I interviewed the video artist Elizabeth Price about the exhibition she’s curated at The Whitworth in Manchester. This article was originally published in the Autumn 2016 issue of RA Magazine, and you can also read it online here.
When I meet Elizabeth Price in her south-east London studio, she immediately apologises for “the mess” and the fact that she hasn’t much to offer me in the way of refreshments. She has just returned from Ireland to a divided, post-Brexit country – and an empty fridge.
It’s a few days after the EU Referendum and Price is feeling a bit disorientated. “It’s hard to focus on anything else,” she admits. I can’t really see much evidence of untidiness, however – just a few books lying on a large, almost empty desk that fills most of the room.
This desk is the clean slate on which Price creates her extraordinarily rich art: video works with oblique, dream-like narratives and emotional, politically charged undercurrents, stitched together from found footage, archival images, music videos and other cultural ephemera.
A former member of the 1980s indie band Talulah Gosh, Price began her artistic career in the ’90s, making work “rooted in conceptual art and institutional critique – that kind of stuff.” Becoming disillusioned with the “macho set of ideals” prevalent in the contemporary art scene, she started to pull elements of pop culture and advertising into her work, first using PowerPoint, then video – in spite of the fact that “people think you are a bit thick if you make art that looks like popular culture”.
“I kind of stepped backwards into making films,” Price recalls. “I was just trying to find a way to combine texts, images and objects.” She has been working in the medium ever since, and in 2012 she won the Turner Prize for The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 – an astonishing film constructed from news footage of a terrible shop fire and a performance by the 1960s pop group The Shangri-Las.
Though it clearly suits her, a downside of video art is that it entails “sitting alone, for months, in a room with a laptop”. This is one reason why she jumped at the chance to curate a Hayward Touring show, now open at The Whitworth in Manchester. ‘In a Dream You Saw a Way to Survive and You Were Full of Joy’ is a highly original exhibition in which Price explores the horizontal in art, via an eclectic mix of paintings photographs, sculptures, films and performances from the 13th century up to the present.
“I approached it pretty much as I would approach making a piece of art,” Price says. “I make my work by binding together many different types of existing cultural objects, so I applied that method in developing the exhibition.” She saw “an opportunity to reflect back on many years of thinking about art,” and found that two sculptures came to mind: Nécessaire (1968) by Giulio Paolini and the earlier work Snowdrift (1901, above) by Edward Onslow Ford RA.
Price first saw Nécessaire – blank sheets of paper stacked horizontally rather than placed on a wall – in 1993, in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery called ‘Gravity and Grace’. “At the time I was broke and feeling lost as an artist,” she remembers, “I completely identified with the piece but also it made me terribly sad. The thing that struck me was that it conveyed an anxiety about artistic authorship: what it is to start to write, or to make an image, to create something that doesn’t yet exist.” When she says this, I cannot help thinking of the desk we’re sitting at.
Price discovered Snowdrift – a marble sculpture of a young woman falling unconscious on snow – around the same time. “What’s interesting to me about that sculpture is the way it’s so of its time. It was made while Arctic and Antarctic expeditions were being conducted and there was this great cultural fascination with snow. At the same time there was also a misogynist preoccupation with the image of women dying, or disappearing.” In the exhibition, this piece is grouped with other artworks depicting sleeping figures, creating the eerie sense that you, the viewer, are the only person awake in the room – an intended effect, inspired by Price’s own experience of insomnia.
Though these two artworks initially captured Price’s imagination for different reasons, she realises – years later – that their horizontal qualities connect them. For her, the flat sheets of Nécessaire are anticipated by Snowdrift. “Onslow Ford seems to prefigure a fascination, within 20th-century sculpture, with a kind of horizontal dynamic; the dissolution of the image into the slab and the idea of sculpture spreading out laterally and falling off the plinth onto the floor.”
Ultimately, it’s the way it conveys a sense of openness, of potential, that attracts Price to the idea of the horizontal. “I wander off over the course of the exhibition, but I guess my argument is that with art that uses or expresses horizontal states, there is this sense of that which may follow. The matter isn’t closed.”