In the first residential exchange of Catalyst Arts and Outpost, London-based artist Paul Gwilliam spent 5 weeks in Belfast, working towards the exhibition Out for a Duck. As a continuation of Portrait for a Lynx, which brings together Gwilliam’s making and writing practice, it culminated in a chaotic, comical and disturbing blend of sculpture and performance: two accessory-burdened figures halt and resume repetitive, animalistic actions amidst a copious amount of sculpture, itself produced in unmonumental forms, moulded shapes and beings, found materials and latex. I spoke with the artist about his residency and making process.
Can you tell me about the project Portrait for a Lynx, which you started before your Catalyst Arts residency?
It started as a piece of writing that I produced at the beginning of the year, which I wanted to take further and see if I could put it into my sculptural practice. I wanted to combine sculpture and writing to see how the objects would react, or be read, when there’s a stronger narrative behind them – not to be illustrative, but rather to be tainted by the story.
It was loosely about Henry Moore. The title comes from his last drawings, when he was bedbound. Some of the last drawings he’d made were of a statue of a lynx, and are quite poignant as his last work. The story was a kind of conversation between Henry and I, although it was never really specified. The story was about what his relationship was with his body of artwork; there are hints that he was trying to escape his legacy and that the sculptures were tracking him down as a father figure, wanting more from him than just his production.
When I was asked to show some work afterwards, I made sets of sculptures in relation to the text that came out surprisingly easily. At that show I did a reading of the written piece with the sculptures, and I felt there was more work to be done there, as it didn’t feel completed. It became the working title for a larger exploration of how writing and sculpture can fit together in my work, as there’s a huge history to it.
As you were working within the gallery context from the beginning of your residency, do you think that altered your approach to the project?
It really did. The writing wasn’t happening as well as I wanted it to; it is such a big space that it was quite difficult to find a place in that from a writing perspective. But from a making perspective, it was the biggest playground I’d ever had. About a week into the residency I felt like I wanted to make use of what was here, and not spend 4 weeks knocking out a piece of writing that wasn’t forthcoming, so it really prompted a making practice.
At Catalyst they had made a little studio structure, like a jetty with a house on it, within the gallery – I deconstructed that about a week in and turned it into cross/crane-like sculptures, and built out from there.
A lot of the work in the show appeared to come from tactile experimentations with the materials, which you placed in the context of your written work, in a referential way. Would you describe your work as process-led in both writing and sculpture?
I think so. It’s hard to work out when something’s not process-led, but I don’t come at it with a fully conceived idea most of the time. With writing I normally start in the middle, and then it builds. I like studio practice; the best part is trying to invent new materials, or new things, or new surfaces. I’m happy with a haphazard approach and not precious about a finished idea.
I find it interesting that when you make something, it either grows on you or grows away from you – it’s quite nice because it makes it an intimate experience. For example, when I painted little boy sculpture that oxygenated copper green, I hated that, and thought I’d chosen completely the wrong colour. Then it only takes someone to walk past – and in Catalyst people are always wandering past – and someone said they liked the colour. It made me reconsider, and then a few days later felt that it was done.
How do you feel story and object fit together in your work? Would you say they are combined in an installational way or made more to influence each other as individual entities?
I think this is what I’m working out. I think there are two ways it can be taken in a standard format – either it can turn into a play, where the narrative and character’s performance and sculptures is quite a classic format, or the text becomes a piece that goes alongside a show, that can replace a press release. At the start I was aiming towards a play, but I didn’t want the objects to become props. I want them to be something, not an idea of something; I felt that was quite important.
I felt in Out for a Duck the performance and objects were really into the absurdity of their mimicry, and also the act of putting it on display. Do you feel that comedy aspect is an intrinsic part of your work, or is it something that happens to come through?
I think it more just comes up. I don’t design performances to be comical. I guess it’s like the relationship between tragedy and comedy, being very closely linked, where something being funny or upsetting is almost the same emotion. I do like to have a sense of humour in the work, and there’s certainly a lot of jokes, especially in the writing, but I usually think about my performances as being like quite horrible situations, where characters are lost in horrible degrading processes, on show, but also being humiliated, maybe through their desire for the object.
The performance in Catalyst had a funnier element to it than I had imagined it to be; I’m not sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing. A previous performance had a kind of different effect: it went to a kind of horrific, upsetting end of things. The performances were trying to discuss masculinity, and that’s where display, physical expression, and production within the traditional masculine idea of those things come into play. I’m trying to get into the absurdity and ridicule around it.
Do you think you’ll continue the project?
I think what I did at catalyst was a stepping-stone in the project, but it wasn’t really the project I had proposed. The five-week period to produce a piece of work is a really good timeframe, everything is fresh and you’re not bored with it. There’s a freedom with making – you can always do something, and when you physically create something there is always something at the end of it. With writing, it’s not a process that lends itself to that – I’m not as confident that if I spend 2 weeks writing I’m going to have something that I want to let people read, or become a part of my work.