ABSINTHE §2 Interview – Elizabeth Prentis
May 2019

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

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

Elizabeth Prentis : I work very instinctively, each piece comes from a gut idea. All works encompass: absurdity, humour, risk of failure, masculinity, process, movement, labour, activity and scale. These, I guess, are ‘action’ or ‘mission’ words, but they are not set out as a manifesto. If an idea doesn’t explore all these ‘mission words’ then I find ways in which I could use other materials or mediums until it feels right. If I have to spend too long on the initial matching of material/medium/process, I move on. I want the final work to mirror the energy and intuition of the initial idea. I aim to create an outcome which is humorous and energetic, but honest to the level of labour involved in its making.

The risk of failure is core to my work. Allowing the unknown to manifest itself in a piece is what holds my interest in the work. This is what led me to move away from ‘traditional’ sculpture materials and processes, and move in to an area where the sculptures are realised as a live performance. Developing knowledge of material and speculating how it will behave on a large scale is what keeps me excited, motivated and curious as a maker. 

H.C : I’ve noticed that many of your performance and video pieces incorporate objects from the world of construction; with hard-hats, high- vis jackets and boiler suits becoming your costume, and building materials and machinery your artistic tools. What are the conceptual ideas underpinning these works?

E.P : I use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as costume for a mixture of reasons:

Firstly, for practicality; I’ve always been interested in working on a big scale, with heavy materials and  machinery or industrial equipment, therefore PPE is an element which cannot be avoided. However, by choosing to use PPE as costume, it allowed me to critique both the bureaucracy of the Health and Safety system and the masculine assumptions associated with PPE.

When I was studying, there was often an assumption that because I was making big, heavy sculpture from ‘traditionally masculine’ materials my sole purpose was to make some angry anti-patriarchal statement. Questions such as “How does the gravitas and masculinity of these materials and processes affect your work as a female artist?” began to piss me off! I retaliated against this commentary and became a caricature of myself and the conversations which were happening. By pairing a boiler suit, hard hat and hyper-masculine industrial equipment with red lipstick, a perfect manicure and traditionally domestic or feminine materials I was able to mock people's assumptions about my practice.

H.C : Your 2016 degree show involved a piece entitled, IT’S TIME TO SLIME, which incorporated around 450 kg’s of homemade slime dropped from a height to create a ‘slime fountain’, a work which Grayson Perry commented was ‘rebelling against health and safety’. Do you agree with the Turner Prize Winners perception of that work? And have you often encountered health and safety roadblocks that hinder your performances?

E.P : I think my work does rebel against Health and Safety to a certain extent, it is impossible to avoid, the systems are in place and not going anywhere, but it can be totally infuriating.

I, as the maker, should have full control of my work and how my work is viewed or activated. Obviously, no-one wants anyone to get hurt - no artist wants to do a “Richard Serra”* - but what is infuriating is that often the health and safety systems lacks common sense, especially in an institution context. The zombie land of guidelines and box ticking feels like a game of cat and mouse to get proposals for work accepted.

IT’S TIME TO SLIME demonstrated the stubbornness you need to make large scale work, as there was constant pressure to change or adapt the work to make it fit into a tidy, easily assessed box. It was also an example of manipulating risk assessments in order to be compliant with health and safety. Often there’s all this paperwork for then nobody to bother to turn up and check the work matches the documents! Having to do this level of administrative and risk assessment work for materials such as slime, was my own way of mocking the bureaucracy of health and safety infrastructure.

H.C : I understand you’ve recently begun painting again after many years? How are you looking to marriage painting and performance within your work?

E.P : I did my first ever painting in 2017 as builders next door were chucking out some plywood and I had some emulsion kicking around. I was too skint to realise any sculptural works and didn’t have a studio at the time. My work is expensive to produce and takes a lot of logistical planning whereas a painting can be done quickly and spontaneously, I use it as a ‘breather’ from the stress of planning sculptural works or performances.

I’m curious to start digesting these paintings. As with the rest of my practice, they stem from a gut feeling or reaction rather than considered compositions. I’m not content with them just being paintings, I feel like they are almost blueprints for further experiments or development within sculptures, performances or installations.

H.C : This August, Lungley Gallery in East London will present your latest solo exhibition I Don’t Like Broccoli, but I’ll try Anything Once, curated by Siannon Saunders. What can we expect to see at that show?

E.P : I Don’t Like Broccoli, but I’ll try Anything Once will be the first time I attempt to translate a painting into a performative piece of work.

As I said, these paintings are intuitive, and don’t necessarily need to exist only as painting. I Don’t Like Broccoli, but I’ll try Anything Once is the first painting I did, on the discarded ply from the builders next door. I will be making a performance based re-enactment of this painting for the show.

This is an opportunity to put myself out of my comfort zone and experiment with a new way of working. I’m also looking forward to working with Siannon Saunders, who is curating the show, on a publication which will document our investigation into the painting.

H.C : Finally, could you give us an insight into how you are approaching the Absinthe project, and what you are working on for the exhibition?

E.P : For Absinthe I am realising a project I have wanted to do for a long time: JELLY FLIP 1.

I will be filling a pond liner with 360 litres of lime jelly and attempting to flip it out of its mould, using the manpower of the audience at the opening.

JELLY FLIP 1 has a direct link to absinthe’s colloquial term ‘Green Fairy.’ This feminine portrayal of a highly potent liquor is interesting. ‘The Green Fairy’ is alluring and sexy but in reality, absinthe is a potent, powerful liquor. Jelly is a soft, approachable, feminine material. It's nostalgic and inviting, but when it’s scaled up to nearly half a tonne, suddenly these adjectives don’t apply anymore. It becomes heavy, masculine, dominant, powerful, problematic. It is still jelly, but when presented in industrial quantities, our relationship to the material shifts.

I have been coming to the Spit & Sawdust daily to fill the pond with jelly, allowing each layer to set before pouring the next. The durational aspect of the work will be revealed through the unmoulding, as each layer will be visible. What has been fantastic about the site that the pub is open while I’m filling the mould. Chatting with pub locals has been really lovely and has enhanced the narrative of the piece. I really advocate work that is accessible to all, whether you have an art education or not, so to be in an environment with people from all walks of life discussing the piece and the process has been fantastic.

*In 1971, whilst installing Serra’s ‘Sculpture No. 3’ at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, rigger Raymond Johnson was crushed to death when one of the works two-tone steel plates slipped from it’s support and fell on him.