AN INTERVIEW WITH JAN MLADOVSKY
"Initially, the Iron Curtain was simply there and one had to deal with it, it was a fact of life for me as much as for everyone else, I didn't even notice it. But then gradually the existence of that 'curtain' became quite a traumatic experience. Not before, but after I came here. I have never been in the position of not being able to cross it, of not being able to go back as many people were. For me I was able to go back and forth and that became the difficult part of it. It made me so aware of it. Each time I crossed over the boundary it was a reminder of its existence and what it meant, this is what most people could not understand. Some probably thought it was quite exciting, like having the best of both worlds. So I had to acknowledge that I was affected by it. By doing so, I also, in some way, acknowledged that art travels across boundaries. And that's perhaps why, years later, the theme found its way into Magnet."
Richard Marshall interviews Jan Mladovsky
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
Message, 1972. oil on canvas, 270x110 cm
3AM: You have just published a book called Magnet. We can discuss the book, but you could also tell us a bit about yourself, there may be some connections. How long have you lived in London?
JM: I came to this country as a student and then moved on. I studied at the Slade, which was then in the grips of arguments about the relative merits of mainly Greenbergian notions of abstraction, system art, and art with social content. It was all quite an academic debate for the likes of me who outlandishly believed in art about a real experience. I was then working with mythologies based around the idea of private script and had no time for other orthodoxies.
Letter, 1971, colour etching, 42x42 cm
Installation view, solo exhibition at Grabovski Gallery London, 1972
After I had finished there, I stayed for about three years. I really felt that I didn't make a proper choice -- it was more a choice by default. I can't say I liked seventies London very much. I somehow came here on the reputation of the swinging sixties but this was the seventies and London was no longer swinging. We seemed to spend most of the time in and around the University College near Tottenham Court Road, drinking in the Student Union bar in Malet Street and in the nearby Marlborough, or eating at Agra in Charlotte Street. The beer was expensive, the curry cheap, both gave me indigestion. Before, as students in Prague, we would treat ourselves to Pilsner and goulash, so I wasn't used to the warm beer and the gut burning mutton stew. There was the Winter of Discontent, the dustmen's strike, streets piled high with rubbish and I really felt that London was a rather dull and depressing place, especially for a student. You expected to have a good time. It was all very different then than it is now.
3AM: It doesn't seem you had a very inspiring time.
JM: Well, I also remember, or rather don't remember, the parties that went on for days, or the trips to the coast with friends in my yellow post office van. Of course there were great moments and some of it was very interesting, discovering things, meeting people, talking about new ideas -- for example I thought that Gilbert and George, Richard Long or Art and Language were so English, quite original and really interesting, but I did not feel the right zeitgeist. For me the most important impulses where coming from America. My summer East to West Coast and back journey in a VW beetle was a revelation. There was a certain extra dimension in the contemporary American art, absent in similar European developments, that had something to do with the American scale of things and the lack of history. The work of artists like Walter de Maria, Robert Smithson, Sol le Witt, Donald Judd or Dan Flavin had for me some kind of "rootless vitality" which was attractive. After I finished the Slade MA, I was doing some part-time teaching in art schools in London and Oxford, managed to have shows and to sell work, but essentially I felt rather restricted by the circumstances. In comparison to the present times the London art world was relatively small, after a while you got to know all the faces and when you eventually found out what the whole scene was about you simply wanted to move on.
3AM: So where did you go?
JM: I managed to get a government grant residency to live anywhere in Italy. That was a typically Italian solution, they threw money at you and basically left you alone. I went to Milan. I knew Italy already quite well but this time it was different -- the prospect to live and work in the country I really loved. It also seemed timely because things were getting interesting on the Italian art scene. The Italian Transavanguardia had just arrived in New York and Italy was essentially where everyone wanted to be. Milan was the right place. In many ways that period marked the beginning of new spirit in art generally and things also started to go well for me. I had a very nice studio with a courtyard in via Pagano, just opposite parco Sempione, the big park in the centre of the town. On the ground floor of the house was a typical Milanese bar. There I met some local artists but also others like Vito Acconci who came to Milan from New York and lived round the corner. I just came across his work, and also the work of Hans Haacke, and liked it. The bar was run by an elderly couple. They had a flat on the fifth floor, but since there was no lift, they sometimes slept in the bar kitchen facing the courtyard. Occasionally, when I saw them in the morning through the window, I would try to have an early espresso or Cynar. "Come stai? -- How are you?" I would say, meaning hello. "Siamo vecchi - We are old" they would reply, meaning we slept in the kitchen again.
It was shortly after my arrival in Italy and I needed to learn Italian quickly. Perhaps this language pressure made me more acutely aware of the big difference between how words carry meaning and how they convey messages -- something that has interested me ever since, and which is also very much part of Magnet. There was a curious sanitary arrangement. The studio and the bar shared the same loo via separate entrances. The guests entered through the bar, my own access was across the courtyard, through the back door. This wouldn't have been much of a problem, were it not for the fact that the facility was also frequented by the working girls from the parco Sempione, who used it as an escape route to fob off the unsuspecting clients. The men usually ended up knocking on the door of the studio, demanding the services they paid for or their money back. When I complained to the elderly couple they said "Siamo vecchi" meaning we don't know what you're talking about. Later on I discovered they were in on it with the girls. Perhaps they were saying that too, but I simply did not understand. This made me aware of the distances separating words from the messages they convey, the idea of such mental travel in search of a meaning tied up well with the work I was then doing, where the central concern was the language of spatial relationships. It was also about the interaction between the viewer and the object in that space.
Cube, 1977, steel, string, lead, installation view at Studio Marconi, Milan, 280x280x280 cm
Drill, 1978, photo etching, 18x18 cm
Hammer, 1978, photo etching, 18x18 cm
3AM: Has your work always been like that, a bit cinematic?
JM: Then, in Italy, it wasn't very cinematic, I suppose there wasn't that much narrative, but the idea of arrested movement in some kind of time dimension that one was in control of was already there. As I talk about it, I remember the pleasure of playing with the ideas. This worked its way through the whole series of objects/installations colonising space shared by the viewer. The work began increasingly to rely on the time-based element.
3AM: You had a good time in Italy, what happened next?
JM: I liked Italy, so I remained perhaps intending to stay for good. But then, for personal reasons, I had to came back to London which was becoming more interesting. I had a studio in Tabernacle Street in the City, occupying the top floor of a building with a wonderful skylight, I loved it. I liked the extreme contrast between the hectic hustle and bustle of the world's money market during the week, when one could feed on its energy, and the dead silence of the weekend, when one could philosophise about it. My work was moving more towards the time-based media and I also started using sound. In several shows I collaborated with musicians and produced sound tapes. The still images were like large working drawings or 3D sketch models for the performances and the shows usually included both.
Zorah, 1980, performance with magnetic tape, Lights, type recorders, microphones, actions, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
Winner, 1980, Performance model, wood, silk, 950x450x200 cm, installation view at Lisson Gallery, London
Tomorrow, 1982, Sound performance, motorcycle, microphones, synthesiser, chipboard, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol
Tomorrow, 1982, Performance model, installation view of solo exhibition, bronze, ceramic, water, wood, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol
3AM: So you stayed in London.
JM: My daughter was born, and I almost did, but subsequently an opportunity arose to go to Germany. I took it and stayed there through much of the eighties. I wanted to reintroduce colour in my work and felt that the best way was to begin to paint again, and to employ an illusionistic pictorial space within the painting itself, very much like the traditional painting space. Before, my work was intended to colonise a particular and real three-dimensional space. This was the first time the space became depicted in an illusionistic way as part of the image, yet, at the same time, I avoided making a "traditional painting".
Touch, 1982, acrylic and oil on canvas, 108x165cm, collection Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, Germany
Word, 1983, acrylic and oil on canvas, 165x108cm, private collection, Germany
To be able borrow this essentially Renaissance space concept and to use it in a non pictorial, non allegoric way, was a real discovery for me, and it's still central to my vocabulary today -- the same one I used in Magnet. I suppose later I found out how akin this idea was to the digital "backdrop" of 3D programs. Anyway, this was generally a productive and successful period for me and I felt very much at home in Germany, which looked finally like coming to terms with itself. It was the last decade of the prosperous and confident Bundesrepublik, where every other doctor or lawyer seemed to have an art collection and Beuys was a national guru exorcising the ghosts of the past, before things started to get complicated again with the Fall of the Wall and the subsequent Reunification. It had a curious impact on my identity. In England I was a Czech artist. In Italy I became l'artista Cecoslovacco. In Germany I was suddenly transformed into Englischer Künstler. At first it was puzzling, but then a German curator explained to me that as far as the cultural establishment was concerned this would instinctively be preferable, mainly because the British-German cultural and political ties were on the whole straightforward, their history had been sorted out. In contrast, the Czech-German cultural politics and history were messy, and with both sides preferring to stick to their own distinct versions, not many people were prepered to get involved. After a while some people in England started to take me for a German. I must say I quite liked that, this ambiguity about who I was, and I thought about adopting some more alter egos. Later, I made a piece about the "messy history".
Installation view, 1985, solo exhibition at Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany
3AM: How do you feel about London now?
JM: The second time I came to London at the beginning of the nineties I found it transformed and I really liked it, and I still do today. I do feel London has now consciously become my adoptive home. At the same time I still feel rather ambivalent about it. With its art scene and all the diverse and constantly changing facets of life, London is a fascinating place for an artist to live. On the other hand, it's also a dysfunctional city, congested, polluted, with badly run services and hopeless transport. Admittedly, there is a great nightlife but half of it still shuts down at 11 pm. Of course I have things to do and I want to do them here, but in many ways getting about everyday life in London is more hard work then it should be and nothing suggests that the situation is going to change. I think some other places are much better at it. Just when I thought I was getting used to London life, I recently had several shows in Prague and somehow rediscovered its charm. It's a relatively well functioning city environment and I'm now thinking about spending more time there.
3AM: What's your take on Prague, the Czech scene?
JM: I suppose I'm an ex-pat and as such I do have some idea about the present situation there, but it's perhaps more an outsider's view. For me it is at the same time a familiar and strange place. It has changed beyond recognition since my student days, but I do realise, quite frighteningly sometimes, that I also fit in. Within an hour I can blend in without being recognisable. Yet I still don't understand many things.
3AM: So how much do you feel part of the scene there?
JM: Well, I have not really lived there for a long time, but I have kept in touch with artists and through the more recent contacts I am getting to know the place better. As I said, I do try to follow what's going on. But as far as the actual practical life and how people survive and how they get about their everyday life it's still a bit unknown to me. I'm sure if I was suddenly dropped there I would survive, but at the moment, if you asked me how I would do it, I couldn't really tell you. I think it's still some kind of alternative existence. It's not the same as here. You would probably need to remind everyone who visits Prague, that despite all the appearances, the place still has not reached the point where one could feel that life is running according to norms that you'd be used to. That goes for the economy, the politics, and the arts as well. How the future will turn out depends largely on changes in people's attitudes and in their relationships. In this respect it's mainly the youngest generation that represents the best hope. I think people there are very aware of all the changes going on around them because they really have to adapt quickly in order to survive. It's like running sand. But they know how to do it. They seem to be very good at it and in that sense it is quite admirable. When I follow the personal histories of people or of their children I find it quite fascinating that they manage, and that they have managed to have lived through these changes. Some have achieved a lot despite all the odds. I'm now talking about the things that matter to people there, and because they matter to them, they also concern me. If we met again next year, the situation would have changed once more and I would be talking to you about something else. So you see I am involved. But to be part of the scene? No, not really. To be part of the scene everywhere and nowhere specifically is pretty universal for me.
3AM: Does your work relate to this shifting situation you talk about, the idea that you don't feel that you fit in?
JM: All this talk about various "art scenes", one may or may not fit in, could give an impression that I subscribe to some kind of art patriotism. Despite my foreignness, or probably because of it, nothing can be further from the truth. I do not endorse the art dynamic based on cultural chauvinism. Instead, I subscribe to the idea of spiritual and cultural nomadism. That's also reflected in Magnet, it describes a changing world of transient values, nothing remains untouched by it and art is no exception. In this world, that may or may not be real, art no longer belongs to the realm of culture, which brings with it certain advantages.
Art outside culture can travel without translation -- which sometimes causes the essence of the meaning to be lost. In the past I was often reminded of how boundaries and divisions lead to situations of mutual incomprehension. I remember the heavy cloud I felt over the former division of Europe. It crept in almost by default. Initially, the Iron Curtain was simply there and one had to deal with it, it was a fact of life for me as much as for everyone else, I didn't even notice it. But then gradually the existence of that "curtain" became quite a traumatic experience. Not before, but after I came here. I have never been in the position of not being able to cross it, of not being able to go back as many people were. For me I was able to go back and forth and that became the difficult part of it. It made me so aware of it. Each time I crossed over the boundary it was a reminder of its existence and what it meant, this is what most people could not understand. Some probably thought it was quite exciting, like having the best of both worlds. So I had to acknowledge that I was affected by it. By doing so, I also, in some way, acknowledged that art travels across boundaries. And that's perhaps why, years later, the theme found its way into Magnet.
Today, I think art generally has become less determined by what we mean by culture and certainly exists outside "cultures". I think that divisions are created in our minds and in that sense trying to overcome these problems through my work was something quite liberating. It seemed to me that one of the useful functions of being an artist was that you could work your way through situations like that.
Tightrope, 1984, aluminium, steel, 350x180x160 cm, installation view of 1984 show at Camden Art Centre, London
3AM: Where were you drawing your influences from?
JM: From many sources, but my views early on had been influenced by how I saw politics/economics and art interact and realising the impact it had on my life. I don't think that I would have found my early special affinities, as I did for example with Borges, Kafka, Camus, Matisse, Picabia, Janacek or Messiaen, if it wasn't for my experiences of being effected by social-political divisions surrounding me from early childhood. Of course I chose my early influences, but I also realise how very different the choices and their effects on me would have been, if I was born in Britain, Italy or Germany. Sometimes I can almost see the different persons I would have become. Perhaps they are the alter egos I still have to owe up to.
3AM: Things must have changed since then.
JM: Today I'm confronted by another identity scenario being played out across the divide. I can understand quite well the dilemma people feel on the other side. Historically and culturally they feel very much part of the West, but at the same time they realise that the continuity has been broken, perhaps for the first time in the last thousand years, as they see it. They still don't quite know what to do about it. The West has made great strides, but they were not part of that journey. They found themselves marching in another direction which proved to be a dead end, and now they are afraid of losing their identity. When they look back at the last half of the twentieth century, they realise that it has already been recorded and summed up but as it were without them. Even the history of Western art has been written and they feel largely left out. That's quite a marked difference if you compare it with the first half of the century, when the world seemed to have listened and did take notice.
Shit, 1994, acrylic and oil on silk, 135x95 cm each, installation view
Fuck, 1994, acrylic and oil on silk, 135x95 cm each, installation view
So the dilemma is whether this has been just a historical aberration or hiccough, which needs to be bypassed in order to reestablish the lost continuity, or whether you must accept the recent past to be able to deal with its consequences, accept the differences and build on them. This leads to continuous reassessments of positions and identities. It is difficult and some people would simply like to forget the past, but it continues to haunt them. I'm not part of that process but perhaps I can still participate in the debate. I am not part of it because I simply haven't lived there, but I observed it and I understand it. The idea of having lost half a century and having to catch up feels like a lot of pressure but in a sense it may still spur some positive developments. Without sweeping the past under the carpet, I could identify with that.
NOC, 1989, installation view of Communism show at Gallery Klatovy Klenova, Czech Republic, 2000
3AM: Are there people we should be considering?
JM: I don't think you can do very much about it now, but I think that the time will come when no one will have to feel left out. Essentially, I think the geopolitical conditions will eventually force the situation to become one. I think it's still going to take few unexpected twists and turns but it will happen sooner or later mainly by default. Right now there doesn't seem to be anyone anywhere busy at work trying to make it happen quickly. Rather, it will happen through common historic denominators and the regional geopolitical conditions. But people suspect that because they have little bargaining power, the terms will be largely dictated by the West, not surprisingly they don't like it.
And there are other tensions, for instance Kundera lives in Paris and he has written his last books in French. He can't be ignored but he's not wholeheartedly acknowledged as he ought to be and he may feel certain difficulties as well. I don't know how these things are played out personally, but one can notice a somewhat strained relationship. That goes for Milos Forman and others as well. Individually, you could say that similar rifts are common and they just come and go, but here it is more about the collective, long term "us and them" -- the dividing line being the exile and all that came with it, including the different experiences of the nation's darkest hour.
Gadze 31.7.45, 1997, digital print on film, light-boxes, large box 145x180x20 cm, small boxes 34x31x9 cm each
3AM: Do you feel effected by these circumstances?
JM: They may or may not have affected me, you can make your own conclusion, but as far as my work is concerned they don't really interest me as such and my book isn't consciously trying to offer some kind of new view of the situation. Nevertheless, they have provided that space "in between" two cultures -- East and West, Capitalism and Communism -- which I found very useful as a backdrop to what I do, but I don't think my work is about it. It is determined by other things like love, death, hope, despair, the "normal" subjects really. It's also about slowing down, about history and future, or absence of it, and how we try to communicate about it -- the language we can't escape. It's a kind of on-going project, and the Magnet, which is the latest part of it, is a love story, admittedly with a difference, but it's still essentially a romance.
3AM: Tell us more about this project. It's not a process that's ended yet is it? And it's a multi-media event, words, pictures, bilingual and so on.
JM: As I said, I'm interested in how images and words convey messages and meaning. I have done some exhibitions which were based on the subject of our changing perception of recent history, how history is so often rewritten and how unreliable written accounts of history are as opposed to visual accounts and accounts by personal witnesses. The difference between the written word and visual information. The show was trying to explore that. It went through all sorts of processes looking at the relationship between the verbal and visual communication, through a certain kind of deconstruction.
When I stared to produce some works, I was interested in messages that use words and images and what sets them apart from other messages that don't. I was particularly interested in how some messages try to exploit differences between letters and pictures, and how other messages make them disappear, the words lose their literary content, are absorbed by the images and turn into visual or wordless words. In this context, letters are only visual symbols of language, not a language as such. On the other hand they could still be potentially the most complete visual representation of the world as we know it -- I used that as the main strategy. Then I got an idea that perhaps I could turn the whole process back and start using such words to put together an actual story. So I first tried to tell the story visually, then I said I'd try to reclaim the literary usage and wrote a narrative while keeping strong visual links to hold the whole thing together. At first it isn't so obvious, but there are in fact two parallel narratives, or two versions of the same narrative, if you want.
Bold, 1999, backlit transparency, dimension variable
One has to first work that out and then the interrelationship between the images and words, which is the central idea of the book, becomes apparent. I suppose what I wanted to do was to draw the reader into a certain kind of process where he or she can discover certain things by going through the book and reading the story, unpicking the relationship between the image and word in order to realise how it was structured. How the book was put together. That's the important part of it, the story by itself is a very simple one. It's essentially a story about lost illusions and new hopes and the possibility of love. How one can find love in strange situations. It's a story about a boy meeting a girl.
Size, 1999, backlit transparency, dimension variable
3AM: You say it's not yet finished.
3AM: It's quite melancholic.
JM: It could be, you've picked on the lost illusions I suppose. It's written from a certain point of view of a male fetishist gaze and I have tried to put that aspect to the forefront. The reader is actually following something through the eyes of the narrator and at the same time he is aware of the circumstances of these encounters and the mysteries he is going through which are not spelled out but contained in the relationship between the images and words. So in that sense it was a project of a circular nature, starting from unpicking language and then trying again to get a story together.
JM: Well, part of it is a film. I've used some images from the film in the book and now I'm putting together a film that is based on the book and I'm working with still images. So it's snowballing, one work leads into another. The film that's in the show already exists, it was shown together with the book and a new film is in progress. I don't know when that will be finished, in a few months perhaps.
Poet, Prophet, Philosopher, 1998-99, still from film Pater Filia, videoprojection, Czech Museum of Fine Art, Prague, 2000
3AM: What I liked about Magnet was the way it slowed down the reading of the text. You became aware of the reading process, that you were making meaning.
JM: I would like to think it's the way the images and words in the book work together. We live in this fast-track culture which on the one hand demands the supremacy of visual over literary, hence also the "wordless" words, but it is also so iconoclastic. One moment it is seduced by the magic of images, the next moment it destroys them. In such a fast succession, the images don't seem to have an identity of their own. We look at them, enjoy them, but we never really experience them. I want to bring this process to a standstill so that the images start staring back at you and you begin to see that the words are visual symbols and their perceived literary meaning is just a simplified version of much more complex significance.
Act, 2000, backlit transparency, dimension variable
3AM: Do you see it being reflected in literature?
JM: I had been discussing it with one of my students and she kept referring to William Gibson, so I had to pick him up. In one way it's like literature for people who think Chekhov is a character from Star Trek and the story doesn't really tell you anything you didn't already know. But he gets under your skin by this rather disturbing and at the same time familiar way of presenting the future. He does it largely through the way he uses language. For instance, there are characters who wear t-shirts with the words Concepts Collision, fall in love with virtual beauties called Idorus, use computers called Sandbenders, drive cars powered by Gashol, or work for a large company on project called Tidal, without having any idea what the words mean, what the company does, etc. His cyberpunk language gives otherwise familiar situations a rather eerie, futuristic context. He invents words or gives them another meaning. In cyberspace, words become signs and symbols, everything happens fast and no one has much time to think about it.
Mode, 1999, backlit transparency, dimension variable
In that sense I see some parallels with the words in my book, but Magnet isn't sci-fi and it was put together deliberately to slow you down. It's constructed so that every double page includes images and just a few lines of the narrative. I think the text is not very long so you can read it in one go and as you turn the pages you begin to discover the relationship between the words and the pictures. The first reading contains information about how the book should be perceived and I suppose also an invitation to go back and reread it. I know that people these days don't normally read books twice, but in this case, that was my intention. It's because I'm aware of the life in the fast lane, I made Magnet the way I did.
3AM: So what are you going to do next?
JM: I'm working on this film that is very much taking off where the book ends. So I would like to make a film that would also be narrative but it would be a visual narrative and the words would not be the words of the dialogue or script but would be words hanging and floating in space where the actual narrative will be happening. It does involve digital technology. It will be an installation. I have been using 3D programs and seriously looking at what other potential use computers may have for my work. So far it's been mainly the 3D space in which I could arrange objects and made things happen. In some way I see it as the Renaissance space I have been talking about. That's been interesting for me. It could be that the whole technology is mainly driven by desire of Hollywood to create virtual actors to make cheap movies but I think artists are picking up and using this technology in a different and much more interesting way.
Tightrope, 1999, backlit transparency, dimension variable
3AM: Is size of image an issue for you?
JM: It's a question of scale and imagination. I think it could be a problem if you create an image to be projected large and you also present it on the Internet. I'm uneasy about that. I don't know whether I should do that. Of course it is a different situation when it's reproduced on the Internet for illustration purposes, I've no problem with that. I suppose I like this idea of images of virtual bodies in a virtual space. Is the Internet the right kind of space? Right now, I don't know. You have to consider scale, and scale has little to do with size and everything to do with context, but I'm sure I'll be able to resolve this. Fundamentally, digital technology is nothing but a tool and I have to consider carefully how useful a tool it could be for me, especially vis ŕ vis the ideas about pictorial illusion, which really go back to the Quatrocento. So in the context of such a longstanding pictorial tradition it's just a blip or an imposition.
3AM: You have already mentioned it before, could you expand on that?
JM: Well, take Bracelli for example. He was an Italian artist who created this series of small drawings, etchings, originally published in Florence as a volume entitled Bizzarie di varie figure and dedicated to Pietro de' Medici. On one of my student trips I saw a book on Bizzarie by Tristan Tzara in an antiquarian book shop in Paris. Tzara may have considered Bracelli as a forerunner of Surrealism but when I saw some of the images I was fascinated by their apparent floating weightlessness. They were reminiscent of drawings by another Italian Renaissance artist Cambiaso, but this was far more interesting, I bought the book and have been preoccupied with Bracelli ever since.
Bizzarie di varie figure, 1624, Giovanni Battista Bracelli
Bizzarie di varie figure, 1624, Giovanni Battista Bracelli
He's interesting for me because he does create these sometimes rather scurrilous, stylised figures as if in some kind of cyberspace. It's a world I've always been very much interested in. It influenced me. It influenced my images. I use letters that float in space and I do see them very much in that context of 3D bodies. But there were other Renaissance painters that interested me, the Venetians such as Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto especially, but also others like the Florentine artist Luca Signorelli. The allegories of well-rehearsed myths were repeatedly acted out, each frozen in a different stage of the narrative, the moment carefully chosen for maximum effect. The artist wasn't only a painter but also the director and the stage designer of the drama enacted within the confines of the pictorial space, which he managed to conjure-up on the surface of a stretched piece of canvas or a wall. The artist was the sorcerer who played the tricks and also the god who created the miracles. He was the true star of the show. The Renaissance painterly space was the supreme illusion, a concept where images were conveyed and messages were passed on, very complex, strong messages, making demands on the time and space imagination of the viewer. I am very interested in this and I am trying to use it in my work. I think the recent digital technology can create similar space but in real time, so what could once only be done in one's head, can now be actually visualised on screen.
3AM: You are finding signs of real modernity, science fiction, in things that tend to be caught up in old history. Gibson and Tintoretto are suddenly explicitly linked.
JM: I see a certain continuity in interpreting and depicting the experience of reality which does not need historical context and has therefore little to do with the notion of modernity, Tintoretto's paintings, as much as other art of the past, speak directly to us across the centuries. In that sense art exists outside chronological time, so the basic proposition hasn't really changed. I think what has happened is that the technology has developed at a very rapid pace and therefore allowed us to use it in a new way so we have certain new means at our disposal. Even in art. But I don't think technology has altered the way we see it, that is precipitated more by cultural change which is something different.
3AM: What has actually changed?
JM: I liked the idea of the end of history floated in the face of the demise of communism which was seen perhaps as a kind of historic alternative. Some people took it quite seriously, I suppose it was rather an elegant notion. These days no one mentions it any more but I feel that some loss has remained, a lost sense of destiny perhaps, which has had its impact on art.
Communism 1998-99, installation view, lightboxes, Czech Museum of Fine Art, Prague, 2000
Anyway, the last ten years have been an interesting period. If the new technology did anything, it's forced us to look at who we are and what we are doing. That's also the feeling I have when reading Gibson. It's all quite familiar and tangible. He doesn't go on some fantastic tangent into an unknown future. It is very much a picture of reality as we know it, as we experience it. Incidentally, Gibson's action-packed cyberpunk story takes place partly in a virtual rendering of Venice.
Bird, 1999, backlit transparency, dimension variable
I would see that kind of imagination allowing also the Renaissance pictorial space to become a part of cyberspace. I would see a very strong link with the present -- the continuity that I mentioned. A continuity of 3D illusionistic space projected onto the notion of virtual reality.
Low, 1999, backlit transparency, dimension variable
3AM: What do you think of the yBa scene?
3AM: You embrace the new technologies.
JM: Why not? As long as I find them useful. That's all. I don't necessarily believe in doom and gloom scenarios in this respect.
JM: I think it has largely gone. In hindsight one could argue that it did play a positive role in changing the art scene. It started at the beginning of the nineties when some art students had seen an opportunity to use the media to publicise their self-curated shows in alternative spaces. Right until then -- short of comments similar to the one about the Tate buying a pile of Carl Andre's bricks -- the media in this country couldn't traditionally come up with the right spin or find a useful story behind contemporary art. The yBa offered them the whole package, and it worked. Other things helped too -- Charles Saatchi also saw the opportunity and with his cheque book extended the ranks of yBa, and so on. Since then, subsequent generations of art students also wanted to curate their own shows in disused offices and warehouses and to start new galleries. So there have been a lot of exhibitions, the art scene got bigger and far more diverse, and that's on the whole a good thing. However, history doesn't repeat itself and the yBa artists are no longer young. In the long run some people may have made money but the whole exercise probably just bolstered the popular perception that in contemporary art one should be looking primarily for entertainment value. As far as the image of British art abroad is concerned, I'm not so sure. On the one hand, it attracted more artists to come here and confirmed London as a major international art centre, on the other hand it did also confirm certain suspicions, that some British art has been a tablodised hype or a cultural marketing spin that went wrong. Maybe it was a useful lesson, but we'll have to see what happens next. Generally, I can say that over the years I've seen much more interesting art to which no one attached any label, so all this seems really irrelevant to me.
Sea, 2000, backlit transparency, dimension variable
3AM: So what is relevant?
JM: Right now I'm interested in JBa.
3AM: What's JBa?
JM: A Japanese-British art -- sorry, just a bad joke -- but seriously, I am quite interested in aspects of East-West fusion that one can see in the work of artists like Mariko Mori for instance, who could be considered cyberpunk, but also in the work of Japanese artists or writers living in the West, who definitely could not. Perhaps it's an inherent part of today's Japanese culture which has been absorbing western influences for decades as if through a special filter. The process reflects a rather different view of the West which I find interesting. In Kazuo Ishiguro's descriptions of very specific aspects of British society, I could recognise the all-embracing characteristic flavour of the reality that confronted me within hours of arriving for my first visit to England at the age of thirteen. It's still the same flavour that surrounds me today, the unchanging flavour of living in this country.
Raw, 1999, backlit transparency, dimension variable
This kind of insight is invariably absent in the work of artists born into the indigenous culture. In the process of collecting similar experiences, I found other instances of inspiring Japanese interpretations of Western reality. For me it's an interesting phenomenon which could also serve as an illustrative example of my current concerns. Generally I prefer to be asked what I want, rather than to be told, and art and culture are no exception.
Magnet, 2001, book cover. For further details and how to order: firstname.lastname@example.org