Killing Time with Ricky Swallow

From your earliest models of quickly superceded technologies to recent works like
The Exact Dimensions of Staying Behind - time has been a dominant theme for you. What fascinates you about the passage of time?

I guess I’m someone who is pretty anxious about time. I’m someone who is always thinking about what I was doing a year ago. It’s the same in the studio every day, I like to look at something, and that will be some sort of measure of time. You can’t really have a narrative without a timeline. The things that I make are always pitted against the flow of time somehow. They’re either pushed back in time or into the future or preserved as some kind of stagnant relic. They’re kind of there to advertise their hopelessness against time. I don’t know what really fascinates me about it. There is definitely something about wanting to account for my time and my history. Narrative memories are attached to objects, subjects and different images, and a way to talk about your past is a way to use some of these subjects. Nothing fascinates me except for sleep.

I was reading an interview with the Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, where he talked about how the best kind of story does not necessarily rely on a moral or a happy ending, but an ability to leave a memory on the reader. “I believe memory is a kind of petrol in your life, in your body, in your will to live,” he said.

From your work, I get a sense that you might have a similar perspective – that you’re like a curator of time, you preserve moments that have gone (or even scenarios that never existed, yet still feel like they’ve been left behind in some way), while being as sharply aware of the future as you are of the past. Do you see memory as a “kind of petrol in your life”? Or at least, in your art, especially in works with an autobiographical element, like Killing Time?

For sure. I really like Murakami and I even like his clunky translation, it’s nice. I thought about this in terms of this Captain Beefheart quote that might eventually be a title [for an artwork], it’s called
The Past Sure Is Tense. It’s just a song, and it’s just about the past being tense in a number of ways. Again, I guess I can only account for who I am through past experiences, but I think memory is like a narrative prop. For me anyway, there’s an age that seems to have been this narratively rich time, and a lot of my artworks are still drawn from this time. Things from my childhood, or even recent things, like worn-out studio shoes, become very humble, suitable subjects for me. I guess it’s because they contain a history, they’re like an index to a bigger history.

Killing Time, it was a way to recalibrate an old tradition to suit my own purposes. It is a made-up memory in the way that a good story is always an elaboration on facts to make it a good story. Killing Time is a memory collage of these different fish I remember catching, or members of my family catching, recombined into this still life tradition presented as a new memory. It’s a very public memory, it’s almost like an embarrassingly telling piece.

I like this idea of Murakami, of leaving a memory, because generally you think of a memory as something that you experience. It’s not like something you can actually pass on, so this idea that perhaps happens more in writing and songwriting and music, is that you can actually graft a memory onto someone, or someone else can pick up your memory, refashion it to suit their own history. So if you can create an impression that’s strong enough to become a memory, that’s an ultimate goal and you never know whether it’s achieved because you don’t have access to other people’s memories. One day maybe…

Highland Park Hydra/Field Recording is one of the works you’ll be exhibiting at Venice Biennale, and that sculpture in particular is in part a response to the landscape of LA. As you’re currently based in London, is place something that affects your work now or do you feel what you’d make would still be the same regardless of where you are?

I think it definitely affects me and it’s not something I try to measure when I’m in a place, but it’s something that I can see happening when I work.
Hyland Park Hydra is one of a lot of urban leftovers that were made in LA. There’s work that I made in LA that was the tail-end of things started in Melbourne. There was a show I made for New York which was entirely made of LA. It was almost like the water line had dropped on this camp site and there was this sleeping bag [Sleeping Range, 2002] and a fish curled into a tyre [Private Dancer, 2002] and the cap and the chain [Instrument, 2002] and the hands [Growing Pains (Contingency For Beginners), 2002] – they were a much more concise collection of things than other shows I’ve had, but they definitely came out of the aridness of that city and the kind of leftovers. The tyre was something I found while I was driving with a friend, and I was thinking about this tyre already, so I guess subjects present themselves to you, hopefully, if you’re an artist who thinks more intuitively or wants an impression to be made. There’s a difference between a place having an impression and you moving to a place and you wanting it to have an impression. But the Hydra is the thing I see as the definitive LA still life in that it’s ubiquitous to LA but it’s also quite specific – not just to my neighbourhood. They were plants that you’d see all the time. We used to go cycling in these flood gutters and there were yards that used to have them in the same way old people have lemon trees. Just dozens of them, overgrowing, and they’d grow through those fences they have around tennis courts – they’d grow through those, and then back through. They seemed like this plant that was going to thrive no matter what and there was something about the persistence of that plant that I liked.

One of the pieces for Venice [is] a counterpart to the
Hydra in that it’s a London still life. It’s a very normal contemporary cycling helmet with these snakes through it and it’s connected to this anxiety of cycling here and moving here and there being this recent history of fatalities and accidents. It’s not exactly about a fear about becoming a cycling statistic, but there definitely is something about an anxiety about the city, and about moving through the city which is stopped in that piece. Also, the Gothic nature or the Baroque influence on the work is something that’s only now being carried out in London, whereas it’s something I’ve been aware of and interested in for a while. But now that I’m actually in a place where I’m geographically closer, maybe, to that kind of information or the ghosts are older here, so it makes sense to use them.
So yes is the answer.

You just talked about one of your new works for Venice Biennale. Can you talk about the two other new works that will be on show?
One of them is the counterpart to
Killing Time, it’s a piece that has been in my mind for a long time and only now has kind of surfaced. It’s kind of a cover version of one of the first carvings I saw that made an impression on me to want to keep doing this work. That was in Belgium three years ago, and I revisited it again a year ago, but it’s these medallion wall-hangings of different still-life groupings and one of them is a group of fish, all hanging, one of them is birds, and one of them is more a vanitas skull, and a sword, and all these opulent objects. It’s like a collection of animals hung in a Chardin style, as if they would be strung up in a still life painting on a nail on a wall. I get a bit nervous about representing some juvenile hunt, because a lot of the animals in them are things that you come across dead, or you roll down the garage door and a swallow falls out. It’s made up of a rabbit, a magpie or duck and then down at the bottom, there’s a fox skull, a rat and a mouse. I guess it’s much more contained than Killing Time, it has this definite discreet purpose that is supposed to finish off that Killing Time inventory, like picking off the last of the creatures. They’re fallen and found things.

The other piece is called
The Exact Dimensions of Staying Behind and it’s a seated skeleton and the pose is somewhere between these Bernini floor mosaics of praying skeletons in this quite dramatic gesture, and more Powell Peralta baroque, skateboard graphics [that] depict skeletons operating against their eventuality. They’re always skateboarding or active, again they’re showing the skeleton as another lifestyle rather than the end of a lifestyle. In this carving, it’s seated on a chair, and it’s a similar pose to a saint. The chair is almost fused with a skeleton, in terms of the chair I’ve chosen to carve is quite similar to the leg bones and the rib-cage. It’s almost like a saint in ecstasy, the skeleton is looking up and doesn’t meet the audience’s gaze, and it’s holding this staff like someone would hold a microphone or an instrument, and it’s been carving the staff. So it’s marking its own eventuality out on the staff, like someone would mark a calendar out on a tree. It’s embarrassingly a sculpture, you can walk around it, it looks good from more than one side. It’s the one piece in the show that could have been transplanted from another collection or another time. There’s always something that locks it into a time. And in this one there’s a hooded top draped over the chair, and it’s the same hooded top from the self-portrait carving I did, so it’s this hooded top that keeps coming back. But that’s the one thing that anchors it to a specific century perhaps. It’s also like a sneaky device to relate it to another piece but also when I did a carving of a skull in an Adidas beanie, it was supposed to create some timeline with the self-portrait and date the self-portrait if you like, and this could be seen in that category as like a future portrait of something – the portrait of the artist as an old man.

Given your interest in the passage of time, and the recurring motif of skulls in your work, I was wondering if you’ve been to a place like the Catacombs in Paris, which stores the remains (and many skulls) of 6 million people in underground quarries?
I have. I think almost exactly five years ago. My first impression was skulls are like the stubborn structures of people, the parts that just won’t go away. Or like apple cores. They tell you what the thing was, but not too much about what it was like. All I remember is all those skulls, and how un-unique they were. Some of the things that I use - it doesn’t matter whether they’re specific - they become these very numb signs, like the apple, like the skull, like the shoes, they’re all these things that could be anyone’s. You don’t come out of the catacombs remembering how many pelvis bones you saw. But it is amazing because it’s like being confronted with an entire population. It’s quite abstract as well.

There’s often this reference of questions of the macabre nature of a skeleton or of a work that depicts a skeleton. But for me, they’re such overused symbols that they’re not inflexible in terms of how you can depict a skull or the reasons of why you’d use a skeleton. Everytime I use one, I think I’m killing off the last reason. They never become tired subjects for me, although this probably will be the last time that one features in a work. I like the Raymond Pettibone quote that ‘everybody has one’.

Hopefully yours won’t end up in a tourist site in Paris in a few centuries from now.
Hopefully no one gets to see it. I’m sure by the time I die, there’ll be a way to make people not die. I’m not looking forward to that, being around forever.

Or maybe all our heads will end up being preserved in those space-age canisters, like on Futurama.
It might be simpler if everyone was just a head. There’d be more room for everyone.

Do you think you’ll still be doing what you do now for a long time?
You mean the way I work now? Or my occupation as an artist?

Well, I guess you could read it in two ways. Do you think you’ll be doing this very labour-intensive work for a long time? Or do you think you’ll be an artist for a long time?
I think so, not because I think I was born to do it, but because I can’t imagine what else I’d do. I started trying to learn an instrument this year and I realized that, as much as I love it, I don’t find time to do it, in the same way I don’t find time to read at the moment. I don’t know if I can be a worthwhile person at more than one thing, so I’m going to stay doing this.

And the carving thing is something people ask me about how long it’s going to last for and I guess that’s because I’ve jumped genres a lot and I do think of myself as being some sort of pirate, or accessing different ways of making things, but not coming from that background causes you to make them in different ways and for different reasons. I’ve always reinvented every few years, or every few pieces, to keep myself motivated. It’s almost been three years of carving now, and that’s been a long time for me to be working in one way. The reason I guess is partially the speed that it allows - or the speed that it doesn’t allow - but I’m still motivated and challenged every day. I’m definitely feeling [that I want to make] smaller works, quicker works. It’s like the difference between writing short stories or a book. There’s a different commitment but also in smaller pieces, there are more rewards sooner. The momentum on a large piece is almost stifling.
Killing Time was six months, and that was the end of the patience. The work could still be being made now but it just had to stop at some point.

The option of collaboration is something I’ve been thinking about more recently. Just because there are definitely people who I think could do something interesting with, which wasn’t necessarily mine or theirs, but that was a new thing.

I’m definitely going to have a holiday soon, and it’ll be a holiday from making.

Do you think you’re going to be like one of those jazz pianists who is still playing in their 90s?
I’m not going to be the Richie Havens of contemporary art.

I’m always wondering why musicians that I love put out bad albums and I guess it’s because when you’ve been making music for 30 or 40 years, some of it has to be shit. I look at works from five or six years ago, and there are works that are less successful, but I don’t think a lot of them are completely shit. If I thought I was making shit, then I’d probably stop. I think I’m someone who will always make things. I don’t think that will ever end. And the way of choosing to make things in such a slow way is a way to – I’m very old-fashioned about having an occupation and coming to work everyday and making something. That keeps me part of the real world somehow. It makes me feel like I have a job and I come from that kind of working background. I think I’d rather do this job to a reasonable level than another job terribly. And I couldn’t work for someone else. I’m too – [there’d be] too much ego problems.

Coming back to the Paris Catacombs. Something that amazes me about that place is the way it shows how none of our individuality lasts. We’re all reduced to bones.  

I suppose that’s why people have tombstones, so that in the end they’re just a font.

Well, I’m not going to be Times New Roman.

I’m going to be Helvetica.

Lee Tran Lam

State of the Arts, April-June 2005