London, Aug. 2010: It is a grey, drizzly August afternoon and I am wandering over Waterloo Bridge towards the grey, brutalist mass that is London’s South Bank Centre. In this 1950s concrete cultural complex, through Dan Graham’s glass pavilion, I can make out a bright orange form, flanked by specks bright blue. At the entrance to the Hayward Gallery, all I can see is a rabbit, drawn on the wall, accompanying the title of Jess Flood-Paddock’s exhibition ‘Gangsta’s Paradise,’ her third show in the last 9 months.
I've known Jess Flood-Paddock for many years, since our parents met around Leeds College of Art in the 1970s. Over the last couple of years she has presented a range of three-dimensional works including a stack of newspapers and a raspberry, both in clay, a fur-lined trough entitled ‘America’ and a chipboard Aztec sculpture. While “daft” might be one of the words that springs to mind when contemplating these works, the incisive examination of object-hood and notions of craftsmanship that underlie these seemingly flippant witticisms soon becomes apparent.
When Jessie finally arrives, she is exhausted after five weeks of non-stop work. We lie on the floor by a wall that separates a 5-foot tall replica of Michael Johnson’s autobiography Slaying the Dragon (1996) and a giant lobster, a dazzling array of orange and yellows. The lobster is facing the wall, in an almost shameful way, like someone’s told it off. I gaze at the phrase ‘Utopia – Last Day’ scribbled on a hand-made sign over the artist’s head.
Natalie Hope O’Donnell: So now the show is up, are you a happy bunny (excuse the pun)?
Jess Flood-Paddock: Yes, very happy. One of the most interesting aspects of this show were the three different sets of collaborators: the Anthropology Department at Cambridge University, the National Theatre, and the breeders of the German Grey giant rabbits. I went to a few breeders to get an overview and they are all quite different. The ones from up North are really nice and less suspicious, but the ones from the South are horrible. These people trade in rabbits, they are like mini racehorse studs. All they want to know is whether you’re going to buy a rabbit, they are quite hard people in that way. They’re not interested in art, only in rabbits. They are not interested in expanding the idea of a rabbit. It’s a rabbit and that’s it. I went to a rabbit fair and met a 12-year old breeder who sold rabbits without any emotional involvement whatsoever. Once their coats have gone a bit woolly, they are moved on and replaced by new ones.
NHO: What do they keep them for?
J F-P: To show, like Crufts - the dog show.
NHO: Where does this interest in rabbits come from? They are new to me, last time we spoke about the show it only included the lobster and the skyline.
J F-P: I was initially interested in the story of giant rabbits in North Korea, where they bought a dozen rabbits from a German breeder to start a breeding programme as one way of dealing with the famine. However, after a while the German breeder hadn’t heard anything from the North Koreans and then the news story broke across the Internet. The North Koreans had held a feast for Kim Jong Il’s birthday and eaten all the rabbits, so they never instituted the famine-combating programme. The Internet news sites had grabbed hold of the giant bunnies. They are huge – around 10 kilos – they are really funny to look at, particularly their toes. And it was this tragi-comic story that appealed to me, there is a really comic side to an incredibly dark story, which invokes the morality of…of.
NHO: ...the morality of consumption?
J F-P: Yes, and this is where the lobster comes in - the morality of eating lobsters, the luxury of eating, considering what you consume and the superior position adopted in making this decision, which was invoked in David Foster Wallace’s essay ‘Consider the Lobster’ for Gourmet Magazine (2004). He extended his research into the neurological side of the issue, with descriptions of what happens when you put a lobster in boiling water, and whether it has the ability to feel pain. He concluded that one deals with this issue by not thinking about it.
NHO: [finding it hard not to think of childhood memories of parboiled lobsters attempting to escape, I wince. I had lobster just the other day…if it can feel currents, presumably it can feel the roasting coals of the barbeque. To distract myself, I consider the relative size of Jess’s lobster]. It’s huge.
J F-P: It’s so big to take the place of a giant roadside attraction, like those for seafood restaurants. My sculpture merely refers to these plastic restaurant lobsters or roadside signs, rather than being a replica. In a way, it’s lobster-sign-like, rather than being an exact replica.
NHO: [struggling to articulate a point about degrees of signification, the irony of it being like a sign which is also a replica of a an actual thing as well as a sign. I fail and remain silent]
J F-P: In a formal, sculptural sense its size forces you to walk around it, to get through the sky you have to take the path around the lobster. It also has another relationship with the sky: the lobster takes the place of Truman. It becomes the main character in the film The Truman Show. The lobster’s claw is penetrating the sky in the same way that Truman’s boat did at the moment when he realized that his suspicions were true, that his world had been a sham, totally constructed. He’d been living in a false environment where his life was being directed. The sky itself is there as the edge of the world, it has a narrative function. This idea that the sky is fake and you hit it is found in a number of other stories such as ‘The Voyage of a Dawn Treader’ it has been used… as a…what’s it called?
NHO: A leitmotif for the falsity of reality and attempts to transcend the real, material world that surrounds us?
J F-P: Yes, exactly - of what is beyond it. It is a psychological metaphor. The whole show has another layer, which comes from Dante’s First Canto of the Inferno. Before meeting Virgil, Dante is lost in the forest. The forest is a metaphor for mental breakdown or uncertainty, that’s where the story begins, in the middle of a forest, until Virgil comes and guides him out. I wanted to have this element in the show, not the disorientation so much but the movement through it.
NHO: And the ‘Utopia Last Day’ sign?
J F-P: It’s a found image, from this shop in Angel called Utopia; it was closing down (another victim of the recession) and this was a sign advertising its final day of trading. The last day of Utopia is what happens after Truman breaks through the sky. And after that: Gangsta’s Paradise. All the elements go together, and cross over at various stages. For example, the Michael Johnson’s self-help book is the pop-psychology salvation to guide you to the end of your route. And the cannibals are also there to elaborate on one aspect of the ideas contained in the exhibition. The picture of the cannibals were taken by an anthropologist working in the 1880s – a visual anthropologist called A.C. Haddon – who took a load of pictures and recorded details of the population, including measurements of different people in Africa and Asia. And he also brought people – or samples – back with him, including this small family, which became famous.
NHO: [imagining a group of pygmies] Small in size or small in numbers?
J F-P: Numbers. There were only three of them: Mummy, daddy and baby. So they were yanked out of their life and brought back to the UK, where Haddon,wrote reports that said things like the mother “exhibiting signs of sadness and possible depression”. Horrible stuff. And the image that I have used here is taken from an invitation card to a dinner celebrating Haddon’s successful tour. It shows a group of men in the shallows, arms around each other like footballers, there is camaraderie there. I saw it in a show a long time ago, only image where these people are remotely relaxed. Haddon used it with the title “A Group of Cannibals” in a deliberately sarcastic or condescending way. They are just men, rather than savages or monsters. And Cambridge has now lost it from their archives, so it no longer exists.
NHO: There seems to be this comic element in the work here, together with a sense of dubious or cannibalistic morality. People have previously described your work as ‘funny’, as ‘witticisms’ or ‘jokes’. How well do you think those descriptions fit?
J F-P: What people find funny changes all the time. Highly skilled comedians understand that and navigate this complex relationship with the audience where a story’s humorous elements are constantly shifting. I have a huge respect for them. There is a similarity between contemporary art and humour in that it balances on an edge.
NHO: Nearly all incisive jokes have a double edge to them. They are tragic-comic. You can say something quite poignant under the guise of humour – earnestness by stealth as it were. The lobster in its garish colouring and scaling has an almost slapstick quality. Not unlike your earlier work The Raspberry, in clay, it was blown up in size and also evokes the insult of blowing someone a raspberry. With all due respect, its not a great lobster in terms of the way it has been crafted – it is more like a ‘comedy crustacean’, something evocative of the very fake things you get advertising a certain kind of restaurant. However, this slapstick quality allows you to say something quite ‘serious’ about consumption and cruelty without coming across as overly earnest. By making it a bit ridiculous or fun, this tragic-comic element is allowed to flourish.
J F-P: Yeah, when I start working with something, though, other aspects of it become important. The scaling of these works is derived from the size of the room and the architecture as well as from a human scale, so both the Johnson book and the lobster are big enough to house a person - a bit like a shed, they suggest an interior. I gave myself certain rules for making, which included it not being too sophisticated or too detailed, and there had to be certain aspects that were a bit disappointing. Like the antennae on the lobster, which are not impressive. They don’t quite work, they are quite low key, evoking community projects, like the world’s biggest snowman, which is impressive in many ways – two perfect spheres on top of each other – but then they haven’t been able to make arms that are any good, so they have these quite disappointing triangular shapes stuck onto the snowman. Intriguing, this moment when your skill runs out. Where people think, “oh, that’ll do”, which is so unlike what happens in sculpture. So that’s where some of the decision-making in relation to the lobster arose. If I was Charles Ray I would have made a really perfect model lobster and that would have been great, too. There are certain practicalities limitations, though.
NHO: Given unlimited funds and helpers, would you have made a high spec replica? What I’m trying to get at is whether what’s important is the craftsmanship or the gesture - if that’s not too facile a binary? Would you happily get a made to order lobster or is it important for you to make it, collectively or by yourself?
J F-P: There’s a lobster festival in Maine, where they have a great lobster that they wheel out once a year and it’s incredible, so I’d import a lobster from Maine, though I wanted my lobster to be more hut-like. But I wouldn’t want a prop company to make it. There is something about the way that prop-makers make things that doesn’t interest me that much. There’s a disturbing efficiency or practicality to it. They already have the solutions before you’ve even started looking at it. The reason that the lobster is sprayed, which involved many hours of taking away the brush strokes, was that I did not want it to be painterly in the sense that the sky is painterly. By using a spray-can, we could make a quick final gesture, if you like, without any stylisation. The sky, on the other hand, was made by the National Theatre. Gaining access to this closed world of the National and these highly skilled craftspeople was amazing. Their paint frames are 11 x 30 metres, so they can make huge backcloths. It’s like a mini-cathedral with cranes. They could paint something the size of a building in two days, and they are real painters.
NHO: I see. I was also thinking about the Aztec sculpture you made for your Swallow Street show in January, which was relatively low-tech and did not seem to be about the craftsmanship of creating a replica?
J F-P: No, that was dealing with simulacra of the sculpture by using semi-out of focus prints. It was a similar size, but I made that by myself so it was a completely different working process or experience, even if it was dealing with the same problem of recreating something that already existed.
NHO: And the image of the show on the flyer and the website was the real Aztec sculpture, wasn’t it?
J F-P: Yes, a lot people thought that was my sculpture, I was really flattered.
NHO: Not when they saw it, though. They were expecting that, but then when they got there…
J F-P: …they were really disappointed…teehee.
NHO: Would it be fair to say that you emphasise the idea of sculpture rather than the sculptural process? As opposed to Phyllida Barlow, for example, with whom you did a duo show at the Russian Club in East London last year, and have had a working relationship with since the Slade School of Fine Art, who seems to approach sculpture much more as process?
J F-P: I hope that they work as both. I think that the lobster works as a sculpture, as well as in all its other aspects. And there is a sort of hidden process contained in it, in that it took a lot of people to make it. It’s a bit weird that it took so many people to make something that looks quite simple or spontaneous, maybe. It has lots of hidden stages of the process in the same way as when you make something very high spec. In relation to Phyllida, I think about my many conversations with her a lot, but the most important influence is perhaps going to her shows, to see how her shows work sculpturally. But our work is very different. I suppose a major difference is that that Phyllida would not make something look like something the way that I do.
NHO: Do you see many links with your earlier works, like the work I first saw in Liverpool New Contemporaries in 2006, clay newspapers on the floor?
J F-P: There are definite links, though I’ve only started working on a larger scale recently - in the last year. But I guess the humour has always been there. Someone said my work was ‘serio-comic’, and whilst I wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed, there’s this great release you can get from humour.
NHO: Do you think there is a danger your works might be read like one-liners? Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. In the other exhibition on at the Hayward at the moment, there is a work by Sarah Lucas – a sofa with a light rod through it entitled Fuck Destiny. It has an obvious humorous element, but with a more serious subtext. And there were also some sculptures by Franz West – whose work I know you like – which are designed to be shown outdoors, so they are huge and a bit daft, perhaps. But then underneath the relative “daftness” of both works, there are all these other elements imbued in them.
J F-P: The works I like all have these release moments in them. Like Fischli &Weiss or Franz West. They are able to get to a high level of awareness about their own work, and a lot of that comes through humour. How do you make yourself fully aware of what you are doing? I think being able to see the funny side of what you are doing, if that’s not too clichéd. It stops you disappearing into some kind of blinkered vision. Having said that, it can be quite scary making works with humour in them. You feel quite vulnerable, because you’re not just trying to make people laugh. It feels edgier to allow that humour to come into being rather trying to play a role of a “serious” artist, whatever the hell that means.
NHO: Surely it’s safer to play with humour? You’re not really putting yourself out there, as it allows you do or say things with a wry smile. It absolves you of saying anything that could be taken seriously.
J F-P: It depends who you’re talking to.
NHO: Yes, but even if it’s someone really important, for example, you can always go back and tell your friends you were just trying to be funny.
J F-P: Yeah, you can pretend you didn’t really mean it and you were just joking, but the one-liner is difficult when you make something which is that big. When it takes eight people to pick up your sculpture, the quip-side of it disappears quite rapidly.
She’s got a point, the risk of being a giant flop increases with the scale of joke, if that’s all it is. From our panoptical position on the floor, I get an intuitive sense that all these disparate elements have come together, both sculpturally and conceptually. We have been greeted by life-size bunnies, circumnavigated the lobster – flanked by a theatrical sky – we have travelled the world, from Hollywood via North Korea and Africa back to North London, each component part underlining the cultural-specificity of morality and consumption. Any real sense of pathos is undercut by the exhibition’s comic elements including the relative sloppiness nature of the lobster to the point where it parodies failure. This effect is enhanced by the irony contained in the found imagery: the last day of Utopia; the cannibals who were considerably less savage than the lauded anthropologist; and the futility of taking self-help advice from one of the fastest, most successful men on the planet.
In terms of artistic references, it would seem that Claes Oldenburg would be an obvious link to make in relation to the monumentalization of the quotidian that runs through Flood-Paddock’s practice. The hand-crafted elements echo Franz West, but also Richard Deacon’s penchant for showing the fabrication of his sculptures as part of the work, where joints are visible, glue oozes through cracks and the display of its own construction is central to the sculptural expression. Deacon juxtaposes these tactile, processual elements with relatively highbrow references to Rilke, which parallels Flood-Paddock’s use of Dante, albeit in quite an intangible way. Like Fischli & Weiss, process is in many respects the product, but large elements of this process remain hidden despite the foregrounding of a handmade aesthetic. The slapstick elements in Flood-Paddock’s work recall Paul McCarthy’s sculptural environments and absurdist performances. It is the ambiguity inherent in each component part of her exhibition at the Hayward Project Space that is key to its appeal: in a tiny crack in this brutalist façade lies a bright cloudscape – a Seahaven – but behind every fake horizon, lurks a Gangsta’s Paradise.
ArtSlant would like to thank Jess Flood-Paddock for her assistance in making this interview possible.
--Natalie Hope O’Donnell
(All Images: Jess Flood-Paddock; Installation view; Courtesy Natalie Hope O’Donnell)