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An interview with Liadin Cooke by Sarah Brown

SB: Was your move to Huddersfield in 2001 a beginning point of sorts for this body of work?

LC: Yes it was, I remember when I first saw a Peter Stead house in Huddersfield in 2001. I had just moved here and was feeling lost in the midst of the urban sprawl of the M62 corridor and the inadequate 1960s town planning of the region. His building was a ray of light. I came across Stead’s work again a few years later during a visit to Huddersfield Art Gallery and, remembering my first reaction to his architecture when I had just arrived in the area, I promised myself that one day I would make some work in response to it. In 2008 Huddersfield Art Gallery asked me to make something based on an aspect of their collection – Stead’s archive was my immediate choice. Also, aside from my initial encounter with this work, what drew me to it was the pathos of all the unrealised models and drawings he made which, when looked at alongside his few buildings, seems to me to imply an underlying feeling of potential not quite fulfilled – a bit like how Huddersfield is often perceived. 

SB: In previous exhibitions you have been quite eclectic in your use of media and I wondered how you arrived at the drawings and sculptures for this exhibition? I am particularly interested in the convergence of painting, sculpture, design and architecture.

LC: Over the last two years I have been making small drawings from memory of the floor plans of every place I have lived or is of a major significance in my life and I think that when I was given the opportunity to work with the Stead archive it was inevitable that these ‘plan’ drawings would in some way form part of the show. The sculptures, which I see more as drawings or paintings, came out of my examination of Stead’s work and conversations with Robert Hall.

I have never been someone who has worked within a particular ‘style’ or medium, this probably comes from growing up with a lot of exposure to art, I studied art history as well as fine art and I’m very curious about materials and artisanship in general. One of the most important exhibitions I saw as a student was a show at the Saatchi gallery on Boundary road in the mid 80’s by Donald Judd. It completely bowled me over – particularly the way his work moves without compromise between sculpture, architecture and furniture. It is the same combination of geometric form and use of colour in Stead’s rigorous designs that grabbed me and of course I have always wanted to live in a modernist building. In some respects this new work is about my wish – my desire to live in what I see as the perfect house.

SB: Do you think you could live in one of Peter Stead’s houses?

LC: Yes! But when I look at his designs I can’t completely resign myself to the idea of them being used as ordinary family homes accumulating the detritus of day-to-day living. How do these cerebral buildings lend themselves to the mundanity and clutter of family life? My instinct from the very beginning has been to get inside his designs and try to find out. This work is about understanding this modernist ideologue and its accompanying social agendas, and comes out of my interest in where and how we live in today’s culturally diverse, multi-visual, DIY world. It is about our need to put a mark on where we live when we retreat into our private space. 

SB: In this new body of work there is a conscious tension between the handmade and industrially produced and I wonder if you could talk about the significance of this?

LC: I think that ultimately I am a maker and even though I get other people to make much of what I produce, it’s still important that there is a sense of the artisan’s hand in a work though if a machine can do the job better that’s fine. In my family there is a ceramicist and a weaver and I remember as a young adult and art student having very heated arguments about the difference between art and craft, I’m not sure who won but they were an important part of my learning about how to look and judge what you see. I recently read an interview with the architect Herzog and he talked a lot about ornamentation saying that he sees it as a reflection of the intricacies of the human mind, which is so true. We need the decoration and ornamentation that comes out of craft in our life as a way of understanding and marking our place in it; perhaps this is why I am so interested in Kant and the way he talks about perception.

SB: I have always been struck by your fascination with ornamentation and the decorative surface. I am interested in how this manifests itself in this body of work responding to modernism whose emphasis on materials is attributed to the absence of ornamentation?

LC: But I don’t see modernism as having an absence of ornamentation, I see the simplest curve or light fitting as a design or decorative presence that is considered with as much thought and need as the most ornate surface. I am interested in what you see on an initial encounter with something. I think that rather than there being an absence of ornamentation in modernism there was just a new, and very subtle, type of surface which has now become part of our visual culture.

SB: What kind of role does colour play in your work?

LC: I think that Penelope summed up my attitude to colour very succinctly. It is something that I am very interested in but at the same time wary of, it’s definitely not something to be taken lightly. In the house plan drawings the nuances of colour are incredibly important and deliberated over at length. I think that this has a lot to do with respect for a material and its potential for representation – the inherent colour of something is as important as its idea or sense.

SB: Housement is inspired by Mondrian’s paintings but also reminds me of Beuys with the use of felt, does it also refer to the history of this area?

LC: Huddersfield came into existence because of the woolen industry and the town that you see now is full of the rich architectural legacy left by the Victorian textile barons. Peter Stead’s family was part of this and I have used felt as a metaphor for the difference between the woolen industry and West Yorkshire where Stead lived and worked for much of his life, and modernism. But the use of the material also nods to the warmth and protection implicit in it. Felt is a live material; it implies comfort, padding, insulation and [women’s] homely craf, they were a huge part of the work force in the industry. 

I think that Housement is a modernist look at the urban sprawl of the region, though actually it came directly out of looking at Arkenley Lane Housethe most beautiful of Peter Stead’s homes, its got these staggered and stacked rectilinear forms delicately balanced on the side of a hill. Because I’ve always wanted to live in a house like this, I decided that I would like to try design my own ‘ideal home’ but I found it virtually impossible to come up with the perfect space. Like Stead I turned to Mondrian and Housement is an amalgam of two of his paintings from the mid 30’s, Composition with red and Black 1936 and Composition with Red and Grey 1935.

SB: So this is where the stacked shapes of Housement come from?

LC: Yes, they also allude to building bricks, mid 20th century wall reliefs, and the modernist preoccupation with form and function. I wanted to make something that had the simplicity and serenity of Mondrian’s paintings but still referenced the structures that came out of modernist enquiries. Stead wanted a dialogue of interlocking private and public spaces in his buildings, believing that all art and architecture should/could be part of life, work and leisure reflecting the de Stijl ideal…

SB: Peter Stead was a great collaborator with Stephen Gilbert and Yona Friedman amongst others, is collaboration something that is part of your artistic practice?

LC: No this is the first time that I have done it. Asking women from the Huddersfield Embroiderers Guild to embroider my drawings of House Plans did not come out of a specific desire to collaborate, but rather out of a desire for me to see the drawings translated into something that was a combination of the labour intensive, the banal and the domestic that would offset the masculinity that seems to me to be an integral part of modernism. The women who are members of the guild are ordinary with what I see as an extraordinary passion. They make things with an incredible degree of unassuming skill, which I couldn’t even attempt to emulate. Through them the concept of collaboration has become very important to olden.  Pulling in local women from around West Yorkshire to help make the work strengthens its position as a vehicle interpreting Modernism and the idealism of the early to mid 20th century.

SB: It strikes me that language plays a very important role in your work and I wondered could you talk about your choice of titles?

LC: The word holden comes from the archaic past participle of held. I was working from the premise of making something that could be held or possessed. Peter Stead built himself a house in Berry Brow; he spoke of it as the nicest place he had ever lived. Holden is Berry Brow; by turning an approximation of the floor plan of Stead’s home on its side I am also turning it inside out, and by making a building into something resembling a shelf or altarpiece, I am exploring the ideas behind the modernist architect as autonomous. Architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, insisted that the inhabitants of their buildings adhere to strict guidelines on how to furnish and live in their homes. This was to the exclusion of everything that did not have a predetermined purpose, as decided by the architect.

I came across the word tentment which I loved and it seemed to make perfect sense to make up housement as a nod to the grouping implicit in words such as tentment, apartment and encampment. Housement is in many respects also a collection of spaces not unlike Holden, though Holden contains its collection through its resemblance to the shelves that people have to display their memorabilia; my collection of lived places placed within holden is a collection of time. I like the idea of fusing the mundanity and fussiness I see in the act of embroidery with the clarity of modernism. And I like the idea of placing my memories within his house. Collections do not have a practical purpose outside of learning. Rather they are signs of memory and ownership. 

Huddersfield, March 2010