Interview by Peter Murray
Peter Murray: Can you describe how you approach your work?
Liadin Cooke: I work very slowly. Often what triggers off a piece of work is a found object, like a text or something lying around that I know one day could become a piece of work. It generally takes anything up to four or five years for each thing to be finished. 21 Balls of Clay Dug from a Field in Ireland started years ago while I was still living in Ireland. I was making a series of small objects from unfired commercial clay. They looked like fragments of something – not necessarily pottery – they could have been anything. It was important to me that they were not specific and that you couldn’t pin them down. In a sense I was building history. I saw them as archaeological artifacts. I was inventing a Jewish-Irish archaeological history.
PM: Does that relate to your family and being Jewish in Ireland?
LC: Yes, there’s a strong autobiographical layer in my work always. Not autobiographical in the sense that it’s about me, but it comes from my own experience. Anyway, I spent a couple of years, on and off, working on these remains, It was something I would do when I was taking time off from something else. After a while of doing this, I thought maybe I should try to dig my own clay. At this stage what I was interested in was the organic quality of unprocessed clay. Eventually I moulded twenty-one lumps with my hands, each about the size of a cricket ball. I brought them over to England. I remember Stefan, my partner, helping me pack up the house when I was moving from Ireland and asking what they were; of course, at this stage I couldn’t tell him.
In the years following, I moved this box of twent-one balls of clay around different places. I kept bringing them out and looking at them thinking, what’s going to happen here? Then I realised they literally had to be transformed, and I decided to cast them into aluminium. It is the complete antithesis of clay; it is spacey, silver, light, contemporary – a very twentieth-century material. They are exact replicas of the original balls of clay. Of course they’re a different weight and colour, but every single mark is identical. It was an incredible transformation. When they were balls of clay they were disposable, dusty, even dirty. I thought long and hard about the title, and in the end, realizing that the process was pivotal to the work, I named the piece 21 Balls of Clay Dug from a Field in Ireland.
They are symbolic, metaphoric. They’re also practical and in a way playful.
They’re very sculptural, real objects. But there’s a strong conceptual base to them as well because of having transferred them from one place to another. Also, what they were before is essential to their meaning.
PM: This work seems more simple and direct in its statement than your earlier slightly offbeat archeological finds. Have you moved away from the semi-fictional towards a more direct approach? And are there other things evolving from this work?
LC: Yes, I think there’s a stronger sense of reality in the work now, but it’s hard for me to think of what might come next. One thing that I’ve become interested in recently is detail. What happens to something when you remove part of it? Does that part become complete in itself or does it still talk to its root, its source? That’s a question that has become a very important part of what I do.
PM: Have you ever worked on archaeological excavations?
LC: Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. I was on a couple of digs. One was in Spain, one in North America, on an early American Pioneer settlement in Michigan. When I look back at these, I can see the influence that archaeology has had on my work, particularly the drawings that archaeologists make of their finds. One of my recent works draws on this.
PM: The drawings from Juliette?
LC: Yes. from Juliette is a series of twelve drawings of bones sliced thinly into sections. When I drew each slice, they were transformed into maps or landscapes. Then I wrote in the excerpts from Juliette by the Marquise de Sade. So the drawings became illustrations for the novel. It’s an interesting relationship.
PM: I have seen the drawings; they have an extraordinary quality. At first sight they look like drawings of barren landscapes accompanied by the innocent narrative of a traveller. But when you realize that the text is from the Marquise de Sade and the images are of bones, the works gain layers of meaning, of innocence and experience. I sense there’s almost an archaeology of your family in this work. I remember your father, primarily a painter, showing bone boxes in the ‘seventies’ – he studied natural history before becoming an artist. In these cross-sections of bones, there’s a similar sense of an organic investigation.
LC: Yes, except that I treated these cross-sections of bones not as organic things, but as a way of changing them from being bones. Like everything else, I had the bones for ages. Initially I was planning on making something with them, and then I realized that I had to transform them so the bones became something else. They became maps, maps of Juliette’s punishing journey through a harsh landscape to the giant’s castle.
PM: de Sade is a writer that artists return to again and again.
LC: It’s funny the way I became involved with his work. I was always very interested in history and literature. When I was in my early teens I started to read the classics – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and so on. My mother had an enormous library. One day I pulled out a book; it was excerpts from de Sade. I had no idea who he was, but thought it looked interesting, so I started reading. My mother came in and took it off me. She put it away and never really explained why I couldn’t read it. I could never find that book again; she hid it somewhere. It wasn’t until she died that I found it, so in a way it had become unfinished business that I had to take on board – the Marquise de Sade, a childhood misdemeanor, which wasn’t really a misdemeanor at all. I had only read the first page of Simone de Beauvoir’s introduction. Nothing that was erotic. But now my main interest in de Sade lies in how his writing celebrates his use of himself as an instrument. His willingness to give up control means that reading him places one in a position of complicity, of intimacy.
PM: How did the book that you made for this exhibition evolve?
LC: The book is called M---, and there is only one copy. It consists of a series of letters and a series of photographs. Again, the letters I had for about four years before I used them. I found them in the shed of a house I was living in in Ireland. They were written over a period of forty years to a woman who used to live there, mostly from either emigrants or republicans in Kilkenny prison. The same names kept recurring in the letters and you got a sense of real people talking. I knew I wanted to do something with them, and again it was a case of taking them out every now and then and looking at them.
A few years later in an empty house in Holborn, London, I took a series of photographs of it’s rooms. At the same time, I began to make a book out of the letters, typing rather than reproducing the pages because it made them easier to read, and also because the letters themselves were too beautiful and fragile and I wanted them to be read without their physical presence getting in the way. I typed them out on a manual typewriter so there was still a sense of one-to-one handling, which you don’t get with a computer. But I wrote them out absolutely verbatim so that the length of each line, the spelling mistakes, crossings-out are replicated – only it’s in type. Deciding to use the photographs of the empty house in the book added another sense of place to the letters.
PM: But the house is in Holborn in London, while the letters are from Ireland.
LC: Yes, but it’s the same thing as with the balls of clay. It’s bringing the two places together.
PM: The same motif seems to be a constant in your work, whether it’s in mud, video or text – an effort at reassembling something that’s constantly being thwarted. You take something, re-examine it, attempt to restore it. There’s a sense of trying to make whole something that’s in a fragmentary state. Some of the ideas behind your work you clearly articulate in your own writings: ‘For an artist to make something that moves beyond the ordinary, it has to generate, and be generated, through feelings of insecurity, not that I am specifically interested in insecurity but it does contribute to my examination of detail and the inherent discomfort I see in it.’ Do you ever find that you impose too intellectual a construct on your work?
LC: Yes I do. And that is probably not very good. I think that I am much better when I’m more intuitive. I can think of a number of works that I completely screwed up, because I started intellectualizing too much.
PM: You also refer to the power of the unconscious: ‘I have strange dreams. I have grotesque dreams. Sometimes I tell people about them, sometimes not. It’s up to me. I know they’re nothing unusual. It’s only when I articulate them they become strange, forbidding and seductive. The sense of the voyeuristic they have is part of their excitement. Voyeurism only works with secrecy, the implicit knowledge of the hidden – the love affair with what is only yours.’ Are dreams important in your work?
LC: Not in my work. I don’t try to translate them literally. Although I did do it once actually, with one particularly vivid dream. But not since.
PM: You are comfortable with language and concepts that many visual artists might find intimidating. It does seem to me that the artists who are most comfortable with complex ideas are the ones who are making the most interesting work.
LC: I think to make a good piece of work you have to have a good idea. Good ideas don’t come out of nowhere. Someone, I forget who, said that every artist has one good idea and its how they interpret that idea throughout their lives that matters. If you look at any good artists work, they’ll have that one pivotal thing.
PM: Your present work seems to be about a sense of loss, or an attempt to make something whole again that cannot be reconstructed. Isolating something is part of the process towards that idea, an idea that strays into the field of the emotional inner life as well as being a historiography. In some ways, I feel your work is almost bibliographic – the recording of anonymous and forgotten lives, of a multitude of lives. And there’s a recognition of the impossibility of that task. Your interest in the isolation of the thing is just part of realizing that idea. In fact, in some ways the notion you mentioned at the outset of trying to create a sort of Jewish-Irish archaeological history is not such a frivolous idea, but something which is closely bound in with your own life.
Director Crawford Art Gallery, Ireland 1999