How do The Three Graces relate to the last few projects you’ve made?
Materially, it’s very much related to techniques I’ve used before, from appliqué and expanded foam to sand and laser-cut panels, so I hope the language I’ve been developing around these materials is getting richer as I go on. But the real beauty of this project is that I’ve been working closely with the Turner Contemporary Studio Group; nineteen other people with a range of skills in craft and making, and because of that I’ve been able to push things further than ever before. There are around a thousand appliqué shapes in this work, for instance, which I could never have done on my own, so it’s been an opportunity to be as ambitious as possible.
It’s definitely a step beyond something like Nads at the Lace Market Gallery, where you had a few of these appliqué spheres...
There are eleven here and the largest are casts of the spheres I made for Nads, so there is a direct relationship between The Three Graces and that work in Nottingham. The spheres in Nads felt like spaces of potential, you wanted to know what was inside them. But here, those forms are covered in sand so there is something quite antique about them, like they’ve come from a distant past.
In Nottingham they sat in a nest of hair so they had the suggestion of being egg-like, or about to hatch – while those here in Margate reference Artemis with her multiple breasts or bull’s testicles, whatever those shapes associated with her ancient statues at Ephesus actually were...
I like to think they’re very ambiguous. But the thing I do want to be obvious is that sense of age. That’s why I love using sand, because it gives things that ancient appearance. And Nottingham is famous for its sandstone caves and cliffs. On Vernon Road in Bulwell, near where I was born, there’s a massive block sandstone wall that I’ve walked past countless times and I love it – so maybe that has seeped in here somewhere, too. But this Artemis form is the one that references architecture, the one that feels most like an altar. It has a weight that contrasts with the very light suspended form, based on Arabic calligraphy, that floats at the other end of the gallery.
In between is a third form, which has the look of a Chinese dragon...
That is definitely the most animal form of the three. It got called Swoopy, because it swoops up, and when working with the group it was useful to give the three forms nicknames, so they became Artemis, Word and Swoopy, even though those aren’t actual titles. This form goes back to the figures in Even The Animals at New Art Exchange, where one had the look of a stegosaurus with fins along its spine. And in all the Abrahamic religions, the serpent is an important symbol, so that gives it the dragon-like quality.
I’m looking at this work and asking myself, 'Well, am I just a glorified set designer?'
Shami Chakrabarti mentioned in her speech at the opening the importance of this work’s blending of different cultures and periods. In this figure alone there seem to be Chinese, Indian and Elizabethan elements.
Yes, that shape you see around the head is something I used in pieces that figured in both Memes at Djanogly Gallery and Navel at Asia Triennial in Manchester. The Elizabethan ruff figures a lot in my work, and in The Three Graces there are skulls with ruffs everywhere, and those ruffs sit on other ruffs, so there are literally ruffs on top of ruffs. To me, there’s always something slightly masculine about this kind of thing, like men in Tudor portraits with all their swagger and heavily decorated clothes. But while this piece is called The Three Graces, they aren’t, to me, necessarily female, or that traditional group of three women you might usually think of. I don't think of these forms as being gendered in any way at all.
There are The Three Graces from Classical Greece, but you’ve also talked about the three daughters of Al-ilah in pre-Islamic Arabia in the context of this work...
You know the Kaa’ba, the cuboid, hollow building in the centre of Mecca that all Muslims face towards to pray, and also circumambulate during the annual Hajj? In current times, it is considered to be the house of God, but in pre-Islamic Mecca, this building also housed a host of other deities, including the three daughters of Al-ilah. Their idols were said to take the form of large uncut stones; one a red stone, others possibly meteorites or other large-scale semi-precious minerals. In pre-Islamic Arabia, the Kaa’ba was in an area surrounded by pagan shrines. And the legend states that the moon god, Al-ilah, had three daughters, who were also worshipped. In some accounts they had been worshipped for much longer than Al-ilah himself.
So, perhaps these three daughters are a bit like the Virgin Mary in Christianity?
Yes, and you find the same thing in Judaism, because there you had Asherah, who was the wife of Yahweh, and it was only later that Asherah was got rid of. There is an interesting but controversial passage in the so-called Satanic Verses of the Koran, where the Prophet Muhammad mentions these pre-Islamic female deities, Al-lāt, Al-’Uzzá and Mānt, and says that they should be honoured, “Have ye thought upon my daughters...the exalted gharāniq, whose intercession is hoped for.” But that word gharāniq he uses, or one translation of it, anyway, is ‘crows’, ‘the three exalted crows’. Which I had no idea about until I read it a week or so ago, when the crows’ skulls on beaded ropes were already in this piece. So it does feel quite significant that those crows’ skulls are there.
Another strong idea is the way these forms seem to play on the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, with each of the forms dominated by one of the first three, and the water outside the window, in the view of the sea beyond the gallery...
I was thinking about that when we were installing, though I’m not sure it was planned in any kind of schematic way. But it’s true; the serpentine form is predominantly red and gold in a nest of fiery chilis, the wall figure is architectural, covered in appliquéd sandy balls that look like stone, the suspended piece is obviously hung in the air and moves with the draughts in the gallery space… so it does all seem to be there.
The greatest compliment I’ve ever had was when someone said that the Artemis form reminded her of something by Alexander McQueen.
The Three Graces also continues your queering of assumptions, bringing out the camp qualities of religious iconography, a fluidity where the work blurs lines around human and animal, flesh and stone, the gendering of mythical figures...
I don’t think there’s anything in this particular work that explicitly relates to gender or sexual identity, but maybe what informs that side of anything I make is me, because my vision as an artist is basically queer. The way my work mixes different things together and transgresses the usual boundaries we put around them is essentially queer. And that’s one of the things I liked about Shami Chakrabarti’s speech yesterday, where she basically said that in a world that’s trying to separate people and put everyone into boxes, it’s nice to do something like this that’s ambiguous and messy, and not easy to define as any one thing or another. That’s the definition of queerness that I’d use, the element of queering that I think is important for this work.
You’ve also spoken about blurring the line between the serious and ridiculous in your work...
You see that in the serpentine figure, where there’s something skin-like about the expanded foam, a texture to it that feels like flesh, but it can also be read as being like bird droppings on a ledge. You can see it as something visceral or like colourful, gilded turds, because there is something quite ridiculous about the way it looks. The head is obviously a skull, with all the connotations of that, but it’s decorated and bejeweled to a degree that becomes absurd, with expanding foam and fabric flowers coming out of its nose. It means something, but it’s impossible to take it too seriously. One thing that interests me is the question of what separates this from being a stage set, what makes these sculptures art? I’m looking at this work and asking myself. Well, am I just a glorified set designer?
You could say something similar about Baroque church art, because those spaces were always made as sets for religious or political performances of one sort or another...
Completely, yes. And when I think about the artists I admire, there are people like Mona Hatoum, because of the absolute elegance and minimalism of her forms, but they are really loaded conceptually, and that’s the genius she has. With me it’s a total contrast. My response to formal problems is often just, you know, “Oh, I’ll stick some more diamante on it”. I’m making structures that are decorated, rather than objects that necessarily stand for themselves. I’ve got an exhibition coming up in Birmingham in 2018, and I’m thinking a lot about performing my sculptures, about making costumes sculptural, and there’s a big inspiration from Alexander McQueen there. The greatest compliment I’ve ever had was when someone said to me that the Artemis form reminded her of something by Alexander McQueen.
And the whole thing has been part of a large-scale collaboration?
Absolutely. The most important element in making The Three Graces, which I really want to emphasise, is that it’s been a collaboration with the Turner Contemporary Studio Group, a collaboration with nineteen other people from Margate. There was a constant dialogue from the beginning to the end of the process, from the original commission to the finished piece. I think that’s broken down a lot of the usual barriers galleries face when thinking about their relationship to the public, ‘democratising the curatorial process’, if you like. So that’s the main story that should be told about The Three Graces, and I hope it will be seen in other places for that reason. It’s been made with this amazing space in the Sunley Gallery at Turner Contemporary in mind, but could also be shown elsewhere.
The Three Graces, Turner Contemporary, Margate, exhibition runs until Sunday 23 April 2017.