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Interview with Marvin Gaye Chetwynd

Four or so years ago, at what was then the single Peckham establishment to serve a selection of sandwiches (the competition is, now, dispiritingly intense), my breakfast companion recognised two girls at a neighbouring table from the previous evening’s party. We struck up a pleasant conversation, the substance of which escape me, but which ended, unforgettably, with their inviting us to a naked barbecue and film screening at the house in which they lived. I didn’t go, despite promising to at the time, and have ever since regretted it.

 

This, I would later discover, was the nudist commune in which the artist Spartacus Chetwynd lived [Editor’s note: since the publication of this interview, the artist has changed her name to Marvin Gaye Chetwynd]. Spartacus had even then the aura of a legend among South East London’s art community, having established a cult following for her absurdist, fabulous theatrical happenings with productions including:

 

– ‘An Evening with Jabba the Hutt’ (2003): in which Spartacus herself is among a scantily-clad harem attending to Star Wars’ notorious slave trader, re-imagined as a smooth-talking Lothario with a platform to expound his opinions on global politics.

– ‘The Fall of Man’ (2006): for which passages from the Book of Genesis, Paradise Lost and The German Ideology are reconceived for performance by puppets manipulated by glum, painted pierrots.

– ‘Hermito’s Children’ (2008): a multi-screen, narrative video work describing the efforts of transgender detectives to solve the case of a girl who dies after suffering an excess of orgasms on a dildo seesaw.

Her work combines epic ambition with a jerry-rigged aesthetic in performances that often inspire the audience (and participants) to giggles. This hilarity does not, however, disguise or contradict the work’s radicalism and sharp social commentary. Take ‘The Walk to Dover’, a week-long march in the guise of Dickensian street urchins from London to Dover, which followed in David Copperfield’s footsteps. The 2005 work draws comparisons between Victorian debtors’ prisons and our contemporary reliance upon credit cards that now seem unnervingly prescient. This was the same year – to contextualise – that Damien Hirst went into a London taxidermists to buy the skull that he would encrust with diamonds.

 

Spartacus Chetwynd’s reputation has grown over the intervening years, hitting a peak with her nomination for the Turner Prize in 2012. Her work continues to express hope, joy and faith in community. These are convictions in short supply in today’s society, and her work is all the more important for it.

 

Q

The White Review

— Much is made of the unconventionality of your childhood – spent in Pakistan, Malaysia and Australia, with little schooling – but it’s interesting too that you studied Social Anthropology at University College, London, before going on to the Slade and the Royal College of Art. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose to study Social Anthropology, and the influence of that education upon your practice now?

A

Spartacus Chetwynd

— ‘Much is made of the unconventionality of your childhood…’ sounds great… so grand! ‘Much will become of you…’, ‘much has been said…’, it sounds sort of Dickensian. I do value that I was brought up travelling, it has made me very friendly and open to life, curious and receptive.

 

To tell you a bit about how studying Social Anthropology has influenced me is easy: it is that my mind was set to analyse everything within a cultural and historical context. Also, I came across great documentary makers such as Jean Rouch, who made films like The Mad Priests (1955). I worked out the freedom to invent your own ritual or cult from studying, in fact I worked out a lot of roads to freedom from studying different cultures, a freedom to do what you want to. (Even if it appears to be shocking/crude as if hacked out of life with a pickaxe.) At the moment I am exploring Europe. I want to analyse the different structures of support for artists that exist in different European countries, Le FRAC (Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain) in France for example.

Q

The White Review

— How do you choose your stories and characters? You’ve taken passages from Star Wars, the book of Genesis, Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell, Paradise Lost, Conan the Barbarian, I’m No Angel and The German Ideology, among others. Can you isolate what it is about a narrative that attracts you to reimagine it?

A

Spartacus Chetwynd

— After encountering an exciting piece of information, I have a spontaneous idea to celebrate it. It’s a spontaneous and urgent matter, not really conscious. I have plenty of conscious ability to research the subject and produce the result but the moment of selection or engagement is pretty fast and furious. Perhaps it is a mixture of ‘unsung heroism’ or a need for attention to be paid to the subject as well as a strong visual element.

 

I am in awe of the Marx Brothers’ ability to make films that feel as if you are watching a live show. Mae West wrote her own lines and it is hard for me to believe that her films glided through censorship. Milton was completely blind when he ‘dictated’ Paradise Lost, which is very very long poem! The passage in The German Ideology on the ‘Division of Labour’ is so beautifully written I am not sure ‘Communism’ or ‘Karl Marx’ captures those visionary language skills, so maybe ‘an attraction’  for me is a ‘means of expression’ or language that works on many levels. I think my answer explains how hard I find the question!

Q

The White Review

— Could you tell us about your relationship to popular film culture?

A

Spartacus Chetwynd

— I’m not sure I know what popular film culture is. Do you mean films like Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) or Shoalin Soccer (Stephen Chow, 2001)? If you do, then I think they are the Best Best Best culture ever! My relationship would be that I rub the DVD boxes on my face and I kiss the TV.

Q

The White Review

— I noticed that a recent article in the Evening Standard insisted on placing inverted commas around the word ‘exhibition’ when referring to Odd Man Out. The Daily Mail even puts inverted commas around their description of your work as ‘performance art’. Does that piss you off?

A

Spartacus Chetwynd

— No, I don’t think I understand what there is that is annoying about that? About inverted commas? Does it mean I am not anything? Not managing to actually do the job? Hahaha that’s really funny. I don’t mind. I am patronised a lot – so much so that I see it as a sort of shield – it enables me to get on with what I actually have set about trying to do. The people who think you are rubbish leave you alone. The people who instinctively like what you do, seek you out and encourage you.

Q

The White Review

— You’ve said your works are ‘almost political’ – which I take to mean that they don’t occupy a position on the political spectrum, as such, but do communicate some kind of attitude or ideology about the way we live in the world. Is that at all accurate? I’m thinking particularly about your piece at the Tate triennial, ‘The Fall of Man’. Could you expand a little on the idea of your work as political?

A

Spartacus Chetwynd

— Yes, that’s great to say that they don’t occupy a position on the political spectrum but do say something about the way we live in the world. The phrase ‘almost political’ was a joke, as I thought it summarises the paradox or conundrum, that is, sets up the perimeters for nonsense and humour. To make an agenda for ‘a non-accountable outcome’, to try to have ‘an experimental time to no avail’. To make a pointless spontaneous event, and to enjoy it. We take humour seriously sign up sign up…

Q

The White Review

— You live in South East London – can you tell us a little bit about the arts scene around there, and its recent development? Do you consider yourself to be part of that community?

A

Spartacus Chetwynd

— I was living in Telegraph Hill near Nunhead Nature reserve. Since having a baby and getting married I have been living where my husband (artist Jedrzej Cichosz) is working, so we are in Estonia at the moment. The South East London art scene has a lot to do with Goldsmiths College. It’s cheap to live in the south east and the overground rail to central London is fast. Peckham is a new Shoreditch I guess, Dalston is a new Peckham. Hahahaha! I think Peckham is more friendly then Dalston; I think if you asked how to cook a yam in Dalston you may get beaten to death with that yam, where as if you ask in Peckham, you will most likely get cooking instructions for the yam, not you! But I think I have that bias because I am pro-south of the river, I like crossing the river in London… What’s the point of living north of it? Hahahaha.

Q

The White Review

— Your ‘Folding House’ at the Hayward hinted at the idea, as does much of your other work, that there should no distinction between an artist’s life and their work. Do you think it’s necessary that an artist should live their life experimentally, radically?

A

Spartacus Chetwynd

— The way an artist chooses to live is often within ‘the system’ but in an alternative way. I find Jeff Koons’ life/art choices as interesting as Michael Jackson’s or Georgia O’Keeffe’s.

Q

The White Review

— Can you talk about the relationship between the amateurish and the professional in your work?

A

Spartacus Chetwynd

— I make things happen very quickly –  this is through a drive that is basically excitement. The result is that the product is shambolic, made for the moment. This is often interpreted as ‘wilful amateurism’ but actually I would explain it as a preservation of the original sense of fun that is natural to me and easy to maintain. Professionalism is also natural to me, I try to work to deadlines. I try to turn up on time, I do turn up when I say I will. I have a strong sense of follow-through. I have an internal motor that enables me to see the job through to completion however ramshackle the appearance. I do not suffer from stress or fear before an event, I suffer afterwards. I have stress attacks after, so I have no problem working towards the moment of the event. I take any opportunity I see as worth doing as seriously as I would if it were supposedly ‘high profile’, so I manage to have a consistency to my the level of production.

Q

The White Review

— Performance art is on the rise at the moment, at least in terms of its wider appreciation, with your nomination for the Turner Prize coinciding with the inauguration of the Tanks at Tate Modern and Tino Sehgal’s commission for the Turbine Hall. Do you think there’s a particular reason for this shift, be it social, aesthetic or historical, or that we’re simply witnessing the tipping point at which an established form enters the mainstream?
A

Spartacus Chetwynd

— I think it’s a reaction to the millennium. It’s just taken ten years or so to materialise. Like a subconscious flair/flamboyance/angst that we all – every taxi driver, administrator, sex worker, artist, farmer, road worker – we all have ridden through… The bare knuckle ride… The by-product of living through the turning point into the twenty-first century is a whole load of ‘performance art’… Ahahhahahaa.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Ben Eastham is co-founder and editor of The White Review