Working across various disciplines including poetry, film and large-scale visual art, London-based Heather Phillipson's work takes the banality of the everyday and subverts or terrorises it. Her short films – which last year won her the prestigious Jarman Award – are often used as part of bigger, almost comically over-sized installations that ignite the senses, featuring huge stuffed toys, repurposed cut out emojis and ceramic dogs with half their bodies missing. In 2020 she'll exhibit on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, her chosen imagery being a giant swirl of cream finished with a cherry on top, scaled by a fly on one side and a drone on the other. It's title? THE END.
Mixing politics, poetry and a darkly surreal humour, Phillipson's work feels like a multi-layered, day-glo wonderland masking something going very very wrong. Here she talks about working in a state of emergency, being suspicious of coherence and the radical potential of humour.
Have you always been interested in language?
Yes, I've always been transported by the other-worlds of reading, conversing, listening (to stories, music, lyrics), intonations and utterances as imaginative and often visual provocations. I have a synaesthetic relationship to words and colours - as a child, I'd make elaborate charts of correspondences between letters, tones, notes. And my brother, knowing what a terrifying sensory assault I found The Laughing Policeman, would hold me in a room with it turned up to max.
You work across various different mediums, but which one came first?
Images, words, sounds - really, they're all mutually generative and coalescent for me, and I'm lucky that I don't have to choose between them. Poetry and visual art were never really separable for me, they'd always implied each other. Later, as I learned more about poetic form and structural overlaps between poetry, music, video and visual composition, they offered ways to think about structures more broadly - how to interfere with systems, put moments of flight in them, stop systems from taking. I'm constantly amassing phrases, images, riffs, which get wedged together in my mind, in documents, and on my music and video editing timelines. They're all mutually contingent, and reactive.
I like that you take an old medium, poetry, and slap it onto visuals that feel very modern, almost like Tumblr gifs. Is that juxtaposition something that excites you?
I'm generally excited when making work - it's where I get most of my kicks, and if it's not exciting to me, it's probably not going to cut it. A lot of that happens in collisions - of ideas, media, technologies. But I'd disagree with the idea of this as an 'old' process/output - language is a technology that's constantly under renewal, and isn't Tumblr another form of collage, montage, assemblage?
You've used giant emojis in your art, and referenced memes in your poems, both of which are a new form of communication. Why does that fascinate you?
How the internet has changed - is changing - communication is urgent, and mages, ads, acronyms, emojis, memes, restricted characters, are constitutive of these il/legibilities, specificities, generalities, ambiguities and precisions. Who gets a voice and how/where? If we think of language as a contagion - something that we download to our bodies, and that reprograms our thought, the repercussions for these multiple communications are explosive, liberating, inhibiting, dangerous and hope-filled.
Which emoji sums up where we are in 2017 best do you think?
The custard emoji. TREMBLY
Do you think culturally people are more interested in visual language now?
We (in the global north /west) are certainly bombarded by manufactured visuals in unprecedented ways, and by written language too, which makes it, for sure, un-ignorable. But the idea of the society of spectacle has been around a long time, and morphs into different guises - maybe it's just the manifestation that changes?
You've exhibited in countries where English isn't the first language - do you think the intricacies of the poetry gets lost? Does that matter?
Bits, of all kinds, get lost even in predominantly English countries, and I welcome it. I believe in permitting ambiguity, or negotiating it, squandering meanings. This is not to make it exclusive, but rather to utilise the other kinds of verbal and relational spaces that poetry makes possible - its potential bewilderment, resistance, reroutings. I'm working with what's nearly incommunicable and I'm working with wondering. I'm suspicious of coherence.
I've always been transported by the other-worlds of reading, conversing, listening (to stories, music, lyrics), intonations and utterances as imaginative and often visual provocations.
Some of your installations actively encourage audience participation and interaction, which feels refreshing. Was it important to remove that barrier that can exist between audience and art?
In my work, these modes of encounter come, predominantly, through spatial interactions and the contingency of 'bodies'. By which I mean bodies in their most wide-reaching and specific forms. I'm interested in (sculptural) bodies that impinge on our own, singular bodies, and vice versa - that invite, block, touch us back, that are trip-hazards, that take up space that our bodies could occupy, that behave precariously, that cannot be assimilated from a single position, that tower, dwarf, hide, threaten to topple: CRASH. Sometimes this performs literally. I guess it's more about a particular form of attention and erotics, about animating forms, about not taking anything for granted - rendering passivity redundant. Affective discharges.
How important is touch in your work?
I'd say my interest is more in the implications of tactility - and, by extension, intimacy, than about the literal feel of materials. Of course, sometimes that's important too (hardness, softness, springiness, rigidity) but it tends to be in service to a particular mode of address, a reciprocity of physical encounter, an up-close-ness, 'fit'.
Have you ever worked with fragrances or smells to try and alter the space or a mood?
No, but I have used toothpaste, used car tyres, apples, satsuma peel, cut melons, old potatoes - elements that suggest odours, and rot.
Is it possible not to be political as an artist nowadays?
I don't think it's possible to be apolitical, full-stop. Everything we do is political, whoever we are and whatever we do - how we eat, what we eat, where we spend money, where we give money, how we greet people, how we sit together; it's unlimited. Art has a privileged role in this though - in its best forms, it's an affirmation (even if a bitter one), a challenge, a big fat question mark. It provides a way to answer back - produce, exchange, distribute - to activate other worlds and thought made physical. As Kathy Acker said; “Thought always needs to go out into the world with a few tricks up its sleeve and a dagger in its heart.”
You've previously said your newer work will be angrier - how will this manifest itself?
The work I was referring to is done, out in the world - ostensibly, it's a video about an uprising of menstrual blood drowning (white) patriarchy. It was something I needed to do at that moment, post-Brexit, post-US elections, the rise of the Right across Europe - an imaginative transformation of the status quo, made in a state of emergency. It involved other things too - supersize pizzas, animal fat bank-notes, fracking, embryos, scorched orangutan, space debris. At the beginning of Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit uses a quote from a radio newsman as her epigraph: "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." Well, this was my gesture towards liberation.
How has social media changed video art do you think?
Video is still a relatively new medium (relative to, let's say, painting) and its history is still being written. Of course, technological changes impact on video's capacities and use, and therefore its history, constantly. On the other hand, video artists were doing all this stuff - filters, selfies, rapid edits, crude stick-ons - long before social media, so perhaps it's the other way around - or, at least, a relay. I think the bigger impact though is on distribution - the capacity to shoot, edit, upload and disseminate at high speed. All this, of course, is entirely dependent on our 'labour' for these systems/corporations, providing content, remaining, at all times, 'visible'. How we use these platforms, and how they use us, is mainly a matter of vigilance.
Do you think about the audience when you're making a new piece?
To the extent that I imagine the work being received, somewhere, yes, but to predict, dictate or delimit, never. When I'm making the work, I'm on a personal adventure. On the other side, of course, the work has to do its own thing away from me, and so it remains always emergent and associative, primed to be social, wherever it lands.
There's humour in a lot of your work. Can that be a good way of pushing through a darker message? Or is something just being a bit of a LOL enough of a reaction? Does it need to have multiple responses?
I believe in the radical potential of humour - as something that can shatter, upset (normative thinking), get to the cracks and margins. In my work, any humour, such as it is, tends to be manifest through absurdity, incongruity, elements of the grotesque. Bell hooks said that "we cannot have a meaningful revolution without humour" and I agree - laughter is a weapon against received ideas.