1 November 1986 - 25 January 1987
Arts Council of Great Britain
Beyond Image:Boyle Family
"In a condition of adamant doubt you are asked for explanations when all you want is for someone to explain anything. And you are asked for purposes when you are learning to accept that a purpose is not going to emerge ever. And you are asked for a statement of intent when the head seethes with all your fluctuating statements of the past, instantly and meticulously taken down, and which you use constantly, with increasing derision, in evidence against yourself. And you remember, years ago, deciding that art, if the word had any meaning, should be waged like war and how, according to all the strategists, you had to locate the enemy and evaluate your own forces and assess the terrain and clarify your objectives and work out your strategy and your tactics and, whatever you do, do not forget your logistics, and how after months of thinking you succeeded with point one and it's not the dealers or the critics or the intellectuals or the government or the rich or the bourgeoisie or "them" and it's not even like Father Xmas your father all the time, but the only enemy is yourself and maybe it doesn't matter too much whether you win or lose.
Everything you have undertaken has been so far from perfect, so seriously marred, that to exhibit it with no matter how many disclaimers must remain an unexpungeable arrogance. You don't even think that what you do is art but just the most exciting thing you can manage, and how inadequate in a world of such magnificence.....
And you have quickly discovered that it's almost no good trying to offer explanations, that the day of the explanation is over, and you long ago discovered preaching is an ineffective moral gesture, before you even get started on what career, and that if there's one thing you can't possibly do it's to "tell you how it is", do you see what I mean? That's my whole life thinking out how it is and when you're telling, in the end, you're telling how it is to be telling how it is, until feedback sets in the form of a harsh scream.
And it's not for want of acceptable explanations. There's a superabundance of explanations and purpose to suit any inquisition, any situation. That isn't the problem. The problem is to select from an almost infinite spectrum of reasons why ...
And in the midst of all this questioning there are these people analysing, parsing and explaining what you're on about, and believe me, they are dear, kind, sincere people whether they're for or against you, and you divide them up into those who are seriously trying to discover about themselves and their role and the world and those who are concerned with their posture ...
And there is an answer. There are a millions answers. The answers are all around you. The head is drenched with thoughts and images that supersede one another with such rapidity that writing and even speaking becomes intolerable except as a sort of recreational activity, or as a social constitutional of a kind that appals you more and more.
You don't want any image, you want to be transparent, a projection almost seen on a cloud of cigarette smoke. And you know as you say it that all you're doing is to make another kind of image, perhaps more suited to your circumstances than any other. You're saying, "I am what I produce, I am a circuit of no importance. My anonymity is valuable to me".
You would like to have a bitter image of yourself. But you're not even bitter any longer. You have no ambitions. You've seen it all and you knew before you saw it that their Hilton Hotels and their Cadillacs were going to add up to precisely nothing. You're an onion, and to find the inner, essential onion you strip away the layers protecting the centre, to discover that at the centre there are only more layers, and beyond them, a smell and a blur of tears.
You remember fragments of 50,m000 experiences, and you suspect them, and you suspect the conscious and unconscious forces that keep dredging them up. They're all part of the proper snobberies, the prejudices and preferences built in by your heredity and your upbringing. Most of all you suspect the way you formulate. And so finally you say, "there is this there is this, there is. As far as I can be sure there is nothing of me in there. They present as accurately and objectively as I can manage certain sites randomly selected, isolated at one moment. The next moment the sites are different. In half an hour they are transformed. And you have the situation as it was at that instant, perhaps already partially invalidated by its permanence and its isolation".
And the question arises "to what extent is it necessary to isolate in order to examine?" I've isolated fragments, the organic and the inorganic, the natural phenomenon and the induced reaction, the human and the elemental. I've tried to integrate in order to examine. If you study how it is somewhere, sometime, maybe you are better able to begin to know how it is, anywhere, anytime. Maybe it's only by way of isolating anything, that you can begin to cope with the concept of isolating everything..."1
And it's in this context, hedged around with all these provisos and reservations, and in the final analysis protected by a whole labyrinth of escape clauses, that I would like to assert there is only one reason that we bill ourselves as Boyle Family. It is the fact. We work together from the initial concept, through every stage of making each piece, through to hanging the exhibitions and talking to the public. It's not a cosy co-operative. It's not even a partnership. It's four individuals each of whom has a veto. So that if any one person doesn't want too work on a certain piece, we don't do it. As Sebastian says "Boyle Family is not a democracy. It's four feuding dictators". We have our battles ... over every colour we mix.
I met Joan Hills 30 years ago. You can hardly call it love at first sight. We spent our first evening arguing about what were going to do for the rest of our lives. Six weeks later we were living together. I proposed to her many times. Finally I proposed to her at a Boyle Family meeting and was turned down by a majority of three to one. She's a wonderful person, enormously capable. Starting out as a painter, she studied architecture, ran her own beauty business, became a professional chef and then a film editor, eventually working for ITN. She will sit and listen to everyone's point of view and then come out with a devastating comment. Joan had a marvellous boy called Cameron Hills from the time when she was married, and she didn't want him to feel isolated as the only Hills in a rash of Boyles. Also, she didn't want to get married again. Cameron was an extremely valuable and treasured member of our outfit, until he struck out on his own independent career, he would always be welcome to return to the feverish clutch of Boyle Family.
I was writing poems when we met and Joan was painting and running a small business. One day I found a large knot of twisted and battered leads piping and I advanced with this on the sculpture department of the local art school. I put the lump of lead on the table and asked this guy to show me how you made it into a statute. It turned out he was the Head of the Sculpture Department and was a really nice bloke and got terribly enthusiastic. It was as though he was saying, "this is the real thing. This guy is really in off the street. This really is the genuine article." So he got me to fill in a couple of forms and then he led me to a clay bin. He thumped a huge lump of clay on the table and then he turned and pondered over a range of antique statuary.. I can still see the scene today. This brown room and all those statues and the white dust hanging in the sunbeams and this terribly eager wee guy finally selecting a large plaster cast of the ear of some forgotten Roman. He put it down beside the lump of clay and said "There you are. Make a copy of that for starters". I pointed a little wistfully towards my huge beautiful lump of writhing twisting weathered and partly painted lead, and he said "don't bother about that, what you need is a little discipline". So I spent the rest of the afternoon making a fairish copy of the ear, because I didn't want to hurt his feelings, and then I hoisted the lump of lead on to my shoulder and left. That evening I made it into a statue and ended my day old career as an art student. Later that summer I borrowed Joan's paints and made my first real picture. Then for some years we worked side by side. Eventually we decided one day we would work together on the same pictures. And from then on we did. We ended up going to Paris because James Joyce had said that starving in Paris was a grander destiny than starving in Dublin. But we found that there was nothing very grand about starving anywhere. And all this time we never though of being able to make a living from either the poems or the pictures. The question never arose. We just assumed we would always have to have other jobs. So we got sent back to England (by the Embassy because we were destitute and couldn't get work) we wound u working in this restaurant which was only open in the evening. We were free most of the day. And it was the first fake Edwardian restaurant in London and Joan became the chef and I became the head waiter.
We were there for some years. Joan was getting 3 a week plus tips and I was getting 1 a week plus tips and it doesn't sound much because the tips were not huge you might get anything from a shilling (5p) to 5 shillings on a table which was then divided equally between the staff. But you could just live on it. And one day Joan and I went in early and she cooked 94 steak and kidney puddings and pies and boiled beef and roasted ducklings. Then she said "I think it's going to be today". And we went home in a taxi and then I went back to the restaurant. At 8 p.m. I got a call from the doctor who said, "Mark if you want to be present at the birth of this babe you'd better come right now". And I ran out of restaurant into the night, grabbed my bicycle and fled whooping and shouting through the night to our flat, held Joan's hand while Sebastian was born.
Made a coffee for the doctor and the midwife and Joan and then fled on my bike whooping and shouting and laughing all the way back to the restaurant. Joan came back to work 3 weeks later and then it seemed only a very short time after that we were all whooping and shouting with joy again because my beautiful daughter Georgia had arrived and we were making a picture that day and we were in the middle of decorating the house and Sebastian and Cameron and I went and sat on Joan's bed and took turns at holding Georgia and ever since then in the most sentimental and joyful way possible we've been Boyle Family.
I remember sitting in the restaurant with Joan one night in a haze of coffee and red wallpaper and music from an early cylinder gramophone, waiting for the late customers to leave and we realized that none of our friends who worked as waiters there saw themselves as career waiters. They were all actors, writers and musicians, for whom the restaurant was just a stop gap until the real thing in their lives happened. As we sat there we realised that most of us would go on working in restaurants for ever and Joan and I decided to leave. We gave in our notice when we were completely broke, on the principle that if you're going to step off a precipice, the sooner you hit the bottom the better. And we spent our last wages on two bottles of champagne, which we put in the restaurant fridge. That night we said goodbye to the staff and customers, many of whom had become friends, and walked home with nothing but these two freezing bottles of wine. We ran a very hot bath and got in, with the bottles, but without any prospects in the world, and drank to our careers as professional artists. A long time afterwards the front door bell went. We climbed out of the bath. There was only one bath towel but we wrapped it round us and howling with laughter opened the door. Outside there were 15 or 20 people clutching bottles of wine. They were all people who had been in the restaurant that night. After we had left they decided to give us a good send-off by coming round and, between them all, buying one of our pictures, which they would take in turns to have on their wall. And they did, and we brought them all in, and we had a lovely party. I can't remember what happened to the bath towel, but we sat there drinking till the sun rose.
I never say any of those people again and I don't know what happened to the picture, but on the off-chance that any of them read this, I would like to thank them deeply. They will never ever know how much that meant. And if you are ever in the position of knowing young artists who are just setting out, especially if they've been doing very humble jobs all their lives and are only now making the break, and if you like their work, then buy from them, if you've go any money. And if you haven't got enough money then please, I beg of you, get your friends together and go round to their studios and buy from them between you. I rally enjoy the company of artists of any persuasion or no persuasion, men or women, young or old,, successful or unsuccessful, arrogant, or hopeless to the point of despair. I would like to say that it's an honour to belong to a profession that is filled with so many really fine people. And if you're interested in an artist's work, ask if you can visit their studio. It takes a huge psychological effort for them to ask you. And artists' studios are often great places to visit and if you like some piece, don't mess about, ask the price. In this country we need a strong body of professional artists not dependent on filling in forms for grants and subsidies, but living off their own work, beholden to no-one. I can only judge by what happened to us. We were largely self-taught and for that reason didn't know anyone at all in the art world. Maybe this was an advantage. In this business it's not who you know but what you see that counts. Nevertheless from the time we lay in that bath terrified at the step we had taken, our heads in the clouds of steam and frozen wine, it was to be 17 years before we made a profit. And most of that time we were in an extremely poor way.
At one point Joan got a job as film editor. And during that time whilst visiting her parents in Edinburgh she got some people who were starting a new theatre and art complex called The Traverse to offer me a show. The two we dealt with were Jim Haynes and Ricky Demarco, both remarkable men just about to launch themselves into the cultural world. And they picked us up out when nobody thought that what we did was art. Even we didn't think what we did was art. Just the most exciting thing you could possibly do. But as it worked out, the show was of my work and was credited to me because Joan was working as a film editor at the time and it was my work that was being shown. When we started to work together again, we worked under the name Sensual Laboratory and The Institute of Contemporary Archaeology. But because our reputation was initially built on my name it was many year's before Joan was property credited when it came to exhibitions. It was soon well known that we worked in a team as equals. At all times Joan and I used the term "we" in talking about activities. It could not have been otherwise.
As far as the Events were concerned there were about 20 people in London who were interested in these kinds of manifestations. If we were putting on an Event we telephoned the other 18. When any of them was doing anything they called us. I supposed between us we were the alternative culture in this city at the time, but there wasn't a name for it. All in rags and desperately sincere. Our Events were put on under the aegis of the Institute of Contemporary Archaeology or Sense Lab, but everyone knew it was Joan and I.
I have to admit that at this time the billing was not really an issue for us. Our primary objective was to make our work. Secondly we wanted to survive. Survival meant that every now and then we had to sell a piece for 50 or so and that that money was going to have to keep us for 2 or 3 months. I can assure you that under these circumstances, if the art world wants to believe in the single, preferably male, obsessed, artist, you don't quarrel with them. You just try to put it right as best you can. We never felt that it was our place to insist.
In 1970 Hans Locher wrote that when the name mark Boyle was applied to an exhibition or a work it should be taken to mean Joan Hills and Mark Boyle, and eventually our dear friend Martin Kunz put on an exhibition in the Lucerne Museum, entitled Mark Boyle and Joan Hills Reise um Die Welt (Journey to the Surface of the Earth). Since then there have been major shows at the San Francisco Museum, the Seattle Museum, Museum Am Ostwall, Dortmund and The Newport Harbour Art Museum, where we were both fully credited. Eventually other marvellous friends, Henrik Moe, Per Hovdenak and Karen Hellandsjo organised the first fully accredited Boyle Family exhibition at the Heine-Onstad Museum, Oslo.
All this time Sebastian and Georgia were getting more and more involved.
Ever since they were old enough to find a screwdriver they have been around the studio, making their own pieces, helping, learning. From the time they were very tiny they were out with us gathering junk for the junk sculptures, working on the bomb sites and demolition sites that seemed to cover half of London then. I remember one Whitsun Holiday - a long weekend - that we spent working on a bomb site in Shepherd's Bush, where these cherry trees kept dropping their blossoms onto the brick rubble until the entire ground was red and pink.
Sebastian had a bit part in the notorious Edinburgh Happening In Memory of Big Ed. They were in Dig in 1966. They mixed up some of the chemical cocktails that were incorporated into the lightshow for Earth Air Fire and Water and they acted in Requiem for an Unknown Citizen in Rotterdam, getting enormous applause as the only members of the cast who were allowed to take a curtain call. And all the time they were working on the earth pieces, on the sites and in the studio. They came to all the sites. The Tidal Series at Camber Sands, the Rock and Sand Series in the Hebrides, the London Series, all the Urban Series - the Railway Series, the Lorry Park Series, the Paved Yard Series and so on. And they contributed their utmost. At times I was terrified because we'd had to work so hard I thought it would put them off working with us for ever. They are the most marvellous people and I value every minute I'm with them.
They came to all the sites of the World Series though I have to admit that this is not recorded until the second site that we visited. In our journal for the trip to make the Danish piece at Nyord it says, "Sunday, 2nd Aug. This evening we had a family meeting with Cameron as chairman and voted on the allocation of tasks for Georgia and Sebastian. Georgia is to be excused so she can help Tina's mother. Sebastian is to be everyone's assistant. In another vote we agreed not to use what other people might call offensive language outside our house in London on the grounds that maybe other people have a right not to be offended. Another democratic vote decided that Mark was not to lose his temper. On all of these points Georgia spoke effectively and later was elected as chairman for the next meeting."
Since then, they've been all over the world with us and for us. There's been no sudden impact on our work because they've been making their way in our practice for more than 15 years and they've had a gradual but increasing effect on the concepts and the techniques. Contrary to the ideas of most people who know our work, there is no set formula for making one of our pieces. The one fatal mistake we can make is to imagine that we know how to do any particular surface. Every piece requires lots of tests and experiments. Both in the tests and in making the actual work, there is a great deal of improvisation and that's where the greatest skill and invention is required. Everyone in our family knows their way around the resins, can break down, crush and prepare the colours, can lay a pretty good polyester and fibreglass lamination over quite a large area and so on. It's when we don't know what to do that people really have to prove themselves. And Georgia and Sebastian's improvisations and experiments are as good as anybody's at the critical moments. And they make their voices and their opinions felt in all the crucial arguments. Joan and I didn't want them to commit themselves to our practice until they had a chance to discover some alternatives. But they've tried other things and they always just kept coming back to work on the latest piece. So to call ourselves Boyle Family is just to accept an existing reality. I believe that throughout most of history and in most other cultures at the present time artists work together quite naturally in family groups. I have no conceivable problem about artists working as individuals. If it's right for you, it's great for you. I would just like to state that the idea that art can only be produced by obsessed individuals is a neurotic aberration of our times.
And why are people so dogmatic over the visual arts? Mass-murderers and rapists get a pretty bad press nowadays, and after these come artists. I never understand this. Even at its most extreme, art is a pretty gentle activity. But robbers, conmen, racists, embezzlers and swindlers get treated relatively well. But when people disapprove of someone's art they get so angry, so vindictive. And however badly the media behave towards artists, that is nothing compared with the invective and abuse that artists use towards one another. I wonder if it's always been like that. Is this another aberration of our times? With very young artists and critics of course you can understand it. It seems to work in cycles. As they emerge from their art schools and universities I suppose they probably should be permeated with an almost religious fanaticism. They paint the same, they talk the same, they dress the same as their heroes. Some of them even begin to look like their heroes. I never went properly to art school so I wouldn't know, but surely after 3 or 4 years at art school they must know that this is the one attitude that is absolutely fatal.
I remember when we were travelling in America with Soft Machine and Jimi Hendrix and everywhere we went thousands of people would turn up trying to look like Jimi, only the gear wasn't available in most places yet, so it was a kind of approximation to express their adulation and to show how totally and absolutely they belonged. And the cops would be lined up outside, brought in from several counties round about, and for them, those clothes and that long hair meant you were anti Vietnam - "against America in VEE-ET-NAWM". And if they got the excuse, and often even if they didn't, they were going to beat the shit out of these guys. And yet they came on and on, these folk in their provincial approximations to the clothes that Jimi and Mitch and Noel wore, determined not only to hear that music but to listen to it smoking their joints and flying on their trips. And one night Joan and I were sitting in Jimi's dressing room chatting when this guy burst in and stood beside Jimi and then his pal appeared and took a picture of them and 3 seconds after he burst in the first guy was jumping and dancing and yahooing away down the corridor shouting "ME & JIMI HENDRIX".
And everywhere we went, before our guys went on, there would be these other bands and as you talked to them, they would tell you you weren't hearing them at their best, because their best number was "Foxy Lady" or "Hey Joe" or some other famous Hendrix number, and they would all talk about which was the best band in Texas or wherever and it always turned out to be the band that could play Hendrix and Cream numbers best. The band that had a guitarist who could "do" both Jimi and Eric Clapton to perfection; and we all used to sit around listening politely but astonished, because in London the last thing any self-respecting band would do would be to imitate any other band. There every band was trying to be completely individual. And the people in these provincial American bands were so scornful of any band that was not imitating Hendrix or Cream. And did you see that programme which was I think the only time Hendrix appeared on British television when he wanted to do an improvisation in honour of Eric Clapton and the producer insisted that he play "Hey Joe", so in the end he played a few bars of "Hey Joe" and then muttering into the microphone that this number was for Eric Clapton he began his improvisation? They faded him out.
One afternoon we were in this bar in Virginia sitting around quietly. Jimi and Joan and I were there and Mike Rattledge from Soft Machine who was then the greatest keyboard player in the world, Robert Wyatt who was their thrilling drummer and Mitch and Noel from Jimi's team, and suddenly there were these men crowded round the bar who began to shout and laugh. And they started opening bottles of wine and drinking to the health of someone's assassin. And the waitress told us that it had just come over the radio that Martin Luther King had been shot. My Glasgow instinct was to grab a bottle and attack and I looked round at the others and saw Jimi staring away into space. I matured 20 years in 2 minutes and we got up and left the bar in silence. We flew back to New York immediately. There was rioting in the streets, cars were turned over and set on fire. We were due to play in Newark that night and no one wanted to go. Jimi said the last time he had been in Newark there were tanks on the street and the city was on fire. We all milled about in the foyer of the hotel waiting for the decision to cancel. Then the police came on the phone from Newark to say that there was a vast crowd waiting for us and if we didn't show up they were sure they'd burn the city. The first limmo driver took a long thin cheroot out of his mouth and said, "Jimi sits up front with me or I don't go". So Jimi sat up front, and all of us white people slumped down in our seats and we set off. The streets of Newark were silent and deserted when we arrived except that there seemed to be an enormous black man on each corner as thought he was a sentry or policing the block or something. There was an immense crowd at the auditorium and I was terrified that Jimi was going to be killed. At the time everyone thought there was an insane conspiracy to eliminate anyone who was seen as a threat to the extreme right in America, and who was next on the list? And we were out in the auditorium with the projectors for the light show and what would we do if someone suddenly stood up with a gun. Jimi came on very quietly to enormous applause. Then he said softly into the microphone, "this number is for a friend of mine". He then began an improvisation that had a beauty that was simply appalling. Immediately everyone knew that the friend was Martin Luther King and this music somehow seemed to convey all the agony of the black people. The whole audience was weeping. Even the much maligned old "red neck" stagehands came on to the stage, and just stood there with tears streaming down their faces. It was a lament for a great man, but it was the most harrowing lament, beyond anyone's imagining. When he finished there was no applause. Everyone in this vast crowd just sat or stood there sobbing, as Jimi laid his guitar down and walked quietly off the stage. Even thinking about it nearly twenty years later my eyes fill with tears at the memory, so that I can't read what I write . . .
I was going to use that story to make a point about how irrelevant all the imitators and camp followers, isms, doctrines and dogmas become in the presence of something so shattering and beautiful, but if you don't mind, I'll just leave it there. It's just my personal memory of a very great artist.
I'll try to make the point another way. I was brought up a Catholic. I'm not a Catholic any longer but I would hate anyone to think that I'm strongly anti-Catholic. It is a very beautiful and satisfying religion and it was marvellous throughout my childhood to have been so closely in touch with one of the great cultural traditions of human history.
We were sent to a Jesuit school, St. Aloysius College, Rose Street, Garnet Hill, Glasgow and by some bureaucratic accident, I found myself in the same class as my older brother John, and in the fifth form we started a heresy. John was the kind of older brother everyone would wish to have. He was brilliant and funny, a great organiser. He laughed outrageously all the time. And on her deathbed my mother said the only time she'd ever heard John say an unkind word about anyone was when he wished they'd give a certain city councillor an O.B.E. because he'd die from pleasure. My only complaint about him was that I never got enough of his company; and he's exactly the same today and I still don't get enough of his company. I have six brothers and sisters. There was a huge diaspora around the time my father died in a mental hospital and I've never discussed it with them but I bet every one of them scattered throughout Britain today, feels totally isolated from all the others. But our heresy changed the course of my life.
I suppose to call it a heresy is a bit of an exaggeration. We raised objections, as we were entitled to, to Thomas Aquinas' first proof of the existence of God. Our objections were to do with the possibility of infinite, or alternatively, circular, chains of causation. It caused a furore in the school and our objections were never answered properly, at least to my adolescent satisfaction. But the Jesuits seized the opportunity, brilliantly, to interest 32 kids in philosophical debate.
Soon after I left school I left the Catholic Church. It wasn't because of the "heresy". It was because when I first came to England in the army I discovered that what religion you were didn't get people upset, that people didn't care what you believed. And when the English asked you which school you had been to, it was a matter of snobbery rather than bigotry. Of course, its all changed in Scotland, but at the time, the relaxed tolerance of most of the atheists and agnostics that I met in England was very beguiling and seemed more Christian than most of the Christians I'd previously met. I understand that most people who leave the Catholic Church go around looking for another absolute, dogmatic faith and wind up becoming Communists. I found that the opposite happened to me. I had a total aversion to dogmatic causes, movements and issues of every description. Whether they were religious, political or cultural. I thought that artists shouldn't join things as it would undermine their independence. It wasn't that I objected to their beliefs - they could believe what they liked. I began to object when they started to tell others how they should think, live or paint, or started to sneer at, or attack, others for their belief systems.
If all this seems a bit ecumenical, don't imagine that I'm against people feeling passionately about their values. I know it's probably just the enthusiasm of a convert, but the great beauty of a tolerant society is that so many people are able to hold passionately so many opposed views without killing one another. The great difference between an argument in England and in the Scotland of my youth, was that in England if they disagreed with your whole argument a person would say, "yes, I appreciate your argument but don't you think. . ." and you would say "yes, I take your point perhaps we could put it like this. . .", whereas in Scotland if they disagreed with one per cent of what you'd said, they would say "you're wrong! Do you know what I think? I think you're a load of shite . . .". Actually as I write this I miss terribly the raging battles about freewill, James Joyce, nationalism, immaculate conception, Picasso, Einstein, Communism, abortion, euthanasia, Henry Moore . . . where the object was not just to win the debate, but to do so by demolishing your opponent as publicly as you possibly could. But throughout Britain today there does seem to be an unspoken agreement that the object of any discussion, to modify their views in order to reach the next approximation to the truth they can manage. This seems to me to be the essential basis for an intelligent society. People laughed about "The Glory of the Garden", but when Joan and I first came to London it seemed like Eden. We were walking through galleries, theatres, poetry readings, jazz, avant-garde music. Yes, it was often rehearsals because we only had Sunday nights off, but there were long weekend holidays 2 or 3 times a year, when we saw everything we could get to, starting with the morning showings, going all day, and still being in the Six Bells in the Kings Road for Bruce Turner and his Jump Band late at night. And they came to the restaurant, Beckett, Olivier, Lucian Freud, Arnold Wesker, Lynne Seymour, Sean Connery, Nicol Williamson, Clair Bloom. They were all extremely kind. But though we were, of course, for the most part invisible to them, we could still get excited. And I remember bursting into the kitchen to say to Joan "Do you know who's upstairs, Jean Genet!". And the owner said "who's he?". And when I had come to the end of my . . . eulogy the owner said "well watch the silver". I suppose it was a more or less irresistible little joke but I fled back upstairs bruised by this new evidence of the world's irreversible philistinism.
But being around art, then and now, is like walking out of our studio in the early morning through the little arched gate and suddenly you're in a magical world. It's called Greenwich Park. And you walk over this sweet grass completely absorbed in your own sensations. There are these ancient trees which go back to when this was the back garden of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, the tumuli covering a prehistoric burial ground, the bandstand, the joggers, the Old Observatory and the Meridian Line marking the centre of the earth. And you've got these glimpses out over London so that you feel you're walking along the rim of the world and it's all lit with this very intense early morning sun. And that's what our lives have seemed like, walking from one brilliant experience to another. I'm not talking about our own work when I say this, but we have always been witnesses as well.
I was thrilled by individuals not by movements. Art movements are to art what slogans are to a discussion. They seem to focus when in fact they blur. They take the authority away from individual artists and give it to the so-called art world. Art movements feed the Industry. You have to remember the Art Industry. Around the tiny group of artists, critics, dealers and museum curators, who are trying to see the world or themselves or paint or stone or plastic as it really is, there is a vast army of paint manufacturers, art publishers, gallerists, imitators, art teachers, printers, art journalists, foundry men, art shops, acolytes, brush salesmen, museum officials, art historians, technicians, lighting men, exhibition designers, canvas manufacturers, the advertising industry, and in this country alone, hundreds of thousands of amateur artists, full and part-time art students and so on. I say this not to disparage them. Quite the contrary. I live among them. They're my friends. I work with them. I talk to them. I travel all over the world lecturing to them. I love them. They're the most marvellous, wonderful people and for every twisted-minded bureaucratic shit, there are thousands of really great folk. Without the Art Industry we don't exist. So let's not pretend they don't exist, or that in some way they're irrelevant. Art movements feed them. Richard Hamilton told me that he was just starting an American lecture tour when Photo Realism broke in New York. By the time he had reached the end of his tour, 5 weeks later, every art school and every art faculty was running a course on Photo Realism. I've always been wildly enthusiastic about the ideas and artists who lie behind these movements. It's the dreadful team spirit of their sycophants that make you want to vomit all over their bopping little shoes. In Boyle Family we call them dancers, those guys who leap so elegantly from one movement to another, and it stretches credulity that they should always land so perfectly on the beat. The music changes, the scenery seems different, the lights come up and then from both wings enter the hoofers, sideways, new costumes, swiftly adjusted make-up, but always absolutely on the beat and somehow always facing the audience with the same relentless smile.
Most of the recent movements are too close, and I don't know enough art history to make an informed comment about the past, but I'm sure that behind all those movements there were individual artists producing marvellous works. As Joan said, when we were asked after a lecture which movements we had belonged to, "The thing about movements is that they move - backwards". And however much people now sneer at a recent movement like, for example, Neo-Expressionism, when the dust settles it will be seen that there are a couple of those artists left standing. The one that started it and the one that did it best. And both of them will say "I never had anything to do with Neo-Expressionism, those guys ripped me off - I was doing it for 20 years before them", and so on. And when you come to look at their work it will have such quality that you will know why so many people wanted to be like them.
Everyone knows this is true and yet all of us who live our lives in this vivid and astonishing milieu of art want desperately to read and hear and utter and even write the endless drivel that tries to systematize and explain the anarchic spasms of people who produce such amazingly tender testimony to an experience at the limits of their sensibility. People who are completely aware that for a moment the responsibility is on them and that non-existence lies just over the horizon.
Then one day you're aware that these people are coming from this American Museum and you're in your studio before 6 a.m. with Joan and Georgia and Sebastian hoping that you'll get the new piece ready before they arrive, and why is it that the piece you're working on always seems so much better than anything else you ever did, and in any case we know we won't get it finished in time and suddenly there's this tour bus and it's them and it must be four o'clock already and we're all pulling off our paint-soaked clothes, and for a moment the house is full of half naked artists trying to find their clothes and brushing their hair and starting to do something about the tea. There's a moment's calm before we open the door, then we're all smiling and obliging and ingratiating and suddenly I'm giving this talk because, as Joan says, I'm the one with the gob, and I'm taking questions now, and it's all going quite well, and then this gentle lady pole-axes me with a question about TRUTH AND REALITY . . . . I didn't even see it coming.
And there is this particular silence which absorbs the distant moaning of a plane and the murmur of traffic lapping against the shore; and there are these polite, enquiring Californians from the Los Angeles Museum, the sun at their backs and their heads haloed by its light, waiting for the answer to a question which is trying to get itself into focus among the fractured images colliding and disintegrating in my mind. And in this silence, the question hovers there, "what is the difference between truth and reality?", somehow bringing out the curious flavour of this early autumn afternoon.
Behind them I can see Sebastian shaking his head faintly to indicate "don't get into this" and Georgia laughing; and I can hear the oven door being opened in the kitchen and a sudden smell of fresh baking ripples across everyone's nostrils and you know that what they want, these grave American faces, is a couple of straight answers to go with their scones and tea. And it seems to me, as the silence spreads like an unexpected tide threatening to engulf me, that I've been swimming in this ocean all my life; and any time I wasn't trying to answer this question, in one form or another, I was asking it myself. And images of Pontius Pilate shrugging and jesting emerge and I'm aware that my mouth is actually forming words that are pretending to be the beginnings of a reply, but are really just uttered in order to gain time. I can see slivers of previous answers, assertions coalescing and superimposing. I know it's only a minute or so that I've been standing here. And I know that Sebastian and Georgia are right and I should just turn this question aside with a little joke, haven't half the philosophers of history written off their lives on this one, and who do I think I am to attempt to formulate it, just like that, in a hot room amongst all these honest enquiring folk?
And I've never been able to think of anything unreal anyway. Mirages, dreams and after-images are real mirages, real dreams and real after-images. Even a ghost is a real ghost - unless it's a hallucination, in which case it's a real hallucination. Reality is everything outside my head (but including what's inside my head because what's inside my head is outside someone else's) but we can only know this reality through the faulty information supplied by our senses via the filter of our prejudiced and conditioned minds. And I can't really hear too well any more what my mouth is saying as the images crowd in, but the people are still there, patiently . . . and I'm trying to remember the argument someone gave me about reality, about the way sound is just an airwave until it strikes and vibrates something in the inner ear, and how a universe of earless people insensitive to these airwaves would walk through a silent world, and my mouth isn't saying all this only my head, and how light travels in the same way and a world without eyes would be a world without light, without colour, without shadow. Do you remember that nature film on T.V. that showed those terrible blind fish and crabs that live in total darkness in a cave in Honduras or somewhere and they were all completely white? And smells and tastes and feelings demand a sensory system for their existence. So a world not inhabited by creatures with senses and nervous systems would be a dark silent place whose realities would remain unperceived. And weren't there some, maybe Greek, philosophers who thought nothing exists where no one is there to perceive it? And I remember thinking about this and the Newman limerick and I know I don't really believe any of it.
Even if there was a being without any senses whatsoever moving across this dark silent world, eventually he would come to a cliff. Even though he couldn't perceive it and therefore, as far as he was concerned, it didn't exist, he still wouldn't be able to walk on as though nothing was there. If he came to the sea he could still drown. In a fire he would still burn. And so I know, even as my mouth is mouthing art world platitudes to people with their minds now inexorably fixed on tea and scones, that reality exists, independent of any sensory system. We can only perceive that reality through our senses. Absolute truth would be a perfect description of all reality. The best description of all or part of that reality that our senses and the unconditioned, unprejudiced mind can achieve is what we call truth.
The trouble is that beneath the black and yellow clouds that are now beginning to jostle and barge their way across S.E. London, there are no unprejudiced and unconditioned minds. And here in Hillside House, Crooms Hill, Greenwich the friends of the Los Angeles County Museum are having tea and being enthusiastic. I can hear the traffic again and those fat jays causing a commotion in the big tree and I can't believe that these people are satisfied with whatever it was I said. And, of course, I know they're not. In my head the images are still seething, the questions unanswered and, in among their kind invitations and various people asking prices and details, all the time I'm thinking about truth and reality.
In Boyle Family we are constantly and hopelessly trying to work towards this truth. Trying to remove the prejudices that the conditioning of our upbringing and culture impose. Trying to make the best visual description our senses and our minds can achieve of a random sample of the reality that surrounds us. Boyle Family are not social or anti-social, radical or anti-radical, political or apolitical. We feel ourselves to be remote from all these considerations. We want to see if it's possible for an individual to free himself from his conditioning and prejudice. To see if it's possible for us to look at the world or a small part of it, without being reminded consciously or unconsciously of myths and legends, art out of the past - or present, art and myths of other cultures. We also want to be able to look at anything without discovering in it our mother's womb, our lovers' thighs, the possibility of a handsome profit or even the makings of an effective work of art. We don't want to find in it memories of places where we suffered joy and anguish or tenderness or laughter. We want to see without motive and without reminiscence this cliff, this street, this roof, this field, this rock, this earth.
This motiveless appraisal, which is the object of all our work, is of course completely opposed by everything the art speculator stands for. Art speculation is about how to condition people. It's about prejudice, greed, cheating, hard sell, rigged auctions, fake charisma, cynicism, hype. The art speculators are opposed to art. I think of their "art world" as an idea whose time has passed. They have brought in the attitudes of the crudest form of commercialism, with their maximisation of profits and their art portfolios and their sexy deals and their talk of smart money, blue chip paintings, sluggish performance and maximum yield. I'm in no way against people buying the work of an artist who is not well known and making a profit when they come to sell. I'm not even against a collector or group of collectors thinking of that profit before they buy. What I'm against is the attitude of the speculator whose only interest in buying paintings is that, in terms of appreciation, they will outdo other candidates for his "portfolio". That they will be a better investment than silver, or real estate or pork bellies. The words "art appreciation" acquire a new meaning. These collectors are often very charming people personally, but their attitude to art is a disaster, and when they talk about it, they become the great art bores of our time. Art is a rage in the head of someone aware that he's on the edge of extinction. Art is also a delicious conversation between artists and those who love art. Of course, there are great dealers and marvellous museum officials who love art and therefore take part and illuminate this conversation, but in the main, every aspect of what they have the nerve to call "art speculation" is directed towards a kind of conditioning that makes the delicious conversation almost impossible. Fortunately the posturing and finessing and hyping of commodity-brokers in fake art has almost no effect on men and women with a rage in their head.
And I want to say this as the people begin to get their things together, in case they feel they didn't get full value, but the words won't come together. And as they stream away up the hill towards their bus I want to say, "I only have one life. I do not wish to spend it in a sewer. I want to do straight deals with straight people. And above all I want to have the opportunity again to answer that question properly". But they're already on the bus, settling back, smiling goodbye and talking about the sunlight and their next visit and the art they've seen. And we're standing there smiling at these truly lovely people, knowing that some of them will certainly come back and we're having dinner with our new friends the Jerdes tonight and it would have been a great afternoon if I'd only been able to say what I mean and give them a couple of straight answers.
And when we put on an exhibition it never looks logical or coherent like other peoples' shows. When we're hanging them I find myself shouting "why can't we have logical consecutive shows that follow some coherent pattern? Other people do. Why can't we have shows that are numbered the same as the catalogue so that people can follow it easily as they walk round?" But we never do. Even our lovely friend Lynne Green, who is organising this exhibition for the Arts Council, reaches the end of her gentle patience and insists that this catalogue is going to the printers tomorrow although we are still finishing pieces and can't make up our minds about what's going to be in the show. I don't even know for sure which way up the pieces will be. Obviously when you're making studies of the surface of the earth there is no top or bottom. People can hang the vertical ones horizontal and the horizontal ones vertically, or they can keep changing them. This suits our purpose. For twenty years we have worked almost exclusively with the square - because we thought it was more objective. Of all the other forms it seemed to us the square carried the fewest overtones. Now we think this may have been a bit dogmatic. So we've been trying out a few other shapes and putting them up in different ways to see what overtones they carry: so that it is interesting to compare the Broken Path pieces shown vertically and horizontally. Whereas the Ploughed Field Study (plate 9) almost demands to be shown horizontally. This is not only a function of the shape, because we found a similar effect in square ploughed field pieces we made in 1969, 1970 and 1978. This is clearly a cultural overtone that has to be taken into account. Basically when we put on a show we just empty our house and studio and move everything to the gallery or museum. When we get back home we're shocked by how empty the house is. So we get back to work. For an artist there's no incentive better than an empty wall. We regard this show at the Hayward as marking the end of our apprenticeship, so I'd better say a couple of words about randomness.
We have the reputation for working on random sites. But in fact very few of our pieces are truly random. I mean that when we got the map of London and fired darts at it, blindfolded, that wasn't truly random. After all we had chosen to live in London in the first place. And that choice invalidates the randomness. In the same way we have worked on other specific sites - lorry parks, pavements, beaches, a mews, cliffs, quarries, ploughed fields, roofs and many others. On all of these we used some degree of randomness in selecting the actual square or rectangle to be used. We use random techniques to ensure a degree of objectivity. The randomness is in terms of space, time or process (e.g. change). The only truly random pieces that we have done, have been in our World Series. A large number of sites selected randomly from a map of the world. We didn't choose to live in this world, so there's no personal selection there. They don't look particularly random, but then nothing does. We are extremely grateful to Martin Kunz, Director of the Kunstmuseum at Lucerne, for allowing us to borrow one of these pieces, The Swiss Site and all its ramifications, for this exhibition. These works were made in the immediate aftermath of the Venice Biennale of 1978 when a big exhibition of ours filled the British Pavilion. Here's an extract from our journal.
You should hear the clarinet in this wee orchestra swoop and howl among the sea gulls. And these muttering waiters slalom between the tables bringing pale liqueurs and ice cream in frozen chalices. The lads of the town, replaying the game against Argentina with their hands in their pockets score goal after goal against the scarred walls of St. Mark's. And as the darkness settles heavily around us on our last night in Venice, crowds waddle boozily by, cafe orchestras compete, lovers huddle, large tourists dominate small waiters, sad people at these slender tables talk about food and girls and previous Biennales, and round the corner from the Square this one wild clarinettist sobs and swings for the coach parties and the art lovers and the vendors of all these fluorescent yo yos. And it's our last night at our Biennale and my mother is going home to Scotland, to the Highlands, and tomorrow Joan and Georgia and Sebastian and I are setting out to start work on a new piece close to the Rhine in Switzerland.
These wee guys sheltering in their car park hut, 4 red faces clumped around a bare electric bulb and a bottle of wine, refuse to move a car they have parked in front of our landrover. This rain has come very suddenly, just after the motor boat dumped us and our belongings from the Biennale back on to the mainland quay. At midday the city is dark and we are hosed down by black exploding clouds. With rivers flowing over our thighs and stomachs we give that motor a huge shove and, without looking to see what becomes of it, leap into our "Limmo" and skid out of the car park down to the quay side, where Sabo and Georgia are trying to protect all our clothes and equipment with their bodies.
We moved everything into the "Limmo" or tied it on to the roof rack and with our squelching clothes sticking to our shuddering bodies we drove off towards Padua leaving a long wake along the dark, deserted road.
Towards midnight we came to Riva at the head of Lake Garda, ate marvellous Pizzas in a tatty red cafe and slept deeply. Next morning we headed north into the Alps. I'm sure that the Alpine scenery was magnificent because I saw it once from a jet, but on this day a cloud had come like a cold white pillow settling over your face. There was no background or middle ground. Only a foreground of mud and rock disappearing into the white fog, which would stain with yellow before another vast black truck would roar into view hurtling down towards us at an impossible angle as we laboured up. One of the difficulties of life for everyone I suppose is that your circumstances seem to change, but inside of them, you don't. So you want to open your head and let it all pour out by way of conversation the way you used to, and you're still talking about your defeats and your rages and your sudden fierce joys and your weakness and the fact that you of all people are unable to practise what you preach. But there is a new element that has to keep coming to the surface, and that is the incongruity of even a degree of success. Even the most modest success seems inappropriate for people who do our kind of work. Somehow it's derelicts we meet while we are working on our sites, tramps and drunks and ex-mental patients who come and tell us their problems, desperate housewives, bums, gypsies, car breakers, junk men, totters, people who pick through dustbins, old women who seem to walk about London all day and night, bent over plastic bags containing all their possessions; but if you ever offer to carry their bags they curse in a high scream, all the traditional associates of artists, the victims of our society and its systems. Then some friend tells us on his way out of our house that I too am a natural victim and that all these people recognise their own. And it does come strangely in that context to be talking about museums and foreign travel and Biennales and working in the Arctic and the mountains and the desert and so on. But that is my work. And someone says that most people don't talk about their work, it's quite enough for them to do it, without having to talk about it. I can hardly believe that. Besides I don't just talk about my work and all that it entails, I rave and seethe about it. . . .I have done an incredible range of jobs, office jobs, factory jobs, labouring, catering, managing, soldiering and enjoyed every one immensely. If it's true that most people hate their work, then my fortune is not so much that I have a job that I enjoy, as that I have a capacity to enjoy what I do. My guess is that people enjoy their work so long as they don't become systematized. It's possible to remain an individual within a system, but it's very difficult, because systems have machinery for isolating and excluding people who wish to be individual. You have to be prepared to be lonely. But the key is that inside your own head you have to deal with your job and its problems in terms of yourself and your response to the world and other people, not to fall back on the idea that you're doing it, against your natural instinct, for the team, or because it's good for your organization. In this sense the ideal of team spirit is disastrous. And, if I had to choose one or the other, I would always prefer a world full of individuals with all their faults, to a world inhabited by systems, with all their virtues.
In practice, of course, we don't have the choice. This world is full of individuals who more or less have to organise themselves into systems. And those systems increasingly compete with one another for survival, whether they're football teams, or armies or bureaucracies. People set up private and public organisations to benefit society. Almost immediately those organisations begin to operate as independent creatures acting primarily in their own interests, and very often contrary to the interests of just about everybody else. In the end, the only people outside these systems are derelicts, some artists, dissidents, victims, innovators, a lot of the people who actually run the systems, people who refuse to be engulfed and the entire population of the city of Glasgow in Scotland. Like most people from Glasgow I've spent my whole life trying to become part of a system, any system, with an almost total lack of success. Even in the army, where I almost succeeded in excelling, my Colonel told me, on the day they made me a wretched second lieutenant on 7 a week, that he'd always thought a good actor should be allowed to pass the War Office Selection Board for officers. And he was very shrewd. He was absolutely right. For half a year and with enormous effort I had been busy pretending that I was the right type, and all the time he knew perfectly well, what I knew, that I would always be the wrong type. Now I'm reconciled to it, indeed I rather enjoy being the wrong type. I even find myself defending other wrong types, endlessly. Glasgow is full of wrong types. They're dissidents to a man. People say to them "if you don't like the way this country is run why don't you emigrate to Russia where you belong." But they've got it all wrong. These people would be dissidents anywhere. It gets into their blood with the lead in the water. It doesn't make any difference whether it's London or Moscow or Berlin. As they crash out of the Barracuda Bar these guys are not just against the government, these guys are against any government. They spend their lives in a continuous act of hopeless defiance. Their wry, crazy jokes are ghetto jokes, the humour of oppressed people. And as for the people who criticise them, the conformists, maybe I do them an injustice, but I feel they'd conform wherever they were, whatever the regime, and they'd insist that they were just obeying orders. The main confrontation today is no longer between Left and Right, East and West, developed and under-developed countries, it is between systems, any systems, and individuals, including individuals who belong to systems.
And this landrover called "Limmo", full of wrong types, bounced over the briny Brenner Pass and, holding a close wind, frothed down an Alp into Austria. Suddenly we were at the Rhine. We crossed into Switzerland and drove in the driven rain down the West bank towards our site. We guessed it would be difficult to find. One sombre field among many, on a slate grey day. The wiper was keeping time to Jimmy Loughran conducting the Halle Orchestra at full blast on the cassette machine, and through the squirming water marks on the windscreen that it never quite managed to clear, you could make out these lugubrious grey farms and mud spattered Mercedes. We turned off the road and crept down a dirt lane towards the Rhine trying to follow our map, and stopping and starting, and turning the map upside down, and everyone arguing about where exactly we were and where exactly the site was that Joan had selected with a blind dart. Suddenly the Limmo lurched to a halt on an unmarked concrete bridge. The map was wrong. This was all completely different. There was the river. That must be the site. But the world had changed in the ten years since we got the map. They were building an autobahn right through our site. For a moment I felt outraged, I shouted and roared in a surge of fury as I gazed across this wet swamp of half built road. Then we all laughed. We had come to Switzerland to make sculptures that were going to be exhibited in the Lucerne Museum, and to the British, Switzerland is a land of cow bells and sunshine and mountains and yodelling and summer pastures and blonde, smiling milkmaids and Edelweiss and ice cream and extremes of natural magnificence. And out of all this we had made a random selection and there we were, four bedraggled Londoners, in the rain, looking at this vast area of mud.
We drove down to the level of the new road. They had only just started on the foundations. It was getting dark. We pulled in underneath the bridge and made our camp. Joan cooked and we all made encouraging noises. Georgia said she wished Cameron was with us. When we had eaten everyone agreed that food had never tasted quite so wonderful before, and then we slept, and my last memory as I drifted off was of Joan saying, "well we never said it would be typical, did we?".
In the morning the rain had stopped, but heavy, dark clouds rolled through these amazing mountains that formed the valley of the high Rhine. We threw our right angle spinning into the air and where it landed was one corner of our site. We produced the lines until we had a six foot square. Then we made a pot of tea and stood around the square each with a mug of tea in one hand and in the other a marmalade sandwich, on this marvellous Swiss bread, and we discussed how we were going to make these pieces. Then we started work.
We made the random surface with tyre tracks and a marvellous wavy bicycle track. Then we made a vertical section which had no strata lines but just showed the rich, black alluvial earth. We then made a series of four small studies showing the mud drying, from quite wet to almost dry with mudcracks; gathered insects, plants and made certain studies of ourselves.
The day we left Switzerland the sun was shining. We didn't actually hear any cow bells but we knew they weren't very far off. Everything seemed to tingle with a fresh exhilaration. We went to Vaduz and found a great cafe for coffees and cream cakes, and we wandered about and took pictures and bought souvenirs and everything was beautiful and charabancs kept pulling up and all these people would get out, stamping up and down and straightening their arthritic legs and patting their purple hairdos and mopping their plum coloured foreheads with large spotted handkerchiefs because it was hot and taking pictures of this crazy castle perched in its impossible eyrie in the mountains, staring fiercely down into the town. And we were all so happy and then I drove off with my partners, Joan and Georgia and Sebastian, and we all wished that Cameron was with us, down through the Swiss countryside towards Lucerne. And Joan and I were hoping to find some lonely place where we could lie in the sun with nothing on. Every cliche we'd ever heard about Switzerland came true as we drove along, except the cow bells and the yodelling. But the mountains and the lakes and the smiling, lovely girls were all around us. We even though we recognised some Edelweiss. And then Lucerne was quite marvellous in a different way. They have this covered bridge going over the lake and it goes out so far, and then it has a bend in it, why I don't know, and above your head as you walk, fixed vertically to the roof beams, they have all these mediaeval paintings, every few feet, for what must have been three-quarters of a mile, back to back, so that you could look at them going in either direction and there were about 180 of them and they were just splendid. And it seemed a bit arrogant to have an exhibition that people would have to pay to see, in a museum so close to a free show of such magnificence. And Martin Kunz, the dynamic director, showed us round the Kunstmuseum and we made arrangements about our exhibition there. Originally we had planned the show with Martin, but then he had kindly let us show it at the Venice Biennale first. It was to come here straight after the Biennale. We made some good friends there, Marianne and Antoinette and Luigi and Mr. Baumgartner, then we drove out of the city, bright with the sunlight bouncing off the lake, and went to Geneva where we had a great fondu with our good friends Clara and Philippe and then we drove carefully off into the night, because we had our Swiss sculptures half finished on board, and still so fragile that they might be damaged. But inside myself I knew they wouldn't be. We'd done it, and I had my partners with me, and we were going home. We didn't talk about art at all, we made jokes and laughed and sang.
The most complete change an individual can affect in his environment, short of destroying it, is to change his attitude to it. From the beginning we are taught to choose, to select, to separate good from bad, best from better. Our entire upbringing and education are directed towards planting the proper snobberies, the right preferences. Ultimately these studies are concerned with everything as it is. The fair sample issues of new or old, used or unused materials hardly seem relevant, unless we are trying to prove a thesis. Are dead leaves new or old? Do rockets have more or less associations than tanks? In a context of thousands of years, is it important whether the material was made this year or last? In a context of everything, anything is a fair sample, or, to put it another way, nothing is a fair sample. Compare the voyeur and the voyant. To study everything we may isolate anything. Perhaps we may one day isolate everything as an object/experience/drama from which, as participants, we can extract an impulse so brilliant and strong that the environment, as it is, is transformed.
Control Magazine No.1 1965
And moreover concerning this presentation I feel that it is necessary to say, without humility, that I am responsible only for its faults and inadequacies. The sites were determined by random selection. Similar techniques were used on the sites to determine the actual areas to be used. Shortage of cash caused me to concentrate initially on those sites that were readily available but many others were photographed and will be fixed and presented in due course. I do not feel that this limitation vitiates the presentation because I am not trying to prove any thesis and when one is concerned with everything, nothing (or for that matter anything) is a fair sample. I have tried to cut out of my work any hint of originality, style, superimposed design, wit, elegance or significance. If any of these are to be discovered in the show then the credit belongs to the onlooker.
Statement published on the occasion of a Presentation at Indica Gallery, July 1966
My ultimate object is to include everything. In the end the only medium in which it will be possible to say everything will be reality. I mean that each thing, each view, each smell, each experience is material I want to work with. Even the phoney is real. I approve completely of the girl in Lyons who insists that it's real artificial cream. There are patterns that form continuously and dissolve; and these are not just patterns of line, shape, colour, texture, but patterns of experience, pain, laughter, deliberate or haphazard associations of objects, words, silences, on infinite levels over many years; so that a smell can relate to a sound in the street, to an atmosphere noticed in a room many years ago. I believe that the electric stimulus given to the brain by these interlocking patterns of reality is the same impulse - though for me by comparison they are luminous and strong - as the aesthetic pleasures generated by brilliant beautiful works in other media. I feel I must feed the concentration; that it is necessary to "dig" reality, to uncover its infinite layers and variations, to juxtapose, to superimpose, to use random techniques, to use emotions, even those that are critically unacceptable such as nostalgia, to use them knowingly and unknowingly, also to refrain from using them, to accept, to be open, to classify and evaluate pain, to make a fool of myself, to laugh, to weep, to glory in the strength of the strong, to appreciate the weakness of the weak, to love my enemies.
ICA Bulletin June 1965
Antennae of this multicellular organism humanity probe the environment not so much artists as feelers not so much transmitters as receivers communication irrelevant though inevitable the sensual laboratory the institute of contemporary archaeology and the random samples we take of our environment are devices to expand our ability to absorb becoming increasingly unnecessary until if we've the capacity we become only sentient beings totally permanently open to everything without the filtering of psychological shock barriers or the distortions of intelligence or drugs discovering just how much reality human kind can bear
Telegram to Mike Jeffries, August 1967
Joan Hills, John Claxton and I were working on the beach at Camber one day in summer when I noticed a labyrinth of minute tracks in the sand. At the centre an insect lay on its back. I thought, surely even in its death agony this fly could not have created all these tracks. I turned it over with a small stick to see if it was a fly or a wasp and as I did so a number of smaller insects scuttled out of the corpse.
I don't think I'm especially interested in 'destruction in art'. I'm interested in destruction as an aspect of everything. The intimations of violence and futility which figure so largely in the destruction movement attract my curiosity, but no more than, say pacifism, or the euphoria at a Conservative Party conference.
Things are created and survive only by the destruction of other things. In this sense, materially or formally, all art is destructive. When Ortiz destroys a chair he is destroying an object which is the record and trace of the ritual destruction of a tree. And I feel that my life and death are neither more nor less futile than the life and death of that tree or that fly . . . we are going to take the opportunity provided in this theatre to indulge ourselves by watching and sharing with anyone who cares to stay, Amoebas, Hydras, Daphnes Euglenas, Parameciums, Cyclops, Planarias, various larvae, wasps, sperm and anything else we find.
Originally we meant to go on all night . . . so if the amoeba should decide to perform the ultimate act of auto-destruction, reproducing by splitting itself in two, of if we get particularly involved with any part of the presentation we may well watch it until the theatre closes continuing the rest of the presentation some other time, aware that whether we watch or not the process of destruction/creation continues everywhere in our universe and in ourselves
Programme note from Sound/Light for Insects and Water Creatures the opening programme of the Destruction in Art Symposium London 1966 performed by Mark Boyle, John Claxton, Joan Hills and Mike Rose, 1st September 1966, Cochrane Theatre
A Rock singer I knew once told me he had been writing poems on a Greek island that were so esoteric that no one would ever understand them but himself. And then one day he had decided that it was absurd, in the mid 1960's, that he should be doing anything to purposeless, socially. And he decided to write for the people. And he did. He wrote songs that were banal and stupid. He was involved in Rock music, a thrilling medium in which certain magicians have produced masterpieces of high tension brilliance, and he wrote songs that were banal and stupid.
This is one of the places where elitism and populism meet. There is a certain kind of elitist populist who believes that in order to write for the people you have to write songs that are stupid. I believe that if you're going "to work for the people" in this or any other field you have to work to the highest standard you are capable of. If the people do you the honor of being interested, then you have to take the greatest care of all, because it is so easy to assume that public approval is the final arbiter, when in fact the only arbiter of a work of art is the artist or the group of artists involved. Whatever the field he chooses whether it's Sound or Visual or Tactile or Verbal, he must explore his chosen area to the maximum of his potential. It could be colour, or mass, or proportion, that he was dealing with. It might be light or representation or fantasy. It might be concepts or mathematical form, or the mechanics of art production, distribution and exchange. Whatever his chosen area, he must put aside everything else in his determination to explore it. He has to immerse himself totally. He has to realize that working for the people in this way he has to forget about working for the people. He has to forget about doing anyone any good. The only thing he has to do is to pursue his own goal determinedly, savagely, relentlessly on and on and on. There is no happy ending. He never gets there. He goes on and on and on. But sometimes instead of relentlessly pursuing his course the artist listens to the managers and the dealers who say, this is the next thing that's going to be big with the public, or such and such is coming back . . . or to the politicians and social commentators and moral rearmers who to a man know what the public needs, what the public wants, what is good for the public. Then you get the fashion parade. The perfectly modulated and marketable personalized response of the artist to the current fad. The annual exhibition of beautifully calculated developments, of always identifiable variations on the artist's trade mark.
Down through the centuries, the people have permitted certain individuals to be free from productive labour in order to explore, almost as their representatives, certain areas of sensibility. If these "representatives" fail to explore their area to the limits of their potential, or report back, not what they actually found, but what they or their managers calculate will go down well with the public, or what they think it is good for the public to hear, and if they imagine that they or anybody else is capable of deciding what it is good for the people to hear, then they are not representatives of the people but parasites, not working for the people, but exploiting them.
From Nothing is More Radical than the Facts, a lecture given at Newcastle University 1972
The unknown citizen is a type of everyone. He can be that part of each one of us that is private, personal, unpublic, unknown. He may be the part of our minds that is unknown, even to ourselves. He could be a person alive or dead who perhaps has control or influence over our minds (maybe it could be a whole genealogy extending back into racial pre-history). The unknown citizen must also inevitably mean to many people the lonely, the depressed, the friendless. He is the man who despairs to the point of suicide. He is the unborn citizen. He is anyone whose death has caused in us a grief that for any reason we do not wish to share. Everyone is an unknown citizen and I wish to pay my respects.
Programme Note for Requiem for an Unknown Citizen which was first performed in Die Lantaren Theatre, Rotterdam in 1971. Requiem was a presentation in several media of social events that occurred at a number of random locations in London at random times.