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NTU Sustainability in Enterprise

Interview: John Newling

9 February 13 interview: Jennie Syson

After three years of pulling in art from all over the world, Nottingham Contemporary have finally handed their main space to a locally-based artist. John Newling has produced works in hotels, swimming pools, burnt-out cars and on the streets of Los Angeles and New York. So what does he have lined up for his adopted home town?

What’s your first memory of Nottingham?
It was 1980-81 and my first visit to meet up with the Midland Group, which was an arts centre in Hockley at the time. I remember phoning Ann, my other half, on a brick of a mobile phone to say, “Nottingham is amazing. It’s really clean!” I really liked Handsworth in Birmingham where we were living, but the streets always seemed to be full of stuff. I got out of the railway station here and it was beautifully clean.

How do you think the artistic character of the city has changed since you moved here?
During the eighties I was away a lot in America, doing shows all over the place. On my return in 1985, I had a renewed love for the city. Particularly the Market Square, and I still really liked the Trent. I felt maybe the culture of the region was dominated by theatre and dance at that time rather than visual art. I was teaching on the Creative Arts course at what was then Trent Poly and I was really interested in the fusion between live art and dance. I found it was embedded in the culture of Trent, and with my colleagues there at the time. I began to get to know more studio groups with each year, as I grew to know more students. Some stayed on, but most of them left in those days to move to London.

Do you think that’s changed? Do our best art graduates still all leave for London?
I think during the nineties – and particularly this century - it’s changed beyond all recognition and it’s been incredibly exciting to watch that change. To the point where I think there have been moments where these social networking sites, bless ‘em, become like ‘Art Tourettes’ because there is just so much going on. Don’t get me wrong – I actually think that’s great. It means both young, emerging and established artists are all really contributing a great deal to the city. My only concern is that the ecology of art is dependent on the competition of resources being balanced by the resources themselves. We need to keep reinventing ways to make this sustainable.

How do you feel about being the first Notts-based artist to do a major exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary?

It feels good, because I know that I couldn’t have worked harder at it. They’ve been brilliant to work with; very canny and clever. This show will only have one piece that’s ever been shown in Nottingham before. In total it will be 60% brand new work. The rest are pieces that have been shown in other countries, but not in the UK.

How has Nottingham, and its history of performance and live art, influenced your work – particularly work in the public realm?
I did a Fulbright fellowship in the US – and this was where my ways of working really formed. I was awarded this on the condition - my condition - that I was not associated with any organisation or university. I wanted only to work on the streets. At that point I started to think about art and people, with an abiding curiosity on what it is to be human. I started to develop work in America in hotel rooms, on the streets, in burnt out cars – all sorts of places. When I returned to Nottingham, I was full of it! Because I was in an environment with young artists making live art – it was very logical that my public practice would merge with theirs. They were pretty inspiring days. Gob Squad were around as students and I was in the Market Square waiting for a bus and saw one of their founders put on a wedding dress and run through the Market Square, screaming and throwing flowers. It was this kind of work that was really inspiring to me.

Nottingham does seem to have these moments or vignettes, which can be inspiring. You have a longstanding relationship with the Market Square – and indeed some of your work has been set there...
My piece Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, named after the Sillitoe novel, was commissioned by Nottingham City Council, who I think instantly regretted it. I lit the space in November with three or four times the equivalent brightness of the Nottingham Forest ground floodlights. It was incredibly bright and hot, changing the temperature and creating steam. This transformed the space for about a fortnight. We met people that were going out there to read at 3am. It raised a number of issues for the Council – but there was no violence and it changed how safe people felt there. Really it was a tribute to the Square itself as a breathing space within the city. Also by then I was getting used to the city a bit more and admired the ‘to hell with it’ kind of attitude I think a lot of Nottingham people have got. It’s a place you can take risks and I think that’s crucial in the development and evolution of art. You feel free to do that and you’re not menaced by a coterie of critical do-gooders, which can play around with you.

Tell us about the piece for Broadmarsh Centre that’s part of this show…
I’m revisiting a work I made in 1995, where I constructed a faithful reproduction of the jacket The Riddler wears in the old Batman TV show. It was made out of specially dyed and printed Merino wool, with its ubiquitous black question marks against a lime green background. The jacket had a continuous tail of fifty metres of the cloth that held thousands of question marks upon it. This bolt of cloth runs like a carpet of questions from the base of the jacket. The piece brought together my childhood fascination with the character. This new version is a day-long transaction between the passers-by, the space, the work and our ideas of value. I’ve long been involved in looking at what we ‘value’ in our everyday lives, as I believe we need to understand these values as an antidote to the relentless invitations to consume. In this work individual question marks are cut from the work and given to passers-by in exchange for a ‘value’ that they hold true to themselves. As each person participates by wearing ‘The Riddler’s ribbons’ the questions become clustered and disseminated.

How do you see Nottingham Contemporary’s role in the next few years?
I think Nottingham Contemporary first and foremost is about bringing art from other cities and countries and giving a curatorial view of connections between artists. That is very important for artists to look at and recognise. The good work that happens in Nottingham needs to be exported. In a sense what needs to happen is for more artists that work locally to show more in other countries and to feel confident in that. This is what happened with the live art stuff in previous decades. It got exported to other places and those places didn’t say “this is rubbish.” They said, “this is great.”

You feel that it’s important then, for Nottingham to emphatically say in response, “Yes, that’s our art and we’re proud of it.”
I think Nottingham Contemporary, certainly among some of the most important curators in the world, has now placed this city in a position where artists know the name ‘Nottingham.’ It’s now very important that those people who visit see what else that is here. This city isn’t just a place where we have major sculptures and paintings in the big art gallery. I think the Contemporary has a very conscious and very strong social role to play; and it knows that. Having worked very closely with the team there, I think that is going to become even more exciting in the future.

John Newling: Ecologies of Value, Nottingham Contemporary, until 7 April 2013. He will be speaking about his work at 6.30pm on Tuesday 5 February in The Space. Dr. Reverend Richard Davey’s book Spinning: The Organic, Cultural and Etheric in the work of John Newling is published by Nottingham Contemporary and is available now from their shop.

John Newling website

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