Jonathan Baldock’s work includes painting, sculpture, installation, and performance and makes reference to the customs and rituals of both real and imagined cultures. Here, the London-based artist speaks to Traction about the new work he will be showing at NADA New York with VITRINE this May.
VITRINE will be presenting your work in a solo booth for NADA New York this May. What can viewers expect to see?
My booth at NADA will be reimagined as a kind of theatre set. I will be presenting an installation of characterized paintings, sculptures, props, objects and bodily ceramic artifacts. The main focus will be a big ‘emojiesque’ mask hanging from a free-standing wooden frame with many long textile arms, perhaps belonging to the mask or even a giant puppeteer. Paintings and hand appliqué pictures, which become masks through the inclusion of inset eyes, gaze after you as you walk around the space.
The work on display references playwright Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896) and the play’s eponymous grotesque monster. Other than its significance as a major influence to the Dada and Symbolist movements, I was drawn to the character of Pere Ubu as a symbol of gluttony, extravagance, greed, and excess, which could be seen as a metaphor of the Western world. To me, Pere Ubu seems as relevant now as he was in Jarry’s time. The play is confusing and weird – totally bizarre, which is why it is often cited as a major influence on the Theatre of the Absurd. Absurdity describes the lack of reasonableness and coherence in human existence, which Pere Ubu manifests perfectly. Throughout the play he appears to be unaware of what is happening around him, including murder, dismemberment and the trampling of a townsperson when he distributes gold — none of this fazes him. But Pere Ubu is also absurd in another way: his reason for living seems to be to kill everyone; his actions that lead up to these killings can be described as ‘irrefutably logical’. Logic equals killing everyone.
My introduction to the play was through Jean-Christophe Averty’s adaptation, made for French TV in 1965. This movie is incredibly visually seductive and I became completely lost in the world that Averty created. Shot in black and white with a mixture of live action and animation, the movie has multiple varied scenes. It is easy to imagine these as individual works assembled on a blank, black canvas and was the main influence on my decision to reference Ubu Roi in my installation.
All the works on show are either taken directly from the play (such as the names of the characters) or reference it in some way. For example, the wall-based work Dogpile (2015), which features an abstract representation of a dinner table set out with plates, knives, forks, spoons and Ubu’s orb, is actually the name of a character in the Ubu Roi play. This piece is hand-sewn and attached to individually sculpted elements. On the plate, you can also see an eye peering back at you, so at the same time it also possible to imagine it as a mask.
As discussed above, your work for NADA draws inspiration from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, and your previous solo show at VITRINE‚ Bermondsey Street space took its title from a critical essay on William Burroughs, Naked Lunch by Robin Lydenberg. How large an influence does literature have in your practice?
Although the work was inspired by the Jean-Christophe Averty adaptation of the Jarry play, it now exists as its own entity. I am inspired by literature, but this should only be seen as either a point of departure or nod of recognition within the work. My exhibitions are in no way illustrations of the literature I may make reference to. I make work within its own unique world with no set narrative. It exists in its own reality which I believe is essential when asking the audience to step inside the work and to have a personal encounter with it as well as an emotional response to it. I need the viewer to have their own interpretation of the work and to build their own unique narrative. My work makes nods to and references many things from art, literature and popular culture but it is not necessary for the viewer to recognize all of this. However, the important thing for me is that the viewer feels something and has an emotive response to my work. For me, this is underpinned by an interest in the universality of art as a language that unites us as human beings. As a result of this, I love using images and icons that are familiar and speak to us all.
The presence of puppets suggests an activation or performative aspect to the work. Will this be present (or is it inherently so)?
Alfred Jarry always preferred puppet performances of his play to live ones, and this is something I totally identify with. I have always found puppets and dolls uncanny and disturbing. Not so much in their ability to mimic reality, but in their ability to create an entirely new one. For me, their realness is what is most striking. Puppets and masks are extremely potent communicators. Ubu Roi was originally conceived as a puppet theatre piece, which Jarry maintained a preference for. Indeed, when Jarry’s play was performed with live actors the production concentrated on the dehumanization of the actors through masks, costumes made of painted cardboard and a hobby horse. The puppets were not simply chosen because of their ability to shock; there is a centuries-old tradition in European puppet theatre for outspokenness and grotesquerie, which originated in medieval times when performances by live actors were banned by the Christian authorities.
Masks can have the transformative quality of making the wearer appear to be who they choose. Masks and puppets act as channels for an ‘other’ us and so act as tools with which to express our inner selves as illogical beings, perhaps making sense of our illogical reality.
My feeling about the potency of masks and other ‘active’ objects can best be summed up by my introduction on a recent trip to the Museum of Anthropology (MOA), in Vancouver, to some of the masks of the many different First Nations peoples. Some of these were on display at the museum, in particular, that of kwakwaka'wakw peoples. The kwakwaka'wakw’s heritage was on display for the viewing public to engage with, and learn about their culture, but what manifested was how these were important sacred vessels of communication still in use today. The First Nation kwakwaka'wakw community who owned them could return to the museum and ask for them back for ceremony or any other occasion at any point as the museum’s role was simply as a warden to look after them until they were needed. This makes clear that the value of these cultural objects lies not only in their qualities as “art” but in their continuing connection to living people today.
Masks on display were still being used with the belief that, after they have been used in ceremony, they come to life with the spirit of that being. They are treated as a living thing. When they are finished being used, they are put away with spiritual care. One example of this is with the mouths of the great Hi’hamsiwe’ ‘Supernatural Man-Eating Birds’, which are tied shut. “For if they are not bound, they will be heard in the night, clapping and wanting to eat” - Chief Waxawidi, Namgis First Nation.
The mask is a universally understood motif throughout many civilizations. It is unique and diverse, plus heavy with parallels and connections, which is incredibly important to me as an artist.
In experiencing your work, the viewer becomes very aware of the contrasting soft and hard qualities of the materials you employ. Is this something you deliberately negotiate when you are making?
I look at this as the skin and bones of the work. I am very conscious of this dynamic and deliberately explore the tension it creates. Materials are extremely important to the work’s reading – hard/soft, light/dark, warm/cold. These are all dealt with in relation to what it is to be human. It is also the basic theatrical trope of bringing together opposites to create dramatic tension. An example could be McClub (2013), named after another character from the play. These three hard ceramic ruler-like pieces covered in glazed eye motifs also combine elements of leather and synthetic hair. All these materials allude to the body in some form or to ‘the other’, despite being very different in their physicality.
What do the next few months hold for you?
After NADA I will go to Paris for a show curated by Elina Suoyrjö entitled Only the Lonely at La Galerie, Noisy-le-Sec including artists Cécile B. Evans, Emma Hart, Essi Kausalainen, Nanna Nordström and Maxime Thieffine. From 1 June I embark on a 9-month fellowship at Kunstlerhaus Schloss Balmoral. I return to London for a 2-person show with Emma Hart at L'Etrangere (PV 25 June). On the 27 August, I will be doing a performance piece with Florence Peake at Stavanger Kunstmusuem, Norway, using my costumes as sculptures. In November there will be the final presentation of a performance piece in which I am making costumes and the set design for my collaboration with Kokoro Dance, Vancouver.
Jonathan Baldock will be exhibiting with VITRINE at NADA New York between 14 May and 17 May 2015. The fair will be held a Pier 36, Basketball City, 299 South Street, New York, NY, USA. For more information, visit http://www.vitrinegallery.co.uk.
To find out more about Jonathan Baldock’s work, visit his website at http://www.jonathan-baldock.com.