Q&A

Tell us about your work.

I generally work with hybrid forms, contemporary echoes of sphinxes, centaurs, winged lions, etc. And all of my work is related in some way to language. Metaphors are mongrels, linguistic mash-ups. A city is a language, for example. That's the idea behind 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 clay 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 texts and assembled them into a map where the words become streets and other spaces, including the river that runs through the city. For some parts of the piece I used rubber 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 references 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 famous story Ah Q. The Calvino connection is from his wonderful book, Le Città Invisibili (Invisible Cities), and Joyce appears in the river with quotes from the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake.

Aside from metaphors, what other ways does language figure in your work?

Well sometimes I just play with words, as with the homonyms Lennon and Lenin, which shows up in the piece called A Short History of the Soviet Union. So there a few pieces in which Lennon and Lenin are superimposed, so to speak.

I also use individual words that I made out of porcelain, in Jingdezhen, China. It's an amazing place that still bills itself as the porcelain capital of the world. While I was there I made a few thousand words, some glazed, some not, all fired in the Jingdezhen kilns, and used them later in a number of different pieces, including the more recent ones in Rubbleyards.

What are you working on right now?

I'm working with layered images that incorporate previous works in ceramic, found objects, etc. I have been invited to participate in a group show in Basel later this year, where I expect to show at least a couple of these composites.

What are the "Voiceboxes"?

In my last trip to Jingdezhen I made several radios as part of a series of hand-built, press-molded or cast ceramic radios, books and letters/envelopes, most 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. Late last year Thoth Books Berlin published my novel The Book of Dog, which deals behind the scenes with the relationship between the artist and the voices they hear — real or imagined. Voice in fiction is like style in the visual arts, it dead-on identifies the author, like a signature that can't be faked. It's uncanny, spooky somehow. Even if you're lucky enough to be in possession of a voice, it doesn't belong to you. It's more like it possesses you. It's also 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. 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 — 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 you see something else and suddenly you get the joke or make the connection and you see both aspects at once.

What have metaphors got to do with your sculptures?

Metaphors compress disparate worlds into a figure that lives on the border between them. Implicit in the compression is conflict, sometimes violent conflict – a clash of cultures, materials, languages. The figurative sculptures are creatures caught crossing borders, so you see both worlds at once, in collision and conflict. If I'm looking for inspiration 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. I'm interested in the conflict and cross-breeding that generates hybrids. There's a wonderful book of poetry by Ted Hughes called Tales from Ovid which I turn to again and again in my work. The language is amazing.

Tell us about The Birdbrain Variations.

Birdbrain! is 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 the poem, which is where The Birdbrain Variations come in.

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.

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

At some point after the Soviet Union collapsed I bought a white china bust of Lenin, of the sort I imagine you'd have seen 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 20 or 25 years ago. I took it up again when I was preparing for a show and had some empty wall space. 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, Ronald McDonald, and planted it in Lenin's forehead so it looked like he popped up ready to go when the USSR fell apart. So that's A Short History of the Soviet Union, in three volumes. What with the war in Ukraine, it's not exactly in tune with the times, but Rubbleyards and A Short History are closely related.

What about The Rainmaker?

Another piece I made during my last trip to China. It's a mashup of a drainpipe and the torso of the Lenin bust, I grafted the drain - it looks like a shower head - onto the body and fired it first with a powder blue slip and then with a clear glaze that turned it dark blue. Then later, when I was back in Milan, I hung a bunch of porcelain pendants around its neck. I see them resembling votive offerings like you see beneath the portraits of saints in Byzantine churches, or in Naples and other places in Italy. Rainmaker is a voicebox, a reliquary of sorts, the idea being that the voice(s) I hear come(s) from somewhere else. It's like something Leonard Cohen said: "Poetry comes from a place that no one commands and no one conquers." I think most artists have some sense of a muse, of trying to communicate with or channel whoever's there in that place Cohen talks about.