An interview between
Ben Cain, Ryan Gander & Rebecca May Marston, 21st July 2007.
RMM: Ben, as we’re emailing this let’s start with why you
live half the time in London and half the time in Zagreb? How is it splitting
yourself across two countries?
BC: I’m in Dubrovnik at the moment. I live in Zagreb and London,
but more London than Zagreb recently. It’s partly about work, I
spend time where I have to. It’s also about spending time in places
where you feel affinities, and where your working practice is supported,
not financially but by the social/art context… A friend once said
that I live in London, but that I’m in denial of that. There is
the trauma of constantly arriving and departing. The experience of travel
probably does inform what I make, you can maybe see it in my interest
in the temporality of a subject – it constantly forming and falling
RMM: How is it living in Zagreb? How is it making work there?
BC: I live in Zagreb because it’s small and big, because it’s
not a lumbering mass, because there’s immediacy and potential, because
it’s not over. It’s an interesting time now because things
are being reformed after socialism, there are interesting questions being
raised in relation to art markets and approaches to making and exhibiting
work. The art scene is also very fast moving, accessible, publicly integrated
and supportive. The next step will be to reform the art schools.
RMM: Do you have a studio in both cities?
BC: In Zagreb I have an enormous table, that’s where I work. I was
there a month ago making drawings for a theatre set. I’ve been moving
around a lot in the last few years, and now I tend to work wherever I
can/am. Recently I staged a small meeting on the island Vis, near Split.
Churchill was there, so was Nixon, Marilyn, Jackie, Joan (Baez), Tito,
Hoover, Sartre, and a few others. What’s important is having some
time and space, some encouragement, a place to put some bits of paper
on a wall…
RMM: Um… What kind of a meeting was it? Sounds like a séance.
Was it a work?
BC: Vis was a military base and therefore a safe place for Tito. Apparently
it was here that he held many groundbreaking and world-changing meetings
between various heads of state and so on. They took place in caves, or
in James Bond–like underground labyrinths. Of course these meetings
are built on myth but the stories are too good to dismiss. It’s
clear that my reconstructions are ‘false’, but with a heavy
dose of suspension of disbelief you can place my reconstructed meetings
at an earlier time (or later time, or actually out-of-time, between times)
and play with the ‘what if’ scenarios…
RG: I am really interested in the theatre set work you and your wife Tina,
have been doing the last 4 or 5 years. The act of building a set or stage
and the potential for illusions or situations to take place are not beyond
the realms of what you do in your art practice. Is there a division for
BC: You’re right about situations and illusions, but the key difference
is that in theatre, whatever you put on stage is often bound to a narrative
and connected to function. Whereas in my art practice I’m much more
interested in something less instrumental. Although my art practice involves
sets for situations and illusions, and stages for subjects and viewers,
it involves a much greater degree of ambiguity and is certainly not tied
to the rhythm of a narrative.
RG: You sometimes work collaboratively with Tina. Can you tell me about
that? Even when you work alone you use her image or voice frequently.
Is she your muse?
BC: I often use or invent characters that are part of a near reality.
When Tina is pictured or when her voice is used she is performing a character
which is not herself. I love her voice for various reasons, and I like
to use her voice in my work because of tone, rhythm, pronunciation, and
its unplaceable-ness. It’s the voice of an elusive character, one
oscillating between fiction and non-fiction, one given form/body by the
listener-viewer… I want to ask you if you invent your own muses
in the characters that you fabricate?
RG: Me Mum? But I call her Marie Aurory incase life and work get too seamless;
it avoids confusion for me. I don’t really have muses, the only
motivation I have is to make a work that is better than the last work
I saw that I thought was better than mine. Erm… When we were in
Manchester and Maastricht you were sickeningly prolific, to the point
were people felt guilty about the amount of work they were capable of…
I also remember you gave yourself an Ulcer. It seems now that you work
on demand, rather than driven by obsession, I am thinking about the idea
that one artist’s practice differs aggressively to the next... can
you tell me how you work now?
BC: Guilty? Which people? Not quite an ulcer, but ok. No, now it’s
just the same. I don’t really work on demand. I tend to develop
larger scale work for specific events or exhibitions, and besides this
I continue to do things (paintings, posters, written work, sound etc.),
which don’t require a particular space. They sit on the sidelines
until I find a way to show them… I’m just as busy, there is
still perpetual practicing, but hopefully now there’s more filtering
and focus? Perhaps now I don’t have to try everything. In earlier
stages there is a need to make all sorts because you are thinking through
doing. Things have to be tested and realized, you don’t have the
experience of knowing how things will turn out. Now its easier to predict
how things will work, and therefore easier to abandon ideas around the
time that they are conceived. Do you think that the institution also encourages
a work ethic, not only in that you are part of an environment that says
‘produce’, but also in that you have in mind the idea that
you must make the most of your privilege?
RG: Careful balance is needed… depends which institution. Working
through ideas/researching usually produces by-products no? You are very
rarely left with nothing but thoughts, especially if you are interested
by visual language. I like seeing stuff made, I know people who have a
guilt about filling up ‘art waste desert island’ I don’t
think it’s such a problem, I don’t have that guilt. Also I
guess if you go to college for three years, you’d be pretty stupid
not to work as hard as possible.
RMM: Ben, you’re making a big pair of Ray Bans for the window of
Associates aren’t you? Sort of anyway… a cut-out of the shape
in a wall. And as big pairs of Ray Bans have been in your work a lot before
I wondered where that came from?
BC: It’s not really about what they represent culturally. It’s
a sign that says ‘dark glasses’, although it probably says
‘quite cool dark glasses’. Shades that you might hide behind.
In this case the ray-ban sign is a hole in a false wall behind the window
onto the street, so they are about looking at the street from the gallery,
and vice versa. They are also about a hidden subject (repeated in the
figure in the video holding the disc over their face) starring back at
the viewer. The subject looking at the viewer, and vice versa. The wrap-around
ones are more like a mask for the eyes, what do you call them? Sleeping
glasses? There’s the idea that the visual image is something fantasised
rather than actual. You know? Thought into existence. So it’s also
connected to ‘non-ocular sight’, and to thinking about what
is really visible, and what is understood beyond what can actually be
RMM: Another part of the Associates installation will be a sound piece,
which you sent us the script for. How did you generate that text? It’s
fragmented and non-linear… poetry scares me a bit.
BC: Why does poetry scare you? I think I know what you mean though. It’s
a term that seems to allow untamed self-absorbed outpourings of things
profound and melodramatic. I try not to worry about whether its poetry
or not, but about whether its bad or not. In this case, the text –as
with some of my other written stories and text for spoken word- is taken
from various sources, books, letters, my own writing, newspapers, historic
documents, technical accounts of architecture etc. These are then re-written,
often to the point that the original source is unrecognisable. What I
want with this is a combination of the disjointed and contradictory and
the safe ground of the story/narrative, leading to the possibility of
multiple starting points and the impossibility of single definitive perspectives.
Sometimes it will sound like unmediated information reeled off word by
word like the football results, sometimes like a private internal dialogue,
and sometimes technical information is spoken with a ‘pillow talk’
RMM: I wanted to ask you what you thought about artists and art history.
I remember reading about artists learning art history and then having
to unlearn it to make their own way (I think it was Tracey Emin who said
it once?). I don’t agree with that. And I know that you teach on
the art history and art practice course at Goldsmiths don’t you?
BC: There’s lots of art history, and many art histories. I’m
constantly involved with art history through work, family, friends…
Of course there is an interest in, or an obsession, for knowing about
the wealth of earlier works, and about figuring the context for their
development. The weight of ‘art history’ can be crippling
if you feel that it’s something that you must contend with, and
that you must respond directly through the work you make; and ‘unlearning’
or simply ignoring can lead to work which looks poorly informed, familiar,
dated. How do you unlearn? That’s difficult. Via lobotomy? Having
said that, there’s lots to be said for forgetting. I don’t
particularly want to make specific references to periods in art history,
but the sort of ‘geometric abstraction’, and use of almost
primary colours involved here might well recall an ideological project
or movement, uniforms, and colour/shapes which perform specific functions
(codes of a closed society); this might return to Rodchenko?
RG: Is it a blessing or a pain having a mum and dad who are artists? I
always wondered that regardless of this interview.
BC: My parents have always been really great, but at one point they might
have suggested that I might make a good surgeon. Although they are supportive
and interested, I think they made a conscious effort to try not to influence
my art practice, not to comment or advise unless they were asked to.
RMM: We should end it now because we’ve gone way over.
BC: What we haven’t mentioned is history/sci-fi/future… maybe
it’s already enough though?
Ben Cain was born 1975
in Leeds. He gained his BA Interactive Arts from the Manchester Metropolitan
University, & his MA from the Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht, The
Netherlands. Dividing his practice between London and Zagreb, Ben has
exhibited internationally in solo and group shows since 1999.