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Painting as Prophecy

October 13, 2010

Artist-Curators Andy Wicks and David Northedge discuss Superunknown, their exhibition currently at Edel Assanti which examines contemporary culture’s visualisation of the future.

 

What is the idea behind Superunknown and how did it come about?

Andy Wicks: Superunknown came about through a mutual fascination for the wealth of literature and film exploring dystopic landscapes, particularly the work of JG Ballard who has influenced both of mine and David’s practices for some time. The exhibition was built from wanting to delve further into these worlds with a mixture of artists to create a landscape of our own.

How do you think this exhibition builds on the current legacy of the superunknown? What does it add in a contemporary sense?

AW: The title actually came from Soundgarden’s album – Superunknown. We wanted a title with impact, something ambiguous and all-encompassing. ‘Superunknown’ seemed to have the grandeur needed to take on this subject matter, it’s the type of title with certain visuals automatically associated with it, whether 60s B-movies or 70s sci-fi novels. I hope that it adds something to the idea of the unknown; it’s our version, our prediction of what the future could hold. Superunknown is a show of contemporary artists at various points in their careers and each has a strong voice and vision within their work. Hopefully in viewing this exhibition the audience will get some sense of stepping into this world.

How did you choose the artists?

AW: The artists are a combination of people that David and I have encountered over the last few years, work that we’ve spotted in other exhibitions, recommendations from fellow artists and contacts made through art-related jobs. They all have something within their work that shares the sort of the aesthetic we were going for. There have been a lot of dystopian and Ballardian references in the visual arts over the last few years. Since we started discussing the concept for the show there’s been Gagosian’s Crash exhibition, the homage to Ballard earlier this year, and prior to that a group of young artists put on a show at a warehouse belonging to Damien Hirst in South London, also called CrASH, along with many others across the country. We thought it would be good to have our own take on it, with artists that we admired and who we felt would create tight and interesting show.

Aside from Ballard’s Crash, which films and books have influenced your concept of the superunknown?

David Northedge: We both read a lot of Ballard before writing the proposal. I wouldn’t say Crash was the main influence, it’s more that Ballard has a great knack of prophesying the next five minutes, a kind of visionary present rather than a distant future land, and this runs through all his work.

AW: Reading the classics in my teens – Orwell and Huxley – those books really stick with you. Films such as Brazil, Battle Royale, The Terminator, 28 Days Later, and Children of Men, and then there’s been a heap of big post-apocalyptic CGI films out lately. What was refreshing was reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which really looks at the opposite end of things and strips it back to make it about a single relationship rather than a race. The whole melting pot of influences got us thinking and perhaps it was McCarthy that put us onto a more open idea of the unknown and hope.

How much of a political dimension is there in this exhibition, in relation to climate change for example? It seems to suggest the self-destructive tendencies of our age, the lack of self-regulation.

AW: We didn’t want the exhibition to be all doom and gloom. A lot of recent visions have shown total destruction in post-apocalyptic worlds, and certain works in this show may have elements of that, but we also aimed to explore our hopes, dreams and fears. We wanted to show light with darkness, elements of the psychedelic and the human spirit amongst chaos. Some of the works show toxic sky and destroyed worlds which can’t help but be political, even if they do so indirectly through referencing works of film and literature; many of the classic books were written as warnings to future generations about what could happen, whether through control states or through human actions. I think the digital side of the exhibition has an interesting political angle, elements of pixels, matrixes, static and markets – these datastreams that fill all our lives, areas of communication which are new and growing rapidly but which can’t be properly regulated, and user generated content on the web – in blogs such as this one.

Have the two of you curated many shows, either solo or together?

DN: We have worked on a few things together in the past, actually more so than individually. We did a two-man show on Vyner Street a couple of years ago which went well and it spiralled from there. Finding somebody who you feel comfortable working with and can rely on is difficult but invaluable. Just logistically putting on a show this size would have been a nightmare for an individual.

AW: While searching for the right space for Superunknown we put on a small three-person show called ULTRAMEGAOK in pop-up space in Hoxton. Along with our own work we also included Matthew Atkinson, so it kind of acted as a prelude to Superunknown and got us thinking more about how we would want to approach a larger version with further works of a similar aesthetic. This has certainly been the biggest thing we have done to date but having known and been in dialogue with the artists for some time it made the hang surprisingly easy with us both so familiar with the work.

How did you find it fulfilling two roles within the same show: as both exhibiting artist and as curator?

DN: When we first started talking about the show we drew up a list of about 15 artists who we felt could bring something to the Superunknown project. I thought that we had a good brief for the show, but we invited so many artists, because honestly, we were not sure whether we could attract people like Mike [Ashcroft] or Gordon [Cheung] to show with us. However almost everybody said yes, so we had to go from thinking about an intimate space to thinking about something much larger and more testing. So in the end it became much more about the project than our work. I think you need to remain objective about the show, to make it work as a whole rather than make it a crass ego trip.

AW: Including our own work in the show needed to be justified, we didn’t want it to be a token gesture so it had to feel coherent with the others. I set myself an earlier deadline to complete my painting, I guess I treated it like any other show, as if I hadn’t seen the brief before, so as to approach it with fresh eyes without the baggage of knowing what everyone else was putting in or how I could see it hanging. The last thing I wanted was to be worried about finishing a painting on top of having a heap of admin to do at the same time. Once I had finished at the studio I could put my curator’s hat on and enjoy the organising and the practical side.

There’s an interesting mixture of abstraction and realism in the show. I’m thinking of the contrast between, for instance, Michael Ashcroft’s The Huntsville Times and Sayshun Jay’s Statictest. Do you feel that abstraction lends itself better to postulations of an unknown future?

DN: We didn’t want to be restricted to one or the other when selecting for the show. There is a novel by Ballard called The Atrocity Exhibition which is formed by many paragraphs of text which at first seem unrelated but slowly the imagery and subjects of these texts begin to resonate and an underlying story appears. I see the two disciplines of realism and abstraction within this show as a kind of drifting in and out of consciousness. You see something as definite as the image in Mike’s piece at the entrance of the second gallery and each piece after becomes more abstract until you reach the abrupt ending of Jay’s Statictest, in which so much and so little is happening simultaneously.

AW: A lot of the abstract work deals with the digital age, replacing contact and real world experience with a virtual landscape. I think both the abstract and the representational offer something of the unknown; with traditional landscape the viewer can either buy into a vision, or (perhaps naively) dismiss it as being too farfetched, whereas with the abstract it can be harder to call.

As you mention, traditional forms of landscape painting appear throughout the show. Was it your intention to use these traditions to highlight the difference between the past and a possible future, perhaps to cling on to the past?

DN: If it does that then it wasn’t intentional. Perhaps that happens more directly within Andy’s practice. Comparing the past to the present tends to polarize emotions into past equals comfort and reassurance, and the future being uncertain and daunting. We wanted to embrace the future in Superunknown and for it to be anything but the well-trodden cautionary tale routine.

AW: Alternatively I think some of these landscapes highlight similarities between the past and future: rather than being dramatically different it offers ideas of devolution and returning to a simpler, less developed state.

How does the superunknown operate specifically in your own work?

DN: I’m interested in beauty and vulgarity, or more specifically when one becomes the other. I source imagery from plastic surgery websites and society magazines. These images are manipulated through a painterly process which subverts the intention of the original image, onto which we are encouraged to map a fictionalized reality to achieve our individual hopes and dreams, turning it into something nightmarish.

AW: The painting I’m showing in this exhibition, Earl, is the continuation of a series I’ve been working on which explores derelict structures set against rusting backdrops which take the object out of their surrounds, recreating it as a floating abstract form, devoid of context or history. Earl depicts a wooden dolphin in the river Thames; these are posts or structures which boats would have been moored to but are now mostly rotting away. I like the fact that they still exist in the modern day as a relic of an industrial past. It’s the sort of element I could imagine in a torn-apart landscape, an object that no longer serves a purpose but has survived until now and could continue to exist amongst our more modern surroundings of cars and high rises.

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