Enrico David (b. 1966 in Ancona, Italy) and Thomas Houseago (b. 1972 in Leeds, England) have been close friends since meeting as first-year students at Central St. Martin's School of Art in London in 1991. Paul Nesbitt, Director of Inverleith House and curator of Houseago's first outdoor exhibition of sculpture, 'The Beat of the Show' invited the artists to discuss their work at Inverleith House. They made drawings as they talked. The following text is an excerpt from this discussion.
Enrico David: Your work has often represented for me an idea of shelter. These objects confront you, but also in their physical presence they are like shields, as broken and fragmented as they need to be. And I often think about the reason why, in your case, the work is so big even when it's not big. The scale highlights the fragility. It almost enhances the weakness and the imperfections. For me, that's the paradox of making something so imposing. There is an element of vulnerability in being so exposed, so conspicuous.
Thomas Houseago: I think it is really key to our relationship that we both embrace, and are fearless about vulnerability, failure, the cracks. The conspicuous quality is about really striving, I really try and I don't hide it. As long as I've known you, 20 years, I've watched you strive and strive and strive. And then there's also this element of never quite buying into the idea that you have to give someone a pleasurable, successful experience. I'm thinking of your ICA show, or certainly your Turner Prize. The bigger the venue, the bigger the gig, the more fucked up we tend to get, and that's a really fascinating, confounding thing. The other strand is this performance element. You're a very funny person, a very social person, and I've always felt like your work, the objects and performances, were literally remnants of a performance that is you. You perform with yourself, you perform with your demons.
ED: Yes, it's also as if the work becomes a witness. These elements are called into cause to watch and perform at the same time. There is a quality of gathering a cast and dramatization. When you make the work, it's sort of like auditioning'bringing forms, materials, subjects together.
TH: When you talk about your pieces being performances, I guess it's also really important that you build the sets. It's definitely a world built by you. You build the characters'you build the tension.
ED: No matter how negative my premises may be, ultimately there is an element of coexisting. Through my work I'd like to know how it's possible to coexist and bring things together. To share.
TH: With the world?
ED: With the world and with and through the work. So the work becomes a cypher for coexisting, cohabiting. How materials can cohabit together is for me an important aspect of the process. The figure then becomes for me another question, something that can exist despite the fragmentation. I probably have an innate sense of iconographic representation, which is something that I remember developing in your work over the years at college, for instance. Initially your work had rarely to do directly with the body. It was primarily about places. You were designing sites for something to happen. Props or elements of set designs. There was this element of performance that was so clear.
TH: It's strange because as time's gone on, I've got more sure, more and more convinced, about the idea of the object and its power. In my case it's almost brutally obvious. You were talking earlier about sublimation, and how through a series of actions, a process of making, you can pass on a thought process. I always think of Beuys in these things, the idea that thinking is form. We've always loved: 'The silence of Duchamp is overrated.'
ED: That was our position at the start.
TH: The misinterpreted silence of Duchamp pervaded London at that time. And probably pervaded an intellectual climate that's still very present. It is a philosophy that now seems to let people off the hook.
ED: That silence for me was a resistance to the expression of trauma. There is a primal trauma that is restaged every time you make something from scratch. Using raw material to build something, for me, embeds an intention to re-stage a trauma in order to observe it.
TH: You also open up endless possibilities, which is something that of course highly developed capitalist society can't do. The idea of having endless possibilities that could go in any direction...
ED: Our society is reluctant to the expression of crisis, because it puts a hold on productivity. You can't afford to get fueled up. You're not encouraged to look into your shit. But within the guidelines of creativity, I believe that that potential crisis really can be an enormously transformative engine for the self. When you dig into that soil, that humus of problems of the self, you don't know what you're going to come up with. So there is a sense of potential danger, risk.
TH: When we met, I think we were both very traumatized people, that's for sure. We needed art to keep it together. We were quite different from, say, a certain set who were making art in London at the time because they thought it was a good, fun, cool thing to do. 'Trauma' 'crisis' these are words you use a lot. I strongly believe that through crisis, through the acknowledgment of crisis, one is forced to think more fully, more creatively. You are forced to pause, in a way. In your case, what do you perceive to be the crisis? Just the crisis of being alive? Is it an existential crisis?
ED: I recognize in you and me something about coming from an unsafe place. I think the creative act is aimed at constructing a place that feels safer. The crisis is a sphere of emotions that are negative: a fear of death, of one another, mistrust, incapacity of being loved or loving, any tiling that is geared toward a sense of negativity. That crisis is so much a component of who we are. When I say 'crisis'it's not something that happens at some point. So maybe 'crisis'is the wrong expression.
TH: In Northern Europe we're bred on a suffering gig. The North is all about suffering, and in a sense reveling in it. You have these miserable circumstances, you know they're miserable, you somehow define yourself by them, but then you're really stoic about it, and define yourself as being strong because you can handle it.
ED: It's amazing how that, in time, has made everyone weaker. Isn't it paradoxical, that the lack of addressing this has actually brought everything to a halt?
TH: To me it was no surprise when John Lennon came out singing 'All You Need Is Love.'
ED: It's the minimum. That was almost like a calling card, saying, 'OK guys, you carry on with your shit, but I'm telling you, this is the minimum requirement' I use drawing as a way to familiarize with myself, to un-inhibit. To draw with that level of unconsciousness is a wonderful state to be able to reach which obviously comes and goes. But as an aspiration, to be able to locate yourself when you make a drawing is an important experience for me.
TH: You always used to tell me'and I've always loved this, and years later I still think about it''I want my work to be like a fucking beautiful song' Be it an R&B song, a Joni Mitchell song'Uour references are very high-culture. They're psychology, philosophy, anthropology, sexuality, all these things, but you've also always embraced the accessibility of a love song, or a heartbreak song, and I really agree that somehow we're trying to straddle these positions.
ED: If you think about music, and the harmony of music' do believe in aiming at harmonizing the world, through work. Of the work striving for a sense of balance.
TH: I remember walking through the Turner Prize exhibition that you were part of and feeling, that day, like the Tate was one of the coldest places I'd ever been. To me it seemed to symbolize the coldness of British power'its inability to forgive, its inability to self-analyze. I remember your piece, and it struck me how far off the shore you were; how warm that piece was. I couldn't believe that you decided to do that. Your work in that building was almost like ...
ED: ' raft. I thought, I'll do the simplest possible, the dumbest, the most'
TH: I thought it was the most realistic. Everyone was like, 'Enrico's piece is absurd' Just like people always tell me: 'You're making these monstrous things, blah blah blah.'I see it as hyper-realistic. We're hyper-realists. I'm not an expressionist at all. Justin Timberlake is an expressionist. I'm the realist here.
ED: Totally. [Laughing]
TH: I'm definitely just trying to be realistic. I'm not trying to add anything on.
ED: Not at all. There's a minimal, essential quality to what you do for sure.
TH: I'm interested in trying to go more profoundly into, 'What is that material that made that? What is this stuff? I'm not quite content to go, 'That's a table' I'm not sure what that is. These days I'm going through the realization of not knowing what the fuck anything is. When people ask 'Why are you working with clay?' it's because I've got no choice because I don't believe in that bottle on this table, for example. I don't believe in that bottle, I don't believe that that bottle exists. Do you understand? If you tell me to put something on that gallery wall, I don't believe the gallery exists either. This can be deeply troubling, there is a side of me would like to go back to a time when I did believe it.
ED: One can handle a bottle, but a bottle has such an enormous repertoire of meanings, linguistic meanings, every sort of possible meaning. It's so difficult to make it transcend its 'bottle-ness'that you need to actually make a bottle out of clay because otherwise the bottle would not be a bottle. In a way the only bottle that truly exists is the bottle you make.
TH: Something I've gotten more and more fascinated by is the idea that the emphasis in context is maybe not all it's cracked up to be. So if someone tells you that you can't understand an Egyptian sculpture from 2 B.C. because you don't know the culture, it doesn't matter. That misunderstanding is part of the object. And your personal relationship to it over time is part of the discussion, part of the artwork. You can see an Egyptian sculpture when you're 16 and it will mean nothing to you, and then at 30 it can shock you to your core. That object hasn't changed, the museum hasn't changed. You've changed around it, or perhaps the sculpture has changed you.
ED: I remember once having a conversation with Marlene Dumas. We were talking about how it's already such a struggle to bring something into the world. And then the idea of that thing having to carry so much meaning, or having to position itself!
TH: There's something fantastic about making something'a sculpture'and it entering the world. The feeling that no one can stop you. I mean, they try really hard. These curators, when they start trying to add a bow on top, it's like: You've just gotten out of the water, onto dry land, into a cave, and you're just, like, please don't tell me how you're going to interior-design the cave! The world has told us over and over again, with increasing ferocity sometimes, 'Do not do this.'And I mean in real terms we have both been, for many years, totally crushed. But if you manage to do it, if you manage to get it out there, there's no better excitement than making an object that you know has no point.
ED: When you deprive an audience of that reassurance of purpose, and they find themselves in the presence of the object, without the informative caption of what they're meant to be looking at'whether it refers to the miners' strikes, or whatever'then it becomes this moment of vacuum. They are facing a vacuum of the self where they actually have the chance to interrogate themselves about what their place is, and that's where something magical can happen. That's why I believe that art has the wonderful faculty of allowing us to evolve through its experience.
TH: Art people love this idea of progress. Of art changing. I remember it was: 'The Internet's come out, and it's going to change art.'Or, 'They're colliding atoms in CERN, and it's going to change everything.'I'm open to it. But my pretty strong hunch is that it's not. I could be accused, perhaps more than you, of, 'Why are you making this old-fashioned stuff?'which in a way I'm really into. Do you think you're doing a new thing? Do you care?
ED: You can never be 100 percent sure. It's not even about wanting to do a new thing. It's just the idea of knowing that there is a viewpoint to be added, however much that situation has been discussed and observed and developed. I feel that your position, your relationship to the thing that you find essential when truthful to yourself is something that is necessary. It defies time and space, and it can change things.
TH: I was thinking about this idea of the source, as an artist, as a person. The real, true, brave, shocking journey is always back to the source. Coming out to LA and living up in the forest'having my children'I get more sure that our task is simply to add to the beauty, it's maybe that simple. The terrifying, incredible gift of being given a life and trying to get back to that source'that beautiful trauma.
ED: That is so obvious in what you do, the nature of your objects. Every time I see a work of yours, it seems to re-stage that trauma from scratch.
TH: I often get written about as primitive, which I think is the critics' way of trying to understand how you get yourself into a state where you decide you're not sure you know anything, you're not sure you know what anything looks like. I sometime look at your work and you have moments of enormous virtuosity.
ED: The core dilemma concerning the driving impulse is bigger than the actual concern about proving or witnessing something that is highly skilled. You just know that there is a broader concern in the creative impulse.
TH: I've always viewed England as a really hyper-pragmatic Blair world. Or worse, Thatcher world! But I've been reading Shakespeare again lately, and that work, it's populated by ghosts, and mysteries, and fantasy. There's this pagan thing in Shakespeare. For example, in Hamlet, the ghost of the father is one of the realest bits of the play. And I always felt that in your work, the realest bits were the most fantastical and insane. I was thinking of Giacometti sitting in from of a nude and saying, 'I'm trying to capture reality' or Cezanne in front of Mont Sainte-Victoire saying, 'I'm going to realize my sensations' I wonder what your models are'ghost, memories, fears?
ED: I also recognize in your work an idea of familiarizing with fear.
TH: There's a great John Cale song, 'Fear Is a Man's Best Friend'
ED: You do that in every piece of work. Especially when you started making figurative sculpture, you really voiced your need to befriend fear. You've become accustomed to look at that frightening thing over and over until it feels like a friend. You've got to befriend that stuff.
TH: You were the one who taught me that, who really opened that door for me!
ED: If I think about aspects of my work, I believe that it is possible to ease that concept into the world in a way that also acts on a different level, resembling other things, often familiar. It's beautiful, it's seductive, it's weird, it's humorous, but ultimately its purpose, its aim, is to familiarize with the absolutely life-threatening fear that grips you sometimes. You are someone who's actually celebrating utter, utter panic in a way that is absolutely glorious.
TH: It was amazing to be in Venice this summer and watch the giant parade of the Biennial'and notice that a system seemed to be in place where there was almost no room for artists to be human or vulnerable'even hopeful'which is astounding really ...
ED: It always feels to me like a wasted opportunity.
TH: Your show in Venice was the only show where you walked in and felt like you were in a landscape with someone, you were in a debate with me idea that art truly occupies life. I couldn't believe it. Venice almost started to seem like a theatre of the absurd, like a Samuel Beckett play. People working as hard as they could'through any means, be it power, or wealth, or luxury, or celebrity'to literally work at avoiding it. I sensed that your show was a rebuttal to that'an attempt to reject and embrace'to horrify and protect'at times so pathetic and yet such a strong show.
ED: I find myself constantly looking for that quality in art, and many things go quite a long way towards that. There's a lot of stuff that goes quite near, but then it turns out to be with a different intention. This brings me back to the idea of what feels safe. I find that safety in the creative act, but I also find that so much art often refers to the very world which makes me feel unsafe'without really challenging it, but rather glorifying it.
TH: You watch them not dare cross the doorway. I was super proud when we placed the works in the Botanical Gardens [at Inverleith House]. Trust me, it's a very difficult thing to put a sculpture next to a tree'I had a sort of breakdown these last few days because Paul (Nesbitt), the curator, had really stripped me naked. He put my work to the ultimate test without really telling me beforehand. It was hugely generous but a frightening thing to do. The work had to simply coexist'with trees, flowers, the sky'with families walking in the gardens.
ED: Your black figure [Lying Figure (Mother Father)] seems to me so shockingly at home, in harmony. Like a monument to something that can exist in nature. And it's wonderful to see it in a context where occasionally you do encounter monuments, in these outdoor grounds. It is a function of the ground he occupies, but he also changes it and interferes with it, imposes this very strange physical dominance over it. He's so demanding and yet incredibly discreet and elegant. It's a direct, human representation in the world.
TH: When we put the works down, within seconds I swear to God people walked up to them, touched them, and did strange, unexpected things, like hugged them. I was really shocked, but also deeply moved, and then I had to get into this idea of being OK with a group of four-year olds climbing on the sculpture, sitting there, feeling good about it, having fun with it. The things are normally viewed as quite monstrous and scary. I've almost been unable to walk around the show and view it as my show, because upon the moment of its installation it wasn't mine any more. And then you really ask yourself about the public, about accessibility. Sometimes I think the art world has a harder time getting it, in my particular case. And then I wonder if somewhere, deep down, I enjoy that. Is there a disingenuous side of me?
ED: I feel that you encourage that innocence. If people are already open toward that sense of fragility, or instability, then they find a harbour in the work. Obviously there are a lot of people who are actually reluctantly or hesitantly pussyfooting around it. Saying, 'I recognize things in that, but I really wish I didn't. What do I do now?'You're obviously not going to give them something that is not part of who they are, because we are all human beings, so what you give me is part of who I am. You're not from another planet. Your work speaks of me. It speaks of all of us. I think that you are actually offering a sort of training camp, an opportunity to familiarize with those parts that we have neglected in the silence-of-Duchamp years.
TH: The scale in my sculpture is always about child-adult. The bigness is often about me trying to re-create for people what it's like to be a child with an adult. So, if you like, my model is an adult in my memory. When you have children you do these things that you realize your father did, and your father's father did. You find yourself lying down on the carpet and your kid's running up and down your back, and rolling' made that sculpture expressly to deal with both my fear of that continuation and also a celebration of that continuation. You hear about these projects where people say they're going to do a sculpture that encourages people to do this or that.
ED: They're always so fucked up when they try to be interactive. Monuments implicitly ask your body to become part of them.
TH: I guess I try to make monuments to the body, to posture. A monument to the body's frailty, its dynamism, its history, its relation to gravity and time.
ED: It's quite a noble endeavour. If anything, I try to do that.
TH: I've become convinced that when the work is good'it's not coming from me anymore. It's coming through me. I'm more and more interested in that, and in how much stronger the energy is. The more I get in touch with the
fact that there are these forces'gravity, light'and that these things have an emotional quality'that they are part of you and link you to matter'to the world'the easier the work flows.
ED: You just provide the conditions for the work to be made. You're executing the work. You're just facilitating its physicality. I have to spend long periods of time depriving myself from making work, and for me this is actually an important phase of working.
TH: My mother always says, the field has to lie fallow before it grows again.
ED: Exactly. The sediment of this moment of rest. As long as I've known you, I've always felt that the reason you would try to stay alive was so that you could make the work.
TH: That has been absolutely true. I find it very hard for art to become a practice. For me it was art's way or the highway. At the end of the day, I'll do whatever it takes: beg, borrow, or steal. The fact that we've survived and pay our rent is a miracle.
ED: Yes, a miracle. I often think about where you are now. Your success, in a way, is actually a sublimation of your drive to create work. It's not even about the dynamics of what economic power allows you to do; there is just this other, bigger, absolutely existential sublimation going on.
TH: It's my drive to be alive. Part of your drive is to always be lost or feel lost.
ED: Exodus. Displaced. An acting-out of displacement.
TH: In the 20 years that I've known you, I've never heard you say, 'I'm at the right time. I'm in the right place at the right time'
ED: Being displaced is who I am, so maybe at some point I'll learn that I don't need to actually physically move things from Switzerland to Germany or wherever.
TH: For me the hardest thing about going to America was having a place.
ED: Accepting the fact that you were actually welcome. It's almost, like, be careful what you wish for.
TH: That has been the most astonishing part of the journey lately, is actually allowing myself to think that I know what I want to do. At one moment the door cracked open, and it was my duty to just bash it down. I still cannot believe they let that door crack. I'm surprised. I'm sure I could only have done it in America. I would never have dared do it in Europe, because my own self-censorship would have taken over.
ED: It took 20 years for us to empower ourselves to say what really needs to go on, what we are really about. Your idea of work, your way of putting things together, is what you have been struggling with since day one. Now you seem to have given yourself, gifted yourself, with the endurance, the audacity to continue to do it.
TH: That's what was so moving yesterday about sitting together, drinking and drawing. 20 years disappeared and I felt we were still together on the same journey.
ED: I think we've done loads.
TH: I think it's wicked.
ED: Jesus Christ.
TH: It's maybe too much, man!