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NTU Sustainability in Enterprise

Interview: John Newling

1 April 06 interview: Jennie Syson

John Newling's name is known all around the world, but he currently resides in his hometown of good old Notts. We had a chat about his passion for art

What made you decide to do art?
Like a lot of people I fell into art. After nine years in education I was asked to do the John Moores sculpture show up in Liverpool with Gilbert and George and Henry Moore, I was the young one in the group and it was a lucky break for me. I was then awarded the first Fulbright fellowship in Art and went off to the US telling them I didn’t want to be attached to an institution or a university, but wanted to make work on the streets. This was a really important time for me. I started to look at strategic roles of production, outside a commercial white box space. I came back and continued to make work outside of museums and galleries. Ironically, and luckily, that is when museums and galleries started to become interested in me.

Are there any key artists who influence your work?
There are artists that I admire immensely. I amtroubled by and also really fascinated by the work of Joseph Beuys. When I was a student, Beuys was the hero! When I lived in London I was one of the many student helpers… that worked on his show at the ICA. I learnt quite a lot about him by doing this.I like Jenny Holzer for other reasons. She started something rolling within western culture, a reinvigoration for arts in the political public domain. With the onset of modern rationalism in the early 20th Century, art lost its confidence a bit and went into retreat. A small marketable product. I have tried to open this out over the last twenty years or so. 

I often get the same feeling going into a cathedral or church as going into a gallery. In almost all of the titles to your work you refer to religion. Why is important to make these comparisons? 
I am fearful of religion and fundamentalism in all forms. I write philosophically about the importance of uncertainty. I think one of the big quests in my head has been to try and design a space that people can go to be quiet, to relax and think, to form questions. The two spaces that instantly come to mind are the gallery and the church. 

What do you think about the new visual and live art centre, CCAN? It is being built on a historically interesting and rich site where a beautiful church and historic grounds meet.
There is an absolute connection to the past there, but a positive one. Art is steeped in ritual and myth, the gap between our expression and people’s reception of it. It is also steeped in thoughts of mortality. CCAN should hopefully be important to the confidence of Nottingham. I think what artists have to do is grab the word ‘provincial’ and turn it into something strong. If CCAN can help to do that it would be a great achievement. 

What would be your key piece of advice to someone graduating this year?
I wouldn’t advise artists to stay in Nottingham at this stage. Go away, but come back! Those artists that return will need to make art for the region but keep an eye on what is going on elsewhere. Don’t just go for the small opportunities here. It all gets squabbly and stupid. Think strategically and ambitiously. You need to be writing to senior curators who may say ‘No I’m not interested’ but if you write again two years later, they will remember…

I come from Nottingham but have lived and travelled all over the place. It made me realise how great the city could be for art.
We need more people who think like that. The city is designated something like £800,000 to support cultural activities. Nottingham should spend most of this money on commissioning £30-40,000 projects for good artists. Sustainability is the key. The region should find studio spaces for artists and subsidise the rent. 

With some spaces that have traditionally been used as studios, property developers are now cottoning on to them in the same way as has happened in the East End of London and more recently in Liverpool. This seems unfair.
EMDA should start looking at places that can be made available to artists at low rents. This will make things sustainable. There is also a revolution in what is happening with public art … I think a lot of artists undervalue what they do, and I’d include myself in that. Artists should also begin to look at ways to generate their work without selling. 

Do you think the fact that more artists groups are springing up in Nottingham demonstrates a fear of working alone in individuals?
I think individuals are still very important in art. Yet there are new things happening here like MOOT. I’m really impressed by the way that they have opened up to the Nottingham audience. I think other groups in the city could do with not being too groupy or adversarial in a sense. I love going up to Oldknows studio and seeing what goes on there though. I have heard rumours that there will be an agency in the region that looks at temporary off-site projects. Many other regions have this and I think that it will do Nottingham good. We need curators, writers and managers as well as artists. They are all very different yet essential. 


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