I recently spent some time visiting galleries in some of the UK’s northern cities: Liverpool, Manchester, and Newcastle. The UK is a reverse of most other countries, because the people are nicer in the north. It’s richer in the south, and by “south” I mean London, so people aren’t as friendly. There’s also not as much money for artists outside of London, creating a dire skewing of culture towards the capital.
During this time, I made a point of visiting Pat Flynn’s solo exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, Half-life of a Miracle. It was proof that brilliant art is happening outside of the Big Smoke and that more should be done to support that.
The photo-based work in Flynn’s retrospective spans the last decade and has a beautiful flatness to it. It sticks in your head, like a good ad, which is one source of inspiration for the artist.
I’m especially grateful that he shared his ideas and thoughts with me, as he admitted writing is a horrible task for him. If you’re in the UK, try to get out of London and go to see the show. Flynn is also exhibiting alongside other brilliant British artists like Bedwyr Williams and Mel Brimfield, at the Harris Museum, Preston, until June 4.
(left) Bucket, 2011. All images courtesy of Pat Flynn
(right) William Hogarth, The reward of cruelty (plate IV), 1751
Char Jansen: Many of the images in Half-life of a Miracle draw on written material, especially fiction. I was particularly taken with that sausage bucket one (Bucket, 2011), that was very strong both as an image and the folklore that inspired it—could you tell me about that work and the story behind it?
Pat Flynn: The starting point for this piece was William Hogarth’s The Four Stages of Cruelty, the final etching in that series is The Reward of Cruelty (1751), where Hogarth’s main character in the series of works, Nero, lays dead on a surgeon’s table dissected with his intestines hanging out of him part gathered in a bucket on the floor. This is a cautionary tale about the consequences of living a criminal life.
Equally there’s the comic folklore (and sometimes true) stories of what are really inside some of the mass-produced processed meats we consume—a narrative played out perfectly in the 1972 film Prime Cut, where a corrupt cattle rancher grinds his enemies into sausage meat.
What primarily interested me here were the consumer mechanisms that urge us to believe that mass-produced goods are made in perfectly sterile environments, where robots and humans negotiate each other with an endless balletic precision. But the veil is dropped and the reality is that some multi-national corporation has subcontracted out production to a dingy manufacturer in a developing country with outdated machinery and no workers’ rights.
Yet even with the knowledge of this potential chain of exploitations and wrongs we still want the phone, the chocolate bar, the kebab meat, and as the constant consumer rebirths occur, and new seductions begin, our desires and needs set us free from our social conscience.
It is this ambivalence that is at the center of much of my work.
CJ: I could not agree more with that! And our hypocritical/contradictory natures are exploited to the max by the corporations. Can you expand on your feelings about advertising, and how that informs the work?
PF: To be able to make people fall in love with something is a truly amazing thing. Advertising has the power to make us fall in love over and over again, to engender mass belief and to convey an idea of transcendence.
In relation to my work I think the key here is how we define ourselves via commodity. How we actually project our souls into the goods we desire. My work clearly delves into the visual rhetoric of advertising because it is a language of the unachievable, airbrushed, and superhuman devoid of any moral scruples. People are meant to be manipulated by the use of color in my work, are meant to be left in a position where they are emotionally torn between the beauty and the emptiness. The computer is the perfect vehicle for driving this idea home.
Crying into Mirrors (1 and 2), 2012, C-type dibond
CJ: Consumer culture and mortality, the kind of pathetic (in the original sense of the word) aspirations we have meet emphatically in the photographic works in this show: I love the Crying into Mirrors pieces and how concisely they make that parallel.
PF: The starting points for those works was seeing my four-year-old daughter one day after being told off burst into tears and run off to the bathroom to watch herself cry in the mirror. The works both have blank gravestones, one granite, one sandstone. Both stones are propped up against a wall, the granite stone held from touching the wall and floor by pieces of blue foam, and the sandstone gravestone held from touching the wall and floor by small chocks of wood. The works are about narcissism, the idea that we want to be eternally remembered. The chocks and foam were to try and place the gravestones in a kind of purgatory, a place waiting for transcendence. One gravestone is leant against a pink wall and floor the other a blue wall and floor. The computer actually chose these colors and I just went with it for their obvious connotations.
CJ: Viewers might not at first realize that these images are created with 3D computer graphics software. What is your working method?
PF: At college I always thought of myself as a sculptor. I first began using 3D software to create accurate imagery of what future sculptures would look like. It was much easier to sell a proposed sculptural work to a curator with CGI imagery rather than a sketch or your portfolio/CV.
Slowly the use of this software became my practice. In part, I think, because it’s very literal: when you make a 3D object in the computer it’s similar to making it in real life.
It’s a really sculptural process, where you get to learn the intimacies and nuances of the form you are recreating.
In many ways my working method is like an act of possession. Objects, forms, places, buildings, landscapes, anything of genuine appeal ends up being recreated in the computer and often just sits there.
Cheeses, 2015, C-type print, dibond
I often do things a bit back to front, taking a long time to understand why a particular thing registered interest for me in the first place. A good example of this is the cheese works. Cheeses (2015). I’d made those objects in the computer back in 2010 and there they sat. It was only after looking at the work of Georg Flegel the 16th century still-life painter that it struck me that what I was interested in was the permutations of one form and that this work was kind of like process-driven minimalism. Then it became important to make something that had some of the logic of cheese but clearly wasn’t cheese. (A wax rind, a curved cylindrical shape, the color palette.)
CJ: You depend a lot on various source material drawn from diverse fields. How do you go about researching, and how do you put those elements together to give this final outcome, which is in a way so stripped back and minimal that you'd never guess the amount of material that inspired it?
PF: I still keep a sketchpad to this day, which most of my immediate peer group think is very funny. It’s filled with mainly notes, reminders, and quick visual annotations. I also have a huge bank of downloaded imagery and use my phone’s camera to gather as much data as possible. Any source material—whether it be from books, films, computer games, art, or things people have said—is gathered and goes straight up on the studio wall. Things over time seem to make their own links.
I think the process of using 3D software to create photographs and films slows one’s rate of production down so massively that a really in-depth level of contemplation about what I’m trying to achieve occurs. There is a time with the subject matter that one would never spend with a standard camera. Also, unlike a lot of photographers, my work often refers to sculpture and formalism and that’s where this stripped back feel to the work comes from.
You are quite right: by the time a piece of work is complete you would never guess the journey it has been on. But I think all the works are somehow charged with that information.
Healer, 2015, C-type print, dibond
CJ: Other works in the current show read like visual clues: I'm thinking of Wise Man / Shining City upon a Hill. These seem pregnant with an action that has happened that remains outside of the frame. In that way you seem to make a connection between media, entertainment, and the language of advertising, getting at something you can't have?
PF: Both those works are recreated moments from film and television. They’re about needing to believe, and being sold a pack of lies. Healer (2015) depicts an abandoned walking stick on a concert hall floor surrounded by blue plastic stackable chairs. This is a recreation of a moment from 1980s television footage about the American faith healer Peter Popoff. Popoff would convince people that he had God-given knowledge about their ailments and disabilities and that he was a vehicle of God who had healing hands. Popoff was famously exposed as a fraud by the magician James Randi when Randi proved that Popoff was receiving all of his information through an earpiece via his wife. Despite this now common knowledge Popoff is back preaching and once again claiming to cure the sick. Such is the power of our desire to believe. After all, fictions are so seductive.
Wise Man / Shining City upon a Hill, 2015, C-type print, dibond
Wise Man / Shining City upon a Hill is a recreation of the side of the Wizard of Oz’s throne as it appears in the 1939 movie. This piece takes that film set and turns it into a highly abstracted formal framework. I was drawn to this location in the film because this is where the protagonists, who have gone on a great journey to Emerald City to seek help from the almighty Oz, discover that far from being a powerful wizard, Oz is just an average middle-aged man. The character of Oz in the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, which the film is based on, is often thought to symbolize the American president; he makes promises he cannot keep yet gets away with it because of the willingness of others to allow themselves to be deceived.
The piece’s title refers to the film and also to a misquote by Ronald Reagan, when Reagan whilst accepting his presidential nomination misquoted John Winthrop who originally said “We shall be as a city upon a hill.” Reagan said “a shining city upon a hill.” I used this as I was in part thinking about Emerald City but mainly the duality of America (God’s country) as a symbol to the world, as well as how this fed back into my work, how a narrative has been taken and further fetishized.
You are correct—it is important that these pieces offer fragments of much greater stories. That is the hook.
Installation view of Half-life of a Miracle at Manchester Art Gallery, 2015–2016
CJ: I was also struck that this show spans a decade of work, but that passing of time is almost imperceptible. Do you feel more drawn to certain periods of your work than others? How difficult is it to put together a survey like this, to choose works that represent something? What was your approach?
PF: I think the fact that the show feels as if it were made in a short time frame is down to two main reasons. Firstly, the focus of my work has always been about belief and consumer culture and secondly it is the way we curated the exhibition. We based the curatorial framework around the title of the exhibition Half-life of a Miracle, which in itself is a quote from Sir James Goldsmith the billionaire tycoon. Goldsmith used this phrase when he was talking about quantifying his achievements in relation to the ecological biosphere and palace he had created for himself at Cuixmala, Mexico. This manufactured paradise was like a super-sized version of William Randolph Hearst’s palace that Orson Welles recreated in Citizen Kane. But when Goldsmith’s biosphere went wrong—say, for instance, there were a surge in the mosquito population—rather than balancing his biosphere through the introduction of more birds, bats, and frogs he simply would spray batches of DDT. Or if sharks got into his bay, again, rather than accept that they were part of the equilibrium of his environment he would have his security staff out on boats dropping dynamite on them.
Just as this was a world full of untruths, all the works in this show contain untruths. Not just in the way they have been made, (appearing to be photographs when really they are digital constructions), but more importantly each work has its own corrupted tale that dictates the conceptual framework of the piece.
I think like most artists, I’m drawn to my most recent work. It has been strange seeing work returning from other collections, works that I’ve not seen in years. The anxiety you feel about whether they will sit well along side recent works is huge. I personally feel all the works sit well together. I’ve got the curators to thank for that.
(above) Bins, 2015, C-type print, dibond
(below) Juice, 2015, C-type print, dibond
CJ: It must have been nice to do this in Manchester, too, given that this is where you live and work—what kind of influence has the city had on your work? Have you always stayed in Manchester? I admire artists who don't flock to London, although I imagine there must be a pressure to do so given the bias of funding distribution in the UK.
PF: I’ve not always lived in Manchester, but I’ve spent most of my life here. I’m not sure if living in Manchester has had a direct influence on my work. (Although I do like folk music like the Smiths.) I’ve used various locations from the peripheries of the city as the basis for work, but I’ve used them for their ubiquity. For example, the ever-present “edge of town” retail park. Bland in every way, all that consumer glitz drained away into a Carpet Right. Or the bins at the back of a local primary school in the mid-70s. Or a modernist Catholic Church scheduled for demolition. These all exist or existed around Manchester and have all become sources for work because they came with such strong stories. Some of the stories have a personal significance, but I’m seldom just interested in that, I’m always looking for some sort of shared experience. For instance, Juice (2015) is a photograph that recreates the alter of the church where I was christened and where my mother’s funeral ceremony was held, Saint Catherine of Siena, Lowton. The story here was that the Catholic Church claimed their reason for deciding to close the church was on the basis that the building’s electrical wiring was dangerous and that the subsequent rewiring costs would be prohibitive. When in actual fact a dwindling congregation was the real reason.
It interests me that institutions, whether religious or not, feel that they need to create a decoy in the face of failure. What struck me as really amusing was the idea of how could an institution so close to God run out of electricity—surely, if anything, the church is permanently plugged in.
There is something to be said for being based in North West England. Manchester and Liverpool both have really vibrant art scenes. But people don’t really buy contemporary art in the provinces. Well, they don’t buy enough to support the hundreds of artists who are based here. I’ve had little luck making inroads in London—much more luck in Germany and via art fairs. I’m represented by two galleries: International 3 based in Salford, Manchester, and also by Marion Scharmann, in Cologne.
ArtSlant would like to thank Pat Flynn for his assistance in making this interview possible.