Q&A

Tell us about your work.

It's about language, as a medium and as something to think about. I work with found or cut-up fragments of text and with figures of speech, metaphors in particular. A city is a language, for example. That's a good way to approach Shanghai 1931, a low-relief sculptural map of Shanghai based on a paper map published by British colonial authorities in 1931. I took impressions in unfired porcelain of texts from a variety of writers ranging from André Malraux and Lu Xun to Italo Calvino, James Joyce and Allen Ginsberg. I cut up the fragments and assembled them into a map where the words and phrases are stand-ins for streets and urban spaces, including the river that runs through the city. For other parts of the piece I used rubber alphabet stamps — the 1842 Treaty of Nanking in the lower right corner, for example. The Treaty ended the First Opium War and opened up five port cities, including Shanghai, to trade in opium, which the British shipped in from India, so the piece also has something to do with opium and colonial history. Malraux set his novel Man's Fate (La Condition Humaine) in the streets of Shanghai in 1927, Lu Xun is represented by his well known story Ah Q, the Calvino connection is from his wonderful book, Le Città Invisibili (Invisible Cities); Joyce appears in the river with quotes from the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake.

The first photos of the Shanghai piece were taken by Xepo, a friend and fellow artist at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai. We shot it with the light coming in from different angles so the shadows evoke the city at sunrise, sunset. They look like aerial photos of some ancient city in the desert — Babylon? Then I made a silicone mold and had the piece cast in bronze.

You've also worked with ceramic words.

I went to Jingdezhen, China, to work with porcelain. It's an amazing place that still bills itself as the porcelain capital of the world. The main work I made there is called Towers of Babble. Again, it all has text embedded in the surface. I built the models using porcelain and stoneware imprinted with fragments from Kafka's The Great Wall (Beim Bau der chinesischen Mauer), Howl by Allen Ginsberg, and others. They're cast in porcelain with different celadon glazes. While I was there I made a few thousand porcelain words, some with underglaze color and glazed or left unglazed, all fired in the Jingdezhen kilns, and used them in a number of different pieces.

What are you working on right now?

I've taken up ceramics again, a project I'm calling Voiceboxes. It's a series of hand-built, press-molded or cast ceramic radios, books and letters/envelopes, all of which have speaker grilles (holes punched in the clay before firing), from which I imagine different voices emerging. I've been working with voices for years, mostly in my writing. I've just published a novel, The Book of Dog, which deals behind the scenes with the relationship between the artist and voices — real or imagined — as a source of inspiration. Voice in fiction is like style in the visual arts, it dead-on identifies a writer or artist. It's uncanny, spooky somehow. If you're lucky enough to find yourself in possession of a voice, it's just there, it doesn't belong to you. It's a gift, and I think your responsibility as an artist is to develop it, to listen and to let it speak, for you or through you or embedded in your work.

Is "voice" a metaphor?

It's more like a pars pro toto, it represents the artist's work as a whole. But I am interested in metaphors and have been for a long time. I like the idea of taking a metaphor literally. Freud's talk about digging up the unconscious — comparing himself to an archaeologist excavating ancient Rome or Troy or whatever — eventually led me to write a novel about a detective who mounts an archaeological dig in an apartment, destroying the place in the process. The metaphor that governs the novel wound up setting the tone for much of my later work, because to understand a metaphor — and some kinds of jokes — you have to see double: you see the literal surface and then at some point you see something else and you get the joke or make the connection to something external to the piece.

What have metaphors got to do with your sculptures?

Like metaphors, the Mongrels compress disparate worlds into a single figure: implicit in the compression is conflict, sometimes violent conflict, a clash of cultures, materials, languages. They're all borderline, creatures trapped crossing borders between different worlds, so you see both worlds at once, in collision and conflict. If I'm looking for inspiration it doesn't take long before I start seeing sirens and sphinxes and bull-headed humans or Chinese dragons, or I go back to Ovid's Metamorphoses - full of wondrous and terrifying stories of subversive, defiant transgression and the violence of punitive transformation meted out by the gods offended. I'm interested in the conflict and cross-breeding that generates hybrid objects. That interest is evident in a lot of the work on show in Basel (Figures of Speech: Mongrels and Metaphors, Konzert-Galerie Maison44, 2-29 April 2017).

Tell us about Birdbrain!

First of all it's the title of a great polemic by Allen Ginsberg. Written in 1980, it's still a powerful piece today. About 20 years ago I made this sculpture using a pair of wire-clippers that looked like the head of a bird. So I decided to call it Birdbrain. And then years later when I came across Ginsberg's poem I decided to update it, which is where The Birdbrain Variations come in. Later I made a series of hybrid photographs based on layering portraits of people who could have featured in my updated Birdbrain! over a head shot of a Laughing Buddha. Birdbrain, Pinhead - they're both insults, but Ginsberg identifies with the figure, too, so in the update/remix project I made A (Self) Portrait of the Artist as Pinhead it's not like we're not part of the problem.

Franz Kafka shows up in a lot of your work. Why Kafka?

I read him a long time ago and again when I went to China I read The Great Wall and used it for a lot of the work in porcelain. At one level it's about authority — who's telling you what to do and how you respond. The narrator ends up suggesting it could be bad for your health to think too much about the orders you're following — better to stop thinking altogether. And that's where the story ends. So I made a couple of pieces along those lines, Fine Corsa (End of the Line) and the last was a silkscreen print, Blues for Kafka.

You've got Lenin as well. What's with that?

At some point after the Soviet Union collapsed I bought a white china (porcelain?) bust of Lenin, of the sort I imagine you'd see in offices all over the country. I made a rubber mold and a bunch of plaster casts with different inscriptions in Lenin's forehead: RENT THIS SPACE, PRÊT-À-PENSER, IMAGINE, GET A GRIP. That was probably 15 or 20 years ago. I took it up again when I was preparing for a show and had some empty wall space. So I photographed a couple of casts with the different inscriptions wrapped around Lenin's head, and then did a scan of the original bust, enlarged it and inscribed the title of Lennon's song in his forehead. I also scanned the little plastic figure and then planted it in Lenin's forehead, so it looked like he popped up, ready to go when the USSR fell apart. Who would've thought it would end that way? So that's A Short History of the Soviet Union, in three volumes.