Chris Gilmour

Villacaccia di Lestizza (I), Colonos
Agoust — October 2013

Chris Gilmour, Bicylce, motor assist, 2011, cardboard, glue

Incontinence pads under the Harley Davidson Saddle
A conversation with the artist

Daniele Capra

Chris, where does your passion for such an unusual material as cardboard come from?

I graduated in fine arts at the university of Bristol with a dissertation on public art. During the course I used essentially traditional materials such as stone, metal etc. I had used cardboard to make a satirical cow during the Mad Cow disease crisis, but the first opportunity I had to exhibit any work made in cardboard was in San Benedetto del Tronto. At the time I chose the material because it was a practical solution to making a piece quickly, but over time I refined the techniques, the artistic approach and the linguistic scope of cardboard.

In what way?

Think for example of the typewriter: an object made with the container of another object, preserving its memory but no longer any use for actually writing with. I don’t consider just the reproduction of a pre-existing object, but rather a way to analyse the intrinsic properties connected to its use. The fact that it is such an unpretentious, immediate material lets you consider the more philosophical and immaterial aspects of objects.

I have noticed a change in recent years in the reasoning behind your choice of subjects. My impression is that at the beginning of your career there was a clear interest for iconography and mimesis, with an anti-rhetorical approach, since cardboard allowed you strip them of the allure the real objects had. Then you attention moved on to other things…

In the beginning I also chose objects for their narrative potential, for their ability to tell a story. I often included a human figure, so it was like dealing with the relationship between the person and the object. There was a person on the Vespa, by the typewriter or the television, elements that conveyed or suggest a story. The research then gradually shifted to the objects themselves, they would be looked at as if you were seeing the object for the first time because of their bewildering displacement caused by the material. A sort of “fiction” triggered by the unexpected material draws the attention to the shapes and details. Using a real metal coffee maker does not awaken any curiosity, but if you see it made in cardboard your attention is drawn to the smallest details. That’s how I portray the allure of an object.

Do you only choose objects you like?

I think so. You need to really love an object if you’re then going to measure, re-draw and re-design it to reproduce it in a different material from the original. You must be drawn by the object, or perhaps just to a detail of its construction, or be curious to know what thinking lay behind its design.

Is your work not craft?

Of course a part of it is! The manual work is the physical expression of what I do. I spend thousand of hours in my studio making attempts or creating the (final model of) my works. I still find it an interesting activity, never banal.

Did you ever have to admit defeat, for example for the fragility of the material?

Of course. it took me three years of failed attempts to make the bikes, the wheels and spokes of the first ones couldn’t carry the weight. I only found the right technique after many failed attempts. I think I have achieved a technical skill that allows me to take on any challenge. However, after bicycles, motorbikes and cars, I don’t think I would be interested in making a bus!

Is there an element of precariousness in this process where you transform an object from its normal state? Doesn’t it highlight the fragility of things?

I think there is a kind of hybrid between presence and non-presence. In actual fact the viewer relates to my sculpture exactly as they would with the real object. When they try to touch the keys of the typewriter they expect them to move and expect to hear the metallic clicking sound. It is as if people want to re-discover the things around them. The fragility belongs to anyone who thinks they don’t have anything else to find out.

In your latest works you are no longer making simple objects, even if they do have a story behind them. Instead you have chosen artworks as your models. I wonder if you have become less interested in objects and have started looking elsewhere…

I found myself at a point where I was questioning the meaning of the object. I had always prepared an exhibition as a kind of dialogue between objects, particularly at a symbolic level. There was a common thread which tied them together, a kind of narrative system in which there were roles and parts to play. However I began to be less interested in operating within this closed system where an artwork has a meaning only within those objective parameters. As such I started looking elsewhere, trying to find subjects which conveyed iconographic meanings with a social, religious, spiritual or political depth.

Like the Lenin statue…

Sure, that piece, a bit like the equestrian statue that went before it, has a particular interior aspect because it brings together the iconography of the Russian leader together with a gesture that could almost remind you of a regular guy hailing a taxi. Generally speaking the representation of a political figure leads you to wonder who that person really was, what their life was like, how they acted. This dimension of the public and the intimate together is even more marked in the lives of the saints. Since the first days of the church they have been marked out as exemplary figures, people to try and imitate. Reproducing the figure of a statue which has been created to serve a religious use naturally adds an element to the way it functions. I am also interested in analysing the physical construction of the original works to try and understand the techniques behind them, and as a part of this my artworks are not exact replicas of statues…

How so?

They are not identical copies of existing statues, rather they are the sum of different elements: I often combine the stylistic choices of several artists to create a kind of hybrid. By looking at many different approaches to representation you can start to understand the formal logic which defines the styles. It is an analysis starting from solutions which have already been used and a way of understanding what makes an artwork Gothic or Baroque in formal terms: in the flesh of the sculpture, in the folds of the gowns or the decoration of the architectural framework, rather than just from an aesthetic analysis.

Have you ever made a sculpture without having a pre-existing model? Just making it up from scratch?

No. The logic behind the work is always tied to an object and the fact that it has a function which determines the choice of technique and material used to make it. Things that don’t exist don’t really interest me; I prefer to investigate the choices others have made before me. There is a story to discover in the way things are made. I am attracted to things that are manufactured, whether they are artworks or design objects. I’m not saying I’d never use other materials like clay or wood instead of cardboard to analyse reality. However I feel that cardboard is irrevocably tied to the object and the poetry of its existence.

What about those who find a more political reading to your work? I was thinking about the churches made with condom boxes…

I generally try to find objects which become cold, distilled. Things which have a kind of intrinsic seriousness. By its nature cardboard tends to be desecrating, it tends to takes the weightiness out. However using condom boxes gives an ironic emphasis to the work, it is simply a counterpoint, another reading. Perhaps the fact that the church is so small is the important fact. You can read the works as you see best. It’s just like the saddle on the Harley Davidson which is made out of boxes for incontinence pads, the ones for geriatrics…