Jesse Ash
Kerstin Brätsch (read)
Ian Law (read)

3 conversations 3 works.

A series of conversations about a single work.
(Online only)

Composing a Battle for Narrative (2011)
(16mm film, pine wood screen)
Adam Gibbons in conversation with Jesse Ash

Adam Gibbons: I’ve suggested we talk about your piece Composing a Battle for Narrative, but I notice that with your work it’s a lot about exhibition making, single works don’t seem to be so important apart from their place in a dialogue.

Jesse Ash: I often use an association; be it material or conceptual. But saying that, the work you’ve suggested was shown as part of a group show in Paris, that was autonomous and didn’t rely on any friends to help it out. It was a curated show and in fact the curator suggested to show it on a reconstruction of a Martin Kippenburger table. I normally design the table the projection screen sits on in relation to how the screen’s made. So the simple design of the table is reflected in the manufacture of the screen. The film for Composing a Battle for Narrative was painted by hand after I’d shot it in black and white; just this small box, so it’s just a tiny dot of ink because it’s so small. The colours reflect a text, a speech that I was working with around that time for a number of projects, which is Tony Blair’s speech about weapons of mass destruction. So there’s a section of that speech which has been coded through colour, a is vermillion, b is cobalt blue or whatever, then there are these papier maché objects that are models or reconstructions of Giorgio Morandi paintings. I’m just trying to recompose, represent four or five different Morandi compositions.

AG: I thought it had this attempt at painterly narrative, dealing with composition as a narrative tool.

JA: Yeah, absolutely, that’s where it goes back to the speech. This idea of composition goes all the way through this work, thinking about Tony Blair or any politician, how pauses and breaths and gestures and eye contacts and shrugs of the shoulders and all that becomes punctuation and therefore composition, presentation of a narrative. For this I was really interested that he was trying to convince. I mean that’s why this speech instead of just any political speech, because he was trying to convince the spectator or the public, that something existed in order to propose action, military action in this case. I was really interested in how the eye contact, the rhetoric, those devices, like you say…

AG: Formal compositional elements.

JA: …how they led to making someone believe that an object existed, a weapon in this case. Everything depended on making a spectator believe the object existed for it to function. And so that’s sort of about disbelief or trust in say, the depiction of an object in a Morandi painting…

AG: To suspend your disbelief…

JA: Exactly, so there’s this sort of trust, and I was quite interested in this dynamic of the public in relation to the rhetorical presentation of Blair, who was obviously one of the great rhetorical professionals.

One of the things I end up doing is employing a material process, a process of making that’s playful, and allowing that to escape the rules that I’ve set out. So all those colours add up to a section of the speech. There’s 26 letters so there are 26 colours. It’s just a simple code, a system to work with. It’s ridiculous trying to get the paint on the film. Because of the size of the frame you end up with this sort of morphing, splodging colour which then flashes on the screen and then it changes and becomes something else that I wasn’t quite aware of, it became quite magical - a bit like a disco box or something. I never would have imagined this sort of UFO object, it wasn’t in the plan, but it’s one of those things that are important to allow.

AG: It allows for a different kind of engagement with the work as well. As a viewer, it gives it a sort of magic away from the formality, which is like giving a line to the audience to engage with.

JA: It’s seductive; it would be quite dry without it.

AG: The political element of the work is not really overt. In a straightforward viewing of the work you don’t find the Tony Blair thing. Is that something that’s really important to have that political aspect, or that relationship to politics built into what you’re making?

JA: Its all about concealments, proximities, locating politics personally and externally. I come from a very politicized family so as a kid I’ve always been trying to work out where my politics are because I know where theirs are, it couldn’t be more overtly described, I’ve seen it with big banners and headlines but trying to work out your own position just on a personal level and coming through New Labour which is like a frosted window in relation to trying to find a content or a policy, it’s like smoke and mirrors at its best.

AG: It was a real moment of paradigm shift in terms of how politics could be read, where we grew up through Thatcherite Britain where it was very clear, Labour was really clear as well at that time, or at least it seemed that way to me when I was a kid. It all seems very naïve from our present position. This state of ambiguity has been deployed.

JA: And the privilege that has been given to presentation, the privilege of presentation, which of course has always been the case in politics, but never so much I’m sure as in the last 15 years. So it’s a lot of filters, or screens or fences to travel through. I think part of the work is about trying to make visible that process of looking through, or trying to move through a screen or see a reflection in a mirror which is saying it is something, whether it’s a weapon of mass destruction or if it’s a policy or if it’s an object or, you know…

AG: I was thinking about the Lilliputian scale of the screen and also this story Flatlands by E.A. Abbott, about this 2 dimensional world. It’s a fantasy book about the politics of form. I was thinking about your small screen which has this very charming allure about it because of its scale and it suggests something, like a literary fantasy of some sort, it’s like a figment of your imagination because we’re so used to seeing screens, we’re used to seeing film on all sorts of scales I suppose now in galleries but maybe not on the scale that you employ.

JA: It’s a model world. If you imagine it as Odeon Leicester square size it’s like a model for an urban screening of some sort, like a drive in cinema. It is quite delicate and it looks quite lost, not naïve necessarily but a bit lonely, it’s always on a table, like an attempt to place it.

AG: Never on a plinth?

JA: The material of its support is always reflected in the material of the actual making of the screen. It’s a formal choice but one which is about accepting that everything from the floor up is a support, from the wire that is powering the projector to the table to the screen to the tracing paper which forms the screen to the objects in the image. It should all be considered equally rather than a plinth, which is rather absenting itself as an object, pretending it’s not there rather than being there.

AG: They’re deceitful in a way.

JA: When you were saying about the littleness of it as you look over it, you bend over it, peer over it, look down on it from close; there’s a lot of things about scrutiny and seduction at that scale.

AG: In terms of how you engage with it.

JA: When I think about a lot of the collage works I make; you have to get very close to see how they’ve been constructed. That movement from 10 meters across the room is as important as the time spent with the work. The desire to get close to something physically, you know. What happens in those 2 or 3 seconds is crucial because you’re setting up expectation, possibility; you’re in this weird state of unknown, also desire. This isn’t like heightened desire but it’s a desire to find something out.

AG: You’re involved in time.

JA: Exactly, you’re with the work; the work hasn’t ended yet. It’s beginning. There’s this tapping on the shoulder and you need to get closer to find something out – that moment of really close scrutiny. How something is made is really important conceptually; a condensed moment of formal scrutiny that you can expand on.

AG: It immediately suggests everything else as well as the work, this relationship to the structure and space. That moment can be a conceptual trick, without a sincerity or enquiry. If there’s an enquiry it takes on a different situation. There are lots of different kinds of seduction through material but without enquiry you will feel duped.

JA: Its often the case that this process becomes what the work is about, and you wonder what that is...

AG: I think it’s a really sensitive area. That possibility of this relationship between the work and the viewer, theoretically and practically which comes from experiencing really good art a few times. You can have the same things with Franz West or Cerith Wyn Evans and Jeff Koons although the language is completely different, it’s that moment you’re made intensely aware of your existence in space at that time, but with content, talking of something, not just making an atmosphere for theatrical reasons. It becomes an inherently political act that awareness of space and time.

JA: For the spectator, because of an individual’s relationship to their presence, where they’re situated in the world at that moment, and therefore outside the gallery walls as well. The profundity of the romantic…

AG: Yes maybe it’s romantic.

JA: But not that that’s a bad word.

AG: No. If art can do that now it’s quite important because conceptualism sometimes looks like it’s scared away that feeling through becoming cold and academic and it’s boring. There’s no need to shed the history of conceptual art but not to have a sense of feeling is really problematic.

JA: ‘Coldness’, I wonder if this is the temperature of access? Where and how a subject is buried? This new work that I’m doing at the moment plays out exactly this, I think it is trying to reveal how we use concepts or content, both in art and the wider world, its called Avoidance—Avoidance: a Project of Transparency. We’ve had the Leveson enquiry and Wikileaks, where there are real questions of when something should be open or closed, when it should be made public, and I’m thinking about that in terms of a spectator’s relationship to content, which mirrors the questions that we were just talking about in relation to making work: the coldness of a concept, how does a spectator access this thing or form a relationship with it, with this moment, this artwork, this object? So I suppose these things are all kind of colliding a bit for me at the moment. All the different models on the floor, that you can see, are all elements of backdrops of speeches. If I make a model of Romney’s recent speech and then take out lots of different facets and rearrange them then I might have something similar to this (pointing to a sculpture on the floor)…. and that’s Barack Obama’s 2008 convention speech, again all taken apart, reassembled and thought of much more sculpturally.

AG: What’s the translation process?

JA: At this stage, the translation process is really looking at the simple design of the stage.

AG: Visual things.

JA: They’re all visual you know. And then I’m making quite simple maquettes that describe part of that presentation, and being quite loose with it. But there are quite a few other elements to the project…

AG: It’s all about an ethical relationship with the world, in a way.

JA: What do you mean?

AG: That a kind of ethics becomes employed as soon as you address somebody else, so the whole nature of speech making is a kind of ethical conversation, only with these guys it’s on a massive scale. It happens intimately all the time, I think talking about that idea of present-ness, the viewers’ idea of present-ness that we were discussing. It’s an ethical moment where you become aware of your relationship to the world and others around you, these guys’ mode of operating is kind of full of that ethics, but it’s hiding behind the screen. It has all these mechanisms that prevent them from actually engaging.

JA: When I think about ethics I think about responsibility and trust. Trust, I think, is really important. You were saying earlier about the spectator being duped and I think that’s a distrust. That’s not my position or my reason to make work. If anything it’s the opposite, it’s to privilege that moment. Everything has to be thought of very sincerely in relation to anyone who might come across the thing. Sincerity implicates trust and trust is what is being challenged or eroded within the subject matter that I’m interested in.

The trust… we mentioned Giorgio Morandi… is allowing yourself to disbelieve. Suspending disbelief: there’s an unsaid relationship, an unsaid trust between 2 things, makers/spectators and those relations are mirrored all the time within the talking of policy or the talking of event. You’re talking about ethics and I think that trust is really interesting. I wrote something recently about it, which is about the relationship between yourself and the objects you make and the relations that allow you to show the objects i.e. curators, critics, artists etc. So there are all these material silent trusts and then there are spoken trusts, which allow the thing to have resonance or the thing to be seen. I’m really interested in this thing of trust… Someone asked me the other day ‘why do you need to use such big heavy political references as starting points?’ and that got me thinking for a while, and I thought…I need them in a way. I need them to run away from.

AG: It’s just material like any material in a sense. On one level wherever it comes from is equal in a way, if it’s trade unionists talking at a local milk depot or these big speeches. Only the thing that you want to get at isn’t there at the local level, round the corner, so you have to choose the right material to deal with.

JA: Yes. There’s this aesthetic value as well. I’m using it as a pallet so there are aesthetic decisions which require quite elaborate beginning points. The TUC guy, those smaller radical political groups is where my family’s politics is from. And the history of the Socialist Workers Party for example, there’s a massive history of the aesthetics of their print processes. I’ve just looked through all these posters that belonged to my step-father who died a while back; all screen-printed. It’s done so quickly, the colours are still so rich, the ‘68 posters, the message is coming out quick in bold type. I’m no political historian but the message is often clear, as we described Thatcherism and the polarised politics of the 80s, the clarity of what’s right and wrong is very much there. That’s not really my language. I’ve grown up with this smoke and mirrors, razzle-dazzle glitzy rhetoric and I’m interested in that because that’s how I think we’re still asked to identify with politics now.

AG: Apart from the aesthetic reasons for making this work, what’s the attraction to the bigger narrative of global politics? As you say it’s the same story being played out of imperialism and segregation, religion and class and culture.

JA: I think it’s the level of mediation. It comes down to simple numbers: the amount of images, and the size of the audience that we’re talking about and therefore the critical mass, and therefore the value of that imagery. The smaller things… I can think of quite a few people off the top of my head who are dealing with those more humble localized political gestures and I’m quite wary myself of the potential voyeurism of that. I’d much rather go to these meetings and be involved.

AG: Whereas this is up for grabs…

JA: It feels like there’s a bit more for me and of me. There’s this hazy language in the air that we all share and I’m working with that as a material rather than valorizing or fetishizing something which is often not seen and bringing it to the surface because I think it’s of value. My interests are more concerned with the things I see going on now, and how I relate to that as a material. For me that seems like a simple presentation of a relationship to politics. The phrase ‘relation to’ I think is really important. You and I here, and how you/we relate to something, an object, or an event, or to politics, or to rhetoric, and that’s what interests me. It’s really about a process and an endeavour and that’s why making is really important and that’s why this kind of fetishism isn’t important and I’m careful to avoid it.

Jesse Ash is living and working in London, UK.
Adam Gibbons is an artist based in London, UK.

Composing a Battle for Narrative (2011)
(16mm film, pine wood screen)

Image © Jesse Ash

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