Preeya Seth interviews Liz Rideal

11 May 2007


I was wondering if you could first talk about your working methods, especially your use of digitisation and how it is important to your work.


I have lived through a span of camera-related developments. The work that I was doing in the ‘80s, was using the photobooth. And that was the most convenient form of portrait photograph, much used for identification and it was a fantastic touchstone for me. Although lots of artists have used it, people like Breton, the Surrealists, and famously Andy Warhol, it’s still not been exploited very much. I’ve done a lot of work with it, there’s an immediacy. I think it’s fantastic. Of course, things are changing and analogue photobooths are now pretty rare, even though the quality of their photographs are very good. The digital machines that replace them, are interesting because the poses people take can be controlled and now there’s a whole choice element that never used to exist. I’m interested in the business of edit not of choice. I came to use a digital camera initially to just document exhibitions and things like that, as a convenient aide-mémoire, almost like a…No, not like a sketchbook, really just a recording tool. If I talk about the last piece I made which really does use digital imagery, it would be the Cloth Fair projection that I did in Smithfield, in March. I projected from the Great Hall onto (St.Bartholomew the Less) bell tower, images that were...about five metres high and four wide, pretty big. The images that were projected, came from a laptop into the projector. I showed a series of falling drapes that had originally been taken in the photobooth: very much in the vein of the work that I’ve been doing for that last ten years. And there were, two hundred and eighty images taken from photo strips that I had organised into a sequence so they read as a lyrical sine curve, giving a flowing rhythm to the piece as an entirety. You could see them as individual but linked images, a series of stills that had their punctuations. The original, predominantly red, booth photos were scanned into the computer. But because it was for a hospital, I had been advised that “they” were not enthusiastic about red – this is true! First of all I thought, ‘Well that’s absolutely ridiculous!’ Especially as Bart’s is where the famous doctor and researcher, William Harvey, discovered blood circulation. I thought red would be perfect, but, the colour was changed. Red wasn’t fantastically integral to that piece; it suited me fine that it became green, as I’m very into the red - green polarity. It wasn’t one of those terrible trip-up scenarios that happen when you’re doing something and you come to the last post, and they say, ‘Oh sorry, you’ve got to do another colour’’, I thought, ‘No, that’s fine, that suits me,’ because the green became very underwatery and that’s been another theme for me. So in that instance, the fact that we could mess around with colours on the computer and apply them to the whole piece was good. And there are also a couple of instances where there is just a touch of my hand that appears, and that too has been re-mastered and colour corrected. So that’s one example. Between October and December 2006, I did a film projection onto the landscape in Compton Verney. What I’m interested in is starting off with rather old-fashioned equipment and then using current technology to invent entirely new work. The whole business of projections, even still projections on buildings, is a comparatively young medium. The film that was shown at Compton Verney, was first shot on Super 8 and then transferred digitally onto CD, then edited in Final Cut Pro, to  make a 10 minute film. That film was projected with huge projectors, literally across the lake and onto the landscape. I couldn’t imagine it at all, and I really didn’t think it was going to work so beautifully. The first part is Niagara Falls and it’s quite abstract: a lot of flowing water, the rainbows in the fall with wheeling gulls. Next is a rushing river with moving icicles on reeds in the river, and lots of frenetic stuff. Then the final part is in the forest, and it’s just white with these stick-like black trees, deer moving through the trees, a perfect camouflage – I’ve never seen anything quite like that! I thought the first part would read okay on the bank of trees across the lake. I certainly thought there would be great visual confusion with the last part because it would be tree-on-tree with deer. But actually it was the reverse: the last part was the part that one could read very successfully, and it was the weirdest thing possible, because you actually had these enormous deer that appeared to be walking on the water. You probably wouldn’t have been able to do that without digitisation. I think digitisation can be enabling. I enjoy what happens with equipment and processes, how you can transform what you are making, initially, through a process, then how it turns into something else that’s parallel and yet the same, and with its in-built differences because of the process. I find that really fascinating. 


Do you see this use of digitisation in the second stage of your work, the editing phase, as adding to the meaning of your final work?


No, I think the meaning is implicit in the first instance. I don’t think it changes that much, it can add to it, or shift it, in the way, say, with that colour example. The first large Scanachrome piece I did was in Newcastle in about ’88. It was such a long time ago that they weren’t yet digital, they must have done some sort of colour negative transfer. Ironically, it was the same firm that later did Kerffufle and K2. The image derived from a postcard view reinterpreted as a photobooth collage that was then re-photographed. The scanochrome measured twelve by nine metres, it was hung on the side of a tram…railway shed. The shed was on a bridge, with the motorway underneath it, so when you were driving along you saw this…


Hopefully no road accidents!


No …but I almost had one! I was so thrilled that I wanted to stop. The original for the BBC was tiny, just ten by eight centimetres. What I think is fantastic about scanning is that you get an exact replica. You don’t need a neg or anything. It’s straightforward: there’s the object, you whack it on the scanner, and that’s it.


And even the photobooth itself, no negative is produced there either. So it’s the same sort of direct process.


Which is why that all suits me very well. There is that immediacy. The piece on the BBC…there were four images taken from two sets of strips of four These were scanned, digitized, and then put on a great big drum, and ink jet printed onto plasticized, heavy-duty tarpaulin. You don’t really  know if it is going to work until goes up! Nerve racking and thrilling.

Kerfuffle was very large scale.


Yes, it was, 22 x 15 metres, and in fact so big that when I was coming back from America, I could see my piece from the airplane. It was extraordinary. So I took a picture of that with my digital camera, and that was just sort of a full-circle, if you like. A very weird experience. Because it was bright red…that’s just such a powerful colour, and it was pretty intense and big, one could see it from the sky. 


So how would you categorize or define work like K2 and Kerfuffle? As soft sculpture or as photography on a different kind of surface? Or as something completely different?


I certainly wouldn’t say ‘soft sculpture’ because I always feel rather suspicious about all that type of categorisation. You could call them installation photographs? I’m not particularly interested in what you call them. I think that also has to do with the way that I make art…its’ a bit like these projections; ‘How did I get here?’ It’s not as if I was thinking ‘I must go in this direction now…’ Like Kerfuffle, I just found myself there, rather than thinking ‘I want to start making Scanachromes.’ Although, to be honest, that imagery stemmed from a proposal I’d made some years before, which had been for the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre, and I’d been invited to think about ideas for the fire curtain. What I wanted to do was have a scene painter actually paint a similar drapery image, another process application. In the end the fire curtain didn’t happen, instead the whole outside glass wall of the building, had my drapery image etched into it. And again, that used digital technology, I mucked about on the computer a bit to turn it black and white and sharpen the image so that it could read more graphically in that particular context. 


You’ve talked about using black and white, red and green. How is colour important to your work? Does it connote certain meanings or emotions?


Artists have various strengths and weaknesses, and colour is the only thing that I ever feel completely fine about. My high point! I don’t ever worry about it. I think I have a great innate sense of colour. And I feel it’s a thing that gives me great joy, actually. 


I can see that in your use of drapery – the different types of fabrics – the heavy satin of Arras Suite Chocolate versus the diaphanous, translucent cloth of other works. The gauzy multi-colours, and also fabric with a more classical ‘drapery’ look, swathed like a stage curtain.


I think with the drapery... I love the different textures and different possibilities of translucency. It’s a bit like fabric translating character and form. It’s a sublimation of different characteristics; Linnaeus, it’s different characterizations…. You can corral the light transparency of candy colours, and have crisper, gauzier types that are going to be sharper. I just don’t tend toward acidics. In Cloth Fair,  there was some very tight, acid green that punches a hole through the picture. Colour is really important, also the way that it conjoins with the visual feel of what we see, the texture actually does impinge on the tonality and the tint of what we’re looking at. And I’m really interested in that, how it sort of massages the eyeball. How it reflects emotion, 


It’s quite intuitive. 


Yes, I would protect the intuitive in making art.  It’s really important. It’s different when you do specifically commissioned works, then you have to operate within prescribed parameters. But I also think that the business of commissioning is rather knotty, and can be difficult. Again, it depends on who is commissioning, where and why and what for. I’ve just been doing these photograms, very simple, just black and white. I realised that it could be good to scan them and then impose colour digitally. It’s nice to have a narrow process and be able to just sort of tilt it, and move the work into another place. So although I sound a bit down on digitisation, I’m not really. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel like a proper photographer, anyway. 


I spoke to John Hilliard last week, and he emphasized that he uses digitisation as a means to an end. Scanning prints to achieve simple flipping effects that just aren’t possible with the negative alone. So do you think of digitisation as a means to an end in your work?


Yes, that’s very interesting, the flipping…Because I’ve worked a lot with diptychs…exact reflections are so satisfying. The work that I showed in Stills at Lucas Schoormans Gallery in New York in 2001. Most of it was analogue, the work was about patterning and repetition, and how you can – through mirroring and different tonal values – set up different syncopations within in a piece of work producing visual vibrations. I made a film in  2004, called Killing Fields, which was shown at the Imperial War Museum. It’s a palindrome, the first sequence is the complete mirror reflection of itself. The first part has piano music, very romantic. It’s a northern French Picardy farming landscape and then the second half is grumbling noises of trains moving, and screeching. The sound is completely different, one side to the other, but the imagery is completely the same. And you can just make this happen in a flick with digitisation. Cut, paste, copy, and flip. It’s extraordinary. I used this technique again for Suc des Vosges at Lucas Schoormans in 2006. Technology is great when it can help you like that. Like a Hoover or a washing machine. It’s very nice to have access to that sort of thing for lots of different people, it doesn’t make lots of people into artists, but it creates many ways of looking at things, which I think is fantastic. 


In the Mandrake Tango catalogue, poetry by Emily Dickinson was included alongside colour images of your work. And you just discussed how you’ve combined your film with music, and even referred to the visual patterning of your work as ‘syncopation.’ How important is the interplay between different art forms – amalgamating literature and music with your visual artwork? 


When I first went to art college, I just wanted to do everything. And everybody wanted you to just choose one thing, for example painting. That annoyed me, because I wanted to be a renaissance woman. And, I was in love with Blake, and the idea that you could make poetry, make prints, and make an amalgam of these, that they could be art forms that existed like that, cohesively and not to the detriment of one or the other. I studied English and Fine Art in Exeter. It’s the sort of course that doesn’t exist now because it’s too complicated to administer. Well, Iwona Blazwick did that course too, lots of very interesting people came out of it. I wanted to be able to write and make art, with art being more important than writing. Although I wrote a book last year on self-portraits, so it’s not something that I ignore but it’s not the most important thing. So Blake…and then Kandinsky…Concerning the spiritual in art. Music…people like Schoenberg …and then later, people like Peter Brook, Beckett. The idea of being able to collapse boundaries between disciplines. People like Mayakovsky…art provoked by the Russian revolution. Paint on trains and send them out to communicate with the masses. Why not? It’s art for all. Malevich said something about: make the streets your paintbrushes and the squares your palette. Very stirring, political, and romantic. But, for me, big bells ringing and I’m sure that’s partly why I’ve had this penchant for ‘public art’, art that can impinge on lives in a very positive way. Poetry on the tube is a great example. So I  have always been open to those possibilities. 

The show I had at The Photographers’ Gallery in 1990 was a whole adventure into looking at the correlation between music and art. I took Henry Purcell’s Faerie Queene…I looked at his original score…the three bits of authored original manuscript – from the seventeenth century. I was fascinated by the potential loss of original music that results from hand copying notations. And that idea of losing again, when translating into another form. Also of some kind of osmotic process whereby I listened to the music daily so that it would somehow feed into my art. Finally it was too much of a heavy, structured idea. But the wanting to do it was real, and the idea of the conceptual, emotional connection that exists between music and art is very real. And recently, with Cloth Fair I had GéNIA playing Philip Glass on the grand piano in St.Bart’s Great Hall, concurrent with my projection, that worked well. 


I think we were just talking earlier about transcending categorizations and separations imposed between art forms. I find it a bit strange how institutions such as the Royal College and Slade School still have discrete ‘painting,’ ‘sculpture,’ and ‘photography’ departments. Are these sorts of labels limiting in any way?


Well, education policies are always cyclical. Artists today are doing things that were happening in the ‘60s, look at Nauman. At the Slade, we have media, painting, and sculpture, and when we have the shows, all the students exhibit together. All the staff teach across all areas. In practice there are students who want only to make sculpture, painting, and straight film. But others who, a bit like me, might say, ‘I can’t really do sculpture now – I just want to make a film!’ There should be flexibility. It’s good for people to have some sort of base within an institution. 


Charles Darwent’s essay in the catalogue Stills included images that you had chosen, one of which was a painting by Dirck Bouts. It depicts a cloth hanging with the lines from its folds clearly visible.


It’s called a Cloth of Honour. And Bouts uses it as a pictorial device, but they occur in Van der Weyden and a lot of other early Dutch works. 


In your work, the drape goes from the background, like in the Rainbow Portraits, for example, to the foreground as the main subject matter. The drapery became the primary focus of the photograph, which is really unusual, especially when considering the context of the photobooth. I suppose in some of your photobooth work, you collaged portraits of the public. The portraits are more aligned with the conventional use of the photobooth, but the photographs of drapery really go way beyond the photobooth’s standard usage. And there are so many different light effects; it’s hard to imagine that so much variety can be rendered in one very small space! 


If you have a limited palette and you have limited resources, you can really push it. Yet that work happened very organically. The first collective pieces with the photobooth stemmed from Malevich. You know, go out…join up. And then I thought I was in danger of becoming this artist galleries would call up to ‘activate’ their space, to engage the public. That’s when I started getting grumpy about commissions. The last time I did a big piece was at the National Film Theatre, connected to a women’s photography festival, called ‘Signals,’. I wanted to do something with film, inviting the audience to change places with the stars, they could take their celebrity into the booth. It’s a charming idea – so you could be photographed with Monroe or Clooney. For me, it was like foregrounding the audience, putting them on set. I thought I’d use the feminist colours – white, mauve, and green, so I bought these specific silks to make the backdrops. I don’t really know how art happens, it just does. I just started tossing my head around – I had long hair at that time. I thought it would be great to have these abstract forms in front of this colour. I was just thinking about artists like Franz Kline – those big gestural marks, like the essence of movement, perfect; movement and colour combined. So I was exploiting the idea of colour coding, in the same vein as Mrs.Pethick-Lawrence who encouraged mass colour coordination tactics to make the suffragette marches more visible, literally. And that’s when I started doing those Rainbow Portraits. But the other thing that happened was the connection with those Cloths of Honour, which I only realized later, if you look at those drops of expensive fabric, you see the artists are actually painting the creases in the fabric. I felt it was like a sort of arc across time. In one sense, you’d think ‘Wouldn’t you want it flat? Why would you want to show the folds? But, actually, the crease is true to life and is a reason for the light to falling onto the silk enhancing the illusion of reality within the painting. I think sometimes when you make art, wonderful synchronous things happen, like déja vue, so you feel that you’re somehow on the same wavelength across time. 


That’s interesting – these unexpected, serendipitous visual links. 

The backdrop comes from painting and portraiture - the original function of the photobooth. They didn’t need to put those curtains in. It’s just that when they invented the photobooth, they put the curtain in as backdrop to soften or give an environment to the figure, which is so human, isn’t it? I was picking up on that, and then I realised that it wasn’t portraiture but the drapery within it, like that of Van Dyck, that I wanted to go towards, creating mood with colour, form and movement, more like Abstract Expressionism – the simplicity of that, and the possibility of making that my subject matter, which was incredibly liberating. 


The way you use the photobooth is just so different, so unexpected. It’s a machine that’s part of daily life. You go there; you get your passport photos. And seeing the photobooth being used to capture images of things besides faces is just something completely different to think about. 


I also want to eek out beauty from something that’s banal. You were talking about the Mandrake Tango catalogue…there are a few photobooth pictures in there, but mainly they’re pictures taken with a Hasselblad, the subject matter was three-dimensional, Night Scented Stock. Because I was pulling those out (in the garden) one day, and loved the shape of the roots, I started sticking them in the ground the wrong way up, the more I looked at them, the more I thought ‘Hm, that’s very intriguing, isn’t it?’ And then I realised, ‘I want to cast these in bronze.’ To elevate the mundane, to really look at it, and see how marvellous it is. But to loop back to poetry, I was showing that new work at the University of Massachusetts, and that was serendipitous in that Emily Dickinson was born and spent all her life in Amherst. She’s such a wonderful figure within the world of poetry, but also an Imagist poet without really being connected to that group of poets. I wanted to make this coordination between word and image happen on the page, so I chose poems of hers that I felt related to my work. And also, invited Bill Berkson, to write a poem, with a further view to collapsing the barriers between disciplines. Art forms can feed and enhance each other. That’s the feeling, really. 


Could you tell me a bit about what you’re working on now, your new work?

I’ve been making photograms. And once in a while I make paper, which is more like an amalgamation of natural stuff that when flattened, I use to print on. I’m editing two films, the documentation of Fall, River, Snow and Cloth Fair. There’s a project in St Louis…re-cycling K2 and one in Hamburg, also Dubai and Quatar, but these architectural projects take forever. One is a hanging ceiling of sculptural elements similar to Mandrake Tango. And the others are large glass pieces. 

Any other thoughts?

Digital technology has affected the possibilities of art and particularly art within architecture. I feel that it is important to retain the handmade within the technological trapping. Keeping the base, the core, very natural material – human - perhaps one would say organic. Staying close to the essence of something. Like with those Matthiola plants, you take the real object and then you have it transformed through casting. Scanning is similar, photograms too, and I’m working with Liquid Light. I am laying silk onto light-sensitised silk, and exposing that. The result is a photograph of silk actually on silk. It’s a sort of tautology, if you like. It’s exactly the sort of thing I like. Years ago, I made paper out of a tulip plant that I had previously etched, I then printed the etching of the tulips onto the tulip paper, for me that was perfect, an alternative palindrome.


Back to the idea of the folds in the cloth – to me, it’s about emphasizing physicality and making the process something that is concrete. It also highlights the temporal aspect of the work – the cloths were folded, and now they’re unfolded. There are different steps and stages in the working process. The idea of the time between each flash in the photobooth is reinforced by the fact that the cloth was actually folded up in a different place before it was unfolded and photographed in the booth. The process is made physical through such visual details. 


Also those cloths come from different times and places. There’s a piece of work that I made a few years ago – Chelsea Girls – which is not only a kind of subliminal homage to Warhol, but also a photographic record of this extraordinary, almost transparent nineteenth century ribbon I bought in Chelsea, N.Y. It was old but retained that sort of starchy, gossamer, real silk feel. Old fabric is different from new and that used by Bouts and Van der Weyden, appears to be brand-new, one hundred per cent pure silk, with real gold thread. Matisse comes from a place called Le Cateau in the north of France, which is also where my grandmother was born. It’s a region of France where there were cloth mills, dyeing and weaving. Perhaps there was a subliminal influence here that turned me on to cloth and encouraged me towards having my work made into tapestry? Matisse (like Vermeer) had a variety of cloths that he collected and reused in paintings all his life. I can relate to this aspect of recycling cloth as props. 

There’s an immense visual appeal to drapery, though – a special quality about it. The various ways that different types of fabric hang or move. The way light is absorbed or reflected off of it. I really enjoy looking at paintings by Old Masters, such as Ter Boch, and the way that they depicted the shiny material of dresses. There’s even a certain tactility to the two-dimensional representation of cloth.


I think so, too. They do. Come and have a look at these prints…