Catalogue Interview with Nigel Rolfe
KARIN GUNNARSSON / Nigel Rolfe
NR: The dust image I would recognize a lot – having done it many times. Already in my head there’s the question of why it’s now a secondary image. For you, that is the primary image, so that becomes quite interesting. It interests me a lot in this work that kind of fault line. Although I think you should believe more in the actual territory. You are just slightly prim and stand-offish but there’s also something that is very generative and strong. The shadow figure haunted as if it’s a space figure or … it isn’t simply a shadow it’s an extra-terrestrial shadow.
KG: From the outside.
NR: Is it always you?
KG: It has become that lately. Now that is part of the process I have to inhabit what I make in order to feel it, then things come.
NR: What about that awful expression performance?
KG: Although the work is very much about image, at the ground of it there’s the action and the performance. I’m doing very repetitive things like cutting holes for days and banging holes in the floor. Nobody really sees this directly but it’s in the work.
NR: All that is really good I think … a bit like repetitive strain disorder. It’s a rhythm of something. I quite like that George Martin quote of the Beatles where he talked about perfect rhythm between rhythm and melody. Lennon had the rhythm, McCartney the melody, and the two brought together was real music. I think this action, of many holes, repeated action is very rhythmic. It nearly becomes a mantra of some sort. Then when you get some kind of poetics overlay, the interspace here between fabric and its background, which seem to be the same, that is enough to make something very melodic I think. You always have a strong and strange reference bank. That, it looks like some kind of marshmallow man meeting pop culture meeting an outer-space man. I don’t think it is incidental. It’s a bit like the discussion of the monkey man. There is a question of print and original image. Secondary …
KG: Secondary always.
NR: They’re slightly monosyllabic. I think I would encourage you to break that a bit so it is not so frontal. It’s like you lock it off at the point where it starts to be able to break down. But they do really interest me and what you said just now of inhabiting [what you make] really interests me too. In this you are the voyeur and you are also doing it and envisioning doing it. Normally as a photographer you are just a voyeur looking on. I like the work. Also really interesting, the snowy marshmallow hole figure is hard to gender – it looks male. You become transsexual or you transfer something.
KG: The skin that I’m in, the suit or the performative skin is, in a way, a form of control to signify differently.
NR: Again, those things I recognize. In the really early years it was always this dust skin. It was enough to hide under so the you, that you are, is no longer. There’s a kind of hiding going on but apparently you are out there completely.
You know this methodology of inhabitation seem to bring good ideas but you seem to be stopping too early. I was going to ask you about time. Is it a one-frame deal? How long did you wear the suit?
KG: This particular one, not for very long, I wore it for the shot and for puncturing the floor. The inhabitation is through work. For me the process is mainly when making the suit and making the holes. It was a great energy release to puncture this floor.
NR: So you go from this place that is completely horizontal to totally vertical. That is also a really quite significant condition. It actually does look like you’ve been hung on the wall. Hung up to dry. And then the holes which puncture, deflate all those kinds of questions – and there’s what that does, too, in terms of metaphor. Whether or not we are aware of that we are having the stuffing sucked out of us. You know when you said of making the holes, that it is valedictory … well, are you puncturing the world? Are you puncturing something when you make holes in the floor?
KG: I felt it was the image that couldn’t have holes that I wanted to make holes in. It is also that thing of the action, me being close to the ground living, doing, experiencing, and what I signify is that which goes on the wall.
NR: Did you film this?
KG: Yes, I videoed it and I was wearing the suit but I felt that wasn’t really the work. It wasn’t dynamic enough. The linear sometimes comes across so strongly in moving image. As a viewer you’d have to get past that in order to access the piece.
NR: If I can give you a trophy … risk, risk, risk … and even then you wouldn’t really risk. Risk the work not the trick. Break down the singular.
KG: I think that I build it up in order to tear it apart. I think that is in the work.
NR: I believe that is true but perhaps you didn’t know that of the process. They are quite cool but actually talking about where you are at with them is quite expressively textural. It’s not so much a problem, it’s a trait. You have that going on. Something is going on, some alchemy. But then when you look at it … it’s quite cool really clean. It’s not clean putting on a holed suit; lying on a holed floor that you’ve punched the holes in is not clean, it’s not devoid of a transgression.
KG: Life is messy, the holes always cut into something, and that is experienced real and not secondary. I’ve got two titles for this piece, Whole and Holiness. Because that is the image, I mean it is always so complete. Even though these are holes, they are solid.
NR: It is tricky this, because Courtney Love’s band is called Hole – Courtney Love’s relationship with Kurt Cobain – the whole of grunge. It is tricky that, because the potential reading with her is sex and it is so clever, and with this, to be so literal is tricky.
KG: It is whole as in w-h.
NR: Yes … but the pun, the irony of that is with hole. Because that is what it is. Clever one, you ... I don’t know if you would read the whole image. It is an interesting discussion that takes on the concrete of the picture.
Talk more about this need to defend or celebrate. It’s not the photography is it. It’s more the image. I don’t know if I want to tear that down or build it up. I don’t know if I’m in a gallery in front of it I want to go yeah, or whether actually I’m dubious. I wonder whether, with this as an audience, you’re prone to an anti-aesthetic where you are actually giving a real aesthetic a finger, or whether you are agreeing with it.
KG: Well, could I say both? I like the fluctuation. The viewer is there with it. It does something. Something is built up; it’s happening there, but also there’s a movement towards something else away from it that breaks it down. This breakdown is absolutely crucial in my work.
NR: I do think that there’s probably a third condition. The condition would be actuality. So that’s what we’re faced with, we are just looking at a second-hand deposit of something. What about coolness?
KG: What can I say, the arctic winds, snow … no but—
NR: But you are not like that at all, you are the exact opposite.
KG: I get your point about being cool and standoffish, and one part of me likes that. It thrills me when I look at art that I can stand back, get that somewhat intellectual crisp touch. It seems to allude to something that I can’t quite put my finger on but it is inspiring and uplifting and that is another kind of touch.
NR: I’m not cynical about that. It is a really strong question, a tough question. Somebody asked me once in a gallery crit: ‘Why would you associate this condition with real?’ We do that kind of job with the photographs we do, I think, because we are in it and somehow we believe then that it is real. But actually it isn’t. When you were in the suit where were you?
KG: I want, if only momentarily, to go, but I can’t effortlessly slip into a meditative state; it takes some cultivation. I was aware that I was taking a picture when this was taken, aware of performing for the camera.
NR: Did you step out or step in? It is a key question I think. Like I always think that is really important for me when I’m in compromising, dangerous, positions I have to take the responsibility of place. I am there. That is important to me in a photo, that reality. The Red Indians wouldn’t let themselves be photographed because they thought their soul would be stolen by their image. I do somehow believe that it is your soul that has in some way been put forward in the photograph. And in these that is so absent and so apparently without body – probably that becomes really key.
KG: Yes, completely key. I am not in that image.
NR: That is the best moment in this conversation. And I like that – that you are not in the image. But then by not being there, you are. So the condition of what is in the image is …
Extracts from a tutorial with Nigel Rolfe, artist and Senior Course Tutor in Fine Art, Royal College of Art.