Keith Piper studied art at Trent Polytechnic in the early eighties, and went on to a major academic and artistic career, showing his paintings, digital pieces and video works internationally. Piper was a key figure in the BLK Art Group, heavily featured in The Place is Here, at Nottingham Contemporary, and he continues to address social and political questions in his work. We caught up with him to talk science-fiction, history painting, Ancient Egyptian burials and the importance of the Forest Rec...
What’s your relationship to Nottingham? I know you studied here, but I also remember that when the New Art Exchange first opened in 2008, you showed a piece you'd made about Forest Rec...
Oddly enough, there are some connections between this new exhibition and that work. While making Unearthing The Banker's Bones, I've been looking again at that piece and, while I've been back here, I've spent some time on the Forest Rec again. It’s a very important space for me, personally, in all sorts of different ways. I lived in the Hyson Green flats and walked through it pretty much every day. In fact, I think my earliest recollection of coming to Nottingham was of visiting Goose Fair when I first got here.
How does the Forest Rec link to the new exhibition?
The new work is about questions of wealth, ownership, power and history. The history of Forest Recreation Ground has its roots in the process of enclosure during the nineteenth century, when formerly common land was taken into ownership to either become private land, or taken into municipal ownership to be remade into parks, like the Forest. There are also some links between that process and the high watermark of British Imperialism, which is especially notable on the Forest as Joseph Paxton – the designer of Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 – was also responsible for the layouts of the pathways on the Forest Rec. It's that mix of the history of the site and my familiarity with it when I lived here that makes it especially fascinating for me.
Could you talk a bit about your impressions of Nottingham during the time you were here?
I was here between 1980 and 1984 and it always felt like Nottingham was an important kind of space. It was a lot like other cities in some ways but, because of the different kinds of people drawn together in the Hyson Green flats – students, poets, activists, artists and soundsystem people – it felt like we were plugged directly into a lot of the cultural activity going on. I realise, looking back, what an important space the Hyson Green flats were, simply because all these different kinds of people were there. It made Nottingham a very interesting place to be at that particular point in time.
Were you also involved with the Art Exchange, which later became New Art Exchange?
Well, the Art Exchange was different, but it was part of what was going on. At that point, the Art Exchange was mainly a community centre and a guy who ran soundsystems called Gary Stewart worked there; he was the fifty degrees of separation linking everybody's stories at that time. We used to go in there and use the facilities; the photocopiers and that kind of stuff. Because of our links to the local community through the Hyson Green flats, the BLK Art Group were able to do our Radical Black Art Working Convention at the Ukaidi Centre here. That was re-staged earlier this year as part of the public programme around The Place Is Here exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary.
Was this all going on while you were still a student, or was this slightly later?
The convention was just after, as that took place in 1984, and I graduated in 1983. I spent an additional year in Nottingham after my graduation, before going off to do my MA in London. I'm still in touch with people, and some of them are still in Nottingham now. Not just the kinds of artists seen in The Place Is Here, which is a very important exhibition, I think, but local activists, and others too; people like Gary Stewart, or Andrew Campbell, who now runs Kemet FM. People's politics have often evolved in very different ways since the eighties, so those are always good conversations to have whenever I'm back here.
Tell us about Unearthing The Banker's Bones...
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a three-screen video, which grew out of my interest in science fiction. Or more precisely, out of my use of science fiction as a lens through which our present society can be examined from a hypothetical future perspective. The science fiction element is a useful tool, a metaphor through which our assumptions about contemporary life can be examined. After I completed that video work, I made a series of paintings based on historical works – Gustave Courbet's Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet (1854) or Théodore Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa (1819) – and then remade those as history paintings from the hypothetical future portrayed in the video. Both offer ways of thinking through some loaded issues and questions about our own time.
There seems to be a dystopian feel to the show, related to the economic situation after 2008...
It's definitely looking at that economic situation through the emblematic figure of the banker, who is the epitome of the highly materialistic, profit-driven society we inhabit. I'm really interested in how this kind of society might look from a future position, from a perspective a bit like that of an archaeologist trying to understand a society like Ancient Egypt.
As in, Egyptian pharaohs were like bankers hoarding their society's wealth?
Well, the Ancient Egyptians were taking their wealth with them; that was the thinking behind it. These were the riches the Pharaoh would need for his afterlife, so he was going to seal his drinking cups, his fine robes and his gold chariot in his tomb with him and ride around in luxury in his next life. Much of what they hoarded was lost because these tombs were, not surprisingly, broken in to time and time again by grave-robbers. Tutankhamun's treasure survived intact because he was a very minor king and his tomb had been forgotten. That was the only reason it wasn't robbed like the rest. When I was a kid in Birmingham there was an exhibition of treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun. That made a big impression on me and probably had an influence on some of my thinking about this show.
Those layers of future and historical viewpoints suggest something is going on with time in this body of work; looking back from the future not only at our present, but at history itself...
Well, the idea of time travel is certainly there; quite directly in the case of the Trickster figure who appears in the film. But looking back on these things in my own work, it all seems to exist in a constant state of revision. To be honest, the exact meaning of the relationships between the paintings, objects, prints and video work in Unearthing The Banker's Bones is something I'm still working out for myself. But work is always work in process, really. Especially so when the physical relationships between the different works are always changing. They become something different each time they're shown in a new venue.
Unearthing The Banker's Bones is showing at New Art Exchange until Sunday 11 June.
Keith Piper website
New Art Exchange website
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