EuroVisions: the U.K.'s Graham Dolphin and Denmark's Rose Eken Remake Rock Music's Relics
Written Records: Graham Dolphin obsessively transforms old vinyl into new art
Interview by Bill Clarke
London, U.K.-based Graham Dolphin works directly on ready-made objects, including vinyl records, album sleeves and other music industry ephemera, scratching tiny texts into their surfaces. In his early work, these texts were most often transcription of lyrics by that particular recording artist – sometimes just a few songs, sometimes their entire back catalogue. Although his work defaces and destroys the original objects, the end results are whole new things. The intentionally scratched records and defaced album jackets – which were once owned, used and loved – are transformed into objects that convey a different kind of obsession and a new form of intimacy.
Dolphin has been exhibiting since 2000, and has been included in group shows in London, Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin and New York. His most recent solo exhibitions took place this year at the Regina Gallery in Moscow and the Vaxjo Konsthall in Vaxjo, Sweden. His work is currently being presented at the inaugural Dublin Contemporary exhibition in Ireland, and he is represented by SEVENTEEN in London and David Risley Gallery in Kobenhavn, Denmark. The artist corresponded by e-mail with Magenta editor Bill Clarke. Here, they talk about obsessive mark-making, transforming old vinyl into art, his work in video and sculpture, and the perfection of Richard Hamilton’s record jacket design for the Beatles’ “White Album”.
Bill Clarke (BC): Were you a music fan growing up? Did you do things like collect records, go to concerts and buy band t-shirts?
Graham Dolphin (GD): Yes, I was, and I remain a fan of all types of music, although my tastes and perspectives have shifted over time. My teenage years were in the late-80s, which now seems quite a golden age for music with the emergence of guitar bands from the U.S., particularly in Chicago and Louisville, and in the U.K. with electronica/techno, both of which were very exciting. I started going to gigs with my older brother and we spent most of our formative years in the one second-hand record store in our small town and at the local record library, amassing a decent record collection, but an even bigger taped collection of the rented vinyl from the library. And there was, of course, the huge influence of John Peel's radio program, sitting around and taping things that hit a chord. I've still got most of the records, although they are rarely played, and I still try to see as many concerts as possible. My buying of actual objects has diminished a lot with broadband access, which is lamentable in many ways, but it has opened up a world of sounds I'd only ever read about before.
BC: As I was putting together the questions for this interview, I put on the “White Album” by the Beatles (1968) because one of the first pieces of your work that I saw was at the New York Scope fair in 2006. It consisted of a white piece of paper on which you’d written out the lyrics of the songs from that album in white ink, and placed it in a white frame. It was so subtle – minimalist, even – yet obsessive and finely detailed. One had to get up close to appreciate it.
GD: That series of work relied on the amount of labour involved and imparted onto the mass-produced object. As a teenager, I would spend hours transcribing the song titles, band members’ names and recording details onto the tape covers I made with my brother from the library records we'd borrowed. We couldn't afford to buy the records, so this was an attempt to take ownership of them by making our own collage covers and faithfully recording all the vinyl’s details. I wanted to transfer that dedication into the art I produced for this series of work, but if you walked right past it and didn't actually see the work involved, that was fine.
BC: There is a long history of artists using vinyl records as source material. In Ed Ruscha’s artist book Records (1971), the vinyl LPs suggest urban topographies; Christian Marclay reconfigures record shards into sculptural representations of the remix, and Steve Wolfe’s collages based on records are reflections on two key elements in the history of Western painting - the still life and trompe l’oeil. In each of these cases, we are looking at representations of records, but they are also something else. So, what do records become in your hands?
GD: With the record works and earlier fashion works, I wanted to work directly and physically with the actual objects I was familiar with. There is a formal beauty and consistency to records, but also still a mystery of how they work and as representations for music, which is intangible. In some ways, I was trying to unpick that mystery by making the records useless in their original function while they shifted into art objects.
BC: Why did you choose the records you did for these works? Is part of it because many these bands have connections to the art world? For example, the Beatles’ having album covers designed by Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake, Patti Smith photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, the members of Sonic Youth meeting in art school…
GD: These people made some of the best and iconic visual accompaniments for the music. Hamilton’s cover for the Beatles’ “White Album” is perfect in functioning as a mass-produced, but numbered limited edition, art piece, and it is also strikingly graphic. I’m not sure whether Hamilton thought of it at the time but, as time passes, the cover picks up traces of history, gets dirty, the records indent the sleeves. The cover loses the pristine blank whiteness it began with.
BC: As a once-obsessed vinyl collector, I’d never purposefully scratch up a record. How do you see this intentional marking of these pristine, shiny surfaces? Is it a Duchampian gesture – the use of the readymade? Or, is it some sort of ‘violation’ of these canonized musicians?
GD: At first, it felt very wrong to destroy the record as an object, and from the start I would only ever use a first pressing of the records I selected. That way, I was getting closer to the original object and the records would already be left with traces of their previous owners. My parents, although they only had maybe 50-odd records, would stick numbers onto their covers and catalogue them. I love it when people personalise their records by writing their names, or drawing onto the covers or labels. I hate the record collector fetishism of the object; it seems so at odds with the intended function of them - music as an intangible enabler to experience culture. That said, I had a fair number of 'limited edition' coloured vinyl LPs and double pack 7-inches way back when.
BC: Do you listen to music as you work? If so, what are you listening to right now?
GD: One of the worst things about a job, and I've not had many, is that you can't listen to whatever you want, or you're subjected to others' musical choices while you do it. I do need to hear sounds while I work. Right now, I'm making a series of portraits of Elliott Smith so I'm listening to him a lot, and I recently made a piece about Nick Drake so he was getting rotation in the studio. Away from work-related stuff, I'm listening to the latest Fire! release with Jim O'Rourke and Shogun Kunitoki, Sergey Kuryokhin, Kurt Vile, Carl Simmons, Death, Sleigh Bells, picking up stuff from recommendations and chance encounters.
BC: Is there any sort of political subtext to the altered album covers in the No More Beatlemania series? The Beatles came to symbolize the U.K.’s global dominance in the realms of popular culture, music, and fashion back in the 1960s, but things have been pretty tough in the U.K. for much of the last 20 years.
GD: No, not really. The title No More Beatlemania is from a Half Japanese song, which is a blow-out rant about how anything would be better than more Beatlemania: “why have Beatlemania when you can have Yokomania, Shaggsmania, Talking Heads mania...once was enough.” It's such a joyous rant of a song from a truly brilliant group. Every few years there seems to be another reinvention of the Beatles’ cannon, the re-release of the mono albums on CD, the Anthology series, the Guitar Hero game, the back catalogue forever vomited back up for another few quid. That's not to say I don't like them as a group – I’m quite ambivalent, really – but, as Jad Fair so eloquently states, there are way better things we could be mania-ing about. I read an interview with Trumans Water where they were asked to pick their favorite record from the 1960s. They chose In A Silent Way by Miles Davis (1969), and mused about how different our culture might be if that had been as big as the “White Album”.
BC: Following on from this work, you created a series in which you wrote on blow-ups of Dior advertisements. I don’t want to get into those, but you also made what I believe are your first sound-based works: Drum Circle (2009) and another called Requiem (2008). Can you tell me a bit about Requiem and what the transition to working with actual sound was like?
GD: Actually, I've made a lot of sound and video works before. Requiem is a single-screen video piece in which I reconfigured a performance of Mozart’s Requiem, cut up into six, 10-minute sections and played at the same time. Both the purely sound pieces and videos that use sound I approach in the same manner as all my work. I don't think of them as being different, and I don't like to describe them as either music or film as I'm neither a musician or a film maker. The first video and sound pieces I made were in 1991; they've always been a part of my practice.
BC: What were some of those earlier sound pieces, then, and how has that aspect of your practice evolved?
GD: Star Spangled Banner Recurring is a video work that repeats footage of Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock across the screen. Each repeat is delayed by a half-second. This build fills the screen with visual echoes of the performance, and the sound becomes even more a storm of guitar feedback, distortion and drone. I made a sound piece for a large stairwell in the BALTIC gallery in which I reassembled the Bernard Herrmann score from Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo (1958) to play as a single score. The speakers were positioned at the bottom of the stairwell, which functioned as an echo chamber and speaker. The effect was quite sickening and mirrored James Stewart’s vertigo in the film.
BC: In your last exhibition at SEVENTEEN, you made the transition to sculpture. The work has also taken a somewhat darker turn with its references to the suicides of musicians Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis and Elliot Smith. What attracted you to this subject matter? And, what was the transition to making sculpture like? Will you do more of it?
GD: They are quite dark as they deal with mortality in a roundabout way, but the works’ focus is on the fans who make pilgrimages to these sites and leave their tributes and marks. I’d never really thought about making a sculpture, but it was what the idea called for so I had to make them in the most direct way. This is true of all the work I make, the idea comes and I need to find the most direct way to realise it. It’s only when I started moving these three dimensional, big works around that I discovered they were sculptures, and all the effort of transporting them and the physicality of them really hit home.
I'm not sure how many more of these sculptures I'll make; a few recent ones have been fabrications in that I've transcribed tributes left at grave sites and online onto objects nearby to the final resting places of musicians. I made a gate piece for Nick Drake and a bin piece for Brian Jones. Both objects are faithful to items in the graveyards where Drake and Jones are buried, but the tributes have been left at the graves, not written in graffiti on the nearby gate or bin.
When I was making the first of these sculptures, Bench (2010), which is a recreation of a wooden bench in Veretta Park in Seattle, opposite the former home and place of Kurt Cobains’ suicide, I was faithfully redrawing the text and drawings fans had written all over the surface of this very ordinary bench. I wasn't consciously reading them as I made the work; I was too bound up in drawing their handwriting. Once I stepped back, I saw the mass of marks and the outpouring of emotion in the language. Only then did it become quite poignant, although its poignancy is, of course, once removed by my recreating.
BC: Part of the latest body of work is a trio of sculptures of a bust of Jim Morrison, which you fabricated based on photographs from the 1980s of a sculpture made by a Morrison fan that he or she affixed to the singer’s grave in Paris. What does the fan’s original gesture, and your recreations of it, mean to you?
GD: For me, the gesture is at the core of the work. The remaking of the object, making it appear old and ‘real’ are all surfaces onto which I can recreate the fan’s gestures. I'm really fascinated by not only the need to do this, but the unthinking way that the marks are made. I'm totally unfree in my mark-making; for me, there is no spontaneous gesture so I'm fascinated when this happens. I've been redrawing fan’s drawings I’ve found online and bought from amateur artists. As in the graffiti fan tributes, I'm trying to faithfully recreate the marks they have made in their original drawings, imitating their spontaneous gesture. They are making art for another reason, almost unconsciously, without the baggage of history and theory.
BC: Are there any artists - past or present - who influence your own work?
GD: Not sure what influence they have on my work but, in Venice this year, the work of Steven Shearer, Mike Nelson and Haroon Mirza, and Christian Marclay’s The Clock video, were staggering. So many others: Anna Bjerger, Marcel Dzama, Tom Friedman, Mike Kelly, Jeff Koons, Jim Shaw, Franz Kline, Raymond Pettibon, Karen Kilimnik. Eva Rothschild’s recent exhibition at the Hepworth here in the U.K. was great.
BC: This might be an awful question to ask, but what are your five favourite record albums?
GD: Can I dodge that one? It is way too hard to answer – they change every day, hour, minute…
Graham Dolphin’s work is included in the first Dublin Contemporary exhibition in Dublin, Ireland until Oct. 31, 2011. His work is also part of the group exhibitions “Nothing In the World but Youth” at Turner Contemporary in Margate, UK until Jan. 8, 2012, and “Thank You for the Music”, which opens Jan. 26, 2012 at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland.
Rock n’ Roll Remnants: Denmark’s Rose Eken remakes rock paraphernalia
By Nadja Sayej
Berlin-based Danish artist Rose Eken works in a wide range of media, including sculpture, video and photography. What is most surprising about her work, however, is the feminine element she brings to the male-centric world of rock - miniature and delicate-looking replicas of iconic rock bands’ drum kits, a letter written by the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious embroidered onto silk, or embroidered fabric recreations of punk vinyl records. Less interested in the music made by these bands, Eken’s art focuses on what Danish music journalist Jan Sneum called “the paraphernalia of rock - its appearance, myth and stories” in a recent short essay on her work. Eken is no simple fan, however. Through repetition (she doesn’t make just one sculpture of a drum kit, she makes 100), and her thoughtful choice of materials, Eken achieves a balance between artifice and authenticity that not only makes her an art star, but a rock star in her own right.
Eken studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, and graduated from the Royal College of Art in London in 2003. She has been showing steadily since 2004, with her most recent solo shows at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin and at Charlotte Fogh Contemporary in Aarhus. The artist took a break during a recent residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien studios in the cozy Berlin neighbourhood of Kreuzberg to talk with Magenta contributor and the host of ArtStars* TV Nadja Sayej about her process, and what it was like to sell her soul to rock 'n' roll.
Rose Eken (RE): It’s a very sweet note listing all her attributes; hence, the choice of champagne, flesh-coloured silk. It’s like underwear fabric: luxurious, sexy and serene, which contrasts with the dirty rot of punk rock. What was I thinking while embroidering? A lot of thoughts are sewn into that piece. It’s over six meters long, and took months and months to make. But, that’s very much a part of my work … the process of its making. The thoughts sewn in, the time it takes, the repetition of each tiny stitch. It somehow reflects what the musician does when repeating and rehearsing the same riff over and over.
NS: You have a strong connection to music in your work; your iTunes must be full. What album made you want to make work about music?
RE: (Laughs) Yes, my iTunes is full, for sure, with everything from metal, punk rock, indie, pop to opera and jazz. But, what album did it? I really can’t say. Blues has had a great influence on me, the roots of rock and roll.
NS: You made 100 miniature drum kits out of ... is it cardboard? Tell us the story about how you sold it. I find that fun.
RE: I have not sold it yet! I’ve only shown that piece once as they take up about 30 feet of wall space. But, they will be on display starting in October until the end of January in Denmark at a museum called Brandts Kunsthal in Odense.
NS: Your clay sculptural works bring to light all the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes stuff – from the duct tape to used guitar picks, cigarette butts and even trashy bars. What drives you to show us the side of the music world we usually wouldn't see?
RE: As a teenager, I worked as a stage technician and made lights for lots of different bands in Copenhagen. I became really interested in this notion of the space – the venue itself – basically, the moments before or after the gig in this big black space. It’s very strange without people, without a crowd, it’s somehow suspended in time. This notion is very much at the core of everything I do, and I guess with the different ceramic pieces, you can say I zoom in on the very familiar object. But, I restage them or reframe them by changing their materiality. Their realness is somehow enhanced and they become hyper-real. And yet, these objects are not functional at all and can break at any moment. Clay also shrinks when fired, so the pieces are all slightly too small, just off the size of the real object. This enhances the uncanny quality of them. They really want to be the real thing – like aspiring rock stars – but, they will never quite make it.
NS: You also hand-embroider set lists. Do you see them as poetry?
RE: Yes, I see them as a form of poetry or, that is, sometimes they can read as cryptic poems. Sometimes, they are quite an obvious list of songs; it depends on how the band/person uses them, the adaptations or notes made to them. But, what also intrigues me is this idea that they are actually the only concrete things left after concerts – these trodden-on or often forgotten pieces of paper that contain an entire concert on that specific day with all the glitches and success that occurred at that moment in time. I like that idea. Mostly, the musicians have given them to me themselves, or friends, roadies or sound technicians. Sometimes, I’ve taken them myself in Copenhagen – there are no rules about that!
NS: Earlier this year, you released a book. What is it about?
ER: The book is sort of an overview of works I’ve made over the last three years. It’s called REmake/REmodel, and I printed it on my own. You can buy it through my website or you can contact me directly.
NS: Last question: Did you sell your soul to rock and roll?
RE: Sure thing. But, it was a good bargain!
Rose Eken’s Untitled (100 Drum Kits) is included in the Enter 2 exhibition, a survey of 20 noteworthy emerging Danish artists, at the Brandts Kunsthallen until January 29, 2012.
Nadja Sayej is a Canadian journalist, broadcaster and internationally acclaimed Gonzo art critic who hosts the legendary web TV show, ArtStars*, from Berlin. A regular contributor to the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, the National Post and others, she reports on art, architecture, culture and counterculture. Best moments: interviewing John Waters, Peaches, Bruce LaBruce, Robert Crumb and Richard Kern.