Interview with Jonathan Baldock
Jonathan Baldock’s work presents the human as a built thing – an object sewn, stuffed and patch-worked together. His current show at VITRINE gallery in London is named after an essay on William Burroughs, and the writer’s ideas on escaping the body and language permeate the artists work. By taking the bodily hole as its key motif, ‘Notes from the Orifice’ considers the points at which the self tumbles into and entangles itself with the space that is in fact distinct from the self. And in the show, this space forms itself as colourful, crafted works that rely on the artist but from which he is crucially absent.
'Notes from the Orifice’ is the title of a 1985 essay by Robert Lydenberg on William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Has this essay influenced your works, or did you notice thematic connections after you’d made them?
It wasn’t the essay that particularly influenced the exhibition, but the title. I had been reading Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – on which the essay was written – and was really interested in Burroughs’ fascination with the relationship between the physical body and mind, which is an ongoing investigation in my work. I had already considered the thematic connections between Burroughs’ work and mine in my previous solo at Chapter Gallery, Cardiiff, entitled ‘The Soft Machine’. As the title of the show specifically quotes Burroughs’ essay title, I thought it only right that I should credit him. Although living in the age of the Internet, we often don’t know, or forget, the source of the information we absorb.
How does this exhibition at VITRINE relate to and expand upon your older work?
This show is a continuation from my solo show at Chapter Gallery; Cardiff, entitled ‘The Soft Machine’ after the William Burroughs book. I aimed to draw a link via the title but also wanted to continue to explore the idea of the viewer stepping inside an artwork as an alternative reality. I am thinking about how an exhibition can make the visitor an essential part of the artwork, by choreographing their movements around the exhibition from their very first encounter of the show. I begin with the window on the street outside; visitors have to tiptoe or bend down to see the exhibition through the peepholes I have created through a wall sculpture in the window. To make the interior world, I chose light bright pastel colours that I hope will lull the viewer into a false sense of calm and cosy familiarity, that is then subverted on closer inspection: all is not quite as it seems.
I will also be continuing my ongoing collaboration with artist and choreographer Florence Peake, whom I first worked with at Primary in Nottingham early this year, with a performance in the gallery on October 16th.
Why do you think the orifice is particularly worthy of examination?
A few years ago I made a series of salt-dough busts in which things were growing and sprouting from their noses, ears and mouths. Its been a recurring motif in my work and one with which I have considered throughout. What is my fascination with this part of the body? I sometimes wonder if it’s my complete inability to articulate myself with words. The mouth is a vessel, which suppresses expression rather than aids it. My mate Emma Hart did a show at Camden Arts Centre last year that dealt a lot with mouths as the link between inside and outside. It really resonated with me. We share a lot of concerns within our work, and she's a great inspiration to me: one of my all time favourite artists. Next year we're planning a big collaboration so watch this space.
I have been making these hollow sculptures for a few years now, after a long running obsession with the work of Barbara Hepworth. My friend Kathy Noble actually also kept describing my hollow sculptures as orifices... It seemed right that the word should appear in the title of the show, as it was an aspect of my work that I wanted to explore further. I became more and more focused on ideas of the hole and what it meant for me. I started with hollow sculptures and then tried to translate this onto canvas with a series of “Orifice” paintings. It then struck me that Lucio Fontana had made the slash paintings, where he slashed holes in the canvas - hard angry gestures against traditional forms of painting and art history. I wondered if I could respond to that with meticulously stitched holes. In these orifice pictures you can see the skeleton (the frame) beneath.
For me the hole is the perfect metaphorical symbol of the portal separating two worlds - the inner reality and the outer reality. In terms of the human body the orifice is the only link between the inside and the outside.
What place do aspects of traditional craft have in your work?
I think the concept of craftsmanship and the ‘hand-made’ has never been more relevant than it is today. For too long, ideas associated with craft have been dismissed as sentimental and nostalgic. I believe in the power of making things, and the bringing together of head and hand. To make things by hand is not a mindless activity; a painter still paints with his hands. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise on education Emile (1762), he writes of teaching teenagers a craft: “If, instead of making a child stick to his books, I employ him in a workshop, his hands work to the advantage of his intellect, he becomes a philosopher while he thinks he is simply becoming an artisan”.
As a society we are forced more and more to experience the world we live in virtually. The objects we encounter have been ordered online, or bought from huge supermarkets. We have no real idea how or where they were made. My work does not offer an escape from that but perhaps it allows time to process and understand better. My sculptures are performed in person – they are not prefabricated. For me making things by hand can be an almost meditative experience. It is an opportunity to think and imagine by oneself as opposed to having an experience projected on us.
There are a few cases where the shapes in your installations and paintings look as though they could be ancient symbols. Is this intended?
Coming from a painting background I realise the importance of how formal tropes of composition, such as colour and shape, affect a work’s reading. With some of the wall-based works I wanted to create forms that looked like a painterly action or gesture, but that also alluded to some sort of unidentifiable language. Language in its earliest, and most primitive, form started as a pictographic method of communication. As such, it was also significant that I played on this by creating marks akin to a type of hieroglyphic language – it was important for me that it seemed on some level familiar like a lost forgotten language without it actually being one. I think this gap between something alluding to something, without it actually becoming the ‘thing’ alluded to, is a very interesting space. It invites the viewer to fill in the gaps. It is something I play with a lot in my work – by making ceramic objects that are seemingly forgotten archaeological tools and performances that allude to having a narrative without actually having one. It is quite a difficult ground to tread, as it is so easy to automatically define something by what we know already.
Jonathan Baldock's 'Notes from the Orifice' is showing at VITRINE gallery, Bermondsey Street, until 15th November