Absinthe §2 Interview – Jim Woodall

N.B. Originally published in the Absinthe §2 Catalogue, published by Side Quest, produced to accompany the Absinthe §2 exhibition, curated by Billy Fraser, Charlie Mills and James Capper, 18.05.19 – 17.08.19, Spit and Sawdust Pub.

 

Hector Campbell : As an interdisciplinary artist you work across a wide range of artistic mediums, including sculpture, photography, installation and video artworks. How do you approach the matching of concept and medium? 

Jim Woodall : I would say I am primarily a sculptor and do not necessarily consider the use of video separate from say, my use of concrete or an ‘endurance’ event. I am preoccupied with time – it’s structure, manipulation, control, relation to power and forced entropy. To give an example, I consider the work Adaptation Of A Memory Of My Fathers Studio Circa 1981 to be a sculpture, although it was constructed from performance, audience participation, video and conventional sculpture. It is both a portrait of my father and his favoured material, clay, as well as an examination of recollection, remembrance and transience; a stage set, documented by 7 video cameras, with the footage shown as live feedback and the pots produced during the performance shown in a grid; all of these elements are the components of the event, and it is this ‘event’ that I recognise as a medium. 

I could also reference the work If I Don’t Have You that was shown at Matt’s Gallery. The gallery space, which was about to close and move to a new location, I understood to also be a kind of stage. The four concrete pillars, built to replicate the existing pillars of the space, were the performers and the anticipation of their imminent collapse became the medium; ‘event’ as a material again. 

 

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H.C : As one of the founding members of the Cut-Up collective, the interventionist art group that ran between 2004-2009 and focused on reappropriated public billboards. Can you tell us a little about the aims and activities of that collective?

J.W : The initial aims of the collective were somewhat naive and born out of ideas from multiple readings of Situationist texts. There was a genuine belief that we were continuing in the lineage of Debord and Lefebvre’s detournement practice, spending nights tearing down billboards and breaking into bus shelter lightboxes, changing adverts to images of kids with ASBO’s, disorientated ravers, rioters and freedom fighters, all whilst wearing high-vis jackets.

This was during a time of encroaching internet presence, pre-Instagram, pre-data manipulation, pre-smart phones. Google Image Search was a relatively new thing, and we’d spend hours searching for images, grouped by themes and verbs, for the billboard collages. As the group matured, we became more focused on the process of granulation and aggregation itself. Not just of data and images, but of material and action. 

We began exhibiting more in galleries and museums than the street. Different members of the collective worked in different ways – 16mm film works with additional images applied directly to the film, sound pieces using hand-built analogue modulators and synthesisers and performances involving cars, drum kits and stacks of washing machines. Some of the most exciting moments were putting on large exhibitions in public spaces without permission – like the neighbourhood of Poblenou in Barcelona (2005) the basement of a multi-storey car park in Williamsburg, New York (2007) and multiple streets of Hackney Wick (2008).

I think the underlying themes of the collective still inform my practice today, and it was from this intense period of making that I still use a variety of media now. 

 

H.C : Many of your installations and sculpture incorporate the use of self-destructing concrete, the once-solid and permanent material made weak and transient. What are the conceptual ideas underpinning these works? 

J.W : Concrete itself is not a medium, but a process, constantly changing, strengthening, deteriorating and breathing. It’s also decisively political, being cheap, easy to source, environmentally destructive and socially divisive. It carries with it the utopian optimism of modernism, yet visibly shows its failures due to its structural demise, the difficulty of removal and oppressive use in wall building and war defences. 

It is a highly visual material. It scars the landscape with its mass, erodes and changes colour. It is able to dramatically demonstrate the act of collapse during earthquakes or bomb strikes. 

It represents both human endeavour and failure, and will tell the story of our existence after we have eradicated ourselves from the planet.

The forms I make with concrete are always architectural, mimicking pillars, walls and the blocking up of windows or doorways. The destructive element is essentially the speeding up of what is pre-determined – concrete will collapse. There is something captivating about watching a wall slowly creak, crack and collapse or a pillar split open and defy gravity as it leans over. Concrete carries much of its own conceptual ideas, so I use it as raw as possible and let the material and its destruction speak for itself. The event of the collapse is important to me – it is a part that’s mostly out of my control, although I do try to direct it.

 

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H.C : Your no stranger to durational artistic performances, once even spending two weeks living in a recreated security hut under 24hr surveillance. What can endurance performances achieve that perhaps traditional, staged performances cannot? 

J.W : When I’ve made video works, I will camp in the location that I’m filming in, spending days under a flyover for instance or in a carpark in Beckton. It’s an immersion that I feel is necessary to the work. 

The security hut was designed to mimic a hunter’s hide and was built in the lead up to the London Olympic Games. The aim was to question and subvert how people situate themselves in relation to social codes. A ring of CCTV cameras set up like sentinels around the hut, as well as fluorescent lights on the surrounding grounds, emulated the security operation of the Olympic site itself. Foregrounding the effect of the mega-event on the individual, the hut provided a ‘stage’ for me to explore isolation and alienation, where the waiting-game was played against mass mediation.

The endurance event is lived experience rather than performance, and it slows the artwork down. In a similar way to the collapsing concrete, time and it’s passing becomes a material of the work. To answer your question of what an endurance ‘performance’ can achieve that a staged performance cannot, I think it’s the space made available for mistakes, failures, accidents and imperfections that occur – the work is built and altered during its own lifespan. 

 

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H.C : ABSINTHE §1 saw one of self-destructing concrete works installed within the Spit & Sawdust’s smoking area. How are you looking to evolve this series across the subsequent Absinthe iterations?

J.W : The ABSINTHE work was at first a response to the space – its a pub, so I felt it needed to incorporate pub language. I see the work as a statement on a placard rather than a sculpture per se, and the boarded-up window location made sense, at the back of the pub with the smokers. 

Stand Still And Rot was the first iteration, employing a simplicity, directness and punkish use of language. The second text, Matter Is Not Dense, is linked to a knowledge of structural languages and ‘thinking’ through materials, i.e. the proposition that to think with the hands is a different kind of intelligence. 

I guess it’s a testing ground, as much of my work often is. I’ve occasionally used text in my work and it’s always been hard to find the right note, to speak of material in a delineative or political manner, yet at the same time be relational to a feeling or emotion. I wrote a lot after my Father died, trying to write purely about my understanding of material whilst directly grappling with loss and pain. The often transitory nature of my work chimed with my understanding of his passing. 

Not Now Coming Soon will be next text and correlates to the adverts in the area outside building sites, but also relates to our punctured and hastened experience of time. All of the text panels installed will eventually collapse and be destroyed.

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