London, Nov. 2011: Karla Black’s nomination for this year’s Turner Prize rounds off a busy year. 2011 began with a group show from the Arts Council Collection at Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Then followed the ultimate honour of representing Scotland at the 54th Venice Biennale in a pavilion curated by Glasgow’s Fruitmarket Gallery. Then came the Turner Prize nomination and the bookies seem to agree with the buzz in the artworld – Black is a strong contender and all-round favourite.
Black makes ethereal, immersive installations using a variety of materials – including wood, sellotape, plastic, cosmetic products and paint – to create amorphous sculptures which accentuate the phenomenological dynamic between the viewer, the work and the space. The work speaks of contingency and impermanence, as if to defy the greed of the art market with a material illustration of the fragility of all existence. But what is important for Black is the materials, over and above meanings, which are strictly not representational and aim to communicate beyond language. The result is a form of sculpture that invites – even compels – the viewer to experience the world in terms of the pure materiality of shape and texture, unhindered by both language and traditional representation. The works are site-specific and are often simply discarded after the exhibition has finished, giving them a certain existential precariousness which is mirrored in their compositional fragility.
In some ways, Black is perfect for the Turner Prize: her work sits bafflingly in between sculpture and installation, uses a mixture of traditional and surprising materials, and derives its beauty from the fact that it resembles detritus that has been carefully composed. Consequently, it gives a visceral representation of the cutting edge of contemporary art at the same time as stirring controversy in the squalid minds of those who misunderstand contemporary art. But a close look at the work and the process behind it reveals a sincere concern for art historical precedents and a genuine interest in art as a phenomenon for the audience, rather than the artist, to indulge in.
I caught up with Black to talk through the vagaries of theory and practice, press attention and the impossibility of finishing work.
Karla Black, Turner Prize Installation View, 2011; Courtesy of the artist
Daniel Barnes: The Turner Prize has a way of stirring controversy and your nomination is not the first the outrage the Daily Mail. How have you dealt with the public attention?
Karla Black: I've just kept my head down. I laugh at the tabloid headlines, sometimes they're very funny, but there haven't been many, it's been fine.
DB: The Turner nomination has opened your work to a wider audience and led people previously unfamiliar with your work to look back at previous exhibitions. How do you think your work has developed from what the art world press describes as your early ‘performance pieces’ to sculptural works?
KB: The main piece of work I made for the Turner Prize exhibition is called Doesn't Care In Words and is made of cellophane, paint, sugar paper, chalk, plaster powder, powder paint, sellotape, eyeshadow, paint, vaseline, moisturising cream and spray deodorant. There is a small, hanging sculpture near the back of the room (the little blue cloud-like form) that is called More Of The Day. It is made of polythene, chalk dust and thread.
I have never made a performance piece. When I was in my fourth year at art school (in 1998-99), I carried out some actions with materials, and after I left in 1999-2000 I did two of these things in public. At that stage in my development I just hadn't worked out what I was doing yet. I knew I wanted to work with raw materials and I hadn't yet worked out how to separate myself from them and allow them to exist as finished work in their own right. Quite quickly after leaving art school, I removed myself from the finished work. I realised that I was in the way. The person in the work should be the person looking at it.
Karla Black, At Fault (detail), 2011, cellophane, paint, sellotape, plaster powder, powder paint, sugar paper, chalk, bath bombs, ribbon, wood, Dimensions variable, Installation view Palazzo Pisani (S. Marina), 54th Venice Biennale; Photo: Gautier Deblonde / Courtesy the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
DB: You took a Master of Philosophy at Glasgow School of Art. How has this influenced your practice?
KB: It was called 'MPhil (Art in Organisational Contexts)'. An MPhil is just a research degree, a step down from a PhD, it's not a degree in philosophy. The purpose of it was to research into how art can work in organisational settings like, for example, schools or community groups. The reason I did it was because I was awarded a sort of scholarship thing that was a partnership between a local council and the art school to somehow interpret or open up the work of the artist Ian Hamilton Finlay to children in local, rural schools situated close to his amazing artwork 'Little Sparta' in the Pentland Hills. I love his work, and through the project, I wrote a book about it for children and organised a series of workshops in schools. Doing the MPhil meant that I got a bit of money and could keep making work after leaving art school. It didn't really influence my practice. It's a bit of an anomaly in my practice really.
Karla Black, Forgetting Isn’t Trying (detail), 2011, polythene, plaster powder, powder paint, thread, 150 x 130 x 35cm, Installation view, Palazzo Pisani (S.Marina) 54th Venice Biennale; Photo: Gautier Deblonde / Courtesy the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
DB: You say your choice of materials is about physical properties and not symbolic connotations. How do you feel about audiences and critics giving symbolic readings of your work?
KB: I don't mind. I wouldn't ever want to tell people what to think. The work is for them. They can possess it in whatever way they want. I have my own thoughts about my work and about art in general. I think it's important to say that there is a visual and physical 'code' or whatever you want to call it (actually it's impossible to name) that stands outside of the language of words and metaphors and symbolism.
ArtSlant would like to thank Karla Black and the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art for their assistance in making this interview possible.