Nathaniel Mellors: There are visual artists who claim an explicit ‘literary’ or ‘narrative’ aspect to their work. I find your own work extremely compelling in relation to literature as it seems to have an implicit relationship with books and yet not to be making any explicit claims — the relationship seems far more modulated, somehow, and as a result it seems deeper — can you talk about this relationship?
Mick Peter: Narrative is always hard to attach to sculpture because its use seems motivated by a need to animate objects in a theatrical way, something that reduces them to props. My interest is in finding an equivalence in literary process; finding ways of talking about the motivation to make something and how that might be carried out. A corollary of this is playing with applications of literary theory, using devices that explore the function of the form by announcing its ‘constructedness’, which is something I like to make a feature of rather than hide under beautiful surfaces. It means that all the decisions and u-turns in the making are still there to disrupt tidy concepts. Of course reflexivity seems to be fashionable again and it is quite a useful and transferable concept. I think I’ve always been excited by literary sources that play with the novel or poem format (for instance, Gustav Flaubert’s ‘Bouvard and Pécuchet’, Xavier de Maistre’s ‘A Journey Round My Room’, or ‘The Dunciad’ by Alexander Pope) but are before these terms from the 1960s and 1970s though still enacting a similar thing.
NM: So you are describing something structural here in relation to other forms — exhibiting the constructedness of something, akin to processes in literature and film? When you say you feel it’s problematic when sculptures are, to paraphrase ‘animated as props’, do you mean people making art as props for a narrative that is somehow external to the objects?
MP: I try to ensure that any narrative potential is implicit in the object in terms of how it came about. It’s because objects adhering to a narrative seem to override lots of other possibilities being explored. I really only mean objects rather than film and then only objects in a group, because the muteness of objects means that an implied story will make it too easy to see things in a system of functional relations. Obviously I do refer to things outside of what an object implicitly is but these are signposts to an aspect of the work someone will have to work hard to interpret by searching the surfaces of the objects. For me the micro decisions in the way a surface is smeared or scraped are just as important in saying something about this activity. I think that this creates a reader/viewer anxiety. Michel Foucault speaks about Raymond Roussel generating a state where ‘all the undermining doubts sown by the text systematically impose a formless anxiety, diverging yet centrifugal’. It’s a nice image of a mass of possibilities in a kind of vortex which has become the form. I think it’s possible to work within a form whilst trying to destroy it.
NM: Your work has been described in terms of some kind of ‘aesthetic of failure’. What do you think that means and how do you feel about it?
MP: I presume that those commentators have identified the fact that the activity of making itself is one of the things being depicted and can therefore capable of being subjected to questioning. It’s more of an aesthetic of stopping when the idea is ready. I think quitting while you’re ahead and not pursuing a certain polish could make it seem like a failure in some people’s eyes. Personally I think it’s quite an attractive quality! If ironic and absurdist elements intrude too then so much the better. What I enjoy is that eventually one has to understand that built into what seems like parody are some self-evident truths about the artistic process that are always a bit uncomfortable. In object making the curious relationship between building or ‘unbuilding’ is exemplified by one of my favourite (and like most of these things) possibly apocryphal episodes, in which Capability Brown and his architect were criticised about a folly they had built of a ruined tower because they had ‘unpicturesqued’ it by making it too well. What the landowner had wanted was a broken tower. This sums up the conflicting notions of how far you have to go and still be working within what you set out to do.
NM: This raises a question of how quickly something becomes parodic through repetition and development. Bataille suggested parody as a total state of things — ‘Everyone is aware that life is parodic and that it lacks an interpretation’ and ‘Each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form’ at the beginning of his essay The Solar Anus. Conversely the commissioners of Capability wanted something that was authentically ruinous but got something that followed all the conventions of what a ruin was supposed to look like and was therefore boring. Your own ‘sculptural language’ looks quite obtuse in relation to artists who are engaged in assimilating aspects of design, for example, the neo-modernist style that has been fashionable for some time now. How conscious are you of this?
MP: I think evading conceptual closure is similar to the cyclical or self-generating parody form in Bataille. Assimilating new elements always demands that the framework be altered and that avoids repetition for me. Also in terms of not being ‘on trend’ I’d put that down to carrying out the process in a way which is quite secretive (I try to solve all my own problems with materials) and mostly back to front! By that I mean dismantling and remaking are as important as arriving somewhere. I want to make things that respond to digressions whilst being made rather than harnessing or arresting them for a future project.
NM: Is music some kind of analogous experience for you in terms of how you make or experience your own work? What are the points of crossover?
MP: How disparate ideas collide when you make an object is reflected in my interest in particular kinds of music. As you suggest the points of crossover are similar to the literary themes; external voices intruding upon or undermining the main ‘argument’, unlikely styles cohabiting. In one of my works (‘Messiaen’s Ornithological Transcription’) I wanted to deliberately reference a strange process. Olivier Messiaen was famous for transcribing birdsong into really curious and angular music. This quasi-spiritual approach combined with really cutting edge theory is fascinating. That he could apply a rigorous method to such an unlikely source is an example of the untidiness of the avant-garde! I wanted to depict this idea in the form of some odd Pictish idol being crapped on by the object of his study. The bird shit part came from a literary source, the young Flaubert’s diaries that he kept in Egypt. He reports how vultures in Thebes are creating white veils down ancient structures, and describes with great wonderment how they’d been coming there ‘for centuries to shit. The effect is striking and curiously symbolic’. Another current fascination is modernist opera in which the action is commented on from offstage by other singers (a bit like Statler and Waldorf on the balcony in ‘The Muppet Show’). In Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Love For Three Oranges’ there are groups representing the operatic archetypes, the Advocates of Tragedy, Comedy, Lyric Drama and Farce (The Empty Heads), who want something that satisfies their particular demands. The Tragicals demand ‘elevated tragedy!, philosophical solutions to earth-shattering problems!’ whilst the Empty Heads demand ‘light entertainment! Lots of double-entendres!’ and so forth. It’s fascinating in that it’s defiantly anti-realistic; an opportunity to innovate and also build in the presumed necessities the innovation has done away with.
NM: So working within a subject and then introducing elements that are disruptive or incongruous in certain ways can be a catalyst to generate different qualities?
MP: Exactly. Certain things demand to be included in a work even if they don’t quite fit. This can be in terms of texts/words, derivations of drawing and illustration and so forth. In that sense, you could say that it doesn’t work fully within a tradition — you can create a scenario in which the viewer can recognise constituent parts but is has to work to make connections which may prove illusive.
NM: What is your interest in the use and effect of specific words in your sculpture?
MP: To go back to Brown again (it must be because this is a recent discovery!), I love this thing of thinking about objects as language or grammar. Brown is said to have described a landscape in terms of grammar. The proper quote goes like this: ‘Now here he said (pointing a finger) I make a comma and, pointing to another spot where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another point (where interruption is desirable to break the view) a parenthesisnow a full stop, and then I begin another subject’. ‘Dr Syntax’ is my new obsession in similar vein. It’s a book by William Combe that mocks the idea of the picturesque novel and the excellent illustrations show Dr Syntax rearranging the landscape in order to paint it. Quite brilliant. In the past when words have appeared in the sculptures I have made I’ve thought about them in a similar sense of arranging great blocks. They begin to be disassociated from their meaning and take up a role in some kind of formal denial of legibility. That’s why some of the first in this series were lattices made up of the word ‘nope’; nope in the sense of ‘no this text isn’t solely the meaning of this sculpture!’
NM: So you are self-consciously disrupting sculptural syntax in order to produce some different function and effect?
MP: Again, I think this goes back to the idea of conflict and paradox. The new function is to demonstrate that it doesn’t function! As André Brink says, ‘To mark the dissolution of language the text often resorts to showing that it has nothing to say, or, paradoxically, saying that it has nothing to say’. When I make a sculpture I am aiming to make it ‘sculpturistic’ to show it’s a sculpture. It might use many familiar approaches but these should only enhance the sense that there is something awry and worth investigating. Concealing a systematic approach within a seemingly chaotic or confusing form is best summed up by this rather splendid line from ‘Moby Dick’; ‘there are many enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method’. It treads the line of ludicrousness with perfect élan, something to aspire to I think.