TG I think there's a tremendous amount of interest now in the connections between photography and painting, and we see in all sorts of ways a rapprochement between them, a meeting of their ways of thinking. What interests me here is that downstairs we have a painter whose work looks a bit like photographs, and upstairs we have a photographer, some of whose works look like paintings. Chris could you tell us how these paintings are made? Do you actually call them paintings?
CC No, I call them graphites, as a way of getting out of the problem of whether they are paintings or drawings. Would you like me to address the aspect of photography in them?
TG Yes, why not.
CC I think maybe there are one or two that have a direct relationship, and the others more by virtue of the fact that they are black and white, and have a certain kind of edge to them - I mean 'edge' in the physical rather than psychological sense. They've been compared to Daguerreotypes and early photography, or process photography, and in fact, the one on paper there, does relate to a detail from such a photograph. It was pinned to the studio wall, and the work doesn't actually look anything like the photograph, but it is called Zoom so there is a deliberate reference to a way of seeing the world. The other one would be this one on aluminium called Passing place which uses the idea of just getting a glimpse of the landscape as - probably - a car or train rushes past. In that glimpse there is a certain connection with a photographic view of the world.
TG That's very interesting you should say that, as when I look at them they do seem to be glimpsed out of a coach or car or train window, and that's a fascinating paradox because they have been worked on an aluminium sheet, so they are very much a physical type of medium rather than a window.
CC Again, there's a difference between that one and the one nearest to us, because that one was worked over a number of times and although the final layer is wafer thin, it records many sessions. It's not like conventional painting where there is a build up of layers, it's actually removed again and redrawn - but there are vestiges of the previous attempts within that one layer. To me, that doesn't relate at all to photography, although it does depend on what type of photography you are talking about.
TG In the sense they do look like photographs, they look like 19th Century photography, but in a very strange way. I think there's something underlying this association which is to do with the uncertainty of whether you are looking at an interior world or a representation of the world outside. In a way, this could be a lens out, or a flat world where everything is invented.
CC I suppose the answer would be that I am somewhere in the middle that on certain days the lens goes one way and other days it drives inward. This work – Reflex - relates to observing the world through some kind of lens, because that observer is being returned to themselves. But there's no reference to any actual photograph, as it's invented through the process, and I like the fact that I've got that imaginative range within it.
But, works like this one ('Pan') do reproduce a photograph very well, and there is a photograph to which it deliberately refers. Occasionally - say once every few weeks - I like to put the process through that challenge of responding to a photograph. I suppose because of the greyness and graininess of the graphite medium there is this given connection with early photography, and with its processes, the fluidity of it, the chemical nature of it.
TG Because what you're actually working with is graphite mixed with resin and then some oil and then mineral spirits.
CC So it's a mixture of different types of chemicals, and it does feel like a kind of developer/fixative problem from the dark room sometimes.
SD When you were talking about the internal and the external, and the movement between the two, I was really interested in that. Recent work I've been involved with has been far more opened up to an internal world, and the Moon Fallen pieces are the beginnings of that. I find it a strange process in terms of meaning, and I'm interested to ask you about the origination of the meaning of your work. I get the sense here that there is an internal counterpart to some externally observed item, and I wonder whether with myself that when looking at something in the outside world and I, say, see some phenomena to do with water and I think: I would really like to work with that, it suggests something to do with chaos or complexity and the hydrological cycle then feel the reason why I was interested in that was something, not exactly completely different but of a very different order, some kind of unconscious thing which hasn't been articulated and isn't really that much known, and you're resonating with this outside thing because it is in there and it hasn't yet come into words or images yet.
So you might have this idea of - well, I'll work with, say, mist. Well, what's that process? It seems to be a process of one element changing into another, something dissolving and rising up above the horizon that might have a whole load of meanings. I'm curious about how these two things you speak of – the internal and the external - connect in my own work, that's an interesting exploration for me.
CC Equally I was thinking that I'd like to ask you about that relationship between working outside in the landscape, and feeling a part of it, and then returning to the studio and then being much more disciplined or structured about the work, - if that is the right way to phrase it – and the difference in temperament that it induces. I understand your question in the sense that on certain occasions the images seem to go off in a direction which leads me towards the world, and on other occasions, due to the process, or a mood, or something seen or sensed or read, they go off in the opposite direction and plunge inwards into an obscurer realm, which is only located once. The image comes forth – so, to do with improvisation and so on. That wouldn't be true of the ones that are more photographic in origin, because there's always an attempt to come back to that state. Even if it goes somewhere else, there's a knowledge of where you would like to return to.
TG So, are you talking about inner state? Because this is quite a difficult concept to actually pin down. What I think is very interesting is that in both of your work there are elements of what you could call realism, but also of what you might call fantasy or 'inscape', which is maybe a useful word here. Both of you are producing a sort of landscape, but here a landscape is a very particular term.
CC This is really a question for Susan, because there is upstairs in that body of work a sense of a very intense engagement with specific features of the natural world which I enjoy very much. It's an aspect that I can only occasionally touch upon. In general I'm a studio-based painter, and I tend not to look out of the window I just look at what I'm making in front of me.
SD I think I was wondering whether - and in a way you've already answered my question in terms of the way the ideas are arrived at through an external reference point, very clearly in some, and at other times coming out of this inner place, - and I was wondering how much the process, when you started using this new process, did it free you up?
CC Very much, in many different ways.
SD Because the technique allowed you to associate in a way with a kind of fluid state?
CC Yes, very strongly, but there was also a side of it that was capable of being very dry and very detailed.
TG How long does it take to dry, roughly?
CC Now we get down to the easy questions! It depends on the mixture. If the aluminium has been covered with the medium, I've got a day and a half to work with it before it becomes more of a problem, and for instance on that one you get a ghosting effect where the resin has started to dry into the surface and won't easily be wiped off. So there is a moment at which I have to decide whether to eradicate everything and start again or whether there is something worth going on with. What is interesting about this in relation to photograms, Susan, is that sense of the moment. You've positioned everything, got everything ready, and you choose your moment. This resonates quite strongly because I think I'm wanting to use the graphite process in a similar way, to end up with something where, effectively, everything in one sitting registers, which means that if things aren't working I am more tempted to wipe it away rather that leave it and contemplate it.
TG In a way you are both concerned with the moment where something is liquid and turning into solid. Both your work is very much about the fluid, isn't it?
SD Yes. For myself it has been a kind of theme running since beginning to work with photograms, something to do with the transparency and light of photography being close to that of water, and water's ability to express itself in form. That relationship to photography is very interesting.
CC It seems that it relates to the fact that you tend not to use lenses, because the water becomes the lens for your view on the world, almost as if you are using the liquid as the mediator rather than the piece of glass.
SD Yes, I think that it's true that when after making the 'observer and observed', which was the first piece to use water, it was about the impossibility or the difficulty of the observer being included in the observed. So I think the decision to make photograms was the only possible way to work after that, and I think that liquid replaced the lens or the seeing eye, and that then paper became the retinal, receiving screen behind, so a metaphor for seeing.
TG So you don't want to use water as a metaphor for anything more metaphysical that the act of seeing or the notion of the lens?
SD You know, it is really very hard when you start to use language about work which is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. It is very difficult to say just one thing, as you feel you've left a vast amount of other things out of the equation.
TG Water flows through religion on a steady basis doesn't it? Philip Larkin said 'If I were called in to construct a religion, I should make use of water' and I remember talking to a friend who said 'my ambition in life is to live next to water'. Although it is in the making process in your graphites, there is a sense of them being seen through a screen of water. So when I say the images seem to be images seen from a coach window, it's a window with rain running down it.
CC It's probably white spirit, and tears in my eyes. Yes, the one that I refer to as coach window-like was made with a lot of liquid on the aluminium, and me becoming annoyed with it and banging it, at which point the white spirit along with the graphite began to gather into those pockets. As soon as I saw
that happening I then played with it more so the liquid present in the process literally formed the image in this case, and the same would be true of certain paper works as well
TG So, in the same way that you're using the liquid, and the way it's responding to hitting or tuning is the same way as you Susan have used water, where you tuned it or made it vibrate to form a photogram.
CC Weren't there some experiments that you made early on, where you were sampling the vibrations from sounds? And in a sense, all of that experimentation led in a subliminal way to the photograms of the river, where vibrations are coming off twigs, or the currents themselves.
SD I think that the reason for working with sound vibration in the beginning was an interest in, again, the 'observer and observed'. As the first piece of work using water it was reproducing a scientific experiment, a sound vibration experiment that was a jet of water vibrated by sound, and it was curiosity about interconnectedness, and how it can produce form. So something moving, rippling, like a surface of water or a sound vibration pattern when it's highly chaotic, can give rise to forms. I guess that's why it's been so continuously interesting, it's got an underside that is about interconnectedness and form, and that's what I feel in your work.
CC I think in some of them I respond to that, and there is that wonderful moment when in some way the process is in accord with the subject, the two things have some kind of harmonic. Yet in these two, for example, instead of this engagement, this synthesis, or fusion, there is its opposite, an incredible sense of detachment from the world, and of looking at it from long range, and it being slightly alien, so very disengaged in a way, which I suppose proves that notion of the lens being turned one way or the other, pointing inwards or pointing outwards.
SD So, when you talk about being disengaged, you're feeling more engaged on an internal point.
CC Yes, disengaged with the world. Yes, not with the painting, with the world.
SD Maybe there is also that thought in my work as well.
CC When you come into the studio?
SD Yes, when I come into the studio and you were asking about the movement between the outside and the inside. I feel again, when I'm working in the composite piece in the dark room, there is much less focus on the interconnected processes of the outside world, and more about stuff going on inside, which is a phenomenon like the river, but it's in your head.
TG Yes, I have a heroic image of you Susan, in Wellingtons going out into the river, and this is very much the moment in which you make those first long river photograms. Then when I first saw these ones I realise that you couldn't of done it all in the river, you've taken a photograph and made it in the studio, which must have been a very different experience. But, this is another connection, that both of your works are strongly performed, aren't they?
CC In that sense of trying to accomplish everything in thirty six hours in my case, and I suppose even the preparation even for your single monograms in the river must be quite lengthy so, it's not as if it has happened in the moment, you've marched down there with your gear, so there's a lot of time invested in that moment. Similarly in the studio, when it comes to the end of that period of time that I have to work with the stuff, and having to decide whether it's efficient or whether it's better to start the whole thing again. There's a build up of, not tension exactly, it's more like excitement as the moment approaches when it ought to be forming, and if it fails then there's a kind of acceptance and you go back to square one.
So you are right about performance, and in some ways the theatre referencing graphites derive from that recognition. I began to think of the notion of rehearsals and the stage prior to a performance, and it seemed a good coincidence.
SD For me it is the performative process of making the work that allows self-consciousness to fall away, so it takes that much more time to get to that point where you have actually got yourself out of the way enough for this thing to happen. Even if it is in the landscape, it takes that amount of preparation, that amount of time, to get into the position with everything right and then somehow there is enough preparation so that you can get out of the way, so that this thing can happen. That is not just any 'thing', it is a very particular thing, and it sometimes doesn't work and sometimes does according to how present you've managed to get yourself, I think likewise in the dark rooms, a similar performance takes place, like a ritual 'getting rid of' self consciousness.
TG It's leaving the world and yourself behind. You make it sound almost the equivalent of some religious chanting or something to actually create a mood, but something deeper than that.
CC I feel that about this idea of rehearsals. When one image has failed and then been wiped away, and I try it again, and try different variants and wipe those away and there's a loss of expectation, and then there comes a moment when you feel it has been rehearsed sufficiently. Actors would talk about it in the same way, trying to lose themselves in a character, so that they no longer have to think about it.
SD I was thinking about No Theatre.
TG Have you both been very formed by your experience in Japan?
CC No, no, I was just in and out.
SD I was there for quite a few years.
CC The curiosity is that the same curator gave us both our first show in Japan. Just by complete coincidence. He is recognised exactly for what you said at the outset, this correspondence between painting and photography. Initially, he also wanted to talk about Zen, about the connection between certain aspects of the Zen tradition in the graphites. So he is very present in this conversation.
SD I was just thinking about your performative view being very similar to those Zen arts in which there is this repeated, repeated, repeated action, and not any real will employed, and at a certain point - in the theatre anyway - the character is supposed to come to life. If it is being practised again and again and again, there a possibility this might happen. Likewise in the calligraphic arts, all Zen arts have this repetitious aspect.
CC Do you feel that there is still a strong Eastern aesthetic, because Tony was referring to that late nineteenth century moment of reception.
TG So it could be Hokusai
SD Yes, I looked at Hokusai a lot. At one point I had real problems when I wanted these images not to be read as a perspectival space but as a flat space, so you might be in a physical body relationship with the sky or water. And I was thinking how can you get to the idea of ground to sky then to horizon, and so I looked at a lot of Hokusai woodcuts. He wasn't around at the beginning of the idea but became a reference point. He helped.
CC It's interesting about the horizon because I strive at the outset of almost every work to avoid the horizon, and often I can't. It may come back at some point, but because of the need for improvisation if the horizon is there too early then it begins to configure the space and the scale. So I'm working horizontally, therefore it's easy to walk around and pretend it's the wrong way up and subvert any horizon expectations in particular, so the image is open-ended for as long as possible, and then the horizon location may come back into it, but often not.
SD You work horizontally so there is this sense that you could be looking at it from any direction. In the earlier work it was completely not possible to have a horizon as it was a completely flat, two dimensional space, playing with the idea of something bigger. Reference to the sky or cloud forms or something that wasn't that three dimensional a space, more like a map.
TG It is almost a condition of an awful lot of art relating to landscape at the moment that the horizon isn't there, or it is positioned way above the top and it is to do with all sorts of things that tend to do with a tendency to want to reconnect with the earth also the tendency to map and use the map.
CC Which is a kind of paradox in a way.
TG Is it?
CC I understand it as being a counter to the nineteenth century lord-of-the-manor type of landscape, as in 'this is my domain'. A map seems to go all the way back and more doesn't it?
TG Shall we open for some questions?
(Regarding the miraculous)
CC There is a miracle when you actually get an image that you like. It would apply to those ones when I'm chasing something outside, and if that connection can be made there is a miracle in that, whereas the ones that move inward, it is into an uncertainty, there is a wonderment, a fascination in that.
SD I agree that there are some things that just come together, when you are talking about there being wonderment, is that to do with something inside?
CC It's really difficult to describe because the miraculous is sometimes to do with situations that impress themselves upon me, that seem to be ready-made, and that I can accept whole, as if not having much part in their making. That miracle may be a product of spending too much time in the studio among white spirit - purely a hallucination of the process.
TG It is also a search for beauty and harmony; these are very beautiful and harmonious works and, especially if I compare them with your works from earlier decades, more curious.
CC I think certainly that they have induced a more contemplative mode, partly because the tonality is so subtle, the absence of colour makes quite a big difference, the mood is much more restrained, but also the possibility for improvisation is extended because there is no colour to point in a certain direction. The absence of colour is actually a liberation in that way, - at no point does colour interfere with the process of contemplation. It's very much more to do with space, tonality and form and Susan's earlier idea of mist, which is both a Chinese trope, but also worth working with the idea of there being a miasma or veil through which one searches and gradually form comes forth. That does register, the miraculous is more being allowed to do that, and so what one discovers in the end is the journey of the making.
TG so the Notion of rehearsal?
CC Trying to be as accurate as possible, I don't know when I'm in a rehearsal and when I'm in a performance, it dawns on me suddenly that I'm moving towards the first night - if you like - and the work is coming together, very occasionally there will be no rehearsals at all and I find that things have moved along in a direction that I haven't anticipated and I go along with it and miraculously they work out, it would be too cliche? To say there is always a rehearsal, then a feeling that I am now ready to perform. It is always really helpful to think you are only rehearsing and at any moment I can wipe this stuff away because it's that lack of expectation. It's a relaxing aspect that allows you to experiment and play, to freely associate and to try whatever occurs to you, a bit like no theatre, for example. Then occasionally, that improvisation suddenly becomes and it's not announcing to an audience that it is now becoming itself. I find it helpful to think through this idea especially with the work put on paper, it's very nice to think that at any moment I can throw it away, wipe it away, work on top. It makes it more problematic, which is good.
I suspect it doesn't relate in the same way to yours Susan. How far ahead are you able to see before the print is actually made?
SD Every time, similar to yours Chris, there is a sense, certainly in the landscape that you are doing something that is like the rehearsal possibly becoming right, becoming something or not and there is a time lag of waiting, which is different to you (C.C). In the studio it is slightly different, a little more worked and constructed.
TG Do you have quite a big throw away ratio, or is it a secret?
SD Not a secret, there was a lot in the beginning, quite a lot of rejected works. I've got lots of boxes in the studio with ten 'shoreline' rejects, five 'ice' rejects. I look through them sometimes and I think why was that a reject? There's a few I haven't opened for ten years. I think its incredibly difficult sometimes to be so much involved in the making, the performative aspect and the making, when you reach the end there are certain pieces that you know that completely excite you, and there are others that are difficult to accept and are rejected, but later they might end up being the more interesting ones because they were uncomfortable and difficult and later on really interesting, but at the time, not very acceptable given that you had more limited criteria at that time for what you are editing.
CC It's a question that came up when I did a show in Yokahama. The curator of the exhibition at the time, he wanted to explore the possible connections with Zen in painting tradition and the graphites of which I knew nothing really. I understood that there would be some kind of possible formal association but what we began to talk about in terms of your question were the two different aspects and two major sects of Zen that use very different techniques to arrive at the moment of enlightenment, one which depends very much on repetition, meditation of the outside world, and the other sect that is prepared at any moment for this sudden uplift onto a different plane and so prepares the mind to be sensitive and open to everything that is going on. Whereas the other method, is to do with a slow build up to and I understand both of those things in terms of the studio. What I am trying to describe is when you haven't got anything else going, you try the slow build approach, but if suddenly you swing into this one then that's great. So it was quite an interesting discussion as it made a powerful equivalence to what happens, but to say it is one or the other would be impossible.
Eyestorm Gallery, Exeter 2008
published in 'Notes to the graphites' University of Plymouth Press, 2009