“In Conversation with the Artist Dean Kelland”
Writer Richard Pickup Interviews Dean Kelland as part of the Solo Exhibition, The Man Who Never Was.
THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW TOOK PLACE IN FRONT OF A LIVE AUDIENCE ON THURSDAY 5TH MARCH 2009.
DOCUMENTED AND TRANSCRIBED BY EXPOSURE ART.
RP: The way that I will begin is to try to outline the interpretation and point out important aspects of work. As you can see the work is multifaceted using different media so that it is quite difficult initially to get your head around what you are discussing. First, thinking about the medium and mode of the presentation. There is performance in this show where you are assuming the persona of Tony Hancock undertaken some performances in space as well as in the photographs. There is also photographic documentation of this performance taken in different locations. Like your assumed persona the photographs have a significant referring to Hancock, Englishness, the English seaside and drinking tea and other English activities and there is a use of text throughout the work, in the photographs, on the typewriter and in the room. Situating this in an art historical context thinking about those aspects of the work then allows us to say fitting in first and foremost within contemporary art. So there is this multi media and photographic evidences that you are looking at post modernist art and post aesthetic art. The use of Photography to document is characteristic of a strain of conceptual art where the business of documenting is emphasized perhaps in printing photographs is not for sake of beautiful photographs. Any attention to the media and representation relates post modernist business of T.V comedy and sitcoms. But unlike post modernist art you are not holding up your work to scrutinize in moralistic way. So I’m thinking here someone like Victor Burgin who did a critique about advertising etc., you are trying to make your work different to that. I think perhaps you have something in common with the pop artist in that you are saying that there is something about these images of daily life that is significant to English identity, sit-coms and our experience of modern life. I would like to make reference to the work of conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader especially in relation to the piece on the wall behind the audience; where they are set looking out at the sea, showing the physical l and emotional vulnerability of the artist’s body in those images. The first question is about the title of the show; I wondered if you would say how you arrived at the title.
DK: The title comes from the texts that appear in the images, often I lift these from scripts that I’m relating to and the subjects I’m working with. So initially I had a working title of “I’d change places with you” which is one of the lines delivered by Hancock’s character and I just think that it fitted with my relationship and the process that I was undertaking. After a while I felt I needed to interrogate a little bit further and some of the themes or parts of the scripts I was working with and the location for the film "The Punch and Judy Man". The actual location is Bognor Regis, a place that exists, Tony Hancock decided to name the fictional town in the script "Piltdown", and that lead me to find out about where that came from and it came from the Piltdown hoax which is a famous archaeological hoax survived for 40 years that suggested that the missing link was English. Quite interesting! I actually then started to play that back over and get a sense of why Hancock made that choice, that fact and fictional side of his own struggle. So for a little while the title was "The Piltdown Man", and that hung around for a bit, and reading about, and researching the Piltdown Man I found a text that opens with the line; “The Piltdown Man, the man who never was”. At that point it felt that it was a really interesting kind of piece of text to use because it applies to the whole experience, my interaction with the character, the locations, the fictional location and how Hancock perhaps felt about himself. At that point it felt appropriate umbrella to stand under.
RP: At the risk of introducing a different reference here I’ve got a book of Morrissey, a great lyricist who mentions a reference to the seaside in the song: The Coastal Town They Forgot to Close Down and I picked out a verse that goes; “Hide on the promenade etch a postcard how I dearly wish I was not here in the seaside town they forgot to bomb Come, come, nuclear bomb!” and I wanted to raise that as the attitude to the English seaside...
DK: Yeah, one of the things I wrote in my journal is actually that line from that song. I‘m not sure what my expectation of Bognor Regis was; I’ve never been before. But I actually felt here was a huge relationship between what was seen on screen in the Hancock movie and what was still in existence and kind of wrote down that I felt there was this pocket of England that conformed to the ideas Morrissey expresses about this coastal lost time. This I guess is the point to start to talk about nostalgia and what it is and often the things we are nostalgic about either never existed in the first place or in the form that we imagine. When you visit places like this and the resonance it has in relationship to the notion of Englishness and when confronted with the reality of it, it is quite stark actually.
RP: And that relationship with it and having a problem with it, like going to the seaside and knowing that it’s a bit rubbish and yet you endure the English seaside and calculate its pleasures and that comes across completely in the Punch and Judy Man.
DK: It’s interesting because it starts to visually control the work, I could have gone to Bognor Regis or “Piltdown” and actually it could have been a completely different environment so that would have then changed the work visually. I think it would still be important for me to go through the process of trying to find a location to engage with the performance while I was there but you can see it as fortunate or unfortunate that actually it felt as if it was still 1962 in many respects.
RP: So we’ve got the reference to seaside, Englishness and nostalgia but we’ve also got reference to the filming representation of that place and your interest in T.V sitcom, comedy and exploring English identity and attitudes through comedy. Tell me something about your take on that, what interests you about comedy?
DK: I’m quite interested in comedy and the idea of sitcom and the superficial nature of them. I enjoy the cheapness of them and there is something about how everybody in this room has watched sitcoms, often even if they haven’t enjoyed them, but there’s something about the timing of them and the attention they require and how really they get to a mass audience and start to become woven into our cultural make up, when we talk about Del Boy falling through the bar; that is something that is now implicit in our makeup.
RP: Is it important to you in the work, thinking about the Punch and Judy Man and in that film Hancock’s character is pressured by his wife to perform as a Punch and Judy man at a gala event for a struggling seaside town and a great deal of that was developed into his feeling uncomfortable about it and him acting out his infantile resistance to the class aspirations of his wife Is that an aspect that you want to take from the sitcom?
DK: I think what is interesting about it is, or one of the questions I asked about sitcom is, what informs the sitcom, is it us or our cultural history and baggage, our cultural makeup that informs the comedy or actually could it possibly be the other way around, not in its entirety but are sitcoms in a position where they can actually influence the way people feel and the attitudes people have. A big part of this project which is going to be a long undertaking is looking at sitcoms such as “Love Thy Neighbour” or “’Til Death Us Do Part” and thinking very explicitly about what informs the attitude of those characters and do those characters inform attitudes, and going back to the issue of the superficiality of the media that’s an incredible claim to make there; that it could actually happen or that process could be taking place so I am interested in how the sitcom operates and what part does it play in the fabric of our cultural makeup.
RP: In art history and the criticism of art there’s a spectre of the objection to the mass media on the part of concerted art and there is a section from Tim Clark’s book about the painting of modern life he talks about after the period of impressionism the middle class invents its vocabulary and he actually mentions soap operas sitcoms and small dramas. There’s this line that states “that’s it they’ve got their reputations of their fate they are doomed to this” and finishes with the line “Commodities are the magical power of the commodities” so are you positioning yourself against that kind of attitude?
DK: It’s an obvious thing to say but yes I am anti-elitist. By undertaking work like this and operating with those constructs then I am in opposition to that, I think actually there are parallels between how we have reinvented our comedy actors and parallels in how artists were reinvented so we are quite happy to digest the idea of Van Gogh as a tortured genius and evidently produced therefore something we have to admire. I think in our culture we have kind of reinvented our comedy actors in the same vein and I think that dawned on me when I watched a documentary about Les Dawson who I thought, from my memory, was a one-trick-pony telling jokes about his mother-in-law and yet he was presented in this documentary as this tortured writer who was trying to break away from the mother-in-law joke and was a rich complex character and I think that there are parallels there that Les Dawson is Van Gogh, there you go! I find that quite interesting as well and I think that the packaging of Hancock is one of the key reasons I am interested in him is he was one of the first comedians to perhaps not be able to hide the struggle he was engaged in, and in some instances he inadvertently put himself into the situation where he could demonstrate that he was suffering. He had an emotional struggle but he has been positioned more comfortably because of his actions prior to his death. He would turn up for interviews virtually unconscious and you felt it perhaps was deliberate because he was showing the struggle he had. Whereas as perhaps prior to him that would be kept to one side and the screen persona would not be punctured by the personal persona. So I think that was one of the reasons I was drawn to him, and as well the monument of someone who had lived in Birmingham all their life and is always there quite interestingly he was born in Birmingham but only lived there for six months of his life but he has been claimed by the city and the monument, it only kind of dawned on me and not so long ago that the monument was commissioned to celebrate this actor, this man and actually it is a depiction of the character Hancock.
RP: It occurs to me that we’re doing the same thing, sliding between the man and character and another question I’ve got here is its difficult to articulate but I think there is a complex interplay in the work between you, Dean Kelland whatever that is, and the persona in the work and Hancock the fictional character and Hancock the man. Is that a deliberate strategy or is it something that came about through working with the references.
DK: Not sure it can be a deliberate strategy, this is still very much a testing ground really and I’m interested in those kinds of questions…
RP: I suppose I could tag onto that: do you need to establish in your work Hancock, his work as a critical text? Is that necessary?
DK: I’m not sure actually and can qualify that by addressing one of the creases that I want to iron out really with this work and that is; at what stage with this work do we need to know Hancock? Because there’s going to be people walking into this space and engaging with this work that do not have him as a reference, and at that point I have to accept either this has failed as a piece of work or there’s enough in terms of what’s happened with the figure, the locations, the sequencing, the actions - that there’s enough to carry this in terms of a broader understanding of cultural identity and collective memory and those kind of things so certainly the work I’ve presented in the space is not kind of diminishing because it’s been a section of my life where I have lived as Hancock but it’s still early days; a toe in the water and I am finding out by presenting work in progress the mechanisms that are at play here.
RP: In some ways I’m tempted to defend your work against yourself there I don’t know if you have to justify the Hancock reference in there I think if it’s there it’s up to the viewer to find that out and for me looking at your work and looking at the Punch and Judy Man, and that’s a strange film; a quietly unnerving film that’s seemingly slapstick but I don’t find it very funny; the gags are not that effective.
DK: No, actually when I presented some of this work in progress I was talking about another comedy program: “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin” and it might just be me but I don’t often laugh at sitcoms and don’t ever recall laughing at Reginald Perrin, but I still found it possibly one of the most important things I’d seen. I was too young to experience it first time round but saw the third or fourth run of it and was conscious of what was happening and got hooked on it but wasn’t laughing and I think it’s the same with Hancock. I can watch his work and I’m aware it’s this thing called comedy.
RP: Can we at this point address the images and how they seem e autobiographical, I think it’s slightly mischievous?
DK: I think this is another question I’m tackling at the moment. It would be folly to sit here and say they’re not autobiographical when there are so many images of me. I think where I want to position myself with the work is really as a catalyst and so by that I am an example of an English person who lives in these times and has the kind of collective memory that I’m trying to address. So there are things in here that could be perceived as autobiographical but I think the problem when you go down that road is that it can become insular and it becomes impenetrable then, and I find it difficult working like that. It sounds corny to say, but when the hat was on, and anyone who knows me knows I’m not particularly comfortable in front of a camera, I can honestly say there was something about assuming the role that really got rid of that anxiety and at no point did I feel uncomfortable or unable to go through this process.
RP: This for me is one of the successes of the work, how you tread that difficult middle ground between the simple artists genius modern autobiography and on the other hand that sort of radical “there is no side there is no subject” behind this at all there is no Dean Kelland you seem to be positioning yourself in between taking on representations knowing there are picture involved sitcoms and the rest of it, but we know that somehow you are involved and performing something to the left and that interesting space in between.
DK: I would agree. (Audience Laughter)
RP: How important is the documentary element of this then?
DK: The obvious question is why didn’t I just film this why didn’t I just do a series of films about this? I did deliberately choose photography for its documentary quality the way it represents the world and I had an idea that when I went to various locations there would be some resonance with the photographic history as well, but if I’m honest I’m still not sure whether photography is the right form and that’s what I’m learning at the moment. There’s a text by Peggy Phelan that I’ve been reading about performance art and she talks about the fact that performance can only exist in the moment. That it’s performed and whether you use film, mark making, or photography to document it, that is something else and often performance artists fall into the trap of feeling that it isn’t and I’d like to think that I was aware when I chose photography that I wasn’t using it because I thought this is going to show the performance, that I was aware it would be something removed from the performance but then the question is; is it so removed that it becomes unnecessary to use it?
RP: What I had in mind was there is something quite specific going on in these images where you’re performing as it were against these backdrops and there’s something about photography’s ability to introduce contingency and accidents and time and so forth so there is a tension between photography’s power to do that and you enacting it. There is a contingency in the large pieces, but it’s not as apparent as in some of the smaller images for example, when there’s an old lady at the bus stop standing next to you.
DK: It is distinct at the time so you are not trying to pretend that this is 1962. It is contemporary and I think those incidentals are quite interesting.
RP: And that relates to your addressing nostalgia and looking back at the town and so forth.
D Yeah, because when I was living as Hancock for a weekend I had an audience for the dance but it was quite interesting that I was occupying the space and going through these performances and engagements and the contemporary space it was happening in remained untouched actually and is demonstrated by the use of photography.
RP: I can’t get away from the fact that these images are really stylish and beautiful images, and I wondered if that is something you were conscious of creating?
DK: It’s a skill I have and so I can utilize it. My kind of default position always is that I’m interested in the image. Now I’m aware that when you’re working in certain ways that it is going to be more appropriate for the way a piece of work is read if you adopt the use of a particular medium or process and those kind of arguments but I’m still interested in the image. First and foremost that kind of over enjoyment of the aesthetic I’ve always been a bit concerned about if it’s the only thing you are concerned with.
RP: But as it is within the work do you want it to do a particular job or do you want it to relate to.
DK: Maybe, the sequence on this wall is an isolated and I use finalised broadly but kind of resolved up until the point where we are at here today and may be I wanted to distance that from work in progress. I actually perhaps feel that with the space that they feed each other but maybe that was partly the decision I was making, kind of working with the quality of those (points to “resolved” sequence) compared to the quality of these (Points to work in progress), not that they are an awful quality but just happy for these to be a kind of work in progress.
Questions from the floor
Q: Who took the photographs?
DK: The ones in the studio I did myself using a foot operated long cable release, my wife took the location pictures in Piltdown and a very talented photographer called Andy Jackson took the Birmingham shots.
Q: Did you find the character of Hancock quite easy to slip into?
DK: I’m not an actor and so I don’t know if I’m conscious of preparing myself, its interesting that after I’d spent a period of time being Hancock; I went to the hotel in costume and presented myself as Hancock whenever I was outside the hotel room, and what was interesting was a couple of weeks later I just put the coat on to go out and a comment was made that my shoulders went into position just by putting the coat on. So I think it’s something you get physically used to adopting and it will be interesting to see what happens now that I’m having a break from it, and perhaps put the hat down. There’s a period of review now and this will be turned into a book, so I’ll be working on the book. This will be where I sit back and actually take on board how its’ worked in this space and I might live the next ten years as Hancock, I haven’t decided yet.
Q: Why is your work in black and white?
DK: I felt that black and white was most appropriate because the references that I plundered were black and white it is as simple as that.
Q: It’s interesting that you talk about work in progress and potentially a book and I wondered if you are creating a kind of archive of experience?
DK: I’m very clear with what I want the book to do and I want the fragments of experience mapped out in the book, which is an intimate document of the kind relationship the person has and follow the process. Archiving is a possibility that is very interesting and might be a way of addressing the issues about performance and photography.
Q: Why do you think sitcoms are so popular and successful as they are seldom very funny?
DK: I don’t know why they are so successful but there’s something about how easy sitcoms are to digest and how they are often rooted in very familiar spaces so often they are played out in the kitchen or living room or pub or workplace and I think those things that people experience more often than not and there is something about the familiarity that is comforting. Maybe something about the attention span that’s required that we can easily digest something that’s 20 to 30minutes long.
RP: Isn’t it that we find those things funny because it’s happened to us?
DK: I think it’s a displacement activity that we can have worked unhappily in an office our entire life but we can see someone on screen working in an office unhappily and it’s suddenly a bit funny we are displacing that, and I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it, finding someone else’s misfortune amusing because of the displacement. Comedy and tragedy is essentially the same thing.
RP: There’s another element of tragedy in the Bas Jan Ader reference as well...
DK: I became quite interested in practice and there are a couple of images in the sequence where I’m crying which is direct reference to this artist together with the motif of the sea and moving out towards the sea. I am very interested in Bas Jan Ader’s work which backs up what we were talking about earlier, there is a great sense of autobiography with his work which I pull back from myself I think that the things he attempts to address are universal and certainly operate within this idea of collective memory and it was part way through this project hat I discovered him and it seemed to make sense, and I felt comfortable referring to him. I actually found out that I can cry at will, and in front of camera as well. I can’t tell you what I was thinking of but it does work every time.