – is a motorcycling enthusiast. At Frieze, she re-purposed sets of racing leathers as paintings of sorts, complete with the sculptural protectors of knees and elbows. Her intervention is to slit the leathers open, ending its usefulness, then place it like a carcass bearing the traces of competitive action.


 Vija Celmins: Saturn Stamps, 1995 @ McKee Gallery (New York)

Celmins’ ability to conjure intensity on a small scale makes her a natural choice to design stamps. She should be asked, but meantime took it on herself to make a lithographic edition of 200 sheets of 42 stamps showing Saturn. Though complete with perforations, they’re not accepted by any postal system. Mind you, though cheap by Frieze standards at around £50 per stamp, they would - even by current standards - make for expensive letters.

Christoph Büchel: Sleeping Guard, 2009 at Hauser & Wirth (Zurich / London, New York). 

 The stand-out booth was curated by Mark Wallinger from the artists of his new gallery, Hauser & Wirth, a two part stand recreating Freud’s study through 75 works with backgrounds of red (rational / conscious) or green (intuitive / unfixed thinking). The stand’s architecture formed one of Wallinger’s characteristic ‘I’ forms across both camps. The green section included Swiss maverick Christoph Büchel’s particularly useless ‘Sleeping Guard’, seen here in front of work by Chiyu Uemae and Ellen Gallagher. Here was a man  who could be sacked for appearing alert on the job.


Pedro Reyes: Swiss Army Knife XII (Explorador Series), 2014 at Galeria Luisa Strina (Sao Paulo)  

Pedro Reyes is best-known, perhaps, for melting down guns to make musical instruments in a critique of Mexican weapon culture.  He he scoured Mexican flea markets for sound-making items to mount on a custom-made base. His novel form of Swiss Army Knife lacks cutting capability and is anyway many times too big to be pocketed, but the elements can be moved around rather satisfyingly to find new sculptural arrangements.  That’s Mexico I guess: much bigger than the Switzerland, with plenty of interest and potential for change – but far from as efficiently set up.

Richard Prince  Untitled, 2013 at 303 Gallery (New York)

Prince is an artist of many streams, from jokes to nurses to photo-appropriation to car bonnets to  de Kooningesque nudes to various series of abstract paintings. In the group he calls 'Band', underlying information – here a text and a record – is rendered inaccessible by white paint, on top of which angular abstract shapes are made by stapling the rather impermanent medium of rubber bands to the canvas. ‘Normality as a special effect might be another form of hysteria’, said Prince by way of several explanations when he first showed in this mode in 2011. ‘These paintings are like an unrecognized dinosaur... a beautifully feathered tyrant’.  I trust that clarifies the intent.

Walid Raad: Letters to the reader by Suha Traboulsi, 1943, 2014 at Sfeir-Semler (Beirut)

Lebanese media artist Walid Raad merges contrasting languages in these 27 prints, for which he fed the computer the many business cards he has been given over the years. They are said to mimic the formal approaches of the cool proto-Minimalist abstract 1940's paintings of the Palestinian Suha Traboulsi (born 1923). Presumably Waad has invented her as a paradigm case of how any such woman’s art would have been overridden by corporate male cultures.
Gizela Mickiewicz: Rolling Back Ahead, 2013, at Galeria Stereo (Warsaw)

You might think of the Pole as making things less useful, though her practice is more about separating objects out from our normal view of them, so that they acquire individuality on their terms: she says she's interested in 'the ontolgical status of objects'. Here she reverses the production process by unpicking things towards the point before they become what they are. How far back is that point?

Morgan Fisher Ilford Selochrome 120 September 1954, 2014 at Maureen Paley (London)

This, on the other hand, is a case of arrested development.  Experimental filmmaker Morgan Fisher has bought undeveloped rolls from all the major 1950’s film manufacturers, and resisted temptation by photographing them rather than attempting to access their contents. He was born in 1942, so they stand in for the possibility of revisiting his own years of development as well as constituting a tribute to the days when photography provided a direct physical link to the past.  

Jesse Wine Boyfriend’s classics II, 2014 at Mary Mary (Glasgow)

Chester man Jesse Wine likes it if ‘artists understand how to apply a method and purposefully do it wrong; they are in control of knowing they are doing it wrong, but not in control of the outcome'. Accordingly, he pushes clay forms towards mis-shapen breaking points. Ceramic trainers may be wrong for the feet, but they do share a containing functionality with vases. Indeed, given what his vases are like, these shoes might be a better place in which to put flowers. Also available for a girlfriend.

Taro Izumi: Untitled, 2012 at  Take Ninagawa (Tokyo)

It’s difficult to generate uselessness in quite the same way in film, but Fluxus-influenced Japanese artist Taro Izumi pursues a related path in a set of videos for each of which he produced a cumbersome white ‘anti-social’  abstract sculpture (seen on top of the monitors), and asked participants to integrate  them into their everyday lives. We see various shapes being washed, fed and put to bed…  So just what is the connection between art and reality?

About Me

My photo
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.