Iwona Blazwick interviews Liz Rideal 

IB   Your work first came to prominence with a series of projects produced with photo-booth machines.  You’ve now set up a photo booth archive which suggests that this is a thing of the past?


LR  The analogue photo booth as we know it has come to an end, because of digital developments including cameras in mobile phones. The world’s best black and white booths were in Zurich and the company who were producing and maintaining them stopped functioning in 2007, partly because of paper sourcing problems. This also coincides with the fact that for two or three years I haven’t really been doing anything with photo booth because I don’t want to work with digital booths.  And I’ve been using stock, in other ways… doing projections, scanachromes, making films, sculpture. It just seemed to be like a good time to have an archive that looks at the various ways that I’ve been using this machine but that also puts a historical, photographic perspective and context on this machine, who invented it, how it works, why was it funny…all of those things. 


IB Will photo machines continue to exist?


LR They will, as little digital centres which will take photos, do bits of printing and have web access.  Because obviously, in train stations there will always be a need for people on the move who need instant facilities like that. 


IB Let’s talk about the very first large scale piece that you made…


LR That was ‘Identity’ in ’85, and until then I was working with landscape. I invented the project for the National Portrait Gallery, where the emphasis was on the great and the good, the wealthy, the famous and the royal. I realised that I could subvert this by putting a photo booth into the basement and record the man/woman in the street …run a project that was about looking at people, personalities and disguise. So I invited people to disguise or reveal themselves in four easy moves, and it was a runaway success…the Times page 3, the Terry Wogan show… it was mobbed, somehow I’d put my finger on the pulse of something that was very exciting and relevant. The images were produced in sets of four, a continuous repetition – an element that I’ve often enjoyed working with, so it felt very natural to create art in that way and it also functioned as part of the educational work that I was doing there. It was a very complete thing, something that was whole and satisfactory on many levels.


IB It also anticipated issues of participation and identity, both of which have become so dominant today. 

You relinquished control by having a machine take the picture, even though you’re positioning yourself in front of the lens…that must have been weird, to not be behind the shutter making that controlling, defining gesture.  Why did you give it up to the machine?


LR It’s like print making; you can set things up and then you let it roll, you don’t know the result until you get the strip back or you pull your print and can finally see what it is. The element of chance, of surprise is what I love.


IB  It’s also striking that the strips of images from your subsequent photo booth projects are displayed in the form of a grid. I wondered if the grid and the indexicality of the process had some relationship to conceptual art?  Were you influenced by that movement?  


LR Yes. Artists like Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Agnes Martin - what I’ve been doing especially with the repetition of the photo booth for me is quite close.  I’ve made some completely monochrome pieces using just colour, curtain and repetition, so not only that minimal stance but also an idea of showing a record of time, using systematic progression to produce a portrait of time. Each strip takes 20 seconds to produce and then 5 minutes to develop, so that once the strips are collaged together you can look at a chunk of time.  People like Robert Morris and Smithson, are important too - that intervention and inventing.


IB Also, it’s an external system which is dictated by the machine. I think it’s quite structuralist, the way you sometimes had it photograph itself, for example when the booth is empty and it photographs its own curtains…it becomes self-reflexive. Another element is the process of indexing faces or gestures, which has its genesis with photographers like August Sander, of documenting a society in a certain era. Rather than having a very standardised way of presenting individuals however, you invited them to act out didn’t you, so it was more performative?


LR Yes, but the first image was of people as they were, straight, so it was actually recording a change that fascinated me then. So it makes a strong anthropological record now of what people were looking like twenty-five years ago.


IB  The other association of that medium is with our youth, when we would get drunk with our friends and pour into one of those booths for a laugh. Conversely the photo booth portrait also has a bureaucratic aspect, to do with passports and identity, something authoritarian. You invoke both these associations but also liberate the medium from them. Placing these portraits in the context of art you subvert the idea of the subject being identified for a higher body, for someone to control. You allow a playfulness, inviting people to act out a fantasy world. I think that’s why it was attractive to people.  This medium, bridges the two extremes of riotous bad behaviour and conformist big brotherishness. It’s somewhere in the middle. It’s also very democratic: ubiquitous and recognisable. This was obviously an important part of its success. And intervening within the National Portrait Gallery, the role of monarchs and history. Did it also have a political dimension for you? 


LR Yes, I wanted that. I wanted all those things.


IB Your work then moved towards performance and self portraiture - you started using your own body, your hands, physical gestures and so forth.


LR I started to get typecast into doing these large collective pieces and realised that I was groaning under the pressure of catering to everybody else’s needs but my own. I thought that it was compromising the art so I stopped doing the large public works, and carried on making other images. I’d discovered a way of, if you like, drawing with my hands, making gestures which would then become tesserae  - jigsaw puzzled together to make larger images. I became fascinated by this process of recreating specific pictures. I made other things, drawings, self-portraits… I suppose as an artist you’re always setting yourself problems, and once you’ve solved them then it’s unconsciously time to move. I recreated a Roman mosaic and reworked a Mondrian tree, things which were conceptually smart and obvious works to investigate in this way, but ultimately not very satisfying.


IB  What does the performative mean for you? There are points when the work refers to theatre and literary drama. There is also a moment when it focuses on your presence, your body as subject and object?


LR Yes, I produced a whole slew of self-portraits, particularly a set which I took wearing different disguises, personae… I made an autoerotic piece. Another self-portrait was a spoof on the Cerne Abbas giant.


IB How much are they about investigating your sense of identity or your self, and how much were they about using the body simply as a formalist medium? They’re not really about subjectivity are they?


LR Mainly it was more to do with the latter: the conceptual and the self. But I did make endless passport type records.


IB  Is there a connection with that great subject of self-portraiture – the nature of mortality?


LR I made a whole body of work around death, the memento mori aspect of the self-portrait using a human scull that I was loaned. I made a diptych of a scull and a baby head - like birth and death, and because they were fashioned using my hands and other material (brown paper I remember) they might be seen as self-portraiture.


IB I was thinking about artists like Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman in relation to your work. Woodman makes her body merge with the environment, in a fantastical Alice in Wonderland way; her self-portraits are really about escape.  Sherman interrogates the representation of women through art history, cinema, pornography and so on. What inspired you to use your own body?


LR I think it was a continuation of an interest in masquerade, how you present yourself, how important self-image is and how it is constructed. How you dress and through this, how people perceive what you are, how clothes tell the story. In portraiture it’s so important, for example uniforms reflect different types of activity, and that goes back to August Sander expanding that theme but I don’t think it is my real focus.  I’m interested in that academically, and it’s useful to know about, but I think that the reason I went to the back of the booth and started using the drapery rather than the figure is that the drapery is so much more ambiguous, amorphous, it leans towards abstractive expressionist painting, so it’s via self-portraiture that I get back to that.


IB  You also work as an art historian and educator at the National Portrait Gallery, interpreting their collection, writing material around that…how much has that influenced your subject matter?


LR It made me very aware of certain conventions and very familiar with those systems and hierarchies. I feel it’s osmotic, it’s become second nature to have that knowledge as part of my artistic make up. It means that I can make connections, you know about the work, the style, the feel, the content…one can use that, recycle it.  Artists are always recycling, There was a Van Dyck show in 1984 that really made an impression on me. He’s not always seen as a top ten artist but he has got such a way of painting drapery, it’s liquid, diaphanous, marvellous, sexy - and it moves. In the photobooth the lights and flash are so strong that you can only suggest moving cloth analogies – you can rarely make a photographic blurr - but when butting up photo-strips together in a collage some sort of kinetic parallel occurs. To get the right moment,  make the correct gesture, takes luck as well as skill. 


IB Now, of course you have no negative…


LR Yes, lovely!  All original!


IB You give control to the machine, there is no negative… so what’s your ratio of success?  When you were using this medium, how much did you throw away and how much was useable?


LR When I made the drawing type pieces, I was very particular…when you’re making work like that there are always only a couple of strips that need editing because when the eye scans those works, it fills in a lot of extraneous details for you.  Sometimes I would have to take twenty strips in order to create the single specific little piece to complete the work properly. I was determined to get things ‘right’ but then after a few years I started changing my attitude… it happened when I did that Roman mosaic piece, I suddenly realised that the machine had caught me in action, and rather then seeing those strips as ‘wrong’ and throwaway, I just thought that’s brilliant and I started really liking the so called mistakes. Over the years it’s changed and now I look at the pieces that were duds or tests and they’ve become interesting for other reasons. I’ve evolved in relation to the work.


IB Another element which I find really interesting is theatre, drama and the curtain. You made the machine into a stage set and really played with that curtain.  Rather than being a blanking or background device, it generates a sense of anticipation and excitement.  Can you say more about that?


LR  I started thinking about the functions of the curtain. For example, Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde… when the Turkish diplomat, Khalil Bey commissioned it, he kept it hidden behind a green curtain.  I saw it in Paris recently displayed like that and in a way that says it all.  There’s the trepidation and anticipation of opening up the secret - but it’s also to do with seduction and hierarchies, who’s allowed certain things. All of that mythical quality goes into the business of the curtain. And in those booths there is literally a curtain at the back but there’s also that other one that blocks out the light and that creates a type of private mini theatre. That relates not only to art historical interest but to the real machine itself which is just like a mini replica theatre.


IB The ‘audience’ then is the lens.  That surrender to the machine, being the performer and being on its stage, is really quite a radical step…


LR  It’s like using the machine instead of having a paintbrush and colours, that’s your palette… it doesn’t control everything because all it can do is record.  It can only record what you show it so in effect, you are in control, you know, if you want something very specific you might have to give it a few goes to get some particular cast or colour or form. I would do tests to get the right colour for certain things.  You’re always going to get that element of chance, but it’s exciting to stay within that restriction, that limited palette.


IB Also, to have, as you say the duds and the surprises that happened when you weren’t looking – like your unconscious self being captured, the enigma of that, of seeing what the mirror sees on the back of your head…


LR  And those portraits that you think, ‘who is that person?’, ‘that’s not me’ - and that’s true with those mistakes too, almost as if they’ve been made by a third party.


IB So you displace yourself.  Another unexpected quality of the work is its relation to other disciplines, for example literature. You’ve often used poetry or sonnets or other literary forms, such as the work Mandrake Tango.  How do you choose the texts? 


LR With Mandrake Tango, I was showing at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where Emily Dickinson was born and lived all her life, it was a fantastic opportunity to make that connection.  She is such an enigmatic figure, a19th century woman who is a modernist, imagist poet.  That made sense for me. Having studied English and Fine Art I found a great synchronicity between poetry and image. Blake was my great hero, and people like Eliot – words are and can be equivalents and can grasp the bits of unknown that you want and the essence of that. I think it’s exciting to put them alongside or have them brought into the work to give it another dimension - poetry especially is about the imagination and about reality just in the way that art is.


IB But that’s the challenge, to put something ineffable and in the imagination into the realm of the visible. You also used The Fairy Queen in a series you exhibited at the Photographers Gallery? 


LR Yes, there’s a bit about “sweet Thames run softly”.  It came from lyrics by Henry Purcell who marks the transition from early masques to the beginnings of opera. I was trying to make analogies between those theatrical events and  early operas that were performed at fairs, like Bartholomew Fair, when you had actors, dressing up and music - and the photo-booth. It was the idea of bringing together the everyday, almost banal ‘without frills’ aspect of the booth and the magnificence of opera, that dilemma if you like.


IB We’re looking at a beautiful catalogue produced in 1990.  On the cover is a treble clef; inside there are images related to the four seasons. You reach out to very fundamental, ritualistic elements in culture - the pageant, the masque, the marking of seasons and so forth.  These are fundamental metaphors and organising systems which filter through into culture. There are also musical notations running through the work.


LR I was very interested in ideas of authorship in the work of the British composer Henry Purcell and the actual script he had written. There are about three bits of original paper left with his notations, in the Fairy Queen manuscript, and I religiously copied these and then reproduced them photographically in the photo booth, wanting to make a point about the business of authorship. In those days the only way to reproduce music for your orchestra was for someone to literally copy it out repeatedly, so goodness knows whether we’ve got the right thing now.  There’s the reproduced image and the real author’s stroke. When you come to photography you can easily replicate, but my work is recognisable because of its unique stylistic trope.  Plus, in the back of my head there was Kandinsky and the spiritual and art, the idea of the music of the spheres.


IB  You also find these beautiful analogies between say sign language, signing, choreography – and drawing, calligraphy and music. They all interrelate.  You’ve used these gestural rhythmic patterns to arrange a series of flower studies.  Why were you drawn to a genre which can be seen as quite decorative or kitsch?


LR  I used to go down to Bookham to the photo booth factory in Surrey in springtime. I found this pussywillow and it was just gorgeous. So beautiful; little bits of yellow stuck on the ends, it was just fantastic. I had some wonderful dark blue silk and it made me think about willow patterns… I was also making a film in my garden of all the flowers when they were at their peak, a bit like Dutch 17th century flower paintings, everything in tiptop condition for the painting over a period of time.  That was how it happened.  I called the show Seasonal Stills and I started making a lot of work exploiting different pattern rhythms. Because of the way the photo booth was lit, (I never really tampered with the booth in any way) you automatically get strong light and shade. You can set up fantastic rhythms and trompe l’oeil kinetic effects using different graphic elements.


IB So, they become quite abstract, painterly and formalist.  They also relate to a history of using floral motifs as a decorative surface.  I’m thinking of Ingres for example, or later Matisse.  And within architecture and interiors as well, decorative techniques drawing on nature… They also evoke the vanitas tradition in still life, intimations of mortality.  


LR This marriage of something indexical and grid like with something expressive and delicate…the beauty of that gives it an unexpected quality.  We’re looking at a book called New Work, published in 1998 by Angel Row Gallery, Nottingham.  


IB It features exquisite studies of fabric where again, repetition creates a disjunction between the detail and what happens when it’s multiplied to create a surface. You’ve talked about this movement in another way, that is between public and private; and between representation and abstraction.  How did you structure these and why is it that we know this is fabric?  What stops you from just making it pure colour?  This image is titled Thundersmoke 3 (1998) yet it still retains its material quality, it is both abstract yet located in the real.


LR I started to look into the different characteristics of fabric. Some are very sharp, starchy and crisp, and others soft and muted.  We perceive those differences with our eyes, it’s automatic; but, presented serially those different perceptions can be analysed. I also wanted to make analogies with moving water, this idea of tumbling cascades and fountains. By the juxtaposition of different cloths and colours, and the formal aspect of how they’re collaged together, they recreate the sensation and emotion of looking at water. 


IB So, the tactility, the sense of weight and texture becomes a sculptural experience which is purely visual – that also triggers associations.


LR Yet it remains a construct. When you look at those collages you can see that there are strips that are stuck together.  It’s very banal, and I like that, the transparency of what it is. It’s real and it’s fake.


IB They’re also sensual, even erotic.  I think there’s a sexual quality which runs throughout all the work; the flowers, I mean everything.  How consciously are you trying to explore that?


LR I don’t know how conscious it is but I know it’s there.  The piece that was installed on the facade of the BBC building (Kerfuffle 2004), I was amazed that people didn’t really voice that - and yet it was like an enormous boudoir.  I think that goes back to the aspect of revealing and concealing, and peeping behind the curtain, all that intrigue. There’s the voyeuristic element as well.


IB  Do you feel that there’s going to be a point when you close this methodology off or will you continue to find new applications for it?


LR  Because the development of technology is endless, I never wanted to get tied to any particular method of working. I like to be a magpie and do all kinds of things.  If you’re an artist, you might as well do what you want, so I don’t have a loyalty towards the photo booth, just a fondness for the machine as it was. 


IB There is a division in your practice between work that pursues your own inner investigations and projects created by invitation, that are site specific, commissioned to inaugurate a theatre or a new building.  How do you step out of one essentially private mode into a public one?


LR I don’t think it’s so much stepping out because people are interested because they’ve seen something before. I’m working with mirrors at the moment, and I was commissioned to make a piece that reflected its location. The great advantage is that you can work big and make permanent artworks. I am still interested in this idea of ‘public participation’ -  but in a new way, so that, for instance, people go into a building and confront an etched mirror and become part of it, à la Pistoletto!  So, I enjoy one, but I couldn’t lose the other because I think it’s the other working method that informs everything. The idea is to make both function and not to go down too much in one direction or another.


IB I think that commissioning agencies are getting more intelligent and that audiences everywhere are more sophisticated.  There is more engagement with art through all sorts of media and therefore one can confront people and engage them with all manner of things. Expectations are getting higher. What’s been your most successful public commission?


LR I think the BBC Kerfuffle piece.  I was on a plane coming in from New York and I looked out of the window, hoping to see my house from the sky, and in fact what I saw were those red drapes!


IB That’s amazing.


LR I was absolutely thrilled.  It was exciting, and of course I told the person next to me, “look at my work!” and he naturally couldn’t understand anything about it at all. I’ve heard over the years people’s comments, “oh, that was yours”, “it was lovely”, “how great” or “yes, I remember that”, so I think it was, in lots of ways, very successful.


IB  With this shift in technology,  how are you moving forward in your own ideas and work?


LR I’m making photograms - no negative, like the booth strips. The work reiterates the formal qualities of the booth collages but using black and white unique photograms – the imagery straddling the papers that acts as the connecting grid structure. It’s quite strict because they are only black and white but I’m excited actually.  It’s good.


IB This reiterates a sense of an external structure, a framework that enables you to push the formal and conceptual limits. You also continue to range across time in terms of references, from a 19th century poet to something very much about the here and now, participation, the crowd - it’s amazing, the fluidity you’ve achieved with this medium over twenty years.  You’ve also translated these photographic images into other media? 


LR Yes, that relates to the musical notation, and seeing what happens with translation, which parts of the original remain. I was keen to have a tapestry made, particularly of this Magic Carpet piece because the original photo booth image was derived from a real Turkish carpet, so that, like mine, it had been handmade and laboriously put together. I gave my version to the Dovecot weavers who then did the same again, creating an arc of change, a dialogue with the original. Three workings and techniques producing different results.


IB The original work is titled Magic Carpet 1987, and the tapestry Tapis Volant.  What does that mean?


LR It is the French for flying carpet.


IB What interests you about that idea of literary fantasy?


LR  I think a flying carpet is great, isn’t it?  You get on it and you go where you want to go.  Like art, it takes you to different places.  It’s sort of romantic but it’s a really exciting concept isn’t it?


IB What was the origin of these images?


LR A real carpet which used to be in the Tudor display at the Portrait Gallery. It was there to make a connection between those painted carpets on tables and as a display of wealth included in portraits. I liked the idea of making an “all carpet no portrait” piece with a portrait machine. 


IB It’s striking that in a way your work isn’t about indexing now.  It does seem more embedded in literary and iconographic histories.  Do you think that’s right?  You wouldn’t say that looking at that work you get a picture of 1995.  It’s not a documentary project.


LR No, not at all. 


IB It’s as if you’re trying to find mythical narrative structures within culture?


LR Yes, I think our whole culture is about making equivalences isn’t it and reinterpreting in different guises, feelings about what it’s like to be alive.


IB Has feminism been an influence? Do you think there’s anything to do with your gender in the way that you work? 


LR Using photography might be partly to do with it.  But I’m a collagist by nature and that’s why the booth worked well.  Also this idea of picking similar elements and then putting them together to make a comment. Perhaps being independent and being able to make art; that is a feminist statement.


IB Absolutely, and to be able to do that, for quite a long time you had to do other things.  You needed a job elsewhere, teaching or whatever, and I think that’s been the experience of most women until very recently. If you wanted to survive purely by the sale of your work it was impossible. What’s terrific about your practice is that it used that scenario and then pulled it right back into the work.  Being a curator, lecturer and an educator made your work richer, it wasn’t like they were separate activities, one folded into the other.