Artist of the Month: August 2012, Simon Withers
Simon Withers, Displacement Series, 2009
This month Ruth catches up with visual artist Simon Withers to discuss Nottingham's art scene, his unusual role as an inspirational Zebra and learning about yourself through the work you make.
Ruth Wilbur: You describe your work as an 'investigation of the totality of the human condition, delicate, abject and limiting'. What have you discovered about yourself through experimentation with materials?
Simon Withers: I would say more than anything else I have reached an understanding in relation to personal compromise. I have accepted that I'm incapable of holding a pure reasoned idea in my mind for an indefinite period of time, so I need to construct something tangible, perhaps a painting, a sculpture, or work with a performative element. These works are the compromise, the inferior attempts to create a sense of self and make sense of my relationship with the universe.
I've come to realise that these experiments acknowledge that I have no idea what my end game is and, frustratingly perhaps, my reasonings may always remain unresolved.
RW: You talk about approaching work with the utmost seriousness whilst working with the intensity of a child at play. Does playful experimention help you find new working methods?
SW: Whilst my work is approached playfully, my relationship with accidential experimentation remains cautious. I approach work with a significant degree of volition and control.
Simon Withers, Speaking in Tongues, 2011
RW: How did your 'Displacement' series come about?
SW: Each drawing was created by using a single ink jet cartridge. I needed to change my home printer and wondered what to do with my remaining cartridges. I took them to the studio and looked at them anew. I decided to blow into one end of the cartridge and force the ink out through the other nozzle. I connected immediately with this as a way of making drawings and the process reflected previous work; I regularly throw or spit out substances. A number of my works break down the connection between the artist's hand and the creation of work.
RW: What's Nottingham art scene like?
SW: There is a flourishing arts scene in the city today, a result of the independent artists and art collectives and the recent additions of two of Nottingham’s newest arts centres, Nottingham Contemporary and The New Art Exchange. It seems that each and every week there is a plethora of artist-led and institutional activity taking place in the city. Increasingly there is a greater co-mingling of artists and organisations…the sharing of space, resources and audiences.
RW: What was the last exhibition you saw that had an impact on you and why?
SW: I work as a Gallery Assistant at Nottingham Contemporary and spend a considerable amount of time with the work on show. In May 2012 we were exhibiting engravings by the artist James Gillray. I knew of a few examples of his work before the exhibition but the show gave me an opportunity to find out more about him.
Simon Withers, Massive Clearance Sale: 26th -27th May 2012
RW: In April 2012 you decided to run a clearance sale including over 70% of your work. What made you decide to sell so much of your work? Was the process cathartic?
SW: In mid April 2012, I was moving my artwork into my new studio space at Primary Project Space. Prior to this point my work had been in temporary storage and it was during the move that I realised I had shifted the entire contents of my studio on four occasions in less than a year and I could no longer see the purpose of holding onto everything. I decided to get rid of 70% of all the work I had remaining. Initially I thought about simply destroying it all, however, once I surveyed it, I decided that was too drastic and instead held a clearance sale.
I sold over 80 works, some for a few pence and all others within the £40 price bracket; how much I sold work for was not important but the preservation of the work was. One family came to the sale that had little disposable income to spend on such luxuries as art and they left with three or four items for less than £20...this was rewarding. All this testimony felt like a huge weight upon my shoulders and reducing the burden helped.
RW: You are employed by Nottingham Contemporary as an inspirational Zebra. Where did the idea come from and what does an inspirational Zebra do?
SW: Mr Zebra is a mascot inspired by Klaus Weber's original logo design for Nottingham Contemporary. Before the organisation opened to the public, one of the first vacancies they advertised was for two inspirational Zebras. I applied and got the job. Since then I have embraced the role, adoping a persona, a somewhat existential experience. I have developed a back story as to how Mr Zebra attained the job and I've written an explanation on the origins of animals appropriating human guises. I have an evolving theory about how animals in the past have changed their natural behavior as they've adopted human characteristics.
RW: This sounds a little like an extension of your artistic practice...
SW: Yes, as Mr Zebra is experiencing life amongst humans his natural instincts are changing...he is becoming more human (a little like Dr. Spock perhaps!) and is beginning to feel as human's feel. I write stories from Mr Zebra's perspective and publish them on my website. And what do inspirational Zebras do? Basically Mr Zebra brings great joy to the good people of Nottingham and helps spread the positive nature of Nottingham Contemporary.
RW: What have you got coming up?
SW: My work is currently on show in the exhibition 'Artefacts of Failure' at QUAD in Derby, this runs until the 7 October 2012. In late August I will be participating at the ‘In Dialogue’ symposium in Nottingham. I'm presenting a ‘Speaking in Tongues’ work. Principally this will involve me throwing wet clay against a surface until sufficient clay has been embedded into the wall.
Later in the year I'm exhibiting work at Nottingham Contemporary in two of the cabinets within the small collections room; The exhibition, 'The Rashleigh Jackson Collection', will reveal some of the issues surrounding the ethics of collecting.
Interview by Ruth Wilbur, August 2012
Simon is currently exhibiting work in the exhibition 'Artefacts of Failure' at QUAD in Derby until 7 October 2012.
About Simon Withers
Simon Withers is a visual artist, performer and writer. He investigaties the human condition through experimentation with paint, sculpture, film, installation and short stories. Simon divides his time between his artistic practice and exhibition and event curation.