Artist in Focus: Edwina Ashton

1543 words

Louisa Elderton

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Human and animal paradigms seem to fuse uncomfortably in your works as the creatures that you create can often be engaged in some form of dysfunctional struggle or awkward social encounter. What is it that interests you about enabling a juncture between these two worlds – the animal and the human?

It’s odd isn’t it how readily humans get divided from animals. I suppose it is due to language, communication, emotion and intentions, but we are animals too and really we don’t know very much about animals.

I am interested in individuals. Animals are almost always seen as examples of their species or read symbolically. Concentrating on individual character immediately makes them seem anthropomorphic but I often wonder about this. Of course, with the animals which I make, the things they do and their costumes are invented but it works two ways. There’s a sliding scale depending on props and action; the difference between say opening an umbrella competently or investigating it as wire and material, and shuffling between these (you see this watching a baby exploring its surroundings).

By using costumed animals in films with a fixed camera you get a whiff of naturalism with a focus on specific behaviour. I’ve always used animals to express human emotion. It is like a shorthand to a brain without getting embroiled in historical time or social status. The creatures just act, do things or behave. As soon as there are voices or voice overs you get different registers of information.

There is a sense of personal isolation which seems implicit in your work. How might this reflect your thoughts about selfhood or identity?

Yes I think it’s there, but it’s such a complex thing. In some ways it’s difficult to get away from the fact of being alone (or ultimately being alone as Anne Course said at the Shudder talk with Esther Leslie Drawing Room 2010, or words to the effect – ‘Personally I’m very pissed off I’m going to die’). There’s a lurking awareness of that sort of solipsism and negation. At the same time, making films or drawings always anticipates an audience. Then there’s the irony of concentrating on humans’ ability to communicate given the massive failures and—at bleak moments—potential impossibilities of communication.

I’m interested in constructing personalities from the flimsiest of means and setting all sorts of positive emotions up against ridiculous scenarios.

I’m quite inerested in things going wrong, especially in public; social embarrassment, being isolated by being focused on, being a lone visible object.

Would you consider there to be a strong element of performativity in your broader practice – which incorporates drawing, painting, sculpture and film – even beyond your performance artworks?

I started off making very short videos – some have voice overs, some just sound. Often they were filmed using a fixed camera, as you might document a performance; with a single or a few takes, a creature would do something. I never thought of them as performances. I liked to think of them as some kind of wierd nature documentary which pretended there wasn’t an audience, rather like an unobserved view into another world…

But you’re right – pretty much all of them and particularly the drawings, with their bits of speech and action, are aiming at a particular person and moment in which the gamut of business surrounding social behaviour falls apart.

In the talk at Jerwood Arts on 28th March 2011, Anouchka Grose and Patricia Ellis discussed the intrinsic absurdity of your work, Peaceful serious creatures (lobster arranging), 2011. Do you also see the work as signifying the absurd, and if so, how might this reflect more broadly your musings on the human condition?

In a way it was most interesting when it went beyond absurdity and the audience got inadvertantly engaged with the scenario – absurdity has a distance to it. I do like things being absurd, at least I find humour a great relief. I suppose it is also an awareness of the absurdity of Absurdity and Solipsism – trying to puncture them a bit.

I became very taken with the idea of ‘churning’ (going through boxes of things without really altering them) and ‘scheming’ (collecting things for future but improbable use). They are very close to home. Mess and chaos is both liberating and appalling. I loved the idea of careful lobsters, making aesthetic decisions but also the foolishness of human arranging. Installing in a clear white space like the Jerwood is always fantastic. By the end I had exhausted myself with the muzz.

Sarah Williams, curator of SHOW, very much encouraged you to produce a proposal for the exhibition that was not set, that could play out and become fully realised trough the course of the exhibition. How have your ideas, thoughts and views of the work changed as the exhibition has progressed?

It was good being able to change things and in effect to go through a series of rehearsals at the same time. It made the relationships within the performance; the time the audience is expected or expects to watch something; the effects the dimensions of a room have on its contents; and the speeds and energy of a solitary figure in relationship to two or more figures, clearer. We moved the space around to make different places for the audience to gravitate towards. We tried different costume registers, and different focal points. I realised early on that we needed to keep some parts hidden whether it was concealing bodies behind blankets, making noises out of view, or via notices.

The best part was seeing the differences between performers. It really was a collaboration (in order of appearance Julia McKinlay, Alex Baker, Laura Phillips, Kit Poulson, Jo David, Ole Hagen, Aaron Williamson, Alice Turner, my parents, Marcia Farquhar and Jordan McKenzie, all took part).

Have visitors to the space tried to interact with the lobsters, or has there been a strict mode (code?) of separation between audience and artwork? Furthermore, how do you feel about the role of the audience in witnessing and participating in your live moments?

It was brilliant with Marcia because a few of her friends who had come joined in. They wandered around, sat down and read excerpts from Harry Houdini’s book on escapology out loud. Overall the audience has been all over the place because so have we; out in the road (with Aaron), wrestling on the pavement and doing gymnastics (with spongehead Jordan), dancing around cars (Aaron), sitting in the cafe and reading (Jo).

Initially I thought a formal divide, as in an aquarium wall, would be good but the whole thing felt much better as soon as we removed it. Inside the gallery the action didn’t invite participation – even though different things took place; playing music (Alex, Kit, Jo), arranging colours; balancing egg and silver takeaway boxes (Laura, Julia & me) and twitching (Alice and me). Ole Hagen arrived in a giant blue head and a lobster spent a lot of time feeling it. I wondered if it would have been good to approach the audience in the same way but never had the gumption. It was a very weird sensation – to touch someone through huge claws.

The greatest problem was how to make unexpected things happen in spite of an advertised time for viewing. Also how to allow little things to happen. Ideally we would have been on show like a lobster at a zoo, for the whole time, but that would have been exhausting and practically difficult.

A strong curatorial concern of SHOW was to examine the intrinsic ephemerality of any live moment, and thus to consider further the role that documentation, relics and records might play in capturing the passing of time. What are your views about trying to prolong, contain, or capture the essence of your performance art?

As they started off as films I don’t think it is a problem. With long performances I prefer using photographs and making animated snippets of actions. It seems like a way of developing them – and bringing together time and language.

Are there particular artists, philosophers or writers whose works have influenced or shaped the form of your own artistic practice?

Jane Campion, William Wegman, Beatrix Potter, W.G. Sebald, Jack Smith’s photographs and Meet Me at the Bottom of The Pool and Joseph Cornell. The scripts for films come from a mish mash of sources – bits of half remembered theory or converstions, old text books and recently from reading and listening to 19th century novels, detective stories and books on the sea shore… Things get used years after they happen. I loved the Trisha Brown performances at the barbican and Ian White and Jimmy Roberts’ performance 6 things we couldn’t do but can do now at theTate, and a student at Chelsea in about 2004, who did a brilliant piece with twelve year old schoolboys – but I didn’t know her and can only remember, I think she was called Aisling.

What have you got planned for this coming year? Do you have further exhibitions and works that we can look out for?

A performance tableau in at the Barbican on the 21st July, a show with David Mackintosh at WORKS|PROJECTS in Bristol, some group shows in Frankfurt and Bologna and two more animations which I am making with David Jacobs.