Jeremy Akerman: JA
Eileen Daly: ED
Jon Thompson: JT
26 June 2008, Sandwich, Kent
ED: What prompted you to start writing?
JT: Friends of mine in the early 80s who were other artists would say to me, ‘Why don’t you write something about me.’ At the time there were whole areas of art that nobody was writing about and a lot of those works were done by friends of mine. And because the critics of the day were not interested in neo-conceptual work, I started writing to write about it.
JA: Were you sympathetic because you were making a similar kind of art?
JT: There was an element of that in it but it was also because of my own history. I started off as a painter and found after a while that I was running out of steam, so I thought, ‘I’ve got to stop, re-think and start again.’ The writing became part of that process of re-thinking.
JA: Do you think the other artists who asked you to write about their work recognised something in the way you articulated things?
JT: Yes, and that was partly based on the fact that I was searching around, reading a lot of theory, reading a lot of art history and beginning to map the ground for a different practice for myself.
ED: When you were in this re-grouping phase was the writing an experimental space for you?
JT: I’ve always felt that writing to some extent is an experimental space, a way of challenging my own orthodoxies if you like. I always find that what I think is often at odds with what I see. I look at a work and often think, ‘I ought to be thinking this,’ but actually the work isn’t telling me to think that, it’s telling me to think something else. So when I’m writing, I end up in a struggle in trying to come to terms with or making reconciliation between what I’m seeing and what I’m thinking.
ED: So in this space, which was unoccupied at the time, where people weren’t writing about the kind of art you were writing about, did you consciously try to shape things through the writing and try to define a new area for yourself?
JT: Yes I did. I was trying to find a new path. I don’t think I’ve got there, but I was trying to find a new way to write about art.
ED: Would you be able to describe the evolution of your work as a writer?
JT: I made certain rules for myself when writing about art, I don’t always manage to stick to them, but I did make certain rules and I still think they’re the right rules. And I think if you’re going to write about art you must put yourself in the sway of the work itself. That must be the starting point and that must, in the end, be the thing that you’re seeking to elucidate in one way or another.
ED: What are the other rules [for writing]?
JT: I think the other major rule is to try to avoid using jargon, and to try to write in commonly understandable English, because I find so much writing about art where the vocabulary is taken wholesale from theory, produces a kind of obscurantism, which is unbearable. So to that sense you put yourself in the service of the work and then in the service of the reader. Those two things, and if you can somehow meet those two things or make them meet, then I think you’ve done a reasonable job. It might not be great writing or great criticism, but you’ve done a reasonable job, a workmanlike approach.
ED: Are you always writing as an artist?
JT: That’s inescapable for me. I’m a trickster figure in a funny kind of way. I like getting hold of these things and playing games with them. I don’t feel that I’m responsible to them. I’m not responsible to critical theory or philosophy … I was going to say that the third prong or rule is that ultimately you’re a kind of advocate as a writer. You shouldn’t find a case for something you can’t be an advocate for. At the beginning of every artwork, it doesn’t matter how small or large, there is a propositional moment where you’re saying, I’m going to do this because I think it will result in a work of art. That proposition moment is entirely a shot in the dark really no matter how experienced you are as a practitioner. That’s the big risk that all artists grapple with all of the time, it’s what makes their life both satisfying and hellish at the same time, because when it blows out it really blows out. So I think that that state of risk is what art is built upon, I don’t know if most people understand that. They always see the accomplishment; they don’t actually go back to the moment of risk. I think, as a writer if you can get some of that sense of the excitement of origin into the writing I think you can maybe begin to say something.
ED: Can you say something about the more poetic or lyrical pieces of writing?
JT: A lot of my writing is reactive. Like the Orla Barry piece for instance, I don’t think I would have written it like that if it hadn’t been that I was getting so thoroughly fed up with a lot of art theory writing that was going on at the time and I thought: ‘I’m so bored with all this stuff, why can’t people deal more with what they feel?’ I’m more for people writing about what they feel.
JA: How aware are you of placing things, of positioning things art historically?
JT: I’m very aware of that. As a writer about works of art you are in the business of placing them historically, it’s inescapable. It’s that thing of advocacy again. Advocacy is not just about speaking on behalf of something, it’s speaking about something in a particular context and as that context is formed historically you have to have thought about the historical configuration that allows this work to appear at a particular moment. Now that might not be the main focus of the writing, because I’m not an art historian, but it has to be thought of. The article on Kounellis for example, where I refer to the connection between Kounellis and Baudelaire, I don’t think anybody had ever written about that or spotted it before, yet Kounellis is highly well read in the area of poetry and knew his Baudelaire upside down and back to front and inside out. That’s a historical link and that piece is setting him in the whole context of the history of Symbolism. Those kinds of insights are artist’s insights; an art historian would perhaps never be naïve enough to actually say it, because they think you’d then have to introduce this and that and set out all that groundwork. I’ve often talked to Ian Jeffries about this and he says it’s the curse of the art historian in that they have to so map out the territory that they never get to the point.
JA: We’ve touched on it in different ways but the connection between the verbal and the visual, that’s interesting, could you try to say how that’s changed for you over time.
JT: It has changed for me over time and it still is changing to some extent. I am a dyed in the wool Wittgensteinian in the sense that I really do believe that the senses are connected to particular art forms. So the visual sense is connected to visual art and in some ways that’s an indissoluble compact, and that in a way words are connected to the aural sense and that’s an indissoluble compact. Wittgenstein asks, is it really possible to claim to be able to translate between the senses in anything but the most general form? And my view is that the more and more I think about it, it is impossible. The only thing that allows it to be possible is through description, but description is a very doubtful vehicle because we all know that I can describe things one way and you can describe them another way and these descriptions may appear to have very little in common with each other except at the moment when they are attached to the object, you know the apparatus of the object is so different. So more and more I come to that position where I think art shouldn’t have too much traffic with words. Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about art, of course not, that would be a naïve thing to say, but nowadays words are getting on top of everything.
ED: Looking back over the writing, is there anything that surprises you?
JT: I’m amazed at how much I’ve written, that does surprise me.
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