Simon Cunningham: "Looking Is an Activity"

The opportunity to attend Beck’s Canvas 2008 and to see the work by four RCA graduates instantly prompted me to inquire about an interview with one of them. I was offered to choose. I studied the winners’ profiles and, bearing in mind my own interest in photography, requested a talk with Simon Cunningham.

You can now listen to Simon’s interview below (if you normally use Feedreader, you will need to click through to this page). In 18 minutes we find out about Simon’s work, artistic practice, inspirations, his views as an artist on using the WWW space… There is some laughter (as well as tinkling of the bottles in the background, with the gallery space then being prepared for the event), and a mad wizardy question at the very end of the talk. Once again, thanks to Simon, and to James Fell from OnlineFire for organising the interview.

Originally from the Midlands, Simon has now been living and working in London for a number of years. We are told that he sold more work than he has been able to exhibit, mainly through group shows and to private collectors . His shows in 2008 included exhibitions at Galleria Civica di Modena (Italy), Bloomberg SPACE (UK), and Espai Ubu (Barcelona, Spain). The list needs now to be updated with the show of his work at the RCA in Kensington Gore in London at the launch of Beck’s Canvas. In a way, Beck’s Canvas and Cunningham’s work were practically made for one another. In his work, Simon often explores the other “side” or “angle” of an image – and this is exactly what Beck’s Canvas is: it is a beer bottle label that can become an artist’s canvas.

The cornerstone of Cunningham’s artistic practice is the act of looking. As he aptly observes in his interview, he takes “looking” in the broadest sense of the word: “it’s about looking, and seeing, and searching…” – and I think we all too often forget about these “other sides” of any activity we undertake. “Mollymuddle” (left) is exemplary in this sense because in this video Simon attempted to record, in the proper sense of the word, all the stages of looking at an object. True, at the first glance it does look like a guy is merely holding his leg and staring at it. But try and look at it closer, or a bit longer, or from a different angle, and you will realise suddenly that there is more to this image. There is attention and tenderness in the image akin to mother-and-child relationship, and “Mollymuddle” may instantly become the newest reverberation of a mother-and-child theme in art. Think about multiple Our Lady and Christ representations where the baby Jesus is placed on his mother’s knee or in her arms, and looking at Simon’s face I think Leonardo’s “Madonna Litta” (right) may be a good reference; or we can recall pietà images. At the same time, the presence of a male figure, even recorded in this position, from this angle, may bring to mind the depth of Rodin’s work and Rodin’s preoccupation with human emotions and reactions. Or it may remind one of Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” (right). “Mollymuddle” and our own looking at it prove Simon’s faithful adherence to Wittgenstein‘s idea of perception: “the expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged“. We can find many more references in “Mollymuddle”, while only looking at Cunningham’s solitary figure.

If it is possible to draw a quick conclusion from the above, it will be that Simon Cunningham is teaching us that there is a direct connection between looking, thinking, and envisaging. The actual physical activity becomes possible after all those stages, even if they are not strictly discernible. Not that this sounds totally new, but perhaps we expect – and are expected – to always be active, and hence “having a look” is dismissed as insufficient, one is urged to produce, to exert some effect upon the world. Simon’s work, quirky and poetic at once, proves that with looking there is more going on than meets the eye – to which his “Duckrabbit” is a perfect illustration. It suffices to say that after this work ducks and rabbits will never be as we knew them before.

Links for Simon Cunningham:

In Our World exhibition profile
.
RCA profile.
Personal website.

A few extracts from Simon’s interview:

About his work:

I am trying to make these images that are in a state of flux, that are kind of wrestling with each other, and I always try and force myself to see what I saw when I looked at the images as a whole, where I was trying not to see a duck, or a rabbit, but trying to see both at the same time…

About his art:

It’s about maybe trying and find my own practice and name it, and I’ve always had a problem with naming it. The work has become in a way outside of language, it’s what I can’t name, or meshing words together, like Duckrabbit. They’re all pushing things together to make new meanings.


About photography
:

Photography is fascinating! It’s a way of bringing you closer to something but always keeps you at distance, it’s quite like this frustrated things, it’s looking at the world, and my work in general is about looking in the broadest sense of the world. It’s about looking, and seeing, and searching… Photography was the most accessible way of pointing and not naming but saying “this has got something to do with that, but I’m not quite sure what it is”…

About the Royal College of Art:

That’s an experience. I came here very much aware of how precious it would be to have two years where you could just experiment. And maybe a lot of people get hung up on the show, but luckily what made it for me was getting a Paris studio residency for three months.., and it kind of liberated me. And it also made me understand that I never had a studio… The studio became a sort of architecture of the space, and that space swept everything together.

About Paris:

Paris is amazing, it’s just a dream space, and because I am not very good with languages, I could go down the street, and there was no noise. Not that I go around listening to other people’s conversations, but when I was there I would switch off and find my own space…

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