Thursday, 23 September 2010

David Blandy talks to Alli Sharma at his studio in Hackney, E8

‘David Blandy’s work deals with his problematic relationship with popular culture, highlighting the slippage and tension between fantasy and reality in everyday life. Blandy is searching for his cultural position in the world. He often uses humour to ask the difficult question of just how much the self is formed by the mass-media of records, films and television, and whether he has an identity outside that.’

Preview for "Child of the Atom" from David Blandy on Vimeo.

AS: How’s the show going at Seventeen Gallery?

DB: I think it’s going pretty well. I've had some interesting responses to it so far. I'm pleased with how the installation reflects parts of the film, it's something that I've tried to do before, but I think it has been a bit more successful this time. I've been working on it for about two years now. In fact, I had the first kernel of the idea for it when I was in Sweden at I.A.S.P.I.S. at the end of 2006.

AS: It took a long time to happen, did you organize funding too?

DB: I scavenged around for different bits of funding. The Daiwa Foundation, which supports Anglo-Japanese research, supported the travel part. I wanted to take Inko, who did some of the animation sections, but had to scale it back. Phoebe, my daughter, wasn’t necessarily going to be in the film until we got out there, and I realised she had to be in it. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. But I was anxious, you know, putting your own children in your work. It can be exploitative. I consciously wanted all the camera shots of me to be from a distance, so that the location would become an important part of the film. It worked for keeping a bit removed from Phoebe too.

AS: She immediately brings in the next generation, the future, against your grandfather’s past and the present day trip.

DB: And somehow it made it more real to me, that kind of choice; would I choose my life instead of 100,000 people in Hiroshima? Yes, it’s only my life. But when it goes onto my daughter, I just couldn’t cope with the idea that she wouldn’t exist. It gave it another reality.

AS: How do you convey that sort of horror? Do you feel that because you have your own family story, it gives you some sort of ownership and you can tell it?

DB: I suppose I felt it lent legitimacy to my approaching it. The personal link was a significant part of growing up; an awareness of what happened to Pete, my grandfather, who was a Japanese prisoner of war. He was called David Piper but everyone called him Pete because it was a school nickname, Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper. He wouldn’t eat rice or drive a Japanese car, yet he was generally a conscientious guy. He was a Director of the National Portrait Gallery and Ashmolean Museum, he wrote books like The English Face. So he was a learned academic and yet he still had a visceral reaction to things related to his time there, unable to deal with the history of that experience.

AS: And how it impacted on him.

DB: I had a Japanese pen pal when I was about six or seven. The family had to come over for business and they sent their son to my local primary. He seemed so cool because he could play rounders really well and draw accurately and played cool computer games. Even with that relationship, I think I remember my mum was anxious about telling Pete and what his reaction would be. Then I grew up falling in love with Japanese popular culture, Akira, anime and bits of manga.

Enter the Barefoot Lore Pilgrim:Origins, David Blandy from Seventeen Gallery on Vimeo.

AS: The TV series Kung Fu, or Shogun, would have been before your time?

DB: I remember watching Kung Fu with my dad. It must have been repeated because it was produced in 1971/72. I remember in the early days of video, when I was nine or ten years old, getting out Jackie Chan films and there was the video nasty, Shogun Assassin, a very bloodthirsty Samurai. And I grew up with Monkey, of course.

AS: Do you think using popular culture makes your work more accessible?

DB: One of the reasons I started incorporating the stuff into the work was because I didn’t want it to be closed and only accessible to people who had been exposed to that bit of popular culture. If you actually put the song, or clip that has become a part of my memory, a part of me, into the film, then I’m sharing that and making those links clear. I’m really interested in the idea of collective or shared memory. We all watch the same films or have these images going around in our heads. If you’re remembering a film, is it the same as remembering a dream?

AS: There’s a familiarity, even if it isn’t specific.

DB: I wanted Child of the Atom to incorporate sections that implied that they were part of an existing anime series. The anime parts are an amalgam of appropriated bits overlaid with drawings I made with Inko, a Japanese manga artist. The image of the atom bomb is from Barefoot Gen so it’s already an anime version of Hiroshima. That anime was based on an original manga, a survivor’s tale, slightly fictionalized, a day in the life during the war when the bomb happens.

AS: In cartoon form, that’s horrible.

DB: Yeah, it is horrible, but it’s in the same realm as Maus, the comic of the Holocaust, of Auschwitz, but it’s done from a personal viewpoint. It’s a survivor’s tale but, rather than writing it, you’re turning it into a comic book. I think it’s more foreign to us because manga is so pervasive in Japan. Millions of people read Shonen Jump every week and it’s a comic the size of a telephone book. They flick through and then get rid of it because if they kept them their tiny apartment would be full of comics. So if there’s a story they really like then they buy the collected edition when it comes out. The cartoon is quite a faithful recreation of the comic, so I took a few sections from that for the film because it just made sense as the bomb had already passed into popular culture. I also mixed in Fist of the North Star, which is based in a post-apocalyptic world, quite Conan-ish with some intense scenes of nuclear Armaggedon, and Akira is the third.

AS: So there are three different animations mixed into Child of the Atom.

DB: Yeah, and they’ve been altered so that the same character continues in each of them. I’ve overlaid different frames, animated frames, put glasses on one of the characters, little things, so that it’s the same character occurring and there’s a narrative. So there are two parallel narratives; the journey of me and Phoebe in Hiroshima and Miyajima, the little island shrine, and then the parallel narrative is the Child of the Atom falling to Hiroshima and witnessing, or creating the bomb, and then walking through the ashes and fire and then seeing the flowers of new life at the end. So those two coming together and that melodrama set against the banality of our tourist visit. But equally, I really like the quiet bit of me and Phoebe, sitting at the end of the pier, looking out through the temple gate.

Crossroads (2009) Excerpt from David Blandy on Vimeo.

AS: I heard someone ask you what you thought a moving image was and you said it’s like a series of still paintings. Your films do have a painterly quality. I was thinking of Crossroads. The camera holding on a particular moment for a long time, it’s very beautiful. I know Claire Barrett, your partner, does the camera work, so who makes those decisions?

DB: Claire does all the camera work and of course we talk about the feel for the film. I mean it’s a total collaboration in that sense.

AS: I was wondering about the painting comment, was that flippant or is there some influence?

DB: Well, I grew up with art because my dad’s an artist so I always thought I was going to be a painter until I got to my foundation course. I felt there was nothing new I could achieve. Then I realized the things I was really interested in were screen based, like computer games and videos and television, so if I wanted to talk about these things then wouldn’t it make sense to make them out of that media. Then it comes down to the editing process. Claire has some input but that’s my main job really, apart from messing around in front of the camera and organizing everything. But that’s where it becomes a piece, the rhythm of it, the choices, instead of just being a sequence of images. Crossroads is cut down from something like 12 hours of footage to 12 minutes. I knew that I wanted it to be a very still film so I made sure that Claire was hanging on for 15/20 seconds on every shot. So, it’s that thing of what is creative? Is it the editing? It’s artist-as-DJ, mixing the bits of existing materials. I like having Claire’s material like the found objects, the bits of pop culture that I then bring together and mix to mean something.

David Blandy is at:

Child of the Atom, Seventeen Gallery, London E2 until 2 Oct.

Mixtapes: Popular Music in Contemporary Art, Glucksman Gallery, Cork, Ireland until 24 Oct.