BANK in conversation with John Stezaker (On Orphans, Time Travel and the Symbiosis of Mythic and Real)

By BANK, 10 June 1996

B:What glue do you use?

JS: I swear by Pritstick.

B: Your work over the years has used older and older imagery...

JS: Yes. I wouldn't say it was just a linear progression, I'm not just going backwards, but yes I suppose I've felt freer and freer to use older and older material. Actually the dominant core of my work comes from a specific time - dated specifically from about 10 years before my birth and 10 years after, the forties and fifties. This is the point, the thing is you don't really know why you're interested in any particular image and if it was that I went around the world selecting images to conform with a program I had, that would be a completely different enterprise - I don't do that. When I find an image... I can give you a very current example, here you have a flaming gypsy caravan, and I know that will be in my work. I have no program that includes thoughts about gypsies or anything like that. I just know that is going to find it's way into my work. I think a lot of artists are fascinated by worlds from which we are absent but with which we can make some contact. Everyone tries to project forwards and backward to worlds literally beyond ourselves. "Garden", as a body of work, I suppose, is an attempt to describe such a beyond-world - a prehistory or post-history of creation. I'm looking for a space in which the mythic can coexist with the real.

B: What I'm interested in is your highly personal way you talk about the imagery you choose. In other words, is there any contradiction between this basic idea of mass culture - images everywhere that everyone uses - and the personal choice of image? JS: I hope I'm not emphasising personal choice. It wasn't the drift of what I was saying earlier. What I'm emphasising is actually quite the opposite - I don't have any choice - and it is definitely not personal. Almost the reverse - the images choose me, rather than I choose images. I see certain images like orphans awaiting discovery; give them homes, they've been overlooked by everyone, and that might sound very personal and it is - I find what I am as a person through the images I use, rather than having a personal agenda of some kind and using the images as form. That is not the point. The work is about trying to probe self but out there, in the images of the world and I'm not sure it's self I'm probing but perhaps something more ephemeral and collective.

B: So do you see yourself as an archaeologist, a beach comber on the urban beach, on the shoreline of twentieth century image culture? JS: Images left by the high tide... absolutely cool. You've got me down to a tee. Yes, I'd love to be that, yes, sort of West Coast. Certainly I'm chasing obsolescence, though I don't think its quite junk art. Redundancy is important for me though. I'm aware of it as a perennial irritation: I find the moment I can specify an interest in a particular kind of image that inevitably the image source dries up: the Spanish photo-roman magazine ceases production or nudist magazines switch to colour, or worse they become collectable. I've realised I've spent a lot of time searching for what are aberrations in image production and thus areas of redundancy.

B: Are all the images dead?

JS: In a sense all images are death. What I think I'm searching for are those points where one can feel that in an image - like a shiver, a shadow passing over one's grave. I sometimes feel something like that when I encounter a found image. It seems to tell you're only here for a short time like itself.

B: The technology of the prints that you seem to choose is pretty much a dead technology, whether it's cheap black and white or 50's colour?

JS: I think one of the things about 50's imagery is that its the last point of connection between a sort of formal... I mean you look at the background of one of those film star's images, bright red, bright blue - this was the time when abstract expressionism, post-painterly abstraction was appearing in America. The connection, the immediacy when someone opens their picture magazine in the 1950's... it was a totally novel thing and it's something like the same sensation when people go to see a Barnet Newman. All I'm trying to do is bring those two things together, those two sensibilities, and yes it's something that can't be repeated, will never be repeated. We now see the world through a cibachrome haze - that sense of the colour, the brightness of the red and what Barnet Newman was doing, to me they're connected. At that time when I was doing that kind of work, it was about sort of trying to make hidden connections between things, really the thing about being a collagist is that you don't actually create your own images. The images are there in the world.

B: You spent a lot of your childhood lying around, watching T.V.?

JS: No on the contrary. To begin with one didn't lie around one sat up perfectly with straight back and by the time we got our first T.V. set I was no longer a child. My experience of cinema was even more limited as I was not allowed as a child to go to the Saturday matinees. Funnily enough the images which I collect for my film still collages are precisely the ones I used to gaze at as a boy - the ones used to advertise the films in showcases outside the cinema. I also tend to use British film stills on the whole. I prefer the images from British rather than American film noir. It comes down to the textures and materials of the period and place.

B: It's also that it hasn't been so exploited so much in terms of artwork isn't it? I mean how much work has been done using Hollywood films? I mean are you doing something similar but choosing a slight tributary?

JS: The periphery has a way of informing interestingly on the centre. More than tributary I like the idea of a backwater. Anyway my work isn't about informing on anything let alone about making comment on the world of mass culture or any such thing. I'm simply trying to negotiate a way of producing images (in the sense of being an artist) in a culture of images.

B: What's the relationship between the new larger work and the smaller collages?

JS: I started working on these Iris prints because I was frustrated with the scale of the collages. I was attracted to the computer for the ability to image-enhance photographic enlargements as they had never satisfied me: it's very flat. The new technology allows me to work very close and at a larger scale simultaneously. B: It seems to me the small collages using real postcards... a bit of pencil showing or a real postcard with a slightly dogged edge on a real fifties still... I mean, look at the "Mask" series... you follow the line of an orange mountain which lines up with someone's shoulder or something and there has to be a leap of imagination. You have engage with the work. You are quite aware it's a postcard on top of a film still, once you've engaged in that you are complicit in the arrangement ... it seems to be more what you're about than this large scale. Maybe that's a red herring, I don't know? JS: I see the point: there is inevitably something more physically direct in the experience of found images in the collage, though it perhaps links the experience too much to the literalness of the postcard or the film still. I also like to cut the image off from its ties to the original. The source of image as mysterious also appeals to me. In the current work however there is a stronger reason for enlargement connected with body scale.

B: I wonder where connoisseurship comes in. Connoisseurship, how does that fit in?

JS: I collect images, I suppose locally I'm known most for the images I collect, because I support various charity shops. I'm after 'Lifesaving for Teenagers' as if my life depended on it, I come back with my haul, I open my plastic bag... I mean isn't this how all artists should work?

B: Is it like Philip K Dick in Counter Clock World where all the people wake up from their graves. Time's going backwards - squads of people wear earphones and they go and listen for people waking up from their graves.?

JS: Well I'll have to read the book because Stanley Spencer is my favourite artist of all times.

B: Really

JS: Oh yeah, Stanley Spencer is my favourite artist. He was aware that painting was resurrection.... finding the mythic and everyday - making it illustrate the mundane and abject. And even his relationship with Patricia, you know the woman with the meat, all of these things are about a realisation of Christianity within the heart of the culture he was living in. He was regressive, yeah, its the same favourite artist. Perhaps our ideas of an Eden are not Spencer's but in many ways a new genesis is more imminent to us culturally. It's the idea that we're creating our new genesis now, just the way we can manipulate species - I mean we are on the brink of a new genesis.

B: Are you talking about progress, going towards this new Eden? But you don't really believe that do you?

JS: I suppose at this current point in time we are in the position God was. We can create our own life forms in fact it's not only that we can, but we have.

B: So you're going backwards as well as forwards simultaneously?

JS: I hope that is what I'm doing in the new work - I like the idea that work has the ability to time-travel. It's worth pointing out that the images I use in the "Fall" and "Cross" series, which come from artists handbooks of surface anatomy, are posed (and composed) in relation to pre-existing images: Adam and Eve, Saint Sebastian etc. Mythology is embedded in the images ( as well as the history of mythic representation). I took a perverse pleasure in using images which were after all designed for artists use. There is something awesome about the ability we have to annihilate history-time. That kind of reality is something that is horrific and real. In fact, for example, if we eat trout every day of the week, we're eating the same trout. I was talking to an angler and he said in reality all you're doing is fishing from the reservoir, the odd one's allowed out. It's just not real any more. There're all the same fish. If you stop a species developing evolutionarily you're stopping time - I suppose it must still feel like fishing, but in reality you're catching the same fish over and over.

B: There's only one fish, it gets around.

JS: The same fish has been caught for eternity. I mean there is no nature. Face it. Genetically coded clone.

B: Isn't there a chance he could turn into a slightly different fish?

JS: No because he isn't allowed sexual reproduction.

FUCK OFF, including BANK, Lolly Batty, Gavin Turk and Rebecca Warren is on until 9th June at The BANK, 34 Underwood Street, London N1. Tel: 0171 336 6836.

John Stezaker's "Garden" was at Cubitt Gallery from 12th April - 5th May.